Jessica Parker, left, and Clara Donati are as close as sisters after spending two months together in Belgium and the United States.
Jessica Parker and Clara Donati started the summer with one brother apiece, but after two months of togetherness, the two feel like they now have a sister, too.
The 16-year-olds participated in Rotary International’s youth exchange program — Jessica lived with Clara and her family in Belgium for a month, and then the girls flew to the United States for Clara’s monthlong stay in Winter Garden with Jessica, her 13-year-old brother, Andrew, and her parents, Daryll and Robin Parker.
Clara first learned of the program when her parents attended a Rotary meeting for her brother, who is taking part in a yearlong exchange, and were told of the short-term program. Jessica was familiar with it because her father is a member of the Rotary Club of Winter Garden.
For Jessica, this was her first time traveling out of the U.S. She stayed with the Donatis in the Belgian village of Morialmé, which is 80 miles south of Brussels.
The girls went on many shopping excursions in several different cities, traveled to Bruges, played at Walibi World theme park, went ziplining through a forest, attended a Miley Cyrus concert in Antwerp and made a trip to the North Sea — which was dark, gloomy, cloudy and cold, Jessica said.
They went to the cities of Brussels and Charleroi.
Inside a castle, they watched on television the Belgian soccer team play in the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals.
They spent two days in Paris.
“It has always been my dream to go to Paris for my 16th birthday,” Jessica said.
And there she was, just weeks after she turned 16.
Clara’s family “had me close my eyes, and they walked me up to the Eiffel Tower.”
It was a magical moment for the American teen, who was able to go inside and up to the third level.
Jessica said her favorite city was Bruges, where she bought all of the presents for her family and friends.
“It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen,” she said.
She also tried a new food, duck, and ordered it several times during her stay.
One big difference between American and European families, Jessica said, was the independence Clara seemed to have.
“It was weird for me to be able to go out one day when her parents weren’t home and take a train to another city,” she said.
Another difference she noted was the etiquette standards. While eating dinner with Clara’s family one evening, she picked up a small potato with her fingers and her host mother asked her bluntly, “What are you doing?”
She used her fork for the rest of the meal — and every meal thereafter.
At the end of Jessica’s stay, the girls flew across the Atlantic Ocean for Clara’s month in Florida.
Daryll Parker said he and his family wanted to show Clara the various aspects of the state, so they took her to places like SeaWorld, Gatorland, Rock Springs, New Smyrna Beach and Fort Pierce, where they went boating, kayaking and paddleboarding.
They attended a live theater show in Mount Dora called “All Shook Up” that featured the music of Elvis Presley. Clara knew the songs.
They shopped, and Clara went home with two iPhones and an iPad.
And since no first-time trip to Florida is complete without a visit to Walt Disney World, they went there, too. At Epcot, Clara’s favorite country was Italy (which is where her father was born). The best rides at the Magic Kingdom are Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion, she said.
When Clara told her host family she wanted to be a lawyer, Robin Parker’s brother-in-law gave her a tour of his law office and let her sit in on a court trial.
Clara tried and liked squash, sweet potatoes and her host dad’s pulled pork and said she was fond of the restaurants in America, especially Chick-fil-A, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Uno Chicago Grill.
This was in contrast to the European diet, she said, in that many families grow their own gardens and eat fresh foods.
Another difference Clara noted was in the education system. In her homeland, students are taught multiple foreign languages; she is fluent in Dutch, French and English and can speak a little Italian and Russian.
Since she knew English, there was no real language barrier, although Jessica did have to explain some of the American idioms.
All too soon, Clara’s month in Florida came to an end, and she and Jessica said their good-byes and made promises to stay in contact with each other.
“For the Parker family, it was a wonderful experience,” Daryll and Robin Parker said. “During Clara’s stay with us, she not only became part of the family, she became our ‘Belgian daughter.’”
The girls said they enjoyed their time with their host families and getting the chance to make new friends and experience different cultures. What’s more, they have each gained a sister.
The teens are now ready to take on the challenge of a one-year exchange. The ideal trip for Jessica would be to Spain. Clara wants to spend another six months in the United States and six months in Russia. Chances are, these two girls will be traveling again soon.