Personal Essay: Exchange Rate

illustration of children having a snow ball fight

Being from the South, “y’all should come” is usually my immediate response to potential visitors. Even in an undersized Manhattan apartment, I’m almost always happy to have people stay over. That’s why, when my elder son’s school needed families to put up Spanish exchange students, I didn’t think twice about adding a fifth person to a 2-bedroom apartment (already shared by my family of four) for 10 days.

But every now and then, I find myself in a situation where I have to wonder what in the world I was thinking. And that’s exactly how I felt when I started prepping for our exchange student Alex’s visit—reevaluating everything from logistics and school schedules to language issues, site-seeing demands and my boys’ biggest worry—would they get along with the new boy.

Turns out, Nerf guns are a universal icebreaker. Within an hour of meeting, my boys—14-year-old Drew and 12-year-old James– and the Spanish 8th grader had broken into an epic Nerf gun battle and easy rhythm. From the adult perspective, not only was having a 13-year-old exchange student both manageable and enjoyable, it reminded me of my first visit to New York when I was about Alex’s age.

[gravityform id=”13″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”true”]

Alex, who came to us from an ancient port city in Spain, was lovely—a helpful, chatty, sweatshirt-clad kid with a mop of brown hair who loves paleontology and animals, and said he learned English playing video games.

In preparation for Alex’s visit, the boys and I planned all-American dinners—hot dogs and hamburgers, beef stew, shepherd’s pie—mixed with sushi and pizza delivery because that’s just what New Yorkers do. We supplemented the school’s outings with other activities that I ran by his mom. Yes to Coney Island, Central Park, a pinball arcade, Times Square, and an acrobatic show in Brooklyn. No to museums, a Broadway show, college basketball game, Staten Island Ferry, and a double-decker bus tour.

While having a guest can complicate things, it made me more organized. Rather than sticking my head in the freezer at 4:30pm wondering what would thaw in 30 minutes, dinners were planned and on the table at 6pm sharp—a goal I never accomplish when it’s just us. We scheduled weekend activities and got out, rather than letting inertia and homework keep us home. Screen time was actually restricted.

Unfortunately for Alex—but great for me—Drew’s homework limited their playtime together so I put Alex to work helping with dinner and the dishes, putting away groceries, straightening up. He learned how to make shepherd’s pie, where the recycling room was located and that we did laundry in the basement. Either thanks to great English, nice boy manners, or both, I repeated myself less with Alex than with my native speakers.

Among his standout new experiences: A snow day! Being from southern Spain, this was his first time playing in snow; building a snowman with Drew was a highlight of his trip, his mother said. She said she and her husband had been reluctant to let Alex go so far away but that he convinced them—and it was one of the best things he’d done. He said the tall buildings and yellow taxis were just like in the movies, and the city was alive and unique with everything bigger than at home: food, cars, shops, streets, the park and the city itself. Like me (and every other American new to NYC) when I first saw the Subway, he found transportation overwhelming.

Food featured large in Alex’s New York—the different varieties of freshly made sushi, the bakeries with cupcakes, donuts and ice creams sweeter, bigger, tastier and more elaborate than the offerings back home. Also the lack of healthy alternatives and the difficulty in finding salads on the street.

As for my boys, despite early reservations, they realized people can always find common ground. And as for me, I felt we’d accomplished our mission: It didn’t take long to turn the kid from Spain into a local, perfectly at home hailing taxis and snapping up California rolls.

Hillary Chura is a New York City-based writer and mom-of-two.