“Well, Christmas happened. And that was pretty cool,” said visiting German exchange student Alexander Ruf.
“And Thanksgiving! I loved the food, especially macaroni and cheese. I want to come back for Thanksgiving. I want to do Thanksgiving in Switzerland,” added Swiss-born Niklas Grueter, another exchange student.
“And biscuits too,” chimed in Ariana “Ari” Cordinach Gilberte of Spain, before confirming the biscuits were covered in gravy.
“I loved meeting extended members of our host families,” said Lisa Schmidt-Wahl, also of Germany.
A group of 16-year-old foreign exchange students once again met with The Register to discuss their views of American holiday traditions and how they compare to traditions from their home countries.
Enrolled at Madison Central as seniors through the EF Exchange Year program, the visiting students were joined by another member of the program – Javier Arameuru of Spain.
In their last sit-down with The Register, the young travelers were excited about celebrating their first Thanksgiving and also discovering American takes on Christmas.
Gilberte got to bring a particularly exciting Christmas tradition of her own known as “Caga Tio” to her host family.
“We have a tradition, that’s very weird. And I did it with my host family on Dec. 24 as a surprise. We take a log and we paint a face on him and cover him with blankets. It’s like a guy. It comes on the first day of December,” Gilberte explained. “And we have to feed him every day. On the 24th of December the family gets together to sing a song and hit the log with a stick and ask him for presents. And the thing is, he’s supposed to poop out the presents. So we’ll take the blankets off, and there will be presents or candy around him.”
With 2022 arriving in a few days, the exchange students reflected on New Year celebrations in their home countries.
Schmidt-Wahl, Ruf, and Grueter all celebrate a New Year tradition called Silvester.
Silvester bears many similarities to the typical New Year’s celebration in the U.S.
“In Germany we have Silvester. You have families meeting up and then at 12 p.m. you shoot rockets in the air. It’s more about meeting and having fun with the family than celebrating the New Year,” Ruf said.
Spain’s New Year’s celebrations and traditions are vastly different than those celebrated in the U.S. and Germany. One tradition involving grapes is somewhat well-known.
“So it’s in a church, and when the clock strikes 12 a.m. there is a bell that is rung 12 times. And each time the bell is rung you eat a grape,” Arameuru said.
“When the year starts, you have a mouth full of grapes. You have to say ‘Happy New Year,’ but you can’t because of all the grapes,” Gilberte added.
Known as the “12 grapes at midnight,” the tradition is a beloved one in Spain and supposedly brings good luck. Gilberte said she will be celebrating with both her host family when the ball drops in the U.S. and her own family back home in Barcelona through FaceTime when the New Year arrives in Spain hours earlier at 6 p.m.
Apart from holiday celebrations, the student also had various other insights about their experiences living in the United States. One of them involved one of the oldest, and at times, humorous cultural barriers of all; learning the intricacies of different accents.
“I learned like British English in school. So it was pretty easy to understand. But some people in school had like a really country accent, and it was harder to understand them at first. But most people it wasn’t hard to understand,” Ruf said.
Schmidt-Wahl and Grueter had a similar experience.
The exchange students were in agreement when it came to one area regarding accents. Typically, the older the person, the thicker the accent.
“Grandparents have stronger country accents. My host grandparent, the first time he talked to me was on the phone, and I couldn’t even understand him the first time I talked to him. But at school it was different,” Gilberte said.
That same standard the exchange students had with accents cuts both ways. As some of the people they’ve met in the states have had a difficult time comprehending the students.
“Just saying my name, people know I have an accent. The first days I would hear ‘what?’ and I would reply ‘what?’ It was funny but frustrating to make people understand me at first,” Gilberte said.
“I struggled a lot with it the first two months I was here,” Arameuru said. “But it’s easier now. Now they’re saying I have a little bit of a country accent myself.”
Regarding pop-culture, it might come as a surprise to learn that what’s popular in the United States is also popular in many parts of the rest of the world.
Netflix is a big deal everywhere, just like the “Avengers” movies. The exchange students watch many of the same shows and movies as Americans – just as they listen to the same music and play the same video games.
Some of the exchange students have even got to attend concerts since arriving in Richmond.
Schmidt-Wahl got to see T-Pain perform at the EKU Center for the Arts. Gilberte saw a Pitbull concert in Nashville and Grueter got to see one of his favorite artists in Indianapolis with his host brother, who is also a big fan of the rapper.
Grueter was especially enchanted with America and said he plans to immigrate permanently to the U.S.
“I don’t know how to explain it. In America, it’s just different. It’s just a whole vibe. I wanna come back at some point for sure. I wanna move to America in a bigger city like New York or Portland,” Grueter said.
For Ruf, his enthusiasm is for the United State’s school system, which he says is more relaxed than that of Germany’s.
“In Germany it is 100%, 24-7 stress. It’s endless exams and like 15 different subjects a week. Then I arrived here and it’s like, not bad. I can do stuff for other people. I would like to move here one day and if I have kids maybe they could grow up in this school system,” Ruf said.
Schmidt-Wahl thinks it comes from an attitude shared by the entire group.
“I think we’re all just very open-minded and excited to be here. We’re happy with our host families. It’s just being here. What city or area we are in doesn’t really matter,” Schmidt-Wahl said.
There was an initial culture shock for Arameuru, especially with school. However, once the shock wore off things began to fall into place. Sports, in particular, made a big impact for the student.
“The weirdest thing here for me at first, was the high school. We don’t have sports for high school in Spain. It’s all about study. But here you have soccer, basketball, football, and more. Sometimes it can be more important than study. That definitely had the largest impact on me,” Arameuru said.
For Gilberte, it’s the small details of American life that matter. The ones that have become second-nature for Americans.
“Everything is so different for us. The small things that aren’t a big deal for Americans have much more meaning for us because they’re so new. It makes it all exciting,” Gilberte said.