In the end, traveling to another country is about setting aside your expectations and learning to see that people are similar wherever you go.
“I tried not to have any expectations about what it would be like (in America),” said Anette Bærheim, a foreign exchange student from Sandnes, Norway attending North Crawford High School. The differences she did find between the two cultures were not vast, according to Bærheim, who is staying with the Ritch and Vicki Stevenson family.
“People are a little different,” Bærheim noted. “People here are really open and helpful. They are outgoing and easy to talk to.”
“It’s not that they aren’t in Norway,” she added. Bærheim explained that asking for directions in Norway, as opposed to here in the Kickapoo Valley, would be less likely to provoke conversation. You would still get help, it just would be briefer and more impersonal.
“America and Norway aren’t that different. The biggest differences are probably that we have national healthcare and free school through college,” Bærheim said. “I don’t know if that’s better or not. We are different sized countries and that probably makes a difference.”
“We have national healthcare too and we’re big,” commented Thamy Glauzer da Silva, a Brazilian exchange student from São Paulo, who has been living with Rikardo Jahnke and Ilana Pestcoe.
“It used to be terrible, but it keeps getting better every year,” Glauzer da Silva said of the conditions in her native country.
The Brazilian exchange student acknowledged that she had some ideas of what to expect of the U.S. as a country, but knew nothing of Wisconsin.
“I hadn’t even heard of it, really,” Glazer da Silva said. “But, we learned about the country in school. I learned to really dislike the system, that the U.S. was the biggest capitalistic country that it was all about consumerism.
“I found it very different, it’s not the way everyone talks about it,” she continued. “I have met people who live very simply. And in Brazil, it’s very difficult to find revolution in the young people, unlike here with the ‘Recall Walker’ and collective bargaining protests. The young in Brazil are more complacent.”
While she too heard American capitalism critiqued in school, Karin Van Den Brock, from Rio Verde, Brazil, focused more on culture. Van Den Brock is staying with Marla and Harry Heisz.
“We see a lot of (American) movies,” Van Den Brock said. “This school is really different than what I expected. Everyone talks to each other, it’s integrated.”
It seems North Crawford bucks the clique trend that she had seen portrayed in the movies.
Van Den Brock, from an agricultural city, may represent one of the more intriguing cultural differences between Brazil and the Kickapoo Valley: farming. Her grandparents on both sides of the family left post-World War II Netherlands and travelled to Brazil to rebuild their lives. Van Den Brock’s father moved them from the farm to the city because there wasn’t a school near the farm.
“We go to the farm on Fridays to help out and come back Sunday,” she said. “During the week, my father works on the accounts. Compared to here it’s a really big farm, but in Brazil it’s a medium-sized farm. If it was here and our family was trying to take care of it like families here do, it would be really difficult.”
In Rio Verde the mean size of a farm is 585 acres.
“The city is still growing up,” Van Den Brock said of her hometown. “It’s very agricultural, not a commercial city. It’s really just for the people living there. We have one mall and it’s the size of the school.”
Rio Verde is roughly similar in size to Madison. There is no WalMart. No McDonalds. It services the agricultural needs of over 2,100 farms that produce up to 790 thousand metric tons per year of rice, cotton, soy, maize, sorghum, millet, beans and sunflowers.
“But, we can drive to the capital to go to McDonalds,” Van Den Brock said. “It’s only two hours away.”
For Ida Brenstad, a Norwegian exchange student living with Ed and Sue Heisz, the two big differences were food and travel.
“There’s no public transportation here,” she noted. “But, I heard you might have a bus to LaCrosse this summer!”
Public transportation is a fixture of the Norwegian urban infrastructure.
“People are really nice about giving you rides here,” Brenstad continued. “But, I really wish I could drive myself.”
“The biggest difference is food,” Brenstad said. “There is a lot of junk food here. But, it’s really good so it makes you eat more.”
The statement received an affirmation from the other foreign exchange students, who launched into a comparison of weight gained during their visit.
Beyond the food, each of the girls also shared another common experience. The schools here offer more options.
“It’s really cool,” Bærheim said. “We don’t have all the sports at school.”
“We don’t have prom, or as many sports, just baseball, soccer and volleyball,” Glauzer da Silva added. “We don’t get to choose our classes.”
While the Brazilians have a general education system similar to ours in content and thus will get credit for their studies here, it’s more complicated for the Norwegians.
“We have different education tracks,” Bærheim explained. “I’m in a communications track. I will need to do my junior year over because I didn’t have enough photography or journalism this year.”
“You can change your mind about your track (in Norway), but your classes are more geared to what you plan to do after school,” Bærheim continued. “The track that is more like here, general education, is more for the people who plan to pursue advanced degrees, to be doctors and such.”
Each of the girls faces a long trip home in the next week or two. While Norway is physically closer than Brazil by 1,400 miles, Bærheim faces a 23-hour trip because of multiple layovers. The Brazilians face trips that include 12 hours of flying with long layovers that in total will amount to the better part of two days.
Yet the difficulties of flying home are nothing compared to the sadness leaving brings.
“It’s harder leaving here than home,” Glauzer da Silva said. “You never know when you’re going to come back or see these people again. I always knew I would go back to Brazil.”
Each of the girls agreed leaving would be difficult.