A visit from Finland, and prom

We’ve had a busy few weeks.

At the end of March and beginning of April, Pirita (our former exchange student from Finland) visited for ten days. We had a wonderful visit, and, she put it, it seemed more like she’d been away for a long weekend than for nearly two years. Pirita and Mathias have completely different personalities, so I wondered how they would hit it off, but it seemed like they really clicked. Early in their first conversation, Pirita was busting Mathias’s chops over something and I pointed out that, as the eldest in his family, he wasn’t used to that. Her response was, “Well, you have a big sister now, and I’m going to tease you.” And they really did seem to immediately fall into a brother/sister kind of relationship (minus the squabbling). Pirita spent some time with us, and some time catching up with friends from her time here. And, of course, she had to spend a few hours at the Mall of America. We took her out to eat and to the theater, and hosted a couple dinner parties so our family and friends would get to see her.

Pirita at Lake of the Isles

It was fun to see Pirita and learn about all the changes in her life. One recent change is that she is now a vegetarian. When I mentioned that to Mathias some time before her arrival, he looked aghast. I had to reassure him that although she is a vegetarian, he would still be fed plenty of meat during her stay. They ended up with a sort of Jack and Mrs. Spratt arrangement between them, only with meat and vegetables instead of lean and fat. Sadly, after a week and a half, Pirita’s visit came to an end. It was much easier to see her off this time than when she left two years ago. Now that we have two years under our belts, and we have visited her and she has visited us, it feels more certain that she will always be a part of our lives.

 On Saturday Mathias went to prom. At the beginning of his stay, he had been looking forward to the prospect, but he later decided he would rather spend the money on something else. Some friends talked him into going, however, and he invited a friend to go as his date. Much drama ensued, all of which is many times more interesting to a teenager than to anyone else. Her dress is pink, and she wants my vest and my tie to match her dress. Oh, my God. I am not wearing PINK! (On a side note, during his entire stay, I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get Mathias to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food. Now he’s reached that decision completely independently of anything I’ve said to him on the matter. I should have known that vanity was the key. Do you think these pimples will be gone by the time I have my prom photos? My skin was never this bad before. I’m going to start eating better.) In the end, Mathias ordered a tux that was acceptable to both him and his date. He acted as if he didn’t care about the whole thing, but after I picked up the tux for him and he tried it on at home, his expression told a different story. He got a grin on his face that said, “I look good and I know I look good,” and you could tell he was pleased.

Ready for prom

Mathias and his date looked adorable together. They went to prom with two other couples, and my brother-in-law was kind enough to take photos for all of them. (BTW, to his friends, Mathias refers to Janna and Luke as his aunt and uncle. I love that.) He was out until about 3:00, and slept about 14 hours after he got home. Once Luke sent him the photos, Mathias posted them immediately to Facebook. We have the best prom pictures on Facebook. I’m not gonna lie.

With his buddy, Trevor. Note the SILVER vest and tie.

Today is a very important day for Mathias. FC Bayern München is playing Real Madrid in the European Champions’ League Semi-finals. If they lose by more than one point or lose the tie-breaker, they will not advance. If they win or tie, they will advance to the finals. I hope for all our sakes that FC Bayern München does well.

One of Mathias’s friends is coming to our house to watch the soccer game with him. After the game Mathias is going to cook goulash for supper for her. He’s cooked German food for us before, but this will be his first time without me hovering in the background giving him instructions. When Mathias arrived, he didn’t cook at all. Now he’s cooking solo for dinner guests. I have to say, I’m proud.


And then there’s the hard stuff…

Mathias had been having a good couple of weeks. He’s been very active physically and socially; Pirita is here for a visit, and the two of them have hit it off; and his favorite soccer team is on a winning streak. Then his family wanted to Skype with him about something yesterday, and his parents hit him with some sad news.

A very close friend of Mathias’s family (his father’s best friend, who is also Mathias’s best friend’s father), who has been seriously ill with cancer, has moved into a hospice facility. He’s not expected to live much longer. This is someone who has been very much a part of Mathias’s life. The two families have always spent lots of time together, and Mathias and his friend have always gone freely back and forth between their two houses. This family friend has always been a significant person to Mathias, and of course Mathias is upset. He keeps commenting that he just has to process the fact that he’s never going to see this person again, and that he’s having a hard time getting his head straight. This morning he asked me what hospice is, exactly. He wanted to know if people leave hospice or are sometimes cured there. I explained that when people go into hospice, the caregivers stop treating the disease, and just focus on keeping the patient as comfortable as possible for the time that person has left, and that people don’t typically leave hospice care. All of which I am sure Mathias already knew, but he seemed to be looking for confirmation. He asked what morphine is, and I explained it to him. He told me that his father said his friend is being pumped full of morphine, and was mostly unconscious.

