This article, written by Jacob Stansell of Grady Sports Bureau, was posted to Online Athens: Athens Banner-Herald on February 7, 2017.
University of Georgia tennis player Caroline Brinson remembers ambling into the kitchen once two years ago only to find her roommate and teammate, Ellen Perez, flipping vegetables into the air like a chef tossing pizza dough or flinging a pancake sky high.
Perez, now a junior, is from Australia. When she arrived on campus as a freshman in 2014, Brinson’s goal was to ensure that Perez had a smooth transition to the Southern lifestyle.
“I love cooking,” Perez said. “I’m off meal plan now so I love going home and just to go back and cook, especially with the girls.”
The relationship between Brinson and Perez is an example of natural assimilation that occurs behind the scenes with the UGA women’s tennis team, which this season has three players from other countries on its roster.
While freshmen Marta Gonzalez and Eleni Christofi, from Spain and Greece, respectively, have started the season well on the court, they did not have the easiest beginnings to life off of it.
Gonzalez was scared at the start of her first semester and would distract herself with some of her favorite movies from home.
“It’s so different,” Gonzalez said. “For example, the first month I was so excited and everything was new. As the semester has gone on I feel like I need to go back home and rest.”
Brinson took care of Perez off the court. Brinson, from New Orleans, learned right away that culture and food would play an integral part in their relationship.
“She doesn’t use a spoon to mix up the vegetables,” Brinson said. “She does it with her hands and I’m like, ‘Ellen, are you trying to be a chef?’ We have fun. She’s creative, and she’ll try new things.”
Although Brinson, the lone senior on the team this season, may not be from Georgia herself, she knows a thing or two about the South. She took Perez to her hometown over Christmas break two years ago to have her delve into Brinson’s Louisiana background and, of course, try more food.
“My time with her in New Orleans was really fun,” Brinson said. “My family is really close to Ellen, brought her in and made her part of the family. She got to see a lot of New Orleans tradition and, to me, that is very special.”
Perez has not been back to Australia in more than a year. She has really taken in all that the Classic City has had to offer her.
The first place her teammates took her when she first stepped foot in Athens was Cali N Tito’s. It was even her parents’ first stop when they visited their daughter. It’s something that will stick with Perez throughout her tenure at Georgia since most of her fellow Bulldogs preached to her that Cali N Tito’s had to be her first food choice in Athens.
But Perez doesn’t like to spend a lot of money, which is why she resorts to cooking most of the time.
Brinson said she’s blessed with a roommate who can cook. She also got some freshly cooked Australian food from Perez’s parents during their stay.
Perez had someone in her same recruiting class in junior Mariana Gould, who is from Boise, Idaho, also share the experience of growing up in a different place.
“We kind of found Athens together,” Gould said. “I think it’s always been a change for her as it has been for me.”
After all this time, however, “y’all” hasn’t become part of Perez’s vocabulary. Some of her words leave her teammates scratching their heads.
“[Her parents] used the same words and we were like, ‘Oh, I guess it’s not just you,’” Gould said. “You can definitely see a difference but it’s nice because you get a different culture.”
It allowed her teammates to learn a thing or two and have some of Perez’s Australian lingo rub off on them.
“She says some things like ‘jumper’ for sweatshirt,” Brinson said. “I don’t know if I use that one but there are some little catch phrases like the trash bin or something that we pick up on.”
Despite the differences in language, food and other things, Perez has learned to find comfort in her new home away from home. It’s almost like a vacation, she said.
“I don’t regret anything,” Perez said. “I’d happily live again in America if any opportunity arose. After school, I don’t know what I’d do but it’s been fun.”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.