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Diary of an Exchange Student : Visit to Northern California Provides an Exciting Change of Scenery

Diary of an Exchange Student: This is the fourth in a series of monthly columns by Portuguese exchange student Helena Goncalves, chronicling her life as a student at Grant High School in Van Nuys.

February 25, 1988

Though half of my American experience has gone by, each month continues to surprise me. February began with exams, which I worried a bit about, but came through fine.

Much more exciting was an opportunity I had to visit Northern California on an American Field Service (AFS) exchange week. Traveling with my friend Goncalo, another student from Portugal, I stayed three days with a family near Carmel and five days in a small town above San Francisco. Both were very different from Van Nuys!

As we drove to Carmel, I noticed the landscape begin to change. Everything is much greener there, more rural, with barns and cows visible from the freeway. Carmel itself was unique among the American places I've been to--so many trees and tiny houses and shops, so small they seemed like playhouses.

From Carmel, I went to the Monterey Aquarium, where I was amazed at being allowed to touch the sea creatures in a small pool. I felt starfish, slippery rays and the kind of sponges we take in the bath. They were hard! Incredible!

But the most exciting event, had it worked out, would have been our whale watch off Monterey--no everyday experience for the Portuguese. Occasionally, whales are spotted around the Azores (islands off our Atlantic coast), but from the Continent, it's a big trip to get there.

Unfortunately, I think, California whales don't like the Portuguese! We sailed 7 miles from the coast without spotting one and had to content ourselves watching sea lions near the shore.

Moving on to Sebastopol, my second stop, I was greeted by another AFS host family and presented with a bunch of flowers. In Sebastopol, people are very simple and warm. With a population of 6,000, the town calls its central one-block strip "downtown" and, otherwise, consists mainly of little family-owned farms.

My host family, though not farmers, kept a rabbit, sheep and six cats. Their neighbors had cows and horses. All the townspeople are very attached to their traditions and concerned about conserving their little town--so concerned that they recently went to court to fight the opening of a McDonald's restaurant. Sadly, they lost, but the spirit was incredible.

This spirit--this pride--as if their town is the whole world--was evident in the huge Sebastopol Times sign on the building that housed their newspaper. Who stopped to think that no one outside the town would have heard of this paper?

I went to school in Sebastopol and, I confess, I liked it more than Grant High in Van Nuys. It was a small school and everyone knew everyone. If you are different in such a place, people are immediately interested. As soon as the cooking teacher learned that Goncalo and I were visiting, she asked us to make a Portuguese recipe. We baked almond cookies for two classes. In one, we forgot the baking soda, but, still, everyone loved our flat cookies!

I ended my trip by visiting San Francisco. I found it much more beautiful than Los Angeles, and much more cosmopolitan. It reminded me of a European city, perhaps Lisbon in 100 years. In Lisbon, we have a bridge similar to the Golden Gate--even the same color--over the Tagus River. We also have trolleys and cafes all over the city, though, as yet, only one or two skyscrapers.

So I walked the streets of a city I had only seen in movies, like "The Birdman of Alcatraz." On my next visit, before I leave California, I will study its architecture again and I will see Alcatraz, which has haunted me.

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