Swedish exchange student recalls #8216;best year of life#039;

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2007

Going from life in a bustling metropolis to a small town of less than 10,000 is a big adjustment for anyone. Try journeying from Sweden to Alabama while you are doing it.

Ullie Sandstrom, a 17-year-old Stockholm native, did just that last fall when she came to Greenville as an international exchange student.

Ullie has been living with Bess and David Nordgren and their 12-going-on-13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Anne.

&#8220David is only a couple of generations away from Sweden himself, so we though having a Swedish student come and live with us would be especially rewarding,” Bess Nordgren said.

The blue-eyed blonde teen is about to wind up a memorable school year at Fort Dale Academy, where her host mom teaches English and Composition.

While there were a few difficult moments early on - a touch of homesickness for one – Ullie said she learned to love her adopted hometown and school pretty quickly.

And if the fried foods, and specialties like boiled peanuts so beloved by southerners, were an acquired taste she couldn't exactly love, the young Swede fully embraced the town's fabled hospitality.

&#8220At first, people seemed to talk fast and yes, the southern accent was a little hard, but I got it,” she said in her slightly accented, flawless English (a language Ullie has been studying since the second grade).

&#8220The thing is, everyone is so kind and friendly. It's like they have known you all their lives. In Sweden, it can take a long time to build such friendships,” Ullie explained.

There was a bit of culture shock regarding Greenville's (very) small-town status.

&#8220I guess the first or second day here I asked if there was a subway to Montgomery,” she laughed.

Of course, Ullie visited the Capitol City (via car, of course) and made trips with her host family to places like Atlanta and Chicago.

But the greatest highlight of her year, she says, has been participating in all facets of school life at FDA.

&#8220 There is no such thing as school sports in Sweden. At home, we go to school strictly for studies from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then we go home,” Ullie explained.

&#8220If you want to play sports, you play with people in your neighborhood. Your team plays against people from other neighborhoods. The good part is getting to meet people from other parts of the city and other schools. But you don't get to build the friendships with your classmates like you do here.”

Ullie, who played on the FDA Lady Eagles basketball team, said she was thrilled to see the large crowds turn out to support the girls.

&#8220At home, we are lucky to have eight to ten people show up to watch. I was like, wow! This is great!” she laughed.

It was also a thrill to play on the school's championship tennis team.

&#8220I hadn't played since I was about 12, so it was just good fun to be a part of it, especially since we won state,” Ullie said.

She was also chosen as a Junior Class Maid for FDA's Homecoming game and enjoyed attending the school's pre-prom banquet and prom in early May.

&#8220I sent my friends back in Sweden some of the photos of the prom, and they couldn't believe it. It's so cool how they build a whole prom. I couldn't ever imagine that,” Ullie said.

Another highlight of her year was performing in the school's production of &#8220South Pacific” (&#8220I guess I always wanted to be in a musical”).

For Elizabeth Anne, who is an only child, having an exchange student in her home meant &#8220having a sister for the first time.”

&#8220At first I was a little worried about whether or not she was going to know much about life here, but she did, and it's been awesome,” Elizabeth Anne said with a grin.

The girls borrowed one another's jewelry and helped each other on those all-important shopping trips.

&#8220I am quite sure we will all be at one another's weddings one day,” Bess said with a smile.”

Elizabeth Anne's grandparents, &#8220Papa” Pete and &#8220Miss” Merle Newton adopted Ullie as one of their own and &#8220showered her with Christmas gifts like she was one of the grandchildren,” Bess laughed.

&#8220When Ullie's parents came to visit back around Easter time, we felt like we were all part of one big family,” Elizabeth Anne added.

As she prepares to depart for home on May 30, Ullie will be packing her souvenirs and taking home plenty of memories, too.

&#8220It's been the best year of my life. I have lived in Stockholm my entire life, and in the past year here I have made the best friends and had the best host family ever,” the exchange student said with a smile.

&#8220And we had the best exchange student ever,” Elizabeth Anne chimed in.

&#8220It's going to be hard to say goodbye, but we do plan to stay in touch via e-mail and the occasion phone call. We just have to hear each other's voices every now and then,” Bess laughed.