The week before he left for Spain, Glenelg High School student Chuck Abbott began to dream in Spanish - not his native language. Also headed for Spain, Alysa Procida from Wilde Lake High wondered if she would be able to "effectively communicate what I want to say [in Spanish]."
Angela Pipitone of Atholton High and Melissa Webster of River Hill High School bought flag T-shirts, Old Bay seasoning and crab-themed gifts for their host families in Spain.
The sophomores and juniors were part of a group of 18 county students who visited Spain for 2 1/2 weeks in late June and early July. They stayed with Spanish families in Columbia's sister city of Tres Cantos, near Madrid. During the same period, 11 other local teen-agers lived with the families of high schoolers in Cergy-Pontoise, France, Columbia's other sister city.
The "Sister Cities" exchange program is sponsored by the Columbia Association and is open to any county high school student who has studied at least two years of Spanish or French. Language teachers from Howard County schools travel with the students as chaperones.
Zenoby Orsten, director of the program for the Columbia Association, calls the home-stays a "life-changing experience." "It makes Spanish or French something real, not something just in the classroom," she said.
Nicole Arkin, who will be a junior at Wilde Lake, called her stay in Spain "2 1/2 perfect weeks."
"Everything happened, she said, "I was happy. I was sad. ... Life was perfect."
Many of the American students said that their language abilities improved because of their experience abroad. "If I didn't know how to say something," explained River Hill junior Caitlin Geoghan, "I learned how to think of another way to say it really quickly, to get my point across."
After the American students returned home, the Sister Cities exchange was completed with the arrival a few days later of their "brothers" and "sisters" from Spain and France.
On Sunday, some of the Spanish and American students met for an informal pool party at the Geoghan home in Highland. The young people conversed in a mixture of Spanish and English as they munched chips and carrot sticks. The American students agreed that the Spanish kids spoke English better than the Americans spoke Spanish. Nonverbal interaction was exuberant as the teen-agers threw each other into the pool, played basketball, jumped on a trampoline and posed for pictures for one another.
Ahinoa Gutierrez, Eduardo Gomez, and Victoria Serrano, all from Tres Cantos, said that they were surprised that "everything is so big" in the United States ... the houses, the yards, and the distances between things. "Even the bags of potato chips are bigger," Gutierrez said.
River Hill junior Meredith Brooks enjoyed the freedom of living in the smaller community of Tres Cantos during her home-stay. "You can walk anywhere there," she said.
"Here you have to depend on your parents to take you [places]," added Melissa Webster.
The American students and their families plan to show the French and Spaniards some of the region's highlights. They have planned trips to an Orioles game, a theme park, Washington, New York City and local malls.
Orsten said the Columbia Association has supported the Sister Cities program for 24 years because it provides a method for "members of the communities to enrich each other's lives."
"It really is an experience for the entire family and their friends and neighbors. It's beneficial to the entire community. It's got a lot of ripple effect to the community."