Mathias knew before he left Germany that it was very possible he would never see this friend again. Then in late summer, Mathias’s father told him his friend had taken a turn for the worse, and was not going to get better. At that point Mathias knew it was almost certain that his friend’s father would die before he returned home. Even so, there’s really no preparing for a situation like this. 17 is very young to be so far away from your family when you lose someone important to you.

I know that one of exchange students’ number one worries is that something might happen to a loved one during their year abroad. Pirita was worried about her grandparents’ health. Even when the student has no friends or family at that stage of life, they are concerned about what might change irrevocably during their exchange year. One of Pirita’s friends knew when she left Sweden that she was probably saying goodbye to her beloved dog for the last time. It’s hard to grasp at any age; when you leave, they are right there, but by the time you return they are gone forever.

So as his host parents, I guess Bryan and I just pay attention. We’ll encourage him to talk, if he wants to talk. If he’s moody, we’ll try to be patient. But mostly, as Mathias says, he just has to process this and get his head straight.

It doesn’t count anyway…

On Monday Mathias began his last term of American High School. In 3 ½ short months he goes back to Germany. That’s the bad part. The good part is that it seems like this will be a better school term for him. Last term he had a couple classes with mostly younger kids whom he didn’t know very well (and apparently he wasn’t all that interested in getting to know them, but that’s another story). This term his classes are all with kids his own age, and he has friends in every class. Mathias’s social problems seem to be behind him for now, and he’s back to being too busy for my liking. He has spent time with friends every night since Sunday, and very early this morning he even went to the midnight showing of “The Hunger Games” with a group of friends.

These are exciting times for Mathias. His favorite soccer club is in the Bundesliga finals against the evil arch-nemesis, and has advanced to the European Champions’ League Quarterfinal. They had an important game on Wednesday, and Mathias was worried about getting home from school on time to watch it online. I’m sure this concern was completely unrelated to his discovery Wednesday morning that he was too sick to go to school. I reminded him that if he was too sick to go to school on Wednesday, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore his illness and allow him to go to a movie at midnight on Thursday night. It turns out that consequences really can be the miracle cure, and only a few minutes passed before Mathias told me that he was well enough to attend school after all. It all turned out well, as his team won their Wednesday game in a shoot-out. I had to agree that Neuer is a “totally awesome” keeper. (Mathias has turned me into a Bayern München fan.)

We went to Seattle for spring break to visit my sister and her family. Lori and Poncho have an adorable two-year old. Simon

Mathias and Simon at Pike's Place Market

loves to play soccer, and all week he pressed Mathias into playing with him. He has a pretty good leg on him, and he likes to drop-kick the ball, something that requires more coordination than I usually have, but something he can do pretty consistently. The best part, though, is when Simon decides he’s playing goalie. (“Simón portero” – he’s bilingual) He flings himself to the ground on his side like a real major-leaguer. Simon was enamored with Mathias, and Mathias was a great sport about it. He played soccer with Simon several times a day (“Mathias play soccer?” “Mathias is busy right now, Simon. I’ll play soccer with you.” “No. Aunt Lisa, sit. Mathias play soccer?”). He even babysat one night (including changing a poopy diaper) while Bryan, Poncho, Lori, and I went out for supper.

Unfortunately, the weather in Washington was terrible during our visit. It was in the 30s and 40s all week, and either rained, snowed, or sleeted (or all three) every day we were there. Meanwhile, it was in the 70s and sunny in Minnesota. We could not see Mount Rainier, it was too miserable to visit the salmon ladders, we could not drive into the mountains in Olympic National Park, and we could not even drive into the rain forest. All the same, the scenery had its own beauty, and Mathias was excited to be able to say he had visited somewhere new. He got to see the Pacific Ocean, and insisted on having his picture taken on the shore while wearing his Bayern München jersey. Oh, and the night we stayed in a motel in Forks (of “Twilight” fame) Mathias beat both Bryan and me at three games of “Boggle.” Apparently beating one’s native-speaking host parents at an English language word game is significant enough to post as a Facebook status.

Mathias has decided to change his approach to his classes this term. He’s informed Bryan and me that since his grades here don’t count for him once he goes home to Germany, he’s not going to take school very seriously. “If I have to make a choice between hanging out with friends and doing school work, I am hanging out with friends every time.” Bryan and I have agreed that this new attitude is not quite appropriate, so the three of us are going to have a conversation about it. It’s hard to justify our position when his grades really do not count for him, but he’s representing his country, and I think it’s disrespectful to take up a spot in a classroom if you aren’t going to make the appropriate effort. He wanted to experience American life, and to experience American life he has to treat his classes as if they carry the same consequences for him as for his American classmates.

