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An American Christmas: Foreign exchange students in Baltimore encounter ‘strange and amazing’ customs

Foreign exchange high school students, from left, Adit Pradnyana of Bali, Ranim Yakoubi of Tunisia, Silvia Scata of Italy and Muhammad Ahmad Sohail of Pakistan experience the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden. Dec. 19, 2019.
Foreign exchange high school students, from left, Adit Pradnyana of Bali, Ranim Yakoubi of Tunisia, Silvia Scata of Italy and Muhammad Ahmad Sohail of Pakistan experience the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden. Dec. 19, 2019. (Amy Davis)

If Paolo Attianese were at home this Christmas in Italy, he’d open gifts from the jolly fat man Babbo Natale, share pandoro coffeecake with his family, then head across Rome with thousands to hear the pope address the world from a balcony at the Vatican.

Instead, the 17-year old Rome native will spend the Yuletide with his host family in Ellicott City, unwrapping presents from Santa Claus and gazing out into the neighborhood once more to view a spectacle he’d never seen before this year: people’s homes bedecked with twinkling lights.

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Attianese is one of 19 students in the Baltimore area via the American Field Service foreign exchange organization this holiday season, and as spectacular as the occasion might be in Rome, he said he won’t be missing it much.

“I may call my parents, but I’m not sure yet,” said Attianese, a senior at Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville through June. “I’m not homesick. It has been a great experience being here and getting to learn about the United States. I’m enjoying all the ways in which things are different.”

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Absorbing, enjoying and adjusting to such differences ― some small, a few more jarring ― has been a theme for Attianese and his fellow exchange students, whether they’re accustomed to celebrating Christmas or not. There are six students staying this school year in the city of Baltimore or Baltimore County, with the others in Howard County.

Christina McGarvey, the organization’s volunteer director for Baltimore, bundled a group of them into her car Thursday and took them to Hampden, where they toured the celebrated Miracle on 34th Street light display, complete with its landmark flashing light-covered rowhouses, rooftop Christmas trees and elevated miniature trains.

Adit Pradnyana of Bali, in front, takes a group portrait with other foreign exchange high school students, from left, Silvia Scata of Italy, Ranim Yakoubi of Tunisia, and Muhammad Ahmad Sohail of Pakistan, who added a snowy mustache for the photo, during a visit to the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden. Dec. 19, 2019.
Adit Pradnyana of Bali, in front, takes a group portrait with other foreign exchange high school students, from left, Silvia Scata of Italy, Ranim Yakoubi of Tunisia, and Muhammad Ahmad Sohail of Pakistan, who added a snowy mustache for the photo, during a visit to the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden. Dec. 19, 2019. (Amy Davis)

Silvia Scata, 17, shivered as she shared photos of her sun-drenched native Sicily and spoke of playing on the Atholton High School volleyball team. Colorful lights flashed across the face of Mohammad “Ahmad” Sohail, 17, of Pakistan, as he told the others that playing soccer at Baltimore City College ― “it’s in a castle!” he said ― had helped him settle in.

Ranim Yakoubi, 17, of Tunisia, looked stunned as she panned the scene with her cellphone camera. Sohail, who like most Pakistanis is Muslim, said that while he believes a few homes in the small Christian neighborhoods in his native country have seasonal lights inside, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

After climbing the steps of one of the spectacularly decorated rowhomes, the four looked down and surveyed the visitors filling the block.

“This is really, really, really cool,” said 17-year-old Adit Prabnyana of Bali, Indonesia, his breath curling in clouds into the night air.

Prabnyana, a junior at Hammond High School in Columbia, described experiencing the holiday season with his host family in Columbia as something of a culture shock.

Like most Balinese, he’s an observer of the Hindu faith, a belief system whose major religious holidays he said differ from those of western Christianity, including a decidedly somber one. One observance in his part of the world is Nyepi, a day in March on which Balinese are expected to remain silent, stay indoors, refrain from working, eating or even turning on lights, all in order to detach themselves from the ordinary bustle of daily life.

Foreign exchange high school students were taken to the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden by their chaperone, Christina McGarvey of Columbia. Dec. 19, 2019.
Foreign exchange high school students were taken to the Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden by their chaperone, Christina McGarvey of Columbia. Dec. 19, 2019. (Amy Davis)

It’s “180 degrees different" from what he has seen of Christmas, with its carols, bright decor and promise of presents — he even saw snow for the first time last week — and the “strange and amazing” custom of putting up evergreens inside homes and decorating them with ornaments.

He also got a dose of holiday cheer when his host mother, Susanne Mason, bought him ornaments depicting two favorite TV characters from childhood, Elmo and Mickey Mouse, and helped him hang them alongside the family favorites on their tree.

“Adit is remarkably open to new experiences, which is ideal for an exchange student," Mason said. "That seemed to help him feel even more a part of what’s going on.”

McGarvey, who has hosted exchange students three times at her family’s home in Columbia, said that for some, especially those who hail from Western nations, being away during the holidays is hard, as “there are things happening at home that they miss."

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Last year, the young woman she hosted spoke often about the traditional open-air Christmas markets in her native Germany. But when McGarvey took her to experience a North American version, the young woman seemed disappointed it wasn’t as big or grand as the ones at home.

A trip to 34th Street seemed to compensate.

“Ordinary people who would totally do up their house in lights? Maybe a business would do that [in Germany], but private individuals? That was very different,” she said.

And just as some Americans wouldn’t dream of missing holiday movie staples such as “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story,” students from abroad have their winter favorites and view them if they can.

McGarvey helped one young woman she hosted find a YouTube version of “Tre Nutter til Askepott” (“Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella"), a retelling of the fairy tale and a Christmas must-see in the girl’s native Norway. And McGarvey found a video of “Die Weihnachtsgans Auguste,” or “Auguste’s Christmas Goose,” the gentle animated story of an old man getting ready for Christmas, for her student from Germany last year.

Yakoubi, a senior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, has no such expectations.

Hailing from an overwhelmingly Muslim country, she’s used to holidays such as Ramadan, with its dusk-to-dawn fasting, and Eid-al-Adha, which celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in obedience to a divine demand.

Her earliest exposure to Christmas traditions might have been a bit warped ― she saw and loved the madcap movies “Home Alone” and “Elf” in her native northwestern province of Kef ― but that hasn’t prevented her from appreciating and savoring what Americans love about the holiday. Her eyes were wide on 34th Street as she took in such sights as the richly decorated home of metal sculptor Jim Pollock, whose gallery features a hubcap-covered Christmas tree and angel ornaments crafted of Natty Boh cans and oyster shells.

And in addition to her curiosity about one large wrapped present under the tree at her host family’s home ― the card reads, “to Ranim with love from Mom and Dad" ― she has settled on her favorite holiday treat: the “amazing” cookies made by her host mother, Christie Lassen.

“People really care about Christmas,” she said. “It seems like they’re all counting down the days."

Attianese, who is Catholic, said he probably won’t attend Mass this year as he usually does, as his host family will likely spend the morning around the tree they all went out, bought, put up and decorated together. He expects Santa Claus ― or Babbo Natale, as he’s known in Italy ― to have made his annual appearance the night before, and he said he hopes to enjoy something else he’s never seen on Christmas: a snowfall.

But there’s one tradition he’ll miss. The holiday season in Rome doesn’t end until Epiphany, or Jan. 6, when an “old, ugly, very nice woman” named Befana is said to slide down the chimney and fill every child’s stockings with candy.

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He hasn’t told his American friends about her yet. Trying to explain her might might just spoil the magic.

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“People in my country believe in Befana,” he says. “At least until they’re all grown up.”

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