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Read our exchange students’ journals below. Only students submitting two or more journals are included here.

Asia - Argentina

Hometown:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: St. Augustine High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:St. Augustine, Florida
Host District: District 4845
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Puerto Iguazu Cataratas

My Bio

¡Hola! My name is Asia Hayes and next year I will be going on exchange to Argentina and I couldn’t be happier! The Big Reveal Ceremony was an assortment of emotions that lasted until my name was called, I then introduced myself in octaves I didn’t know I could produce. When the rebound student reached for the Argentinean flag I was ecstatic, and compelled to do a jig in response to all of the emotion. Argentina was my number one choice. As a sophomore I had the opportunity to go to Costa Rica with my class and fell in love with the language, I’m studying my fourth year of Spanish and can’t wait to put it to use. I am currently a senior at St. Augustine High School in the town of St. Augustine. I moved here 3 years ago from Arizona and it has grown on me, not to mention I have become quite the food connoisseur due to the convenience of downtown being only 10 minutes away from home. I live with my mom, dad and older sister Amaris who is currently on exchange in Brazil, along with my little buddy Max, our 10 year old beagle who is my greatest pal. I am very involved at school, I was elected as a senior class officer, am a part of the Swim and Tennis team as well as the AICE program. I am very easy going and love to laugh and have fun. I am so grateful to be a part of this program and thankful for the opportunity that has been granted to me, along with being placed in my dream country. I cannot wait for my journey to begin, because I know the next few years will be jam packed with oodles of fun and excitement.

 Journals: Asia – Argentina

Asia, outbound to Argentina

Ok so apologizes are officially in order. SORRY, SORYY I have fallen off the grid. With that being said you are about to embark on a 2 month journey of my life in words. For starters, if you are going to South America learn to dance…please it will save you many nights sitting in the room of your new house you-tubing how to do a basic two-step. In all honesty I thought at the bare minimum had rhythm, that notion quickly disappeared when I realized what I was dealing with. Like guys words really cannot express the artistic level they are on. So just try to put some effort I feel it’s less shameful if you practice before you leave. No, but in all honesty if you act like you know how to dance and you are having fun no one will ever know that 7/10 of your dance moves were taken from you tube.

Future Floridians to become culturally Argentine you will inadvertently become a meat connoisseur. Prepare to eat any and all parts of a cow. I say this in all sincerity any…and all parts. I have fully enjoyed this part of my Argentine life because I have learned a new skill that I like to call “meat-jargon” I mean how many people do you know who can describe meat to you other than a butcher. How many of you even know a butcher to explain those things because I know I don’t. But I will say being vegetarian is a strong possibility for my future because I have just felt really carnivorous lately if that even makes sense. But trust me you will see.

Since the end of November I have been on summer vacation and I will say the time has gone by so incredibly fast. Which is so scary, in reality I don’t think I have ever been so scared of time. I don’t want anything here to end and I cannot even start to imagine going back to the United States at this point. This may be one of the most meaningful summers I have had thus far. I thought it would be the one before my exchange year you know, the summer where I knew I was saying bye to my old life and preparing to enter a new one but with this summer coming to a close I realize it’s now in this moment where I have decided that things really aren’t always as they seem and it’s in this phase of my life that I have really just gotten to sit back and live doing things that I normally wouldn’t and just letting go a little bit. Or a lot a bit.

But you know you really cannot describe exactly what it is you feel because it isn’t like you come on exchange and everything is there for you. You leave your troubles of the U.S. behind but you take on a new set of troubles. You’re not living in la-la land on exchange it may seem like it at first but then you actually have to start dealing with life again just like always only this time you have new things to overcome and new things to think about and I think it’s that that makes your exchange you are learning to just deal with life from every possible angle. But you do start to notice it like the changes in yourself, you start to see that you’re getting better, you’re opening up and you’re taking in everything there is to learn.

During this summer I cried for the first time during my exchange. And when I say cry it’s not like my tearing up during New Year’s Eve. This was a full on 12hr cry that began at night and carried into the morning and a much needed one to be honest. Like many have said exchange isn’t easy. I can’t speak for every one currently on exchange right now but I know for me I had just gotten to a point where I needed to just cry. And afterwards I did feel better it was kind of like my reset. Like I started to feel like okay it’s time for me to make some changes and to just get the show on the road I guess you could say. And lucky for me because I have an amazing family here that helps me through it all.

Like words cannot describe the gratitude I have for them and it’s amazing how you can go your whole life not knowing that a group of people exist that you could care so much about. They have a permanent spot in my heart and I could not be happier to end up in this home. Every member has such a different personality and they come together so perfectly and I can honestly say I couldn’t imagine my life without them in it because they are the biggest reason my exchange has been the best time of my life.

This coming Monday I will be back in school. There really isn’t much to say on the subject because well it’s school. But I am so incredibly excited to go back to the primary school to help with English! I have so much fun there and I can’t wait for the next five months with those kiddos. Well I think I have touched on all the monumental thoughts and moments during this summer. So until next time guys. Chau Chau!

Asia Monet Hayes
(P.S. sorry for my lack of photos for I am a wreck and have managed to break every source of uploading photos I will try to fix ASAP)

 Sat, February 28, 2015

Wow okay so four months in “The Tina” and good news guys I’m still happy! It’s weird because I can feel the half way mark creeping up on me and I’m not sure if I’m ready for those emails of returning home. And the thought of Argentine empanadas coming to an end almost puts me into tears. But I haven’t gotten any emails so I still have time to gorge myself on this delicacy.

Every time I think of writing my journal I say okay to mention empanadas or not to mention empanadas but like I just can’t help it they are SO good on a slow week I consume at least 12. Yes, I know. I am ashamed and embarrassed but there are no support groups for this addiction. But it’s not just the empanadas. It’s the ice cream too. I told myself I would not bring bad habits to the Tina but I did! I ate so much so much ice-cream before coming to Argentina and now I do the same here. Like I just wish that the crew at the ice cream shop rotated a little more because now they know my face, every single employee which is equally as embarrassing as my empanada consumption.

I wish I was exaggerating but it’s gotten to the point where my host family makes jokes about the fact that my diet consist of only two foods and my host dad had a conversation with me about maybe eating other Argentine staples besides empanadas and it’s obviously a problem considering that I have dedicated so much of my journal talking about food. My New Year’s Resolution last year was to not have a Resolution but maybe I should and that will be not mentioning empanadas in my journals anymore. But New Year’s Resolutions are meant to be broken right?

So I made it to through the holidays. On a scale of 1 to emotional wreck I was about a 3. They really did not phase me too much to be honest. Thanksgiving was spent in Patagonia and I didn’t even realize Thanksgiving had passed until it was Black Friday, Christmas was like a normal day for me along with the whole month of December there were no Christmas tunes, no Santa, and no tree which was a little different for me because usually during Christmas my mom likes to get really HGTV creative with decorations.

And then there was New Year’s Eve which the whole day I felt a little emotional but I keep saying to myself I’m fine, I’m fine. And then it was midnight and I realized I was not fine and I got a little… a lot teary eyed during fireworks. I’m not sure how much of the tears were from missing home and how much came from being so grateful to be celebrating with my new family.

Exchange is a really special thing you can’t always put everything into words, and sometimes you can’t even figure out for yourself what your feeling. It’s just like okay here I am doing something that I never really thought could happen and I wonder like was this always written for me because even on my bad days it seems like something right falls into place shortly thereafter. and right now I have gotten to a place where walking in my city is starting to feel less like Stairmaster, the language is coming along, and I can honestly say there is no place I would rather be right now in my life.

Wed, January 7, 2015

First and foremost congratulations to the new RYE Florida 2015-2016 Exchange Students! As I have just completed my third month I can honestly say that you will not regret your decision to take on this great challenge and you should be very proud that you have been selected to have this amazing experience. With that being said I want to start this journal with a tid bit of advice based on my experiences thus far:

Be sure to focus on your own exchange. Each and every exchange is different and unique to each exchanger. When you read these journals of the countries that you may be sent to or when you get further into the process and begin coordinating with one of the current outbound students remember these stories and experiences are unique to that person and you have to live your exchange for you. In my first journal I mentioned that I didn’t have expectations for my exchange but I think I was wrong. No, I didn’t have expectations for my country or the culture but I think I had expectations for my life as an exchange student.

Here in Iguazu I am the only exchange student so I don’t have that exchange family network that most of us experience which lead to loneliness in the first month and a half and spending a lot of time eating empanadas alone looking at all of my fellow outbound students and their photos and stories and the friends they all seemed to have wondering why I was so alone and why my life didn’t look like theirs and I honestly was just a little down in the dumps. But then at some point I knew I had to put the empanadas down and look at my exchange for me. Here I was, sad and wallowing in my own sorrows when I am living in the most beautiful country in the world minutes away from one of the Seven Wonders of the World and three different cultures to learn about right at my fingertips! I knew I had to turn things around because this is my exchange and it shouldn’t be compared and it can’t be compared to anyone else because this exchange is for me and only me and loneliness is just a waste of time. Once I realized that I was happier because I knew I was living my exchange though I couldn’t get myself to put the empanadas down I am sure it only contributed to my happiness. So guys I cannot press this enough make sure you live this exchange life for you and only you because it’s your experience to have for the rest of your life.

Now, as for me a mini update
1. I have become more comfortable butchering every other word in Spanish than speaking in English
2. My name pronounced in English sounds like the Spanish word for her “Ella” because the double “L” in Argentina makes a “shhh” sound which causes a lot of confusion when people are speaking.
3. I still love empanadas and facturas
4. I went from have no host siblings to nine
5. Once I was introduced as the cousin of Obama, I am not.
7. Finally saw the Falls
6. I WENT TO PATAGONIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chau Chicos
Asia
Sun, December 14, 2014

One month has passed which seems too soon, but I couldn’t be happier with the way in which my time has been spent.

Today marks one month in Argentina, and it is absolutely beautiful. It is a big change of pace here, everything is just calm. There is a lot of time for me to just breathe. I surprised myself at how quickly I just morphed into a new routine, despite the obvious language barrier everything just seems the way it is supposed to be. I didn’t experience this huge culture shock or anything near it I mean there are subtle differences in culture yes but, I didn’t skip a beat, When in Rome do as the Romans do.

I arrived her on the 7th of September and started school on the 8th, so maybe it is just that I did not have time to think about the fact that I had left my life in the United States and I was starting a new one. But, I couldn’t help but think of a conversation I’d had earlier in the summer about the sense of home. I’ve moved a lot within the States and out of the four I have lived in none of them have truly felt like “home”, and maybe I am just trying to find it here, in Argentina so there really was not much motive for me to have any reservations. I just hit the reset button, and arrived here with a completely open mind.

For the most part I have an established routine. I go to Colegio Argentino Americano where I am in the fifth grade, the equivalent of being a High School Senior. My classmates are all very nice as well as all the students in the school and, I am very glad to be finishing out the school year with them.

There are about 20 students in my class including myself, a big difference from graduating with a class of about 400. It makes for a different school environment because it seems like everyone is happy to be with one another and because they are such a small group it makes for genuine friendships. Not saying that I wasn’t happy with my classmates last year but, there was no way I was friends with all 300 + of them. Not even close, half.

My classes are a bit different because they are all business oriented and my Spanish business vocabulary is nonexistent so I am lost. But, I have a Spanish Literature class which is like a breath of fresh air because some of the words are similar to the English and I can almost always figure out the notes without translating. I’m not very shocked that my favorite class in the U.S. continues to be my favorite class even, in a different langue which leads me to Point B.

Numbers are numbers everywhere and unfortunately that is also a class I understand, on the first day they covered one of the few math topics I actually can comprehend and in excitement I revealed this, I should not have because just as I assumed math is still my least favorite subject.

After school I have lunch with my host family. It is just myself and my host parents, they have three sons two of which are in College in another province and then one who is currently on exchange in Florida! They are very kind and I am very thankful for them welcoming me into their home. Lunch, and food in general is very good. VERY, VERY good. I could live off of Empanadas and Facturas for the rest of my life but aside from eating a good meal the best part of my day happens after lunch.

On weekdays from 2-5 I go to the primary school and help teach in two English classes, and it is so much fun, words cannot describe. I can honestly say that the happiest moments I have had so far in my exchange have been in the 5th and 4th grade class of the primary school. Right now they are practicing for their Spring Art Show that’s coming up in the next few weeks and they are doing a play of the movie “Frozen”. And I don’t know but sometimes emotions just sneak up on me at weird moments and the other day when they were practicing I just started to tear up a little. Not because I was homesick or anything but they were just so happy, which in turn made me very happy. Grant it I am a crier, but these were really tears of happiness. The moment also inspired me to maybe finish the movie and appreciate the song “Let it go” a little bit more. I truly am very happy at the school and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be there.

One month has passed which seems too soon, but I couldn’t be happier with the way in which my time has been spent.
Chau.
Asia

P.S.
To all the Floridians in Brazil: Now, I am obviously not in Brazil but, my town is very near the border and. My joking title as “Honorary Brazilian” has manifested itself into my exchange, Brazil, is close enough for me to see the land of Brazil from my backyard. Literally.

Sun, October 5, 2014

Bailie - Belgium

Hometown:Jacksonville, Florida
School: Sandalwood High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:East Arlington Jacksonville, Florida
Host District: District 1630
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Liege Cite Ardent

My Bio

Bonjour! My name is Bailie Staton and I am going to Belgium! I am 17 years old and will be 18 /19 on my exchange. I am a senior at Sandalwood High School and I cannot wait to start this new chapter in my life! I have one older brother and One older sister. My sister is living in New Zealand and my brother is in college. My parentss and my siblings are all very supportive about this process and wish me the very best. I love to play soccer and I played for my school but due to an injury I had to stop. But now, I focus most of my time on writing. I love to create stories in my head and jot them down whenever I can. This next year of my life will be a big one. I chose Rotary Youth Exchange because they are the best. They put everything they have into it and won’t stop till their students succeed. I am hoping to tackle learning another language, kick homesickness’s butt, and ultimately grow in ways that I never could have if I don’t take this opportunity. I am counting down the days till I land in the beautiful country of Belgium.

 Journals: Bailie – Belgium

May in Belgium

Since Belgium doesn’t have a Eurotour, they split us into two groups. We could either go to Spain for 10 days, or to Italy for 10 days. I went to Spain with all the other gringos, and all the Latinos went to Italy. And those 10 days were probably the best days of my life. We were crowded in this tiny bus driving 20 hours from Belgium to Salamanca, Spain. Sleeping, eating, and annoying each other the whole way. Another kid from Florida, David Newman, brought his bongo drums and didn’t stop playing them till 1am and another time when at 3 in the morning, my friend Zoe from Kansas wouldn’t be quiet and another kid from Canada threatened to throw her out the window if she couldn’t keep her mouth shut while we all were trying to sleep.

But every day of the trip we had something to do like touring castles, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, met the Real Madrid team (well, we saw them from afar) then we got the rest of the day to explore and go tourist shopping if we wanted. Well, in comes these too Aussie newbies that I’ve never met before. Steph and Jessica, I ended up rooming with them the rest of the trip and still today they are my absolute best friends.

I can’t even put into words how amazing that trip was. When we were in Madrid, at night we had some free time till midnight. And our hotel was in the city center across from the Royal Palace, so we were out singing in dancing barefoot in the Royal Park 100 feet in front of the Palace. We almost got in trouble because our game of Duck Duck Goose got a little too noisy. At that hotel there was a group of American high school kids on an EF tour from South Carolina and they had the most southern boondocks accent that I haven’t heard in so long. I got homesick right then. But it was kind of cool explaining to them that we’re here in Spain on spring break and they all said in unison “You live in Europe?!” I guess it would be kind of dull for them to visit Europe just for a week and fall in love with it, then have to go back home to The States.

But the last night of the trip, our hotel was right on the beach in Barcelona. We all sat on the beach and watched the stars. Some of us even jumped in the freezing cold water, and then ran back to the hotel for a hot shower. But that night was one of the best nights of my life. Everyone was so happy and carefree that I was wondering what it would be like without these guys in my life and I just couldn’t picture it. They all have dug their claws deep into my heart and its going to be the worst thing in the world to say goodbye.

But here it is, the time has come to where I have less than a month in this tiny little country. 27 days to be exact. And even though I love it here, I am so ready to come home. The Spain withdrawals are over and now the anxiousness of seeing my friends and family is setting in. I can’t wait for a steady stream of heat waves, sweat stains, and sun tan lines from being at the beach all day. (And real fruit that doesn’t taste like artificial chemicals).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss this place like crazy and there will always be a place in my heart for Belgium. But now my comfort zone is calling me. My family and friends are waiting for me and I think 10 months is an appropriate time to start wanting real southern style Sweet Tea again. Just knowing that I’m going back makes the cravings set in.

Looking back on my exchange, 10 months is a lot longer than I thought it would be. It seems like I’ve been here for years. I wish I had more philosophical things to say about my time here, but I think I’m still in shock that it’s already over. The fall months went by so slow, and now the spring months are going by in a blink of an eye.

I know that soon I will be wearing my blazer, which weighs a whopping 6 lbs will all my pins on it, at Brussels International Airport boarding my flight to come home to the good ‘ole U.S. of A. I’ll hug my host family, and then go cry with all my other exchangers who made the trip out to the airport to say goodbye to me. It’s going to be really hard to walk through those gates and possibly never seeing them again. They are what made my exchange unforgettable. They filled my memories with happy times, comforting times, and the best times of my life.

 Tue, May 19, 2015

So, its been a while since I’ve made one of these journals. Ive been wanting too for a while but whenever I would try to sit down and write it, I could never describe what I was feeling.

I was happy that my dad was coming to visit me, sad because my Aussie friends had finished their exchange and left this country, alone because my new host family isn’t as interactive as my last, and confused whether or not I want to stay here forever with all my new friends or go home to my comfort zone.

But I do know one thing, this experience is ending too quickly.

Its been 7 months and its gone by in a blink of an eye. This truly has been the greatest time of my life so far. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve danced to Stromae (famous Belgian singer) with 300 people, I’ve eaten so much Turkish food I couldn’t move, I’ve ran to catch numerous buses, I’ve caught trains at 4 in the morning, I’ve seen the world from another person’s point of view and I can never see it my old simple way again. This world is so much more beautiful than my little corner of this Earth.

I don’t feel homesick as I did in my last journal, I’m finally comfortable calling this place home. I’ve lived in Belgium for for over half a year and this country will always hold a special place in my heart along with everyone in it. I’ve made too many amazing memories to just say it was a year when I was 18.

I am truly proud to call myself American and thankful for everything I have, but I never want to be a part of my culture again. I want to be everything. I want to be a part of this entire world. Being an exchange student is the greatest accomplishment of my life. I go home in 3 months, I don’t know how I’m going to survive.

I had a little taste of home all last week when my dad came to visit me. Reverse culture shock at its finest. I never noticed the little things that were so “American” that he did. The way he dressed, the way he talked, the way he viewed things. I was so shocked that I could see an American man from a European’s point of view. I have actually switched my way of thinking and its kind of awesome.

 Sun, March 15, 2015

Yesterday was my 4 month anniversary in Belgium and I still can’t believe how fast it is going. It seems like yesterday I just stepped off the plane into this magnificent country. These few months have probably been the most influential and rewarding months of my entire life. I have caught countless buses, had many lost in translation conversations in French, taken day trips to different countries with some of my best friends, made a huge Thanksgiving dinner for all of my host families, gotten lost in Christmas Markets, and learned some very valuable lessons that I had to learn the hard way. But as we were warned the holidays is a time in the exchange when many exchange students start going over a bumpy road.

I remember at the June Orientation when Rotary told us, “It’s not ‘if’ you get homesick, its ‘when’.” That phrase has been in the back of my mind since this past Thanksgiving, I knew these next few months were going to be hard, so I tried to put on a brave face.

I am having the time of my life in this frozen wonderland, but the homesickness is starting to sink in. Rotary here tries to keep us busy because they know a lot of us are struggling, but it still hits you like an oncoming train.

I was sitting in Chemistry class a few weeks ago, the teacher was going on about scientific waves to the class when I noticed something. I saw a shine in my eye and when I looked down I saw the that the girl next to me was a wearing a Pandora bracelet. She had a bunch of beautiful charms surrounding it. My mom wore Pandora bracelets and during this time of the year I would be buying her a new charm for Christmas. That was all I needed to start crying in the middle of class.

It’s that easy.

Something so small can bring back so many overwhelming emotions. A smell, the way someone laughs, a dream, seeing someone who looks familiar, even a car honk can set it off. It’s a ticking time bomb. And when it explodes, no one knows how big it’s going to be.

When Rotary said not to dwell on it and to get out and do something to take your mind off of it, they meant it. It has helped me immensely these past few weeks.

And that’s one of the reasons why I love Belgium. There are so many things that can keep your mind busy. Ice skating in the town center, shopping in the Christmas Markets, drinking hot chocolate with another homesick exchange student in a pub that was built 600 years ago, or even hopping on a train to go on a day trip to Paris, Holland, Germany, Luxembourg, or England. The options in this small little country are endless.

Fri, December 19, 2014

I picked up Austin Carroll, a filmmaker from RYE Florida, at the train station. She came here to film me, my school, my friends, and all the 300 exchange students in Belgium for her Documentary and to shoot a promotional video for RYE Florida. She accompanied me to school, which was kind of a nightmare from the administrators to let her film, and came to my house where she gave the initial interview. The next day I met her back at the train station, all dressed in my RYE blazer for a Rotary day in Namur. On the train to the event, Austin got to meet two other RYE Florida kids and they got to share their experiences as well.

Overall, her visit made me a little homesick. But when she sent me the promotional video to watch, I almost cried. This experience is so much more than a bad host family. Its about building your own family from all over the world. She got to put our crazy selves onto video to see how students from so many backgrounds and languages come together to make friendships that are lifelong.

And later this week me and all those crazy exchange students are going to London with Rotary and were definitely going to make it the best 4 days of our lives

Sat, October 25, 2014

I’ve gained 5 pounds on waffles and chocolate alone.

I don’t even know how to begin to explain my adventure so far. I have been here for 35 days and it only feels like I’ve been here an hour.

Saying goodbye to my family was probably one of the most bittersweet things I’ve ever had to do. Watching my parents cry made me cry all the way to Atlanta. But, I arrived with another exchange student from Florida, Savannah Stephens, and another girl named Megan from New Jersey. The flight was long and the grown man kicking my chair the whole way was getting on my last way, but the anxiousness was too overwhelming to do anything about it. When we got off the plane, I lost sight of the two girls with me and followed the crowd to the Immigration line. Little did I know that there were two lines, one for EU citizens and one for others. Guess which one I got into and had to backtrack all the way to the back of the right line.

We arrived early in the morning so my host parents decided to show me around Brussels. I saw the Royal Palace, the Royal Art Gallery, we had hot chocolate in a bar built in the 16th century in the Grand Place, saw Mannequin Pis and his “sister statue” that was a little girl peeing. I was amazed at how well the architect recreated the female genitalia to the point where it was a little uncomfortable…

My first few days I was overwhelmingly tired, but within those days, I met the other two families I will be living with and I was welcomed with open arms. They laughed at me when they saw my face after eating a piece of uncooked red meat, which is a “normal” meal here. Thank god this place is known for waffles and chocolate, because I don’t think I will be enjoying the red meat dinners that much.

Since Belgium is such a small country and there are many exchange students here, we all go to festivals and hang out a lot with each other. After school we meet in the city for lunch or spend the night at each others houses. I see the other RYE Florida kids every couple weeks and it’s nice to have someone to go to complaining how cold it is here and they actually understand because they’re just as cold as you are!!!!

In my host family I have two sisters, one in my grade one a few grades younger. After school we all go our separate ways and end up at home at different times. Every Tuesday and Thursday I get home real late because I take a French class in the center of Liege from 6-9pm and then take the bus home. I finally fall into bed around 11 and then wake up 8 hours later for high school.

For school, I wake up at 7am, my host mom drives all three of us kids to school, its about 45 degrees outside, and go until 4:20pm. I have 11 classes in total but the Belgian School system is so unorganized compared to the States that I have to ask my Belgian friend to help me with understanding what forms I am supposed to be constantly filling out.

I have become best friends with the English teacher. She is so witty and sarcastic and has the greatest responses to questions I’ve ever heard. And the funny thing is that the kids don’t understand what she’s saying in the first place and when I am bending over my desk laughing so hard, they just look so sad and confused. Its quite entertaining.

But my classmates have welcomed all six of us exchange students into their school so easily. Were all friends and they are coming to us for help with their English and at lunch we all eat on the steps outside and we all joke around with each other as we give them hard English words to pronounce and then they talk to us really fast in French and me and this exchange student from Finland with AFS just looked at each other like he was trying to communicate but the gibberish words were alien to us. But my favorite time is when they ask me stereotypical questions about America.

  1. Do you know Beyonce?
    2. Do you know any gangsters?
    3. Have you ever seen a terrorist attack?
    4. Did you bring any guns?

My favorite time with references to guns….My host mom was driving to the supermarket and some guy pulled out in front of her and she slammed on the brakes and started honking the horn and cussing in French. She whipped around to me and screamed, “BAILIE! GET YOUR GUN!”

Rotary here is so relaxed compared to the United States. We laugh, make jokes, and have a good time at the meetings. I tell them funny stories and it doesn’t even feel like a meeting. It’s just friends hanging out in a really fancy room with everyone wearing plaid sweater vests and suede shoes, sipping on their wine with their pinkie up.

Everyone here is so graceful but that gracefulness does not transfer over to their driving. I literally say a prayer every time I get in the car here. The cars come within inches of each other and my host sister laughs when she sees me wince at the closeness of impact that had just happened.

And now onto the Language. I have come to realize that French may well be the hardest language in the world. I’m starting to understand what’s being said to me now, and though I’m trying my hardest to speak back in French, the amount of smiling and nodding I’ve done should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. But it’s only my first month, I still have 9 more to go and a lot more to learn.

The first month in Belgium has been a complete success with Culture Shock but I’m having the time of my life here:)

Sun, September 21, 2014

Blaine - Japan

Hometown:Ormond Beach, Florida
School: Seabreeze High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Daytona Beach West, Florida
Host District: District 2770
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Yashio

My Bio

Hello! my name is Blaine Kinne and i am from Ormond Beach Florida, and i’m going to Japan. I am currently a senior at Seabreeze High School, and will graduate in the class of 2014. I have wanted to be an exchange student for quite some time, although i can’t believe that i am one now! My sister was an exchange student who went to Brazil, and all she could do for months, even still now, is talk about her year there. I am very involved in my high school campus. I am currently Co-Editor of my high school yearbook. For the past four year I have been the head photographer for the yearbook, and have also contributed to the newspaper. I am lead lights manager for the school auditorium where all school performances are held. I have only been out of the country once when my family went to Italy for the summer. This trip inspired me to want to travel more. I am so excited for the opportunity to travel to Japan! Thank you Rotary for offering this amazing experience to me and I hope to be able to gain knowledge from living in Japan. I can’t express my gratitude to everyone at Rotary!

 Journals: Blaine – Japan

Hello again everyone!(みんなこんにちは) So I have already move host families to my third host family. I really can’t believe how fast the time has gone. I feel like the past three months went by in just a few weeks. I have experienced a lot since I’ve been here, and learned so much. In the journal I’m going to try to focus on the new things I have experienced since I’ve been here.

One of the best I can think was the first time I saw snow! Living in Florida my whole life I never really had a chance to see it. About two months ago, two Rotarians took me to a place called Nikko, which is about two and a half hours away just so I could see snow! On our way there I fell asleep in the car and when I woke up everything was pure white. I stepped out of the car and almost immediately fell. Snow is a little slippery I found out.

We walked around a small town, and then they took me to an outdoor Onsen. For anyone who doesn’t know what an Onsen or (温泉) is, it is a public bath where everyone sits in nice hot water. I was a little shy the first time I ever went to one but I’m not anymore. The outside Onsen was really interesting I thought. I was sitting in really hot water but my head was freezing because it was snowing outside. That was a very fun day full of new experiences.

Another thing I thought was just kind of funny. My second host family and I would commonly go to a sushi restaurant near our house. At this restaurant you order on a screen and the food is brought to you on a small train. It’s very cool. On the menu they have sections and one of them is a side menu with such things like French fries and fried octopus. I noticed last time I was there that they had chicken wings. It has been 6 long, long months without chicken wings, so I mentioned something to my host dad so of course he orders them. When they arrived without even thinking about it, I started eating these chicken wings with my chopsticks… my host dad probably thought I was crazy when I started laughing really hard when I realized what I was doing. He too was eating them with chopsticks so I had to explain that in the U.S. we eat them with our hands. My girlfriend back in the U.S. said before I left that I would come back eating everything with chopsticks and I’m now starting to believe that statement.

The last one I will talk about in this journal was the moment I felt like Japanese for a few seconds. I was sitting at the table with my counselor talking about my upcoming move. I was telling her that the next week my school was having tests. (When my school has tests I don’t have to go). She didn’t know that the next week were tests and thought I was joking and I immediately responded with a very Japanese response. Everyone in the house stopped and went “oooooo” and then started laughing. They all told me I sounded very Japanese and I was so happy. It may not sound like too much but for an exchange student that means almost everything.

 Mon, March 2, 2015

Hello everyone! Sorry for the big gap (Mrs. Cameron). But a lot has happened these last few months. Since I last wrote I have changed host families. Most of my fellow exchange students have also changed host families, and let me tell you… It kind of sucked. Now I have been with my second family for two months now and everything is great! Its just me my mom and my dad and I’m really bonding with them, however those first couple weeks all I wanted to do was go back to my first family. The weird thing was I was kind of excited to move and experience a different view of Japan with a different family, but when I first changed its like I felt a whole new kind of homesick. That was something I didn’t really expect to feel, and I’m sure I will feel it again when I leave this family.
The holidays were not as hard for me as I thought they would be. Christmas Eve I had school which I was not a fan of. On Christmas I woke up and had breakfast just like every other day. I went to my first host families house and spent the majority of they day there. Christmas was actually very nice. I made them my favorite meal that my mom makes in the U.S. and they made some side dishes and it was a real mixture of cultures. Right before I left their house the strap on my backpack broke so for Christmas they gave a new backpack. I was so shocked and so happy. After we all exchanged presents we ate my absolute favorite cake in the world now.
After winter break everything kind of settled down. I really feel like I’m getting used to life here. School is really not too fun but in my club activity after since my Japanese has gotten better we’ve started to talk a pretty decent amount. The same thing at home I feel like I’m now having substantial conversations or at least being able to get enough across that they know what I’m trying to say. Every night I watch Tv with my host dad and we chat about whatever we are watching. His Japanese I find to be the hardest to understand because he doesn’t really enunciate much. Although with him I’m forced to listen very closely, but there are a lot of times where I just kind of smile and agree with whatever he might be saying.
I am moving again pretty soon and being an exchange student has taught me a lot so far and I only just past half way. The language is still really hard but that’s coming with time. I look forward to seeing where the next half of this year takes me, as I finally feel confortable being here.

Mon, March 2, 2015

So writing this I am about to hit my three month mark in being in Japan. Time is truly moving too fast. Just three days a go I received an email from Mr. Jack Murray telling us that we were already 1/3 of the way through our exchange, and seeing that interviews for the next group is only a couple days away. That was weird to think about. However as I look past on these almost three month I can see where I feel I have grown as a person, and where I have learned so much.

I guess I will start with language. When I was first told I was going to Japan, one of my first thoughts was “oh my gosh… I’m going to have to learn Japanese.” It’s cool to see my progression each month because I know I’m learning more and more. Although of course it is very hard, all languages are. In Three month I think now I can somewhat get by but there is still a lot I don’t understand. I have these moments where I feel like I’m getting it and others where I get sad because I’ll sit there just staring at the person because I have no idea what they just said to me. There are up and down moments here but that’s bound to happen on exchange.

When I asked the best Rotex I know, my sister. She said that I am stressed too much and if I just take a step back it would actually come faster. There are days that I’ll feel really guilty because I spoke a lot of English with other exchange students or in school. She also said that it is ok to use English but “just not 5 hours everyday.” Though she went to Brazil and had completely different experiences her advice always makes me feel better when I start to freak out about the language, school, or anything. If it wasn’t for my sister I don’t think I would have it half as together as I do now.

Another thing that has made the most impact is rather than just studying in a book, when I talk with my host family I notice that I feel I learn more that way. When you actually use the language you learn where your weak points are and then you can fix it. There have been countless times I though what I would say in my head would be correct and then find out its pretty much the opposite word order. Languages take time and I still have 2/3 of my exchange left!

School its still really hard. I now have some teachers who try to include me in lessons and I love it, but… they will ask me questions that are probably really basic that I will still not really understand so I just sit there. This of course makes the other students laugh. Exchange has taught me a few things very fast. When you are put on the spot and everyone is looking at you just have a big smile on your face and nod. Works ever time.

I have pretty much gotten over my fear of public speaking. Having to give a speech almost every week you get pretty used to it. The last thing is when people start laughing just laugh with them. My classmates still seem very reserved in talking with me. Really the most I talk is with my host family. P.E. class is probably the best class of the day even though now it is just running 3 miles every day. But after that they will start to play soccer so I’ll walk over and they’ll ask if I want to play.

My classmates I think are 10 times harder to understand, and it doesn’t help that a lot of them also talk so quietly I can’t really hear them. In school my biology teacher is my favorite teacher. He was in the Japanese Maritime Defense Force, and after about the 6th week of school he pulled me out of class and talked for almost 30 minutes in Japanese with some English words scattered around. Teachers will still try to talk to me in English so it was really nice to have a teacher speak Japanese with me.

I move host families in 2 weeks and I am a little nervous but excited. I feel I have become so confortable here but I know that moving will give me another view of Japan. My next family does not speak any English at all so I am very excited and nervous for that. I think my Japanese will improve a lot there but I also think It will be hard to ask questions. Either way I think it will be a good change.

So far I am truly loving Japan. The people are beyond nice and ask me so many questions. I have almost mastered the first time meeting conversation. I think most exchange students will know what I am talking about. Rotary has made me feel so welcome here and have included me in so much. I have attended my district conference and that was the first time I got to meet all the future out-bounds. They were so curious and were asking so many questions about exchange! I thought that was so funny because that was me just 3 months ago. Heck that’s still me now. Although I have had a slightly slower start then some exchange students with really breaking out I feel like I am starting to get it. I would say I understand a really big portion of what people are saying to me (when I can hear them). The first few months here has already had some up and downs, but now I am starting to feel at home here in the country not just the home.

 Mon, November 24, 2014

みなさんこんにちは!As I am writing this it marks the one-month point of Being in Japan. How crazy is that… It’s something that everyone tells you but time really does fly by.

I have been in school now for four weeks and it is going pretty well, however I was having doubts at first about whether I was really having fun. Let me explain what that means. It is true that everyone here is fascinated with the exchange student but that doesn’t mean they actually really talk to you. Even though they may want to, At least in my experience, is that they will most likely stare at you and maybe say hello. So far in school I have had to get very used to being stared at and watching people kind of laugh as I walk by. The girls are all really funny because they will say hello and then run away laughing.

School was my first real wake up call on exchange. I realized that not everyone would come up to you and want to be your friend right off the bat. It takes a lot of effort to try and communicate with them and show that you want to be their friend too. Of course knowing the language would help A LOT but thats coming along as well. I am about to start my fifth week and my classmates have just started to greet me in Japanese and not English. My club activity is where I feel most confortable in school because those are the people who are not afraid to talk to me in Japanese. Even though I don’t understand much of what they are saying now, we still laugh a lot together but that’s probably because I just nod and smile a lot. My club activity is also where I feel confortable trying to speak some Japanese with people outside my host family. When I came here I thought that overall making friends would be a little easier but it just takes time.

In school itself I have all the classes that my classmates do and a couple self-study periods. They do not really expect me to do much of the work because of course I don’t speak enough Japanese yet. In class I just study my verb lists and other material and listen to the lectures and try to pick out the words I know. For being here one month I feel I have already learned more Japanese than I ever did in a year of French in my school.

A TIP TO FUTURE EXCHANGE STUDENTS: If you are reading this and have already been accepted, and possibly know your country then I have a couple tips. I think most of these will probably apply to anyone but of course to anyone going to Japan. The first and biggest is do not study material that is obviously to advanced for where you are in the learning process. This comes from me trying to do compound sentence structures when I had been here only a week. I didn’t even know enough words to make one sentence really, much less an advanced compound sentence. Even now at one month I’m still in pretty basic sentences. My next tip would be to just study verbs, Lots and lots of verbs. I noticed even though I wouldn’t get the full sentence, knowing the verbs and being able to pick those up has helped a lot for understanding them.

Japanese is a hard language without a doubt and so is any other language. I never though I would ever be able to understand anything in Japanese and not already I am able to understand the gist of the conversation when we are all eating dinner. I think that is just crazy.

Another thing I noticed when I first got here, or the first couple weeks is that I would get very frustrated when I would study. I felt like I had to learn the whole language in just a couple days. Again going back to not trying to study ahead of where you are. Even now there are sometimes where something just won’t make sense and the more my host mom tries to explain to me its like my brain just overloads. After a few minutes I will go back at it but sometimes you just have to take a few breaths and realize you have time to learn.

I had to get used to feeling like an infant and being like I was being treated like a 10 year old. But when you step foot into a whole new country with a completely different set of ideals and you cant speak the language and you have no idea how to get anywhere except to your school you basically are an infant. Just a few days ago my host mom let me and another exchange friend to go Takao-san by ourselves. That was an amazing experience. I was able to transfer trains 3 times and meet him at another train station to then go and climb a mountain. That day was the first time I had been anywhere by myself. That day was the first time I ever tried to speak to someone in Japanese. That day was also the first time I ever ordered food in Japanese. Granted it helps a lot where there are pictures of the food on the menu but still. It was absolutely gorgeous going up the tree-covered paths with them all starting to turn to a yellow and red tint, and then stopping to overlook Tokyo and Saitama. Had it been a little clearer that day we would have also been able to see Fuji-san. I still find it so hard to believe that every day I wake up and say おはようございます instead of good morning, And that when I look out my school window I can see the Tokyo Sky Tree.

It’s only been one month here and I am already so in love with this beautiful country. I’m in love with the people with how nice and willing to help they are. My host mom is starting to feel like she truly is my mom. When I came home from Takao-san she was waiting outside for me and gave me a hug when I reached the door! I had the biggest smile on my face and I felt so at home and loved! She also showed me her family shrine and showed me pictures of her mom and dad and we had a short payer together and it was so amazing to share that experience.

Most people lose weight when they come to Japan but she showers me with so much candy and ice cream and other delicious food I can just never say no. She has already given me so much and taught me so much. Even though she can’t speak English I love listening to her ramble on and on in Japanese, and I love the fact that one day I will be able to come back and have a full conversation with her. My other host mom who is her daughter living at home is the one who really helps me with the language. She speaks really good English, which sometimes I think is a bad thing because it is just easier to communicate in English, but I always tell her to speak to me in Japanese and she does. She is amazing and very patient because I ask her about 200,000 questions a day.

Rotary tells you before you leave that you should never have any expectations, but of course that is impossible. As so as you start thinking about exchange you start thinking what it will be like. When you get your country forget about it. As soon as I found out I got Japan I started to formulate ideas of what it would be like. It’s simply impossible not to.

The best thing about exchange though, reality is so much better than anything you can imagine. Everyday when I am riding my bike to school and see a bus pass by with an advertisement in Japanese that I can partially read, I can’t help but smile a little. It really is hard to believe. I never in my wildest dreams though I would be able to understand any amount of another language but here I am having small conversations in Japanese.

Rotary has already had such an impact on my life and it has just been one month. To anyone who may be on the fence about exchange they only thing I can say is that you would absolutely regret not taking that opportunity. Of course I would recommend doing it through Rotary. Rotary offers such a large support system, and they prepare you so well. The volunteers for our orientations were so helpful and nice.

Exchange has opened my eyes to so much about how the world is so different and how that is such a good thing. The diversity on our small planet is so fascinating. I’m looking forward to learning all that I can about Japan and applying it to my future. I still do not really know what I want to do with my life; all I do know is that I want to see the world and live in as many different countries as possible and become fluent in their languages and cultures too. Exchange shows how strong you can really be and it shows you how hard life can be. The mix of emotions is something I think only other exchange students can really understand.