Mathias will have to do more homework this term. He has English, Economics, and Politics, all of which will require a fair amount of reading. He’s also decided he wants to go to the gym every day after school, so he’ll be pretty busy.

Mathias is concerned about being in shape once he gets back to Germany. He’s afraid he won’t be good enough to play soccer for his old club, so he’s going to work out, and play soccer in a men’s league in May and June. He’s talking more and more about how things will be once he gets home. (“The turn signal is on the left of the steering wheel? Oh my God, I hope I remember how to drive when I get back.) It’s natural and useful, I suppose.

On Tuesday Pirita, our Finnish daughter from two years ago arrives for a visit. We’re all very excited.


It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. It’s been quite busy between work and running around after Mathias. Ski season ended this week, and I have to say I’m glad. Three nights a week Mathias had either ski practice or a meet, and usually wasn’t home until almost 10:00. He was always tired, and I felt like we almost never saw him. Mathias is determined now to find a spring soccer league to play in. He’s concerned about being good enough for his team when he returns home. He found out that his team is bringing in players to maintain their level, and he doesn’t want to be moved down. So he’s going to contact his soccer coach from this fall (he has an indoor soccer complex and runs several leagues) to see what his options are for keeping in shape and in practice. More and more now it seems that he’s planning ahead for when he returns to Germany.  I think it has to helpful to him that he’s thinking that way, but it gives me a twinge; I hate to think of Mathias already preparing to leave.

Mathias is finally off his Kraft macaroni and cheese kick. Now every day he make himself an egg and bagel sandwich with asiago. It is, I am told, the “best sandwich ever” and “totally awesome.” The asiago makes it; any other cheese just wouldn’t be as good.

We’re having a German meal Sunday night. When Mathias arrived in August he brought me a German cookbook as a gift. A couple of weeks ago he mentioned that “we should make some recipes from this book.” I agreed with him that, yes, “we” should. So on Sunday “we” are making rouladen, red cabbage, and apple kuchen. Our AFS liaison will be joining us for supper. She and Mathias seem to have a good rapport. I’ve made rouladen only once before, but I’m sure it will be good. We’re going to try to make time to cook a German meal every Sunday night.

Mathias has grown very attached to one of our cats, Isabella. It’s mainly because Isabella is affectionate with him. He brings her with him from room to room and oves it when she sits on his lap. Anywhere he gets positive attention is welcome to him.

Well, that’s all for now.

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe 2011 is almost gone. We had a very nice Christmas, even though the lack of snow was disappointing. We had told Mathias that our families tend to give lots of presents at Christmas. Bryan’s mother and aunt had asked what he would want. We didn’t want them getting him presents that he would just have to pack and bring home, so we suggested some of his favorite American snack foods. He unwrapped boxes and boxes of Cheez-its and Kraft Mac and Cheese and bags of Skittles.  Because, of course, Mac and Cheese is a staple food, and Cheez-its are awesome.

Mathias was able to spend time on Christmas Eve Skyping with his family. At one point h

Mathias models our present to him.

e told me that his grandmother was drinking Jagermeister, so I went to the cupboard and poured myself a shot of Jagermeister, and had a shot with his grandmother, much to Mathias’s amusement. The Skype session wasn’t really Mathias’s family having a conversation with him. It was more like they were spending their Christmas party doing what they do, and he was just a part of it, only via Skype instead of in person. Mathias was so happy about how natural it all felt.

We had told Mathias that we didn’t expect presents from him, but he wanted to get us something. A couple of weeks ago when I brought Mathias to a U of M hockey game, we stopped in the shop to look at sweatshirts. I saw a Gopher fleece blanket and commented on it. He noticed and remembered, and he got me a Gopher fleece for Christmas — perfect for when we’re watching the hockey games on t.v. He was very proud of himself.  We all agreed that it wasn’t just a gift for me, but for Isabella, too. If anyone is ever sitting on the couch with a fleece on their lap, she loves to claim a spot on the fleece. We haven’t had the opportunity yet to test the fleece for watching hockey, but Isabella has already given it her seal of approval.

