When Florencia “Flor” Biano returns to her home in Cordoba, Argentina at the end of this month after year in Blount County, the 18-year-old exchange student says she will miss the friends she made and cherish the experiences she lived.
Flor, whose hometown has a population of 1.3 million, will miss something most in Blount County take for granted - seeing mountains from her school and being just minutes from either the city or the countryside.
“We have hills, and here you have mountains,” Flor said. “You can see the mountains through windows from school. From my school (in Cordoba) you see smoke, smog and big buildings. Here you drive 30 minutes, and you’re in Cades Cove or drive 30 minutes, and you’re in Knoxville,” she said. “In my country, you have to drive three hours to get to the hills,” she said. “I like it. I love it. I don’t want to leave here.”
Flor spent her year in Blount County with three different host families: David and Emily Straquadine and their 3-year-old daughter Maya; Mike and Debra Husk and Bob and Denia Lash. Her trip was organized through her hometown’s Rotary Club and Linda Bellich, the district chair for the International Exchange Student Program who helped arrange the stay with the Maryville Rotary Club.
Even though she had already graduated from high school in Cordoba, Flor attended Heritage High School as a second semester junior and continued this past fall as a senior. She will go back to Argentina at the end of this month. She admitted her hardest class was English. She took an advanced Spanish class, and the teacher required Flor to do her work in English while the other students did theirs in Spanish.
Flor’s native language is Spanish but she attended extra classes in Cordoba to learn English. She is somewhat fluent in English, but she said, “Everyone talks so fast that I have trouble understanding meanings.” Slang is even a bigger problem. The first words she learned at Heritage were “ain’t” and “y’all”. Those were not part of her study of the language in Cordoba. Emily Straquadine said Flor came home from school her first day wanting to know what those words meant because everyone was using them.
Bob Lash said that he and Denia were impressed with Flor’s fluency of the English language.
“As a Rotary exchange host family, we were very fortunate in that she spoke English as well as she did when she got here,” Bob Lash said. “Sometimes students struggle for a few months communicating. It surprised everyone.”
Flor said English is the hardest language to pronunciation. “It’s not hardest to learn,” she said. “I dream in English.”
“She says she is now thinking in English,” Denia Lash said.
Flor said that she often has to catch herself when she’s talking with her mother. “I’m talking to mom, and I say a word I don’t remember. I’ll say it in English, and she’ll say, ‘Talk in Spanish. I can’t follow you,’ “ Flor said.
Discipline in her high school in Argentina is handled differently than in America. Parents are made aware of each infraction and, after 15 infractions, the student fails for that year and must repeat the year. Since it is a private school, the parents then must pay for another year of their child’s education. The school day is shorter but students often have as many as 16 different courses. Students stay in the class with the same group all day. The teachers move from class to class.
Heritage is nearly ten times as large as the school she attended in Cordoba. She often became lost, and when she asked for directions, she said, “People would explain so quickly that I still felt lost.” However, she says she adapted and made many friends. “Most of my friends are on the tennis team because that is my favorite activity after school.”
Flor’s social life in Cordoba is quite different from what students in Blount County experience. Saturday nights in Cordoba are special for Flor though. This is the night she spends time with her friends unwinding from the heavy load of studying she has to do. Cordoba is home to the country’s most important public university so there is a large community of young people. The city caters to activities for the teens and has many dance clubs. A typical Saturday consists of sleeping late and “lazy time” as Flor calls it. Evening meal is usually around 10 p.m. with the family. Then the fun begins. A large group of friends will meet at someone’s home and decide which dance club they want to attend that night. Even within the clubs, there are usually three different dance rooms playing different types of music. After the decision is made, they take a taxi or a parent drives them to the club. Teens cannot drive in Cordoba until they are 18. Often they do not get to the club until 1 or 2 a.m. “When my parents say, ‘Don’t stay out too late,’ they mean 6 or 7 a.m.,” Flor said.
Flor said she doesn’t keep those late hours here, and her friends back home seem surprised when she balks at the idea of being out so late. “They tell me how it is there sometimes, and I forget the hours, and they say we’re going out at 11, and I say, ‘How can you do that?’ “
Flor said food selections are similar in Argentina, but in American they are “much spicier.” Flor’s favorite thing to eat in America is salad dressing. “In Cordoba we don’t put anything on salad-maybe a little salt or oil and vinegar. But here I can choose all different kinds of dressing for my salad.”
Flor said the biggest difference in American people is their openness and friendliness. “People are more trusting in America. In Cordoba, I don’t have conversations with strangers.” Homesickness hasn’t been a problem. Flor communicated regularly with her family by Internet. She can even see them on the camcorder while she “chats.” She has two older brothers and a baby niece.
Bob and Denia Lash were the last host family in Blount County for Flor. She moved in with them in late July/early August, just before the Lash family went on vacation.
“With her personality, the first time we met her, Flor was a part of our family,” Denia Lash said. “The first time she met our family, she went on vacation with us and met aunts and uncles. She had a great time and fit in from Day One.”
Bob Lash said the experience has been good for all the host families and for the club in general. “Our club has never been host to an exchange student, and we’d like to do it again,” he said. “We would like to work with one of schools in the area and sponsor an outgoing student as well as have one come in. That would be neat.”
Once she returns home, Flor plans to go to university in March. She is undecided on her major field of study. “I’m struggling with that. My mom keeps asking what I want to study. I’m thinking probably international business or I’m thinking about economics,” Flor said.
Flor said becoming an exchange student changes an individual. “I think when you go to another place, a different country, and live so long, you learn so many things and appreciate some things you don’t have and see how other people live,” she said. “It changes the way you think and opens your mind. You see how different things are, and I think it is a mental change. It’s really good. It opens my mind.”
Flor has photographed images from her time here in Blount County and from her travels with other exchange students to points throughout the United States during the past year. She will present a slideshow at noon on Thursday, Dec. 20, during the Maryville Rotary Club luncheon at Green Meadow Country Club.