Southern Ontario-style
December 25 should unfold in a unique fashion at the Strathdee residence, as the newest member of the household experiences opening presents on Christmas Day for the first time. Jakob Allmer, 16, has been living with the Strathdees in St. Marys for the past three months on a Rotary exchange from Vienna, Austria. There, families generally open presents on Christmas Eve, he said.
There are other differences as well. “Now we’re all Americanized so we have Santa Claus, but tradition-ally we didn’t have Santa Claus,” Allmer said. They have another traditional Christmas gift bringer. “We have the Christkind, it’s the Christ child. Basically it’s like an angel. But on the 6th of December, Nikolo —basically Saint Nicholas — comes around. You put your shoes out on your porch and he fills your shoes up with candy and stuff.”
Allmer will be moving in with another family sometime after Christmas, but will remain in St. Marys and attending DCVI until next summer. For now, his host parents Al and Gloria Strathdee, as well as their two youngest children Billy and Rachel, have been enjoying having Allmer around. He’s provided an adolescent presence to their house that would have been lacking, as the oldest Strathdee child Andrea has been on Rotary exchange in Brazil since September.
Being born and raised in a city of over 1.5 million, Allmer has had to adjust to life in St. Marys. He called the town “nice” and “really pretty,” but was surprised by a couple of changes he noticed from life in a big city.
“It’s a big difference (from Vienna),” he said. “I think it’s funny how Al knows everybody. I can’t even walk in a store in St. Marys without seeing a high schooler who I know on the cash desk.”
He said he’s noticed the same thing about attending a small high school, and that’s not all he’s noticed.
“My first thought was Canadians don’t dress well. Every other guy had sweat pants,” he said, before looking down at his own sweat pant-clad legs. “I’ve adapted now but… where I’m from you’d see maybe one out of 20 in running shoes. All the other guys would wear dress shoes. If you wear a dress shirt you stick out here.”
A classical guitar player and avid skier at home in Austria, Allmer is enjoying learning to play the clarinet in his Music class and has signed up for the cross-country skiing team.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s cold -- and we haven’t started skiing yet,” he said. “I’ve never stood in cross-country skis. We have so many hills back home, we don’t go cross-country.”
While he hasn’t been blown away by the downhill skiing opportunities around St. Marys, he’s excited to take part in a Rotary-organized skiing outing to Blue Mountain in the New Year with about 20 other exchange students. He’s gotten to know some of the other students, who come from around 15 other countries, at previous conferences in Owen Sound, Stratford and Toronto.
“I’m looking forward to watching the Brazilians wipe out,” he joked.
Back home, Allmer’s parents got him hooked on travelling by taking him to a number of destinations including Italy and Morocco, and he hopes to make the most of his time in North America by seeing as much of it as he can.
“Montreal and Toronto were great,” he said. “Toronto was really new for me because it’s in a grid, all squared. Montreal almost felt like home, with old buildings and stuff, but it was mixed with new architecture. I really liked it.”
He’s got further plans to see more of Quebec, and also to go on a Rotary-sanctioned tour of the East Coast. “I’ve never been to New York… all these cities, Boston, New York, Washington,” he said. “I think they’d be neat to see.”
Allmer said he would definitely recommend the Rotary exchange program to high school students interested in trying something different, but added that it’s “not for everybody.”
“But, if it’s your decision and you try to make the best of it, you’re going to have a good time no matter where you go,” he said.
Host parents Al and Gloria agreed.
“I think Rotary itself has done a lot to really support the kids,” Gloria said. “They get pretty well trained before they even go on exchange. They do a lot of conferences for both the parents and the kids so they know what to expect and what they’re getting into. It’s a pretty smooth process.”
Al said he can also see the benefits of having a young person from another country living alongside his kids.
“I think it’s been a good opportunity for our kids to learn too,” he said. “Asking them questions, interacting and seeing how they act and why they do things, learn a bit about their families. I think that’s been positive for us.”
To learn more about the Rotary Club of St. Marys, visit http://
Dan Rankin
Special to the Journal Argus, December 18, 2013