On Sunday, September 10, I received a Facebook message from Peggy Losey, the host mom of Andreas Thers, a Danish foreign-exchange student that attended my 12th grade English class in 2007-2008:
“You were always, and continue to be, his favorite teacher at Berkley High School.”
I was flattered. She proceeded to let me know that Andreas was getting married in a couple weeks and she, her husband Hal and a few of their children were flying to Denmark to attend the wedding.
Peggy then informed me that Andreas’ father passed away six years ago. In Denmark, a steadfast tradition is that the father of the groom has the distinction of being the best man as well. He then stands at the altar with his son during the ceremony. Andreas asked Hal to do the honors. By the time I finished reading the message, I shed tears of joy for both families.
I have always marveled at the strength and courage a teenager must have to become a foreign-exchange student. They leave the comfort of their home for a completely unfamiliar environment. Having to make new friends, living with a new family, and starting a new school are just a few of the adjustments. Some exchange students aren’t completely fluent in English — learning the nuances of the English language isn’t an easy task.
Peggy and Hal weren’t contemplating the idea of sponsoring a foreign-exchange student — that is, until 2007 when she received an unexpected email from the Aspect Foundation, “a non-profit organization providing affordable study-abroad opportunities to students from all over the world.” Peggy didn’t have a clue as to how the organization obtained her information, but now she was curious about the prospect of having an exchange student — she let the idea sink in and then sprang into action.
Peggy contacted the program director to find out more about the responsibilities of a host family parent. She knew there were 19 students that needed a placement. As Peggy perused the list and read a summary about everyone, Andreas caught her eye — he was asthmatic. Peggy thought, “I can handle this. I’m asthmatic too.” Within 48 hours it was a done deal. Andreas would be arriving in Michigan in two weeks.
Peggy and Hal were empty nesters and a few of their adult sons lived nearby in Berkley. She asked her niece Maddy, who lived around the block, if she would be a big sister. Maddy also attended Berkley High School and was in the 12th grade as well. She told Peggy that she’d be happy to drive Andreas to school every day and introduce him to her circle of friends.
Then Peggy and Maddy sprang into action. Andreas’s room had to be readied. Furniture was needed; they headed to Ikea. Upon returning home they were quite efficient and speedily put each piece together. The ceiling and walls needed a face lift, so neighbors came to the rescue. They helped to remodel Andreas’ new digs. The Loseys were part of a close-knit community and friends were more than ready to give a hand. After much hard work everything was in place for their new family member.
While preparations were under way, Peggy sent Andreas an email discussing their family dynamic. She wanted him to learn about her three children, grandchildren, and the community. Peggy wrote, “We are a very active and fun family. Our sons, Bob and Scott were high school wrestling champs for Michigan. We are familiar with the busy schedule of athletics. If you become involved with the soccer program, we will be right there to cheer you on.” Peggy also added in, “You must be thinking, oh great, I’m going to be living with old people.” She went on to explain that while their children were adults, they were a tight-knit family with many friends, relatives and some were close to Andreas’ age.
When Andreas arrived, he had a quick introduction to American life. They passed Eight Mile Road on the drive home and Andreas raved about the movie and Eminem. He was excited to begin his American education.
The very next day Berkley High started for the 2007-2008 school year. Andreas was lucky to have Maddy as his guide. She made sure that Andreas learned the landscape of the school and brought him into her fold of friends. Soon after, Andreas spread his wings and began to meet others through the soccer team. He had a wide network of friends which usually takes exchange students months to develop. Andreas was in his element.
Peggy told me that shortly into his American high school experience Andreas had an important question for her. Someone called him a “douche bag” and Andreas wanted to know what the term meant. After all, if he was to fit into the scene at BHS, learning the lingo would be of the utmost importance. Peggy recalled that she promptly told him there were two ways to look at this phrase. Says Peggy, “I simply explained what a douche bag is and what it is used for as well as what the slang phrase implies. We had a VERY open line of communication. Questions were/are always welcome and answered honestly.” Andreas’ American education was quickly taking hold.
Classes did not present an issue for Andreas, even though he was a senior at 16 years old. In English 12, Andreas was inquisitive, reading all required novels and contributing to class discussions. He enjoyed collaborative assignments and asked for clarification when tackling coursework. Andreas enjoyed the structure of classes at Berkley High. They were on a block schedule at the time, and changing classrooms each period was new to Andreas. In Denmark, students remained in their respective classrooms all day and teachers would rotate in and out to present their lessons.
But the classroom was not the only place where Andreas’ education took hold. He was asked to join the Poker Club Boys on Thursday nights — an elite group of six guys. They were all in their thirties, and two were his American brothers that lived in the neighborhood, along with some of their friends. Andreas was welcomed into the fold, and he showed them his worth — winning many hands. Andreas was affectionately nicknamed FES by the group — Foreign Exchange Student.