Japan so far has been amazing and hard, but all the hard work pays off. I plan to write a journal every month or so to keep anyone who reads mine up to date. So until next time さよなら。

 Fri, November 14, 2014

After we get everything situated that’s when it really hit me. I was going to be spending the next year in Japan… WHAT WAS I THINKING?

こんにちは。So my first days in Japan… what an experience. It all started when I got onto my first flight from Daytona Beach into Atlanta International Airport in . Saying goodbye to all my close friends and family was so hard. Even knowing going into this whole year that it would be hard, I was still surprised at how difficult that first flight was.But lets move on from the sad parts.

I arrived in Atlanta and asked a Delta flight crewmember where my next gate would be and she told me it was in the next terminal so I would have to take the underground train that connects them. As I was walking to the train I couldn’t help but notice all the weird looks I was getting because of my blazer, which I already have a large amount of pins on. People seemed amazed  that I would walk through the airport in something like that. That blazer also gets very hot when running around an airport I quickly found out.

I made it onto the train and was only one stop away from the international terminal so that made it very easy. I got off the train and went up two different escalators to get to where the gates where. The terminal was so nice and clean, way different than the rest of the airport. When I arrived at my gate I still had about five hours until my flight was scheduled to depart. So naturally I gravitated to a seat with a plug near by and started watching some movies I got for this exact reason. I was also waiting for a fellow exchange student, Parker Hamilton, who was headed to Japan. We are both from the same district D6970, the best district I might add, and are being hosted in the same district in Japan D2770.

When he arrived we chatted about how we were both a little anxious about getting there and how it felt so weird that the day to leave was already upon us. We both laughed at the fact that when the Japanese translator would make announcements over that loud speakers we could only pick out a bout three words. Finally they tell us that its time to get in line to board the plane. I was starting to feel some nerves at this point. After we get everything situated on the plane and take our seats that’s when it really hit me. I was going to be spending the next year in Japan… WHAT WAS I THINKING?

They pushed the plane back from the gate and we sat there for a little… then a little longer… and then a little longer. Finally the captain made an announcement that something was wrong when they were doing their pre-flight checks and that we had to go back to the gate. All I could think was I hope it was nothing too serious and that we would be on our way in no time. I fell asleep after sitting there for about another 30 minutes or so. After about another hour Parker shook me wake as the captain made another announcement. He said the flight had been cancelled for that day and that we could have to deplane. There was an audible moan from all the pas sengers as we all started to gather our things.

We found out that one of the engines on the plane was malfunctioning, so it was a good thing that the flight was cancelled. Luckily Delta provided us with a hotel for the night and put us on the next earliest flight, which was at 8:30 in the morning. That whole day pretty much consisted of just standing in lines. The next morning we got up at five and headed to the airport around six. When we walked down stairs we had just missed the shuttle. When the next one came it was already practically full and the driver said he could only take two or three people. Parker and I hurried to be those two people. When we finally got there we had a little trouble with our tickets but got it all sorted out. Security went by like a breeze, thanks to the fact that we didn’t have to take anything out of our bags. We made it to our gate and when we finally made it on the plane they only thing I could think about was whether it would actually take off this time. Luckily there were no problems this time and Parker and I were now on our way!!!

The flight itself was not too bad, however there was one bit where the turbulence was kind of rough. The meals were all pretty good although Parker slept through the biggest one we had. When we got close we both took out our cameras and phones to take pictures. When we finally landed we collected our things and started to walk off the plane. We were in the very back of the plane so it took a few minutes to get off. We got off the plane and were instantly confused as to where to go. We got situated and started walking to customs. The first stop we made was a desk where we handed them some forms and they took our pictures for a card that we have to keep. Then we headed down to get our bags. Then we walked only fifty feet to another line where we handed another person a different piece of paper, which said where we were living.

Once we got through that we walked through the doo rs and saw our host families with signs that said “Welcome to Japan”. I walked up to my host family and shook all their hands. Then my host dad pushed me towards Parker because and English speaking news channel was there to interview us. I think we were both very caught off guard. We were both just smiling from ear to ear not really knowing what to say. They asked a lot about my blazer and what all the pins meant. They also asked what we planned to study when we got back. Both of us didn’t really have an answer for that.

Then my family took me to eat at a restaurant at the airport and I talked with a Japanese girl who spoke perfect English, and did an exchange in Denmark. After that we headed out to their car and started to drive home. On the way back I saw where Tokyo Disney is and the Tokyo Sky Tree. My home is only about thirty 30 minutes from Tokyo Station, and is pretty big for a home in Japan.

Also, for anyone who doesn’t know my first host dad is past Rotary International President Sakuji Tanaka. He is really nice and also pretty funny. I’m sure he thinks it’s funny when I can’t understand anyone because he will always chuckle a little. My host mom doesn’t speak a word of English but I think that will be a benefit. I’ve already learned some new Japanese words from them, and I really hope that it will come quickly to me, but I know there will be a lot of studying for that.

My host dad heard that I played golf in high school and he also plays golf so today he took me to a driving range. It has been a little while since I last played but I didn’t do terrible. When we got home lunch was there waiting. After lunch my host dad told me to take a shower because we had been in the heat for a couple of hours. I have only been here two days now and I already have so much to talk about! Because I wrote this one kind of early I will write another one soon.

Mon, August 25, 2014

Brooke - Italy

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club: Gainesville Sunrise, Florida
Host District: District 2110
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Syracuse

My Bio

Chio! My name is Brooke Allen and I am 18. I am from Gainesville, Florida and it is home of the University of Florida. I live with my mom and dad in our suburban home. My sister, who is now away at college, also went on an exchange to Taiwan, with Rotary, in 2012-2013. I would like to say that I am first and foremost I am an artist, so my exchange to Italy is perfect. My art is a big part of who I am. I can’t remember not loving art. My class schedule mimics a college schedule, in that I attend classes on alternating days. This makes my schedule very flexible allowing me to focus on my art, creative interests and even taking art classes at Santa Fe College. I have an executive internship at the Hippodrome State Theatre with the costume and makeup department. I love lending a creative hand to the costumers who work there. In my free time, I enjoy drawing, watching movies, or hanging out with my friends. Making friends with interesting people has always been fun for me. For the past six years, my family has hosted five exchange students with Rotary. These girls have become like sisters to me, and I could not imagine my life with out them. This next year, I look forward to making life long memories and learning many new things in Italy! Becoming an exchange student is one of the most exciting things that I have ever done. I would finally like to thank the Gainesville sunrise Rotary club for sponsoring me and making this wonderful year abroad possible!

Journals: Brooke – Italy

I switched houses on March 14. The whole thing happened all at once. For about a week my host mom said she had been talking to my next host mom. One day she asked if I was excited for something on a Saturday that was to do with my next family. I had heard nothing, and I assumed she said we were going to have lunch or something. The rest got lost in translation. It was a long day of drawing at school. I simply thought we were going to talk bout my lessons, or when I would possibly be moving. I can now see the irony there.

On Wednesday the 11th (my sister’s birthday in America, happy birthday, Gentry!) my next host mom came in to my class to talk to me. During our conversation she asked if I was excited to move in with them on Saturday. What? She asked me if I got her what’s-app message. I hadn’t, thanks to the fact I didn’t have money on my phone for data.

Moving? I wasn’t mentally prepared to move in 4 days. I had to pack all my stuff! If you know me you know I like collecting things. I had stored all my belongings into the nooks and crannies of my room. Moving requires you to pack everything up. Which, in turn, you see all that you have. Everything that you own, and all the things you have collected on exchange.

It was weird having to do that the first time. If you have too much, you need to give some of it away, or throw it out. It’s like a small unshelling of your things, and what you have. No one tells exchange students of this weird phenomenon. It’s an event packing up your life. In a way, you have to mentally prepare yourself. I had four days to do everything required to move. Thankfully there was an assembly on the Friday before. I stayed home and used most of that day and night to pack.

The actual move went as smooth as can be. My second host dad pulled the car up to the front of the building; we loaded most of my stuff, and drove over to the new house. That night my new host family and I went to a 40th anniversary party for a friend. There was only time to unload my things, and go. On Sunday, I did all the unpacking and settling into the new house. I share a room with one of my host sisters. I’ve shared a room before, on trips and things like that, but never for an extended period of time. I do have my own space to keep all of my things.

Also there is one full bath for the whole family, but two bathrooms in total. We call them the red and orange bathroom. The orange has the shower, and the red is for the girls. Sharing both a room and bathrooms like this is a new experience for me. Even so, I think I’ve got the hang of it in the few days I’ve been with them. It’s like a dance, with all of us moving around each other to use one room or the other.

So after moving in with my new family, I moved back after two weeks. Don’t worry, nothing happened. My third family had a trip planed, and was unable to take me with them. I asked to stay with my second host family during the 10 days they would be gone. There’s something to be said about moving back with a family you love so much. I felt like I came home. I told my host mom I missed the smell of the house when we were making my bed. The second day there I went out into Ortigia to draw, and shop, as I had done so many times before. I wound up meeting friends, and staying out the whole afternoon. The weather had gotten considerably better, sunny and bright skies.

It was one of the strangest experiences. I had a new home, and I temporarily moved back to an old one. It’s hard to describe. In a strange way my second host family and me went back into our old routine of things. Even though it was a holiday. I guess you could say it’s like picking up a book you’ve already read. You can remember the times reading it before, but still experience it in a new way.

There is something special about being able to say I’m an exchange student. I’ve worked hard for that title. This short year is the only time where I actually get to play out the act of being a Rotary Exchange student. It can only happen once in your life. I take it as a super power. I see these tee shirts all over face book saying “I’m an exchange student/bi-lingual/have an accent, what’s your super power?” I can’t help but giggle. It’s true. Having some, or all of these things make you stick out. It’s like your super power to be a foreign exchange student.
We stop seeing the world from a one-sided view, and start seeing it through two.

Fri, May 8, 2015

You would guess I eat spaghetti and meatballs every day. Yes, some form of pasta is served each day, but it’s not your classic “Nonna’s Italian red sauce, with meatballs, and long stringy pasta” kind of dish. Most of the pastas are actually short or small. The sauces vary from a toping of veggies, pesto, or maybe some simple broth. Yes, I have come across red sauce in my home cooked meals here, but never have there been meatballs in it. I learned recently this is because of the region of Italy I am in. Red sauce with long spaghetti is the classic dish of Rome. The north has polenta and the south has its couscous.

Continuing along with everything is not as it seems, I have been traveling a little. For Carnival, my third host family sent me, and my twin host sisters to Venice, and Verona. We flew up February 13-17 for a very long weekend. My sisters and I stayed with their aunt, uncle, and son. I absolutely loved the family. The aunt is an English teacher. She found me interesting, and apparently, every year, the uncle decides the family will start speaking English at home. He thought I was the perfect launch off point for this year. Dinner became an outlet of practicing English, and Italian for me. I actually learned a lot in the short time I was there. I simply adored the family, and felt extremely welcome and well cared for. Experiences like this; there is no possible way to fully thank someone properly for. I did my best, and gave them a piece of my artwork in the form of a thank you card.

While on this trip, we were to visit Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, and Venice, the city of canals. I need to talk about Juliet’s balcony first and foremost. I watched Letters to Juliet a few years ago, and fell in love with the movie. The fact that there were ladies in the quaint little town of Verona replying to letters seemed magical. Love letters would get an answer from Juliet. In the movie, the balcony was nestled mysteriously in a side street. There were only true lovers, or the broken hearted there. You could stick your envelope in between the stones of the wall, where later a lady with a basket would come to collect them.

Everything was a completely different from the movie. The movie fully glorifies the humbleness of the whole place. First off, the real Juliet’s Balcony is not down some cobble-stoned street tucked away from the city. It’s next to a big shopping district, and Juliet’s balcony is a tourist trap. There is gum, and torn notes stuck on the walls. Scraps of paper with written names are the validation of some Italian couple. If you have an actual letter to Juliet, you give it to some lady behind a counter in the gift shop. Her sole purpose is to make sure the Chinese tourists don’t go up to the balcony without buying a ticket. The whole ordeal was a mess of confusion. The crowd of tourists and cluster of over priced gift shops, swindled what could have been an amazing atmosphere. What I expected, from what I saw, were two sides of the moon.

That’s what I get for having expectations from a movie. Verona is still an amazing city. Juliet’s Balcony was really the only surprise I would file under a sad tourist trap. The rest is what you would expect from the City of Love. Quiets streets, high-end shopping, and café (coffee) bars everywhere. I still had the canal city Venice to visit on my vacation. However, Venice was all for the tourists too.

I assumed there would be some people who actually lived on the island. Some local boater, or maybe even the gondola steersmen would. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they lived on the island. As far as the eyes could see were street venders, and tourists being herded around. I’m not kidding when I say herded. Everyone stayed on the same path going to and from St. Mark’s square. Imagine a jam-packed highway, but instead of cars, you have people.

To get to the island you had to take a train. My boxcar was full of people. The boarding flats on the train were full, and it was standing room only available when I got on with my family. This was expected; I went around the time of Carnival. All of these tourists made me really appreciate Siracusa. Carnival in Italy isn’t as big or extravagant as it is in Brazil, but it’s still a pretty big deal in Venice. All of these tourists made me really appreciate Siracusa. It’s celebrated with costumes, festivals, and extravagant parties. Venice is the place to go to if you want a true Italian carnival mask, also. They have amazing hand crafted masks, and specialty mask makers. So of course, I had to buy one for a souvenir. I ended up picking out a Doctor mask, because of its unique shape. It’s currently one of my favorite possessions. The mask is of high quality, and has false gold embellishment. My host sister’s aunt and uncle thought I would have difficulty packing it on the return flight home, but the nose is hollow. I stuffed sox and tee shirts into the thing, and it successfully survived the trip.

Back home, the weather in Sicily has been brutal. I haven’t been doing much outside, because of it. The island of Ortigia somehow has perfect ventilation. The small narrow streets create a flawless funnel for the wind. My second host family’s house is located there. At the beginning of living in Ortigia, I would go running in the mornings and have café’ (coffee) outside in the afternoons. Seeing the historic city in the morning was the most beautiful thing. I really enjoyed my morning jogs, but had to stop because it started raining periodically. Everyday since Christmas, in fact. Besides that the skies are cloudy and gray. I’m hoping this period of wind and clouds will be over soon. The island of Ortigia is the place to be, especially in the sun.

One of the few things to do in the cold is to go to the cinemas. My second host family and I have gotten into the habit of going every Tuesday night. The theater has a special in showing English movies. There are sub titles in Italian for those who don’t understand. I read them, as practice for Italian. Going to see the movies is probably one of my favorite things to do with my family. It’s a whole experience. My host mom picks me up after taking the younger daughter to studies. We eat in the car, usually having a Panini and Coca-Cola. All three of us joke that this way is the true way to eat like an American. Italians don’t eat in their cars. Take away is usually brought home, and I only know of one drive through here.

When we arrive at the theater we sneak in our half eaten sandwiches and drinks. Somehow that’s become a really fun part of the night for me. People in Italy don’t care if you bring some thing in to the theater or not. It’s just not preferred. By this time my older host sister and host dad meet us at the theater. My sisters have their purses to stick their commodities in. I however have a big coat, with large pockets. One pocket gets the sandwich, and the other gets the drink. I have to make sure to keep my hands in my pockets to seem normal. This whole ordeal leaves us girls giggling till the theater goes dark, and we can pull out our delicious smuggled goods.

Everything still seems to mesh together. Even going on trips, and normal days seem to merge together into one memory. My friend back home asked me if it feels crazy to have lived here for over half a year. My response was “Nope, it feels like life”. Her response actually shocked me “That’s a beautiful way to think about it.” A beautiful way to think about it? That’s not what I think about it! That’s what it feels like, that’s what it is!! Living here has become my normal, everyday life. I have a day-to-day, this is what I do, routine. “A normal life”, I’ve been chewing over this fact in my mind for several days. I can’t get over the fact that some people don’t understand what that is. Exchange becomes your life. It becomes your every day. It is my normal to wake up every day and expect to eat pasta and speak Italian. Realizing there is this difference in people, who have and haven’t gone on exchange or experience similar things, shows me how special we “exchangers” are. We stop seeing countries as places to visit, but places to live.

Being 2/3 of the way through with my exchange seems surreal. The thought of moving houses every three months, Italian art school, and traveling in Italy has become my normal life. Walking to and from Italian lessons, seeing a bay out my kitchen window, and going on foot through Ortigia is what I have come to know day-to-day. When I booked my return flight date, the realization hit me. My time here set. There is a day when I will leave this place. If I ever return, it will never be the same. There is no security blanket of Rotary, not like I’ve had it. Of course, I feel I will always be welcome here with open arms and a smile. My experience of being an exchange student will end once I step foot in America. I can’t thank Rotary and all the Rotary volunteers on all the work in providing me with this experience.

 Fri, March 20, 2015

It doesn’t feel like the holidays were just last month. It seems like more time has passed than one, small month. A lot has happened since my last journal.

It’s hard to remember everything that happened in a blur. With out the school day to split up the weeks, the whole holiday season become a mesh. But with it was a fun, cold, food and family filled mesh. At the beginning of December, I switched families. I don’t know how, but all my things doubled. I came with a big suitcase, a small one, and a backpack. Switching houses I had filled my suitcases, two bags, and six boxes. I don’t even want to imagine what my third move will be like. My new house is in Ortigia, the ancient, historical part of the city. Just a few blocks from the Duomo. It is an island, so now I’m living on an island, on an island.

The house is not only new to me, but also the family. They had just moved in a month earlier. There are still lights that need fixtures, and a room with no furniture. When I arrived there was nothing on the walls. My host mom loves art and artists (lucky me!) She invited a group of her three artist friends to set up all of her painting and photos. Now the house looks like a gallery. Even with the new decor, there are still things that need fixing. It took two weeks to finish my bathroom. Don’t worry. I was clean for those two weeks. I shared with my host sister’s bathroom.

New Years was my favorite. All the family from Christmas, and then some came to my host family’s house. There were so any people that there had to be two tables. The kids at one and the adults at another table. I lost count of the dinner courses. After a while my table, the kids and “young adults”, stopped eating. We were absorbed by the New Year’s Eve show. At midnight they had a count down just like in Time Square. We were all so excited. Shouting “auguri” and toasting champagne. After that one of the aunts produced floating lanterns. We tried lighting, and releasing them to the sky. It didn’t exactly work. One got ripped, and it was raining. Lanterns and rain don’t exactly mix. But it was joyous, happy start to the New Year.

The magical part of the whole experience was the snow. Sicily’s weather is just like Florida. It never ever snows. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It snowed on New Years. Just like a Miracle, or a very welcomed omen. The snow was white and floating, softly bringing in the New Year.

No one talks about the mundane everyday part of exchange. All exchange student’s talk about traveling, meeting interesting people, having unique adventures, and learning the host language. However, you do fall into a routine. Your life becomes exactly that, a life. Get up, go to school, return home, afternoon activities, dinner, bed, and repeat. You become accustomed to your surroundings, and what you do every day.

This is the problem. You forget to see the incredible things, because you see them every day. After Skyping with my parents, this was when my mother said, “it can be boring in paradise?” Those words have been raining in my ears ever since. I was able to re-see everything after that. The incredible city I live in, the amazing people I live with, the different culture I have adapted to. Wow. That’s it. I’ve succeeded. I’ve adapted to the differences that exist between the cultures. I’m no longer the new student, the different student. I’m just another student in an Italian High School. It’s like I have to sometimes remember my younger self. The four months younger, wide-eyed and fresh off the plane self. I wish I had those young eyes with me all the time. When you adapt and get used to something, it becomes normal to you. You can forget to see.

It’s hard to remember that this exchange experience is totally unique, exciting, interesting, and different to each exchange student. These past few months have been just a normal life to me. The every day mundane, and that’s because it was. Hopefully I’ll be able to travel more soon. A pause in the everyday routine. I have switched to the art school. I’m drawing, painting and sculpting 24/7 now. My mind becomes numb after drawing, painting, and sculpting for six hours straight. I just want to go home, eat pasta, and curl up for an afternoon nap. Oh, in Sicily it’s perfectly normal to take afternoon naps. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m I love with this laid-back lifestyle.

I don’t want to talk about the language too much. I still feel as though I’m fumbling over what words to say, and it seems most people have no idea what I’m trying to convey. I can understand most things. I’ve come a long way since I first arrived here. Everyone says my pronunciation is very good. Some say my Sicilian is better than my Italian. I probably need to give myself more credit, but I don’t think I study as much as I should. Too many naps after lunch I guess.

My favorite advice, that I want to share, is not to have expectations. This probably prepared me the most. Every exchange is different and you don’t know what your experience will be. Even if it gets hard, an exchange student has to stick with it and continue on through. You may not get to do some of the things you want to do, but you will get to do things you can’t even imagine. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. That’s how to look at it. (I’m talking to you future out bounds).

~ciao
Brooke

 Sun, February 1, 2015

As I continue along my time here in Sicily, things begin to slow down. When I first arrived in Sicily it was like a gun shot went off. Everything was happening at once. There were so many new things. People were taking me places. I was doing new things and tasting different foods, but now it’s slowed down. I’ve fallen in to a pattern. Get up, go to school, come home, eat, wait till you eat next, sleep and then repeat. That basically sums it up. This lulling pattern has become mundane to me. That’s when I realized it’s up to me to make my exchange truly extraordinary.

Yes, Rotary will take you on trips, you will meet new people, and see new things, but it’s the times in between that count. The parts when your home alone to fend for yourself, is where your true exchange colors come out. I could sit home and sleep all day if I wanted. Naps are perfectly acceptable here. I chose a more colorful route. Nearby I found a music shop. Low and behold I found th e most glorious green uakele there. I bought the instrument. Now, besides Italian, have something new and challenging to learn. I’ve always wanted a little tropical instrument, but for some reason, I put it off. Going on exchange is the perfect opportunity to do things you’ve always wanted to, like learn how to play the ukulele.

On the same day I purchased my ukulele, I received my box from my parents. I’ve anticipated this box ever since my mom told me she sent it. I don’t know what it is about getting things in the mail that’s so exciting. It could be the familiarity of the contents inside. To me it was like getting a piece of home in a place that is still new to me. In a way it brought comfort, and reminded me of things back home.

You must know, exchange students are the ultimate snackers. I have to admit I am gulity of the occasional Nutella hoarding. It didn’t help that my mom sent me candy corn, and Nilla-wafers. You wouldn’t believe how sweet Nilla wafers are compared to the typical Italian biscotti. It was like a sugar over load. But Nilla wafers with Nutella, and you have the ultimate exchange student snack. Something old and something new. They kind of came together in a mysterious way that made me miss home.

I’ve realized how sweet American sweets are compared to the rest of the world. Even with my travels to China, Taiwan, and now Italy, I have to say America takes the cake when it comes to sweets. I blame the sugarcane, and corn syrup we use. The closest thing I’ve had to an American sweet here was a cupcake. However, the name of the shop was “The American Bakery”. This bakery uses American recipes which tickled my taste buds. I got an Oreo cupcake. It had an Oreo at the bottom, and in the icing. Besides that, they used cream cheese in their icing. I didn’t know how much I could miss something that tastes familiar. It was very American.

The holidays are approaching and the days are getting colder. I have always liked how this world changes for the holidays. Even the food does, and in Sicily, I’ve said before, food dominates. It’s one of the main differences I’ve realized. I went to a wedding a few weeks ago and even at a wedding, food dominates everything. The event was under the shadow of the volcanic glory that is Mount Etna. The church and afternoon eating was in Catania. A 45 to 50 minute drive from Siracusa. The ceremony was beautiful, despite the fact I had no clue what was going on. It’s ok, having no idea what’s going on half the time. This is part of being an exchange student.

After the ceremony we got into cars to go to what I assumed would be the after party. My car got lost. It was just more confusion to me. Driving around streets having no idea where I was being taken to, or what we were doing, but knowing somehow at some point food would be involved. When the party finally found where we were going, I was right. There was food everywhere.

There is only one way I can describe it: an afternoon eating. We started off with appetizers, or what they call an aperitif—-. It was mini versions of Classic Sicilian food. Next was a buffet. Cuscuses, cheese, pilla, hams, meats, rice and some foods I didn’t recognize, were all served. I thought it was strange that the buffet was being eaten while standing up, but assumed it was some Italian thing people did at weddings. I thought it was the final meal so I filled myself up. I was so wrong to think that. I should have known better. Italians love to eat. To my horror, the whole wedding party moved to the dining room, where there were several more courses served. I was completely full. However, being an exchange student I wanted to try everything. I asked for just a taste, and ate what I could. I had to remember there was still desert to come and I needed room for that. After the sit down dinner, there was dancing. I guess everyone burned off what they ate, because after that deserts were in the garden. It was amazing. A whole pavilion filled with three huge tables of desserts. My desert stomach opened up and I went crazy. Needless to say I slept very well on the car ride home.

I could not be happier now than in Siracusa. I am though, starting to push to go to the art high school. My current school, Corbino, is a scientific high school. They rotate through math, chemistry, physics, philosophy, religion, and art history. It’s a good school, but for me, as an artist, it’s not a perfect fit. I am often bored, thanks to the language barrier. Sometimes I opt for my sketch book, or I write my experiences down. I mainly listen and to try to learn the language, and try not to disrupt the class from learning. However, art is my passion.

My third host mom works at Liceo Artistico A Gagini art high school. It offers painting, sculpture, restoration, drawing, and jewelry. My host mom wants me to come to her school. To go there would be an incredible experience. I’ve dipped my toes into the world of jewelry making before. I would love to try it again. I already draw so much in my sketch book. Why not train that skill a little more? I’ve had art classes all my life. Not having them here in Sicily is a little strange. I really miss it. I miss getting in to the flow of the work and creating. I am in the land of art. I’m surrounded by old architecture, and sculptures. All I want to do here is create. It’s hard to do that going to a scientific school. But I know, whatever the outcome with the schools is, I’m privileged to have this amazing experience with Rotary.

I was once given the advice, “you learn better through something you love.” My language learning needs more practice. I could practice through art, and maybe I would learn quicker. Not to mention, next year I will go to an art college. To get in, I need a well rounded portfolio of art work. At the art school, I could create more pieces. The current work I have is from my high school years. All I can think of is what I would create if I was set loose in this art school. It’s an all around win for me, this art experience in Italian.

The time line of what has happened is starting to blur. Everything that has happened has distilled itself into a blob of memories that is my life here. This adventure is becoming more of a life, and seeming less like a trip. They are right when they say “it’s not a year of your life; it’s a life in a year.” This time here just seems more precious knowing it has a time limit. Experiences and invitations are not to be taken lightly. I’m trying to get as many experiences as I can, see as much as I can see, because all and all, I will have to return. As of now, I’m excited to still leave time to be here. I’m going to live this experience to its full potential, because that’s just what exchange students do. Till my next post.

~Ciao
Brooke

Fri, November 7, 2014

The Start of an Adventure!

Well, my first few weeks have already come full circle. I woke up this morning, stepped outside and said to my self “you’re in an amazing city.” Truthfully, I am. I came to Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily not exactly knowing what to expect. I had done research and looked on the Internet, but how much is that really? Going through the airport, I only had connection with my host family when I had wifi. Concerning my flights, everything was ok, until I got to Amsterdam.

My flight to Rome was delayed, so when I arrived in Rome, my next flight would have left. But that’s ok. I’m an expert in airports, considering it took me 52 hours just to get back home this summer from Taiwan. I have been around the block a few times in airports, so I was comfortable. Stepping off the plane in Amsterdam, I only knew my flight time and destination. There was no kiosk to help me, so I went to the big screens where all the flight times were. There I found my gate number and something called a transit station. Ok, this was new. Probably had something to do with the fact that Amsterdam is a big hub for all of Europe. My Transit Station was ”T2”, so that’s what I went looking for.

“T2” turned out to be something like a customs line and a second baggage check. Going with the flow, I followed the procedures. After that I found the “T2” ticket station. I printed up my ticket and the itinerary for all of my flights. I thought maybe it would come in handy later to have all of my flights. Realizing I had about over an hour to kill, I exchanged my dollars to euros and sat down with my sketchbook. If you have to know one thing about me, it should be that, I’m an artist. I love art and while I’m in Europe, I hope to travel and see as much art as I can!

My trouble started when I landed in Rome. For some reason I had to re-print my Amsterdam and Rome tickets when I arrived in the airport. Well, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” I had no idea where to go or what I should do in the Rome airport, so I just followed people that were on my flight. We ended up at a luggage claim. I was thinking, “Ok, this is where I get my luggage and go through customs.” I waited for an hour. No bag of mine turned up.

Fed up with waiting, I decided to go look for a check – in counter, as I had done so many a times coming back from Taiwan. I found one, and the clerk solved the very problem I had at the moment. He put me on the next flight to Cantina, told me how to properly pronounce that city’s name, and re – directed my luggage. I went through security and had another hour to wait for my next flight.

I was exhausted. I passed out on the plane. Only to wake up an hour later to realize we had been delayed for an hour, and we were about to take off. Just so you know I was supposed to arrive in Cantina at about 5pm. I arrived at 9pm. But that’s not the best part. My luggage didn’t arrive till four hours later. During that time I waited two hours in the terminal to only find out only half of the planes luggage was there. Yeah, Italy. Apparently this was very typical of Italian airlines.

At this point I was exhausted from traveling. I went to find my host parents who were no doubt waiting for me. Oh, did I mention that I at this point, I could only communicate with wifi, and there was none when I got to Rome. Yep, I had no way to tell the host family what was going on till I met them. But they were there waiting for me. They helped me get all of my luggage and we headed to their house or my new “home”.

It’s been a month now since arriving. Since I got here, I’ve eaten nothing but pizza, pasta, and fish. Italy is truly the land of carbs. Everything I have tried, I have liked. I don’t know what it is about the food that makes it so amazing. Maybe it’s because everything is grown locally on this volcanic island? It’s all so fresh even down to the fish. Which, by the way, I can walk down to the bottom if my apartment building and there is a Pescaria (fish shop).

Food dominates when mealtime comes around. The meal always starts out with some pasta dish, and then comes mozzarella, maybe some bread, and some Italian deli meat. After that is coffee and maybe a cake if you want. At first I thought they were just trying to feed me well. I was new and they wanted me to try all the good Sicilian food. As it turns out the Sicilians just have big meals for lunch and dinner. My host mom explained to me that they don’t really have a breakfast. Maybe a coffee espresso, some fruit, or perhaps bread with Nutella. I really miss biscuits, eggs, gravy, and bacon.

The cars are so small here. I have a VW bug at home, which I thought it was a small car. Here, it’s one of the bigger cars. All the cars are small, because all the roads between the houses are tiny, ancient lanes. I can’t imagine my mom’s big Yukon XL trying to weave its way though the alleys of Siracusa. Besides the cars, almost every teen has a moped. At the age of 14 you can get a moped license. At 18 you can get a car license, but until then every young person rides a moped. It’s easy for mopeds to weave in and out of traffic. It’s kind of scary having to share the roads with mopeds.

The driving laws are a little loose here. That’s one of the main differences I’ve noticed. Most of the regulations for driving are disregarded. Except for stoplights. Its like everyone here expects all drivers not to be stupid and know how to drive. Same with the parking. I’ve seen my host mom park in some pretty impossible places. Mopeds can park practically whereever they want, including in between cars and sometimes on sidewalks.

One thing I really like is the Italian time frame. They have a half hour of leeway to arrive somewhere. For example, if I’m going to meet some of my new friends at 8:30pm, some may not arrive till 9pm. Its part of the relaxed Italian life style. Taking a nap in the afternoon is common as well. It gets really hot here, and the food is lulling in the heat. So, the combination of the two, will sooth you into an after noon nap.

Being an exchange student, yes, you will come across awkward situations. Mainly these situations are caused by cultural differences and miscommunication. I didn’t know that in Italy, even though you don’t have assigned seats, you stay in the same seat. I found this out on the second day of school when I chose a different seat. The guys in my class, to them, their seats are very important. They all want to sit as far away from the teachers as possible.

On the first day I had no choice to sit in the front. On the second day, I sat in the middle of the class. I had unknowingly disrupted the balance of the class. That day I saw the Italian passion come out as the males of the class argued about a new seating arrangement. Of course, it was all in really loud Italian so I had no idea what was going on. I have to admit it was scary. Not knowing a language and having it shouted all around a room and at you can be kind of scary. The girls of the class told me it was ok, that the guys were crazy. They explained to me the dynamics of seating arrangements in Italy. I had learned my lesson. It’s the fourth week of school and I’ve been sitting in my original seat ever since.

I must specifically talk about Italian passion. As I mentioned, Italians can be overly passionate compared to Americans. Everyone knows Italians use body language as much as spoken language. Italians don’t just like things, they love things. Using body language helps get that out. Everyone here is incredibly nice. Everyone wants to help. I was welcomed with open arms, and accepted in like one of the family immediately upon my arrival. You can tell someone’s true feelings by their body language, and actions. It’s one of the reasons why I love Italians. It’s easy to read them, and they make sure you know how they feel.

My current host mom, on Tuesdays, works during lunch. So my third host family invited me to have lunch with them on those days. I didn’t know I could feel a part of two different families. It seems that everyone here is a part of one big loving family. On the topic of loving, the Italians kiss on the cheek here. I wasn’t exactly prepared the first time I kissed a stranger on the cheek. It’s still strange to me, and I don’t know exactly when to or not to give kisses. But, hey, it’s an experience. I think when I return to America I’ll still try to dollop out cheek kisses like they do here.

A month has passed. It doesn’t even seem like it. I can clearly remember exiting the Cantina airport for the first time. I’ve made magnificent friends and eaten more pasta and pizza than I thought possible. I love it here. I can feel myself becoming more and more Italian every day. Learning the language isn’t easy, and some times I miss my friends and family back home really terribly. But when you’re on exchange, you have to take the good and the bad together. Learn something from everything, and as an exchange student you can grow in unimaginable ways. I could preach all about exchange for hours, but the only way to truly know is to experience it for your self. I’m not kidding when I say if you want to do something amazing, go apply. Going on exchange is eye opening to the world.

If you want to have the best year of your like, you also have to accept it will be your worst. Humans instinctively hate the unknown. When you’re on exchange your uncomfortable, and you feel out of place sometimes. Who in their right mind would do that to themselves? An exchange student would, because in the end you become familiar with the unknown. After some time your host country will suddenly become home. “Its not a year in your life, it’s a life in a year.” And if you want to have the most life changing life in a year, become an exchange student. You won’t regret it.

I’m not going to lie, not everything is lollypops and smiles. It’s inevitable you will miss your family and friends. But that’s the price you have to pay for an amazing exchange. I am constantly amazed at the history and artifacts here. It has that same sense of a walled city by the ocean that St. Augustine does. Seriously, Siracusa has the largest amount of catacombs and buried temples than any other city. Its one reason why the people here are so proud of their city, as well as why they can’t have a subway in it. Italians really pride them selves on their local culture and antiquities. Everywhere in my city there are ancient ruins. It’s incredible to see these thousand year old structures, still somehow, standing. My favorite to drive by is, the cave dwellings. It looks like little homes carved out from the rocks. They also have an ancient Greek amphitheater. It is one of the three largest still in use.

Some of what you would expect of Sicily is true. The people are warm and friendly. It’s sunny. Open-air markets are filled with the freshest produce and amazing cheeses. The food is great. And yes, they really do talk with their hands. My first host family has 2 daughters. One studying at the University in Milan and the younger is a Rotary Youth Exchange, just like me. So, I am in her bedroom and actually “filling in” for her at school. I don’t really understand a lot at school, but I now have an Italian tutor 3 times a week. I am the only Rotary Exchange student in Siracusa. It’s just the beginning and I’m excited about all that will come my way. Till next time.

~Cioa
Brooke

Wed, October 15, 2014

Cameron - Taiwan

Hometown:Saint Augustine, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Bartram Trail, Florida
Host District: District 3510
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Fengshan

My Bio

WOW……. I am so thankful to Rotary for giving me the opportunity to study abroad in Taiwan for the 2014-2015 school year! I know it will be an amazing opportunity and I cannot wait to see this beautiful country first hand. Well, my name is Cameron and I live in the gorgeous county of St. Johns, which has been home to me for a long time. I live with my mom and step-dad that have supported me through the emotional roller coaster that I have experienced since I decided to apply to be an exchange student. Also living with me is my sister Meghan who is about 2 years younger than I and with whom I’ve always been close. I currently attend Bartram Trail High School as a freshman and take honors and AP courses. My favorite class is AP Human Geography. This year, in AP Human Geography we have actually talked quite a bit about Taiwan! This was really interesting once I realized that I would be going there next year! Although I like school (Yes, I said it… I like school!) the real fun in my day comes after the bell rings. I participate in Spanish Club (Hola) and I am in Competitive Cheerleading/Tumbling. I practice tumbling (which is most similar to gymnastics) and cheerleading several days every week to become the best in the country. It’s very hard work, but it is also very rewarding when you win competitions! During my exchange, I want to accomplish two things: to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese; and to make as many friendships with people and memories as I can! I can honestly say that this will be a life changing experience. Thank you Rotary!!!

 Journals: Cameron – Taiwan

As I have come to assimilate myself into the daily life of an average Taiwanese, I realize that I love Taiwan, and I never want to leave.

As some of you may know, I have been living in Taiwan for about two months. As I write this, I cringe at the reality that my exchange year is just that, a year. As I have come to assimilate myself into the daily life of an average Taiwanese, I realize that I love Taiwan and I never want to leave. Sure I have good days (today being one of them) and I most certainly have bad ones, however, there is no denying the fact that Taiwan has become a home to me.

I have become close friends with many Taiwanese, and other exchange students, that it’s hard to imagine how life would be without talking and hanging out with them every day. No matter how in depth I describe my amazing life in Taiwan, there will be always be a little part that is, in a word, indescribable. I guess in some cases, you just have to be there.

This past month has most certainly been one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It was filled with happiness, Taiwanese food, and more, sooooo much more Taiwanese food. The beginning of the month followed the start of the Taiwanese school year, and with that being said, I can honestly tell you that the Taiwanese school system is COMPLETLEY different from the American school system. In America, my school hours were from 9 a.m to 3:50 pm, but in Taiwan it is common for school to begin at 7:30 and end at 4 p.m. You are probably thinking, “Oh, that’s only an hour and a half more, it’s not that bad” However that is just the time for school and is not considering the countless hours students spend studying, attending before and after school classes and night school.

Night school is just what you think, school at night. To prepare for the seemingly never ending tests, many Taiwanese students go to night school after regular school and stay there for a few more hours (and then go home and study.).In Taiwan, tests are a major factor on the rest of your life, they determine what you can be in life (like a doctor, politician, etc.), and your scores determine which college you go to, or even if you go to college. From my perspective, I feel as if the Taiwanese are too involved in school, that school officials are putting way too much pressure on high school students to memorize textbook by textbook of information and then having a bunch of tests on it. (By typing this, I am in no way criticizing the Taiwanese educational system, I am just stating my observations and opinions.)

Either way, Taiwan has a different method on educating its citizens and I find it interesting comparing the two systems. Since Taiwan has such a rigorous educational system, the exchange students and I usually just sit in our classes (We are separated, each exchange student is in a different class) all day while our classmates study and learn subjects ranging from Physics to G.I.S. To pass the time, I just study Chinese and listen to my music, but it’s still really boring.

The worst part about it is sitting in a classroom filled with people who don’t speak English, is sitting in a room that doesn’t have AC. Let me say, that was by far the hardest thing to get used to, now I just bring a fan and never wear long pants of any kind. (Not even the hottest day in Florida could compare to a mild day in Taiwan!) After each 45 minute class, students get a ten minute break to go to the bathroom, drink water and socialize. (Most don’t because they’re to busy cramming for a test)

I have to admit, I really like having ten minutes in between class because you can talk to your friends and just see how everyone is doing, its real fun. On Mondays and Wednesdays the exchange students at my school and a neighboring one attend Chinese class for two hours where we learn everything from tones to characters. Let me say, Chinese is not an easy language to grasp. I`m really struggling right now to learn the language and I`ve talked to other exchange students and they are all in the same boat as me.

