Life in United States offers many surprises for Italian exchange student

The winds whip across the landing strip as the United Captain airplane steadies before it hits the runway.

Seventeen-year-old exchange student Luca Bottaini watches as the Paris Las Vegas, Luxor, Excalibur and New York-New York casinos appear on the runway horizon.

Greeted first by the sweltering August heat and iconic Vegas slot machines, Bottaini’s walk through McCarran International Airport assaults his senses.

Bells, lights, stores, restaurants, laughter, music and tourists transport him to a world he only knows through movies and magazines.

He searches the signs for a familiar word: “Baggage.”

“Bagaglio,” he translates while following the rambunctious crowd to the escalator.

As the steps slowly descend, Bottaini experiences the pandemonium of the baggage claim area: dozens of carousels, drivers with signs, tourists with fanny packs, high rollers with bling, drunken fraternity brothers, a bachelorette party with naughty ideas, Blue Men on video, and a little piece of home — the music of Andrea Bocelli played in sync with the famous water fountains of Bellagio.

Worried about his luggage, Bottaini enters the fray.

His head spins and a bit of fear surfaces until young Vincent Fratarcangelis calls his name and waves.

Bottaini relaxes and smiles as the entire Fratarcangelis family greets him with an onslaught of “Ciaos!” that fill his heart with memories of the mother, father, sister and friends he left in Bologna, Italy, 6,000 miles away and 22 hours ago.

Suitcases in hand, Bottaini leaves the airport with his new family and the welcoming signs created just for him: “Benvenuto alla vostra famigilia. We are glad you are here.”

The next day Bottaini awakes to strange surroundings, unfamiliar routines and fast-spoken English.

“I had to pass an English test to qualify for the American exchange program, but sometimes I don’t understand very well,” he says.

Las Vegas unfolds dramatically before Bottaini.

The mundane takes on a new life; even the grocery store slot machines represent the magic of his new world.

“It’s Vegas,” he exclaims, after a recent trip to Albertson’s. “It’s fantastic.”

Luca Bottaini’s life in America began Aug. 21, 2010.

The hot August nights do little to cool the fever of cultural adjustment.

The stucco homes and fantasy Las Vegas skyline contrast sharply with the medieval monuments and architecture of Bologna. Bottaini’s memories of leisurely walks along pedestrianized Italian streets yield to the reality of traffic, construction and tourists. The Towers of Bologna and kilometers of Renaissance porticos seem a million miles away while the Las Vegas days unfold.

August quickly gives way to September and school. The first day brings record temperatures, and even at 8 a.m. heat rises from the Faith Lutheran Junior/Senior High School sidewalks. Bottaini’s excitement outpaces the rising temperature as he waits in the front office.

Assigned as a student guide, Jayson Davis arrives early, anxious to meet his new Italian friend.

They navigate more than the corridors of the school; together they cross cultural chasms and build bridges of friendship and trust.

The day passes at warp speed for the newly dubbed “Italian Stallion.”

Bottaini ponders the many differences between school in the United States and in Italy.

In Bologna, six 60-minute classes make up the school day.

“School is more serious in Italy,” Bottaini says. “The teachers at Faith are nice, unlike Italian teachers who act like college professors. In Italian schools, the classrooms do not belong to the teachers. Instead, the students stay in the classroom and the teachers change rooms. The students decorate the room. It is theirs. School is more difficult. The material is harder, and we have many tests. There are no multiple choice questions. All tests are essays and you must always think about how to say something. Grades are not ‘A’, ‘B,’ ‘C.’ They are 0 to 10, and a teacher never gives a 10. The highest is 8. I had problems when I came here because when they translated the grades, the 8 didn’t translate exactly.”

Italian high school is five years long. Students choose a track that defines the course work they complete. Bottaini attends the scientific school, and he must make up the classes he misses while attending school in the United States.

“I need good grades here so when I return, they will decide if I can go to the last year,” Bottaini says. “If my grades are bad, I can be held behind. I will have to study the subjects that I am not taking here, like fourth-year physics and Latin and Italian Dante.”

In Luca’s first few days, innocent cultural observations illuminate American stereotypes.

