Gaia Figus visited a pumpkin patch in October with some of her friends from the Iola High School volleyball team, including fellow exchange student Veronica Agostini and local junior Jenna Curry.
During the trip, she also met Jenna’s mother, Briana Curry, who works for the school district.
Making that introduction would soon prove invaluable.
About a week later Jenna called her mom with an important request. Gaia’s placement with a host family hadn’t worked out, and she needed to find a new host family, or go home.
“Can she live with us?” Jenna asked.
Briana called her husband, Brett, who was in Texas on a work trip to consult him.
“What are your thoughts on taking in a foreign exchange student?” she asked him.
He indicated he’d be open to it.
“Good,” Briana replied. “I’ve already filled out the paperwork.”
Meanwhile, their three daughters — Jenna, Reese and Kashyn — started cleaning out a storage room where they had decided Gaia could stay.
If one of their girls had traveled to another country and needed to find a place to stay, they would want someone to take her in, the Currys decided.
“This is a big experience for her to come over to the States. If it were one of our girls, we wouldn’t want it to be a bad experience, so we didn’t want Gaia to have a bad experience,” Briana said.
“If it were our daughter, we would want someone to take care of her,” Brett said, then joked, “Now, we’re like, ‘Why did we say yes?’”
Everyone laughed, and this reporter asked Gaia, “Do they tease you a lot?”
Gaia scrunched up her face, confused at the unfamiliar word. Her face is very expressive, even if she struggles with the language.
“Give you a hard time,” Briana suggested. Gaia’s face lit up and she started laughing.
“Oh! Yes. Yes.”
Briana explained: “They told us, out of the five international students that came to Iola this year, she had the most broken English. I feel like she’s come a long way.”
Indeed, the teenager who sat across the table seemed very different from our first interview in August.
At that time, she struggled to understand most words and spent the interview consulting a translator on her phone. That article included just one direct quote from Gaia: “It’s very different.”
This time, though, she spoke freely, excited and laughing. Though her English is still limited, she consulted her phone only once and that was to find “New Zealand” when asked what other country she’d like to visit.
It was a very dramatic difference.
“My English, I think, now it’s better,” she said.
“Sometimes I understand. Sometimes I don’t understand. But I think, now, it’s better.”
She enjoyed being part of the volleyball team and made friends with her teammates. She’s especially close to fellow Italian Veronica, and they hang out or speak to each other every day. She’s also bonded with Riccardo Barbarossa, another Italian student currently living in Iola.
She decided not to try playing basketball but was considering softball.
“I like to watch basketball but I hate to run, so I don’t play basketball,” she said. “Now I think maybe I will try softball.”
“You know, there’s running in softball, too,” this reporter pointed out.
It didn’t dissuade her from considering it. She shrugged. “In Italy, we don’t play much softball.”
GAIA is quiet and keeps to herself a lot, the Currys noted.
She especially enjoys watching Italian shows in her bedroom. They want to give her space and privacy, but also want to introduce her to activities. It can be difficult to find that balance, but it seems to work.
Gaia clearly feels comfortable interacting with the family. Over the course of this interview family members filtered into the kitchen to join Gaia in the back-and-forth conversation. She laughed easily and enjoyed listening to their perspectives.
She enjoys having three American sisters, especially since she had already developed a friendship with Jenna.
“This is a big family. In Italy, my parents are divorced. I don’t have a sister or brother. So it’s fun,” she said.
For Christmas, the family took a trip to Branson where Gaia enjoyed seeing the holiday lights.
“We talked about trying to take her to Colorado, but with COVID it’s hit or miss what you do or don’t do,” Brett said. “And the girls being so busy with volleyball and basketball makes it tough.”
“Branson, it was cool. It was a good experience. I like new experiences,” Gaia said.
“I make her eat a lot of new things,” Briana interjected, challenging Gaia’s love of “new experiences.”
“Tell her about the cheeseburger,” Brett added.
Gaia scrunched up her nose but didn’t elaborate. “I like meat not so much. I like chicken. Here, it is good Mexican food. I like tacos and burritos.”
She has cooked an Italian meal for the Curry family. She spoke wistfully of the food in her home country. Apparently, Americanized Italian food is a poor substitute.
“The cuisine is so different. I miss Italian food. Here, the Americans eat much trash food.”
She meant fast food, but the error made everyone laugh.
“In Italy, we cook much at home.”
ANOTHER BIG difference, Gaia revealed, is the weather.
The interview took place at the start of the bitter cold weather snap in February. Temperatures were dropping and it had snowed some, but the worst was still yet to come.
In Italy, Gaia lives on an island with a temperate climate.
“I have seen snow before, maybe one time. Two times. Not much,” she said. “I like seeing the snow, the white environment. It’s cold and my skin is delicate so it’s really bad for me. I much prefer to stay in the house.”
She speaks to her mother in Italy every day, and frequently talks and texts her family and friends in Italy.
She’s looking forward to returning home at the end of May, and hopes some day the Curry family can come visit her.
“I told her, ‘I think you’re really brave for coming here,’” Briana said, then laughed. “She was like, ‘What does brave mean?’ So I had to explain that.”
When asked how she had changed during her time in Iola, Gaia paused for a moment to collect her thoughts.
“Probably my adaptation. I think, now, I’m more mature. My English is better so I’m learning a new language. I think the change in me is positive.”
She paused again, then nodded very emphatically. “Yeah. It’s good.”