When the exchange student arrived at Debb Hammond’s house, he had some adjusting to do”and not just because of the differences between his country and the U.S.

“Tito, our student, was a boy from Panama who came from a very wealthy family that had maids and cooks and all kinds of servants,” said Hammond of the student who planned a year-long stay in the U.S. through American Field Service (AFS). “He lived one block from school and his mother drove him every day. I told him I would drive him to school [10 blocks away], but he would have to find his way home.”

For exchange students who go abroad with AFS”whether Americans leaving the country or international students coming in”the house of their host family becomes a second home while they experience a new country for a summer, a semester or an entire year. This year, students from Norway, Thailand, Bolivia, and Italy, among others, will arrive in the Chicago area, looking for host families.

Tito’s stay was a positive one, Hammond said, after he got used to the lack of a constant chauffeur. But he isn’t the only teenager who had to adjust to a new type of living while he was abroad. Claire Obermeyer, who graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in June, and Molly Gutfeld, who will be an OPRF senior, both found themselves in unusual situations as exchange students last year and encountered distinctive regional cultures within the countries they visited.

“My first choice was to go to Italy, Spain or somewhere in Europe,” Obermeyer said, “but because Spain is such a popular program, AFS wasn’t willing to give me any financial aid.” Another company was willing to pay $5,000 in scholarships. “So I said, ‘All right, I’ll go to Brazil.'”

There, Obermeyer became immersed in the “famous gaucho culture” of the south. “I knew that it would be different, but it was so different, it’s hard to explain,” she said. “It’s like their version of cowboys. They have a different style of clothing, and they were [very] patriotic about their little state.” Gauchos also have distinctive cuisine, she said. “They have this thing called churrusco, like their form of barbecue, that’s very unique to their part of Brazil.”

Besides the cowboys, Obermeyer’s host situation was pretty typical; she loved her host family. “I just felt so comfortable with them right away. We talk on the phone, and my sister Gabby, the older one, is coming to visit me in December.”

Gutfeld, though, had a less passionate experience. “My host family was all right. We didn’t connect that much. … I think it was a bad year for them to host a student,” she said. At least her host family’s diet matched her own. “Spain was one of the countries that would take me as a vegetarian,” Gutfeld said. “I ended up lucky, finding a vegetarian host family.”

Gutfeld also had the rare opportunity to explore Spain with her best friend, senior Eva Saunders, who was staying with a family in Madrid. Their trips to Madrid and the southern tip of Spain were “the highlight of my year,” said Gutfeld, who was staying in Bilboa.

“I wasn’t exactly in Spain,” she explained, “because I was in the capital of one of the provinces within Basque country, and they don’t consider themselves part of Spain.” Even the fashion was “noticeably different,” especially compared to Madrid. “Where I was,” Gutfeld said, “one of the most popular haircuts was a mullet.”

Gutfeld also got a feel for Basque culture. “Basques have the oldest existing language in Europe,” she said. “There’s a lot of Roman and Moorish architecture [in other Spanish regions] …but Basque culture doesn’t have those influences. The Basques were able to resist those forces,” she added.

“I guess overall the whole Basque culture was pretty amazing to me, because these people basically think they’re the center of the world, and I kind of got into that mentality, and then you come back here and no one has heard of who they are,” Gutfeld said. “This isn’t the Spain I expected.”

Host families needed

AFS is still looking for host families to take international students in August. Families interested in hosting for a year or a semester should contact Debbie Heer at 524-0047, or check out the AFS website at http://www.afschicago.org.

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