The hardest part is the vocabulary as it sounds nothing like English (totally different sounds are used) and when the Taiwanese speak, they speak really fast and it sounds as if they are speaking gibberish (I still think they are…). Although the language is really difficult, who learned CHINESE (arguably the hardest language in the world) right off the bat in the first two months? So I’m studying as hard as ever because I really want to learn Chinese because it is so rewarding when you can have actual conversations with the Taiwanese, I love it!

Even though the language is a little challenging and school is a little boring, I am having a blast! The weekends are what I live for in Taiwan, they are like mini vacations every week! Usually on the weekends, my family takes me all over Taiwan to sight see and have fun! Matter of fact, Just last week my parents took me on a weekend vacation to Taipei for Taiwanese Independence day! (Taiwanese Independence day is similar to the 4th of July).

While in Taipei I spent the day with Juliana (The other RYE Florida outbound, she lives in Taipei) where we shopped, hung out with some of her Taipei exchange student friends (who were unbelievably cool) and ate at Modern Toilet. You probably read that and said “Modern Toilet, what in the world is that?” Well to answer your question, it is a toilet themed restaurant where everything is toilet themed, even the seats which were real toilets! (a must go to place for all future outbounds).

It was beyond awesome meeting up with her and visiting Taipei! The rest of the weekend was spent visiting Shi Fen and Jiu Fen, two cities that are situated in the mountains. It was beyond beautiful; the city was surrounded by mountains and the ocean which made for a very scenic city . We went to these two cities because Shi Fen is famous for lanterns (My family and I bought one, designed it and then released it like a balloon!) and Jiu Fen is famous for being a mining city! I actually went inside mountain through a mine shaft, it was beyond cool and I loved it!

It was such a fun weekend that I wouldn’t trade for the world! Although I don’t travel to Taipei my family always takes me somewhere on the weekend like the night market or a temple which I like because it means I`m always busy! Even when my family doesn’t take me somewhere (which strangely, doesn’t happen very often) I`m always going out and visiting Kaohsiung with all the other exchange students who have become a second family to me.

Even though this journal wasn’t as long as I wanted it to be it still serves its purpose which is to tell you how much I love Taiwan!!! Right now, I’m having the time of my life in Taiwan, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I will post again real soon about the differences of Taiwan and America (There are so many!) but until then, zaijian!

 Mon, October 20, 2014

Let me describe this to you, numerous types of fish, soy sauce, shrimp, and fish sauce all on pizza crust….

I AM FINALLY HERE, well, to be technical, I have been living in Taiwan for about one week (has it really been that long?). Where do I begin? So much has happened in the last five days that if I told you all of the emotions that I have felt, or the experiences that have occurred, your head just might spin. So, I guess the flight to Taiwan is a good place to start.

On the morning of my flight I was, how you say, a hot mess. I was worried that my flight might be rescheduled (Again), frantically checking my carry on (I checked at least ten times) making sure I had my passport and forms but most of all, I was excited. My family, friends, and I have talked about my exchange and me leaving for a year, but it was such a shock when it actually happened. It’s almost indescribable, feelings that only exchange students could possibly know of.

On the morning of truth, my family and I drove to the airport where I checked in my bags and received my flight itinerary (All flights were on time, thank god). After I checked in and everything, my family and I went to security. It was bitter sweet. I know that I will see them again in a year, but it was unimaginably hard saying good bye. For a moment, I wondered if I could fit them all in my bag and take them with me, but I decided against it. After all the farewells, surprisingly no tears (that I know of), I got in line for security and I was off!

My first two flights were very uneventful. They both were long and boring. Once my flight landed in in San Francisco, I had a few hours to burn before my flight to Hong Kong so I just emailed my mom and ate Mentos. (I am OBSSESSED with Mentos, I brought like 3 packs of 5 with me). Once it was time to board my flight, I said my goodbye to America and hello to Taiwan.

My flight to Hong Kong was anything but comfortable. I had no arm/leg space, the girl next to me fell asleep on my arm, and I was sooooo hungry. (If anyone says airplane food is good, they’re lying) Honestly, the only thing that got me through the flight was sleeping(Thank you Tylenol PM) and wondering what my new life it Taiwan might be like.

After what seemed like forever but was only sixteen hours, I landed in Hong Kong! It was beyond beautiful. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong would put any of those in Florida to shame. It was a really cool sight. Once I landed, I had to check in and get my boarding pass. Once I reached the check in counter I was face to face to the employee who could not be older than seventeen. Between his limited English and my even more limited Chinese, we got through it and I got my ticket.

It turned out that my gate changed, so I walked to my new gate and then proceeded to relax. For about ten minutes I sat there shuffling my deck of cards (I do it when I`m bored) until a woman dressed in a woman’s suit approached me in a businesslike manner. She worked for the airport and asked if I wanted to take a survey. Since I was just sitting there I said “Why not.” Even though she basically filled out the survey for me, she was nice company, and I was really glad that we had met. At the end, she gave me Chinese cough drops (now that I think about it, I might try them today). Anyways, my flight started boarding and I thought to myself, “Wow. I really am going to be living in Taiwan for a year. This is insane.” That was the first moment my exchange felt real to me. I knew that there was no going back once I stepped onto the plane so when I did, I felt like a true exchange student.

Once on my flight to Kaohsiung (Taiwan), I was looking for my seat number and somehow missed it. Instead of going through the congested pathways to find my seat, I decided to wait in the back of the plane and let it simmer down before going. It just so happens that I was standing by a girl from Colombia (Viva la colombiaaaaa! Hopefully that means what I think it means) who is from rotary and who will also be spending a year in Taiwan. Once we realized we were both exchange students, we immediately struck up an interesting conversation. The woman sitting next to Alejandra seemed to know that we both could use some company so she asked if I would like to trade seats, and I jumped on the opportunity! And to think it all started with something as simple as me skipping my seat. Fate? I think so.

The plane ride was really pleasant. The girl from Colombia (Alejandra, let’s just pretend I spelled that right) and I talked about our flights (her flight was 33 hours long!), our family, and Taiwan. Her English was really good so it made talking to her very fun and easy. Once I told her that I wanted to learn Spanish after my exchange she, somewhat successfully tried to teach me how to roll my r`s. It was all good fun and all, so I was really glad that we got to meet each other.

Once the plane landed in Kaohsiung we were both beyond excited! Alejandra, another Colombian exchange student (No hablo englais) and I went through customs and to baggage claim. While we waited for our bags we took a lot of pictures, including one of me holding a Colombian flag and wearing a sombrero! It was a blast! Once our luggage arrived we picked them up and, together, and headed to our host families. After the long flights we all had, we were finally in Taiwan. We never felt more ready in our lives.

Once I walked through the doors, all I heard were a group of strangers yelling “Cameron!!” I hurriedly rushed to greet them, as soon as I got there I said a well-rehearsed “Da jia hao” and my host mom immediately said “How cute, he`s speaking Chinese!” We then took A LOT of pictures with people I still don’t know as of today.

Afterwards we went to the car and my host mom said I could sit in the front! She said “You`re big, you sit there.” Unlike many exchange students who`ve had 26 hour long flights, I wasn’t so tired. In fact, once I got home and settled for bed (2am) I slept for a mere 4 hours. I felt relieved because I was really worried about jet lag. The next day my host brother and I went over to his friend Chiyuan (2nd host family’s daughter) house to take me and Johane (French Exchange student, we`re both hosted by the same club so we see each other a lot) to see the city a bit.

We went and saw a Chinese temple and it was stunning. I can honestly say that I have seen nothing like it before. Although it was beautiful I really didn’t enjoy it, you know why? JET LAG, (Yeah, apparently I didn’t beat jet lag) It was the worst. I felt like I was going to throw up (or simply die) at any given moment during the day, it was awful. Since you can never skip a meal in Taiwan, even when you are sick and don’t feel well, (It’s basically the biggest insult you can ever give to a Taiwanese) my host family insisted I eat lunch and dinner. They said that it will make me feel better, even against my feeble attempts at saying it won’t. The worst by far was lunch, Pizza.

You might say, “Pizza? That’s my favorite! You`re an American, why don’t you like pizza?” It’s not that I don’t like pizza, (because obviously I love pizza!) it’s the fact that I don’t like seafood pizza( In theory, it sounds quite good, but in reality it was absolutely terrible). Let me describe this to you, numerous types of fish, soy sauce, shrimp, and fish sauce all on pizza crust. It looked and tasted as if the ocean threw up on pizza crust and some business man sold it as a “Specialty pizza”. Even though it doesn’t sound bad, it was. I almost threw up after the first bite. (Don’t worry, I ate it all. I remember the rotary motto, “Try everything twice even if it looks like the ocean threw up and someone put it on pizza crust and called it pizza”)

All I could think was, I hate the food, I want to sleep for the next trillion years, and I want to be back home. That pretty much was my train of thought all day. Even while we were saying good bye to Wei (Older brother who left for France the day after I arrived) all I wanted to do was hitch a ride on a plane going back to the States.

I progressively felt worse throughout the day so I turned in around 6. Not surprisingly, I fell into a deep slumber and didn’t wake up until about nine am the next day. I felt a lot better, jet lag, in a word…..sucks. Even though I felt physically better, I still missed my family. As I have come to realize, I don’t think that feeling ever leaves you. You can have good days when you hardly think of them, or you can have bad days when all you can do is think about your family. Either or, you always think about them. Even though I missed my family terribly, I was not about to stay and brood in my room for the whole year, so I did what I do best, stayed busy!

The next few days were a blur. I played Badmitten (It’s really popular over here) with my host dad and Johane, by the end we were sweating like dogs. The badmitten gym (I think that’s what you would call it?) has no AC, so by the end of my host father teaching us how to play, we were both drenched. It was fun, different, and a great way to exercise!

The next day Johane and I went to Wenshan and got registered at the school. It was pretty fun; some of the teachers even showed us how to play a Chinese card game! It was a memory game and I completely bombed it and got last place, but it still was tons of fun. Even though I had fun playing Badmitten, Chinese card games, going to temples, eating rice covered in goats blood at Chinese restaurants’, nothing could compare to my day at Kenting. It all started a few days ago when my host father was showing Johane and I pictures of Kenting, a city about two hours from Kaohsiung that the Taiwanese travel to for vacati on. In the pictures the beach looked amazing, we both told my host father they were beautiful. He then asked if we would like to go one day, we both said yes thinking that he was just making conversation.( HELPFUL HINT TO FUTURE TAIWAN OUTBOUNDS: If you so much as ask about a place in Taiwan, even if it’s just out of curiosity you host family will make it their mission for you to travel there and have fun. That is basically all they want you to do, have fun)

Anyways, one night my host father then went up to my room at about 10 pm and told me that I would be going to Kenting in the morning with Kirsten (A girl from Germany) and Johane. I was basically shocked and giddy with excitement all at the same time. Looking back at my day in Kenting, to say the very least, it was perfect. We arrived at Wenshan, my school where Kirsten and Sunny (Taiwanese who went on exchange to Poland) picked us up. For the car ride, we talked and chit chatted. It turns out that Kirsten is really good at English which made for a pretty fun two hours.

About half way through our “road trip” we saw the mountains of Kenting. Let me just say that when I saw Kenting`s mountains, my jaw dropped. It was absolutely breathtaking. Mountains dotted the horizon, and the beaches that were at the bottom of the mountains would put any Floridian beach to shame (Yes, it was that good). After we gawked at the mountains for about another ten minutes, we finally reached the marina! It was so busy, and there were fish everywhere. People were buying and selling some of the most exotic fish I have ever seen, it was spectacular.

We decided that we wanted to eat before we went snorkeling so we decided to eat at the marina! We walked upstairs we sat at a huge round table where the waiter put down about 16 full sized plates of food. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not, the Taiwanese are dead serious about food! After lunch Sunny, Johane and I changed into our wet suit (Kirsten, the girl from Germany didn’t want to go) and then we were off on our not so deep aquatic adventure.

Once we reached the ocean, we jumped in, and fortunately the water cooled us off after the sun pounded us with waves of heat. While we snorkeled, we saw a million different kinds of fish (we saw all of the nemo fish), and so many different colored rocks and coral. After our snorkel tour was over, we went to the dock farther out in the sea to go Tubing! Honestly, if you know me at all, you would know that I hate tubing! However they insisted that I go along with them, so I did. Let me just say, I’m glad I did. It was scary, but so much fun.

After our adventure at the beach was over, we went to Kenting’s night market!! Ahhhhh so amazing, so much food and it was dirt cheap (Like a huge hot dog and a drink would probably only cost you a dollar, maybe). However, it soon rained so we had to get back on the road….. to go home. (I was really sad because I wanted to live in Kenting!) It by far was my most exciting day in Taiwan!! I will post more soon! But until then, Zaijian!!

 Tue, September 9, 2014

With a crushed spirit, I accepted my fate: I would not step on a plane today.

8/23/14
Da jia hao! The first thought that came to mind while writing this was “Am I really going to live in a foreign country, with people I don’t know, and without any form of familiarity, that is my friends and family?” The answer is a big fat YES.

Last December, I received an opportunity to embark on a yearlong exchange to Taiwan, and I jumped on it without any regrets. In preparation for my exchange, RYE Florida held two orientation sessions which informed me of something that many people do not tell you, “Your exchange year will be the both the best and worst year of your life” While I cannot personally vouch for this, I believe it wholeheartedly.

It was during the orientation sessions where I met a great, fun loving (AMAZING) group of individuals that, like me, would embark on exchanges of their own. Together, all the exchange students and I prepared for our exchanges. Months passed and the moment of truth came.

On the morning of my flight to Taiwan (Which was today), I was surprisingly calm. Sure I had a few (Okay, maybe a lot) of butterflies in my stomach, but other than that I was perfectly fine, that was, until I checked in. I was dressed in casual jeans, a semi decorated Rotary blazer and basically half walked/skipped to the airport from the parking garage, I was that excited.

Once in the airport, I walked up to the check-in counter fully prepared to officially become an exchange student, when the check-in employee grimly informed me that due to delayed flights, I wouldn’t be able to make my Hong Kong flight connection. This meant, I couldn’t leave….. A million different emotions surged through me (Anger and Disappointment being some of them). I have heard of people having troubles at the airport, but I was not expecting them to happen to me, but they did.

I tried to remain calm (Which was very hard thing to do) in the hopes that the check-in employee could book me on another flight. After abou t an hour of phone calls, they said that they couldn’t book me on a flight. Once I heard those words, I immediately thought of my host family. Would they be mad? Would they hate me before I even got there? It was a pretty intense few moments (Luckily, they later emailed and told me not to worry and that everything was fine, whew). With a crushed spirit, I accepted my fate: I would not step on a plane today.

Luckily, they booked me on the next closest flight, which would be tomorrow. Even though I was not happy, I tried to make the best of the day by reading, writing this journal, Studying some Chinese, looking over my power point and preparing for tomorrows journey (Fingers crossed everything goes smoothly). Although I know this was not an ideal start, I wouldn’t change it. For good or bad, it was an experience gained. Although, I do hope my flights go well tomorrow!

ALL FUTURE OUTBOUNDS: Don’t lose your cool simply because your flight didn&rsqu o;t go as planned. I’m not going to lie, a million things could go wrong, but a good attitude can make a stressful situation more bearable.

Zaijian

Sat, August 23, 2014

Carley - France

Hometown:Edgewater, Florida
School: New Smyrna Beach High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Host District: District 1520
Host Club: The Rotary Club of St. Pol sur Ternoise

My Bio

Salut! My name is Carley Dolbow. I am 16 years old and a sophomore at New Smyrna Beach High School. Also I am the youngest out of 4 children. Living in New Smyrna Beach, the beach is practically my home, so whenever I’m not at school or doing any sports that is where you can find me! At school I’m currently taking all Honors classes, in SGA (student government association) and will be taking dual enrollment classes in spring and summer. To summarize myself up in a couple words would be I’m very adventurous, a people person, very outgoing and not afraid to be myself. I love to meet new people and stepping outside my comfort zone. Growing up I’ve been around exchange students my whole life! Including watching my older brother Aaron Dolbow’s journey to Japan as a Rotary Exchange Student. Being an Exchange student has been a dream of mine since I was in 4th grade and I am more than grateful for being accepted to be one! I am even more thankful to be going to the beautiful country of France! I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me within these next 12 months! À bientôt or see you soon! Xoxo, Carley

Journals: Carley – France

And yet another amazing month in this amazing country. I just recently got back from my first skiing trip with my family in Les Houches and I can’t describe the amazing-ness of it. From the north of France to the South/east it was an 7 hour drive without traffic…And of course there is always traffic. During those 8/9 hours in the car I really didn’t know what to expect. Quiet frankly I was extremely scared. Scared of the possible endless ways that I could break something or end up skiing the wrong direction and going off the tracks and getting lost, or even finding myself on the biggest slope with no way to get down. But it literally turned out the complete opposite.

The first day arriving it was oftly late, so we didn’t ski the first day. So we spent the day renting the skis and trying on the ski boots. NEVER UNDER ESTIMATE SKI BOOTS. The first time trying them on I literally almost broke my foot because I could not get my foot in. And let’s not mention the fact of buckling them either. My host parents got me skiing lessons so every morning at 9-11:30 I was with 9 other French/English beginners all older than me, and just as experienced as me. By experienced I mean no experience what so ever. It was so cool how I was able to talk with the French people in French and the English people in English.

I like to think my skiing a lot like my exchange. At first, it literally seemed impossible to get ahold of. Always making mistakes and falling. So many times feeling like just giving up would be easier. But with each day came massive progression and learning from my mistakes. Everyday watching myself get better and better. Shortly by the end of my week with my family I was skiing like a pro! Not literally a pro, BUT a pro compared to the first day. No doubt I have some pretty gnarly bruises and nearly died 20 times from my falls, but despite it all I really do love skiing!! There was a lot of times I would feel bad because I’m obviously not as advanced as my family so we couldn’t do the big slopes together as a family. But the slopes I could do with them was extremely fun.

The weather wasn’t always the best, but when it was sunny out, you could ski to one of the slopes where you can find a little restaurant, and at the restaurant you can find people bathing themselves in the sun with all of their ski gear on. It literally was one of the funniest things ever. With the sun being out, you already know the Florida girl I am, I took that chance and soaked up some rays too! Being the first time I’ve had a chance since I’ve arrived but minus the bathing suits. But quiet frankly it was extremely warm, and I never quite found myself to be cold. My tanline right now is extremely cool also. I’m nice and brown (with a little bit on sunburn) on my face. BUT I also have a horrible tanline from my sunglasses and the fact the tan ends at my chin, Making it clearly obvious I have been skiing. How weird is that tho? Being able to get just as tan skiing as going to the beach.

When skiing and staying in the mountains, the traditional food is cheese and this kind of “sausage” as google translated it as. (note:I know a lot of food/words in French but not English so it makes it hard to distinguish). So everynight consided of something with cheese. IT WAS AAMAAZZZINNNGGGG and literally the greatest cheese that I’ve ever had in my entire life! The last day of my ski class and before we left was actually a little hard with saying goodbye to my ski teacher and the other people in my ski class. Just thinking that I’ll never see them again, and making a genuine friendship with them in such a short amount of time. I found myself slowly starting to make myself at home in the mountains.

Which is extremely weird to say thus being that I was there for only a week but still. Having such regular routines and people in my life, it started to become a way of life and to leave it was hard. Along with the good-byes on the last day, my family signed us up for this special kind of sledding with 20 other people. It started after the slopes closed, so we had the whole* ski resort to ourselves. The coolest part is we slid from the top of the moutain to the bottom. Taking about 45 mins and a lot of falling, it was definetely something I will never forget. That week is definietly a week I will never forget and will cherish forever. I’m so beyond grateful to of had such a chance!

This past Saturday marked my 200th day in France! To be completely honest it was a really semi emotional day for me and other exchange students. Time is definetly not on our side and going by way faster than any of us want. I love every exchange student I meet, and not one once of me wants to leave them or this beautiful country I now call my home. To celebrate our 200th day, we had at least 40 exchange students from my district and another district meet up for a picnic in Lille. The whole day was spent with eating, laughing, and of course dancing in public.

A day with exchange students is always a day well spent. Slowly I see my English getting worse and worse. Whenever someone talks to me in English or asks me something in English I find myself getting lost and literally searching for the words or what I want to say. It’s extremely weird and I don’t know how to take it! I find myself talking with different accents and not speaking properly. It’s just super super weird, but it’s a cool weird and I really like it.

Not to mention this weekend my parents will be arriving!!! When my parents arrive we will be traveling around Europe visiting our former exchange students. So shortly after my parents leave, I will be leaving for my Europe bus trip where I will be traveling around for 12 days and going to 7 different countries! HOW AMAZINNNNNNNNNNG!

Just one last time, a huge thank you to the Rotary for giving me this beyong amazing oppurtunity and changing my life. This honestly has been the greatest 200 days of my entire life, and I never want it to end.

bisous,
Carley

 Mon, March 16, 2015

It’s a dream. These last 5 months have been nothing but a dream. A dream that I never want to end. I would rather stay awake than go to sleep because reality is so much better than dreams.

It’s slowly starting to sink in that this dream won’t last forever and it kills me. I found my life here in France. I’ve found myself.

I wake up every morning just wishing I could go back to the last day because I hate the fact that waking up means another day passed by, and it’s another day closer to this beautiful dream ending. This month has marked my half way mark and I honestly was just left speechless. Time has gone by so fast it’s not even funny and not fair. In all honesty I don’t want to come home. I feel so at home here. As if this is my real home and my home in Florida is just a stranger now. A little dark of me to say but it’s so true.

Life right now is more than I could ever be greatful for. I have the greatest host families literally in the world (as I’ve said a million times before), I have the best Rotary Club, the greatest district, just everything and everyone here is beyond amazing. Needless to say I love school now. I have an amazing group of friends, my teachers are awesome, and I feel at peace with it.

I currently just changed to my 3rd host family. The night of my change was a little rough for me. I’ve become so accustom to my 2nd host family. My little siblings and my parents. I found myself so home sick from Monchel-sur Conche. But my host family now is so amazing. Within the first night I felt so at home and so welcomed. My host mom showering me with nothing but love.

With my 3rd host family, I would say I’m about 20 min. walk from my high school. So everyday I will be walking (unless my host mom can take me). Which is extremely good for me because I really need the exercise. This family is definetly a fit family. So I know I will be in some good shape. I have 2 younger brothers here and they are the cutest. My mom was the only girl in the house until I came along. So I know we will be spending a lot of time together. In one week it’s winter vacation, and my family has planned a week of skiiing! Yes skiing! How cool is it to be able to say “Yeah, I went skiing in the Alps”?

I’ve learned that exchange is made up of constant changing and goodbyes. I’ve recently had to say good-bye to my newbies (the Australians/New Zealanders of my district). Which was probably one of the hardest things and I think I cried more saying goodbye to them than my family at home when I left. It’s the fact that I won’t know when the next time I will see them again is what makes it so emotional. But I feel that is the best way to describe exchange. One big emotional rollercoaster. As fun as roller coasters are they sure do have some major upside downs, and crazy turns. But thats what makes them so fun, right?

The holidays: I never really found myself to be upset that I’m away from home and my family. My host family had been on a constant move of family dinners. I kid you not, most of my Christmas break was made up of 95% of dinners. Needless to say I haven’t lost any sort of weight. My favorite part about the dinners, is there’s always something bizzare. I’ve tasted snails (my favorite thing in the world), duck liver (not my favorite), duck throat (also not a favorite), and just recenty nose. Yes I said it, nose. I’m pretty sure it was cow nose, I’m not really sure. But needless to say it wasn’t half bad. I’ve learned not to ask what something is. Instead just eat it, and ask questions later. It almost seems like the French eat every part of the animal.

I’ve also went hunting with my host dad and little brother and sister with my Rotary Club. It was very cool and but a little sad for the rabbits and birds. I really would love to get my hunting license here, but not for the hunting of the animal. But so I can wear the cute hunting hat.

Just recently my Rotary District held a soiree exotique. Which is a fundraiser where all of the students make a dish from their home countries and we sell tickets and the money we raise goes to our Rotary trips. I made PB&J which definetly is a dish very American. Whenever I told someone it was peanut-butter and jelly on bread they gave me a face of digust.

The next day after we went to the Candian Vemy Memorial. Which was so breath taking being able to go into the trenches and hearing about everything that happened there with the war. It was beautiful but also so sad. Thinking about how I was standing on a land where over 20,000 people died.

Along with that Rotary week-end I have met all of the “newbies” of my district. I honestly was so scared that they wouldn’t like us. The newbies are so amazing and I love every single one of them. But watching the newbies and how whenever someone talked to them, and they had that look of “what” and having to help them out and translate for them, reminded me so much of when I first got here.

It’s amazing watching people grow into the language, including myself. Of course I still have errors, but I have come such a far way since I have first arrived. From knowing absolutely nothing, to knowing everything that’s being said to me. It’s just crazy to think about.

A big thank you to Rotary. For making all of this happen and for giving me the greatest year of my life. Words can’t described how much this trip has changed me and opened my eyes to the beautiful world we live in. Rotary has given me more people to call my family and friends. They have given me a new home. They’ve given me a whole new life that I will never forget.
BISOUSSSSS,
Carley

 Sat, February 14, 2015

I really don’t know how to sum up all that I’ve done in this past month without going insane and writing 60 pages but I’ll try:

First let me start off by saying I have the greatest host families in the ENTIREEEE WORRLLDDDDDDD!! If you didn’t know my birthday was this month, Nov 7th, which was a Friday. Fridays at school I have 1 hour of history/geography in the morning, 2 hours of gym, and another hour of history/geography. Depending on what week I usually finish at either 3 or 5. Luckily on my birthday I was finished at 3. To start off my birthday I had to take the bus in morning, which really sucked because I couldn’t sleep at all the night before knowing it was my birthday. Had 1 hour of history/geo no gym. Leaving a 4 hour gap til my next class. So my friends and I planned (prior to my birthday) to walk to the city and have a lunch because we had 4 hours. But my luck it was 45° and rainy on my birthday. When it rains here it’s not all humid and sticky like Florida. It’s windy and SUPER cold. So we ended up not going out for lunch and decided to eat at the school. Which isn’t bad because the schools food isn’t half bad. My luck again, I ended up having what looked like something my cat would hack up. So needless to say I didn’t have a big lunch. After my last class at 3 I was finished for the day but still had to take the bus home at 5:30. So the other exchange student Felipe and I decided to walk to the city and hang out at my friend Belen (also an exchange student) house for 2 hours until I had to catch the bus home. That was probably the high light of my whole birthday, at the time.

After taking the bus home I came to a empty house and with a note from my host mom saying she will be home in 2 hours. During those 2 hours, I have had no doubt, I was homesick. I’m perfectly fine by myself and won’t even think about home but I couldn’t stop thinking how much better it would be if I was home with family and friends. All day at school for only 2 hours of class, cats throw up for lunch, and no one home. It was easy to say I was over the day and just wanted to cuddle up in my bed. Finally everyone came home, but I only saw my mom for 15 mins til she left again. While sitting in the living room with my dad and brothers my dad mention something about a prayer for a man who just recently died in our village. My first thought was “dead people is not something I was to be thinking about right now”.

I take any little opportunity I’m given, so obviously I agreed to go to a prayer. When getting ready to leave my dad said we were going to have cake at my host sister(who lives in the same village, 5 seconds away from the house). By this time of night I was looking super “ratchet” and totally not dressed for a party. Parking the car my dad told me to help him come get the cake out of the garage. First thought was “why is the cake in the garage?” Stepping threw the door the lights turned on and I had all my host families and Felipe and Belen cheering “surprise !!!” And started singing happy birthday. I literally was on the brink of tears I was so happy and just so over whelmed. I was literally speechless. My dad asked me to say something but literally no words would come out. Literally speechless! Here I was thinking I’m having the worst birthday, and BAM! Turns to be the greatest birthday I’ve ever had in my life. I spent the night mingling with my host families (who are so excited to have me), and eating the yummiest cake in the world. ‘Twas the perfect birthday.

Now to my host families: I changed to my 2nd host family the 25th of November. I was supposed to change a week earlier but rotary had a cooking weekend (I’ll explain later) so they just decided to push it back a week. Which I wasn’t really that upset about because that means I have another week with my first host family. Packing my bags for the next family was hard. I remember the first night I arrived. Crying because I missed home and family in Florida but now crying because I’m going to miss my Roussel family in Monchy, Breton. It’s crazy how you can go to a complete strangers house, in a completely different environment, to being so at home and apart of the family in such a short amount of time. It’s truely amazing and the heart warming feeling isn’t describable. I have a lot of my mom in me which means I’m so emotional when it comes to saying any kind of goodbyes. It’s such a curse. It’s hard . To be so at home just to move a gain In a matter of 2 months.

Speaking of the first 2 months, I’ve always told myself I wouldn’t weigh myself til the day I leave back for the U.S. but I gave in. WRONG MISTAKE. Got on the scale and wasn’t really as upset about change as much as I thought I would be. I like telling people at home “oh only 6 kilos” because they don’t know kilos…but than I have to break the news..10 POUNDS!!!!! 10 POUNDS IN 2 MONTHS!! As much as it is, I wasn’t that sad about it. Why? Because its 10 pounds from some Amazing food!

During the exchange to my new host family a lot of tears were shed. Now, I am officially the “Big” sister with my new family. I have a little brother and 2 little sisters. So that means I’m very occupied and don’t really have a lot of time to be homesick. Which is extremely good for me. Especially because this is supposed to be the time of homesickness.I have a wonderful view from my window of the fish farm and at night I fall asleep to the river that runs on the side of the house. I’m truly grateful for the families I have. All of them are perfect and I’m just so LUCKY. Especially after hearing a lot of stories of people who have had “not so good” families or families they aren’t able to connect with. There are even times I forget I’m an exchange student and actually apart of my families. Which is when you know your at home.

Adventures: In November I went to Liege, Belgium for the weekend with my former exchange brother Brother who my family hosted when I was in 4th grade. GOSHHHH! It’s so amazing to just cross a boarder like it’s nothing and end up in a completely different country with completely different people, (sometimes language), and different cultures. In Belgium we did a lot of shopping, a lot of chocolate eating, and I visited Disney on ice, which is like the big ICE that we have at the gaylord palms in Florida. I also cut off 5 inches of my hair!!!!! it was so great to see Nathan and Audrey!

The weekend before my switch to a new family, my first host family decided to take me to a farm and milk cows. YES, MILK COWS! It was so nasty, yet so cool. Truly something I will never forget. The sweet smell of cow poop and hay, how could I not??

Rotary: A lot of events are going on with Rotary!! We had a soiree exotique, which was a fundraiser made for our trip to Paris. All of the exchange students had to cook a dish from their home country. So of course I chose mac and cheese. Wasn’t as good as my dad’s but it was a start. Soon after the soiree exotique my rotary club threw a marche de noel (Christmas market) at an old abbey in my town. Where Belen, Felipe, and I made crepes! Which isn’t as nearly easy as it looks! After this, my Rotary club on St. Pol took us on a tour of one of the biggest sugar factories, where all of the sugar in France and a lot of the world is processed. We watched the process of how sugar is made, Quiet smelly but fascinating.

I just recently returned from a weekend in Paris with the exchange students of my district. WHAT A WEEKEND!! Of course with my luck I got sick the day we left and couldn’t even talk for the whole day. Which maybe was a good thing, because I can never stop talking. The first day we went to “Chateau de Chantilly”.Which is an old castle made by the royals of France. After the chateau we went to “Montmartre: basilique du Sacre Coeur superbe panorama de Paris”. Which is basically a hill in the middle of Paris with a church at the very top. Words can’t describe how beautiful the view was. To be able to see all of Paris at night.

The next day we went to “Palais de la Decouverte”. Which is a huge science museum in Paris, but looks like a castle. Because of the weather we couldn’t have a picnic under the eiffel tower like was planned. So we ate in the museum and after took a boat down the Seine River which stopped at the Eiffel Tower. Even in the rain the Eiffel Tower never looked so beautiful. I’m sorry, I say beautiful a lot. But it’s just that is what France is. BEAUTIFUL!!

Soon after the Eiffel Tower we hopped back on the boat and the next stop was “Champs Elysees”. Which is the most expensive road in all of France and the most famous. Here was the Christmas market, where you could buy a xtra small hot chocolate for a wopping 4 euros… But with all the lights.. IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL!! The next day was the “Notre Dame de Paris”. Where we climbed all the way to the top and sat for awhile just taking in the BEAUTIFUL view. Which if you know the Disney movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” this is the place where it takes place!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was written by Victor Hugo, who is a very famous French writer. It was really amazing to be able to experience and learn the history behind  Notre Dame and along with the movie. Shortly after we visited the house of Victor Hugo. Just a quick look and then left after. This was the last Rotary weekend with the oldies. Saying good-bye was one of the hardest. To become so close to people in such a short amount of time and to have them leave. It’s really hard.

For Rotary at home: It seems like just yesterday I was nervously waiting outside the doors for my interviews, and getting that call that told me I got accepted while in the middle of a dressing room on black Friday, and just screaming from excitment! If any of the newbies are reading this, how does it feel?? The anticipation? The count down begins, which means you better work your butt off on learning your language! Trust me nothing is more rewarding than people telling you how much you know from such a short about of time. One thing I have to say to the newbies, is do not take ONE day for granted. Time goes by a lot faster than you will ever imagine. I remember “45 weeks til France!” and now I’m almost 4 months in.

“Don’t count the days, make the days count”, is a saying I live by everyday. Trying to explain what exchange does to you is like trying to nail jello to a tree. It’s impossible. You get shaped into a completely different person, for the better obviously. You have a whole new perspective on life. This new itch to see every inch of the world-learn every language. Exchange isn’t a year in your life, it’s a life in a year. A life that is going to stay with you where ever you go. A part of you is imprinted into your host country, as well as the host country leaving an imprint in you. (Not tattoos obviously because that breaks one of the 5 D’s 😉 ) I love exchange and all that it’s doing for me. I really don’t know how I am going to leave this place I know consider to be my home. Wake up thankful for Rotary everyday for this experience.
xoxo,
Carley

 Mon, December 22, 2014

Tighter jeans, fatter face, welcome to my life on exchange

2 months?? Already?? Where do I start for this past month?? I’ve noticed such a big difference in my French. In a good way obviously, I’m understanding a lot more, still butchering my sentences but the point gets across, and still not getting used to this cold weather!!

For my French: It most definetly has come a long long way since my arrivial. I’m currently taking French lessons with a local Rotarian online, which is helping me a lot. My biggest problem with the language is no doubt the translating in my head and speaking it in the proper French grammar. If that makes sense? When I speak French, I have the English sentence my head and end up speaking they way it would be said in English. The sentences are backwards and all over the place compared to the English language. No doubt there is a love/hate relationship between the French language and the English language, in my mind.

I used to be so embarrassed to make mistakes when speaking. But I’m proud of how far I’ve come and I’ve learned to accept the fact I’m still going to make tons of mistakes with the language. Then I remind myself, “hey when I leave I’m going to be fluent”. For myself, I can read French better than I can talk it. Why? Because the word sounds completely different than how they’re spelled! I will be studying for a English test and think I know all of the words, than I will have one of my French friends practice with me and I would end up getting so many words wrong. Again, the French frustration. The amount of times I would listen to a conversation and think “oh my gosh. I understand. I actually understand what their saying,” is probably one of the greatest/ weirdest feelings that could happen to a person, along with the rush of confidence.

There are times where I feel like I’m getting no where and I wonder, why I am here? That’s when I get into these slumps and frustrated with everything. All it takes for me to get out of the slump is to read something in French, and I know what it says,and just to tell myself “you wouldn’t have known what that meant 1 month ago”.
Or when my host mom told me she saw a massive progression in my French, that gave me that little push to tell myself I can actually do this and it will get easier. The pride and joy I have for myself that within 2 months, I’ve come so far!!

Me: I’m doing beyond great! AMAZING! I love it here. I haven’t found myself to be homesick..yet.. but yeah there are times I wish I could just get a hug from someone back home. Especially since hugging really isn’t a thing here. That’s one reason why I love Rotary weekends is because of all the hugs. But I’ll get to that later.

My face is getting a lot fatter and my jeans are slowly getting tighter. Like the little rhyme I made?? “Tighter jeans, fatter face, welcome to my life on exchange”. I still get super duper tired. By 9 at night my brain is completely fried and so difficult for me to understand. I still would be the first one to fall asleep, and be the last one to get up. It’s not as if I don’t sleep well, I’m just soooooo tired! Because I’m on the topic of sleep I have to tell you about my extremely embarrassing sleep stories.

At home I knew when I was younger that I talked in my sleep. But as I got older I haven’t had anyone say anything to me about it so I just assumed I didn’t do it anymore. Nope. The house I’m in echos , especially at night, and you can hear everything. My room is right above my parents to make things worst. My first night in France I guess I was crying in my sleep, and woke up to my host mom freaking out asking me if I was okay..Waking up confused I was wondering why she asked me that and the next morning I found out I was crying in my sleep. About what? I have no clue! Then I’ll have my host dad ask me if I was talking with anyone last night, and I would say no? Then get extremely embarrassed at the fact I’m still actively talking in my sleep. Before I go to bed I’m completely terrified because I don’t want to talk in my sleep and wake up my host parents! I would so rather be a person who snores than a sleep talker. Bringing me to my next subject:

My host family: My host family is so amazing I can’t even describe! I can’t believe I only have 2 weeks left with them:( What’s horrible thinking about is having to start the same awkward process of moving in with a family and as soon as I get comfortable having to leave…3 more times.

My host mom and I spend a lot of time together. We are always out doing something. She’s the definition of a busy bee. With this family, their son (Paul Roussel) is also doing exchange..in Florida! He’s in Tallahassee , that’s still extremely cool to think about. And just recently found out my little host brother is going to do exchange next year to Canada.

Fun fact about my next family: My host dad is a fish breeder. How cool/weird is that???? The house is literally right next to his (I’m not sure how you would call it) but fish breeding office?? Every year tons of people come to fish and what not. It’s actually very interesting! My second host mom is an eye doctor, they live 20 minutes away from the school, and unlike my current family (which I have to say I’m so grateful my mom doesn’t work because she can just take me and pick me up from school whenever I need to go or end. With my next family, I will take the bus to school at 7 a.m. and stay at school til it’s finished. With the bus ride being about an hour long..UGH.

School: School is school. To be bluntly honest I hate French school compared to school back home! It’s long, boring, and way too complicated of a schedule.You really appreciate school events and activities at home like hoco, or pep rallys, or even dress up days more after being here where they don’t even have a mascot or any school sports team! I could say that was one thing I did get homesick about. Seeing my friends and Paul dressing up for hoco week and seeing all the pictures of my friends having a good time at hoco, but then I remind myself, who cares YOU’RE IN FRANCE!

I appreciate school in Florida so much more after leaving. We can’t even drink water or snack in class. At first I really tried to understand what was going on, but it was way to difficult so I kinda just gave up in school. All of my teachers are pretty nice and understand I don’t understand anything. I’m in 1L which is the junior year of the literature route. I have 3 different English classes, lots of French classes, and history/geography. I’m pretty slick with my English teachers. I easily talked my first English teacher (in French) instead of doing work to watch a movie in English on my netflix. Without hesitation he said yes, so the last day before break my 2 hour English class was spent watching American Horror Stories. Needless to say my friends were pretty happy I was with them.

I make sure I’m not the smarty pants in any of my English classes. I listen and take notes just like any of the students. When I see someone struggling I help them out because I mean that’s the least I could do because they do the same for me. If anything my English class is helping me a lot with my French also. For my history and geography class (my teacher is also my Euro English teacher) he understands I don’t understand anything so I got out of a 2 hour test. Speaking of tests. Tests here are 2 hours long…TWO HOURS LONG!!!! It’s so ridiculous. I’m finally starting to get a hold of my completely confusing school schedule (also completely ridiculous).My host brother in Fl. said he also prefers school in Florida compared to France.

For my friends, I have a great group of friends who love helping me with my French. I don’t feel like such an outcast as I felt when I first arrived. Currently I am on fall break which is 2 weeks long. It’s pretty fabulous. The first week of break I went to my first football (soccer) match that I’ve watched live (the game was completely horrible but it was really cool to watch), went to Lille with my fellow exchangies where we had a grand picnic with loads of food, then spent a day in Paris with my host mom where we went to fashion and TV museums which was uber cool! Along with taking my first subway ride. How cool is that to say? “yeah the first time I rode a subway was in Paris..No big deal.”

