By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Although Bowlus is quite a contrast from Santander, a city on the north coast of Spain, Elena Odriozola is enjoying her life in rural Minnesota.
More than anything else, it is the food here that is so different from what Odriozola is used to. Her favorite menu item so far is Tater Tot hotdish. “I really like that the best,” she said. Her new sister, Anna Czech said, “I have never seen anyone that excited over Tater Tot hotdish.”
Something she had never before tasted is cinnamon. “Cinnamon is used a lot here, and I like that a lot,” Odriozola said. She also likes Ranch dressing. What her family in Spain usually serves with salads is oil, vinegar and salt.
Odriozola’s parents in Spain encouraged their children to learn English, even beyond the classes they had in school starting in first grade. “Since I was 6, I attended a special academy after school to learn more English,” she said.
Still, it wasn’t a guarantee she would speak flawless English when she first came.
“She thought we talked too fast, and there was a long delay in communication while she thought in Spanish and then translated into English,” said Brian Czech, her American father.
Odriozola says that now she has no problem with language, such as in her classes. At school in Spain, she took more math, physics and chemistry classes, so she is focusing on that while attending Royalton High School.
In Spain, schools are situated about five minutes apart. “Our schools have students from three years old through sophomores. Each grade has about 50 students in two different sections,” said Odriozola. There are separate schools located nearby for the juniors and seniors, with the same small class sizes.
She has noticed that Americans are very focused on sports, and there is a lot of school spirit. “In Spain, people can go to any sports clubs of their choice,” she said, “but they are not connected with school.”
Odriozola participates in sports at Royalton, first volleyball and then basketball. “I made three baskets in basketball,” she said. She has never played softball, but plans to join the team this spring.
Houses and other buildings are very different in Central Minnesota than those in Spain. In Spain, “houses are made of brick,” she said.
“In the city, people live in apartment buildings. I live in a village and all the houses there look the same.” Here, “houses are far apart, and made of different materials,” said Odriozola. “My city in Spain is next to the ocean, and there is one row of houses between my house and the sea. It’s not too hot there, and just sunny enough to get a tan.”
It was because of her parents’ focus on English that Odriozola considered being a foreign exchange student. “I had been thinking about going to California for a month, but then decided to come for a longer period of time. When I applied to do this, I could have ended up anywhere,” she said.
It was Anna who first suggested to her family that they host a foreign student. Anna said, “I picked Elena because she is close in age to me and Martin, and we have common interests like travel and animals,” Anna said. “And it was nice that I had three years of Spanish class.”
Family relationships are different, too. Odriozola said, “Families are very attached here and spend a lot of time together.”
“We are very family-centric,” said Brian, “and we do a lot of things with the kids.”
“The perspective we take, is that Elena is our daughter,” he said. “We are trying to make her feel part of the family. Now that she’s been here a while she talks more and teases everyone a lot. It took a while for her to be pulled in from being a guest to being part of the family.”
Brian said, “So when she says, with her hand held out ‘I need money,’ she’s just one of the kids.”
Odriozola said, “Teenagers don’t have jobs in Spain; there are not even enough jobs for parents. If I need money I have to ask my parents.” They usually give her what she asks because she has good grades, but some of her friends have to do chores to earn money.
“Almost all of my friends here have lots of stuff,” she said. “Even with a small job someone can make easy money.”
“In Spain, a person has to work really hard at a bigger job to have any money,” said Odriozola. “My brother is 25 and just started his first job.”
She enjoys traveling, and has been able to see several new places. When first arriving in the United States in August 2011, she and a group of other exchange students spent two days in Chicago.
“In December, our group took a trip to New York, Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C.,” she said. This week the entire Czech family, with the exception of two-year-old grandson Colton Girtz, is on a cruise in the Bahamas.
Odriozola said, “I will probably come to the United States again with my best friend Maria. And to fulfill Maria’s dream, we will go to California.”
To families considering whether to host a foreign exchange student, Brian said, “If you can’t have them be part of the family, then don’t do it.”
Brian is surprised to realize that Odriozola has been here six months already. “Time has gone by that fast,” he said.
Odriozola will not be returning to Spain until June. “We’ll miss her when she’s gone,” Brian said. “She’s very important to us.”