Mathias and Bryan left early Tuesday morning for a ski trip in Colorado. I don’t ski, so it didn’t make sense for me to spend the vacation time and the money on airfare to sit in the chalet while the guys hit the slopes. I’ll pick them up Sunday evening at the airport. I enjoy having the  house to myself once in a while, but this week the guys being gone has been leading me to think about Mathias leaving. It’s been depressing to think that his stay with us is about half over, and I’ve been dwelling on it a bit too much.

I’m very glad Bryan and Mathias were able to take this trip. Mathias is an avid skier, and he’s said since he arrived that skiing in the Rockies has been a life-long dream. In the last two months he’s been checking the weather forecasts and snow levels for the various Colorado resort towns at least twice a day. I just hope that after he gets back that he doesn’t feel too much of a let down.

We have one more family holiday party on the schedule. On Monday we celebrate with my sisters and their significant others. After that it’s back to routine.

I feel like the holiday break has been good for Mathias. With all the time spent on family events and travel, it’s taken some of the social pressure off him. I think he’s had time to reflect and develop some perspective on his situation. AFS’s orientation materials include an “adjustment cycle” that shows a period of isolation right about this time, with things generally improving right after the holidays. It’s been pretty accurate for Mathias so far, so I’m hoping he will find that social balance that he wants soon. He knows and we know that what’s going on with him is textbook typical for exchange students, but that doesn’t make his feelings about it any less real and painful. I had a good conversation last night with our liaison, and she gave me some solid advice on how we can help Mathias work through this. He’s a smart kid with lots of self-awareness, so I’m confident he will figure it out.

Merry Christmas!

Happy 2012!


Four months in…

It’s been raining all day. It certainly doesn’t feel like the middle of December. Mathias checks the weather report every day, and he’s currently not optimistic about our prospects for a white Christmas.

The new school term began last Tuesday. Mathias has a more challenging class schedule than in the fall. It’s not that the classes are difficult, but he has more assignments than last term. Ski practice and homework are really kicking him in the butt right now. Three days a week he leaves on the ski bus right after school, goes to the ski hill 90 minutes away, and doesn’t get back to school until shortly before 10:00. He’s generally exhausted from ski practice, and doesn’t have much success with doing homework on the bus. He’s constantly tired. Last week he stayed home from school Thursday and Friday with a bad cold — a relapse of a bout he thought he’d beaten. I put it down to him not getting enough sleep.

After missing two days of school last week Mathias had a pile of homework. When he got home after ski practice on Monday, he was feeling overwhelmed, and didn’t know how he was going to get everything done. So I wasn’t surprised yesterday morning when I got a text from him telling me he was going to skip yesterday’s ski practice so he could come home and catch up on some homework. He had been working for several hours by the time I went to bed last night, and planned to stay up late to do some more.

Mathias continues to revise his attitude towards American teenagers. Lately he has been more and more frustrated with his friends. He’s feeling more stress dealing with some of the cultural differences he encounters. He finds many kids here unreliable, and he doesn’t feel like they are consistent in their regard for people. He told me last night that it isn’t possible to have a best friend here — if you don’t share a class or an activity with someone, they will forget all about you. He’s also appalled about how many kids seem to have no filters when it comes to what they put out in cyberspace. (That’s something I would tell my best friend, but I’m not telling Facebook!) He was very offended when his friends told him he should “toughen up” and go to school even though he had a cold.

Up until very recently, Mathias didn’t think it was important to spend time with other foreign exchange students. Bryan and I kept telling him that he would probably want to talk to other kids having experiences similar to his. Mathias has lots of friends at school, and he felt he didn’t have a need for the other exchange students. There was an AFS Christmas party a couple of weeks ago, and at first Mathias didn’t want to attend, but he changed his mind and decided to go. He had a good time there and connected with a few of the kids. We even learned that one of the Brazilian boys lives just half a mile from us, and has a PlayStation. Now Mathias is spending a little more time with some of the other AFS kids, and he understands what we’ve been telling him all along. (I was stupid to think I didn’t need other foreign exchange students. Who else can understand what I mean when I say I like it here, but I still get sad and miss my family?)

Another German boy came over last weekend. He and Mathias are both big fans of the Bayern Munich soccer club, and we just happen to get the cable channel that carries some of their games. There was a game on Sunday morning, so his friend came over Saturday night to eat junk food and watch movies with Mathias. He stayed overnight and they watched the game the next morning. After the game Bryan took the boys and another of the exchange students to Mall of America to do some Christmas shopping.

We warned Mathias that we go a little overboard when it comes to decorating the house for Christmas. A week and a half ago we went out and cut down two Christmas trees — one for the basement living room, and one for upstairs. There’s barely a surface in our house now that isn’t lit up or holding a nativity scene or Santa. Mathias is getting in the spirit, and even bought a Santa hat that he wears around the house when on his computer (he won’t consent to me snapping a photo of him in his Santa hat).