I love Paris! The atmosphere is so amazing, even if you catch random scents of hobo urine. My 2nd part of break we went to stay with my host mom’s sister in Bretagne for 5 days. On the way there we traveled up and down the coast to see all the different beaches. It truly was magnificent. The water was so blue, and most of it was cliffs. I visited a beach where they had rocks in place of sand..How weird right? I’ve never felt so at home when I was at the beaches.

Along with the houses, ugh French houses are the cutest! Especially in Normandy, which is another place we visited on the travel down. Normandy is known for their spotted cows and adorable houses. In Normandy we visited the Omaha Beach again. Super gorgeous and the feeling was incredible. When arriving at my host mom’s sister’s house I was introduced to 2 more Americans who were also doing exchange here but not with Rotary. They go to an all American school where they have French classes, along with a French class to learn French, an English and a math in English.

In the visit we also visited St. Malo, which is where all of the boats take off for a race across the Atlantic called the “Route du Rhum”. On the last day of our stay we went on this amazing walk through a local woodsy area. It the magnificent to see all of the trees with red, orange, and yellow leaves. Nothing like Florida where fall is just a season that we don’t get to experience. I wish it could stay fall all year here. The weather has been perfect and it’s just a wonderful season.

Rotary: My Rotary district (and I kid you not) is one of the greatest host districts in France. This past month I went to one of the worlds 7 wonders, Mont. St Michel. Let me tell you. One of the greatest weekends of my life. Not only do I love each and every student in my district but I met even more students from 2 other districts.

Could you imagine? A hotel filled with 3 districts of exchange students?It was amazing for us but not so much for the hotel. To think, I’ve been here for 2 months and the exchange students in my district I could honestly say are my bestest friends I have ever had. I love being around other exchange students. We all relate and connect about the same stuff. No one will understand the bond of exchange students unless you are an exchange student. It’s completely indescribable and just amazing.

In Mont St. Michel I also met up with my other Floridian, Mariah. First day of the weekend to Mont. St Michel it was a 6 hour bus ride to the first hotel. Where before getting to the hotel we visited the Normandy Memorial and Ohmaha Beach. The feeling of being there, no words can describe. It was breathtaking and beautiful in every way and I was so proud to be an American. The 2nd day of the Rotary weekend was walking around the outside of Mont. St Michel. It was gooey, clay like mud, with this sort of trampoline sand that you can sink into. Sorta like quick sand. It was extremely awesome.

Later the 2nd day we had a Rotary dinner with all the exchange students (200 exchange students). Here every country had to sing their national anthems. Later that night Rotary threw us an awesome party with a DJ and strobe lights that lasted til 2 in the morning… 2 in the morning!!!!!! The next day having to be up at 7 in the morning, we all looked like sleep deprived zombies. But that’s the fun of Rotary weekends. Having so much fun at night and not even worried about sleep because you would rather talk with everyone. Until the next morning when you wish you hadn’t.

The weather on the 3rd day was horrible. Rainy, windy, and cold! That day we hiked up to Mont St. Michel and went on the inside which was completely breathe taking! After touring it for 2-3 hours we walked around to all the little boutiques and sat in cafes enjoying each others company and the fact were actually at Mont st. Michel.

Saying goodbye to the students in my district is honestly one of the most upsetting times. Now? Now I’m counting down the days til I’m reunited with my best friends at the next Rotary weekend and they’re doing the same. Within an hour of everyone being home everyone was writing on our district’s facebook wall talking about how much we miss each other already. The next Rotary weekend is a Expo dinner where each one of us has to make a food from our country. After that weekend then it’s our Rotary Weekend to Paris! I LOVE DISTRICT 1520!!!

I’m currently in a region that’s considered to have the worst weather in France. But it hasn’t phased me one bit for my love of it. I love France, and Happy 2 months France and 8 more to come.
xoxo,
Carley

 Sun, November 2, 2014

HAPPY ONE MONTH TO FRANCE

WHAT A MONTH! I love love love love loveeeeee France!

The day of my departure I just couldn’t believe it. It seemed like just yesterday I was saying “40 weeks til France!” and now I was saying “we have to leave for the airport in 5 mins.”

Every inch of France is perfect. As soon as I got off my plane at CDG Paris, we went straight to see the Eiffel Tower. I never knew a tall piece of metal could be so gorgeous. Honestly a breath taking site. A couple of times I literally had to pinch myself, I just couldn’t believe it. So many times I’ve had dreams about being there and pinched myself awake. So obviously I had to double check.

Shortly after being picked up from the airport and going to the Eiffel Tower we went home. It was a 2 ½ hour ride, pushing everything I had to keep myself awake, I was running on 4 hours of sleep because the night before my departure I was so stunned that the next day I was leaving, sleeping wasn’t an option. Than on the 8 hour turbulent plane ride I had a group of teens who didn’t seem to notice everyone around them wasn’t trying to sleep. Or the fact my chair didn’t go back.

My first week in France was great. My host family is beyond amazing. To get one thing clear about French stereotypes, I have yet to meet one rude French person. Everyone here is beyond friendly and I love it! The village I am in isn’t what really comes to mind when I think “village”. Its a small town in a town. The culture shock really wasn’t that big for me because the landscape is a lot like the landscape of where I’m from in New Jersey. Lots of farmland. Not to mention every person on my street has cows. Yes, cows and I love it! To come from a beach town to a farm town with more cows than people, it’s honestly so amazing.

Everyone knows everyone here. One thing I won’t get used to is not wearing shorts and a tank top. All jeans and all long sleeves all the time. To compare the weather here, it is the same latitude as Maine ….SUPER COLDDD!! Except the fact this past week has been 75-80. My luck, I have nothing but warm clothing, so you could imagine the sweat dripping off me.

My first morning coming down stairs was super awkward. I felt like a complete stranger (which I was) and felt so weird coming down to breakfast to a different mom. In America, I never really ate breakfast. So coming here was a big change when breakfast was a semi-big thing. Breakfast mainly consists of bread, fruit, nutella, orange juice, and milk. Since I’m already on the subject of food…FRENCH FOOD IS THE BEE’S KNEES. I’ve never tasted anything so amazing in my entire life.  And dad if your reading this don’t get offended… My host mom is one of the greatest cooks. Everything is just amazing and ugh, I love food.

Lunch seems to be as important as dinner. My appetite wasn’t used to all the different times of eating and the proportions. First let me get one thing clear, I can eat. Not a general statement but the amount of food I eat is completely outrageous for the 16 year old girl I am. As my dad says “I have a hollow leg”. So obviously I was always hungry the first 2 weeks but scared to just go into the fridge. Or to even show my host family I actually eat a lot. Within the 3rd week I was eating a lot more…The thing is after we have a meal I’m always still hungry. Since I’m starting to feel a lot at home, I’ve been feeling more comfortable eating. Slowly, I feel the daily bread and yummy pastries going straight to my cheeks and thighs.

Something that has taken a lot to get used to was the bathrooms. The bathroom and the shower are on completely different levels of the house. (Did I mention I have my own shower??)

The first week here,there was a Rotary weekend with all of the other exchange students in my district (1520) at Dunkerque. Which is a town right on the English Channel. Here I was told we were going to the beach, so being from a beach town I was super excited and ready to get my beach on. Then found out I would actually be shrimping, a little hesitant on what I would be expecting I was still excited because I love the beach. When we arrived at the beach it was 50 degrees. 50 degrees and here we are shrimping in cold water, how horrible right? WRONG! Despite how it sounds it honestly was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done.

Before going for the weekend, we picked up 2 other exchange students who are in my town and go to the same school as me. Belen who is from Bolivia and Felipe who is from Brazil. This weekend was one of the greatest weekends of my life. Not only are Belen and Felipe my ultimate besties, but at the weekend, I’ve met 50 other exchange students who are now some of my best friends. Everyone at the weekend just clicked and it was honestly such an amazing feeling. To be in 1 place with people who understand what you’re feeling and going through and just being able to connect with each other is honestly the greatest.

At the weekend I also met 12 other exchange students who are considered the “oldies” who are from Australia that arrived in January and will be leaving in January. Basically, the big siblings of all of us “newbies”. The oldies accepted us with open arms and open conversations to talk to them about anything and everything. Who would have thought just a bunch of names on a piece of paper would now become some of your life long friends.

Now, on to the first day of school. Scariest day of my life and no doubt the most confusing. Not only with the fact I have no clue what any of my teachers are saying but also the schedule. Nothing like Florida school days. My first day I was dropped off at my 4th host families house (who lives right down the street from the school) and I walked with my host brother Clement who is also a student there. Clement and I have 2 completely different classes. He is in Science and I am in literature. So when the bell rang to begin class I was beyond lost and wanted to cry. But Clement stayed with me to make sure I got to class.

BUT the school didn’t even have a schedule made for me. After they told Clement to go to class I was on the brink of tears. I had no classes, no friends, and all by myself in a place I felt like I didn’t belong. THEN THE GREATEST THING HAPPENED. I was reunited with Belen and Feilipe. They were just as relieved to see me as I was to see them. As they sent us to our classes (which all had different classes) you could feel the separation anxiety happening between us. (it’s the exchange student bond obviously).

Going into my classroom everyone was just staring at me. Here I am, an outsider in a class of students who have been in the same class with each other for years, I now really felt out of place. I’m in a class of about 30 kids who are separated into groups for different classes. Unlike Florida schools where the schedule is already made, the teacher told you the classes and you had to make your own schedule. I was already overwhelmed with it being the first day of school, but got even more overwhelmed with not being able to understand the teacher when she was telling us what classes.

Clearly with tears in my eyes I asked the person next to me. He knew no English, but he could tell I was struggling. So he made a schedule for me that was very sloppy, but it was a schedule. As I’m in the middle of trying to talk to another student next to me about my schedule the group of girls behind me ask me if I knew French, and I responded “un peu” meaning a little. Than they asked me what language I spoke and I responded “Anglais”. Thankfully god sent me a great gift of a girl behind me who was British and knew English. Now I know I’m not supposed to be speaking English but I was lost beyond my mind and I needed all the help I could get.

After getting things got clearer they asked me if I wanted to eat lunch with them. I accepted, I did not want to be the new girl eating lunch in the bathroom. Bringing me to another subject; lunch. At school people actually eat the lunch. Unlike the school lunches at home which no one ever seemed to touch. (Like I said earlier, lunch is a major meal here) which was a little weird for me. Walking into a cafeteria it was like a buffet. My eyes widened with over joy. The lunch at school is amazing compared to home, but horrible compared to my host mom’s cooking.

Finally starting to make my group of friends, school isn’t becoming such a drag. Since people found out I was American they’ve been more how do I say, welcoming? Not to mention the fact they are completely gullible. People ask me some pretty weird questions, so obviously I’m going to have a little fun with it. “Do you work at Disney??” “Of course! I play the princess of Cinderella!” OH! And dozens of kids wear the American flag. On the subject of dressing for school, oh my. There’s no such thing as a lazy day in French school when it comes to clothing. Everyday you have to be dressed “nicely”. Not like suit nicely, but the French kids judge harshly by the types of clothes you wear. Let me say, its quite exhausting trying to dress as non sloppy as I can for school.

One thing I really wish would go away is my constant sleepiness. I’m always catching myself dozing off in class, or even riding in the car. I’m always the first one to bed but the last one to get up. I could get more than 12 hours of sleep and still be just as tired as if I had 2 hours of sleep.

Before I end this blog I would just like to thank Rotary for this amazing experience and everyone who is helping me and supporting me through this. This has been an awesome month and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the trip has in store for me.

P.S.
Jack Murray was right about those “what the hell am I doing here” moments. I’ve asked myself that question almost every single day. But I wouldn’t trade these moments for anything. Every second here has been amazing to me.

I LOVE FRANCE
Xoxo,
Carley

Sat, September 27, 2014

Dustin - Germany

Hometown: St Augustine, Florida
School: Allen D. Nease Senior High School
Sponsor District: District 6970
Sponsor Club: St. Johns, Florida
Host District: District 1900
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Meinerzhagen

My Bio

Hallo mein Name ist Dustin. I am Dustin, and I am from St. Augustine. I am 17 and a senior at Nease in Ponte Vedra Florida. Later this year I will be going to Germany. I am both excited and nervous. I have never done anything like this before. I am grateful to the Rotary Organization for making it all possible. I don’t know how to express how excited I am to be a part of an exchange. Originally, I was born in Texas. Over the course of my life I have come to call Texas, Virginia, and now Florida my home. I live in-between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, with my mom, dad, and younger brother who is a freshman. I love to learn new things. This will be very helpful to me next year when I will be constantly reminding myself that nothing is strange or weird; it’s just “different”. I love volunteering, swimming, drawing, diving, and traveling. The only time I have ever been out of the country was to visit my family in Canada for two weeks. I am in three clubs at my school: Happenstance (Art magazine President), Interact, and National Honor Society. I like to volunteer anywhere that I can. I have been on the schools swim and dive team for 4 years now. >From the moment I heard about Rotary Youth Exchange, I knew it was made for me! I have always wanted to take an adventure on my own, so RYE was the perfect program. I am hoping to become more independent and adventurous while meeting life long friends and experiencing new cultures in ways other than by books or computer screens. I am thrilled to be going to Germany. I can’t wait for the adventures I will have while I am there.

Journals: Dustin – Germany

Deutschland kann ich hier länger bleiben? Ich habe viel Spaß hier in Deutschland und ich weiß, ich weiß nicht mehr verlassen möchte. Aber Worte können alle meine Erfahrungen und Emotionen nicht erklären. Wenn Sie nicht ein paar Dinge zu verstehen, denken wir alle schwierig, aber nach Verständnis, denken wir, ist alles einfach.

I already feel as if I am starting to assimilate into this country that I’ve called home for three months already! I’ve already noticed things about me that have changed. The way I walk, talk, and cope. I have even experienced embarrassing English mistakes. I have seen so much and witnessed so many wonderful things, I even had a dream in German. A week ago I received an email from Mr. Murray and that was a reality shocker. It made me realize my exchange is already one-third of the way finished! It made me realize how short a year really is. I have always told people, “Oh I have seven or eight more months, I have time.” In all reality that isn’t so much time and I really don’t like that.

The month of September I lived in a suitcase. I was gone on trips from the 8-12, and from the 16-26 of September. From the 8-12 of September I was on an English class trip to Munich and Salzburg Austria. From that trip I fell in love with Bavaria. My school puts on Class trips every year for the students and the twelfth grade class happened to go to Bavaria and Austria. I was so thankful that my school allowed me to attend the trip.

While I was on my trip we attended a salt mine. This wasn’t any normal salt mine, it was more of an amusement park. Right from the beginning you sat on a train that was more of a roller coaster and instead of stairs. This mine had slides and ferries over lakes. That was one of the most fun and interesting places I have been too. In Munich we went to a beer museum and walked around the city. I found in Munich people surf on rivers. In the middle of Europe you can still find surfing, be it on rivers or in sewers.

Three days after my class trip I left for my Deutschlandtour from the 16-26. My Deutschlandtour was 10 days on a bus with 50 other inbounds. Since that Deutschlandtour I can say all of the other inbounds and I are one large, melting pot we call a family. I can also say I gained the best walking legs out of all Florida outbounds yet. On average we walked 5-10 miles a day.! I can with absolute pride say I have seen almost every part of Germany.

Our tour began in Dortmund and then moved to Hamburg. We stayed 2 days in Hamburg. From Hamburg we went on to Berlin but made a stop over in Potsdam to see a magnificent palace. We stayed 3 days in Berlin. We walked all over that city and saw so much I can’t even remember. In Berlin I signed the Berlin Wall and one of my friends who went 3 weeks after found it. I thought that was really cool.

Leaving Berlin we spent the night in Dresden. Dresden is one of my favorite cities in Germany. It is not so big but also not too small. It has such a large cultural and artistic side to it. After Dresden we went to Munich. In Munich we got to see what the city was like during Oktoberfest. During this time Munich is so alive and amazing. I cannot understand half of what they are saying when they speak because of the accent but I love it anyways. After Munich we stayed out last night in Nuremberg. Nuremberg was an amazing city as well.
The month of September has been the busiest time of my live. I lived in a suitcase for three weeks yet they were the best moments of my life. Not to many people can say they have toured Germany with other exchange students by bus.

The month of October was amazing as well. When I returned from my Deutschlandtour I immediately had a two-week vacation. I also started to notice my German comprehension and speaking to improve phenomenally. The second half of October Break was spent as a vacation to the Bordensee. In the Bordensee I visited Austria and Switzerland. The Bordensee is a beautiful, large lake in the middle of three countries. I would have liked to swim in the Bordensee but the water temperature was 5 degrees and the air temperature was about 20 degrees. That wasn’t warm enough for me.

We visited a museum there and it stated that people had lived there for 5000 years continuously. Most of the houses standing there are from the year 1200-1300. That is crazy to think of because in the USA we find a house built in the 1700s to be insanely old. It was cool to walk through such old houses. This area is living history.
I am so grateful to my parents, Rotary, and my host parents for allowing me to experience such amazing things already! I’m excited for what’s going to come later on in my exchange if this is just my first three months.

Sat, November 15, 2014

Where to begin with my two weeks here in Germany…?

Well my flights went extremely well from Jacksonville to Atlanta, and Atlanta to Frankfurt. I had to sway my bittersweet goodbyes to my family and close friends in the airport. Luckily I was TSA pre-checked so going through security was painless. The flight from Jacksonville to Atlanta was relatively short.

When I arrived at Atlanta I was completely confused on where to go, and how to get there. I had to ask two different employees to point me towards the train that takes you to the international section of the airport. After what seemed like a mile of walking I finally reached the escalator that took me to the train, and ultimately my gate.

My layover was about 4 hours and I sat at my gate hoping another exchange student would be on their way to Germany along side me. About two hours in I had decided to eat. While I was eating, a button on my blazer popped off. I interpreted that as a sign for things to come. At my gate I met another exchange student from Pennsylvania. She was on her way to Bonn which is about two hours from me.

On the plane, I had the opportunity to meet my first German. She was on her way home from studying abroad in Chile. On the entire flight she talked to me about Germany and I got to practice some German for when I landed. At the Airport I met my host family and they spoke the fastest German I have ever heard. I have picked up German quickly and I can understand it way better than my speaking. I have been complimented on my German and they always ask if I ever took German in school.

My host family lives in Marienheide, a small town with the most breathtaking views. Almost every house except for two are white and it is insanely picturesque. Germany is one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. There are many lakes surrounding this town and the hills are fantastic. The only factor I could live with out is walking up these hills at seven in the morning.

I have one brother and one sister. I had the opportunity to live with both of them for one week before my host sister left for her exchange to Argentina. They are both wonderful kids and I got along with all of them extremely well.

After two days of being in Germany my family took me to Holland. The beach was about a mile walk away from the parking lot and it poured on us the entire way. At the time we arrived at the beach my jeans were soaked all the way through. I have never felt such cold water in my life. I have been used to the warm waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. After about two minutes of being in the water my feet went numb.
Holland is breath taking as well. Unfortunately the tulips weren’t in bloom but the windmills exist and a sight to see.

School started for me on the 20th of August and I absolutely love it. There are so many fantastic people in the school and they love to come up to me because I will try and talk to them in German. I think they only like to talk to me because my accent and German is funny but I’m okay with that, I am making such incredible friends already. My school starts at 7:40 am which means I have to catch the bus for 6:45. That is very early for me. There are about 1500 people in my school from grades 6-12. The classes are sort of like college class here. You will not have the same schedule every day with the possibility of “freistunde” which is free time. Every day there is an hour break after the third class. In that break the older students are allowed to go into town and eat. Typical German fast food is a Turkish Döner Kabap. That is the best fast food I have ever had in my life. It is lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie served with salt, tomato, onion, sumac, pickled cucumber, chili, and satsuki sauce.

From the 29th of August to the 31st I have an Inbound weekend with the other inbounds. Then from September 16th to the 26th I have a tour of Germany where we will travel for ten ten days to the major cities of Germany to see them all.

Okay, the differences between USA and Germany. Many people say that Germany and the USA are very similar in ways but I have noticed that that isn’t so true. There are many differences between German cultures and American cultures.

Here in Germany you cannot eat until everyone has food in front of them. I unfortunately forgot that one morning but I can tell you I will never again.

Ice is never served in drinks and they mainly drink carbonated water. I can tell you I have finally found a taste for carbonated water. That is the only water I will drink now. I have found such a love for it that I have never had before.

All stores are closed on Sundays except for bakeries and that is the day I go with my host brother to pick up fresh brötchen. Bötchen is the best bread in the world. You can buy it with just about anything imaginable baked into it.

Here in Germany they only use a bottom sheet on their beds and the blanket isn’t big enough for the entire bed. The blankets are very skinny and long. The pillows here are even different. The pillows are so large that you can wrap it around yourself.

When Germans come to an intersection they will not cross the street until the little green man appears signaling its okay to cross even when there isn’t a car in sight for one mile. That was hard for me to get used too. Some times I will show them how we Americans cross roads and they always find it funny.

Here in Germany people rarely look at each other and smile when walking past one another.

Gas pumps are hard to find here in Germany. You will pull up to a gas station and there will be two types of diesel and three types of medium grade but no standard gasoline. Those pumps are always found in the back of gas stations. The gas pumps have to be screwed on and the smell is very different.

Tax is already included in the price so there are no tricks like in the USA.

When I tell people I am from the USA in Florida they automatically think I live in or near Miami.

Almost every time the second question I am asked is “if I have guns at home?” They are always surprised buy my answer.

They also think its fascinating that I am able to drive at home and ask me if I can here.Which leads me to another point, the Autobahn. I have never seen cars drive so fast in my life. some cars are doing upwards of 130 mph on the autobahn just cruising like there is nothing to it. I still let freaked out sometimes when a car rips past me like those small motor cycles we have in America.

So far I have enjoyed every minute of my time here. I am in a small town which has forced me to make friends and I am glad I have because they have allowed me to learn German and experience Germany for myself. I have not yet run across a German who can speak fluent English and want to speak English with me. They always stare at me if I’m speaking English with another inbound in my school. They tell each other to speak German in Germany if they are trying to help me understand something in English. Which I find amazing because I will learn German here.

I would just love to thank Rotary for this Amazing opportunity I have been given and I have cherished every minute of it.

Until Next Time,
Tschüss
Dustin

Fri, August 29, 2014

Eli - South Korea

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: St. Augustine High School
Sponsor District: District 6970
Sponsor Club: Coastal St. Johns County, Florida
Host District: District 3661
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Busan 

My Bio

안녕하세요! That is how you say “Hello!” in the amazing country of South Korea! Do you know how much fun it is to write that? Well, my name is Elizabeth, but I go by Eli. It isn’t pronounced the way you probably think it is, either. I am a sixteen year old that attends St Augustine High School—which is an amazing school—and take part of the AICE and SJCCA academies. I enjoy all forms of art, from photography, to drawing, to dancing—all of it. My extreme-fanatic passion is languages though. I am learning Spanish and Korean now, but plan to work on Japanese, Polish, Russian, Italian, and anything I can get my hands on really. Now, about exchange, I am beyond fortunate. I have a supportive mom and dad, a sweet little brother, and fantastic friends. I am so thankful for all of them and for Rotary with their amazing staff! I am so excited to be given this opportunity, and I hope I don’t let anyone down. Do I know this year will be difficult? Yes. There is a lot I will have to push through and little stumbles I will make, but it is what you get out of the struggle that counts. Things are going to change, and hopefully for the better. I am ready to face this phenomenal opportunity with gratitude and tenacity! Thank you all!

Journals: Eli – Korea

We were aware of the location of the subway and bus station the entire time though (don’t worry Mom and Dad!)

The second day turned out much better. We got together with our other friends and all dressed up. Together, we made up a band that consisted of a cat, dead doll, vampire, Korean ghost character, and a Kpop idol. We also put on the actual make up in the middle of a giant department store, because houses in Korea don’t really have the room for five of us girls all trying to get Halloweenified.

The party-event-thing was great! It had food, crafts, things to buy, things to do, a dance competition, magic show, several acts, and a haunted house. The haunted house was actually very impressive. It was made by the students, and they had transformed the school into rooms that were themed by several countries’ takes on a Halloween type holiday. It was done very well, and the entire time I was simply smiling and giving them praise.

The next month consisted of Global Forum and a school field trip! Global Forum was this interesting event my school participated in. Students from schools in China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea (of course), Russia, Sweden, Switzerland (Rotary), and the US (Rotary) participated in discussions about three topics: Ecological Integrity, Cultural Identity/Diversity, and Social Equity. The students that had been selected to participate were assigned a topic and then a role. The roles were the Presenters, those who gave a presentation on their stance for the project, and the Commentators, those who criticized and questioned the Presenters. I was assigned to Cultural Diversity as a Commentator.

It was definitely an experience I won’t forget, and, in the end, I am thankful to have participated in. At the time, I was nervous beyond belief and feeling very unprepared. The entire time, I reminded myself that Rotary had warned me that I would have to participate in more public speaking. I, personally, have a hard time with public speaking. I have improved quite a lot at this point, once I go back and compare myself to my ability before coming here. It might be the fact that I have had to step on that stage several times now. But I’ll explain that later.

Basically, I sat at what looked like a desk from a congress meeting or something and listened to the groups present and Commentators play their parts. Then, my assigned group presented. I had to find my courage, rise from my beloved seat, and grip that microphone with two of my hands, because by this time, my one hand was shaking. I gave my point of view on the matter and my questions, everything going rather smoothly as I had hoped.

That was the scary part. The fun part began afterwards. The students from each country performed in some fashion—dances, games, videos. It was extremely entertaining! Especially because Korean audiences are the most superb audiences someone could ask for. They ooh and ahh, cry, boo, laugh—everything! They are so animated and get into it all so much, that you yourself can’t help but want to become just as enthusiastic. The kids from the other countries seemed to also feel the warmth from this experience and performed well with smiles on their faces. Once all the foreign students performed (besides Rotary), the Korean students performed. Our dance clubs, bands, orchestra, Korean traditional dance/music clubs—they are top notch. Seriously. I recorded their amazingness, and the videos are also on youtube (I just have to find them again…)

The foreign students stayed with us for five-ish days. We got to know them starting Monday, the Global forum was on Wednesday, the field trip began on Thursday, and it ended Friday. Our field trip was actually volunteer work. It was persimmon picking. When I heard we were going to go pick persimmon for two days, I couldn’t think of how that would be truly fun. Yet, I was proven wrong. We picked persimmon for 4 hours each day, but we talked, had fun, adventured, and were allowed to eat the ones that had already become too ripe. Also, we rode in the backs of trucks, experienced the country atmosphere, play games, eat food, and really get to know one another. I spent so much time with my classmates, and that was the beginning of my making friends with more of the foreign kids as well as Korean students in other classes.

At one point, we even had a class competition, where each class competed in some way. My class danced several songs, and we were the second class to compete. I even danced some on stage!

The goodbyes were hard. Not me saying goodbye, but rather the foreign students saying goodbye. They had to all return to their home countries. The amount of tears that had been shed was rather surprising. These students had known one another for four days and yet had still become so attached. It made me think about how it could be once my departure arrived, and I quickly shoved the thought out of my brain. I had so much more time before that date, and I had no need to worry about it then.

Thanksgiving also passed. Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here. It’s an American holiday from the US based off a historical event. Why did I mention that? Because I had one friend ask me if they celebrated it in Korea. She immediately realized what she had asked me and processed her mistake, but I just had to be sure to specify this. And just to make her read this and remember

Anyway, the Rotary students did celebrate a miniature Thanksgiving. We all went to our friend’s house (he moved here from the US because of his parent’s job) where his father had cooked traditional dishes. The non-US Rotary exchangers also came, of course, and had the opportunity to sort-of experience what it is like to participate in this holiday. We also invited the Swedish students from our school! It felt so odd to eat things like stuffing again.

We spent the night eating and singing—some English songs, some Swedish songs, and some Korean songs.

This month was different. The Swedish exchange students had to return back to Sweden after having stayed for 3 months (they were in our high school through a sister-school exchange). Those goodbyes were extremely difficult for everyone, and I have come to discover that it doesn’t have to take time for people to become close.

There was a farewell thingy for the Swedish kids where the Rotary students were asked to speak about our time thus far, and then the goodbye speeches began. We spiced it up and gave, as one teacher put it, ‘the best goodbye presentation so far’. The Rotary crew made a video with pictures and music, including pictures with our friends from Sweden. Then, all of us foreign kids performed three dances for the students, and lastly gave the speeches. Everyone had fun, and the night managed to take place without tears—though it came really close at one point.

Christmas came around as well. Here in Korea, Christmas is seen more as a couple/friend holiday where one goes out around the town and does something fun or relaxing. The family-only idea isn’t extremely common. Even the Korean Christmas music shows the cultural take on the holiday, as many songs that come out during this time of year are about confessed loves or lost loves. One is also reminded this fact when they walk outside and, literally, all you can see are couples. Everywhere. It was actually really cute!

Us Rotary exchange students had a Christmas party! It took place two days before Christmas, after school, and we decorated, cooked, and eventually had our friends come on over! It was splendid. We played Korean games, ate a TON of food, danced a little, goofed off a lot, and had a great time. For many of our friends, it had been their first Christmas party, so I was extra glad that they enjoyed themselves.

At one point in the night, I was focused on getting all the camera-shy peoples’ picture. I spun in circles while randomly stopping and clicking pictures. I got some good ones, some decent ones, and some ridiculous ones. In the end, I think I accomplished my goal and got everyone’s face at least once!

Needless to say, my Christmas was different. I skyped my family, relaxed at home until 3, went out with a friend, and then came home. In a way, it was like any other day. It wasn’t hyped or huge—they actual Christmas day I mean. The season is hyped pretty big, though. In the spirit of Christmas, I gave my host family a gift to show them that I truly appreciated them, even if I couldn’t afford much. They seemed so happy with it, that it basically made my morning~

Now, here I am. I don’t really feel homesick, but I’m also not seeking out anything that is currently taking place in the US. I feel a little sad. I believe it is because this is the last time I’ll be with my classmates. In the United States, school ends in the spring-summer time. Here, it ends within December. I had been so busy with college applications, presentations, rotary things, Korean tests, and other such items that I didn’t get to spend an extreme amount of time with my classmates during class. I felt as if I had so much more time, but I just came upon this realization that I didn’t. My class will be different on February 2nd. I will have new classmates and a new room. This has just today hit me kind of hard. I know it will be okay though. I have come to know many students in my grade, and I will no doubt still be speaking with all of my other classmates! Not to mention, change is a delightful thing. Though there is a sad side to the matter, just around the corner is an entirely new experience coming at us.

Four months. Four months can feel like a few days. Four months can feel like a year. Four months can hold more treasured memories than one thought possible. Four months can be full of so many wishes and hopes, friends and families, and experiences than imagined. Four months is a fragment. Four months is enough time to strip down what one thought to be his or her style, personality, thoughts, ideas, and culture and cause one to take a moment and step back. Four months are easy. Four months are hard.

These last four months are unforgettable and worth the entire journey.

 Sat, January 17, 2015

안녕하세요? 너무 바빴으니까 읽이가 못 썼다. 그런데 읽이 쓰기 정말 힘들다… 교환행으로 다른 나라에 살 때 보통 읽이 쓰기에 대해 생각하지 않다. 그래서 미안합니다

Hello! I have so busy, so I haven’t been able to write a journal. Yet, writing journals in general is difficult. When living in another country on exchange, one usually doesn’t think about writing a journal. Because of this, I am sorry.

It’s interesting. When I was still in the US, after knowing my country, I would look for journals constantly. I always wanted to read the stories of the kids in these other countries living amazing lives (and let me tell you, they are ABSOLUTELY amazing lives). I would always get so frustrated because it could take them so long to update.

Well let me tell you something. I don’t blame them anymore.

From the outside looking in, it seems like this, ‘Oh hey, just get on and write something! Come on!’ but its so much more. Every day, I am living life, and then I have to attempt to remember all these different moments and put them in writing for you, describing it all vividly. The truth is, is that whenever I sit to write a journal, I freeze up. I don’t know what to write about, what is interesting, what you want to hear about—anything. It is as if my brain attempts to sort through everything and then overheats.

I will try to do this though! It’s all for you! (Yeah, you! Sitting there and reading this. You!)

At this point, I have been here for four months. Just hearing that, typing that, seeing that, reading that… ugh it makes me cringe. It sounds so short and so long all at the same time. I feel like I have been here longer, and yet I also feel as if I should have so much more time. I’ve come to accept this feeling as one of the many contradictions that an exchange student discovers about themselves.

I last posted in October (apparently right before Halloween). Well, Halloween was quite interesting, and I guess I never had to opportunity to write about it! Halloween isn’t really celebrated in South Korea. It is acknowledged as this holiday that exists but isn’t quite participated in. Whenever I saw anyone dressed up, they were college kids playing a “Halloween Challenge” where they had to be in costume while on a scavenger hunt.

My school had posters for a Halloween event taking place at another high school. It was Halloween and Día de los Muertos. My friend Bérénice and I attempted to go on Saturday to scope things out and then go again with our other friends on Sunday. What really happened was us two goofballs dressed up in not-quite-Halloween-yet-not-normal attire while getting lost in one of the many sections of Pusan. By lost, I mean not knowing where the school is and being in an area we hadn’t explored before. We were aware of the location of the subway and bus station the entire time though (don’t worry Mom and Dad! 

Sat, December 27, 2014

안녕하세요! 동안 1개월 못 썼어요. 너무 바빴어요. 아직 바빠요. 하지만 지금 쓸 수 있어요.

I think the hardest part about writing these is thinking about what to write about. I have done so much and I have only been here for two months. At the same time, I sit here and I think, ‘There is no way I have been here for two months’. In a weird way, I think all of life sort of feels like this—an endless amazement of existence in time.

I could tell you about all of my trips, but I don’t think it’s what would be preferred. I remember being the soon-to-be-an-outbound, and all I ever wanted to read about was stories or culture differences. So, here is a quick rundown. I went to 보성(Boseong) twice now—learning a lot about culture the first time and learning a lot about people the second time—I have been to Seoul, I have explored this city and certain districts to a degree in which I do not even have to think about where I am walking anymore, I have been to concerts, I have been to festivals, and soon, I will be participating in something called the Global Forum.

Now that you are all caught up, I can move on. WITH SOME STORIES!

This isn’t a long story or an extremely funny story. It isn’t even a story. Let’s just say that the words ‘to be hungry’ and ‘to punch, bash, beat up’ are very similar, and I may have mixed them up on accident once.

Next…. actual….story. I was in 서면 (Seomyeon) and I was going to meet with some of the other exchange students because I was bored and hungry. They were all at dance, but I didn’t think I remembered how to get to the location, so I decided I would search for kimbab, or a macaroon, or some bubble tea—basically something I could consume. I chose a direction and I walked.

Eventually, I reached this bubble tea place and I got excited. So excited, in fact, that I hadn’t noticed the guys in fancy suits in front of me. Fancy suits are pretty common in Korea—the majority of people here are really fashionable, whether you are a boy or a girl. Well, these fancy suit people had flyers, and they were handing them out like many people do, but I was so focused on that bubble tea. One of the men went to hand me a flyer and practice his English and he said, “Hello!”

I was so surprised to have been spoken to in English that my brain couldn’t come up with anything. My mind was trying to make connections: ‘I am in Korea, so I speak Korean, especially to strangers. But, this Korean man just spoke to me in English, so what language do I use? What language do I want to use? How do I speak? How do I say hello?’ and it just kept getting worse. In the end, I replied by making this weird shriek noise and quickly escaped to the bubble tea place with my embarrassment.

What made it worse? I passed by the same guy four more times. And every time, he spoke to me in English, and every time, I panicked. By the last time, I managed to actually say hello back—and I said it in Korean. It was still really embarrassing.

I also truly enjoy spending time with others while I am here. In Boseong, we spent time with other students from the high schools in the area. It was a joy to get to know others our age in the area and make new friends—you learn a lot about culture this way. We spent time playing games, running around, singing, dancing, and enjoying one another’s company.

It was testing time recently. What does that mean? Everyone studies—and only studies. We would even go to lunch and my classmates would bring their textbooks and read. My family and friends had asked, ‘Why are there so many pictures of you with the exchange students?’ Well this was why. They didn’t have time, even on the weekend, to do something other than studying. Now, the tests are over and my friends are beginning to have time!

Culture shock. I feel that I haven’t quite experienced it, as I researched South Korea thoroughly and I have been interested in Asian cultures for a long period of time. There are moments where I am surprised or confused, but I usually accept the concept rather quickly. I think the hardest part is that, as a foreigner, people expect rather little of you. If you can say ‘hello’ in Korean, they are surprised. When I can understand they are pretty shocked. Sometimes they have others try to repeat what they just said to you in English, despite the fact you understood and replied. I think this has been the most frustrating part of my exchange as far as culture goes. I suppose I’ll just keep improving, and keep shocking them.

Also, applying to college while in a foreign country is not fun. At all. But it can be done!

In the end, it’s a pretty cool feeling—looking up and realize that you are in another country. I’ll be on the bus, with my Korean music playing in my ear, and I will just stare out the window thinking, ‘Wow….. I am in Korea right now’. That is pretty amazing.

I’m sorry this journal is so poor. I now understand why the previous outbounds had such irregular updating patterns. 

 Mon, October 27, 2014

What we do isn’t easy. We leave so many people behind at home to come do something that can’t be anything but experienced. I am happy I chose to do it

 안녕하세요? 2주 동안 한국에 있었어요. 이 주는 세번째 주 여기에 있어요! 와! Hello! I basically said that I have been in Korea for two weeks and that I am now working on my third week. Well… the third week is half over. It’s insane to think I have been in South Korea for this long. I mean, it isn’t a very long time in the grand scheme of things, but I just… wow.

So. Do you want to hear about flights? How hectic they are? Well, I can’t tell you anything about that. I had every flight on time (the first time in my entire life that has ever happened). That was nice, but I had two layovers and one was 5 hours and the other was 7. I had a massive amount of time on my hands that I couldn’t do anything without wifi. Once I left the United States to head to Hong Kong, my Internet and cell data were gone and I had a boring and tough flight.

Don’t let anyone tell you that leaving for exchange was ‘easy’. It wasn’t. I had no doubts about leaving, this was all I wanted to do, but still there was this twinge of fear. “What if they don’t like me? What if I get homesick? What if no one talks to me? What if, what if, what if.” Those ‘what-if’s in life will be the things that stop you from accomplishing what you want. I have wanted to be an exchange student and live in another country since kindergarten. Yet, at that moment, my stomach was rolling and churning, and despite telling myself, “I am going no matter what”, I was anxious. What we do isn’t easy. We leave so many people behind at home to come do something that can’t be anything but experienced. I am happy that I reminded myself that I was going to love it here, that there was no way I wouldn’t make ANY friends, and that it was just first-day jitters.

I was right. My host family is wonderful, I have exchange friends and school friends, the food here is beyond belief, and I couldn’t be happier to be experiencing this exchange!

Want to hear about Korea? It’s more than I imagined. I tried to listen to songs and watch shows from Korea before I came, and they gave me certain expectations about Korea. I know that we shouldn’t head to a country with any expectation, but in reality, this is nearly impossible to ask. Every person would admit that they thought things might be this way, or the food that way, or the clothes this way. The difference is that one must be open to see the things they didn’t expect.

For example, the bathrooms here. Back in the United States, many showers are actually tubs or a separate shower, and they nearly always have glass or a shower curtain—something along those lines. Showers are also separated from the rest of the bathroom with the drain inside of the tub or shower floor. Not here. In South Korea, the entire bathroom is made to get soaked. No, not just wet—SOAKED! There is a high shelf I have to put my stuff on beforehand so that they don’t get wet. The sink is wet, the toilet is wet, the floor is wet, the walls are wet. Everything. Many bathrooms also have neither shower curtains nor a separator from floor of the shower to floor of the rest of the bathroom. In fact, the drain isn’t even under the shower; it’s under the sink. My first day, I didn’t understand why there were separate bathroom slippers from the around-the-house slippers. I now understand, and are they oh-so necessary.

