Welcoming an old friend

—1993 Cultural Exchange Student visits host family


CRESCO - Nicolas “Nick” Vukelja of Panama made his third trip back to visit his host family, Marv and Jan Praska, last week.
In 1993 Praskas learned through their church, St. Joseph (now Notre Dame), host families were needed for a cultural exchange program. It was only for a few months, so they thought they would give it a try. 
Because of that, they have made a friend for life in Vukelja. He recently visited them for five days. He also visited in 1999 and 2015. “Next they are coming to Panama,” Vukelja joked.
The businessman travels around the world for his family’s shipping company and figured since he had a conference in Houston, he would come a few days early to visit with Praskas.
It also worked in their favor that it is winter in Iowa right now. As the reader can imagine, Panama does not see snow, being in Central America, between Colombia and Costa Rica. Its temperature is normally 80 degrees. The only difference between winter and summer for Panamanians is there is more rain in the winter.
Although he loves his home country, Vukelja says, “It is very busy and noisy with traffic. One of our buildings has 70 floors. When I come here, it is relaxing.”
While some of the Iowa natives whine about the weather, Vukelja is happy to visit in January. “The snow looks peaceful and clean.” In the past, he has enjoyed winter sports. “I really liked snowmobiling. I found I’m not too good at skiing, but sledding was okay.”
Some of Vukelja’s classmates may remember him. He was 15 when he stayed in Cresco and attended Crestwood. Praska’s son, Scott, was 13 and their daughter, Shaina, was eight.
Vukelja remembers his time in Cresco with fondness. “School was nice. They received me pretty well. Scott and I were two years apart. We walked to school back and forth. That year there was a lot of snow, and we had a lot of days off. We attended church on Sunday. The last day, everyone wrote me a letter.”
One thing different in Iowa than in Panama was lunch. Here, everyone sits in the cafeteria, there they bring their own lunch. The girls were different as well. Here he was fascinated with the blond-haired, blue-eyed girls, since he only saw brown hair and eyes in Panama.
He also enjoyed visiting a farm while here, as well as Mall of America. Panama City is a pretty modern city and now boasts a large mall that has 8,000 stores. Just a few more than the Mall of America!
When he left the United States for home, it took him three days to speak Spanish again!
Looking at his host parents, he laughed, “You guys hit the jackpot with me!”
Since his visit to Cresco and graduation from his own schooling, Vukelja has been a self-proclaimed workaholic. He is an industrial engineer with a BMA in Maritime Business, in addition to several other degrees. He also does consulting and speaks at conferences around the world. 
This year, he is excited to visit Dubai and Russia. “It is like a paid vacation!” he noted. On visits to France and Venice, he finds them dirty, smelly and crowded.
He likes Cresco much better. “This town is really peaceful. Sometimes I fix my life here and get ideas. It helps me disconnect. Me time is very important.” 
He admitted he “disconnected” on this trip as well. He didn’t get on social media at all. “This is like a spa!”
“I love Panama, but second is Cresco!”
Jan smiled, “It’s nice that Nick likes to come back.” The two stay connected on Facebook.

Cresco Times

Phone: 563-547-3601
Fax: 563-547-4602

Cresco TPD
214 N. Elm Street
Cresco, IA 52136

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