Steam and smoke rolled out from under Andy Roberts’ grill as he opened the lid to flip his burgers Saturday afternoon.

While most were bundled up indoors awaiting what was sure to be a stellar performance by the Minnesota Vikings, he was intent on grilling in the 7 below weather not just for himself, but for an international crowd, his granddaughter, and wife, Cathy. The gathering was planned some time ago after Roberts met his granddaughter's friends, two foreign exchange students attending Park Rapids High School. His granddaughter, Hannah Morgan, met the two, Ludovica Bellucci, 17, of Italy and Ariadna Borge, 16, of Spain, near the start of the school year and the three became “best friends,” Morgan said.

“It was so unexpected,” Morgan said.

When Roberts heard of the group visiting Wadena to get their nails done, he thought it was quite impressive that the girls would travel overseas to have the treatment done in small-town Wadena. He invited the group over to meet, knowing at once he had something in common with the girls.

He pulled out his log books from his days in the Navy, which showed he had spent time in Italy and at the port of Spain for refueling. That was over 50 years ago, in 1963, continuing on for three years, eight months and 28 days. At that time, he was on a guided missile destroyer commissioned in 1962, where he served as a boiler technician.

The picnic meal on the cold January day was an experience Roberts wanted the girls to have, a piece of Americana, before they headed back to their countries. While the smell of the burgers made the group hungry, they recalled the meals from home they missed. Bellucci spoke of missing her daily dose of real Italian pasta and pizza. Borge, would never forget the first taste of s’more she enjoyed in her stay in Minnesota.

While they missed somethings, they both spoke fondly of this region. They both were impressed with the Park Rapids school and community spirit they’ve seen here, sharing that sports and community just don’t mix in their home countries quite like they do here.

“The people,” both said they have enjoyed the most. “Even though it’s like volleyball or football, everyone is there -- always,” Borge said of the community spirit she sees at school games.

The girls said neither chose Central Minnesota as their place to stay, but both were glad their host families chose them.

“It’s better to go, like where ever, so you don’t know where you are going,” Bellucci said.

Borge’s host family are the Robb and Sara Swanson family, while Bellucci is hosted by the Chris and Spring Bungert family.

Morgan said the friendship she’s created with these two exchange students is one that will last a lifetime. She’s planning to start raising money so she can travel to visit them in their countries soon.

“We’ll never lose contact,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the friendship with the girls has made her more adventurous, seeing how they were willing to travel abroad on their own in search of an understanding of another culture. Following the indoor picnic on that cold winter day, the group continued to get a taste of Minnesota culture as they watched the Vikings end the season with a loss.