Andreas quickly became a team member and not only enjoyed all the activities that Berkley High School afforded, but family endeavors as well. Halloween was an eye opener — costumes, treats and walking in Royal Oak which was brimming with excitement. At the Thanksgiving Day Parade downtown, Andreas marveled at the crowds, floats, and band performances.
And as Christmas approached, the Losey family made sure that Andreas was fully immersed in the excitement of the impending holiday. But there was an unexpected glitch. When the family was together on Christmas Eve enjoying their long-established traditions, Andreas began to cry. He suddenly became homesick, and Peggy shortly remembered that in Europe, Christmas Eve was the time for gifts to be exchanged. Her son Bob consoled him and clarified the cultural distinction.
“Andreas sparked up after his conversation with my son. When he returned back home, after Christmas Eve dinner, Andreas opened his special gift. He received a coveted Wii Guitar Hero game console and guitar, which was REALLY hard to come by that year. Santa performed miracles and we had one under the American Christmas tree with Andreas’ name on it. FYI – he took it back to Denmark and promptly blew it up by plugging it into the 220 electrical outlet at his home!”
As the year progressed, Andreas continued his American learning curve. He traveled to New York with Peggy to enjoy his Senior Spring Break, replete with sightseeing, followed by the anticipation for the prom and graduation. Peggy informed me that “In Europe, high school graduation is not considered a big deal and there are no proms.”
But Berkley High school does it up in style. Graduation was held at Meadowbrook in Auburn Hills — Andreas was captivated. He marveled at wearing a cap and gown, strolling in a processional, listening to speeches, and finally walking across the stage to receive his American diploma. And afterwards, Andreas was swept away for the all-night senior party back at the high school.
His final days here were bittersweet. Peggy explained, “That while it was sad for us, we knew that it wasn’t going to be the last time that we would see each other. Very strong family bonds and lasting friendships were established over the ten months that Andreas lived here, and so we all accepted it as ‘until we meet again.’ And we have, many times throughout the years.”
After senior year back home — repeating the year abroad is usual protocol for European schools — Andreas was able to select an advanced education of his choice. He pursued a business career, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a prosperous meat distributor in Denmark. Throughout the years he honed his skills and became a successful entrepreneur. His American family was kept in the loop about his endeavors and according to Peggy, “Andreas has made umpteen trips back to the US since 2008 and we have traveled to Denmark many times as well.”
On the day of the wedding Hal rode with Andreas to the church. Adreas and Hal sat in the front of the church while his fiance Nigitta and her dad Lars sat on the opposite side of the aisle. When the ceremony began Andreas and Nigitta switched seats and sat next to each other. Hal and her father did the same.
Once the ceremony concluded, and they were pronounced husband and wife, Andreas and Nigitta walked out of the church and were promptly pelted with bird seed. Then they drove off to the reception and all the guests followed suit. It was held at a hotel on the harbor of the Baltic Sea on the island of Bornholm.
The champagne flowed, and the cool breeze of the Baltic Sea was enjoyed by the crowd while listening to a local pop star sing. Scallops with a cream sauce, topped with caviar for the appetizers. The main course was huge portions of “American tenderloin” (aka filet). Every course had an appropriately paired wine as well. Then cake and more champagne.
One of Hal’s responsibilities as the best man was to cut off the toes of the groom’s socks. Wearing holey socks was a must since Andreas was now a married man and no longer trying to impress other women.
At Danish weddings, when the attendees clink their glasses or plates, the bride and groom must stand on their chairs and kiss. If there is stomping of feet, the bride and groom must go under the table and kiss. According to tradition, if the groom gets up and leaves the bride’s side, men are supposed to come kiss her on the cheek. The same goes for the bride leaving the groom’s side. Their wedding rocked on until 3:00am, though Peggy and Hal tapped out at 11:30.
After breakfast the next morning, a round of miniature golf, and a relaxing ferry ride back to the mainland, it was time to bid farewell to Andreas and Nigitta.
“I am a goodbye crier, and this goodbye was no exception. I left Andreas with a long, tight hug, instructions to take good care of his new wife, and a mutual ‘I love you’ completed our perfect experience.”
Mr. and Mrs. Thers promise to visit Berkley in January. Andreas wants to show Nigitta his other home, visit the rest of his American family, meet his Berkley friends, get Pad Thai from the Bangkok Café in Ferndale — and eat as many McDonald’s breakfast burritos as he can manage during their visit!
Just recently, Andreas sent a Facebook message to the Loseys:
“Thank you so much for everything you and Hal have given me. For all the things we’ve experienced together and for all the lovely people you’ve brought into my life THANK YOU! Love you so much.”