By David Rogers. June 17, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Sometimes you just never know what you are going to learn from other people. For instance, a consensus among four international exchange students is that Americans are pretty conservative — EXCEPT when it comes to our public bathrooms.
COVER IMAGE: The Blowing Rock was the perfect host for these international visitors, here peeking over the edge like so many wide-eyed Blowing Rock visitors before them. Left to right: Sini, Rachel, Annabeth, and Nicole. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Bright blue T-shirts proclaiming an affiliation with the “Millbrook Maniacs” prompted Blowing Rock News to ask two young visitors to The Blowing Rock attraction on Monday whether they were part of a cross country running team or something. Instead of an immediate answer, we got introduced to a quartet of bubbly foreign exchange students — two from the U.S who had been to Denmark and Finland and two others FROM Italy and Finland, respectively.
It is magnificent here.
So it was that on a beautifully clear and warm, sunny day overlooking “the Gorge” — and with a picture postcard view of Grandfather Mountain down the Blue Ridge south to Mt. Mitchell — we sat down to interview these four high schoolers. We anticipated the bright-eyed giggling from these young women, but were rewarded not only with plenty of laughs, but also were blessed with a lot of cultural insights.
Sini Heikki (Finland) and Nicole Giacchecca (Italy) spent the last academic year as AFS exchange students at Millbrook High School in North Raleigh, NC. Rachel Wallace is from the U.S., but went to Denmark. And Annabeth Thompson — whose father served as “chauffeur” for the girls’ Blowing Rock excursion — was the host sibling and had gone on an exchange trip to Finland within the last couple of years.
Our four new friends were enthusiastic about life in general, but each were also eager to articulate their viewpoints and what they had learned in their travels — about themselves and others. As you might expect from talking to ANY group of teenage girls, sometimes it was a cacophony of laughter, but once we broke the ice with some “easy” questions, these ambitious young women were full of thoughts, perceptions and impressions to share with the world.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): So what do you think about “The Blowing Rock”?
- Sini — “It is beautiful. I feel very peaceful here, very relaxed.”
- Annabeth — “It is amazing here at The Blowing Rock. The views are spectacular, and in so many directions!”
BRN: What do you think about the U.S., in general?
- Sini — “The people here are so open. People in the United States are not shy and reserved like they tend to be in Finland. I like the small talk and the interacting with one another.”
- Annabeth — “Here, people talk to you when you go into a store. When I was in Finland, the storekeepers seemed to glare at you when you went in, as if they were getting ready to close and you were inconveniencing them by coming to their store. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the only real human interaction. So when I came back to the U.S., it was a bit of a shock because everyone was smiling and talking to me. I also spent some time in Qatar, but I am originally from North Carolina.
- Rachel — I am originally from Massachusetts. I lived there until I was 15, then went on an student exchange trip to Denmark. When I came back, we moved down to Wilmington. Now I go to the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut.
I want to follow in the footsteps of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
BRN: What are all of your academic interests?
- Nicole — “We don’t have majors, but I like Math and the Sciences.”
- Sini — “Education. After high school, I eventually want to be a teacher in languages.”
- Annabeth — “I am really excited to be starting my freshman year at DePaul University in Chicago in the fall. I am interested in law and international studies. Someday I’d like to follow in the footsteps of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and be on the Supreme Court!”
- Rachel — “I have no idea about a career. I will be a senior next year, so I imagine I will think more about it. Going to Denmark really allowed me to think about intercultural things. So I am more interested in international relations and languages. I love languages. But then, I am also interested in chemistry and physics. I love learning about everything.”
BRN: So tell me about these T-shirts. What are the “Millbrook Maniacs”?
- Sini (smiling broadly) — “It’s a school spirit thing. We got these T-shirts at the beginning of the school year, when we first arrived. We wear them for football and basketball games. It’s really a sort of fan thing for all of the sports.”
BRN: Now that you mention it, what do you think about American football?
- Sini — “I don’t understand it!”
- Nicole — “I’ve tried to understand it, but I have no idea!”
- Sini — “It is good to watch with my friends and just have fun being at the games with them. It is a nice social thing for us to do — but I don’t get the game at all!”
BRN: What are your impressions about the physical geography of North Carolina and the U.S.?
- Sini — “Being in Raleigh, it is great that the beach is about two hours away, but then there are the mountains, too, that are two or three hours in the opposite direction. There are so many different places to go in North Carolina. In Finland, everything is relatively flat. There are a lot of lakes, but the forests are all pretty much the same. You have to travel far to experience something different. Here in the U.S., everything different is so close.”
- Annabeth — “I loved the geography in Finland, but like Sini said, it is pretty much the same all over. Here, you come to Blowing Rock and it is so different than some place like Raleigh and it is only three hours away. It is magnificent here. There are all of these mountains. I have come here before, in the fall and in the spring, and it always looks so magnificent. By contrast, in Finland you could drive eight hours and it would still be birch trees, reindeer, lakes and snow — eight months of the year!”
- Nicole — “I live near the beach in Italy, on the Adriatic Sea side. The mountains are very far away from where I live. The Alps are about five hours to drive there.”
I like the diversity in American culture.
BRN: So, Nicole, are things in the U.S pretty much the same as in Italy?
- Nicole — “Oh, no. I like the people here, and the mix of countries. You have people from Asia, from Mexico, from everywhere. Since I have been here, I have been to Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants…In Italy, we just eat Italian food! I like the diversity in American culture. “
BRN: Do any of you do sports?
- Sini — “I run cross country and distance running in track, like the 5K.”
BRN (smiling): Are you any good?
- Sini (laughing) — “I’d say I am average. When I came here, I had never run competitively before, but I had played volleyball and soccer. As I first arrived, practice for cross country was just beginning. Oh, my…It was 93 degrees and super hot! In Finland it never gets above 75 degrees. Plus I had jet lag. So starting off, running was a bit of a shock to me.”
