Through Bonding, The Foreign Becomes Familial

By Donna Britt
Friday, June 10, 2005

The two young women sitting inches from each other in a Silver Spring living room grew up half a world apart. The French girl, an exchange student studying at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, and her Costa Rican guest, a former exchange student who'd recently returned to the United States, had just met.

You'd never know it. Because when it comes to what's weird about life in the United States, their observations are best-buddy similar:

On how easy American teachers are on student slackers. On how advertising is everywhere: in the schools, on billboards, even in Metro cars.

On how nobody here walks!

"You have to use the cars to go anywhere!" marvels Hélène Koné, 16, of Lorraine in northeastern France. "And in the U.S., everything is a hundred times bigger."

"Like buildings," Martha Torres Solano agrees.

"And supermarkets!" Hélène continues. Schoolwise, they concur, the smorgasbord of dance, art and fitness classes that U.S. high schoolers choose from is great. "In France, it's pure academics until 6 p.m.," observes Hélène, who for eight months has lived in this pleasant home with her host dad, retired history teacher Stan Boyd, and his daughter, Crystal, 16.

So what's the best thing they learned as exchange students with AFS, the nation's oldest exchange student program?

"That I could live a year without family and friends," Hélène replies.

"That I'm strong. But I also learned my defaults --," she pauses, correcting herself. "Not defaults ."

"My flaws ."

Oh, those. Martha, 22, learned about hers, too, during her U.S. sojourn -- which she discussed, painfully, in this column.

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