Many things are different. Food, eating, habits, and much more. I will write more later. I have school and it is almost the big Korean holiday! I’ll tell you all about it soon enough! Seeya!

Fri, September 5, 2014

Hayden - Brazil

Hometown: Fleming Island, Florida
School: Fleming Island High School
Sponsor District: District 6970
Sponsor Club: Orange Park Sunrise, Florida
Host District: District 4650
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Joinville – Cidade das Flores

My Bio

Oi! My name’s Hayden Hurlbut and I’m currently a senior at Fleming Island High School. But next year, I get to spend my gap year in Brazil! First off, I want to thank Rotary again for giving me this once in a lifetime opportunity. Right now I live with my sister who is only 15 months older than me and my parents. I’m also really close with my brother who is 26 and now lives only about 30 minutes away from us. During school days I’m usually extremely busy. I’m at school at 7 am if not earlier to edit videos for the TV production program I’m in because we have to make the news everyday. Then after school, I usually have soccer practice for about 2 hours and then I go and film whatever I need to for TV production again. When I have free time, my friends and I love to just hang out and play some video games, go eat something, or if we have enough time, head to the beach. The beach is probably one of my favorite places to be, I love surfing or just hanging out there. The main reason I wanted to do an exchange is because one of my best friends went to Thailand for a year and came back absolutely loving it and then we hosted an exchange student for Denmark for a year which just made me want to do an exchange even more. So I can’t wait to see what Brazil has in store for me and I’ll see you guys soon. Tchau!

Journals: Hayden – Brazil

First of all, I’d like to apologize to Rotary and to everyone reading my journals for taking so long to write a second one. However, I will be sure to be much more punctual with my submissions for the rest of my exchange.

I don’t think I can truly express my feelings and how amazing the experiences I’ve had in one simple journal, but I will try. Over the time I’ve been away I’ve made memories and friends that will certainly last me a lifetime.
From the time I’ve been away I’ve changed host families and I’m now living with a couple that has never had kids and only wanted to receive an exchange student. They both work the whole day almost everyday. Therefore, I have the house to myself until about 8 o’clock everday. This has been quite the new experience for me because I’ve always grown up with an older brother and sister being around and also in my first host family I had two host brothers. This led to me being extremely worried about this host family as I thought they wouldn’t really pay any attention to me and that I’d be lonely most of the time. However, I could not have been more wrong. I absolutely love my host family here. They’re both extremeley sweet and funny people and this has turned out to be my favorite host family so far. If I had the choice, I would stay here in a heartbeat. I also am almost never bored due to the fact that one of my best friends from Mexico lives right down the street from me.

Other than my host family changing in the time I’ve been away, I’ve also been on the trip of my lifetime… The Northeast Trip! I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing experience. I spent 30 days traveling the Northeast of Brazil with 35 exchange students. For those of you who don’t know, the Northeast of Brazil is full of beaches and some of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen. The complexity of the landscape is astonishing. In one city you will find mountains covered in deep, green forest and then a city 20 minutes away is right on the beach with crystal blue waters. I made so many friends on this trip and the fact that I probably won’t see many of them again makes me sadder than I can say. It’s a really strange feeling becoming so close to someone and seeing them everyday for 30 days and then just saying bye.It’s almost like doing a mini exchange during your exchange.

Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about learning Portuguese. I told myself before exchange that I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in Portuguese until I actually dreamed in Portuguese. And what do you know, one week ago I had my first dream in Portuguese. I could have screamed I was so happy. Finally being able to think in another language without having to try, finally reaching the goal you’ve been after your whole exchange year. It’s just a feeling that leaves you smiling and you can’t stop. I could’ve screamed when I woke up from that dream just because I was so excited. So if I can offer any advice to the next outbounds it’s to not give up. Learning another language is not going to be a straight line up where you see yourself getting better every single day. Not everyday you’ll wake up with excitement about having to think in another language. But it’s all worth it in the end. I can promise you that.

 Sun, February 22, 2015

Sing, dance, eat, learn to live like a Brazilian!

Wow… Already a month and a half has past… Time in Brazil slow down! I’ve done so much in Brazil so far and seen so many things that it’ll be hard to put it all into one little journal; but I’ll try.

Arriving in Curitiba, Brazil seems like such a distant memory now. I remember being ridiculously nervous as soon as I landed and all that I was hoping for is that my bags weren’t lost and I would get through customs easily. Well, I waited at the bag terminal for 30 minutes until my bag finally came out because it was the LAST one. That was probably the most stressful 30 minutes I’ve had in Brazil so far to be honest. But after I finally received my bag, I proceeded to customs where I started getting much more excited than nervous and said “Oi, tudo bem?” to the customs officer who was so impressed with my limited knowledge of Portuguese that she practically just let me walk right through. Then finally I walked through the gate, where my family greeted me with hugs and kisses. From that moment, I knew I’d love Brazil.

My first two weeks in Brazil were almost non-stop. My host family wanted to show me as much of Brazil as they could as soon as I arrived. We went home for one night where I pretty much just dropped off my big suitcase, put some clothes into a smaller one and then left again for São Paulo. São Paulo is an absolutely stunning city that sits on top of a mountain overlooking Santos, another city that’s right on the beach. It’s very crowded in the city and a little bit dirty but I was way too amazed by the fact that I was finally in Brazil to care at all. That night my family took me to my first churrascaria, which is restaurant where you pay one price and then waiters just bring you every type of meet in the world and you say yes or no to if you want it or night. Churrascarias are by far my favorite food places in Brazil! We spent about 3 days in São Paulo and then ended up driving back to Curitiba to catch a flight over to Foz do Iguaçu.

Foz do Iguaçu is a little city that sits right on the border between Argentina, Parguay and Brazil. We spent almost a week and a half there and my family even took me to see Iguaçu Falls! Iguaçu Falls is one of the 7 wonders of the world and the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to! I was literally being showered with so much love and gifts from my family that it was practically impossible for me to stop smiling, which my family absolutely loved.
Brazilians are probably the nicest people in the world. They will always want to help you, feed you, and kiss you. All they want to do is have fun, dance, and sing and you can’t help but sing along and dance with them! (Even though I’m very bad at singing and dancing.) The only thing that Brazilians want you to ever do is to enjoy yourself. As long as you smile and have fun, they will love you.

Alright, so I guess I should talk about the language here… It’s fast. When I first arrived in Brazil I did not understand ANYTHING. I actually felt pretty comfortable with my knowledge of kitchen utensils right before I left and everything but that was not the most helpful thing to know in a conversation. My go to phrase was, “Muito legal.” Which means, “Very cool” in Portuguese. This was literally the only thing I would say for the first week I was here because I didn’t understand anything and I felt bad sometimes asking my parents to repeat things 4 times extremely slowly before I understood anything. But all I can say to you future exchange students out there is to stay with it!

My host brother was the only one in my family that spoke English but he left about two weeks after I got there. There is no doubt in my mind that all of the exchange students have been in the same place and because I kept speaking Portuguese and trying I am actually not bad at it now. I understand most of what is being said and can communicate a response much more intelligent than, “muito legal.”

The final thing I want to talk about is my school. Here I was practically a celebrity the first week because everybody wanted to meet the “gringo.” But everybody is very nice and helpful too and when you make a mistake in Portuguese (which happens a lot) they will just help you out. Also, soccer is huge in Brazil and they play it as much as they can in school. I love soccer and play it all the time after school with them and it’s been a great way to make friends here!

I also, really just want to thank Rotary for this once in a lifetime opportunity and for definitely preparing me for exchange, because without them none of this would be possible! Well, that’s all I have to say for now. I can’t wait to see what the coming months in Brazil have in store for me! Tchau!

 Mon, September 8, 2014

Jake - Thailand

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Host District: District 3340
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Chum Phae

 My Bio

สวัสดีครับ. (sawatdee khrap). Hello, my name is Jake Mason and those who know what is said can guess that I am going to be spending the next year of my life in Thailand. Words cant describe how excited and nervous i am for this experience. First of all, I only really know a few things about Thailand like where it is located. The language is a whole different story as well. It is nothing like I’ve ever seen or studied. After getting that nervous stuff out of the way, I am very excited for this trip because it is a life changing experience and I have been wanting to be a part of this program for almost 2 years. Now on to some more stuff about me. As I said already, my name is Jake Mason and I am a junior at Ponte Vedra High School. One huge aspect of my life is soccer. I love soccer and have been playing it for all my life. I play center mid and I play for a club called JFC. My favorite subjects is school are AP Chemistry and Chinese. I have been out of the country before, China for 2 and a half weeks, but this is WAY different. I also enjoy hanging out with friends. That is pretty much me in a nutshell. I look forward to writing more for everyone to read but for now goodbye!

 Journals: Jake – Thailand

1 month left in Thailand… now that is something I can’t get my head around.

Well it is official, today marks one month left of my exchange life here in Thailand. The first thing that I want to say is that I can’t thank Rotary enough for this opportunity. This year has been the best year of my life and I wouldn’t change any part of it. All of the support the Rotarians in Florida and in Thailand have given me is amazing and I am forever thankful for that. Usually in the journals I talk about all amazing things I am doing in Thailand, all the trips I am taking and all of the fun I am having, but that isn’t really the case for this one. These past couple months have been both fun and hard.

To start things off was our very last Rotary trip. This was probably my favorite trip out of all 3. I have written about all of them in previous journals. The first one we hiked a mountain and stayed up there for about 5 days. We went on walks and saw beautiful waterfalls, scenery, etc. The second trip was a trip to the tropical south of Thailand. We went swimming, snorkeled on coral reefs, and even were doing flips off of the boat when visiting all of the different islands. The last trip we went on was to a province to the north of Bangkok called Kanchanaburi, and we finished the trip in Bangkok. In Kanchanaburi we did some fun things like a ropes course.

The resort we stayed at had a hot spring and at night all of the exchange students went to the hot spring and just relaxed in there. The coolest part about it was about 10 minutes after we got there all of the lights turned out and we were sitting there in the dark. Then someone shouted “OH MY GOD, LOOK UP!” which we all did and the sky was full of stars. Sitting under the stars in a hot spring with my best friends from around the world, now that was one of my favorite memories of being here so far.

We all had to give goodbye speeches at the resort as well. This proved to be one of the saddest things. While I still had a long time left in Thailand, I probably wasn’t going to see most of the exchange students again before I left. The day after the goodbye speeches we went to Bangkok. That night we had an international buffet on a really big boat going around the city. The food was so good!! All of the exchange students were in heaven. My favorite was probably the Japanese food. The day after that we all had to say goodbye for real, and trust me there were a lot of tears. We all headed off in our own directions, going back to our cities knowing that there was a chance we wouldn’t see our best friends again for a very long time, if not our entire lives.

Other than the trip I haven’t gone on any major vacations. School started again, seeing my friends again has been really nice. I’ve been going to temples some mornings with my family; we actually just went to one yesterday. What really sucks the most though is saying goodbye to more exchange students. I live in a small town called Chum Phae. About an hour away is a city called Khon Kaen. 4 exchange students live there. So the other exchange student in Chum Phae and I go there often to see them and hang out with them. The 6 of us have really gotten to be some of the best friends I have ever had in my life. I love them all so much. As it stands now, 3 of them have already left to go back to their countries.

For a person’s last day, all of us come together and agree that we will do whatever the person wants to do. So for each of them we all let them do whatever they wanted on their last day in Thailand. I won’t really have that considering I am the last one to leave, but I don’t really mind. Spending the last day with all of these people and having to say goodbye to them is one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. We all have been there for each other this past year, any problem one of them had we all helped with. They have been my best friends. Every time we had to say goodbye to them, everyone was crying. Tomorrow, the other exchange student in my town and I will go to Khon Kaen to spend the day with Rodrigo. It isn’t his last, but it is one of his last days before he will return home to Mexico. Then they will all be gone.

As you can see, this past month really has been pretty hard. Not with language struggles or homesickness, but with saying goodbye to people you have really grown to love the past year. This is something that I expected, but wasn’t expecting to be as hard as it was. Rotary in the orientations prepared us for the language struggles, problems with your host family, etc. Although it has been hard, it has also been really fun. The other exchange students and I have been spending a lot of time together and doing really fun things. It has been a really bittersweet time.

I come home July 1, then my exchange will be over. Any future outbound or anyone who is thinking about being an exchange student, feel free to contact me if you have questions about anything. This will probably be my last journal, considering I leave in a month. I want to end this journal the same way I started it, by thanking Rotary.

The year I have had here has been the best year in my life. All of the struggles I’ve have gone through and living in another country has really made me a better person, and I have learned a lot about myself. Without Rotary this wouldn’t have been possible and I feel my time here wouldn’t have gone the same. I am forever thankful.

Mon, June 1, 2015

So much to talk about! It has been way too long since I have written a journal; I would like to apologize for that. But I do have a lot to talk about in this journal!

THE SOUTH TRIP!!! In the middle of March all of the amazing exchange students in district 3340 began our trip to the south of Thailand. Before we began the trip we went to our district conference in a city called Pattaya. The conference was in a hotel right on the beach, so that was really nice. It was a great experience to see all of the exchange students before we got explored the tropical south together. The last day of the conference there was a dinner in which people were going to be going on stage and giving performances, singing, dancing, etc. I was one of those people… The other inbound in my city, Dana, and the 4 outbound girls in my city were going to be doing a Thai dance right 4 other inbounds from a nearby city did a Muay Thai performance. Not an actual fight, just a dance. After the dance was finally over, the other exchange students took videos and had an amazing time making fun of all of us. It was all in good fun, though.

The next day we ended up packing all of our stuff up and heading on a very long bus ride to the South. You future exchange students reading, get ready for bus trips. They are probably some of the best and funniest times you will ever have on your exchange. Sitting on a bus with 20+ of your best friends from around the world for hours leads to some of the best times. Just writing this is making me miss being on an 18 hour bus ride.

The first day of the trip we spent hanging out on the beach all day, swimming, lying in the sun, playing Ultimate Frisbee, hacky sacking, and witnessed a beautiful sunset. Rotary gave the whole day to us just to relax after the long bus ride and have a chill day. We even wandered on the beach a little at night and found a fire show!

The next day on the trip was probably my favorite despite what ended up happening to me. We went on a trip out to the 4 islands where we went kayaking, snorkeling at coral reefs, and swimming. Other exchange students and I were doing flips off the boat with our GoPros. It was a really hot day so I remembered to put on sunscreen 3 times that day. Apparently the sunscreen didn’t really help and I ended up the day with the worst sunburn I have ever had in my life. My entire body was so red I can’t even explain. The day was 100% worth it, though.

The coral reefs were beautiful, kayaking around the islands was beautiful, and swimming in clear water is always fun. They would let us take bread into the water to give to all the fish around us, but I didn’t realize how much they wanted the bread. Normally you wouldn’t take that much in or you would get swarmed by so many fish, but my amazing friends didn’t tell me that and gave me a big piece and told me to jump in. I ended up doing a backflip into the water with my GoPro and then got swarmed and attacked by so many fish. I threw the bread and then swam up to the surface of the water to see everyone laughing at me.

After getting back to the hotel after a very long day traveling between the islands and seeing the beauty the south has to offer, we headed back to the hotel. After getting to the hotel we went right to the beach and hung out there some more. At night we all played cards and just hung out in one exchange student’s hotel room. It was a perfect day. After sleeping for probably an hour we got up the next day at 6 am, got on the bus, and traveled to another island to stay there for a couple days. The trip wasn’t long and that day we ended up getting to the hotel very quickly. Later that day we got on boats and went traveling to a place called James Bond Rock. Why it is called that, I don’t know. The trip to the rock was absolutely gorgeous. Picture a typical tropical post card that you would send to someone and that’s what this looked like.

On the way we say drawings on cave walls that were written by native people so long ago and stopped at a Muslim fishing village. At the Muslim fishing village, we walked around and while most of the exchange students went shopping, an exchange student named Andrew and I went to the school and found that they had a Futsal court. We found a ball and went out there and started passing to each other and soon found ourselves getting invited to play with islands futsal team. We played for about 20-30 minutes and we won 2-1, both goals scored by me!

We then headed back to the hotel, ate dinner, and hung out there all night. The rest of the trip flew by with us going to more beaches, getting lost in Phuket and eventually getting on an 18 hour bus ride home. We got home so tired, but the whole trip was one of the most fun times I have had on my entire exchange.

Funny enough, right after we got back from the South trip, 6 exchange students including myself who live in our province got invited to go on a trip to Bangkok and Huahin with my friends host dad. Only 5 of us ended up going, but they are all some of the exchange students I am closest with, because we live near each other. In Bangkok we ended up just hanging out there for a couple days, going to markets and doing some other touristy stuff.

When we went to Huahin, we already knew we were going to a crazy waterpark. I have heard about this waterpark a lot since I got to Thailand so I was really excited to finally go there. It didn’t disappoint me either. When we got there we went all almost all the rides because of all the lines. My favorite ride there was a slide where you get in a little tube standing up, and then the floor opens up from under you and you fall, do a loop, and finally get to the bottom. On the way up we heard people screaming down the slide and everyone laughing at them, so we all had to one up them and we all picked out things to scream.

For example, Eric screamed “TO THE BAT CAVE!!!!” on the way down and everyone was laughing. When it was my turn, I wasn’t very nervous and the ride was over really quickly, but it was still a really fun time. After a really fun day at the waterpark, we headed back to the hotel and hung out there all night. The next day we got up early and drove back to Bangkok to stay the night there. We had a delicious dinner there that night and drove back to Khon Kaen the next morning. The drive from Khon Kaen to Bangkok is about 8 hours. I think with all of the traveling I did in March I was with my host family for about 6 or 7 days. By the end of March I had gotten sick twice and was so tired, but all the traveling was definitely worth it.

The last really major thing that happened during this little period of time was my dad visiting! He actually just left a few days ago. He came up to the rural Issan, Northeast, region of Thailand and we had so much fun during Songkran. If you don’t know what Songkran is be prepared to want to come to Thailand next year. Picture everyone in a city just stops what they are doing and has a major water fight in the streets. A whole street just packed full of people soaking wet and dancing with music blaring, all night. The only thing that makes this better is that it’s for 3 days.

There were people riding in the beds of trucks with buckets of water throwing them all over people. Some people were really mean and bought ice to make their water so cold that it burned when it hit your skin. The whole festival was insane and I was happy that I got to share it with my friends and Dad. One exchange student didn’t get to experience all of Songkran though because on the first night we were walking back to his house and he tripped, fell on broken glass, and severed a tendon in his hand. He was in the hospital for 3 days so for the next nights of Songkran we slept in the hospital with him.

The fun part about my dad coming was messing with him and making him eat crazy food like little shrimp that were still alive and ant eggs. I took him to some beautiful temples we had an amazing time in the Northeast. We then went to Bangkok and I took him to one of the biggest markets in the world, along with the temple of the Emerald Buddha. He had an amazing time in Thailand and we were both so happy he came.

Tomorrow I am going to help out with a language camp for the upcoming outbounds in my district. I am excited because I will get to hang out with my exchange student friends, along with the Thai Rotex and future outbounds. I already know and am friends with a lot of them so it should be a fun 3 days.

When I sit back and think about my Rotary orientations and what Rotary Florida told me, it’s funny to think how right they were about everything. For example, about going through a bunch of different phases, like being homesick, throughout my exchange. I now am enjoying my time in Thailand so much because I am much more confident in my language skills and can communicate fairly easily. The thought of going home right now kills me but I think it is important to realize and face the fact that it is going to happen so right now I am trying to do as much as I can before I go back. I will be sure to write another journal soon to let you know about the stuff I’m doing before I eventually make my return trip to the United States.

 Wed, April 22, 2015

So much to talk about! It has been way too long since I have written a journal; I would like to apologize for that. But I do have a lot to talk about in this journal!

THE SOUTH TRIP!!! In the middle of March all of the amazing exchange students in district 3340 began our trip to the south of Thailand. Before we began the trip we went to our district conference in a city called Pattaya. The conference was in a hotel right on the beach, so that was really nice. It was a great experience to see all of the exchange students before we got explored the tropical south together. The last day of the conference there was a dinner in which people were going to be going on stage and giving performances, singing, dancing, etc. I was one of those people… The other inbound in my city, Dana, and the 4 outbound girls in my city were going to be doing a Thai dance right 4 other inbounds from a nearby city did a Muay Thai performance. Not an actual fight, just a dance. After the dance was finally over, the other exchange students took videos and had an amazing time making fun of all of us. It was all in good fun, though.

The next day we ended up packing all of our stuff up and heading on a very long bus ride to the South. You future exchange students reading, get ready for bus trips. They are probably some of the best and funniest times you will ever have on your exchange. Sitting on a bus with 20+ of your best friends from around the world for hours leads to some of the best times. Just writing this is making me miss being on an 18 hour bus ride.

The first day of the trip we spent hanging out on the beach all day, swimming, lying in the sun, playing Ultimate Frisbee, hacky sacking, and witnessed a beautiful sunset. Rotary gave the whole day to us just to relax after the long bus ride and have a chill day. We even wandered on the beach a little at night and found a fire show!

The next day on the trip was probably my favorite despite what ended up happening to me. We went on a trip out to the 4 islands where we went kayaking, snorkeling at coral reefs, and swimming. Other exchange students and I were doing flips off the boat with our GoPros. It was a really hot day so I remembered to put on sunscreen 3 times that day. Apparently the sunscreen didn’t really help and I ended up the day with the worst sunburn I have ever had in my life. My entire body was so red I can’t even explain. The day was 100% worth it, though.

The coral reefs were beautiful, kayaking around the islands was beautiful, and swimming in clear water is always fun. They would let us take bread into the water to give to all the fish around us, but I didn’t realize how much they wanted the bread. Normally you wouldn’t take that much in or you would get swarmed by so many fish, but my amazing friends didn’t tell me that and gave me a big piece and told me to jump in. I ended up doing a backflip into the water with my GoPro and then got swarmed and attacked by so many fish. I threw the bread and then swam up to the surface of the water to see everyone laughing at me.

After getting back to the hotel after a very long day traveling between the islands and seeing the beauty the south has to offer, we headed back to the hotel. After getting to the hotel we went right to the beach and hung out there some more. At night we all played cards and just hung out in one exchange student’s hotel room. It was a perfect day. After sleeping for probably an hour we got up the next day at 6 am, got on the bus, and traveled to another island to stay there for a couple days. The trip wasn’t long and that day we ended up getting to the hotel very quickly. Later that day we got on boats and went traveling to a place called James Bond Rock. Why it is called that, I don’t know. The trip to the rock was absolutely gorgeous. Picture a typical tropical post card that you would send to someone and that’s what this looked like.

On the way we say drawings on cave walls that were written by native people so long ago and stopped at a Muslim fishing village. At the Muslim fishing village, we walked around and while most of the exchange students went shopping, an exchange student named Andrew and I went to the school and found that they had a Futsal court. We found a ball and went out there and started passing to each other and soon found ourselves getting invited to play with islands futsal team. We played for about 20-30 minutes and we won 2-1, both goals scored by me!

We then headed back to the hotel, ate dinner, and hung out there all night. The rest of the trip flew by with us going to more beaches, getting lost in Phuket and eventually getting on an 18 hour bus ride home. We got home so tired, but the whole trip was one of the most fun times I have had on my entire exchange.

Funny enough, right after we got back from the South trip, 6 exchange students including myself who live in our province got invited to go on a trip to Bangkok and Huahin with my friends host dad. Only 5 of us ended up going, but they are all some of the exchange students I am closest with, because we live near each other. In Bangkok we ended up just hanging out there for a couple days, going to markets and doing some other touristy stuff.

When we went to Huahin, we already knew we were going to a crazy waterpark. I have heard about this waterpark a lot since I got to Thailand so I was really excited to finally go there. It didn’t disappoint me either. When we got there we went all almost all the rides because of all the lines. My favorite ride there was a slide where you get in a little tube standing up, and then the floor opens up from under you and you fall, do a loop, and finally get to the bottom. On the way up we heard people screaming down the slide and everyone laughing at them, so we all had to one up them and we all picked out things to scream.

For example, Eric screamed “TO THE BAT CAVE!!!!” on the way down and everyone was laughing. When it was my turn, I wasn’t very nervous and the ride was over really quickly, but it was still a really fun time. After a really fun day at the waterpark, we headed back to the hotel and hung out there all night. The next day we got up early and drove back to Bangkok to stay the night there. We had a delicious dinner there that night and drove back to Khon Kaen the next morning. The drive from Khon Kaen to Bangkok is about 8 hours. I think with all of the traveling I did in March I was with my host family for about 6 or 7 days. By the end of March I had gotten sick twice and was so tired, but all the traveling was definitely worth it.

The last really major thing that happened during this little period of time was my dad visiting! He actually just left a few days ago. He came up to the rural Issan, Northeast, region of Thailand and we had so much fun during Songkran. If you don’t know what Songkran is be prepared to want to come to Thailand next year. Picture everyone in a city just stops what they are doing and has a major water fight in the streets. A whole street just packed full of people soaking wet and dancing with music blaring, all night. The only thing that makes this better is that it’s for 3 days.

There were people riding in the beds of trucks with buckets of water throwing them all over people. Some people were really mean and bought ice to make their water so cold that it burned when it hit your skin. The whole festival was insane and I was happy that I got to share it with my friends and Dad. One exchange student didn’t get to experience all of Songkran though because on the first night we were walking back to his house and he tripped, fell on broken glass, and severed a tendon in his hand. He was in the hospital for 3 days so for the next nights of Songkran we slept in the hospital with him.

The fun part about my dad coming was messing with him and making him eat crazy food like little shrimp that were still alive and ant eggs. I took him to some beautiful temples we had an amazing time in the Northeast. We then went to Bangkok and I took him to one of the biggest markets in the world, along with the temple of the Emerald Buddha. He had an amazing time in Thailand and we were both so happy he came.

Tomorrow I am going to help out with a language camp for the upcoming outbounds in my district. I am excited because I will get to hang out with my exchange student friends, along with the Thai Rotex and future outbounds. I already know and am friends with a lot of them so it should be a fun 3 days.

When I sit back and think about my Rotary orientations and what Rotary Florida told me, it’s funny to think how right they were about everything. For example, about going through a bunch of different phases, like being homesick, throughout my exchange. I now am enjoying my time in Thailand so much because I am much more confident in my language skills and can communicate fairly easily. The thought of going home right now kills me but I think it is important to realize and face the fact that it is going to happen so right now I am trying to do as much as I can before I go back. I will be sure to write another journal soon to let you know about the stuff I’m doing before I eventually make my return trip to the United States.

Wed, April 22, 2015

Half-way through my exchange already… I don’t really like the sound of that. I can honestly still remember my first day here in Thailand very clearly, stepping off the airplane in Khon Kaen and going to the mall with my family to get some food. At that meal they started calling me a baby because I couldn’t eat spicy food and I was practically dying through the entire meal (no kidding it was so painful haha). That was a different time though and I can definitely say I have grown, matured, and learned so much from that point.

The last time I wrote to you I had so much to talk about. Since then I haven’t been doing as much traveling and life has just kind of gone to normal. However, that doesn’t mean life hasn’t been fun, my life over here is the most fun it has been possibly in my entire life. In this journal I will just talk about what I have been up to for the past couple months.

The first major thing that happened last week is….. SCHOOL ENDED!!!! High school in Thailand starts in May, and ends in March. When I was told that maybe a month before school ended, I was so excited. All my friends in the USA are getting ready for AP Exams and Finals, my friends on exchange also have to get ready for exams and I get to relax and travel for a few months. Speaking of traveling, my second Rotary trip starts on the 15th! School ends and then I get to travel around Thailand with my best friends from around the world, I don’t know if you can guess how excited I actually am.

That actually takes me to my next topic which is the second Rotary Trip! We are going to the tropical South of Thailand. The area we are going to is called กระบี่ or Krabi in English. All the exchange students have really been looking forward to this trip because as much as we love climbing up leech infested mountains while getting HEAVY rain poured on us (see my last journal), we also love to hang out at the beach go explore the tropical areas of Thailand. Whenever I ask my Thai friends about Krabi, they are always so jealous of me and say it is so beautiful and that most of them have never been. The ones that have been though, tell me that there are so many tourists there.

Living in a small town in the Northeast of Thailand, tourists usually don’t come here much. They usually just don’t come to the Northeast because the northeast region is very rural. So when I go to places with a lot of tourists on vacations with my exchange student friends it is always a weird experience. My favorite thing about it is no one looks at me like I am from another planet! It is so nice not to have so many eyes on you at all time.

One of the funniest things that has happened to me here was in Bangkok. I was at the King’s Temple in Bangkok, Home of the Emerald Buddha. I was sitting in the shade and a tourist group came up to me also wanting to sit in the shade. I started overhearing what they were saying and could tell they were speaking Chinese. So one of them saw me and pulled out his phone to say something to me, but had to translate it from Chinese to English first. He typed it in on his phone and before he translated it I saw what he was trying to translate and just said it to him in Chinese. I was shocked at this point because I thought I forgot almost all of the Chinese that I have learned but it’s still there! He, however, was a lot more shocked and did the biggest double take on me I have ever seen, he was just speechless. Then they all started talking to me in rapid Chinese and I did my best to communicate in the little Chinese I remember. Shortly after their tour guide came and started speaking Thai with me which was a lot easier and they just didn’t know what to think of me I guess. At that point my friends came up to me and then we went and explored the temple which is beautiful by the way! It was my second time going and I think I have already written about it in a past journal.

Along with all the crazy stuff I have just talked about, I went on two vacations in the past couple months. One was to จันทบุรี (Chanthaburi) and Bangkok. The story I just told was on this vacation. I went with two other exchange students and one of their host dads. It was for 5 days and was very very fun! Anytime you can travel with another exchange student you always know it is going to be a good time. In Chanthaburi we saw another exchange student, Shayna, who lives there. She showed us around her city and saw one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen in my life. I will add a picture of it to the journal. After that we went on to Bangkok.

The city of Bangkok is one of the craziest and liveliest places I have ever been to in my life. I don’t know if I could ever live in a city like it. The traffic there is always bad and people drive really crazy. In Bangkok we went to see beautiful temples, the house of one of the former Kings, and we also went to some of the biggest malls I have ever been to in my life. There are three malls all connected by a sky walk so you don’t have to worry about crossing the street to get to the other one. There is also a train if you want to pay and are too lazy to walk.

In the mall I met up with Stephanie, one of the other exchange students from Florida to Thailand! I texted her telling her I would be in Bangkok and she said she was too! So we met up at one of the really big malls. Our time in Bangkok flew by and soon enough we were on the 8 hour drive back to my little town. After arriving at like 11pm I went straight to bed because I had to get up at 5 am for my second “vacation” which was the next day. I put “vacation” like this because it was a school field trip with my Thai class to the zoo of a nearby city. I got up really early and met up with my Thai class in front of the school. Everyone was really tired but I was about to fall asleep at any point . As soon as we got on the bus I put my head down and remember waking up at the zoo.

My class had already taken a bunch of pictures of me while I was asleep so that was fun. We walked around the zoo for a few hours and before I knew it we had to go home. It was only a day trip so we couldn’t stay for that long. As we got on the bus I assumed it was going to be like a school bus in the USA where we can talk but we just sit down the whole time. If I only knew how wrong I was. When we started leaving music blared through the speakers on the bus and everyone just got up and started dancing in the isle. It was a huge dance fest the entire way back to School.

If you are asking, yes I danced too! Rotary taught us well at the orientations (outbounds will know what I mean). I keep wanting to write how this was one of the funniest or best moments of my exchange, but I find myself saying it way too much. This is because all of the times I have over here are just amazing and I find them all to be some of the best times of my exchange.

I will write another journal really soon after my trip and another big national holiday coming up, Songkran!!! I recently had to choose a return date home, which makes me realize that my time in Thailand is coming to an end and I need to make every moment and experience here count.

 Sat, March 7, 2015

Almost 5 months in Thailand has gone by so fast!! I am writing my second journal and I can’t even believe I have lived here for that long.

I will talk about some of the major things I have done since I wrote my last journal.

MY FIRST ROTARY TRIP!! Going to a 6 hour climb up a mountain to some of the most beautiful scenery in Thailand?? Count me in! I was so excited going in to the first because I would have a chance to see all of the exchange students again and go explore Thailand with them and Rotary. When you are on exchange, other exchange students become your best friends. They can relate to you and understand what you are going through with homesickness and difficulty adapting or learning the language, because they are going through the same thing too. So getting all exchange students together in one place is always an amazing time.

The mountain we went to was called Phukradeung National Park and let me tell you, it was beautiful. Beautiful isn’t even a good enough word to describe it. The long walk up the mountain was difficult, but over very quickly. I walked up with two other exchange students and we were the first of all the exchange students to make it to the top. When you hit the top there is a big sign in Thai and English, but reading the Thai is cooler, that says “CONGRATS PHUKRADEUNG CONQUEROR!” Then after waiting for all the other exchange students we all headed toward our camp site and went to go get food.

The next few days on the trip consisted of 20km walks around the top of the mountain visiting the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life, getting close with all the exchange students, and getting eaten alive by all of the wildlife on top of the mountain. The worst thing about Phukradeung was the leeches. Leeches were everywhere. EVERYWHERE! We had to constantly be checking our socks and shoes to see if we had leeches on our feet. Thankfully one previous exchange student told an exchange student in our class how to stop the leeches from getting into our rooms, which was by putting salt around all the doors. After perfecting our leech flicking technique, staying up really late playing cards and just talking with the exch ange students, and seeing the most beautiful views, it was time to head back down the mountain and go home. I absolutely loved the trip and I am very excited for the next one where we will go to the beaches and tropical areas in the south of Thailand.

The Loy Krathong festival was another amazing part of the time I have been having. Right before the first trip started Rotary got all the exchange students together at the bottom of the mountain to celebrate the festival. To celebrate the festival people float Krathongs (little boats) in a river and lifting lanterns in the sky. It is so beautiful to see in person. There was also the Loy Krathong beauty pageant and festival part to talk about. The other exchange student in my small town, Dana, was chosen by Rotary to enter the Loy Krathong beauty Pageant on behalf of all the exchange students. She was late to see all the exchange students because she was getting makeup done, but she got to see them after the pageant. When it was her turn to go on stage she did a really funny dance and then all the exchange students jumped up and danced with her. Then after we all went to a festival and ran into a few friends from school. After we went back to the hotel with the exchange students we all just hung around outside of the hotel and talked. Then rotary came out with the lanterns and we floated them up into the sky. All in all, one of the most fun nights of my life.

Probably one of my favorite trips I have ever taken in Thailand was going to Chiang Khan for the second time. The first time we went to Chiang Khan I think I wrote about in my other journal. Chiang Khan is a city on the border between Thailand and Laos. When you go to walking street in Chaing Khan you can look to your left and see the river that divides the two countries, and then Laos on the other side. Chiang Khan has one of the biggest Walking Streets in all of Thailand and one of the most beautiful. However when we went the second time, I got to see a whole new side of Chiang Khan. Dana and I got an offer by a friend of Dana’s host mom to take us to Chiang Khan for his family reunion that he was having. Of course, knowing the Rotary way, we said a huge Yes!

After thanking him a lot, we went to pack our stuff as we were leaving the next day. We would only be there for a few days but these few days ended up being one of the happiest times for me in all of my exchange. The cool part about this time was we weren’t staying in a fancy hotel, we weren’t staying with people who spoke English, we weren’t getting the side of Thailand that most foreigners come to see. We were staying in a very small community, one that everyone knew everyone and we were living in a small house with no air conditioning.

Yes, going to see places and staying in hotels and only seen the wealthy areas are nice, but that’s not the only thing I wanted to see coming to Thailand. I wanted to experience both side of it. The people in this community were so loving and caring (almost all Thai people are though) and they were AMAZING cooks!

I remember one night we were getting ready for bed around 10 and the person who brought us there told us he was going to a friend’s house if we wanted to come. We went and just sat and talked with these people in a foreign language and looked at the stars. This was one of the coolest moments of my exchange. We stayed there for about 4 or 5 hours. The next morning we got up and went to the local temple. I honestly don’t know why but everyone started dancing around the temple so of course I joined in and danced around the temple with everyone.

That happens a lot on exchange and any future outbounds reading this be ready for it. You aren’t going to know why something is happening but if everyone is doing you might as well join in. Not only does this go for dancing but it goes for many cultural things as well. Every day in Thailand the national anthem plays twice. You are supposed to stop what you are doing and stand up to show respect and I have seen foreigners just not do it and it’s considered disrespectful.

The last trip I will tell you about is one that I took very recently. It was to the north of Thailand. Rotary didn’t have a trip planned for us to go up to the north so a host parent in Khon Kaen, the nearest city to me, invited a bunch of exchange students to go to the north with him and his family. I jumped on this opportunity very fast and about a month later I was flying up to the north with 6 other exchange students. During the trip we were going to go to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, two of the biggest cities in the north. While we were there we did all the touristy stuff really. We went to an amazing temple with a view over the city of Chiang Mai. In Chiang Rai we also went to one of the most famous temples in Thailand. The exchange students and I kept forgetting the name so we kept calling it the White temple. You will see why from the picture I attach.

The funniest part about the White temple was on the outside it is a beautiful temple, the detail on it was amazing, and then on the inside you go in and look at the walls and see pictures of batman, harry potter, superman, and all of these random people. It made no sense at all.

We also went on elephant rides, I got to pet a Tiger, and we went to see Pandas, which was my favorite by far! The pandas were so funny because they didn’t do anything, all they did was eat. The only time they moved was to go get more food or to change to a comfier position to eat.

Our last night in Chiang Mai we went to walking street. I had never seen a walking street so big. The funniest thing about the north is all the foreigners. In my small town, Chum Phae, if you see another Farang, Thai word for foreigner, you are surprised because you thought you were the only one. When a Thai person sees you on the street, they will stare at you and you can hear them talking about you as you go by, because they assume you don’t understand any Thai. In Chiang Mai no one looked at us because there are so many foreigners there. This actually felt kind of nice not being looked at and talked about all the time. The trip was an amazing experience and you can expect me to return back to the north.

These are just the big trips I am going on, every day I find out more about my city, I go to more local places just for a day trip. Yesterday I went to a friend from school’s farm and we just explored around there for a few hours. So far on this exchange I have learned so much about myself and grown as a person. I have done things I didn’t think possible for me to do. I am living in a foreign country with a family that I have never met before coming here and loving every minute of it. I am speaking a foreign language I didn’t know a word of before I was told I was going to come to Thailand and I love the language. I have Rotary to thank for this.

For you new outbounds, if you are reading this and you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me. I am positive the other outbounds and I would be happy to answer your questions. I will try to write a journal quicker next time. Until then, Goodbye!!

 Mon, December 29, 2014

My first month and a half in Thailand!! 

A month and half in Thailand?! EXCHANGE SLOW DOWN PLEASE!!!!!!!

In the weeks leading to my departure I was kind of nervous but the excitement was making the nerves not so bad. The whole journey started in the Jacksonville International Airport on August 10th. Saying goodbye to friends and family was really tough and I already miss all of them. Flying over with another outbound to Thailand, Stephanie definitely made it better, though. But with that said the sad parts are over and we can go into the amazing time I am having here.

The first flight to Atlanta was under an hour so it Stephanie and I just talked the whole time. Arriving in Atlanta I thought the airport was huge! Stephanie and I had a plan to find out next gate ASAP so we wouldn’t have to try and find it at the last minute. We were hoping it wasn’t going to be impossible to find. Luckily when we walked out of the plane there were those big boards will all of the connecting flights so we found ours very easily.

After our layover we boarded the flight to Tokyo/Narita airport. That flight was quite terrible just because of the length and airplane food isn’t the best but 14 hours later we arrived in Tokyo. One more flight to go I thought, just one more. Again we found our gate fairly easily and before I knew it we were in the air flying to Bangkok, Thailand. I slept for the whole flight so all I remember is waking up and see us descending into Bangkok at night and the city looked incredibly beautiful.

When we landed we went through customs, found our baggage claim, and headed toward the meeting areas of the airport. I had a connecting flight to Khon Kaen the next morning so my host family wasn’t there to pick me up, but a District 3340 representative was. When we arrived at the meeting area we could see a poster with Stephanie’s picture on it and then the representative was there for me. I said one last goodbye to Stephanie, we hugged, and that was it. Saying goodbye to her wasn’t as hard because of the excitement we both felt to finally be in Thailand. After a night in a hotel and a very short flight in the morning I landed in Khon Kaen, got my bags, and saw my host family with a big “WELCOME!!” sign with my face on it.

