A Few Firsts

Andrew Gil, 18, a Brazilian exchange student currently attending Grand Valley High School in Orwell, reacts to seeing snow for the first time in his life this winter. Gil is staying with host family Gary and Pat Hunter of Orwell.

ORWELL — This winter, Andrew Gil saw snow for the first time — lots of snow.

The 18-year-old Brazilian exchange student, who’s currently attending Grand Valley High School in Orwell, has experienced a few “firsts” during his stateside trip — brutally cold, icy weather, snowmen and snow angels among them. He’s also getting a crash course in American sarcasm and making his theatrical debut in the high school’s spring musical.

Gil hails from Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, Brazil. It’s bigger than Columbus, he estimated. Gil was matched up with a host family from Orwell — Gary and Pat Hunter — through Foreign Links Around the Globe, or FLAG, a Michigan-based exchange student program. The couple, who are both in their 60s and “empty-nesters,” read about the program in a Star Beacon article from August.

“Having Andrew around is a fun thing,” Gary said. “He teaches us some Portugese and we teach him some things in English.”

One of those lessons was “What’s up?” Gil said he wasn’t quite sure how to respond to such nuanced slang. Gary said, however, that Gil’s fluency is above average compared to other FLAG students.

“I did have some trouble getting new friends because there’s this language barrier,” Gil said. “I think I had some troubles because the people here have some different ways (of expression). It was sometimes difficult to understand them. I’m really getting used to that.”

Gary said the first semester was an adjustment for Gil — being unsure of who to hang around during football games or other social events, or trying to decipher sarcastic tones, which rely heavily on intonation or cadence.

But eventually, he settled into a groove, Gary said.

“By homecoming, they nominated him as the junior class representative for homecoming,” Gary said.

For his 18th birthday, his new stateside friends chipped in and bought him a Grand Valley letter jacket.

He also landed a principal role in the high school’s spring musical, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as Grandpa Joe. He said the show’s director worked with him on a fresh spin for the part.

“He gave me freedom to change up the character. Instead of being like in the movie ... he’s like an immigrant to the U.S. from another country,” Gil said. “So I get to use Portugese words. ... Even though it’s the same character, it has a different taste.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

While it’s his first stage production, he’s no stranger to an audience. He played guitar, keyboard and sang with his friends back home in his classic rock band “Bobzilla” — an amalgam of Bob Dylan and Godzilla. He also fills in on guitar for the Colebrook United Methodist Church’s Saving Grace Praise Band.

Though he learned to read sheet music, singing was always more of a natural thing for him, he said.

“In Brazil, we don’t have choir classes,” Gil said. “I had to start just using my ears and hope that it’s right.

“The (Grand Valley) choir director — he’s really good. He has helped me and used different methods to teach me how to sing,” he said. “I’m more confident in singing now — a lot more.”

He’s also learned not to interpret “break a leg” literally.

Gil will return home in June, at the end of the school year. Gary said it was as much a learning experience for the Hunter family as it was for Gil.

“The different culture ... it was learning (to be) flexible again and just being able to talk about things, give and take about things and maybe learn something new,” he said. “It’s been a good experience.”

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