Perspective: Alex Ploner

Why America? “America is well-known as one of the greatest countries in the world. Where I’m from, we watch American movies, we see American high schools, we hear about the American dream.”

For Elkhart Memorial senior Alex Ploner, coming to America from Italy was an easy choice. “I speak five languages – Italian, German, Ladin, Spanish, and English – but English is my weakest. I want to come to America for college, to study Astrophysics, because America leads the world in the field. I want to be sure I can speak and understand the language and I know the culture before I attend college.”

Ploner arrived in America at the end of July, spent three days in New York City sightseeing and spending time with other foreign exchange students, then landed in South Bend on July 28.

One day later Ploner found himself on the football field at Elkhart Memorial.

“In my country, we have soccer and tennis,” said Ploner. “I play both and I do well. But I want to experience new things here. I wanted to play a new sport and I am loving football.”

It was football that helped open the door for Ploner to make new friends. “What has surprised me the most about America is the people. Everyone is so nice here. Right away, three of the guys on the football team – Cameron, Tyler, and John – helped me meet people and make friends. People have invited me to other athletic games and out for dinner.”

“They took me to an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t a great idea, this restaurant, but it was fun,” Ploner said as he cringed at the memory of the Italian food. “It was Olive Garden. Do you know it?”

Food, Ploner says, is one of the biggest differences between Italy and America. “In my town, everyone has a garden. For dinner, you go and get things from the garden. Vegetables and fruit are the cheapest food you can have. In America, they are expensive. All of the food here is very fast. Ingredients are not important to the meal.”

Ploner’s family owns a restaurant in his small hometown of San Martino in Badia. “When you go to a restaurant in my country, it is a family cooking for you. They are cooking from their own garden. You are a guest of the family who owns the restaurant. It is important that the food quality is very high because we depend on tourism.”

Ploner’s hometown has a population of around 500 residents and is tucked away in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, near the Austrian border. Ploner says his town was once part of Austria, and the outcome of World War II still has an impact. “There are many people in my area who speak German. They prefer to think of themselves as Austrian, even though they live in Italy. Yes, we have Italians who do not speak Italian,” Ploner said, laughing.

Ploner’s family history is much the same, with fluid lines crossing European borders. “My father has lived in my area his whole life. My mother is from Spain. My grandfather is from Spain, my grandmother is from Italy, and my grandparents met in Switzerland. They separated and my mother went many years without seeing her father. When she turned 16, she went to Spain to spend time with her father. We go back every year to visit him. He is one of the reasons why I learned Spanish, so I could speak with my grandfather.”

Ploner and his mother share a unique dialect of Italian language called Ladin, a Romance language only spoken in the Dolomite Mountain region of northern Italy. In school, Ploner learns and speaks in German.

“Schools are very different here and there,” said Ploner. “Here, the students have fun relationships with the teachers, as if they are equals. They laugh and joke, they have meaningful conversations and relationships. In Italy, the relationship is much more formal. The teacher is the authority and superior to the students.”

The structure of the high school itself is also a stark contrast to American high schools. “Where I am from, there are many high schools and they are broken down by what subject you want to study. We have the Scientific High School, the Language High School, the Economics High School, the Music High School. You have to have an idea with what you want to study and do.” Ploner attends the Science High School in Bressanone, about two hours away from his hometown. He stays in a dorm during the week and returns home via bus on the weekends to stay with his parents and help in their restaurant. He is the only person from his hometown who attends this high school.

“We also do not have sports or clubs at our schools. Our schools are for school only. Our school hours are shorter – 8:00am to 1:00pm. We go up to grade 13. Students do not leave the classroom during the day, but the teachers rotate for their classes. It was hard when I came to Memorial to figure out where I was going with having to change classrooms.”

Ploner says some of his favorite things about America are football, family time, and the abundance of nearby lakes. He loves living so close to Simonton Lake – a place he frequents – and loves visiting Lake Michigan, a place he called “incredible, like an ocean.”

“My favorite moment so far was last week, when we won our first football game. It was such a nice feeling. The football team is very close to one another.” Ploner hopes to catch a professional football game while he is in America.

He also treasures his family time with his host family, the Kehoes. “My family back home has always had a restaurant, so their schedule has always been work from 3:00pm until 4:00am. I was always with a babysitter when I was a child. My host family here, my father works, but my mother is home all the time. I have a sister and three brothers here. The brothers and I are all very active, so we are always playing sports. It’s so nice to have someone to do these things with. I only have one older sister back home and we don’t do these things.”

One more thing Ploner is looking forward to? Walking with his class in graduation. “It won’t really count since I have to go back for another year in Italy, but it will be a great celebration with my friends. It’s one of those American traditions that will be nice.”

If you see Alex out and about, be sure to say hello and welcome him to Elkhart! Come cheer him on at the next Elkhart Memorial football game!