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Aug 20, 2019 3:12 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

From Spain To Westhampton; A Foreign Exchange Student Recalls Life On The East End

Left to right, Chris Gallarello, Christine Gallarello, Taylor and Maddi. COURTESY CHRISTOPHER GALLARELLO
Aug 21, 2019 9:35 AM

Maddi Aurrekoetxea, a foreign exchange student from Durango, Spain, became part of the Gallarello family from the moment she stepped off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens last August. Her bedroom in the Gallarello’s Center Moriches home is just as she left it. The plaque with her initials on it still hangs on the wall, her clothes and shoes are still in the closet and her yellow comforter lies undisturbed on her bed.

For 10 months, it was her home away from home.

Last month, shortly after Maddi, 16, returned to Spain, Christopher Gallarello, his wife, Christine, and their daughter, Taylor, also 16, sat around the dining room table, reminiscing about the many adventures and experiences that they shared with Maddi.

Taylor explained how she bonded with Maddi over being an only child.

“It was a lot of fun waking up with someone,” she said, her long blonde hair cascading down her shoulders. “It was definitely different. We had our ups and downs — we had our sister moments, but I can say that she is my sister and I’ll always have her in my life.”

Maddi, also an only child, shared that same sentiment. In an email on Monday, she explained how, at first, it was an adjustment, but that they connected over a love of singing, dancing, and “acting like fools.”

In fact, Maddi and Taylor shared first-period chorus at Westhampton Beach High School during their sophomore years, which eventually led to Maddi landing the supporting role of Maria Delgado in the school’s musical, “9 to 5.”

She was inspired by the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” which she saw with Taylor while visiting New York City. She also saw off-Broadway renditions of “Flash Dance” and “The Prom.”

“Being part of the musical was one of my favorite parts of the exchange,” she wrote. “I have never been in a musical before, and I’ve always loved dancing, singing and acting, but we don’t have those kinds of opportunities in our schools here. So, it was my first experience, and I loved it.”

Maddi will be able to show off her dance moves again when she comes back to visit during Taylor’s senior year. Ms. Gallarello said that they have already made plans to attend the senior prom together, as well as graduation.

But, that won’t be her last visit. During one of the family’s trips to North Carolina, Mr. Gallarello said that Maddi fell in love with the High Point University campus. “She was blown away,” he said, adding that she mentioned attending college in the United States.

Based on what he learned about Spain from Maddi, he said that all of the colleges in her hometown are public.

And the education system differs not just at the college level.

At home, Mr. Gallarello said that Maddi would switch between two to three classes at Kurutziaga Ikastola private school. He added that it was an adjustment for her to get accustomed to a nine-period day at Westhampton Beach High School.

Additionally, Ms. Gallarello explained that students have a more casual relationship with their teachers in Spain, noting that Maddi would often refer to her teachers by their first names.

“She didn’t like the coldness of how the American education system is,” she said. “That was very different for her.”

But, she said that Maddi would often say that the workload at Westhampton Beach was easier. Although, Ms. Gallarello said with a chuckle that might have been because she took two study halls and relatively “easy” classes, as opposed to Taylor’s Advanced Placement courses.

In between sips of her coffee, she added that Maddi would often play with the family dog, CJ, while Taylor would have textbooks sprawled out on the kitchen table.

Maddi will enter 11th grade in September at the higher secondary school, Ibaizabal Ikastola, in Durango.

Ms. Gallarello said that the exchange experience is something her family will never forget.

“Oh my gosh, she is our family,” Ms. Gallarello said. “I could just cry talking about it, because I miss her so much.”

She said that she and Maddi would sometimes sit out on traveling to Taylor’s lacrosse tournaments to read by the fire.

Taylor has been playing lacrosse since second grade and has played on the school’s varsity lacrosse team since eighth grade. On average, Mr. Gallarello said that she attends eight to 10 tournaments per year.

Following in her footsteps, Maddi tried out for the junior varsity team and landed a position without having ever picked up a lacrosse stick before coming to America.

“I mean, in the beginning, I signed up because I wanted to make more friends and because I wanted to be involved in a sport,” she said. “I’ve never played before, and I didn’t even hear about it before I came, but at the end, it was fun to get to know a new sport and to be part of a team.”

Taylor added that Maddi also tried out for cheerleading. “She wanted to try new things,” she said. “That’s something I really admired about her.”

“She was pretty amazing that way,” Ms. Gallarello added.

In fact, it was one of Ms. Gallarello’s biggest concerns when choosing to host a foreign exchange student, whether they would fit into the family’s active lifestyle.

It all started when Ms. Gallarello was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook one day and came across a post by Dorene Shulman Glassberg, asking if anyone would be interested in hosting a foreign exchange student through the Educational Resource Development Trust Share program, which places more than 700 international students per year.

Ms. Glassberg, who has been working as an exchange program coordinator with Share for 24 years, said that she usually gets one of two reactions: “Oh my God, why would you ever do that?” or “That’s great, that’s so exciting.”

Ms. Gallarello was the latter. Although she was concerned that her husband and daughter would be a bit more skeptical, instead she found Taylor counting down the days until Maddi would arrive.

And, Maddi was just as eager to visit the United States.

“When I was little, I used to watch movies about the U.S. and about the lives of teenagers there and I wanted to try living as an American teenager for a year,” she said. She added that she loved the beaches and “cute small towns” on the East End. “I loved walking through them and getting to know the places in them.”

Although, eventually she began to feel homesick.

“Living away from home for that long wasn’t that easy for me. In the beginning it was awesome, I was having a great time and I wasn’t missing home at all, but while the months were passing, by December, I started feeling kind of homesick,” she said. “I had a breakdown during Christmas, where I was missing my town, family and friends a lot.”

With that being said, however, she said that Christmas was her favorite holiday.

“We don’t celebrate it as big as they do in America,” she said of her hometown. “I loved getting a real, big tree altogether, seeing all the Christmas decorations, going to the city and seeing the tree.”

While living with the Gallarellos, she also celebrated Thanksgiving, Easter, and Halloween. She even had a surprise sweet 16 barbecue in her host family’s backyard.

“My host family did so much for me,” she said. “We all got a relationship that will last forever. I mean, I love them.”

“I miss her so much,” Ms. Gallarello added. “I just feel like she was our girl.”

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