By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — For many American teenagers, the suburbs are comfortable places to catch a yellow bus to school, play team sports, and go out for meals with friends on the weekends.
They are safe, friendly places to grow up, with wide green lawns surrounding spacious homes. Few residents would describe them, however, as adventurous.
But Niskayuna High School’s Spanish exchange students disagree. They find just about everything in town intriguing. Squirrels, for example.
“We don’t have squirrels,” said Alberto Ruiz Portero, one of 21 students visiting from Colegio Agave in Almeria, Spain. “They’re so cute.”
This year’s exchange students traveled 22 hours from the small city they call home. Most live in flats, or apartments. The climate is that of a desert, although some of the classmates are from a nearby coastal village that draws crowds of tourists in the summer.
Gathered in Niskayuna High School’s library as they awaited a field trip to the New York State Museum and state Capitol building, and a tour of Albany, they blended in neatly with their American classmates. They wore trendy sneakers and T-shirts with pop culture references emblazoned across them and giggled at inside jokes. Periodically, they remarked on the differences between private school in Spain and public school here, in Niskayuna.
The students noticed a disorienting amount of freedom in school with their host students, as compared with their experiences at home. Colegio Agave is a much smaller school than Niskayuna, with just two close-knit classes per grade.
Students wear uniforms, give their cellphones to their teachers each morning, and stay in a single classroom, through which teachers, not students, rotate throughout the day.
Not so at Niskayuna.
“You meet many people because you don’t have one class,” Portero said. The flip side, of course, is that they get lost sometimes in the halls. But he liked the opportunity to get up and stretch between instructional periods.
Opinions were divided on the loose American dress code.
“The uniform is so comfortable for the morning,” student Irene Esteban Sanchez said. Her comment drew nods of approval. As it turns out, teenagers around the world are happy to grab a few extra minutes of sleep before the bus comes, and not having to pick and match clothing allows that.
But, of course, they found it fun to express themselves through their outfits, too.
“I like different clothes,” said another student, Manuela Canale.
They’re a bit bewildered by the amount of choice available at lunchtime. In Spain, they said, students’ lunches are included in the cost of tuition. No one brings their lunches, and they certainly aren’t allowed to drive somewhere else in town for a meal during free periods, as Niskayuna High School’s seniors do.
Many of the exchange students said their Niskayuna host families pack lunches each morning for them. But when they go out to restaurants, the portions are a bit overwhelming.
“The food here is very big,” student Paula Fernandez Rodriguez said. Her friends laughed and nodded in agreement. Portero said when they go out to eat together, the Spanish visitors often share dishes and struggle to finish eating them.
“We couldn’t finish half a hamburger!” he said with a laugh. “It’s so hard because here, the dishes are huge.”
In Spain, a favorite snack is dry, thinly-sliced ham.
“They eat it all day,” said Niskayuna Spanish teacher Lainie Christou. They can’t eat in class, of course; that’s another American privilege that boggled their minds. But it often fills the space between meals.
And without fail, the eating habits in the foreign land are always a centerpiece of conversation.
Mealtimes and sizes are distinctly different in Spain, the students said. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, followed by a small late-afternoon snack. Dinner is light, and usually eaten around 9:30 or 10:00 at night.
“I miss the tapas,” Portero said, referring to small, appetizer-like portions of various dishes, a popular treat in Spain.
During the stretch between lunch and dinner, in late afternoon, it’s tradition in Spain to take a small rest. But, the students emphasized, it’s just a short break, and many opt not to take it. The stereotype that all Spanish people take a long siesta, or nap, in the afternoon was one they hoped to break.
“People think we are lazy,” Portero said, but that’s not the case. Lots of the exchange students don’t take advantage of the tradition every day.
He added that they also don’t fight bulls or dance in the streets. When people ask the students questions about Spanish stereotypes, they’re tempted to counter with American ones.
“People in Spain think you are always eating junk food and are fat, but that’s not true,” he said.
The list of detailed differences went on. Americans keep cats as pets; Spaniards are more likely to keep dogs.
Americans drink tons of coffee, and the Spanish guests said they don’t, although they would miss Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Food is cheaper in the United States, but the school buses are far less comfortable. American football is fun here, but American soccer doesn’t hold a candle to football in Spain.
But mostly, things here are bigger.
“It’s too much,” the group said, nearly in unison, when asked how they felt about the expansive yards and multistory homes. But they embraced the suburban lifestyle, anyway.
“Here it’s very green,” Rodriguez said.
“Honestly I think I’m going to miss it all,” he said. “Here all the houses have a little space and gardens.
“It’s so charming,” he added.
Christou has participated in all three years of the exchange between Almeria and Niskayuna. Spaniards travel in the fall, and Niskayuna students pack their bags in the spring. This school year, they’ll hop a plane to Spain in April.
Before Almeria, Christou and middle school Spanish teacher Shana Malkis also chaperoned four exchanges to Mexico. The Spanish-language exchange program has been in place for nearly 20 years and is sponsored this year by Sysco.