BRN: Well, I have to ask…Did you notice that it is 10-15 degrees cooler in Blowing Rock than down the mountain?
- A chorus — “YEAH!”
- Annabeth — “Yes. We noticed and it is lovely!”
- Nicole — “Right now I am freezing.”
- Annabeth (rolling her eyes) — “She’s always freezing!”
- Sini (decisively, with a big smile) — “If Nicole says she is not cold, then we know that it is really burning up hot!”
BRN: What special memories of your year in the U.S are you going to take back with you?
- Sini —“Well, this interview is going to be a special memory. I will remember it forever. I am going to write about it in my journal, which I have been writing in since Day One.”
- Nicole — “Oh, there are so many memories.”
BRN: Well other than THIS moment!
- Sini (laughing) — “This visit to Blowing Rock will certainly be special. My friends asked me if I was going to the Rocky Mountains. I said, yeah, yeah, I am going to the Rocky Mountains.”
- Annabeth (smiling wryly) — “Well, these mountains ARE rocky!”
Other people can see inside them. It’s awful!
BRN: Do you miss your friends and family back home?
- Sini — “Oh yes. I am excited to get back home and see them all.”
BRN: OK then, what are you going to tell them about America that was special or different?
- Sini starts to say something, but Nicole leans close and whispers something to her, prompting Sini to giggle and laugh with one of those throw-back-your-head-and-let-it-all-go kinds of laughs!
BRN: What did Nicole say to you?
- Sini (laughing, kind of shyly) — “The public bathrooms in the U.S. are so different. In Finland, all of the bathrooms are individual little rooms. You can’t see in them from the outside. Here they have these big gaps between the walls and partitions!”
- Nicole — “Other people can see inside them! It’s awful!”
- Sini — “When I go to the bathroom, I am like trying to cover all of the holes and gaps and saying, ‘Don’t watch me!’ It’s definitely different.”
- Annabeth — “Public bathrooms in most of Europe seem to be individual and fully enclosed. They are like little rooms, not stalls. The door is ceiling to floor and it is all wall to wall.”
BRN: Well, are they soundproof, too, so you can’t hear each other tinkling?
- Chorus of raucous laughter
- Annabeth — “Pretty much! Privacy is a big thing in Europe. In almost every other respect, Americans are much more conservative than at least Northern Europeans — except for going to the bathroom! In every other way, though, American are more conservative. They dress more conservatively. In Finland, you can go to the beach naked. There it is like standard procedure. My friends in North Carolina ask kind of incredulously, ‘You’ve been skinny-dipping?'”
A major difference is independence.
BRN: So you girls go to the beach and get naked in Finland?
- Sini — “Well, we have saunas and you go there naked with family and friends. The sauna is usually right by a lake, so after you take your sauna you just go swim in the lake with your friends.”
- Nicole — “In Italy, it is actually illegal to go to the beach naked. There are nude beaches, but they are separate places and I have never been there.”
BRN: Let me understand this clearly. You think Americans are conservative in almost all ways — except when it comes to public bathrooms?
- Annabeth — “At least in the South. When I am in New York City or Chicago, I don’t have the same feeling. I have travelled a lot in northern Europe and you see advertisements for promiscuous places. In the U.S., a girl going to a certain party on Sunday and people are judging you. Americans are going to church on Sunday.”
- Rachel — “I think a major difference is independence. Here in the U.S., young people have very little independence. In Denmark, I biked to school and I biked to the train station — by myself. I took the bus or train — by myself. I’d go to Copenhagen without telling anyone and I felt completely safe. In the U.S., it is not safe riding your bike. You always hear about people on bicycles getting hit by cars because there isn’t the infrastructure here to accommodate bicycles as a mode of transportation.”
- Annabeth — “In Finland, I took buses and trains every day to school. For the most part, it is very safe. I suppose a few people had bad experiences but, thinking about it, I was doing that every single day. And it was in the dark because in the wintertime it is dark all the time in Finland. So you are alone at night on trains, constantly. I was always fine. It was just normal. In the U.S., until you are old enough and get your driver’s license you are not free. In Finland, my host sibling started taking the bus by herself when she was seven years old — and that is the norm. Here, in the U.S., a seven-year-old girl can’t go to the grocery store by herself.”
People should accept and embrace diversity instead of judge it.
BRN: Any other special memories?
- Sini (smiling) — “Well, it is NOT ONLY the public bathrooms that I am going to take back home to Finland! (Turning serious) I really want to share with people back home that our stereotypes of Americans are wrong. We have stereotypes of Americans eating fast food all of the time and driving super big cars — but that is not true!”
- Annabeth — “People should accept the diversity instead of judge it. Although there ARE a lot of big cars! It kind of surprised me when I came back from Finland, so some of the stereotypes are true. We drove in a big car up here to Blowing Rock and we ate at a Cookout last night!”
- Sini — “OK, there is SOME truth to the stereotypes, but that is not all there is to the people.”
- Annabeth — “In general, people in Europe love Americans. They are always saying what a great country this is, then say that the American people are this, this, this, this, and this. I hear this and I am like…I am NONE of those things and I don’t feel I am an exception to the rule.”
- Sini — “That’s one of the great things about going on one of these exchange visits. If you change people’s minds when they are younger, then we don’t have these super-formulated opinions. When you go on one of these exchanges, you get to meet people in the different country, LIVE with them, and get to know them. Then you learn that not everyone in the U.S. is evil, or not everyone is like THIS or THAT — and that is really great.”
- Rachel — “When you are an exchange student, some of your best friends are other exchange students — and they are from all around the world.”
- Annabeth — “And you stay friends forever!”