- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

THIBODAUX, La. (AP) - For Holland native Maaike Rutten, her recent visit to Thibodaux was like coming home.

In the mid-1980s, Rutten spent a year in the area as a 17-year-old study-abroad student and host daughter of Daniel and Marlene Toups. This is the first time she’s been back to the U.S. in about 30 years, and she’s made sure to reconnect with her Cajun family.

“It’s emotional to come back,” said Rutten, now 47. “The year that I spent here was the door (for me) to become an adult. I left my hometown as a girl and came back as a woman.”

Rutten lived with the Toupses as part of AFS, or the American Field Service, a longstanding intercultural exchange program that places foreign students in homes with U.S. families. She was matched with the couple based on their similar personalities.

“The city of Thibodaux has changed. I didn’t recognize it at all. Just the bayou. It still floats and the water is still brown,” she added with a chuckle.

Rutten remembers leading the typical American teenager’s lifestyle in south Louisiana, which was “completely different” from what she was used to in Holland. She recalls attending the pep rallies and football games on Fridays, going to homecoming and prom, attending Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, volunteering at LSU football games, crawfishing and going fishing in Grand Isle, among a myriad of other activities.

“There were big and little experiences, but everything was new to me,” Rutten said. “I had a complete senior year here.”

Amid the generous hospitality, she also recalled having a particularly uncomfortable conversation with a friend who was critical of interracial relationships.

“Whenever you travel to another country, you have to adjust to the way things are,” Rutten said. “Somewhere in the middle, you have to find each other. You don’t have to put all your values aside.”

Although Rutten has been unable to keep in touch with her host family since her departure, it was her son Guus’s choice to study abroad in Washington, D.C., this year that made her think a reunion was possible.

“Coming back to the U.S. without seeing (my host family), there was just no way,” Rutten said. This time, she also brought her two children to south Louisiana, Guus de Laet, 18, and Pien de Laet, 17.

Rutten and her kids stayed for a week at the Toups’ home on Brule Guillot Road. The trio visited area sites including Laurel Valley, Jean Lafitte National Park, Laura Plantation, Madewood Plantation, Avery Island and Jolly Inn in Houma. They also visited with the Toups’ relatives in Larose and with friends in Bayou Blue and Chackbay.

“For my husband and me, it was a wonderful experience. She is family,” Marlene Toups said. “Maaike was a sponge 30 years ago, and she still is. Her children are like her (and) enjoy trying things.”

Two weekends ago, Rutten was also able to relive her favorite south Louisiana memories of crawfishing and crawfish boils after her friends organized a crawfishing expedition and a reunion get-together.

“The chatter instantly erased 30 years,” Marlene Toups said. “Her children had heard many stories, but some of them were surprises to them.”

“I think that for me, it was the fact that after decades of living our lives apart, we were able to pick up right where we left off,” Rutten’s friend, Andy Ledet, of Larose, said. “Sort of like time stood still in a way.”

Rutten’s family and her Louisiana family are making plans to get together at Disney World in Florida in the next five years.


Information from: Daily Comet, https://www.dailycomet.com

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