When it comes to immersing themselves in another culture, exchange students from Howard County don't fool around.
The second that Spain defeated Germany to win its first Euro Cup football championship in 44 years, county students visiting the Spanish city of Tres Cantos last month joined with a few hundred local teens to frolic fully dressed in the town's fountain.
"It was the most incredible moment of the trip - of our lives!" said Erica Blum, a rising senior at River Hill High School. "There were fireworks going off, and everyone was cheering and screaming. They have an amazing spirit."
The mass dip in the public square was even endorsed by local police, who had barricaded nearby roads to traffic just in case people suddenly came dashing across the plaza in victory.
After the June 29 match, broadcast live from Austria on a large-screen TV, everyone in the town's crowded gym "went ballistic," said Julie Morse, a rising senior at Atholton High.
"Erica and I looked at each other and said, 'Nobody [back home] will ever get to experience what we did tonight.'"
The girls have been taking part this summer in the Columbia Association's Sister Cities program, in which Howard County students are paired with students in Tres Cantos, Spain, or Cergy-Pontoise, France, for five consecutive weeks together, half of it spent with host families abroad and half spent in the county.
Tomorrow, all exchange students will gather at 4 p.m. to participate in Columbia International Day, an annual festival held at the lakefront to encourage cross-cultural understanding. Slated for noon to 11 p.m., the festival is open to the public and will highlight musical and dance performances from other countries. Many children's activities are scheduled.
Tomorrow will be one of the few days where exchange students and chaperones take a much-needed breather from their hectic schedule. On Monday, the group - made up of 34 exchange students and five previous participants who are revisiting their host families - took a one-day trip to New York City, where they saw the Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero and Wall Street, among other sights. On Wednesday, they headed to Hershey Park.
"I look forward all year to the 2 1/2 weeks when the exchange students are here," said Meredith Jaffe, the Columbia Association manager of international exchange and multicultural programs. "But when it all comes to an end, I just collapse in exhaustion."
This year's price tag for the program, which is open to high school students who have taken Spanish or French for a minimum of two years, was $1,800 per student, with two-thirds of that going to airfare, Jaffe said.
"When the dollar is weak, allowing a child to take this trip is not a priority for a lot of families," she noted.
But for the students who participate, it is a "very deep" experience, observed Cathy Ludwig of Owen Brown. Her son, Colin, was paired this summer with a French boy, whose sister had been paired with her daughter, Molly, in 2003.
"A lot of personal growth takes place," Cathy Ludwig said. "It's a very courageous thing to do this and get that far out of your comfort zone."
Colin, a rising junior at Oakland Mills High, said he likes reading history, so he was thrilled that his host family arranged a trip to Normandy, site of the World War II invasion.
Cergy-Pontoise is a planned community and therefore "a lot like Columbia," he said. A major difference, though, was the "really nice" public transportation operating there.
Students staying in Tres Cantos had mass transit available but usually walked to their destinations, said Leah Pekofsky, a rising senior at Oakland Mills.
Jenna Neckritz and Elaine Bylis, both rising seniors at River Hill, said they weren't sure what to expect upon arriving in Spain.
"I was surprised that everyone got up around 11 a.m. and that we didn't eat lunch until 2 p.m.," said Elaine. That late start to the morning affected evening rituals as well, with dinner at 10 p.m. and bedtime at 1 a.m.
Jenna said she accompanied her host family on a trip to Valencia, which she deemed "an amazing art town" with its contemporary museum and a theater designed to resemble a huge egg.
Jaime Peno, visiting from Tres Cantos, said his impression of what America would be like was influenced by movies.
"In films, there is always a party and everyone is beautiful," the 16-year-old said in Spanish, which Jaffe translated. "But I prefer America the way it actually is, instead of the way the movies show."
"I wish I were there now," Jenna said of Tres Cantos. "I'd really love to watch the Summer Olympics there. We in America can't match the town's amazing love for their country."
"This program is a unique opportunity to really see people just as they are," said Jaffe. "The exchange students typically plan to stay in touch for life."
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at jholzberg76(at)msn.com, or call 410-461-4150.
COLUMBIA INTERNATIONAL DAY
WHAT: The 14th annual event, sponsored by the Columbia Association.
WHEN: Tomorrow, noon to 11 p.m.
WHERE: The Lake Kittamaqundi lakefront in Town Center.
PROGRAMS: Nine acts of live music or entertainment representing various cultures, international food and crafts vendors. Children's activities, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., include a craft station, juggling demonstration, balloon sculptures, face painting, baseball toss, children's maze and strolling costumed characters.
ADMISSION: The event is free and open to the public. More information: 410-715-3161.