One tree goes in the car; the other gets tied to the top.

Mathias was very excited a few weeks ago when his mother sent him a huge box of German Christmas treats, many of which his grandmother made for him. They were special, so he decided to save them for Christmas. Unfortunately, the Trixie has a little less self-control than Mathias, and when he left his bedroom door ajar one day, she nudged her way in and chewed through the cardboard shipping box. She ate half of his Christmas pastries (even though they were in a metal tin), three or four chocolate bars (including wrappers), and several packages of chocolate coated cookies. Mathias was so angry with her he wouldn’t even call her by name for three days (Do you want to go for a walk, Dog?). But after three days all was forgiven, and I’m sure that for Bryan and me, the bill from the emergency veterinarian

This is what happens when the dog finds a box of treats.

(chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and of course we discovered the problem in the evening after the regular vet was closed) will soon fade to a distant memory. And Mathias’s grandmother is sending him more pastries.

On Christmas Eve the three of us will celebrate with a special meal, go to church, and exchange gifts. Then on Christmas Day we will go to Bryans’ parents house to celebrate. The kid’s going to make out like a bandit (-:


It’s the holiday season…

The first term of the school year ends on Friday, which means that our time with Mathias is almost one-third over. It’s hard to believe.

We went to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving last week. I’ve mentioned before that Mathias eats a lot, but on Thursday he met his match. An athletic 17-year-old boy’s capacity for eating does not exceed my mother’s rapacity for force feeding guests. (What do you need passed, Mathias? Oh, nothing, thank you. I am stuffed. There’s plenty of turkey. No, thank you. It’s good, but if I eat any more I will explode! Oh. [pause]  Do you want more potatoes?) Fortunately for Mom, she could always comfort herself by offering Bryan more pumpkin pie, much to Mathias’s amusement. (You’re eating again!?!?!?) We had incredible weather for late November, and Mathias got to go out on the 4-wheeler again, so it was a good day. Mathias wanted to watch movies and eat junk food when we got home. We found a Redbox and stayed up late watching a bad comedy and a horror flick.

On Friday we all had the day off. In the morning Mathias and I put up our exterior Christmas lights. Mathias wanted to be the one to get up on the ladder, and I was happy to oblige him. He hadn’t had school on Wednesday, so we had asked him to go through all our strings of lights and untangle and test them, so very little was required of me in the entire process. My role was mostly limited to handing Mathias the clips for hanging the lights from the roof. He seemed to really get into it. Once there’s some snow on the ground we plan to spend an evening driving around looking at Christmas light displays.

Mathias is looking forward to Christmas here. He’s told me that it’s not possible to make too many Christmas cookies (I’m not sure Bryan didn’t put him up to that), and he’s amused that we’re planning to have two live trees. He asked us last week if Christmas here is a Christian holiday. With all the focus on presents and Santa Claus, he’s not sure how it can be. I have to say that he has a good point. He’s also eager to have snow on the ground. He checks the weather report every day to see what the forecast is for snow. They don’t have very much snow in his part of Germany, and he’d like to have several inches.

Mathias stayed home from school again today. He’s mentioned before that the school would allow him a certain number of absences per term, and he intended to take advantage of all of them, so I’m not entirely convinced he was actually sick. Coincidentally, he always asks me at night for a ride to school the following morning. He never asked last night, so one might be tempted to conclude he planned all along to stay home this morning (although he did manage to cough once or twice this morning when he told me he didn’t feel well). But he didn’t have any exams today. He’s a responsible kid who gets good grades, and does all that is required of him, so if he wants to take a personal day once in a while, I guess I’m not inclined to mind. His ski team practices have been exhausting, and he gets home fairly late on ski nights, so I’m sure the extra sleep was good for him.

There was an incident at school (not involving Mathias) a couple of weeks ago, and it was interesting seeing Mathias’s reaction. The Star Tribune reported on ten kids from the school being suspended for what they called a cyber-bullying incident. Apparently there was a disagreement between students that played itself out in part of Facebook, and when the school found out about it, they suspended the kids involved. Mathias was aghast that school would involve themselves in this. He thinks that schools shouldn’t have anything to do with what kids do outside of school.  He feels the same way about underaged drinking; kids have parents if they need rules, and the schools should keep out of it. I do see his point, but I’m not sure I agree in this case.

Tomorrow is December 1. This weekend we decorate the inside of the house, and I start the baking frenzy. I think Mathias is in for a shock.