After being picked up from the airport we took A LOT of pictures, which would become a very common thing, and then we went to the mall in Khon Kaen to get some food. The Khon Kaen mall is pretty big, 5 stories, with a movie theater, a grocery store, etc. I remember them asking me if I can eat spicy food and me telling them I can eat food that is kind of spicy. They all laughed at me and then called me a baby. The food here is amazing. Let me repeat that… THE FOOD HERE IS AMAZING!! Authentic Thai food is so good I can’t even explain it. After eating our meal and walking around the mall for an hour or two, we headed off to my town, Chum Phae, which was only about a 45 minute drive. I can remember thinking as we were driving about all the people telling me this was going to be the best year of my life. On that car ride, I was beyond excited.

I started school 2 days after I arrived in Thailand. My first day in Chum Phae consisted of me going to get my school uniform and many other things needed for school. The day before school I was actually really nervous, always flooding my head with things that could go wrong. When I got up for my first day of school, I was so excited. My host mom and I met the other exchange student and our Rotary counselor that morning at school. We took about a thousand pictures, met the director of our school, and then met a few of the students I would be taking classes with. After we said goodbye to our parents and counselor, we headed off to our class.

To say I got swarmed at school would be an understatement. Right after leaving my host mom I was surrounded by at least 20 people and they all held hands and did a chant which was welcoming me to their school. That whole day everyone wanted to meet me. Everywhere I went I was being watched. People would walk up to me and say hello and tell me there name and then walk away and expect me to remember it. I am still having trouble with names and I’ve been here for so long.

So far at school I have met many amazing people who I know I will be friends with for a long, long time. In Thai school, you stay with one class the whole time. So far, I love my class. Everyone is so nice and we all joke around the whole time. I try to understand what my teachers are saying, but it is very hard to understand because they talk about a million miles per hour. On top of that, most of my class just talks to each other the whole time and doesn’t pay attention, so that makes paying attention a lot harder.

Since being here I have done so many amazing things. Thailand is one of the most beautiful places in the world. One very memorable experience was going to a temple inside a mountain. When you walk up the mountain you can see on the top of it a huge Buddha sitting on top of the mountain. After walking up you go into a room with the monks and offer them gifts. My host mom brought me to a room behind the monks and when I walked in I was in awe. The room was massive and at the end of the room you could see a huge Buddha. My host mom and I walked through the room and prayed to the Buddha then I just sat back and enjoyed the scenery of the room.

The room was inside a cliff so rocks were on all sides of us. I could see the room went higher, but that area was roped off. There were decorations on the walls that made the room even more beautiful. The same day we drove about 2 hours another temple, but we didn’t pray to Buddha at this one. We walked into a house, and went upstairs to the second floor. When we walked outside I was, again, in awe by the view. The biggest thing you could see was an inactive volcano, and all around it were mountains. Trees and a few rivers let up to the volcano. It was possibly the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. I will attach a picture to this journal but it will not do it justice at all.

I have already had my inbound orientation, which was very fun meeting all the other exchange students. The orientation didn’t last that long and pretty much just told me everything RYE Florida told us before we left, so that part was kind of boring. After the orientation all the exchange students went to the mall in Khon Kaen and we hung out there for the day. The other exchange student in my town and I learned that there are some exchange students in Khon Kaen, so we will go hang out with them every once in a while now. I find myself going to Khon Kaen a lot because there is so much more to do.

This journal was a quick summary of what I’ve been up to since I’ve been here, and I promise it won’t take me as long to put out my second. I can’t thank Rotary enough for this opportunity, it has already been one of the best months I’ve ever had.

Wed, September 24, 2014

John - Norway

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Buchholz High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club: Gainesville, Florida
Host District: 2250
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Stord

 My Bio

Hallo! Mit navn er John. I am 16 years old, and currently a sophomore at Buchholz high school in Gainesville, Florida. I live with my mom, dad, sister, three dogs, and cat. I also have a brother who lives with his wife in New Port Richie. We moved to Gainesville from Orlando when I was three years old, and this spunky college town has been my home ever since. Soon that will change however, as I will be spending next year abroad in the beautiful country of Norway. My life revolves around music. I play the Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, harmonica, and sing a little. This love for music seeps into my school life as well, as I play guitar for the chorus when needed. Practicing my music consumes most of my free time, but I also enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, Kayaking, and mountain biking, (not like there are any mountains in Florida). My love of American music (styles like folk, blues, and jazz) developed into a fascination with the music of other cultures, which then blossomed into an interest in other cultures in their entirety. Naturally, the urge to travel soon set in. I have always wanted to not only to see the world, but live in the world. When I heard about the Rotary youth exchange, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that. I want to experience more than a two week vacation, I want to experience a new lifestyle, learn a new language, and get a new view on the world that can’t be obtained in any other way. Needless to say, I cannot wait for next year.

 Journals: John – Norway

I love my Norwegian life. I have great friends, I get along really well with my host family, and I can just about say that I speak Norwegian. I’m starting to feel like I actually belong in Norway, and that I am no longer a stranger checking things out. In a way, I feel like I’ve “done it.” I’ve managed to carve out a life here that I’m incredibly happy with. In fact, I’m trying to find a way to come back for university. I feel like the hard part is over, and now I get to enjoy this incredible country for a few months before I have to go “home.” I think I understand it all a bit more now, and I am ready to write about what exchange really means to me, and that is what this journal will be about. Surely it means something different to every exchange student, so I don’t want to say that this is the way things are. This is just simply what I’ve been thinking about in the past weeks, in the midst of a really happy time in my life.

The goals of us exchange students include many things. Learning a language, navigating a new culture, making friends, and so on. Ultimately though, I think all of these goals can be summed up into one wish: we want to feel normal. We want to go through our daily activities without being in a constant state of ineptitude. We want to have conversations, go to school, and watch tv without the heavy feeling of being different looming over our heads. When stepping into the world of exchange, it doesn’t take long to realize how weird you actually are in the eyes of the host country. Obviously that weirdness includes things like language and appearance, but it goes much deeper than that. The way you buy groceries, the way you cross the street, and even the way the toilet flushes, everything becomes alien. It’s like entering a strange new universe where everything is tweaked ever so slightly. This abrupt change robs you of your ability to function on a day to day basis, and you suddenly become reduced to a sort of infantile state. You can’t read, write, talk, or even walk in some cases (I am of course referring to the perilous task of walking on ice in the cold Norwegian winter). It’s a fascinating feeling at first, but attending high school whilst feeling as though you possess the competence of a toddler loses it’s charm rather swiftly. Life turns into a quest for normality in a bizarre, foreign world. Becoming “normal” suddenly matters a great deal.

The thing is though, we exchange students aren’t normal at all. That’s exactly why we are capable of this. For us, all of the hardships tied to spending a year abroad do not deter us, but rather motivate us to dive in head first. Every language mishap, every slip on the ice, and all the bad days are just parts of an amazing story. It definitely isn’t easy, but if it was, what would the point? I said before that as exchange students, we really just want to feel normal. But that is a very different thing from actually being normal. We’re about as far from normal as possible, halfway around the world from it, really. Normal high school students don’t willingly say farewell to everything they grew up learning, simply for the purpose of learning it all again in a foreign land. Normal high school students don’t loan their families out to teenagers halfway across the world, while simultaneously borrowing someone else’s. In the way I’ve come to see it, the goal of exchange is to become so used to this incredibly ludicrous situation that you end up fooling yourself into believing that it isn’t strange at all. It’s not about getting rid of that heavy feeling of being different, its about getting so used to it that you stop noticing the weight.

 Fri, January 30, 2015

Well today marks another completion of the earth’s orbit around the sun, and I feel it is a good time to write about my Norwegian holiday experiences. I will begin with Christmas. Christmas is an even bigger occasion here than in the states, much to my surprise. The Christmas spirit really became noticeable in the middle of November. My town put up a large Christmas tree in the middle of the city center where it stands surrounded by shops decorated in lights and streamers. Christmas music could be heard through most of the “downtown” district, adding to the atmosphere.

The decorating of the city was accompanied by the appearance of the delicious soda called “Julebrus” or “Christmas soda.” It tastes very sweet, almost like candy, but it was very good. There are some other special Christmas foods as well, the most shocking example has to be lutefisk. This Christmas dish consists of dried fish that gets soaked in lye for a few days, and then baked. Yes, I ate it, and yes, it was terrible. I got a round of applause from my table when I managed to choke it all down.

The Christmas activities went into overdrive when winter break began. My host family and I spent the first days driving from town to town, visiting friends and family. All this family time culminated to Christmas eve, which is the most important day in the Norwegian holiday season. This is the day on which gifts are opened and salted sheep’s rib is eaten. It was another big day for family, with about 14 of us crowded into my host grandparents’ apartment, opening gifts, playing games, and just having a good time. On Christmas morning we awoke to the most exciting gift of all (for me anyway), snow! We ate a long breakfast, and then took a trip to the mountains for an afternoon of sledding, snowball fights, and snowman building. This was the most special part of it all for me, having never experienced a white Christmas.

Then of course came New Year’s. The time in between Christmas andNew Year’s was spent relaxing and recovering from all the excitement of Christmas. I also made the switch to my next host family. New Year’s was also rather exciting. There are almost no firework regulations here, so things became quite loud and colorful. At midnight, we stepped outside to see the town light up with hundreds of less-than-safe fireworks, and set off a couple of our own.

I could keep going on about how amazing it was to spend the holidays in such an incredible country, but I’ll leave it here. It was a truly magical time. Godt nyttår alle sammen!

 Thu, January 1, 2015

Well I suppose it’s time for a long overdue journal. Time goes by so quickly here, I wrote my first journal in the beginning of October and all of the sudden it’s December. Please excuse my tardiness. In my defence, I did write a journal in the middle of November, but something went wrong when I sent it in. It vanished from the planes of reality. Of course I made the amatuer mistake of not saving, so it’s lost forever.

So much has happened in the past three months, and I think the only way to organize my thoughts is to go month by month, so lets begin.

September:
The most exciting part of this month was, by far, meeting the other exchange students in the beautiful city of Trondheim. Rotary organized a week long language and culture camp for all the Rotary exchange students in the country, a whopping 18 of us. We took some classes, explored the city, and formed bonds that I already know will last a lifetime. So far, that week in Trondheim has been the most incredible part of my exchange. There we were, from 7 very different countries, in breathtakingly beautiful city, creating memories that stepped over the cultural differences we had. Despite coming from places that had vast differences, we were all in the same situation here in Norway, desperately trying to carve out a life in this place that was foreign to all of us. As if this wasn’t great enough, this all took place in the most gorgeous city I’ve ever seen, Trondheim. Granted, it is competing with the likes of Atlanta and Orlando, but still. Every building seemed to be designed by the same divinity that created the fjords and mountains surrounding the city. There are very few places where the Nidaros cathedral is out of view, towering above the rest of the city. It was truly spectacular.

Needless to say, after such a magical week, it was a bit of a challenge to go back to the “normal” routine of things, but after a few days I got back in the swing of things: working on the language, my relationships, and trying to figure out this country.

October:
I’ll go ahead and say that October was not a great month. This was the point at which being in a foreign place, away from everything I know really started to take a toll. I was constantly fatigued from putting all my energy into trying to grasp what people were talking about, I was getting bored at school, and to top it all off there were less than ideal things going on back home.

All that being said, there were definitely some good days. I went on mountain trips, went boating in the fjord, and started getting a grasp on the language towards the end of the month. While I didn’t enjoy the month of October while I was living it, now that I’ve made it past some of the challenges I was facing, I can look at myself with some pride. Obviously, if exchange wasn’t challenging there wouldn’t be much point in participating. It’s all part of the experience.

November:
This is where things started getting good. First off, to kick my boredom I switched from being a music student in school to a film student. Studying film is something I’ve never even considered, but I figured that doing those kinds of things is what this year’s all about. Things in the music track weren’t ideal either. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I couldn’t seem to connect to the class. The people were nice, and the classes were interesting, but something was missing, so I made the switch. That definitely kicked things off. My Norwegian has gotten good enough to where I can actually talk to the other students on a deeper level, and I think that was what I was missing. Now I feel like I’m making more legitimate friends, and the people I talk to aren’t just being nice to the foreign kid, which is how I felt before.

This month I also got the chance to do a lot of cool things. I’ve had trips to Bergen and Stavanger, made a 30 minute presentation (in Norwegian!), played Norwegian and American folk music for Kindergarteners (long story), made a short film, toured one of the national news studios, seen one of the biggest firework shows in the country, visited the Grieg academy, shared twinkies and poptarts with my host family, and so much more. Things are going great!

So, in a nutshell, that was the past three months. I should probably mention that this is a very brief summary, and the experiences I’m having are too weird and complex to write down. As any exchange student will tell you, it’s indescribable.

 Fri, December 5, 2014

Obviously, being used to the system in the US, I did not simply accept the fact that I needed no official approval whatsoever to enter the country.

Well I’ve survived my first month of exchange! I left Florida on August 8th, and after three sleepless flights and a boat ride, I found myself on the incredibly picturesque island of Stord. I have to admit, the first couple weeks were not easy. The island of Stord only has a about 20,000 people, and thus it is a very tight-knit community. Finding my place in that community, especially among the students, was very challenging at first. This is not to say that the locals are not friendly, however, as everyone I’ve met so far has been nothing but kind and welcoming.

I was also lucky enough to be placed in a music program at school which was gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet peers that share a common interest. But nonetheless, the initial “getting to know people phase” was a vast obstacle. But after stumbling through a lot of Norwegian small talk, I finally feel as though I’ve gotten to know the community, and have more or less found my niche among my classmates and the town.

Ever since that happened, my time here has been phenomenal. I feel like I’m doing well with the language, and can hold up simple one on one conversations with people, and I’ve found that there is no better way to bond with my classmates than making attempts at speaking their language. I get the privilege of spending all day learning music in my school, where I’ve made many new friends, and finally every evening I can take a stroll to the coast to admire the fjords and mountains that surround the village. I don’t think the beauty of Norway will ever cease to astound me.

Lastly, I have a vast array of anecdotes at my disposal, and I think the best way to conclude my journal entry would be with one. I had just arrived in the airport and was prepared to face the terrifying task of talking to the customs officers. I followed the signs leading to customs station and there it was. Two hallways, each with a sign over it. The first stating “nothing to declare” and the second stating the opposite. Obviously, I chose the first hallway and proceeded to walk through, my palms sweating from nervousness.

As I took the first steps into the place where I expected to be interrogated by a rude government official, I was startled to find that no one was there! I then proceeded to stroll into the terminal, I didn’t even need to get my passport stamped! The Norwegian customs office is nothing more than a hallway that leads to the country! Obviously, being used to the system in the US, I did not simply accept the fact that I needed no official whatsoever to enter the country, so I walked back through to find an official.

After asking if I needed to answer any questions or even get my passport stamped, he cheerfully responded, “nope! Welcome to Norway!” This relaxed, welcoming attitude really exemplifies Norwegian culture. Everyone trusts each other. Locking doors and bikes is optional, the police don’t have guns and are rarely seen, and my school even gave me a key to the building where I am allowed to use the library or musical equipment when ever I want! It goes without saying that I love it here, and cannot wait to see what the next nine months has in store!

Sun, September 7, 2014

Juliana - Faroe Islands

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Home Schooled
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club: Mandarin, Florida
Host District: District 1440
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Tórshavn

My Bio

Hej! Mit navn er Juliana! I’m absolutely thrilled to be heading to Faroe Islands next year as a foreign exchange student! I am very grateful toward the Rotary organization and all the people involved who have given me the opportunity to better myself through becoming a part of another culture. My favorite thing to do is learn, and most of my daily activities involve the process of learning; I have a proclivity for reading, though I’m also often found drawing, playing computer games, taking walks, writing, and playing the violin. I teach private violin lessons to a small number of students, and my parents are fully-fledged music teachers. My father teaches full-time, as well as work as a choir director and orchestra conductor, while my mom has some students while also being a consultant for a health and wellness business. My brother is also a violin teacher, though he mostly works as an intern at an architectural firm. My family places great value in hard work and studiousness, which is why I believe I’ll have a fulfilling and successful exchange. Besides being diligent, I’m personable and diplomatic. I can get along with anyone, and I don’t allow conflicting principles or personalities get in the way of what could be, at the very least, a cordial acquaintanceship. I’m ambitious, and I hope to change myself and others while on my exchange, so that global understanding can be achieved. Again, I thank the Rotary for giving me this chance, as well as my parents, my friends, and my adversaries. They have shaped me into a person who can be an ambassador, and they have prepared me for greater change. I am ready to experience Denmark and all it has to offer. Farvel, for nu!

Journals: Juliana – Faroe Islands

“$154 to send a 10 kilogram box. …It’s like twenty pounds, I think? Is that cheap? Cheaper than in the US, right? …Yeah. …Oh, it was just books and other stuff, everything too heavy for the suitcase. …Uh-huh. That’s right. Ah, my bus is here, I gotta go. Talk to you later. …Yes. …Okay. …Yeah. …Okay, yes, later. Bye.”

I hung up the phone and swung my arm down to my side. I felt exhausted, which was weird, since I’d taken advantage of the fact that I had no school by sleeping in until I almost died of dehydration. I yawned and squinted up at the sky; it was gray and turbulent, spitting down waves of mist on the people who had to wait at the bus stop that didn’t have a shelter. Thankfully, the bus was on time — I quickly glanced around to see if a thaumaturge was also waiting with us — and we were quickly spared from the bone-deep chill of the Faroese summer.

“I don’t want to go home yet,” I thought miserably as I flopped my soggy self into a bus seat. I didn’t want to go back to my room and see every possession I owned tossed higgledy-piggledy in piles all over the floor. By the dresser was the “give-away clothes” pile, under the cubbies was the “sentiment-filled but useless” pile, in the middle of the floor was the “most of these I don’t want, but I don’t feel like sorting through them” pile… and there were more. I didn’t want to see them, but I didn’t have the money to go anywhere else. So I stayed on.

I needed a distraction from my thoughts. I opened my phone and went through my text messages.

“Hey Juliana! Sure, I’d love to meet up. How about—“

Next.

“Thanks for contacting me! Yeah, that time sounds good. We’ll be there—“

Next.

“I want to see you too! Let’s get coffee—“

Next.

“Sorry, I’m taking a trip that day. But I’m free on—“

I closed my phone. I was happy that everyone I’d messaged had replied so quickly. Host family members, friends, people who’ve helped me get through my year — I’d sent messages to them all and asked if we could get together one last time before June 24th, the departure day. I felt like a dying woman making plans to see all her loved ones before she inevitably succumbs to disease. Of course it’s not quite the same, as not only will I return to the Faroes some day, but modern technology connects us all; still, what you want and what you don’t want will always be present in equal measure in your mind: “I’ll definitely see them all again some day,” and, “What if this is the last time we’ll ever see each other?” You can’t keep one and toss out the other. Thoughts are ornery things.

The bus ride felt like an eternity. Any amount of time in a vehicle longer than ten minutes is considered a really long time in the Faroe Islands, and it’s changed my perspective. From my home in Florida, it was twenty minutes to my college. Forty minutes to my friend’s house. An hour to the beach. Two and a half hours to Disney World. Even the seven hour car ride to North Carolina my family takes every year never seemed like a big deal, before now.

My perception of the scale of the world has changed without me even noticing. I’ve been in ten foreign countries now. Back before ‘exchange student’ was even in my regular lexicon, when my only pastime was obsessively planning realistic goals for my life, I never even dared to dream that I’d visit more than three countries outside the US. In my mind, it just wasn’t possible for me. But it was, and it is, and I’ve done it. I’ve really done it.

The bus dropped me off at the stop outside my subdivision. I slipped inside my house and immediately went downstairs to my room.

I stepped inside, shut the door softly, and slid the “weird Faroese tchotchkes” pile out of my path with my foot as I paced over to my desk. I sat down heavily, sighing as I looked over the piles, the garbage, and the open, empty suitcase. The room was silent except for the sound of my own breathing and little, imaginary voices whispering in my ear, “You’re leaving soon,” coming from the things strewn all over the floor.

I put my face in my hands. I’m leaving soon.

I hadn’t bothered to turn on the light when I came in. I sat facing my dark room, my head casting a shadow on the wall from the light of my laptop’s screen. This had been my most important space for three months, and soon I would have to leave it behind forever.

I’m leaving soon.

Exhaustion settled over me like a giant pillow. I got up and went over to the bed, laid down, and shut my eyes, listening to the noise of the house. I could hear my host mom washing dishes upstairs, and the excited voices of Danish children meant my little host brother was watching television. My mom. My little brother. I had three moms, three dads, four brothers, and four sisters whom I hadn’t even known this time last year. And yet they were my family. They will always be my family.

I’m leaving soon, but I’m not going home. I’ll never be completely at home ever again.

But if that’s the price I have to pay to have homes all over the world, then that’s fine.

Farvæl, Føroyar. Vit síggjast.

 Sat, June 13, 2015

(**WARNING: This journal is long. This is the end of the warning.**)

(**I LIED: HERE’S ANOTHER WARNING: Some dialogue was fabricated for comedic purposes. …Some.)

—Paris

I hadn’t really thought about going to Paris before; I’m sure there were times when I thought it would be cool to go into the Palace of Versailles — ~I’M IN LOOOOVE WITH ROCOOOCO~ — but for some reason I never really imagined myself in France. And yet, there I was going on this maskinferð with a bunch of Faroese students. Suddenly, we were all exchange students, in a way.

(A little anecdote: Maskinferð literally means “machine trip.” All throughout the trip, we called it maskinferð instead of námsferð — “study trip” — because on the Friday before we left, our teacher gave us a warning that we shouldn’t engage in any funny business because military personnel were patrolling the streets of Paris, and they were carrying machine guns — only instead of saying “machine guns,” she just said “machine” by accident. So the word stuck, and whenever there was a trio of soldiers walking by carrying machine guns, whoever saw them first would shout to the rest of the group, “Maskin!” and we would all repeat it back.)

So on Wednesday, I awoke at 5:00 in the morning (read: rose like a zombie from a coffin) so I could take a taxi to the airport. I checked in my luggage with my similarly groggy-eyed classmates, and within the hour, we got on the plane.

Day 1 — Copenhagen.

The flight to Copenhagen is less than three hours, so we landed pretty early in the morning. Most of us slept on the plane, and there are plenty of pictures on Instagram of us sitting with our heads lolling to the side, our mouths wide open. We grabbed our stuff, hopped on a train, and got off a bit farther away from the hostel than anyone would’ve liked. We walked a good distance, dragging our luggage in tow, and it was at this point that I realized I wasn’t wearing my brace, and my ankle was hurting. Badly.

Foreshadowing!

(Note: No, my ankle isn’t still sprained. I probably have a damaged ligament, and normally it’s completely painless and I don’t need to wear a brace, though sometimes it acts up. This trip was one of those times. Darn you to heck, walking tours!)

We arrived at the hostel, but our rooms weren’t ready yet, so we stuffed our bags into an empty room and set off into Copenhagen. Our main group branched off into several smaller groups as we went searching for food. The group I was with went to a Shawarma restaurant, and then after that, we split into even smaller groups to go wandering around.

Much shopping was accomplished. Because clothes (and food, and pretty much everything else) is so expensive in the Faroes (because one: socialism, and two: import tax), Faroese people in other countries go crazy while shopping. Most of the girls’ luggage bags were packed to be almost empty to prepare for their new purchases. I say “most” because mine wasn’t, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy much; most of the clothing chains I went to only had women’s sizes up to L, very few went up to XL, and even the XL shirts were too small for me. I went into H&M and bought a bunch of men’s XL t-shirts, and while they ended up being long enough to wear as a dress, they still fit snugly around my broad shoulders.

Moral of this boring story: If you’re a girl in Europe and you’re not short and/or a human pipe cleaner, men’s clothes and “plus sizes” are the way to go.

“But Juliana!” you might have said just now, “Aren’t Scandinavians generally very tall?” Yes, you are correct, lovely reader. But the height of the average Scandinavian man is still shorter than, for example, my brother, and the average Scandinavian woman is shorter than me; men average at about 185 cm (about 6’1”) and women at about 171 cm (like 5’7”). Just for reference, my brother is 218 cm (aprox. 7’2”) and I’m 180 cm (5’11”-ish. I tell people I’m 6’ for ease of reference). And I think, due to the exercise and healthy food I’ve been getting here in the Faroes, that I’ve gotten even taller.

Yaaaaay.

All right, sorry for getting off-topic.

We got back to the hostel extremely late. There were six of us in one tiny room, but we all managed to finish our bedtime routines in enough time to get four hours of sleep.

Day 2 — Paris.

Got on the flight, landed in Paris, hooray! When we landed, the sun was just coming up, and the view from the airplane window was fantastic. Bright sunlight illuminated huge acres of vineyards, towering forests, and cute little neighborhoods of white walls and terra-cotta roofs. Even the blue sky was exciting, since it’d been a while since I saw a clear sky. I couldn’t stop asking my classmates, “Ert tú spent!?” (“Are you excited?”), because I was jumping up and down. In my airplane seat. Yes, I’m still an embarrassment to everyone around me, in case you were wondering if that trait ever went away.

We arrived at our hostel, where, again, our rooms weren’t ready, so we stuffed all our bags into an empty room yet again. This time, though, that didn’t turn out so well because these rooms were absolutely miniscule. They were even smaller than the room I have all to myself here in the Faroes, and I was to be sharing a hostel room with two other girls. And the layout was horrible; you opened the door, and immediately to your left was a tiny water closet. Then came the shower, which lead directly into the room, and anyone who was in the room could see you showering because the shower door wasn’t opaque.

THE SHOWER DOOR. WASN’T. OPAQUE.

Has that sunken in yet? Yes? Yes, okay, moving on.

After the shower came two single beds pushed together and a bunk bed crossing over them perpendicularly, and then there was a tiny space for our suitcases next to a small sink. Needless to say, we didn’t spend much time in that room.

After depositing our junk in our genuinely awful rooms, we went shopping.

FRENCH GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE, YOU ARE THE REASON I CAN LOVE. If you’ve never been to Paris and have only seen photographs, I can tell you that the shops, the cafés, the apartments with the little verandas, and all the people on mopeds are a sight that’s infinitely better in person. The atmosphere of a busy shopping district in Paris is so overwhelmingly comfortable, you might feel like curling up on the sidewalk and falling asleep to the sounds of the city. I know I did — well, I mean, I felt like it. I didn’t actually go to sleep on a sidewalk in Paris. You can’t even sit down at a café for ten minutes without being shooed away.

Yes, I got shooed out of a restaurant by a snooty French waiter. Here’s what happened:

While my classmates continued shopping, I felt my ankle acting up again, so I went to go sit outside a nice corner café where they could still find me if they needed to, as my phone didn’t have reception. A waiter materialized next to my table and I ordered a Coke. Drinking it took about two minutes, and I spent another five minutes just relaxing. The café was empty except for me and a Parisian couple on a date. There was a hot sun overhead and a pleasant breeze floating between the tall buildings. Even with the heavy traffic and honking horns, everything felt peaceful.

The waiter materialized with the bill, revealing that my one glass of soda had cost the equivalent of 8 USD. Lamenting the fact that I hadn’t just ducked into the metro to use a vending machine instead, I paid him and left the extra coins as a tip. The waiter disappeared with my empty glass and I continued to sit there, enjoying the sunlight. I closed my eyes for a second, and when I opened them, the waiter was there again. I looked at him questioningly.

“You finished your drink,” he said. As he had already taken my glass and money away, I knew this wasn’t a pre-emptive statement to offering me a refill. I just raised my eyebrows at him and stated the obvious: “Yeah?”

He rocked on the heels of his feet, his expression agitated, staring at me. He didn’t move from his spot and didn’t avert his gaze. Slightly unnerved, I slowly reached for my bag and coat, and at that, he looked relieved and disappeared into the café again.

What, was he afraid he was going to have to use force to remove me from his deserted restaurant? The force of your awkward stare was enough, buddy. Good job.

Anyway, moving on to a more positive restaurant experience, we all headed to a restaurant later that night, where I tried escargot and cuisses de grenouilles for the first time. The snails tasted more like herbs and butter than anything else, and the frog legs really, seriously did just taste like chicken covered in tomato sauce. I liked them. Anyway, after that, nearly everyone else went partying ’til the early hours of the morning, but my ankle assured me that it would be unwise to join them.

Day 3 — Notre Dame de Paris, the Panthéon, and Sacré Cœur

The next morning, we walked to Notre Dame, passing by the Seine and giving me the perfect opportunity to sing “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, much to everyone else’s embarrassment. We got to the cathedral, filed through the one open door, had our bags NOT checked by two security guards who were supposed to be checking bags but decided they were too busy talking to each other, and inhaled the sacred air of Notre Dame.

Have I mentioned how much I love French Gothic architecture? Because I do. I was nearly drooling as I gazed at the high arches, mullioned windows, and detailed stain glass. Along the walls were religious artworks, old tabernacles, banners providing historic information, and other points of interest. Our group split off, and I ended up being disconnected from the main group because I was busy sight-seeing and hadn’t noticed everyone leaving in the gigantic, tourist-packed cathedral. I got a text from one of our teachers (thankfully my phone could still receive texts) telling me they were all in a nearby café. So I regrouped with them and we all headed back to church to attend mass at noon.

I really wish we could have attended mass on a Sunday, because weekday masses, even those in one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, are rather lackluster. The readings were in French, of course, which all except a few of us couldn’t understand, and it was incredibly short with almost no singing. Even so, mass in Notre Dame de Paris! I’m very happy that I could have that experience.

After that, we headed to the Panthéon. We saw lots of fantastic artwork and the graves of Viktor Hugo, Rousseau, Voltaire, and other famous people. There’s not much more I can say about it without describing each and every piece of artwork to you, so take my word for it when I say it was amazing. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere within the Panthéon, because there almost wasn’t one; there were very few people around, and the gigantic, echoey hall was quieter than a library. If only it smelled like a library too, because the smell of marble isn’t easy to convey through words, mostly because well-cared-for marble doesn’t have a smell. The whole place smelled like nothing, is what I’m saying.

No smell, no sound, and towering white walls and statues everywhere. It was quite the austere experience. I loved it.

Also, I bought a Little Prince plushy in the gift shop. Yay!

The last stop of the day was Sacré Cœr. By the time we left the Panthéon, my ankle was on fire, so you can imagine my immense despair when I saw all the steps leading up to the cathedral. Still, I climbed, because I knew that if I stopped, a “salesman” would wrap a bracelet around my wrist and try to intimidate me into paying for it. I decided not to risk it for a moment’s respite.

Inside the cathedral, mass was going on. They were having communion, and the sanctum was absolutely packed. Unlike Notre Dame’s mass, this mass had music and a choir, and it was glorious to behold. A woman’s strong, vibrating voice echoed around the giant cathedral, accompanied by a powerful organ. I would have loved to stay and attend that mass, but I thought my feet were going to fall off by then, so we departed.

If you’re reading this, you probably know me. If you don’t know me, that means you’re an exchange student from the future, reading my journals for reference (HAHA, GOOD LUCK WITH THAT), in which case, hello from the past! But anyway, if you know me, then you know I have this habit of getting distracted and becoming separated from whomever I’m with.

But surely I wouldn’t let that happen in a foreign country where I had no cellphone reception, right? Surely I’d be able to get a grip on my focus and make sure I was with the group at all times… right?

By this point in the story, it had already happened twice.

No, I’m not going to tell you what happened.

Exchange student from the future, if you’re still reading this, I implore you to try to remain focused at all times. It’s important to your safety.

Oh, by the way, on an unrelated note, we got done with our tours around three o’clock everyday, so in case you were wondering, you’re safe to presume that everything that occurred after we were done doing what I’ve described in these diary entries was some combination of dining out, shopping, touring the supermarket, napping, and clubbing. For me, it was probably some combination of the first, third, and fourth. Describing that would get repetitive, so just know that that’s what we did between and after being tourists.

Day 4 — Versailles

I can’t remember if it was this day or a different day, but at some point, a gypsy market appeared about ten meters down the road from our hostel. As I’ve already mentioned, our hostel was pretty terrible, which might have had to do with the fact that it was in a shantytown. Gypsies, the homeless, drug dealers, and prostitutes — literally hundreds of them — crowded into the street, promoting their “services” or showing off the salvaged garbage they were selling, or else beating the teeth out of each others’ heads in an attempt to steal said garbage. One of our classmates — hi, Jón — went to check out the market out of curiosity before any of us knew what was going on within it, and he came back visibly disturbed. We were disturbed, too, when he described the horrors he’d seen to us. We already weren’t allowed to go anywhere by ourselves, but this new situation upped the fear ante.

I decided not to tell my mom about this situation happening right outside our living quarters until after the trip was over. A wise decision, I would say.

…So we headed off to Versailles!

Do you know what Rococo architecture is?

Because I’M IN LOOOOVE WITH ROCOOOOCO. I love it even more than French Gothic. Walking through an entire palace full of pastel walls and gold trim made me feel like I was walking in the version of Heaven you see in comic strips: fluffy clouds with golden gates. Maybe that’s an odd comparison, but it was really, truly wonderful. It was my second-favorite location we visited on our trip.

“Second-favorite?” you might have just asked your computer screen, as if it would magically supply answers to you in my own deep, soothing voice. “But Versailles was the first thing you mentioned in this journal! What could your first-favorite be?”

Ha. Aha ha. Hahahaha. HAHAHAHA. AAAHAHAHAHAHAHHA!

You’ll find out.

Day 5 — Notre Dame de Reims and G. H. Mumm & Cie

Notre Dame de Reims wasn’t actually on the itinerary; we just happened to be near it as we waited for the G. H. Mumm facility to open. Everybody else relaxed at a café or walked around while I ventured into the cathedral by myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about the existence of the Smiling Angel until we left Reims, so I didn’t get the chance to look for it. Still, the thousands of awesome carvings of holy people and angels were quite the sight. I was almost neurotically giddy, being on my fourth day of a nonstop, architectural eye-binge.

Now here’s a funny(?) little story. I stepped into the dusty sanctum of the cathedral to find that it was almost empty. A few small groups of tourists wandered here and there, but there was nowhere near the crowd of Notre Dame de Paris. Then again, it was like eight o’clock in the morning, when most tourists are still in their caves.

So, since the cathedral was so empty, I decided it would be okay if I prayed right in front of the altar — well, as close to the altar as I could get, since it was roped off. I knelt down on the stone floor, hunched over, and prayed for about a minute or so. I could hear a few whispers floating in my direction, but I did my best to ignore them. However, the whispers gradually got closer, and I found myself rushing to finish my prayers. When I finally looked up, I found tourists standing on both sides of me, staring down at me.

I turned red as a tomato. They were looking straight at me, some smirking, some outright giggling. I think one of them may have even taken a picture of me, judging by the movement his hands — which were holding a camera aloft— when I looked up at him. Flustered and confused, I hurried to my feet and fast-walked out of the cathedral to rejoin my classmates.

Tourists think praying is just hilarious, I suppose.

Anyway, to the champagne facility!

We arrived in G. H. Mumm & Cie and ventured beneath the facility, deep underground (“DOWN ONCE MOOOORE TO THE DUNGEONS OF MY BLAAACK DEEESSPAIR,” I sang as we descended. Since watching The Phantom of the Opera in English class, I can’t go down a flight of stairs without at least thinking of this song). A tour guide explained how the fermenting process worked and led us through different, cobwebbed chambers that showcased bottles of murky liquid that were in the different stages of becoming champagne. The murky stuff was the yeast, of course, and it looked absolutely disgusting, but when the tour was over and we returned to the surface (thankfully by elevator), a man was waiting for us behind a row of glasses filled with sparkling, bubbly champagne. It was a lovely sight. (I’m talking about the champagne, of course, but I guess the guy turned a good ankle, too.)

I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ALCOHOL SO I CAN’T REALLY DESCRIBE THIS CHAMPAGNE FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T HAD IT, SO ORSAKA SUM EG ERI BÝTT.

But yeah. G. H. Mumm champagne. S’good.

Day 6 — The Louvre and a boat trip in the Seine

Ah, the Louvre. What can I say about the Louvre besides the obvious? It’s big. It’s got some pyramids made of glass. It’s chockfull of old, famous pieces of art. It’s also full of tourists taking pictures of themselves imitating the art, which was arguably more entertaining than the art pieces themselves.

Posing in front of the Mona Lisa were faintly-smiling women crossing their arms loosely in front of their chests — perfect imitations, besides having a few eyebrows too many. In another chamber, posing next to a statue of an Olympic athlete mid-catch, was a petite woman wildly stretching her arms while pretending to catch an invisible discus. More than a few men had pictures taken of themselves pretending to take selfies next to statues of Roman emperors who were holding up edicts, which admittedly would often resemble the standard selfie pose. But probably the funniest tourist I took notice of was a grandmotherly Asian woman standing for a picture in front of a large painting of hell. She obviously was trying to look like she was standing in the midst of hell, but her face was just so utterly calm and composed that I nearly burst into tears of laughter watching her have her picture taken. Her expression wasn’t, “I’m in hell,” but rather, “ Hell is my vacation home.” I will remember this little old Asian lady until the day I die. In fact, she will probably be the last thing I see before I pass on.

SO ANYWAY.

When it comes to paintings, I adore hyper-realism. Paintings of humans mid-action with intense facial expressions are my favorite, and I don’t particularly care for posed pictures of static, dead-eyed, vacantly smiling models. (Sorry, Mona.) Therefore, I was delighted when I discovered what has now become my favorite painting: Atala au Tombeau (“The Entombment of Atala”) by Girodet. The intense expression on Chactas’ face as he held the dead Atala moved me greatly.

AWRIGHT, LET’S NOT GET SAPPY.

After the Louvre, we all went off to do our own thing before regrouping at night to go on a boat ride on the Seine, where we got to see the Eiffel Tower illuminated. Did you know the Eiffel Tower also sparkles sometimes? I sure didn’t. I’m so happy I got to see it at night, when it could look its brightest.

After the boat ride, me and nine of my classmates headed to a nearby restaurant. It was nearly empty, the food relatively cheap (“15 euro for one entrée? What a bargain!”), but at this point I realized I had no money. I had used up all of my cash, and the French payment machines wouldn’t accept American cards.

(For those of you who don’t know, American cards have a magnetic strip that you have to slide, while European cards have a magnetic strip AND a chip on the top that you can just stick into the machine. For reasons unknown, every machine except the ATM would only accept the chip method, and there were rarely ever any ATMs around.)

So I fell into the depths of despair because I had to have my friend pay for my grossly overpriced meal. I know it’s stupid, but this kind of thing is important to me. But enough about that.

Enter the waiter.

This man was amazing. Here we were, ten foreign students sitting in a nearly empty restaurant with pockets full of spending money (sans me), and this man had the awe-inspiring effrontery to roll his eyes and mock us as we ordered our food. Why, you may ask? That’s a very good question. Maybe we pronounced the French foods wrong. Maybe we asked him to repeat himself one too many times so we could understand. Who knows?

And the cherry on top was that he presumed that just because I — yes, me specifically — ordered in English, then that meant NO ONE ELSE at the table spoke French. Well, yes, that’s kind of stupid, but why bring that up?

Because I was having a bad day; I was out of money, I had a headache, my ankle was killing me, I was starving, and I’d had one of those stupid and inconvenient exchange-induced existential crises when I was on the boat. I was a bit out of it. So when he came back with our food and asked, “Who ordered the duck?”, I didn’t reply right away.

“Juliana,” said Katrin, tapping me on the shoulder, “isn’t that yours?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Thank you.”

The waiter looked at me reproachfully and muttered, “Réveillez-vous.”

I had no idea what that meant — plus I was still in a daze — so I just thanked him and took my food. I didn’t notice Ragnhild, who was sitting a ways down the table, and who also speaks fluent French, looking highly affronted. She passed the news down the table to me that apparently, the waiter had ordered me to “wake up.”

Wow, I didn’t realize French waiters hated getting a tip. BECAUSE HE CERTAINLY DIDN’T GET ONE.

