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Exchange students soak in culture of Ketchikan

Daily News Staff Writer

They weren’t even in the same room, and both Elia Zurfluh and Xavier de Liedekerke said what they missed most about Europe was its variations of lavish chocolate and cheese.

Zurfluh, from Switzerland, and de Liedekerke, from Belgium, are foreign exchange students studying at Ketchikan High School until the end of this school year. Zurfluh is here with Student Travel Schools, and de Liedekerke with Rotary 2000.

“Cheese here is horrible,” Zurfluh laughed. “I think we have a lot more fresh food (back home).”

The 15-year-old junior said he’s grateful that his host family — Julie and Trevor Sande — cooks meals and has fruit around the house, so he doesn’t have to eat microwave dinners and fast food.

It wouldn’t be surprising that Zurfluh is used to very fresh food — 60 percent of the land in his home town of Wolhusen is used for farming. Wolhusen is about a 24-minute drive from Lucerne, towards the center of Switzerland, and is surrounded by forests, mountains       and rivers.

Nestled between three hills, Wolhusen takes up about 5.5 square miles of land and is filled with about 4,300 people. Zurfluh said he chose Alaska to study, in part, because of its mountains — they remind him of back home. He didn’t want to live in the deserts of Nevada, and said he’s enjoyed the oceans and nature in Ketchikan, and hiking Deer Mountain — an activity he’s familiar with.

Living only an hour-and-a-half away from the Swiss Alps, Zurfluh explores the mountains often. He’s also used to seeing mountain animals, which differ from Ketchikan’s mountain goats. Along with goats, he said there are cows that meander the Swiss Alps, and he misses them.

Not only is he embracing the outdoors, but it seems like he’s soaking up a bit of the American culture, too. On Thursday morning, Zurfluh was sitting in the Kayhi library when a student came over the school PA system.

“Good morning Kayhi, please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” the student said.

Zurfluh stood, put his right hand over his heart and faced the American flag. He didn’t say a word, and the librarian told him he didn’t need to stand, but he stood tall — 6-foot-seven-inches tall, to be exact — and took part in the tradition alongside his fellow students.

After the pledge, the students took turns rattling off sporting events over the PA for the weekend — which Zurfluh has coming up this week in Sitka. He’s taken up swimming, something he didn’t do back home, because it’s a good way to “choose friends.”

In Switzerland, Zurfluh said he has to spend a lot more time learning, and there’s less time to participate in sports. Here, he’s noticed the complete opposite — and so has de Liedekerke.

“In Belgium, it’s more about studying and nothing else,” de Liedekerke said with a slight French accent. “I have way more sports practice here.”

De Liedekerke is also on the swim team, and said he wants to try wrestling after that, and then baseball. He was very enthusiastic about being able to play sports, as he had a knee injury last year and wasn’t able to.

The 17-year-old senior is from Florée, Belgium, and is staying with Steve and Sheri Boehlert. He already graduated        in Belgium in his very small hometown — which is an hour-and-a-half from           Brussels.

Florée has less than 1,000 people and is surrounded by flat farmland. To travel anywhere back home, de Liedekerke had to find a ride to the train and bus station three kilometers away — or about two miles. The legal driving age is 18 in Belgium, so he wasn’t able to drive, and many of his friends weren’t either.

De Liedekerke said young people have more freedom here, since the driving age is 16 — which he’s been able to reap the benefits of. Instead of relying on his host family for rides, he said it’s been relatively easy to get places to hang out with friends, and he’s been very busy outside of school.

“For the moment, I don’t have enough time to miss home a lot,” de Liedekerke said. “On the weekends, I always have stuff to do because I try to, in general, say yes to every activity that people invite me to. That’s basically one of the rules in the exchange — don’t say no and go for it. Sometimes it gives you some surprises.”

One thing he does miss from back home: Belgians not calling french fries, “french” fries. In Belgium, they’re just called fries.

“They’re Belgian,” he said patriotically and with a laugh. “Belgium invented them, and they’re way better in Belgium.”

Even though Zurfluh is returning home after the school year, and de Liedekerke in the summer, both said they hope to come back to Alaska — and beyond.

De Liedekerke has two brothers and one sister in Belgium, and all of them went on exchange tours. Both of his brothers came to the United States, to Wyoming and California. He said he also wants to visit South Carolina.

 “I’ll probably go there to meet those people, too,” de Liedekerke said. “There was an exchange student girl that came in my house, that I was hosting, who was from South Carolina.”

“That’s exchange student life,” de Liedekerke said with a chuckle, “knowing people everywhere.”