Klara Vestman, 18, of Umea, Sweden, has on her phone a list of things she wants to experience during her 10 weeks living in Maine. It includes eating lobster and a Fluffernutter sandwich, watching “American” football, seeing a movie in a theater and attending a hockey game. She checked off the first — trying a smoothie — in Boston late last month before she took a bus north to Bangor to meet her host family and work on the rest.

She is settled and is living a fairly typical teen life. She moved into her new home — a modest shingle-sided, single-story home owned by Earle and Calista Hannigan in Holden, with a view of Mount Katahdin on clear days — started classes at John Bapst Memorial High School and joined the cross-country team.

Part of the family

To prepare for their new, albeit temporary, family member, the Hannigans cleaned out their daughter’s former room, putting her old pictures of hockey games in boxes and throwing other things away.

“We’ve been empty-nesters for quite a while,” Earle Hannigan said with a laugh.

This isn’t the first time their “nest” hosted another exchange student. A picture of a student from Chile, who they hosted about 20 years ago, still sits on a living room shelf, alongside those of family and close friends.

“It keeps us young,” Earle Hannigan said of hosting students. His wife agreed, adding it helped the couple expand their “horizons and explore different cultures.”

Vestman is one of three Swedish exchange students who have swapped homes with three students from John Bapst. She is staying with the Hannigans because the parents of the student who went to her home in Sweden live too far from the school.

“Basically, the idea of the exchange is to swap families,” Vestman said. “I thought it would be nice. My parents could practice their English. … I could practice mine [and] use the things I’ve learned in real life.”

The international student program at John Bapst has three slightly different tracts. More than 50 students from China, Vietnam, South Korea, Spain, Japan, Austria, Germany, Egypt and Ecuador live on campus or are part of the homestay program, staying with teachers or other John Bapst families. This year, three additional students from Dragonskolan school in Umea are part of the nearly decade-old Swedish program: Students in Umea exchange families and schools with three students from John Bapst for the first couple of months of the fall term.

The purpose of the program is two-fold, according to Mark Tasker, the social science department chair at John Bapst. The students in Sweden are in English-speaking high school programs, so coming to the U.S. helps solidify what they’re learning, and John Bapst students get to study abroad in their native language while immersing themselves in another culture.

Technological changes

When the Hannigans hosted a student from Chile more than two decades ago, they were discouraged from allowing her to call home too often. Nowadays, with the advent of smartphones, email and social media, one would be hard-pressed to keep a teen from contacting friends or loved ones overseas.

Vestman calls home regularly via Skype. Instead of framed photos of family or friends adorning her simple bedroom at the Hannigan’s home, her phone is full of pictures and videos.

“I think it’s very good for her to have that communication with her mother,” Calista Hannigan said. “I know she enjoys it, and it lets her have the best of both worlds.”

Not only does technology allow her to stay in touch with family and friends, she “met” several members of the Hannigan family and the student taking her place in Sweden before she even arrived in Maine. Through emails, Facebook and video chats, she came to know Earle and Calista’s grandson, Sam Lander, and exchanged emails with the student traveling to her home.

Bringing Sweden to the US

The Hannigans were somewhat familiar with Swedish culture before Vestman joined them this fall, having traveled there a few years ago. They were excited to have a reason to buy some of their favorite Swedish foods, including crisp bread and lingonberries.

Vestman also brought a bit of Sweden with her. She gave her host family a book, towels, candy and a set of measuring spoons with metric measurements as thank-you gifts. The latter recently came in handy when she introduced the couple and Lander to raggmunkar, a type of potato pancake.

Vestman said she learns or experiences something new almost daily, whether it’s how classes are structured at John Bapst, how to pack a lunch or riding a bus to a field trip.

“We don’t have yellow school buses, so that was something to cross off the bucket list,” she said. “Everyday is a new discovery.”

There’s plenty of similarities too.

The trio recently attended a midsummer celebration at the University of Maine, similar to one Vestman would attend in Sweden to celebrate summer. Several favorite pastimes are similar. Vestman and Hannigan family play the American card game “Golf,” though the Swedish version is slightly different.

“A lot of things are almost the same. They can have different names, but then you start to do them and find out they’re actually the same,” Vestman said.

On the weekends, the family tackles the Hannigans’ list of quintessential Maine experiences they want to introduce to Vestman, like visits to Bar Harbor, the American Folk Festival in Bangor and, of course, a trip to Marden’s.

Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...