American's do things bigger. That's the main takeaway of the United States had by visiting foreign exchange students Ariadna "Ari" Codinach Gilaberte of Spain, Alexander Ruf of Germany, Niklas Grueter of Switzerland, and Lisa Schmidt-Wahl of Germany.
The group of 16-year-old international travelers are currently living in Richmond and enrolled as seniors at Madison Central High School through the EF Exchange Year program. They held a certain enthusiasm for and insights about the U.S. that can only be had by someone seeing it for the first time.
Ari Cordinach Gilberte heard about the program from some of her friends who had taken part in it before. Her original plan had been to take the program with a friend, but in the end, she ended up making the trip alone. So far, it's been a memorable experience.
"It's been really good. I'm in a nice family, and I also really like the school. We're trying to visit some places around here and I'm really excited about that," Gilberte said.
This is a sentiment that's shared by Gilberte's friends in the program. They're all having the time of their lives. Everything from fast-food to American Football has been an exciting experience for the kids.
"It's great here. I really like the football games and all the school spirit. It's just a great experience. But it's very different," said Schmidt-Wahl.
Sports in particular have been a source of fun for the group. As they've embraced the competitive and energetic spirit found at a high-school football game, face-paint and all.
"I really like it. I liked homecoming and all of the football games because of all the energy. Everyone is so hyped," said Grueter.
While there are fast-food restaurants in other countries, the U.S. has many more in terms of variety and sheer quantity as well. Taco Bell is their favorite, with Cookout, Zaxby's, Raising Cane's, and others standing out as well.
As the world is still in the midst of a global pandemic, the exchange students have come to study abroad at an unconventional time for the United States. While life still isn't close to being back to normal here, according to the kids - all of whom are fully vaccinated - COVID-19 regulations are much more lax in the U.S. than they are in Spain, Switzerland, or Germany.
"When I came here it seemed like COVID didn't exist anymore compared to Spain. We wear our masks for everything," Gilberte said.
The current stance on masking was a surprise for the other students as well.
"I was really surprised that we only had to wear masks in school. I know it's different that Germany has more rules about the masks, that we have to wear them everywhere, but I don't feel unsafe or anything," said Schmidt-Wahl, who's place in exchange program was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.
Planning for this trip began for the students several years ago. Like the rest of the world, they didn't expect a global pandemic.
The last three months of the year sees Americans go into a state of constant festivity. From Halloween to Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday season is a big deal here. According to the kids, celebration in their own countries are a little bit quieter.
"Americans celebrate at the highest level. I've only been here for Halloween so far, and Americans decorate houses a lot. Much more than in Spain. You all just celebrate a lot more than we do, Gilberte said. "In Spain we don't really know what Halloween is, but we have another tradition. It's sort of a mix of our own tradition and what Americans do for Halloween."
While Switzerland does celebrate Halloween, it's not a very popular holiday.
"In Switzerland, Halloween isn't a big thing at all. People know about it, but not many do it. Like maybe only every third house gives out candy for Trick r' Treaters," Grueter said.
Germany takes a much more measured and pious approach at Halloween.
"Compared to Germany, not a lot of people decorate their houses, most of the people celebrate for religion on this day. They don't give out candy, they're just kind of quiet and think about God," Ruf said.
Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday exclusively celebrated by Americans. Barring staples of the day in popular culture like a family gathered over a turkey and dressing the students knew very little about the holiday.
The students are getting to participate in a completely new holiday. They're excited to learn more about Thanksgiving, especially the food. Though there is a strange element celebrating something that they have very little previous knowledge of.
"I think it's gonna be great, but kind of weird, because you don't really know why you're celebrating," Grueter said. "When you celebrate Christmas, we all know why. But I don't really know about Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to the food, the football games, and getting together with everyone."
"We don't really have something to compare it too in Germany. I once learned about it in history class. It's interesting that you celebrate it still every year so much time later," Ruf said. "All I know about the meal is that there is turkey and the stuffing and pumpkin pie. It's interesting to have something the first time in my life and experience something new."
The opportunity to meet more members of their host family is another thing the students are excited about for Thanksgiving. While they are excited to partake in this traditional American feast, they do miss the cuisine of their own countries. And of course, no discussion about long travel can be had without homesickness.
"I miss food. The things that I can't cook -- the things that I can only buy in Spain -- I miss that stuff. But I haven't been homesick for a long time. It's true that some days I start thinking about it and I get a little bit sad, but not a lot. I thought that I would get more homesick than I really am," Gilberte said.
It's another sentiment that is shared by the other students. None of them are very homesick. Grueter in particular wishes he could stay forever and plans on moving to the U.S. eventually. That's not to say that they don't miss their friends and family - because they certainly do.
It's more the little things like food that cross their minds. They all dislike American bread, comparing its thick and sometimes dough-like texture to marshmallow. Schmidt-Wahl misses real bratwurst, while Grueter misses his mother's risoto and his grandmother's spinach. Ruf has searched high and low for a spreadable german meat dish. His hunt has been unsuccessful so far.
A trip to Jungle Jim's -- a large specialty grocer in Ohio -- is planned for the kids during their stay, as it has an international section where they hope to find some food from their home countries.
Regarding their knowledge of their temporary home, the students knew very little about Kentucky. With a certain fast food chain being the only thing they associate with the commonwealth.
Several Kentucky landmarks have been shown to the students over the course of the first few months of the stay. They've taken a trip to Corbin to see that hallowed original Kentucky Fried Chicken location and Cumberland Falls. Keeneland is another destination that the group has toured. Possible trips to Red River Gorge and an out-of-state jaunt to Cedar Point are also on the roster.
The group are excited about seeing more of Kentucky, and have a general sense of wanderlust about seeing more of it.
"I would say that there is not one place I would love to go, because anytime they take me somewhere I love it. It's more like I just wanna see more of Kentucky overall," Ruf said.
While the students have had an easy time becoming close-knit with each other, making friends at school hasn't been as easy, partially due to the sheer number of people that they meet. It's hard finding friend groups.
"It was really hard to make friends because I'm kind of shy. To go up to people and say like 'hi, I'm from Germany. I'm an exchange student just to introduce myself is awkward. But now I have some friends," Schmidt-Wahl said.
Despite deeply rooted political polarization and life under a global pandemic, life in America will always have an excitement about it. For better or worse, everything is bigger, louder, and more festive here. This group of exchange students will only be here for the rest of the school year. It's a fact that has weighed over the entirety of their time here, with Ruf described feeling something akin to reverse-homesickness.
"The only time I get sad, it's the other way around, because I remember that I have to leave in under a year. I wasn't sad that I'm not in Germany, I'm sad that I have to go back," he said.