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Exchange student enjoys 'big' American Christmas

Sofia Font Rodriguez (left) enjoys the Minnesota State Fair with host sister Mara Parsons, and Sophia Willger (left). The Parsons family was Font Rodriguez's first of three host families. Her trip is through Rotary International. (Submitted photos)1 / 3
Sofia Font Rodriguez (left) and then-host sister Mara Parsons pose with some Halloween pumpkins they'd just carved. Mara's mom Mary Parsons said Halloween was a new, American experience for Font Rodriguez. 2 / 3
Mara Parsons (left), Jeff Parsons, and Sofia Font Rodriguez prepare to enjoy Paella, a dish from Font Rodriguez's home country Spain. She's from the region Catalonia.3 / 3

Sofia Font Rodriguez was well-prepared when she came to River Falls for the beginning of the school year.

"I did a lot of research," she said. "I look(ed) on YouTube. Every video I could of the high school, and of the town, all the pictures I could find, and also what were the activities I could do here, or how can you get to Minneapolis."

Font Rodriguez comes from Aiguafreda (a city in the province of Barcelona), Spain.

Her home is in a distinct region called Catalonia, that's a bit different from the rest of Spain. Her first language is actually Catalan, not Spanish.

Font Rodriguez said she felt quite prepared when she got to River Falls.

"I've wanted to do this for a really long time," she said. "I think the first time I thought I wanted to come to the U.S. was when I was 9. So I was like really prepared to come here."

Font Rodriguez said she wanted to come to the United States for educational opportunities. She said she enjoys the way high school students here get a chance to choose many of their own classes. She said she's especially excited about the video production class.

"I would've never been able to do that at home," she said.

Back home in Spain, Font Rodriguez's class spends four years with the same classmates, and the teachers go from classroom to classroom teaching their subjects.

Font Rodriguez also said that everyone is taught on the same level. No subject is broken down into advanced or remedial courses.

Font Rodriguez said she's also enjoyed the clubs she's been able to join. She started off the year by joining the marching band color guard, which she said was really fun.

"We don't have any marching band in Spain," she said. "Like the second day, I was in the U.S., I was already doing I met a lot of people."

Font Rodriguez said color guard was a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work. But that work paid off when the River Falls High School Marching Band won at the state competition.

Another new experience, Font Rodriguez said, was getting to deal with snow. She's seen it, and been skiing before in the Pyrenees mountains, but she's never had to deal with snow being around all the time before.

"I kind of find it beautiful, how the town turns completely different," she said, "but as the same time having to deal with the snow and the cold is really hard."

She said she's not sure she likes the cold.

Font Rodriguez's trip to the U.S. is through Rotary International. She'll have three different host families over the course of her trip, due to Rotary's exchange trip rules.

Her first host parents, Mary and Jeff Parsons, and host brother and sister Max Gronas and Mara Parsons. Font Rodriguez said she got along very well with them, and they with her.

Mary Parsons described Font Rodriguez as adventurous.

"Having Sofia in our home was a wonderful experience." she said. "Now that she is with her second host family, we miss her very much.

It is a good thing that they are our friends, just down the street, so we still see her often. We became close in the short three months she was with us."

Parsons said her family wanted to host an exchange student to expand their cultural experiences.

"When Mara was adopted (from India), we really immersed ourselves in the Indian culture," Parsons said. "We have traveled back to India to show her areas of her country and we attend an Indian camp every summer. We love to eat and cook ethnic foods and strive to stay connected on a more global level.

"Hosting an exchange student does that. It teaches you about another culture and helps the student learn about America."

Parsons said she and her family have learned a lot about Spain, and especially Catalonia from Font Rodriguez.

"We had many conversations about her region of Spain because it is unique in that it is fighting for independence." Parsons said. "We also have a family member that has traveled to Barcelona many times so that was a nice connection as well."

Font Rodriguez has now moved in with her second host family, Hal and Maggie Watson, and their family.

Maggie Watson said this is her family's first time hosting an exchange student.

"We couldn't be more pleased," she said. "Two of our three children are away at college. Having Sofia has livened up our household, and made life more interesting for all of us. Now that everyone is home, our whole family has loved having Sofia."

Watson also said that her family enjoyed hearing about Font Rodriguez's home, and traditions, particularly Catalan Christmas Traditions.

Font Rodriguez said one unique Catalonian tradition includes taking a log, or big chunk of wood, called a Tio de Nadal. It's covered in a blanket to keep it warm, and kids give it food, which it "eats," usually with a little "help" from parents. Sometimes the Tio de Nadal is decorated with a face, or hat.

On Christmas Eve, the kids sing a song and hit the log with sticks, and when they're done, they take off the blanket and see that it has "pooped" treats.

In addition to celebrating Christmas on Christmas Day, Front Rodriguez said in Catalonia, Epiphany is also celebrated — the day the three wise men came to visit the Christ child. Font Rodriguez said her home city has a parade where people dress as the wise men come to bring presents.

Font Rodriguez won't be able to take part in that parade this year, but said she was excited to experience an American Christmas. One big difference she noticed was that American decorations are much bigger.

"It's huge," she said. "We have maybe a Christmas tree over there and then some small decorations."

Back home, she said, no one decorates the whole outside of their homes with lights.

"It's so cute though. I love it," she said. "One of the reasons I wanted to come here is how big you celebrate the holidays. It's huge, and cute."

Font Rodriguez has made her own mark on the Watson family's Christmas traditions, too, Maggie Watson said. The family make seafood paella for Christmas Eve with crema Catalana for dessert.

"We liked it so much we think this will be a new Watson tradition!" Watson said.

As the new year approaches, Font Rodriguez said she's eager to experience more American culture. She'll be with the Watsons for about three months, and then spend the remainder of her trip with another host family. She said she's learned a lot already from her trip.

"I feel like I've grown up a lot," she said. "And I've learned a lot about the culture and also...a lot of American politics because of this year.

"I think I know more about American politics than I know about Spain."

She said she'd love to do another exchange trip or study abroad some day.

Meanwhile, Font Rodriguez will get a chance to see her first host family again this summer, when they plan to visit her in Spain.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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