International School Sports...are well, different

Athletic programs are not an integral part of the European high school experience.  In fact, they don’t really even exist.  Unlike the US where sports are embedded in every high school across America, most European student athletes play outside of school in year round club programs.  I am 99% sure these club programs don’t have cheerleaders, marching bands, pep rallies or homecoming games. 

The International Schools (perhaps because of the influx of American expats) do offer school sponsored sports programs, albeit much less competitive ones.   No cut policies rule the day.  Trainers are required for the gym, but actual basketball shoes are optional.  Finding other International School teams to play is not as simple as heading crosstown.  You may need to take an airplane.   

The International School of Luxembourg competes in a number of sports in the NECIS (Northwest Europe Council of International Schools).  Baseball is most definitely NOT one of the included sports.  Schools are from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. There are girls and boys Varsity, JV, U14, and U12 teams.  Kids not yet in middle school (5th graders) do have the opportunity to play up on the U12 teams.  Teams travel (although there are not cuts, you must be invited to travel) at least once, in some cases multiple times, during the season to another NECIS member school for a weekend of competition.   It’s not just Friday Night Lights.  It’s Friday Night Lights Out and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Typically they travel by coach buses, and rather than staying in hotels, the students are invited into the homes of other International school families to “house.”  Housing, or the hosting of two or more students from a visiting International school, is a reciprocal program and a requirement for your child’s participation. The expectation of the host family is that you provide transport to and from the games, a Friday evening dinner, a place to sleep, a Saturday morning breakfast plus a lunch packed the following day.  Read:  Parents need a plan.

Picture this.  You get this email on a Thursday at 10:30am.

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Ballbach,

Your child, Colin, has been selected to play this weekend against the Antwerp International School. Please find attached the housing information, game schedule and wrap up sheet for this weekend. Don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

With kind regards, International School of Luxembourg Director of PE and Sports

Colin is 10 years old.

The wrap up sheet explains that the team will leave school early on Friday at 11:30 (exactly 25 hours later) for the 4 hour bus ride and return to school on Saturday by 5pm.  Students are asked to bring a box lunch, fruit and drinks for the bus ride, uniform, warm-ups, water bottle, change of clothes, housing gift for host parents and 20 euros for refreshments.   The attached housing information then shows your son’s name along with the name of the teammate he will be housing with and a host family name and contact number.  That’s it.  A single name and number (home? mobile?) of the person who will be feeding, sheltering, and taking responsibility for your child over the next 36 hours.

Questions?  Uh-huh.  Here’s a few that come to mind, in no particular order of priority, because I’m trying to remain calm and open.

1) There are a lot of digits in the phone number.  I have never called Belgium.  Do I have to dial a + before the Belgium country code?  

2) In order to get a grocery loyalty card here, a name, address, home phone, mobile phone, email, and date of birth is required.  With kind regards, it feels a little weird that Corylut potentially knows more about this host family than I do.  I also do not have even enough information for a Google search, for which I have tried. 

3) What is a housing gift?  Again with kindest regards, you’ve given me 25 hours’ notice and I can’t help but note that this is not a lot of time.

4) Can I pack peanut butter in the box lunch?   I know you don’t care if do, but I ask it to remind you that I am an American parent and to prepare you for my next question.

5) Surely you need some sort of waiver for this?  I did not see one as one of the attachments, nor did I see mention of a background check on the family who will be housing my child.   Would you mind forwarding both these things?  Thanks!

6) Are you looking for parent volunteers to tag along for the weekend?  I’m free!

To say this experience requires a lot of mutual trust would be an understatement.   Our life experience has been death by a thousand waivers.  It was not that many years ago that my kid had his first sleepover down the street.  Now this same kid, the one who must still be reminded to brush his teeth, is traveling to another country having a sleepover with complete strangers.  He still sometimes comes into my bed when he has nightmares.  What then?

I cannot tell a lie.  On Colin’s first trip to Brussels, Brett traveled to watch it with the hopes of “casually” meeting the host family.  The basketball play was terrible, but Brett succeeded in meeting and shaking the hand of the host family who were from Singapore.  They were lovely people, and Colin had a fabulous time on and off the court – especially off the court.  The mother, who spoke limited English, made him tea the next morning when his tummy was upset. 

Colin has been on two more trips since then, one with an Italian family in Dusseldorf (who took him out for Neapolitan pizza and bantered with him about his favorite pizza place in Rome, a place they knew) and the most recent one with a Danish/American family (who made him the best pancakes yet on European soil) in Antwerp.  Every trip has been declared "awesome."  There hasn't been any nightmares, and evidence suggests that teeth were brushed.  I’ve only forgotten a housing gift once.  Apparently they do not need parent volunteers for the away games. They only need us to “house” for the home ones.

Last weekend while Colin was away in Antwerp, our 16 year old Quinn was home playing Antwerp.  We were assigned two seniors from the International School of Antwerp to house.  Dinner (burritos) was delayed after the game because one of the boys (a Danish/American) had an in person interview in Luxembourg for his Duke University application.  Because we were responsible for transportation, Brett waited outside the hotel for him until 10pm.  After dinner, what naturally began as stilted conversation morphed into the other boy (a Belgian) showing us his artwork and letting me read his most personal college essays.  By the end of the evening, I knew more about these boys that I knew about 95% of my son’s classmates.  Not only were these mature young men, they were delightful conversationalists.   It made me wonder if the person whose name I saw on the housing sheet was thinking similarly warm thoughts about my son.

The teens kept talking long after Brett and I went to bed.  They are now Facebook friends.  Perhaps more than anyone, the awkwardness is greatest for the host kid who is forced to make conversation with two opponents (who have the advantage of already knowing each other) and then obliged to act as a bridge between these peers and their parents.  This is not merely learning about hospitality, this is about learning diplomacy.   

The philosophy behind housing is that yes it cuts down on the cost that parents would have to incur with hotels, but more importantly it provides an opportunity for children to experience international cultures within a family setting.  The kids are learning a little about basketball and a lot about independence and being a good guest. Coming from a large urban US with a basketball program that is top in the state, I will admit this has been a bit of an adjustment for my sports-minded boys.   But I can also say it’s a worthy trade off.   All that is sacrificed in terms of competitive play is more than made up by making new friends across Northern Europe, and perhaps even one day a place to crash when traveling through.  Quinn now knows who to call in Antwerp when he's ready to buy a diamond.

This weekend Quinn is off to Bonn.  Meanwhile, we’ll be here watching some lousy U12 basketball, housing a pair of boys from Bonn, and watching Colin sprout a few more international relationship skills.   Game on.