When Marcos Lopez became an exchange student in the United States, he brought two families together: his host family in rural McIntosh and his family back home in Spain.
Marcos, 17, who just finished his junior year at Win-E-Mac High School in Erskine, spent the school year with Shawn and Tamera Ostenaa and their son Noah, 14, and daughter Izabelle, 12, in rural McIntosh. But thanks to Skype, he’s also connected to his family, and so are the Ostenaas.
Marcos has been kept busy translating between Spanish and English as the two families communicated via Skype during the school year and became closer.
“His parents ask when Noah will come as an exchange student,” Tamera said, adding that Marcos’ family want the entire Ostenaa family to visit them.
This is one family relationship that isn’t going to end anytime soon. In fact, the Ostenaas are already thinking that one of Marcos’ two brothers could join them as an exchange student, too.
Connecting with Marcos
Shawn and Tamera had seen family members host exchange students over the years, a grandma for Shawn and an aunt and uncle for Tamera, so they were familiar with the process.
They became interested in becoming a host family themselves after hosting two girls for a week who were Vacation Bible school counselors at Grace Lutheran Church in Erskine. Tamera and Shawn had an extra bedroom in their house, and they enjoyed having the girls for the week. “It went really good,” Tamera said.
So they contacted International Student Exchange and were matched with Marcos after extensive screenings and questionnaires on both sides.
Marcos sought an exchange student experience to make a change. “It was the same routine every year,” he said. “I wanted something different.” He also wanted to learn more about the U.S. culture and improve his English skills to help himself in whatever career he chooses.
“At first I thought, ‘He speaks really good English,’” Tamera said, adding that even so, Marcos’ English is much better than when he arrived.
“At first we had to talk slow,” Shawn said.
At the beginning of the school year, Marcos had to work hard to understand what his teachers were saying during class, but that came easier as his English improved.
“They’re all really nice to me,” he said of the teachers, and he’s made lots of friends. “It’s hard to be in the same sport and not make friends.” He likes all his classes, and math is probably his favorite.
From small town to smaller town
Marcos lives in Alalpardo, Spain, which is near Madrid. Alalpardo is a relatively small town, so living near McIntosh is not strange to him. He flew to Minneapolis last August, and his first experiences in the U.S. were in crowds: at the Mall of America and the Minnesota State Fair.
He misses Spanish food, like paella, chorizo, fabada (a hearty bean stew) and morcilla (blood sausage), traditional foods in Spain. One of the first foods he prepared for his host family was a Spanish omelet. He also has cooked chorizo and morcilla, prompting mixed reactions to the blood sausage.
But there were no mixed reactions on either side when Marcos joined the family. The friendly, smiling young man quickly became a part of the family, Tamera said.
“He’s been fun,” Shawn said. “Very outgoing. At school he just fit in right away with everybody.”
Marcos was looking forward to basketball, which he plays all year back home. In the States, he had to wait until the winter season to join the basketball team, so he decided to try football to make friends.
“I was pretty lost,” he said, but he had fun and learned the sport. He also started dating his girlfriend, Elly Lindberg, 15. Later, he and Elly took a trip to Minneapolis with her family, making another family connection.
Since he’s been in Minnesota, Marcos has visited Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon with the Ostenaas, tried ice fishing (Izabelle showed him how to snag a minnow and bait the hook) and gone snowboarding at Detroit Mountain in Detroit Lakes.
Sibling bonds form
He and Noah and Shawn are also building a tree house that began as a project for father and son and has grown into one for the two teenage boys. Elly sometimes helps out, but her presence distracts Marcos too much, Noah joked.
Marcos and Noah have become like brothers, calling each other “brother from a different mother,” Tamara said. “It’s constantly ‘bro.’” Izabelle likes to have Marcos help her with cooking and baking. All three of them play basketball, another bond they share.
For Noah, being around Marcos has meant not just a brother connection, but also a conduit that’s helped him come out of his shell more.
“Noah used to be super shy, and now he’s much more outgoing because of Marcos,” Tamera said.
Mosquitoes: Even worse than the cold
The worst thing about Minnesota for Marcos isn’t the cold; the mosquitoes are what really bother him. The stings from the pesky bugs brought out huge welts that Marcos would scratch uncontrollably, wondering why nothing could truly take away the itch.
But still, the cold came as a surprise to him, especially a particularly frigid stretch of low temperatures. “Sometimes I was really, really cold and wanted to go outside and stuff (but it was just too cold) … but it wasn’t bad. It was a new experience.”
Indeed, Marcos enjoyed snowboarding, getting rides on snowmobiles, and playing king of the hill; just not on those coldest days of the year. In fact, he wishes he could have done more snowboarding. Her’s a video from Tamera of Marcos snowboarding. Also, he had a nice birthday surprise on the basketball court.
Also among the good things, but in a warmer setting, were s’mores, which he ate voraciously, Tamera said.
Marcos’ time in Minnesota began Aug. 28, just before the school year began, and will end June 16 as he returns to Spain and reunites with his parents and his two younger brothers. Among the family activities before then just might be a trip to Itasca State Park, a destination Marcos hasn’t been to yet.
Reprinted with permission from the Erskine Echo.