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Diary of an Exchange Student : Helena Encounters Hanukkah, New Year's Resolutions, a Skiing Trip and a Lakers Game

This is the third in a series of a monthly columns by Portuguese exchange student Helena Goncalves that will continue throughout the school year.

January 21, 1988

It is now winter in America, and I am back from my first ski trip in one piece. I've learned some Hebrew, seen a Lakers game and made a serious New Year's resolution.

To back up a bit, there was Hanukkah. Since my host family is Jewish and I am Catholic, this meant new rituals and traditions--no Christmas tree, for example, and no Santa Claus. Hanukkah lasts eight days, which represent the eight days that the oil lamp burned in the holy temple of Jerusalem. For each day, a candle is lighted, a prayer said and a present given. Since I memorized the prayer, I will return to Portugal able to speak a little Hebrew.

I also told my American family about our Portuguese traditions. For us, Christmas is perhaps the most important family celebration of the year. In my house, about 30 family members get together in a special spirit to eat foods cooked only on this occasion. On Christmas Eve, we have a special recipe for boiled codfish and a dessert called king cake. My aunt does most of the cooking. Presents are wrapped on the 24th and put under the Christmas tree. We open them at precisely midnight. While we wait those long-suffering hours, we usually watch a Mass on television broadcast from Vatican City and given by the Pope himself.

Though I was homesick during this season, I had a long phone call from Portugal and talked to my whole family, even a baby cousin who doesn't really know me yet.

Then I went skiing at June Mountain. In Portugal, skiing is a very expensive sport. We have some snowy mountains but no real ski resorts. Those who can afford it go to good resorts in Spain or other parts of Europe.

Since I'd never skied before, I had to take lessons. The instructors were very helpful, and being in a beginners' group was a lot of laughs. There were about seven of us--all scared and nervous but full of spirit. Everyone laughed at their mistakes. Since I was the first to fall down, the whole group watched me learn that the worst part was getting up again. The instructor rescued me, or I would still be there now!

I skied for five days and fell about 20 times, but I improved and had a lot of fun. Because I come from such a mild climate, skiing also gave me my first white Christmas.

New Year's Eve was not so different here. In Portugal, too, we celebrate with parties where we talk and dance. We count the seconds till midnight, open champagne, shower everyone with it, and then everyone kisses everyone and wishes them a happy New Year. In Portugal, only the music is different. All night long we listen and dance to Brazilian samba. Here, we danced to the Top 40.

There's another difference. Americans make New Year's resolutions. When I learned about this, I made my own--to go on a serious diet. And now that I know about resolutions--which I find very funny--I'm going to make one every year.

So far in 1988, I have already gone to a Lakers game. It was exciting to watch the world champions I had heard about but never imagined seeing. It was a sensational game, and I bought a Lakers T-shirt to remember it by.

I will remember, too, the number of limos parked in the stadium lot--just for a basketball game! To me, limos are so impractical, so big. But Americans seem to love them.

So every day brings something new. At school we have started inputting poems in the computer typesetter for our literary magazine. Recently, my Swedish friend Joanna saw her first orange on a tree, and I am impressed by the size of freeways and skyscrapers and the fact that I saw the actress Marlee Matlin eating in a restaurant. For me, this is the year of learning from everything!

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