Just Us Guys: A Tale of Inspiration
While reading the story by Julie Catagnus, keep in mind her message.
Be open to learning and new experiences.
Just Us Guys
by Julie Catagnus
Beatriz Merino Barbancha
Resident of Gijon, Asturias, Spain
Recent high school graduate
8 years of English language studies
2nd-degree black belt in karate
Only child of special education teachers
Lover of pop music
Fan of all things American
<Learned later: future medical student; eventually practicing cardiologist>
The list above sums up what we knew about Bea as my husband, Dick, and I waited in the International Arrivals Hall of the Philadelphia Airport one Thursday afternoon in early August. We were ready to begin the 3-week experience of hosting her in our home. The airplane door opened and the first few students spilled out, laughing and talking. They were welcomed by their temporary families.
Picturing in my mind the few photos Bea had e-mailed us, I recognized her instantly as she entered the hall. I rushed over to give her an enveloping hug. Those first few moments were strange. We knew about her but didn’t really know her. We also didn’t know the extent of her English skills or whether my second-grade through freshman college Spanish background would be up to the task. Despite that, we could tell from her outgoing and open manner that she was going to be a great student to host.
After a quick dinner at an Italian restaurant, we introduced Bea to her new “home” and helped her get settled into her private living quarters—our hall bathroom and guest bedroom. She was thrilled to discover her suite opened onto the deck with a view of the swimming pool.
The next morning began the Monday-through-Friday routine of driving Bea to the church in Newtown Square where the students attended English as a second language (ESL) classes.
Because Dick was semi-retired and had more time on his hands than I did, he took on the role of chauffeur. Dick and Bea hit it off from the beginning, the language barrier withstanding, due to their fun-loving, zany natures. I was the more serious one, worrying about having appropriate food for her breakfasts and dinners as well as packed lunches for her activities away from home.
This newly formed family network (students, host families, 2 program coordinators) met one night for pizza and other goodies at the home of a host family. The students continued the bonding they started in class and got to meet the children of the several families. They also expended built-up energy by swimming in the backyard pool from dusk into the moonlit night.
Thinking she wouldn't swim, Bea had Intentionally left her swimsuit at our house. But that didn’t stop her from joining the fun. Halfway through the evening, she jumped into the pool wearing pajama bottoms and a top loaned to her by the daughter of the house.
While the students enjoyed their time together, the families swapped stories about previous hosting experiences and discussed transportation arrangements. We hooked up with a family living close enough for us to take turns carpooling to ESL classes in the morning and from the scheduled afternoon or evening field trips at the end of the day. They were hosting a 30-year-old woman who took time off from her position as an attorney in Spain to assist with several of these summer educational programs.
A Zoo Experience
Bea had never been to a zoo, so one afternoon we visited Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, deciding not to fight the traffic and crowds at the better-known Philly Zoo. Elmwood Park was the perfect environment to stroll around the grounds, get close to the animals, and compare notes about the types of animals native to Spain. Bea experienced another first that evening when we took her to the 3-D version of Captain America. We loved watching her swat at the movie images that seemed to be headed her way and hearing her say, later, that she was able to follow a good portion of the plot in English.
We Help a Friendship from Spain Continue
Although not many of the students knew each other in Spain, one of Bea’s closest friends, Laura (pronounced “Lowrda” by Bea), was also on the trip. Unfortunately, her host family lived out in Chadds Ford, which was about 25 minutes away from us. Understanding by then why many host families go beyond the requirements of providing shelter, food, and transportation for their students, Dick and I decided to take Bea and Laura to the Franklin Institute.
Other than seeing Philly from the air, this was their first up-close experience in a large US city. They both “oohed” and “aahed” as we made our way through skyscraper-lined streets.
Watching them enjoy the interactive exhibits with the inquisitiveness of young children warmed our hearts. Given her vocational goals, Bea was especially thrilled to walk through the heart and view videos of open-heart surgery. As we waited for Laura to give herself an insulin injection before lunch, something her diabetes required her to do before each meal, I began to appreciate the significance of this international adventure for her.