A more hilarious situation happened just a moment later. Guðrun had ordered a steak, cooked medium, but when it arrived, it was quite obviously rare. She politely pointed this out to the waiter, who scoffed and told her that what she was looking at WAS medium, even though the steak was plainly swimming in a pool of its own blood. Guðrun told him to take it back and cook it more, which he reluctantly. A couple minutes later, he returns with the steak, drops it in front of her, and leaves. A second-long inspection revealed the steak to still be as cooked as a cow in a hot room.

Fed up, Guðrun picked up her plate and carried it downstairs to where the waiters were all waiting around, chatting. We all listened as we heard her set the plate down on the counter with a clatter and ask shrilly, “DOES THIS LOOK MEDIUM TO YOU??”

Guðrun, tú ert mín fyrimynd.

Day 7 — Choco-Story, the Eiffel Tower, and the Catacombs

We started our last day in Paris at Choco-Story, a small museum showcasing the history of chocolate-making. After we viewed all the old pots and pans and machines for making chocolate since the beginning of its discovery, we shuffled into a small kitchen where we were given a short presentation on making chocolate. Afterward, we all bought some chocolates (sans me; no ATM had been found before that point), and then headed off.

I found an ATM in time to finally eat something before we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

At least to me, the Eiffel Tower looks small until you’re right underneath it. I don’t know what kind of optical illusions are involved, but I honestly felt underwhelmed until I was directly under its steel beams, at which point I became ecstatic. My feelings matched those of a little American boy who was standing with his parents, staring up at the tower, gesticulating widely and shouting, “HOW did HUMANS build SOMETHING like THIS!?”

This day was pretty foggy, so when we reached the very top of the tower, we couldn’t see very far out over Paris. Still, what we could see was breath-taking; we could see Notre Dame de Paris, Opéra Garnier (“THE PHAAAAAANTOM OF THE OPERA IS—“ “JULIANA, PLEASE.”), Invalides, the Seine, an important-looking building with columns and stuff, and other places, I think. Again, it was foggy.

There’s actually a champagne bar at the top level, and it charges twelve euros for a tiny little plastic glass. I know you’re supposed to try to get every experience you can, while you can, when you’re abroad (or in life in general, I guess), but I’m really not meant to live in a tourist hotspot. I’m cheap like that.

We finished taking our selfies — I actually had my Little Prince doll with me, and I took a picture of it in front of the Siene — and went down the elevator, which I thought was one of the best parts: An elevator that goes diagonally? Amazing!

It’s the little things, people.

And now, the final stop. Have you been wondering what my favorite location was and is? Are you at all surprised that it involves dead bodies in some way?

**

“You’re actually kind of creepy,” said a new friend just recently in a pleasantly surprised voice.

“I know,” I said, pleasantly surprised that this person had spent more than ten minutes with me without realizing this until just that moment.

**

The Paris catacombs. A sign stood in the entrance warning that children and people with nervous dispositions should avoid taking the tour. Luckily, as you all know, I am a master of keeping a calm disposition.

HAHAHAHA.

Let’s continue.

So we descended. Down, and down, and down (“Don’t you DARE start singing.” “Ugh, FINE.”) a spiral staircase that seemed like it would never end. Finally, our feet landed on the dusty ground, and we began to walk through the tunnels. Unfortunately, there were no secret passages to crawl through like in As Above, So Below, but still, the set route was creepy enough on its own.

They did a good job building suspense, since we spent quite a few minutes just walking through narrow, low-ceilinged, dimly lit corridors. Shadows creeped at the corners of our vision and strange noises echoed off the walls. (“All right, who’s breathing like Jason Voorhees?” “Well, you TOLD me not to SING.”) Pretty soon, we started getting impatient. Where were the skeletons?

Ah. There they were. Thousands of them. Entire walls made of bones stacked on top of each other lined the entire passage for the rest of the tour. (“I find this tour to be quite HUMERUS.” “PLEASE close your face.”) Thirty minutes of walking through a wide, winding corridor full of smiling skulls, decoratively arranged into crosses or hearts or smiley faces. (That last one isn’t true.) Signs were put up at intervals to remind people not to touch the remains, but they neglected to point out that touching the bones would probably definitely curse you. I tried several times to pose next to the skulls, but the lighting was so horrible that most of the pictures turned out almost completely black. So the only thing I was able to take from the catacombs was corpse dust on my shoes.

Wait, does that count as touching the remains?

I am not long for this world. I leave this journal as a memento of my foolishness. There are some things man was never meant to tamper with— wait, this isn’t Creepypasta. My bad.

So we had one last night of partying and supermarket-touring before settling into our hostel rooms for what was thankfully the last time. We cast offhanded glances at our possessions strewn all over the room, shrugged, and saved the packing for the next day.

Day 8 — Going home

We flew home.

The end.

 Mon, March 23, 2015

(Before we start, I’d like to mention that there was an error in my last journal: I said Runavík was two and a half hours from Tórshavn, when it’s actually only one hour. My host parents had a good laugh when they read it, because apparently driving two and a half hours in the Faroes without turning around would require you to drive into the ocean. Seriously, you can make a tour of the whole country into a day-trip.)

One day, I was unexpectedly called to the school counselor’s office. I sat down in the guest chair, wondering what I could have done wrong, when the counselor in charge of the exchange students, Annie, turned to me and said something that immediately made my brain go numb:

“The principal would like you to do some presentations about yourself and your experiences as an American in the Faroe Islands.”

“… What?”

“It won’t be difficult, as they’ll only be fifteen minutes long and the subject will be one you’re familiar with,” explained Annie. “And you’ve done presentations before, right? This would be a good experience for you.”

“… What?”

“Will you do it?”

“Wh— Uh, I’m not sure,” I said, putting my hands up to my face. Just the thought of having to talk about myself to a group of people as if I was actually someone important was horribly embarrassing.

“Who would my audience be?” I asked. “My classmates, or Rotary, or…?”

“I don’t have the details yet,” said Annie. “I’ll have to ask the principal. But the group could be anyone from your class to the entire school. Maybe both.”

“Both?” I echoed, my mind reeling from hearing the words “entire school.” “How many presentations would I be doing?”

“Hmm. Four to six, maybe?”

“What.”

“Yeah, the principal was thinking maybe you could go to different schools to do the presentation as well.”

“WHAT.”

“You’ll do it, right?”

I could already feel my stomach churning with anxiety. I knew I definitely should say yes, but I was insanely worried. What if I mess up? What if I say something wrong? What if my audience correctly surmises that I’m actually terribly boring under my flashy, exchange-student exterior?

I told Annie I’d think about it and maybe ask some Faroese people what they might like to hear. She took me to talk to my Social Science teacher, who encouraged me to ask my classmates for topics to discuss. So I went back to my classroom and asked for some general ideas, which spontaneously erupted into a brainstorming session that turned the entire Social Science block into a Q&A session. My classmates asked questions ranging from my everyday schedule in the US to how the welfare system works to how to earn a scholarship at an American university. I collected a sizable number of topics to cover and took them home to look over, then decided the presentation was doable and called Annie to tell her I would do it. And then I became sick, forcing all thoughts of the presentations out of my foggy, congested head.

On Monday of the next week, I went back to Annie’s office to ask her for some advice on how to organize the topics I’d accumulated. I met her in the hall, and as we walked to her office, she asked, “Have you finished writing your presentation yet?”

“Well, I was sick, so I didn’t have much time,” I explained, stepping into her office and setting my backpack down. “I’ve got a rough outline. I’ll have it finished soon.”

“You’ve been asked to make your presentation at a middle school tomorrow morning at 10am.”

I dropped down into the chair next to her desk, my face contorted with horror. “Already?”

Annie seemed amused. “Oh my, it seems every time you come in here, you get the shock treatment.”

So I went home and got to work, blearily glaring between my written outline and my computer keyboard for five hours until my brain broke down.

The next morning, I got to the middle school early and was introduced to the teacher who had requested me to present to his class. He led me into the biology room, followed by twenty or thirty of his sixteen-year-old students. They slowly filled up the seats, some even sitting on the counters. After they all had their butts on a surface, they turned to stare at me questioningly.

The teacher told me “go ahead” in Faroese, and so I began.

—I’m not going to include my presentation notes in this journal, since they kind of suck—

It went off without a hitch. I didn’t mess up or have to take a prolonged break to find my place or any of the other things I was worrying I’d do, and the students were a great audience; they all watched and listened intently, laughing and sounding astonished at all the right points, seeming genuinely interested. I was touched by their prolonged control of their attention spans.

There were only two questions, both from the same boy: “Do you like Faroese food?” and “Have you gotten used to using metric yet?” To the former I said yes, most definitely, and to the latter I gave a flat “no.”

I’ve done one more so far; I presented to Annie’s psychology class, which was almost entirely composed of people from my class. Since they were the ones who helped me put the presentation together in the first place, it was kind of awkward, but they politely pretended they hadn’t already heard exactly everything I was saying, so it was fine.

Even though I was able to do these presentations without any problems, the stage fright never went away. I never stopped being scared. Annie congratulated me after my first presentation and told me I had sounded like I’d done public speaking my entire life. But even though I’ve developed this skill thanks to college group presentations and Rotary, that awkward, shy feeling is rooted deep within my gut like a century-old tree. That shyness is probably an integral part of my personality, and I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it without uprooting everything else my personality comes from. Still, forcing myself to accept the responsibility of presenting has taught me how to overcome however I’m feeling so I can accomplish what I need to do. I started building that skill up since before I even started with Rotary. It probably started when I had to stand up in front of my ASL class in college and fumble out my name, age, and what kind of act I’d do if I worked in a circus. I’m not kidding; I really was asked to explain that. IN SIGN LANGUAGE. I chose “unicyclist,” by the way, and since I didn’t know the sign for unicycle, I made this really awkward gesture— Wait, I’m getting off topic.

In the end, I’m glad I chose to do the presentations. I haven’t received any more requests for my presentation as of this writing, but I hope that if I do, it will also go smoothly.

Maybe I’m one of few in this, but I’ve always understood foreign phrases better if I could hear them said literally. For example, in sign language, you could say, “I went to the mall,” but literally you would be signing BEFORE MALL ME GO. For me, seeing the literal translation makes it easier for me to remember, rather than just seeing a bunch of hand signals and being told it means, “I went to the mall.”

So that’s why it makes me kind of irritated that Memrise — the website I’m using to learn Faroese — had the phrase, “Eg havi tað illa,” and just put the meaning as, “I’m bad.” Okay, yes, that’s the connotation — you say it when someone asks you how you’re doing and you’re not doing so well — but LITERALLY it means, “I have it bad.” If you had put THAT as the translation instead of just, “I’m bad,” I probably would have been able to remember it when I was quizzed later. Whoever made the Faroese course on Memrise did this numerous times; the Faroese word for “because” is “tí,” and then it has “av tí at” marked as meaning “because” or “if,” while just “if” is “vissi,” and WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY FRAGILE BRAIN.

I don’t know. Is it just me?

Journals are hard to write. They usually stay on my computer for months as I slowly find things to talk about, but I’ve made a vow to write them more often, even if they’re short. So for this journal, I have everything I’ve written above and… what else?

Hm. I didn’t want the journal to be this short. I can’t think of more things to say. I guess this is a good sign, if it means that I’ve become so integrated that everything I do feels like a regular part of my normal, everyday life. …’Cause that’d be pretty cool.

…It’s probably that I’m just scatter-brained. Oh well.

Hmm. I guess I could talk about how I’m now able to go on the class trip to Paris with my classmates, but since that’s happening in March and all my knowledge of France comes exclusively from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ratatouille, I don’t have much to say on that front besides, “I’m excited for it.” I COULD talk — at serious length — about all the trouble my teachers and I are going through to arrange for me to tag along this late in the planning stage, but I really only want to give the advice of, “Make absolutely sure you have your visa info filed with the Danish embassy early on in your exchange, or else you might just transmogrify into an alien of the most illegal variety.” Luckily, I was able to narrowly avoid this happening, since my counselor came to me some months ago and was like, “Yo, Denmark doesn’t even know you’re here.” She didn’t actually say “yo ,” but my brain automatically 90’s-ifies my memories. I need to get that checked out at some point.

Anyway, I thought the info had been filed before I left and it hadn’t been. So, yeah, always double-check that stuff.

Should I talk about Faroese people? Like, should I encourage you to read this journal in Morgan Freeman’s voice as I tell you random facts? That would be educational for all of us, since it’s been scientifically proven that hearing facts in Morgan Freeman’s voice makes you 20% smarter. (Not really, but only because science hasn’t proven it yet. Come on, science!)

~Facts about Faroese people~ (Cue Freeman narration)

  1. If you ask a Faroese person how their day went, they will describe it to you in minute detail. If a Faroese person asks you how your day was and you only say, “Not that good,” they’ll say, “Okay,” and then ask you four hours or more later why your day was bad, because they’ll have been waiting all that time for you to come forth with that information yourself.
  2. Wearing sunglasses indoors in the US makes people think you’re a tool. Wearing sunglasses at all in the Faroe Islands makes people think you’re hungover. Why else would you be wearing shades when the word “sunlight” has long since become only a fond memory?
  3. Faroese people are so mystical and magical, even Danish people don’t know that they exist, let alone that their country technically owns them.
  4. Faroese teens have a “tradition” of taking screenshots of the embarrassing Snapchats you send them and then posting them on your Facebook wall on your birthday. That picture you took of you making a quadruple-chin that you sent to them with the timer set to two seconds? Oh yes, they screencapped it, and you’ll be seeing it again. And so will all your Facebook friends. Happy Birthday, sucker.
  5. Faroese people eat three of what the average American would call a “light snack” a day. I have no idea how these people stay alive.
  6. Faroese children are inherently hardcore. There’s a kindergarten near my house that has a playground built in tiers along the side of a hill next to a ravine filled with sharp rocks. Do you think there’s a fence providing a barrier between the five-year-olds and the sharp rocks? Oh, and what, have those kids grow up to be wimps? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
  7. Faroese people don’t use umbrellas, because if they did, the wind would carry them away like Mary Poppins.
  8. You may think you’re being ignored by your Faroese friends, but you’re not. They’re always watching. Listening.

Waiting.

…for you to find out what they were really thinking. This will usually be two months after the fact, and you will find out from their sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s friend’s babysitter.

~These have been true facts about Faroese people~ (End Freeman narration. …Or don’t, I’m not judging. I like this voice too.)

Hm, what else… How about I talk about my feelings? Well, THAT would be fun for 100% of nobody. If I were to stick to the positive, I’d be able to say, “Yeah, I’m happy; my family and friends are nice, the food’s good, there’re pretty mountains and stuff, so life’s pretty grand right now, yeah,” since those things alone are enough to content me. If I were to focus on the negative instead, it’d probably just be something dumb like, “I HAVE A GIANT ‘NOTHING’ IN MY HEART BAAAWWW” or something equally melodramatic and unimportant.

(Yes, I do indeed read my old journal entries and think, “Did I seriously write this twaddle?”)

Huh.

I guess I’ll write more for you guys after the Paris trip. Síggjast!

——

———

————

—————

I have had the following conversation at least four times since arriving here:

“Hvussu eitur tú?”

“Eg eiti Juliana. Eg eri ein skiftisnæmingur frá Amerika.”

“Oh, it’s nice to meet you!”

“Nice to meet you, too.”

“How long have you been here?”

“About half a year.”

“Oh, cool! Yeah… So… Do you have a Faroese boyfriend yet?”

“…What?”

I guess the Faroese take their “men outnumbering women” problem very seriously.

Fri, February 13, 2015

I woke up early on the 24th to have my host mom drive me to Argir to pick up a gift. Specifically, I was picking up a gift I left outside someone’s house; due to a convoluted string of events, I presumed that it was a Faroese tradition to leave gifts outside people’s houses. In the Faroe Islands. Where the climate is 99% rain. Where you can literally just walk into people’s houses unannounced, and they’ll even invite you to stay for a cuppa.

Yeah, I know. I feel plenty dumb.

Anyway!

So I went to Argir to pick up the gift, which was completely ruined from sitting outside for two nights.

…Yeah, I feel really dumb, okay.

At six o’clock that evening, my host-aunt (Rannvá’s sister) and her family came. The nine of us sat down to eat roasted duck, caramelized potatoes, boiled potatoes, and gravy. The kids finished first and disappeared from the room, occasionally reappearing to see if we were done eating yet so they could open presents. (In the Faroes, presents are opened on the 24th.) After we finished eating, we danced and sang around the Christmas tree, me awkwardly trying to join in when I recognized the song. Then the kids dove into the present pile, and as we were in the middle of unwrapping, Santa Clause arrived.

A be-Santa-suited man came up to the house carrying a large bag over his shoulder. I didn’t recognize him, but I figured he was a friend of the family since he knew I didn’t speak Faroese well; he wished me a Merry Christmas in English as he handed me my gift. The gift was a beautifully-crafted silver pendant, shaped like the Faroe Islands on a fine silver chain. It was actually a gift from my host parents, and I’ve worn it pretty much every day since.

After unwrapping gifts, we prepared to eat rís a la mand, which is kind of like rice pudding. Rannvá asked me to stick an almond into one of the plates of pudding, shooing the kids out of the room so they couldn’t watch. After I had carefully hidden the almond, the dishes were placed at random at the seats around the table. Then, everyone was invited to sit down, and we sang a song while passing the plates in a circle around the table. Once the song ended, everyone started to eat, carefully chewing their pudding so they wouldn’t accidentally swallow the almond if they got it. Whosoever got the plate with the almond would receive a special Christmas gift. After everyone cleaned their plates, Rannvá announced she had gotten the almond, and she received her gift, which was a beautiful jigsaw puzzle.

At midnight, I went to the Christmas mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church with my host parents. When I entered the sanctum, I could hear a live violin playing. I looked up into the choir loft and saw a small troupe of violinists, a cellist, and a… lutist? I still don’t know what instrument that was, since the player wasn’t playing loud enough to hear.

The musicians were quite skilled, but they seemed woefully uninformed of what songs are appropriate for a church environment. “Oh, what, did they play ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ or something?” you might be thinking. No, they didn’t. They played the theme from Schindler’s List as both prelude music and the song for communion.

…I’m not kidding.

Anyway!

On Christmas Day, my host aunt, uncle, and cousins were still here relaxing and whiling the day away, but I didn’t get to see them because I pretty much slept until the next day.

On the day after Christmas, it’s generally expected that anyone who’s old enough to drink should go out to a club and party. …and instead of doing that, I slept until I almost died, and then we went to my host-grandparents’ (Egon’s parents’) house. The grandma didn’t seem to speak very much English, but the grandpa was fluent, and he regaled me with stories about his time working on a fishing boat in Iceland, proving to me that grandpas are pretty much the same in every country. (“When I was your age, I was hauling a fishing line for sixty fathoms, all day, every day! And for only two measly fish per cast!”)

On the 27th, we travelled to Runavík (about two and a half hours from Tórshavn) to stay at my host-aunt’s house. The night we arrived, there was a Christmas party with pretty much every family member and friend to the family in attendance. Because there wasn’t enough room at the table, all the kids ate first, and they ate what looked like pasta (I was’t eating with them, ‘CUZ I’M AN ADULT NOW), I guess because younger Faroese people aren’t partial toward the taste of traditional Faroese food: dried sheep, dried whale meat, dried whale blubber, and dried fish, served with cold potatoes, boiled eggs, mini meatballs, cucumbers, onions, red bell peppers, and tomatoes.

After dinner, I Skyped my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas. There were shrieking children in every single available room, so I Skyped them from the laundry room, though children would occasionally burst in for absolutely no reason anyway. We stayed overnight, and on the next day, we went to my host-grandparent’s (Rannvá’s parents this time) house where we ate roasted sheep and potatoes yet again. Are you seeing a theme here?

Of course, it was all delicious. I wore the same pants home from Runavík that I had worn TO Runavík, yet somehow they were much tighter.

But the eating doesn’t stop there!

The days passed quietly, as I was mostly sleeping then waking up to get fat on holiday sweets then going back to sleep, until it was finally December 31st. That night, we had roasted fermented sheep, potatoes, and vegetables. Neither Símun nor Eva seemed too keen on the sheep; Eva actually left the room because she couldn’t stand the smell, and I’ll admit, fermented sheep is reeeeaaaally strong. The smell sticks to your hands and clothes and the flavor sticks to your tongue. So she and Símun ate bread with Nutella while Egon, Rannvá, and I ate the sheep. And it was delicious.

At nine o’clock that night, we walked to a gathering place where all the neighbors were preparing the New Year’s torches. The torches were two-meter-tall, lightweight timbers with one end wrapped in gasoline-soaked cloth. A few men took turns dipping huge armfuls of them into a flaming oil drum, then passed them out to the neighbors. I guess fire safety either isn’t a thing here or is extremely lax, because I saw people letting their six-year-old kids hold torches, which they proceeded to wave around while people hurried to get out of the way.

It was incredibly windy that night, so the torches kept going out. Egon received two torches and took them over to the side of the road where he could hold them over the ledge and shield them from the wind until it was time to march. Someone lit a flare so everyone could see better and not accidentally set someone on fire, and shortly after it expired, the march began. Egon handed me a torch and we followed the procession down the road.

Our little parade had to take regular breaks to huddle together and relight the torches. Mine especially couldn’t seem to keep a flame for more than thirty seconds at a time, but I didn’t particularly mind. It was still pretty when it wasn’t ablaze; when the wind blew against it and ignited the embers, they glowed and flickered like fireflies buzzing in a black, crumbling beehive. Several times I got distracted while looking at it and almost walked into someone’s torch-ignition huddle.

After many breaks, we reached the middle school Símun and Eva attend, where the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen in person had been constructed, composed of and fenced by wooden pallets and people’s dead Christmas trees. We stood around with our torches for a while, and then at somebody’s call, everyone tossed their torches onto the heap. People kept walking in front of me, preventing me from tossing mine, so I gently stepped forward and stuck it into a gap where nothing was on fire yet.

Behind us, people started setting off fireworks. It lasted for several minutes, and when it was done, I checked the clock on my phone. It was only just past ten.

After watching the bonfire for a bit longer, we walked to a neighbor’s house, where they were serving soup out of their garage. I stood there and chatted with the neighbors for a while, but after a short time it got seriously cold, so I walked home. My host family came home one by one a short while later, and then, just before midnight, we went back to the neighbors house with our own fireworks in tow.

Right at midnight, all of Tórshavn was illuminated by fireworks. Hoyvík is on a mountain, so you have a pretty good view of the city. It was amazing to see fireworks in the distance that were almost at eye-level. I stared out over Tórshavn for a long time, and with every ear-splitting bang and blinding flash of light, I felt an increasing sense of peace. Last year was a good year. This is going to be a good year too.

 Fri, January 2, 2015

(The following is a series of vignettes illustrating certain events that occurred or thoughts that I’ve had during my stay here, since, as I state in the first essay, I’m bad at connecting my thoughts in a fluid manner. All of these essays were written at different times and in a different order than presented here; in fact, the order is completely random, with stories spanning from early October to now, mid-December. Just don’t think too much about it.)


I’ve been asked to write journals more often, but I feel like if I did, they would be very short. I don’t really have a way of connecting the random things that are funny or interesting into a flowing narrative. I try to upload pictures to Facebook when I can, but it’s really difficult. How is it difficult, I’ve just pretended you’ve asked? Well, have you ever looked up at the sky at night and saw a velvety, inky-black canopy completely awash with silver clouds, glittering stars, and a moon so full and beautiful it’s like God Himself is smiling at you from the heavens? And then, when you try to take a picture of it to treasure for all eternity, you get a completely black photo with a few blurry pinpricks of light here and there? That’s how it’s difficult. The Faroe Islands’ beauty can’t be accurately represented by a photograph. It probably can’t be accurately represented by mere words either, but I’ll try, since there’s one scene that, no matter how many times I see it, is just too beautiful to not at least attempt to share.
Some might think I’m being ridiculous by saying this, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Even if it’s silly and I’m the only one who thinks it’s special, the scene still holds tremendous importance to me. I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. It just does.

In order to witness this scene, there have to be some very specific conditions in place. I’ve witnessed this scene only twice, very briefly, once while I was living in Argir and once more now that I’m living in Hoyvík. I’ll just go ahead and describe it so you can see what I mean.
Tórshavn is on the island of Streymoy, and across the water to the east is the island of Nólsoy. It’s not that big, with a population of less than 300 people, and most of the island is dominated by an incredibly steep mountain called Eggjarklettur. Since we’re approaching winter now, all the grass in the Faroes is yellowing. The sight of a deathly yellow tone all over the ground and people’s roofs was slightly depressing to me at first, until I saw what it could look like on Eggjarklettur.

When I was in Argir, I was walking down the street to buy a drink at the gas station, and that’s when I saw it for the first time. It was cloudy and raining slightly, and I had to keep my eyes carefully shielded by my hood so my mascara wouldn’t get smeared by the drizzle. I was focusing on my feet for most of the walk, but as I was nearing the station, I felt the rain stop and lifted my head. The clouds had parted to reveal the sun, but it wasn’t shining on Streymoy at all. All of the light was pointed at the mountain in Nólsoy.

The first thing I thought of was Mars, the planet: bright orange, streaked like marl, giving off a tremendous impression of distance and mystery. The yellow grass on the mountain was the same color as a pumpkin under the glaring late afternoon sun, and the water beneath the cliff was glittering like it was frothing with diamonds.
The smell of damp earth and fresh ocean air, the wind whistling in my ears, water dripping gently from the sky onto my hair, and the strangest sensation that I was just across the fjord from Mars… that’s what I felt that day. I had to stop walking completely to take it all in. I was wonderfully overwhelmed, but the moment passed before I could properly digest it. Beauty in the Faroe Islands isn’t hard to find, but true moments of perfection like this are frustratingly ephemeral, like the time I was on the mountain in Vestmanna and got to enjoy a view of the cliffs over the sea for about two seconds before being consumed by fog. The sun disappeared behind the clouds again, and all of Nólsoy turned dark and yellow once more. I stood there for a while longer, the orange light of the mountain stuck inside my eyelids as I tried to blink and clear my head. Slowly coming back to reality, I remembered my original goal, and strode off to abate my Red Bull addiction.

I was lucky enough to see Eggjarklettur in that state one more time.
Having moved to Hoyvík, I now take a different route to and from school. The busses that take this route drive along a ridge that gives the passengers a nice view of the fjord (called Nólsoyarfjørður. Don’t ask me to pronounce that) and Nólsoy itself. Since it’s been getting dark around four o’clock lately, the sun is always going down around the usual time I leave school. The clouds have been hanging low and dense, so I haven’t seen the sun at all as of late. But on this particular day, I did.

The bus is always packed with students when leaving school; you’re lucky if you can get on the bus at all. That day, I managed to clamber on and squish myself in amongst the horde of exhausted, chattering students, holding onto the bar by the door for dear life. The doors closed, almost clipping my backpack, and then the bus got us on our merry way. I shifted uncomfortably, trying to turn around while also trying not to hit people with my bag, so I could look out the window. I thoroughly enjoy bus rides when the vehicle isn’t packed, but it’s almost unbearable after school. Wedged tightly between an unwashed third-year and the door, I hugged the pole that kept me balanced and prayed the bus ride will be over soon, but as I gazed out the window, I suddenly felt time stop.
There it was again: Mars. Just as majestic and positively alien as it had been before. The setting sun broke through the clouds and turned the whole sky shades of blue and pink and silver. Nólsoy, with its little village and lofty mountain, looked like it was glowing. The ocean, which was white with sunlight and sea foam, beat itself relentlessly against the craggy rocks at the mountain’s base, sparkling with offending brightness, but I could have stared at it until I went blind — and for a moment, I thought I was going blind. My vision was getting blurry. Was I crying? I touched my face, confused, but my cheeks were dry. And that’s when I realized that I was getting dizzy because I hadn’t been breathing; subconsciously, I had been trying to avoid inhaling the essence of the smelly third-year behind me. I groped around for the edge of my jacket so I could hold it up to my face and hopefully prevent my imminent asphyxiation, and when I glanced up again, the sun was gone, and so was my personal Mars.

—A Nothing

“Juliana,” I’ve just pretended you’ve said, “you always seem so happy about everything that’s happening on your exchange. Aren’t there ANY times when you feel down?” Wow, thanks, you hypothetical personification of my desire to complain. But in all honesty, yes, there are. It’s a difficult feeling to explain, because it’s not as acute as outright sadness, anger, loneliness, or fear, it’s just . . . nothing. It’s not the kind of nothing where it’s just the absence of a something, but the kind of nothing where the nothing IS the something. There are just some days when I feel a nothing stuck in my heart like a splinter. I get up and think nothing, go to school and do nothing, and get home and feel nothing. Sometimes the feeling of the nothing digging into my heart and rubbing the surface of my soul is so chafing that I feel like crying, or else just dropping everything and falling into a coma for a few days. The nothing is hard to get rid of, and it’s exhausting to have. It pulls my heart down and makes it hard to walk with my head held high. Exactly what gets rid of it is unclear, but taking a nap, chatting aimlessly with someone, or even just encountering a random friendly animal chisels away at the nothing, bit by bit, until it crumbles away. I don’t know where it comes from, where it goes, or how it comes back, but when I wake up in the morning and feel it in my chest, I don’t let it stay there. I vow to make my heart full of something by the end of the day.

—The Guts

One of my fondest memories of this year was the first English class we had after Halloween. A few people, including myself, had brought in some pumpkins, and we were planning to carve them after we were done watching the movie we were “studying,” Inglourious Basterds. For those of you unfamiliar with this movie, Inglourious Basterds is a World War II movie that’s idea of subtlety is showing a two-meter-tall Jewish man beat Nazi officers to death with a baseball bat on screen. Other precious moments free of discretion shots are fresh corpses being scalped, swastikas being carved into very-much-alive people’s foreheads, and Hitler being shot in the face repeatedly, amongst other things. You get the idea.

Why did we watch this movie in English class? Because it was set during the time when the Nazis were occupying France, and our class is going to Paris in the spring (sans me, because, unfortunately, money laundering for fun and profit is illegal). That’s the best connection I could make, and I’m like the fourth-best English-speaker in that class.

Anyway, as I’m sitting there trying to pretend I can’t hear the sounds of some poor woman being tortured on screen, I’m looking around at my classmates. They’re sprawled on the floor, or playing Candy Crush on their laptops, or asleep; they’re not even phased by the cinematographic masterpiece of splattered blood and human giblets in front of their eyes. I’m mildly impressed by their grit, wishing I, too, could not squeal in horror as people are blown to smithereens before my very eyes, no detail spared in editing, but alas, I guess I’ve always been more partial to psychological torture.

Aaaaanyway, once the movie was over, class was almost done, and Sharon (the teacher) asked me to demonstrate quickly how to carve a pumpkin for the class. So I took up a carving knife and chunked it into the pumpkin’s flesh, and as I started sawing away, I heard small gasps and groans from the people nearby. When I pried off the pumpkin’s lid, I even heard an, “Eww!” And this is why this is my favorite memory so far.
My classmates — those same boys and girls who were either laughing at the ludicrous violence of the movie, or else sleeping blissfully through it — were pulling faces and telling me how they couldn’t even believe I was TOUCHING the inside of a pumpkin — because pumpkin guts are GROSS.
The Faroe Islands. Home of the grindadráp. Home of the everyone-owns-sheep-and-slaughters-them-every-autumn. Home of seeds-are-gross, apparently.
I love my class. I couldn’t have asked for better people to spend my year with.

—The Movies

A few days after its premiere, Katrin (my classmate) and I went to see the third Hunger Games movie at the movie theatre. It was my first time watching a movie in this theatre, and I was very excited to see what a different culture’s movie-going experience was like. I love going to the theatre, and the prospect of getting to see how other people from across the globe enjoy the same thing as I do made me extremely happy.
Katrin got the tickets ahead of time so we could head in without delay.

First things first: ASSIGNED SEATS. Second thing: INTERMISSION IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOVIE SO YOU CAN GO BUY MORE JUNK FOOD. Okay, moving on.
Upon entering the cinema, I already could see the biggest difference between Faroese and American theaters; there were kids everywhere, most of them probably no older than twelve or thirteen, and they weren’t accompanied by adults. They were running around everywhere, talking loudly and screeching randomly. Seeing their unbridled behavior sent a wave of foreboding sweeping over me.

We bought our candy and stood around waiting for the doors to open. I people-watched as we did, spying some young girls huddled in a corner, kicking the door to the shop repeatedly and laughing when it hit someone, apologizing with gleeful expressions on their wicked little faces. I felt my heart sink. What dimension of cosmic horror had I wandered into?

We entered the cinema. All of the seats were taken in a matter of moments. The previews came on, some of them in Faroese, some of them in English with Faroese subtitles. I watched them in rapture. Just as I was forgetting about the little beasts in the snack shop, Katrin whispered to me, “My hair smells like popcorn.”
I turned to her. “What? Why?”
“Someone behind us is throwing popcorn and some landed in my hair.”
I twisted around in my seat. Three rows back and slightly to our left were two young girls, maybe ten or eleven years old, tossing popcorn into the crowd below for no other reason than, I expect, to be annoying. I felt something in the pit of my stomach come to a boil. Where was their etiquette? In an American theater, if a child was throwing popcorn and their supervisor wasn’t doing anything to stop it, you could rest assured that SOMEBODY was going to get up and either chew them out or throw them bodily from the theatre. No one seemed to be filling this role now. I was suddenly depressed.

The cinema was no longer the sacred Hollywood-viewing ground I recalled it to be.
Fine. If that was the way it was going to be, then I’d just have to be the necessary evil. I was too far away to scold them, so I had to come up with some other method to get them to stop. Katrin saw the look in my eye and said warningly, “Juliana, no,” but I ignored her. I was just about to throw a Lion bar at one of the little twerps, not into her face but maybe her jugular or pancreas, when Katrin put her hand on my arm and said, “Juliana, you’re a grown woman. She’s like eleven. Are you really going to stoop to her level?”
In an instant, my head cooled. I immediately understood what she was trying to tell me. The theater-defiler was just a child, and I was a fully-fledged adult. I felt ashamed that I was about to retaliate and be just as bad as her.
So I vowed to bring some Anthon Berg chocolates with me next time, so I could pelt any unholy little brat that crossed my path with chocolate-coated retribution like a proper, sophisticated young lady.

—The Language

My new host dad, Egon, came and picked me up from tutoring one night. My new host parents always speak to me in Faroese unless I ask for a translation, and I always try to speak Faroese in response. I almost always get it completely wrong, and the rest of the time I still get it wrong only slightly less so, but still, I was improving. As we drove home, we passed by SMS (the mall), and I noticed they had their Christmas lights up. I decided to point them out in Faroese.
“Jólaljós!”
Egon looked confused. “Jólaljós?”
“Ja, jólaljós!” I pointed toward SMS, and in a moment he understood. He laughed and said, “Oh, you mean, ‘jólaljós!’” Turns out I was pronouncing it wrong.
(How you’re supposed to pronounce it: Yo-lah-l’yo-ss. How I was pronouncing it: Yule-ay-l’yo-ss.)
“Yes, that’s what I meant,” I said, with great dignity in my voice. Egon laughed again and the car went silent for a moment. Then he said suddenly, “Rannvá ger døgurða,” which means, “Rannvá is making dinner.”
I contemplated his words, then said hesitantly, “Døgurða?”
Egon nodded. “Ja. Døgurða.”
I asked him what that meant: “Hvat merkir hatta?”
Egon stared at me blankly. “Døgurða means ‘dinner’.”
I stared right back. “What? Really?”
“Yes. You knew the word for ‘Christmas lights’ but not for ‘dinner’?” I shrugged, and he continued, “But dinner is every day!”
When I told my host mom a little later, she also said, “But dinner is every day!” This turned out to be prophetic of my future endeavors in Faroese.
Eg havi málkunnleiki!

—The Old Woman

I actually forgot about this woman until Katrin came into class one day and started relating the events of her morning to Guðrun. She spoke Faroese the whole time, but concluded her story by spitting the words, “Crazy elders,” in English with a contemptuous voice.
Interested, I asked her who she was talking about. She told me that there was an old woman who frequently rode the same bus as her in the morning. This old woman had the habit of staring at any person under the age of twenty-five like she was trying to set them on fire with her mind. She wouldn’t even try to hide it, either. On this morning, Katrin and Anja had the distinct displeasure of having to sit next to her — like, literally right next to her — and she still openly glared at them for almost the entire bus ride.

As Katrin was telling me all this, a memory suddenly stirred in the back of my mind. I had the very strong impression that I had also had an encounter with this woman. I asked Katrin what she looked like, and as she described her, the memory returned to me.

It was about a month ago. I got on Bus #1 to go to tutoring as I always did, noticing that the bus was unusually full. The only seat that wouldn’t require sitting next to a complete stranger (an act abhorred by most Faroese people, as well as myself) was in a row that faced the front, with a row that faced the rear right in front of it, so that the people sitting in these seats would have to look at each other. I sat down facing the front, and in the rear-facing seat diagonal from me sat an elderly woman.

I wondered immediately if I had accidentally stepped on her foot or smacked her with my bag or something on the way to my seat, because she wouldn’t stop stealing unsubtle, prolonged glances at me with eyes full of unmasked loathing. She didn’t say a word, but I wished she would; listening to her yell Faroese obscenities at me would have been preferable to the feeling of her eyes attempting to telekinetically bore a hole into my skull. Half of the ride went by with me wondering desperately if I had somehow wronged this old woman in some horrid fashion when I suddenly got a call from my host mom. I picked it up.
“Hey, I’m on the bus. Can I call you back in a few minutes?”

She agreed, and I hung up. I noticed, out of the very corner of my eye, that the old woman had shifted to lean back in her seat, so I decided to take a quick glance at her just in case this meant she had decided to stop having a one-way staring contest with the side of my head.

Oh, no, she wasn’t quite done yet, though the expression on her face had changed dramatically. Judging by the look on her face, the devil himself had just burst from the floor of the bus and taken the seat diagonal to her — a look as if she was totally mortified, but also couldn’t quite believe what she was looking at. I was completely bewildered. What was wrong with this woman? Curious as to what she would do next, I stared right back at her, keeping my face blank. She didn’t look away, but her expression slowly and smoothly changed from some form of abstract horror to something more neutral. Catalepsy, maybe?
The bus shuddered to a halt and opened the doors for the new passengers. The woman briskly gathered up her belongings from the seat next to her, but instead of getting off the bus, she simply moved to another seat, her back to me. I stared at the back of her head in disbelief. Was she really, seriously afraid of me ….. because I was speaking English?
……I had “American Woman” by The Guess Who stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

— Halloween

Halloween isn’t quite a thing in the Faroe Islands, though apparently it’s been becoming more popular amongst the young people over the years. There is no trick-or-treating, but a few bold young adults might put on a costume, or at least some kind of special effect, just for the occasion.
Faroese children actually do something akin to trick-or-treating on Føstulávint, known in English as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of lent. They go door-to-door and ask for candy, though sometimes they get money or fruit, which they condemn. That has nothing to do with what I’m talking about, though.

So on Halloween, I dressed the same as I always did (because rain), but I tied up my hair so people could see the design I drew on my face with an eyebrow pencil. It was simple, just some curlicues and little flecks and dots, but it was enough to make people gawk on the bus and in the school hallways. Sure, some Faroese people dress up for Halloween, but apparently they do not do so to go to school.

Only one other person, as far as I could see, put on any sort of effect for Halloween. (Hi, Katrin.) Everyone else asked why I had drawn on my face, and when I told them it was Halloween, they replied, “Was that today?”
I was feeling a little bit put out — Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more important to me than Christmas or my own birthday — until Katrin (who was dressed as a goth) told me that the nightclub Rex was letting people who were dressed up into the club for free the next day. Clubbing is a quintessential activity in the lifestyle of a Faroese teen, so I was eager to participate. I told my friend Nadine, an au pair from Germany, about it, and we went shopping for more complex costumes the next morning.