“I’m really in America,” he smiles, as he watches a 300-pound man guzzle a two-liter bottle of Coke and choke down on a double Whopper and cheese.

As September draws to a close, the newness wanes, and Bottaini experiences a bit of homesickness.

“The association does not want me to talk with my Italian friends and family for two months,” he says. “They believe that if I talk too much with people at home then I will not integrate well. I miss them.”

Instead, Bottaini finds comfort in 88 keys.

At the age of 10 he was accepted as a student in the Bologna Conservatory. An accomplished concert pianist, he uses the piano as a method of connection. The Faith Lutheran choir needs an accompanist, Dan Shipley needs a pianist for his vocal university submission and friends need to be entertained. Music transcends any language discomfort. Bottaini’s classical training continues during his year in Las Vegas.

“I started piano when I was 5 because my parents listen to music in the dining room,” he says. “My father played piano so I tried to find the notes and play the music. I love it.”

The familiarity of soccer also helps ease the pangs for home. Bottaini enjoys the sport, relishing his role on the Faith Lutheran team. Friendship and teamwork outweigh success and rank.

“Futbol Americano,” as he calls it, enables Bottaini to explore new rituals.

Fall Friday nights are football nights for Faith Lutheran, and Bottaini joins his new family and friends for the games. The cheerleaders and team storm the field. The Crusaders start out with a quick touchdown. The students scream. The cheerleaders dance. The band plays. Bottaini is mesmerized.

“Friday nights in Italy are different,” he says. “You must be 18 to drive, so you can use the bus or a scooter. Students go to the center of the city. During the summer there is a big screen in the palazzo and we watch films outdoors in the square. In the winter, we go to the pubs and meet friends and talk. When it is very cold, we go ice skating. Our schools do not have after-school activities, like sports, so I really enjoy the Faith football games.”

September yields to October, and Bottaini finds himself nominated as Faith Lutheran homecoming king.

“I didn’t understand homecoming,” he says. “My friend explained that one king and one queen are chosen, but I really didn’t understand why.”

Walking arm in arm with Crystal, his nominated queen, Bottaini is introduced to the cheering crowd at the Faith Lutheran Lip Sync event. The next night he finds himself riding in a convertible waving to his new friends and standing on the football field with Mr. and Mrs. Fratarcangelis.

The night solidified his life in America. Luca became an American teen.

“Despite the cultural differences, teenagers are teenagers,” says Lisa Fratarcangelis. “They face the same challenges and share the same worries. As parents we can guide them, protect them, laugh with them, and enjoy the brief time we spend together. Our family has learned so much through this experience with Luca. We share an Italian heritage, but now we have direct understanding of what that really means.”

Wanting to offer Luca a memorable Halloween, the Fratarcangelis family leaves Las Vegas to take in the frights of Hollywood.

As they approach Interstate 15, Bottaini experiences the meaning of a road trip in America. “When I saw the freeway with eight-10 lanes — what?” Bottaini exclaims. “Streets here are huge.”

Captain Jack Sparrow, Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe grace the streets of Hollywood on a normal day, but Halloween brings out an entirely different cast of characters. Superheroes, classic monsters, women in lingerie, Chilean miners, LeBron James and Lady Gagas galore walk the famed boulevard. The strangeness of Halloween is outweighed, literally, by the extremes of Thanksgiving in November.

Italians consider Bologna the capitale del cibo, the capital of food, making Thanksgiving the perfect holiday for Bottaini. Like most American families, the Fratarcangelis family expands at Thanksgiving to include its various extensions, and Luca experiences his first true American celebration. The menu included all of the traditional elements, and the family shared stories of Bologna and Las Vegas.

“When Luca saw the turkey, he couldn’t believe how big it was,” says Carmen Fratarcangelis. “He took pictures of it next to his fist and posted them to Facebook.”

Mixed emotions fill Bottaini’s holidays as Thanksgiving opens the door to Christmas.

“I miss my family and friends, but I will go back in seven months, and they will all be there,” he says. “My parents, my sister and my dog, Belle, will all be waiting. My friends will see me differently. ‘You were in America for one year. Fantastic. Tell me everything.’ My opinion of America has changed. I am having a great time. People are very kind here. I expected something very different. I thought it would be more difficult. It was a good surprise.”

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