Family sharing Texas traditions

Spanish exchange student spends year in Belton

Contributed photos

Paula Martinez Gomez of Valladolid, Spain, will get a peek into Texas holiday customs this year.

Paula Martinez Gomez from Spain is ready for her first day at Belton High School.

The high school exchange student is living with Belton residents Ben and Rachelle Byroad and their three children: Kadi, 14; Ben, 10; and Emily 7, for a school year. She attends Belton High School with Kadi.

Although some holiday customs are universal — the Christmas tree, cookies waiting for Santa, cheerfully wrapped gifts, good food — it’s the little things that make a family’s Christmas traditions. For the Byroad family, it’s ornaments.

“We each get a new ornament that represents our year,” Rachelle said. “Ben and I have been doing this since we first got married; every year, from the first Christmas, when we had one ornament on the tree. Now we have tons of ornaments on the tree. On Christmas Eve, we open a family gift like a board game or video game and we all play that.”

Two of Paula’s Christmas traditions are roscon de reyes, or Three Kings Cake, with whipped cream and the 12 grapes. On New Year’s Eve in Spain, family members eat 12 grapes, one for each strike of the clock. This Spanish tradition is supposed to ensure good luck for the rest of the year.

Christmas dinner will be a combination of American and European flavors. Paula plans to make her Spanish tortilla, think egg/potato frittata.

“Paula and my husband have worked hard to perfect it,” Rachelle said.

Paula is the youngest in her family. Her older brother now lives on his own so living in a house with two younger siblings will be a different experience, she said.

She wants to have a good time with her host family and said, “I hope I don’t miss my family and my friends too much.”

Thanks to 21st century technology, she stays connected to her friends and family in Spain via FaceTime.

“I think it’s really fun because I finally get someone as old as me to hang around,” Kadi said. “It’s cool because it’s my first year of high school and I kind of get to experience it with someone else who has never been to the school.”

Choosing and exchange student

Paula Martinez Gomez from Spain gets to know her host family’s calico cat.

Ben and Rachelle Byroad just moved into their new Belton home when they noticed their neighbor throwing a party.
It was an international celebration welcoming their foreign exchange student.

This gave Rachelle an idea. Her daughter Kadi was about to begin her freshman year at Belton High School when Rachelle thought it would be a “nice to bring in a student.”

She worked with Yvette Shackelford, area representative the ASSE International Exchange Student Program.

“They send you a list of all the students and then you can read a letter they write,” Rachelle said. “It gives you their interests and likes. We knew we wanted someone from Europe and narrowed down our search. We read their letters and found Paula very personable.”

The Byroads were interested in the European lifestyle and learning the differences between Europe and the United States.

“They speak a lot of English in Spain and their school is a lot harder. Children start learning English as a second language starting in their equivalency of our kindergarten,” Rachelle said.

This is Paula’s first time in the United States and she is hoping to improve her English skills by immersing herself into the American culture. But the cultural gap is almost as big as Texas itself.

“Mostly, life here is so different from what I am used to,” she said. “In Spain, we walk a lot. Here you have to drive everywhere.”

Another difference is the social life of teenagers. She said it isn’t unusual for her to venture out on her own in her hometown, and when she calls a friend, they walk to the closest café to hang out.

“When you ask friends here, they just want to hang out at home,” she said.

Another noticeable difference is the food. “Food is not as healthy here as it is in Spain,” she said. “We eat a lot of fish.”

She also said school in the U.S. is not as challenging as her school in Spain, which she said is very difficult.
“We just go to school,” she said. “We sit and listen to a teacher for six hours and we stay in the same classroom the whole day. School is easy here. I don’t really need to study. In Spain, you need to study a lot. Here you have a lot of homework and assignments to do. It balances out.”

Another significant difference is the lack of team sports in her school back home. Any sporting event, such as soccer, is an off-school activity.

“They don’t take sports as seriously as we do,” Rachelle said.

“Soccer is the main sport but I don’t play so good,” Paula added. “Also, it’s very hot here, compared to Spain.”

Paula’s plane arrived in Austin at midnight on Aug. 18. It was late. But despite the delay in arrival, it was easy for Paula to spot her host family by the sign they held up.

Driving home from the airport, Paula noticed all the neon signs and billboards and “not enough streets to walk on.” It was 2 a.m. before they made it back to Temple.

“Texas is a very big place. There is a lot of stuff to do here,” Paula remarked.

Since she arrived her host family has taken her to the Renaissance Faire, Build a Bear, Inner Springs Cavern, on a boating trip and to a football game. Before she leaves she would like to visit NASA in Houston.