Swedish student at home in America

July 06, 1992|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

When she moved into the gray shingled house in Mount Washington, Emma Nises got to see an American family from the inside out: parents with different last names, brothers and sisters who are not related, a cat named Cleopatra, the death of the pet iguana.

For the Swedish exchange student, this year abroad has been test of reality. At her home in Orsa, a lakefront village of about 8,000 and a three-hour drive from Stockholm, nearly all of the movies in the local video store are American, The Cosby Show ranks among the most popular TV shows, and the Billboard list plays constantly on the radio.

And yet, nothing about this two-in-one family seemed unusual to Emma. Especially not the different last names. You see, back in Sweden, Emma's dad has a different last name from her mother and his name is different from her own.

"She had already changed her name once [in a previous marriage], and she didn't want to do it again," said the 17-year-old, whose English bears little trace of an accent. "And she thought I should have the same last name as my [half] brother."

But don't misunderstand. Moving in with Justine Williams, 15, and her blended family has offered new experiences for Emma. Dying her carrot-red hair a "Manic Panic" shade of fuchsia. Five school periods a day spent practicing the piano. Daily excursions to McDonald's.

And it has taught her that life in America, or at least Baltimore, "is not like the movies."

"I always thought it was a very racist country," said Emma, who attended Baltimore's School for the Arts. "But I know our school is not. Everyone is very close and together. It doesn't matter who you are. I think that's very neat. I learned I wanted to live here."

Sharing the third floor of her Uffington Road house with Emma also has taught Justine a few things. The Swedish chef on the Muppets? He's a real person, Kuptik, and Emma's family knows him. The Swedes have a word for the crook of your arm: Armvecht.

"I can't believe you don't have a word for that," she teased her American friend.

And, while Justine thought Swedes to be more "laid back" than not, Emma's "very fast paced and willing to try new things, new foods. She tried chick peas," said the 15-year-old. "And she didn't like them. But she loves Michael Jordan."

Emma's eyes widened in heart-felt acknowledgment. "And we're supposed to tape all the games but we forget," Justine continued.

PTC "And I hate you for it," Emma teased back.

It's that girlish banter about a teen-aged crush or a new pair of Doc Martins (those heavy dark Oxfords favored by teen-agers today) or the tussle over closing the shower curtain that suggests these two have became fast friends. And through friendship, hopefully, comes an understanding of a people and a culture.

That's part of the reason Daniel Goldstein and Laura Williams said yes, when Justine asked them last winter if Emma could move in.

"It's a great experience for the children and for us, to learn another culture, another way of living . . . without that you're at risk of having a very parochial view of the world," said Mr. Goldstein, father of 10-year-old Ben and 12-year-old Ruth.

Added Justine: "It was sort of like having a built-in friend."

Emma didn't start out living at the Justine's house. After arriving in Baltimore, her hosts asked her to move out last fall because of an illness in the family.

On her own, the teen-ager wasn't sure what to do. But she was determined to stay. She moved in with friends temporarily and hoped luck would find her.

Justine, meanwhile, had heard about Emma's dilemma at school. She approached the redhead one day and invited her home. Ms. Williams and Mr. Goldstein met with Emma, talked with her former host family and decided she could move in.

Soon Emma was walking around in her doggie slippers, feeling right at home: "I think it was really good that they asked me to move out."

A visit by Emma's parents capped the year for Justine: "It was nice to find Emma's connection. Plus they were just really nice people."

On Wednesday, Emma's year abroad will come to an end. She'll go home heavier, a vegetarian, with a few more holes pierced in her left ear, a Chicago Bulls hat in her suitcase and a promise to meet Justine in Jamaica next year.

The teen-ager will have to repeat the school year when she returns to Orsa because, she says, the School for the Arts was "a lot easier." And although America has a host of problems not found in her native Sweden -- pollution, litter, homelessness -- Emma plans on coming back.

"It's so hard to say," said the teen-ager, "I just feel like I'm home."

By then, she hopes, Michael Jordan will be unattached.

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