Friendly foreigners at Tam


Beatrice Biagini, Paul Furstenwerth, and Jeanne Cassiers.

By Sophie McGuinness


Beatrice Biagini, Paul Furstenwerth, and Jeanne Cassiers.

Beatrice Biagini, Jeanne Cassiers, and Paul Fürstenwerth left their families almost one year ago to experience America at Tam High. They arrived with rudimentary English, minimal electronic acquaintance with their host families, no school friends and high expectations. As their last names may suggest, they came from Italy, Belgium and Germany, respectively. Here they tell the tales of their journeys, from what it’s like to keep up with Tam slang to the adjustment to a drinking age of 21. But first, introductions:

Junior Paul Fürstenwerth has been dubbed by his friends as “stereotypically German.” He has blonde hair, blue eyes and an allegedly confident hardworking and sometimes stubborn disposition. He chose to come to America to gain confidence and improve his English. “To go away from your family and be a total stranger to everyone really made me more confident,” he said, “Now it is easier for me to talk to other people I don’t know.” Paul lived in Berlin, Germany, and is staying with a host family in Muir Beach.

Jeanne Cassiers graduated high school last year and came to Tam during a gap year to take only art and elective classes, “In Belgium we don’t take art [in school]. After two semesters you have to take art after school and find your own classes.” she said. At Tam Jeanne sings and plays guitar in the music program in a band with other students, including Paul, called The Other Half of the Family. She is also in CTE and recently performed in the play “The Ash Girl.”

Junior Beatrice Biagini is from a small rural town in Italy who came to America for the challenge. “I lived in a little town. I don’t like staying there my whole life. I was trying to see my limits, see how far I could go without being really sad or whatever,” she said.

Jeanne, Paul, and Beatrice share similar struggles with social life at Tam. Paul speculated about the most difficult part of the exchange program: “You maybe think leaving your family would be the perfect answer. But the hardest part is really to assimilate with the culture and get to know people. I remember sitting alone and eating lunch sometimes by myself. But, I mean, that changed me too.”

“Everybody knows each other since they’ve been very little. So they all have their own groups of friends, especially seniors,” said Jeanne, “and a lot of people don’t know what Belgium is. They ask, ‘Is it a city in France?’ or “Wait, it’s the capital of Europe?’” To this I informed Jeanne that continents don’t have capitals, which made her exclaim, “Yes! Brussels is the capital of Europe! It weirds me out that people don’t know this.” Belgian students take six years of geography; Tam students take one semester.

On making friends Paul said, “I think at first it is the language [that makes it difficult to meet friends], because you are afraid to talk to someone. If you get over that and are confident enough to talk, I think you get to know people really fast.” Paul learned British English at school in Germany, so some of his vocabulary is different from ours. “[In British English], rubber is eraser,” Paul hesitates, laughing, “and so one time I asked a friend for a rubber.”

Jeanne described her transition to English immersion. “After two or three months you start dreaming in English… It’s because all your friends here speak English, so when you dream or think about normal things, people can’t be speaking French in your head.” Despite this Jeanne fears slang, “I never use it because I’m not sure how and the meanings change all the time.”

Sometimes exchange students can use their developing English to their advantage. Paul was plotting to have a friend who sometimes spell-checks his homework to edit a paper with “Will you go to prom with me?” hidden randomly in the text.

All three exchange students agreed enthusiastically that Tam kids were remarkably poor at making weekend or after school plans compared to Europeans. They were surprised by the number of times people would say something like “Yeah! Let’s do that this weekend!” but never call. Beatrice said that in Italy, “If we say were going do something, we will probably do that thing. And we used to plan in advance, were not gonna be like at the very last minute ‘hey what are you doing tonight’ like at 6 o’ clock.”

The exchange students’ impressions of America before arriving were somewhat comical and certainly stereotypical. “My friends in Germany always said ‘Oh yeah you’re going to come to a Republican family and they’re going to make you shoot deer or something,’” Paul said. When he and his family found out he would stay in California, he said “My mother, she gave me a lot of sunscreen.” Beatrice expected to find the Land of Opportunity. “Italy loves America, that’s for sure. Here you are more open for pretty much everything. So if you think if about something [a career] that you know that you can actually do it somehow, you just need to try hard. In Italy, if you have something in mind it probably is not going to work.” America has lived up to many of the exchange students’ hopes, and, thanks in part to Tam students, they are learning a lot and enjoying themselves immensely.

Jeanne says one of the best things about American life is the driving age, “I really like the fact that young people can drive. They have so much more independence that way.” The driving age in Europe is 18. However, while Americans celebrate their 16th birthdays with car keys, Europeans kick back with “cheap and delicious” brews, which are served at high school dances by teachers for kids over 16. “You can get drunk they don’t care they’re going to laugh about it. There’s people that vomit everywhere and the teachers laugh about it,” Jeanne said. Despite the legal obstacles, apparently Americans still party harder than Europeans. “Here you celebrate for like every single thing. And you do it bigger,” Beatrice said.

Some parts of America make the exchange students miss home. Beatrice moaned, “[Pizza is] really gross here, sorry to say.” Jeanne and Beatrice both get worried looks at the thought of American food, which they believe to be significantly less healthy and tasteful than food in Europe. “If I was staying more than one year I would pay real attention to what I’m eating,” Jeanne said.

Beatrice said that she’s learned so much about America and herself because of the exchange program. “I always thought I was a certain way but here I changed so much and found like other sides of me which was pretty cool and scary at the same time.” Paul agreed, saying, “I am able to say, ‘yeah I went away for a year.’ I proved to myself I could do that. I also gained a new family here and very good friends.”

Though immersing yourself in a different culture- through an exchange program or simply by traveling- may seem frightening, the exchange students prove that it is an enriching experience important to understanding the rest of the world.

Jeanne, Beatrice, and Paul do a lot to burst the Marin bubble at Tam. Outwardly they look and act similarly to native Marin kids, but probe further and you will find different values, life goals, and histories. Interacting with the exchange students gives a firsthand view of Europe and the world more personal than any social studies class.