Language As Source of Laughter
The following day, Dick and I stayed home while the students were led on a walking tour of historic downtown Philly, complete with a view of the Art Museum steps climbed by “Rocky” and the opportunity to sample an authentic Philly cheesesteak.
The only problem with the sandwich was that every single student had misinterpreted what they heard -- cheesesteak. You can imagine their disappointment when the treat that was touted all day by the coordinators turned out not to be a yummy piece of “cheesecake.” Bea couldn’t wait to tell us the story that evening and we all roared with laughter about the huge differences between similar-sounding English words.
As the students began studying various English idioms in their ESL classes, their interest in learning all the official curse words took center stage. While sitting at a restaurant booth one evening, Bea “refused” to let me out to choose more food from the buffet until I provided one more nasty word to add to her repertoire.
My favorite language experience with Bea has to be witnessing her “aha” moment as I instructed her on using our handheld mixer and referred to the button she should push as a “guy.”
“You call all sorts of things ‘guys,’" she blurted out with a self-satisfied expression. Although I tried to explain the derivation of this slang expression, I had to admit that it is a rather inaccurate way to talk about anything other than the male of the human species. From that day on, Bea greeted us with “Hi guys!” when she returned home from her program activities.
A New Contact for Bea
Bea looked forward to the free family time weekends when she could sleep late. We planned our annual pool party for her second weekend with us, seeing it as the perfect opportunity for her meet our friends and relatives. Bea soaked up the atmosphere, as well as the plentiful junk food, and bonded particularly with our friend, Maria, a retired science teacher and Mac computer guru originally from Nicaragua.
Maria and Bea chatted away in Spanish, which allowed Bea to ask questions like, “How do you cope with all the sunlight in these houses? Our Spanish homes are always kept dark.” "What are the latest technology items in America?" "How do you use your new iPad?" "Can we talk about the field of medicine?" Maria was so taken with our lovely house guest that she invited the three of us to dinner the following week. We enjoyed paella while sitting on the balcony of her high rise condo in Bala Cynwyd enjoying the magnificent view of the Philly skyline. Bea was thrilled to look through some of Maria’s old medical textbooks and learn that Maria was interested in shipping them to her in Spain.
The night before the students returned home, a farewell party was held at the incoming coordinator’s home. But what about the food?
Five of the students (2 males and 3 females) and the program assistant cooked the main courses for a Spanish meal in our kitchen. I have never witnessed a group of young people enjoying a team effort so much. With Bea’s MP3 player hooked up to our boom box, the kids sang all their favorite songs, and Bea hammed it up using a flashlight as a microphone.
Now, Dick can tell you that I am very particular about keeping my kitchen clean. However, on this occasion, with flour and oil covering most counters and parts of the floor, all I focused on was how much fun they were having in an effort to share their country’s cuisine with us. One of my all-time favorite pictures from the three weeks was of this cooking crew beaming after creating their masterpiece dishes.
Foreign Students as Source of Inspiration
What does my story have to do with inspiration? Bea and her fellow students inspired me by their openness to learning and new experiences. Whenever I become too settled in my ways, I remind myself of the joy and happiness that being adventurous can bring.
I hope you'll consider my message when you need inspiration in your life
Be open to learning and new experiences. ~ Julie Catagnus
About Julie Catagnus
Julie is a freelance medical editor and writer with over 24 years’ experience and
certification by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences. She has undergraduate and graduate
degrees in social work and experience providing counseling and program planning services in a variety of social service agencies. As the publications director of a volunteer management
company, she collaborated in writing a handbook for the supervisors of volunteers. In the early
1990s she established and operated the first 12-step recovery bookstore in the Philadelphia area.
She's an east coast transplant to Albuquerque, NM, where she serves as a community member on a local hospital institutional review board and participates in other patient advocacy activities.
This is the first honor she has received for her creative personal essay and memoir writing.
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