Nadine and I decided to go as a pair with an angel/devil theme. You can probably already guess which one I was, but I’ll tell you anyway that I got some nice, cheap black horns and black wings from a small costume shop hidden away in a back alley. Nadine embellished her own costume a bit by painting her face like a candy skull, and I drew some cracks on my face like a shattered porcelain doll (they turned out looking more like tear tracks, but oh well), and Katrin added some vampire fangs and cat ears to her goth ensemble, so when the three of us showed up at Rex, there was debate on what we were supposed to be, but no one doubted we were in costume. Nadine was worried that we would be the only ones dressed up, but we were pleasantly surprised to come upon a whole club full of people in well-done and clever costumes, from Trojan soldiers to zombies to superheroes to scantily-clad policewomen to some random guy in a Pikachu pajama onesie.

You had to be eighteen years old to get inside. I was quite amused when the security guard stared at the date on my ID for a good three minutes before letting me in. I tried helping him along by saying, “Just a hint, there is no 23rd month,” but he ignored me.
Once inside, we danced for nearly four hours. The DJ played such timeless classics as Anaconda, Talk Dirty to Me, Wiggle, and Blurred Lines while an old (and bad) horror movie I’d never seen before played on the overhead screens. It was a bizarre experience, but it was fun. I’ve never been to a club in the U.S. — I’d had only two weeks of being eighteen before leaving on my exchange, after all — so I can’t compare any experiences, but even so… well, again, it was fun. I don’t have much more to say about it.
After dancing until we almost collapsed, we ate some pizza and went home. It was probably the best Halloween I’ve ever had.

—The Skin

SOMEONE WANNA EXPLAIN TO ME HOW FAROESE PEOPLE CAN EAT THE FLESH OFF A BOILED SHEEP’S FACE BUT REFUSE TO EAT THE SKIN OF A POTATO.

—The Grade

Faroese high-schoolers get a grade report three times a year. Their grading scale goes from 12 to -2, with 12 being “awesome,” 7 being “average,” 4 being, “you put in the minimal effort,” 2 being, “you’re an idiot and you don’t care,” and 00 and -2 being, “I personally hate you.” Getting a 00 or -2 is like getting an F- — a simple F (a 2) would have sufficed, but the negative is there just to make you feel really, REALLY dumb.
Seeing how I rarely do anything pertaining to regular classwork in class, I already had a feeling I wasn’t the model Faroese student. Still, I show up to class, participate in group projects, and write essays, so I expected to get at least a 4 in everything. My expectations were not met.
See, I actually did get at least a 4 in everything — except math. In math, I got a 00. I stared at the mark, puzzled. Since the “minimal effort” required to get a 4 means “at least showing up to class,” I really didn’t understand how I could have gotten less than that unless I had said something immensely dumb that had somehow brought down the class’ collective IQ, which I didn’t think I’d had. I showed the mark to my classmate, who shrugged and said, “I guess the teacher just hates you.”

WELL THAT’S COMFORTING.

Anyway, each subject gets two grades, one for written assignments and one for presentations. I somehow got two 7’s in Faroese, even though my Faroese teacher told me (several times) that my essays written in my new language were mind-numbingly terrible due to non-conjugated verbs and repeatedly referring to female and neuter objects with male adjectives. (Please keep in mind that this was my Faroese teacher, not my Faroese TUTOR, who said this. My tutor is awesome.) Religion and History only had grades for written, and they were 4 and 7, respectively. I got a 4 for written and a 10 for presentation in Political Science, a N/A in Spanish, and two 7’s in art. I was perplexed as to how a teacher could grade someone’s artwork as “average,” but then I supposed she perceived my misunderstanding of the directions as lack of attention or effort.

English. I love English class. Of course, English is the only class I can use to prove that I’m only half as stupid as I look, so I always put in some extra effort when doing English assignments. After I got got my first essay back with a 12 scribbled in the corner, I felt pretty confident that that effort was going to pay off.
I did indeed get a 12 in written English. But I got a 10 in presentation.
I knew it wasn’t because the teacher was being mean — Sharon is one of the nicest people on this planet. Sure, she’s tough, but she’s fair, and she cares a lot about us. Just a few days ago, she noticed that one of her students wasn’t eating lunch, and when he told her he hadn’t brought anything and had no money to buy something, she tried to force her own meal ticket on him. She cares that much.

So I sat there for a few minutes, putting my brain through the wringer to try to figure out what I could have done wrong on a presentation to dock me two whole grades. Katrin, who has perfect English, was sitting next to me, so I asked to see her grades, and she too got a 12 and a 10. It was quite the ponderous situation, but in the end, I forgot to ask Sharon why and it quickly escaped my mind altogether.
And so, on a scale of -2 to 12, my total average was 6.3. I’m lucky my grades here won’t count for anything back home.

— The Homeless Men [Subtitle: In Which I’m Too Polite for My Own Good (Sub-subtitle: I’m Thankful That I Can Say the Worst Experience of My Exchange Was Something Only as Bad as This)]

The downtown bus stop, called Steinatún, is near a homeless shelter of sorts. It provides a place to sleep for the night, and during the day, its inhabitants walk to Steinatún and take a seat on the benches, where they smoke, drink, and chat merrily with the people waiting for their buses. They’re harmless — most of the time, though of the times they’re not, I’ve only heard stories — but they can get rather loud and… intrusive.
One day, some time ago, Katrin and I were standing at the bus stop and speaking in English when a man approached us. His clothes were noticeably clean, if only because his face and hair were exceptionally dirty. He had very long, curly, grizzled hair on his head and face, and his eyes were crinkled with a permanent smile. He looked positively jolly, like some kind of trailer park Santa Claus.
I was examining the bus schedule, remarking to Katrin when I supposed I would be going (at this point, I still couldn’t read the schedule very well), when I turned slightly and noticed this man standing next to me, looking at me. I quickly backed up, and his smile widened in a friendly way. He spoke to us in surprisingly good, if somewhat alcohol-slurred, English.

“Where are you from?” he asked us. Katrin’s English is absolutely flawless, so he definitely thought she was a foreigner as well.
“I’m from the U.S.,” I told him. “She’s from here.”
“I see,” he said, looking very interested. “Why are you here?”
“I’m an exchange student.”
“How long have you been here?”
I told him. If I’m recalling correctly, it was around two months or so, at the time.
“I see!” he said again. “Welcome to the Faroe Islands!” He offered me his hand, which was covered in dry dirt, and I shook it warily.

Then, he began to talk — or, more accurately, ramble. It was hard to follow his train of thought as he jumped from one thing to another: from U.S. politics to American talk shows, from American tourists he’d met to Faroese social issues. He told me a joke about Florida that he’d heard on The Daily Show — which I won’t repeat since it’s kind of inappropriate, but sort of funny — and at this point I realized he was a nice enough guy. He was just… weird. Really weird.

About a month passed. I had just gotten off the bus at Steinatún and was waiting for the one for Argir when I noticed this same man walking nearby, a plastic cup of beer in his hand. I quickly put my head down; while I wasn’t threatened by him, I still didn’t particularly want to listen to him babble for twenty minutes before my bus came. As I was flipping through the apps on my phone with my head still down, my eyes caught a pair of shoes walk near me and then stop. I kept scrolling, pretending to be distracted, but they still stood there, facing my direction. I didn’t want him tapping me on the shoulder — the dirty hand I had to shake last time floated into my mind — so I glanced up for a half-second.

A half-second was all it took; he caught my gaze and widened his smile. I noticed he was wearing the exact same clothes he had been wearing before: a leather jacket over a navy blue t-shirt, plus blue jeans and sandals. His curly hair clung to his face from the rain. I decided to brush him off, but I realized too late that there was space next to me on the bench, which he quickly occupied.
“I recognize you!” he said cheerfully. “You’re from England, yes?”
“No.” I was trying to sound rude so that me might be put off and go away, but he was not deterred.
“So you must be from America, then! Welcome to the Faroe Islands!” By the way he was talking, it was obvious that he didn’t remember me from before — possibly because of the drink in his hand.
“Yeah,” I said. I turned my attention back to my phone, praying he would take a hint, but instead I heard him continue on, saying happily, “You have the most beautiful hair!”
“Oh, thank you,” I said offhandedly, though I was honestly flattered. I quite like my hair, and I like when other people like it too. But what he said next threw that emotion out the window.
“You and I,” he said, gesturing to himself and then me, and then to his own curly hair, “could be father and daughter!”

I felt the smile I was maintaining twitch at the corners. “I already have quite a few fathers now, so I don’t need another one,” I prevented myself from saying. Instead, I just laughed vaguely and said, “Ah.”
“Because of the hair!” he clarified unnecessarily, laughing. My smile shrunk into a grimace. “Right.”
Another drunken man suddenly shuffled over, his clothes spattered with mud, and the first man took to introducing me to him, speaking Faroese as he did. He got up to let the other man sit down, and after he had sat next to me, he turned to me and held out his hand in greeting. His fingers were bleeding.

My mind focusing meditatively on the hand sanitizer in my backpack, I shook his hand. “Hi. Nice to meet you.”
The man mumbled in Faroese. I cocked my head to the side to try to convey my confusion better as I said, “Sorry? I don’t speak Faroese well.”
He mumbled again, looking disappointed. Wondering if it would be socially acceptable to flee from the scene, I looked up at the first man and saw he was already deeply engaged in conversation with another young woman, whose smile was not doing a good job of hiding her uneasiness. I wasn’t sure whether I should feel bad about feeling the same way as her — it wasn’t like these two men had done anything wrong, exactly — but I quickly decided I’d had enough. I got up, said a quick goodbye to the man sitting next to me, and moved to hide behind the wall on the other side of the Steinatún bus stop, where I poured a liberal amount of Purell on my hands.

My last experience was not too long ago, maybe a few weeks or so. I was standing at Steinatún again with Katrin (why are you always there when these things happen, Katrin?) when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an older man stumbling along the sidewalk. He was quite obviously inebriated, his eyes wandering around, looking over the people standing and waiting for their bus, their pale faces sticking out like moons in the dark of the night. I noticed him pause briefly while looking at me, so I turned my back to him and tried to start up a conversation with Katrin to distract myself. Not a moment later, he was standing next to me, his shoulder pressed against mine, looking into my face. I was just about to back away, but before I could, his hand shot out to shake mine. As it did, it brushed, not quite briefly, against my bosom.

Two strong urges immediately dominated my mind, causing me to freeze. One was to grab Katrin and run. The other was to beat this man, who was easily a foot shorter than me, into a bloody pulp.
I shot a look at Katrin. She hadn’t noticed what his hand did, focusing instead on the face of the swaying, blotto man standing beside me, an exasperated expression on her face. Once again, I found myself marveling at the Faroese’s grit.
He told me his name, which I don’t remember because I was still deciding on whether to let him live. His gloved hand was still stretched awkwardly in front of my body, so I took hold of it briefly while looking into his eyes, my face unsmiling. I decided that getting into an altercation with a homeless man would be unpleasant for everybody in the vicinity, so I ignored what had happened, reasoning it could have just been because he was unsteady from his drunkenness. But I kept my guard up, just in case.
“Hello,” I said quietly, still unsmiling. His eyes immediately narrowed at the sound of my English.
“Where are you from?” he asked, his accent thick.
“The United States,” I replied.
“What’s your name?”
I allowed my suspicion to show on my face. “Juliana.”
I didn’t intend to tell him any more than that, but he didn’t ask for anything more… in English, anyway, because then he started speaking Faroese.
“I’m sorry?” I said, bemused. “What are you saying?”
He repeated himself. I looked to Katrin for help, and she replied to him in Faroese. Then she said to me, “He asked what you were doing here, so I told him you were a student.”
I didn’t see any harm in that, so I just said, “Oh, okay,” and turned back to him. He said something else.
“I’m sorry, are you speaking English?” I asked the man, though I knew he wasn’t. At this question, he became visibly frustrated. He asked me once more, in English, “Where are you from?”
“The United States,” I said again, confused. He then started speaking a different language — Danish, it sounded like.
“I still can’t understand you,” I told him. I felt my own irritation growing. “Please speak English.”
“Yes, English!” he said. Agitation was written all over his face, exuding from his body language. He demanded of me, yet again, “Where are you from!?” His voice was just below a shout.
“The United States,” I reiterated coldly, my voice low.
“Yes, I know that!” he said. His face was blotchy with anger. He stared into my eyes, as if trying to figure out if I was lying. I stared back, keeping my face stony to hide the anxiety bubbling in my stomach. I offered a silent prayer up to God, hoping that this man wasn’t about to punch me, or worse.
He spoke again, this time in neither Faroese or Danish. What was that, German? I raised my eyebrows at him and said blankly, “What?”
“Juliana,” said Katrin suddenly. I turned to look at her. She had evidently formulated our escape. “There’s still time to go to that shop you wanted to visit.”
“Ah, okay,” I said, and as I did, the man left in a huff. Barely sparing a backward glance, I followed after Katrin, the both of us moving as fast as we could without running. We made it to the stop up the hill in enough time to catch our bus.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t think of something to say earlier,” said Katrin, taking me aback with her apology. “I was trying to think of a place we could get away to while also letting us catch the bus.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I said. My anger and anxiety had died down, and I could feel myself shaking from the adrenaline rush. “I’m just glad you were able to get us away. Thanks for saying something.” I told her what he had done before shaking my hand; her reaction was just as horrified as mine.
The bus slowly crested the hill, and as we prepared to board, I asked, “What was he saying when he wasn’t speaking English?”

“Oh.” Katrin frowned a little. “He was asking you different things in Faroese, Danish, and German, like he was testing to see if you could understand him. At least, I think so; it was kind of hard to tell, since his words were so slurred…. But when you didn’t understand him even when he tried German, he said, ‘Then why the HELL are you in the Faroe Islands?’”

…I know what you’re thinking: Why didn’t I just brush them off or tell them to get away from me at the very start? Because drunk people can easily become violent people, and I didn’t want myself or anyone around me getting hurt. I feel like I did a good job of handling these situations because everyone involved emerged unscathed, and that’s all I was thinking about. Again, I’ll say that these men were (probably) perfectly harmless — but alcohol changes people. I didn’t want to provoke them into doing something they’d regret.

—The Language (Part Deux)

Lots of people have been asking me how my Faroese has been going.
Today, I was struggling to understand the IPA printed in my copy of ‘An Introduction to Modern Faroese’ until I noticed I was holding the book upside down. Turning it right side up did not improve anything.
Yeah. That’s how it’s been going.

—The End

On some days, searching for happiness just doesn’t work out. No matter where you look, the world isn’t smiling at you. That’s why you have to become your own happiness, so that no matter what you do, you’re making yourself happy by knowing that you’re doing something. Once you learn how to do that, you don’t need happiness from anything else.

 Thu, December 18, 2014

I wrote this when I was supposed to be working on my presentation on U.S. politics.

Well, my good people, it’s been a fantabulous two months here in the Faroe Islands. I don’t even know where to begin, but since my last journal was pretty much just excessive whining about airplane travel, I’ve decided I should at least start with something positive. It’s always easier to talk about the unpleasant. It’s more difficult, and thus more rewarding, to look on the bright side.

Shortly after I arrived in the Faroes, I climbed a mountain in Vestmanna, a nearby village. It was, as described by the veteran hikers, an “easy walk,” which meant I only occasionally had to climb on all fours and there was only a 40% chance of me falling off a cliff and dying. It was one of the greatest moments of my entire life thus far, and what I saw when we stopped for lunch will stay with me forever: We were walking along the edge of the mountain with the open ocean directly below us, though we had to take the guide’s word for it because the fog was so incredibly dense, we couldn’t see the people walking ten feet in front of us. Our group of twenty or so people, mostly elderly people who have more guts than I’ll ever have, sat down on some rocks and ate our lunches facing the thick screen of mist that hid the ocean from view. As I was just digging into my scrumptious convenience store sandwich, the fog lifted completely, and all the breath escaped from my lungs.

We were a thousand feet above the ocean, staring over the turbulent waters in the fjord below. Craggy mountain faces streaked with waterfalls were to our left, and the Atlantic ocean stretched out to our right. This raw, powerful scene hit me like a tsunami, and all I could do was stare at it, speechless, feeling simultaneously small and insignificant yet incredibly empowered. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to enjoy this view for very long; after about ten seconds, the fog descended on us again, and the rest of the hike took place within the clouds.

Not long after this, I started school. All the students crowded into the auditorium, where I presume they were sorted into classes, because they all kind of just left in clusters, and I was left standing there awkwardly, not knowing what to do. The principal came up to me and asked me something in Faroese. I told him something I soon got very used to saying: “I’m an exchange student from the U.S., and I have no idea what’s going on.” He then guided me to the counselor’s office, where Allie (an exchange student from Oregon) and I were put in classes. Allie, being 16, was put in year one, and I, being eighteen, was put in year two.

When I arrived in my classroom, I learned that having no idea what was going on wasn’t exclusive to me; literally nobody, not even the teachers, knew that there were two exchange students from the U.S. in their school. I was asked by each of my teachers in turn, “So . . . what exactly are you supposed to be doing, since you can’t understand Faroese?” to which I would always reply, “Good question.”

When it came to the students themselves, I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach them; I was told many, many times by people who had been to the Faroes (and even some who hadn’t, strangely) that Faroese people in general are shy about speaking other languages, even though they’re often very good at them. My host mom even told me that when she went to Denmark for university, all the Faroese people in her class, though they were fluent in Danish, didn’t speak a word for their entire term unless they had to. With this knowledge at my disposal, I had no idea how I could possibly become friends with them, being a rather shy person myself.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. My classmates, though noticeably softer-spoken than American teens, were very warm and welcoming. They often help me with my Faroese when I ask, and they’re all very good at English, though they won’t admit it. Lately, some of them have taken to speaking to me in Faroese to see if I can understand them, which I’m very grateful for; I’ve learned more Faroese in these past two months than all the Danish I learned in the seven months I thought I would be going to Denmark, and that’s mostly thanks to them. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, I’ve missed all the get-togethers they’ve held for the class so far, but I’m determined to go to the next one.

One I’m particularly interested in is the “bindiklubb,” which means “knitting club,” though it’s more like a house party than a club. When I was invited to one, I anxiously asked my host sister, Maria, if I should learn to knit for the occasion, worrying that I’d be judged since I’d never even touched a knitting needle in my entire life. But Maria just asked me, totally surprised, “You mean they actually KNIT in your class’s knitting club?”

“You mean people DON’T usually knit in knitting clubs?” I asked, equally surprised.

“Not really,” said Maria. “Mostly they just eat cake and gossip.”

So you can see why I’m eager for the next one.

While my classmates and teachers do mostly speak to me in English, I try not to let myself take that for granted. I have tutoring with an eighty-something-year-old guy named Eilif, who’s a polyglot and works as a translator, three times a week, plus I try to do some self-studying when I can, though that has sometimes proven to be counter-productive. From what I’ve seen, the more in-depth a source on Faroese appears to be, the less factual it actually is. Even Sprotin, a Faroese-made online dictionary, often needs to be checked behind. I discovered this just in time when I was using it to complete a translation for my Faroese class; as I was working, I asked a nearby classmate to help with a word Sprotin couldn’t find. After he told me the word I was looking for, he read over the sentence I was working on and pointed out a mistranslation that Sprotin had given me. When I got home that day, I asked Maria and Sanna (the younger host sister) to check what I had translated so far, and they told me that a sentence Sprotin had told me meant, “I’m stressed enough as it is,” actually meant, “I’m very excited for this.”

And that was the moment I stopped trusting Sprotin forever. So now when my teachers tell me to use Sprotin to figure out the handout, I’m just like LOL NOPE NOT UNLESS YOU WANT ME WRITING ABOUT SPINNING WHEELS WHEN IT’S ACTUALLY ASKING ABOUT SCOTTISH PEOPLE.

(Long story.)

Anyway!

Even though Faroese doesn’t have a Rosetta Stone or even an option on Google Translate, it’s much easier to understand than I thought it would be. It’s a Germanic language like English is, so while the grammar rules are still baffling, it was rather simple to read something by picking out the roots of the words, and once I got the rhythm of the language down, listening to conversations became easier, too. I often sit and listen to my host family or my classmate’s conversations in silence, and usually one of them will turn to me and ask, “Do you understand anything we’re saying?” Most of the time I don’t, but I actually understand a lot of the subtext.

Some of you might know that when I was at FSCJ, I took two semesters of American Sign Language. During my second semester, I participated in a day-long work shop led by several Deaf teachers, and during this workshop, no one was allowed to speak OR use sign language; you had to communicate ideas and stories entirely through gesture. I think about this day very often, because it taught me something incredibly important; you don’t need to hear (or see) words in order to understand what’s going on. When I listen to people’s conversations, even if I only know a few words, I can always tell how what they’re talking about makes them feel. Also, people use body language a lot more than they realize; if you sound angry and you suddenly make a gesture like you’re choking someone, it’s not that hard to figure out what you’re saying.

Still with me? Not getting bored yet? All right, let’s keep going.

Let me tell you that it’s really not hard to make me happy, and when you eliminate any stress factors, it’s almost impossible to make me sad. Fortunately for me, the Faroe Islands are a land without stress. Nobody is ever too concerned about anything, and the phrase, “What isn’t done today can be done tomorrow,” is often spoken. The Faroes are called, “The Country of Maybe,” because when something is suggested to a Faroese, they usually won’t say yes or no, just “maybe.” It’s because they really don’t care either way. To be completely honest, this mentality irritated me at first; I’m from a family whose only fuel source is high octane stress. Everything had to be planned and decided either ahead of time or immediately, or else there might not be a chance later. It was hard shifting my thought process to fit this more laid back way of thinking, but I think I’ve mostly gotten the hang of it now. The only thing here that regularly causes me brief stress would probably be the busses.

Before coming to the Faroes, the closest thing to a bus I’d ever been on was the tram at Disney World. I had no idea how to read the schedule, no idea where I should get on or where I should get off, no idea which one was the right bus, and no idea that the bus drivers here are apparently sadists who slam on the gas as soon as your foot is in the vehicle. The first two weeks or so of navigating Tórshavn entirely by bus were absolutely terrifying. I get lost a lot (see the Washington D.C. airport part of my first journal for another example) and trying to figure out the busses by trial and error wasn’t helpful. More than once I had to call my host mom to pick me up because I had no idea how to get home.

Other than that, my exchange here has been nothing but a real life pipe dream of puppies and marshmallows and heavenly Scandinavian chocolate. I was worried that I would cry often, but so far there has only been three instances of waterworks; once in the middle of the supermarket because I had literally forgotten to eat that day, once at the orientation in Gjógv because whoever was in charge of the music played Leaving On a Jet Plane (which makes me cry anyway), and once more on September 11th. Our history teacher showed us a clipshow of various American news sources showing the disaster happening on live television, and one of the clips was of the same channel I had watched with my mom on the actual day of the event. Seeing it again triggered some kind of PTSD-flashback in my brain and I had a complete and utter meltdown. I was horribly embarrassed to go to school the next day, but my classmates, being the wonderful people that they are, made me feel better about it.
I will now briefly cover some troubles I’ve been having. I know there’s a possibility that future exchange students will be looking at my journals for reference, so I feel it’s only fair. I’ll still try to keep it short, though, because often times, things that seem like problems are actually much more insignificant when you view them at a later time.

So there’s this girl who likes to tell me her opinions on American political and social issues. To any exchange students reading this, if you’ve been on your exchange long enough, you’ve probably met someone exactly like her, as if every exchange just needs at least one in order to be complete. Ordinarily, I would love to have a conversation with someone like her because I love to debate. However, a conversation is not an option when talking to her. In fact, you can’t talk to her. You can only have her talk at you. And not only are a majority of her opinions based on incorrect facts, but she also occasionally blames me, personally, for some of America’s problems, as if I’m Barack Obama himself; “Your government makes its people pay off the national debt, but that doesn’t work! Why do you do that?” I dunno, lady, but if I’m ever president, I’ll be sure to look into it, okay?

The second thing is a bit more of a problem than the first. Plenty of American TV commercials for food will mention how their product will “satisfy” or “keep you full” longer, which is basically marketing-speak for, “We crammed a bunch of chemical junk into your food that will make you think you’re eating less but is probably making you fat.” Americans with good metabolisms process these foods without too many side effects, but when they go to other countries that don’t pack their foods with garbage, their bodies take a toll. That is, they’re hungry. Constantly. Now, this is really, really common for American exchange students, but my body takes this a step further because I have always had a very high metabolism. The result? Suffering.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I am in actual, physical agony at least twice a day due to hunger. When I wake up in the morning, having gone at least six hours without eating, I’ll be so hungry that my ribs hurt. Breakfast is always bread and cereal, which I’ll eat twice as much of as everyone else, and then when I go to school, the cafeteria has sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, and candy, which I buy in bulk and eat without showing anyone because I’m embarrassed of how much I can put away. Once school is over, I either go to SMS (the mall) to try and find something cheap to eat (which is impossible, since almost everything here has an import tax) or go straight home to scrounge for something I can put in my stomach without preparation. During dinner, I eat until I feel full enough to be sick, because I know that if I don’t, I’ll be hungry again in about five minutes. After dinner, I try to go to bed as quickly as possible so I can be asleep when my body gets hungry again. And so, almost constantly, I am feeling either pain, weakness, or nausea due to my high metabolism, and I am spending more and more money every month trying to pay my food bills. As of this writing, I’m talking to my counselor and host family about what I can do. I know we’ll find a solution.

Let’s finish this journal on a brighter note. Here are some things people, here and back in the U.S., often ask me!

Q: What’s your favorite part about the Faroe Islands so far?
A: To name one thing as the best would be an insult to everything else.

Q: What classes are you taking in school?
A: Math, religion, politics, history, English, Faroese, Spanish, and art. I’m lucky and don’t have to take Danish.

Q: Do you understand anything in school?
A: HAHA NOPE.

Q: Are there mountains everywhere?
A: Everywhere except within the city itself, where they have very steep hills instead.

Q: How big are the Faroe Islands in comparison to the United States?
A: The eighteen islands’ collective land area is about a third the size of Rhode Island.

Q: What do you miss most about the U.S.?
A: My dog. And maybe tumble driers.

Q: What about the Faroes was unlike what you expected?
A: I honestly thought no one would have cars here. I don’t know why I thought that, but I was wrong anyway.

Q: What was the first new word you learned after arriving?
A: “Útsøla” = “sale”

Q: Have you petted a sheep yet?
A: Not yet. They’re faster than they look.

Q: Have you seen a whale hunt yet? Do you plan to?
A: No and yes.

Q: What do the Faroese think of Sea Shepherd?
A: They’re hoping Paul Watson will come here someday so that they can be the ones to arrest him.

Ah, there are so many more things I want to talk about, like how I’m learning Spanish from a Danish textbook and putting my answers down in Faroese, and how interesting it is to be constantly surrounded by English-speakers whose concept of English word connotations are different, and how some people still call me Yuliana and the people in my Spanish class call me Huliana, and how I’ve fallen victim to fashion trends so I wear leggings as pants now, but alas, this journal is far too long! I’ll see you all in the next one.

And now, I leave you with this analogy:

There once was a man who tied a baby elephant to a tree. Though the little elephant kept tugging at the rope keeping it tied, it just wasn’t strong enough to break itself away. The man kept the elephant there for many years, until the elephant was an adult, bigger than the tree itself. And yet the elephant never tried to break itself free again because it remembered that it couldn’t, all those years ago. The only thing preventing the elephant from escaping was the memory of struggling in vain, even though now, the only thing holding it back was a thin rope and a twig.

So if you feel like you have a problem that you can’t overcome, just think: a year from now, when you look back at that problem, will it still look like a tree? Or will it look like a twig? Believe that you can overcome anything, and you will.

 Sat, September 27, 2014

When I reached the word “flight,” I burst out crying again. I was sick of everything already. I had no idea flying could be so stressful — I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a plane, but I’m sure I’d had more than an hour to find my next flight, plus I’d had my family with me to help me. This time, I was alone. My phone had died on the way up the escalators, so I couldn’t even call someone if I missed my flight. I felt sick, and crying made me feel worse, but willing myself to stop wasn’t working….

Well, my adventure began before I even arrived in the Faroes. I said goodbye to everyone in Jacksonville and went through security, feeling pretty optimistic. I bought a water bottle and a chocolate bar to eat on my flight and went to sit down by my gate. Everything was feeling awesome, and I couldn’t wait to just get on that plane and see everything there was to see.

The flight from Jacksonville to Washington DC was fine, if not a bit cramped. I spent an hour and forty-five minutes wondering how much blood was in my torso from not having any in my legs. When I landed in Dulles, I knew I only had an hour to find my flight, so as soon as I got got off the plane, I shook the feeling back into my feet and started looking around for Scandinavian Air.

I went up to an information desk and asked where the flight to Copenhagen was. I had no boarding pass and checking in online didn’t work, so I had to quickly find where I was supposed to go so I could get my stuff together. The woman at the desk stared at me and asked me why on earth I was asking for Scandinavian Air in the terminal for United. She told me I was looking for Gate B and pointed me down the hall, which turned out to be the wrong direction.

I went back down the hall and then down a tunnel that led to an underground area with a train to take me where I was supposed to go. I stared at the maps, but I’ve always been a poor navigator. I had no idea where I was. I gleaned that the train led to Gates A, B, D, H, and Z, so I stood with everyone else and waited.

The train’s first stop was Gate A. I got off for a second and contemplated walking to Gate B, but since I couldn’t even read the map anyway, I got back on and hoped it would be faster. I checked my phone. I had less than thirty minutes to find my gate. I prayed I’d get there soon.

The next stop led to Gates D, H, and Z. I was perplexed. Where was B? Was I supposed to get off at A and walk there? Did I miss my chance? Would I be able to get back? That airport was more foreign to me than the Faroes have been so far. So many things were running through my head, my chest welling with despair, and I simply started crying. I was sore all over from my heavy bags and coats. I had a massive headache and no way to relieve it. I was dehydrated and hungry. I had dropped my water bottle and chocolate bar on the way down the tunnel and couldn’t retrieve them. I felt miserable and anxious and the tears just wouldn’t stop.

I got off at D, H, and Z and planned to just walk to B, but I had no idea how. I was lost. Something in my gut tugged me to get back on the train and wait, but I hesitated. My mind was completely blank. Nothing made sense to me and I couldn’t even understand that B was probably going to be the next stop, since it was the only one that hadn’t been visited yet. As I tried to make sense of things in my brain that was throbbing, I heard the intercom say to stand clear of the doors. I panicked, and ran back inside. It was a good thing I did, because it finally did lead to Gate B. I checked the time again. Twenty minutes until the plane left.

I made the very poor decision to run up the escalator, and I ended up tripping on my coat and hitting my knee, hard. Now I had an aching leg to deal with, and I started crying again. I kept running, all the way up the two flights of escalators, and came out into a very long hallway filled with gates. I pulled myself together and approached another information desk.

“Excuse me, sir, where is the flight to Copenhagen?”

When I reached the word “flight,” I burst out crying again. I was sick of everything already. I had no idea flying could be so stressful — I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a plane, but I’m sure I’d had more than an hour to find my next flight, plus I’d had my family with me to help me. This time, I was alone. My phone had died on the way up the escalators, so I couldn’t even call someone if I missed my flight. I felt sick, and crying made me feel worse, but willing myself to stop wasn’t working. The man looked at me in my absolutely pathetic state and smiled sympathetically. He told me I was looking for B40 and pointed me down the hall. I thanked him in an almost-comically high-pitched voice and started running. My backpack thumped against my back and pulled at my shoulders, the handle of my violin case rubbing painfully in my hand, but I kept running, my teeth gritted.

B40 was about fifteen gates down the hall, or at least it felt like it. When I reached it, I didn’t even look for a clock, because I saw what looked like a message from God on a big blue screen: “On time.”

I stood in line and my tears finally stopped. I was going to make it. I was going to be fine. The fear of the unknown had gripped my chest like a vice, but now that I knew I was in the right place, I was so happy I could have collapsed. When it was my turn, I handed over my passport and waited again while the woman prepared a boarding pass for me. By this point, my stank was so bad it could’ve killed a cow. My dehydration was even worse due to sweating while running. No more one hour layovers. Ever. Again.

I got on the plane, pleasantly surprised that I was as close to First Class as one could possibly be without being in it, so I had a lot of leg room. I fumbled around trying to store my stuff in my disorientated state, but the man sitting next to me, a Swede named Arne, helped me out. As soon as the plane was safely up in the sky, I took off my boots and shriveled up in my seat. I was a dry husk of a human being, and I could taste the blood in my mouth from splits in my lips.

I spent the next eight hours talking with Arne. He was very nice, extremely helpful, and slightly drunk, so he was a cool flying companion. He talked on and on about his grandkids, his house in Italy, the trips he’d taken, and lots of other things I only half-remember. He knew a little bit about the Faroe Islands (he at least knew where they were and about the British occupation during WWII, which was refreshing), so we talked about them too. When we arrived in Copenhagen, he even offered to walk me through customs, but it turned out it wasn’t necessary.

I nervously approached the desk and handed the man my passport. Arne had told me not to tell them I was an exchange student or that I’d be staying for a year, or else they’d give me a hard time.

“Where’s your final destination?” the man asked.
“The Faroe Islands.”
“Are you an exchange student?”
I didn’t want to lie. “Yes.”
“And will you be there for a year?”
He directly asked what I was planning not to tell him. I answered truthfully again: “Yes.”

He stared at me for a moment. I stared back, trying not to look scared or frustrated or anything else like I truly felt. I hadn’t slept at all on the plane, and I know that when I haven’t slept, my eyes become red and vainy, so I might have also looked like an insane super villain. The man looked at me for a few more seconds, then opened his mouth to speak. I felt my knees tremble.

“That’s cool.” The stamp hit my passport with a dull thud and he passed it back to me through the glass. Stunned, I took it back, squeaked, “Have a nice day!” and passed through customs into Copenhagen airport.

I met up with Arne again at baggage claim. He explained to me the layout of the airport and how to get where I needed to go. This was his final stop, and his baggage came out before mine, so when he grabbed his bag, he simply gave me a cheery wave and disappeared before I could properly thank him. I regret not having stopped him to say anything.

I grabbed my bag and checked it in. I grabbed a bottle of water from 7-11 and chugged it. Images of etiolated plants danced through my head as I did. More haggard than ever before, I lugged my unkempt, unwashed self up the escalator to security.

On the other side, the Copenhagen airport turned into a mall-sized liquor store. Everywhere I looked, there were large, shining bottles of wines and spirits stacked like bean cans in a supermarket. I accidentally made eye contact with one of the tall, handsome Danish clerks, and he stopped me and told me his pitch.

“Uh… Jeg forstår ikke dansk,” I muttered, looking at my shoes. I was very aware that I had not showered in over thirty hours.

“You don’t understand?” he asked, his accent flawless. “I was simply asking if you were interested in our buy one, get one half off sale on [liquor brand].” I lied and said I wasn’t old enough, then hurried off to find my gate.

This was it. The final leg. In a little over two hours, I would be in the Faroe Islands. My head was fit to burst, my arm muscles were killing me, and a quick inspection of my knee revealed a shiny purple bruise from where I’d tripped, but I honestly didn’t care anymore. My excitement was mounting and I didn’t feel tired anymore. I got on my plane and shoved my airline food meal down my throat. I had no idea what it was, but it was delicious.

Two hours later, I was staring at the glorious mountains and valleys of the Faroe Islands. White waterfalls trickled down the mountain faces like veins keeping the islands alive, and I swear I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight in my entire life. I stepped off the plane right onto the tarmac and walked into the tiny airport.

After collecting my luggage, I left the terminal and ran right into Mirjam, my Youth Exchange Officer. She gave me a hug (which must’ve been unpleasant) and dragged my suitcase for me. We got into her car and drove to Argir, a village that’s merged with the capital, Tórshavn. She explained various things along the way, but honestly, I was half-dead by this point, so I barely remember anything. I arrived at my host family’s house just after noon and settled in.

My host dad Eyðun (pronounced Eh-yuh-n), host mom Katrin, and host sister Sanna (pronounced like sauna) were all there, but host sister Maria was helping out at a wedding, so she was not. We sat around and chatted, then I went to unpack my things while Katrin and Eyðun prepared dinner. We sat down and ate roast beef, fried potatoes, chips, and home-made cheesecake, then went on a ride around Tórshavn to see various places. I fell asleep after seeing my new school.

I got home, took a much needed shower, and collapsed on my bed. I barely had a chance to think about anything before I fell asleep and slept like the dead for the next sixteen hours.

 Mon, August 11, 2014

Julianne - Turkey

Hometown:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Host District: District 2440
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Dokuz Eylul

My Bio

Hello! Merhaba! My name is Julianne Kelly, I am sixteen years old, and I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Through out my entire life I have loved to travel. I have loved to meet new people and experience new cultures; that is why I am so incredibly excited that Rotary is sending me to Turkey this year. When I have free time I love to spend time with friends and be active by doing things like tennis and horseback riding. I play on my high schools competitive lacrosse team and I am also the president of the Ponte Vedra Chapter of the Environmental Club. At home I live with my Mom who is a Nurse Practitioner, my Dad who is a retired Federal Agent, and my two chocolate labs; Kiley and Ellie. I also have a 19 year old sister named Alexis who is a sophomore at FSU. I heard about Rotary Youth Exchange through a presentation at my school and when they described what it entailed I knew it was for me. Ever since I have been accepted into this program, I have been researching Turkey nonstop and the more I do, the more I fall in love with it. I cannot wait to start one of the greatest adventures of my life in Turkey and I am so incredibly thankful to Rotary Youth Exchange for providing me with this amazing opportunity. Tesekkur ederim! (Thank You!)

Journals: Julianne – Turkey

I realize my writings may not be the most well written or the most interesting, but the one goal I have tried to achieve is realism. I don’t try to embellish and use extreme word choice because just as I am in person, I like to get straight to the point. I want people to know what is happening and the effects of the events on me. I don’t want to give you three paragraphs describing how beautiful the scenery of a lake was or how great a muffin was that I ate for breakfast. I don’t want to write you an essay. I just want to let you know what’s going on in the simplest way possible. I want you to understand and see things through my eyes. As you can see from past writings my eyes tend to see the world in a realistic and logical way. I’m not the type to add embellishment without reason.

I experienced my first nation wide black out this past month. Actually in my life I have never experienced a blackout on such a large scale. People may think of Turkey as being off the map, but truthfully it holds some of the most populated metropolitan cities in the world. Istanbul blacking out is a prime example of this. The fact that not only a city lost power, but an entire nation, is a really huge event that went basically unacknowledged in international media outlets.

The best part is that the cause is unknown; no one really knows what happened. There are a bunch of stories flying around, ranging from this being a terrorist attack, to cats attacking wiring all at once throughout the nation. Obviously some accusations are more ridiculous than others (personally I think the cats theory is hilarious). Due to the amount of government censoring already taking place, I don’t think we will ever know the true cause of this blackout. All I know is that for an entire nation to go dark, for more than 12 hours is something unprecedented in the modern era.

To put this event in perspective for people that can’t create a clear image of Turkey in their mind, it is like if New York City and Washington D.C. were located in Texas and the entire state of Texas went dark. I do not know what caused this and I don’t dare to venture a guess for fear of reprimand for spreading slander from the Turkish government. The power was out until after the sun set so I was able to see my part of the city silent and dark except for the car lights on the streets.

We are now back with power. However at the time, we didn’t know how long the power outage would last and our phones were running out of charge one by one. The most stressful part wasn’t why this happened or if we would have electricity that night, it was the fact that we weren’t able to use our smart phones. This goes to show the true reliance our society has on technology. In apartments like mine we didn’t event have water to flush the toilet because the pump runs on electricity. However compared to not being able to text, no one was focusing on this.

It’s hard to pretend like I have problems when I look around me and see people with real problems. I see people begging just to survive from children to the elderly. My problems are miniscule in comparison with so many others. I can never feel bad for myself ever again. I have seen poverty and suffering before, but being surrounded by it every day is something entirely different. They live right next to me. They sleep in the newspaper I have read the day before. They eat the food I have not finished and carelessly dumped off my plate into the trash. The cast away parts of my life have become the sustenance for theirs. Children here roam the streets selling tissues for unknown figures that are commonly malicious criminals. They are unable to attend school because they must work to survive and even if they have the funds to attend school, most schools won’t even accept them because of their Syrian origin. Education is most definitely not available to all in this country.

Most of April and May was taken up by Rotary trips and endeavors. We traveled over majority of Turkey. Although I enjoy history quite a bit, many of the ruins look remarkably similar. Some are bigger, some taller, but all are white and old. As general as that sounds, after living in Turkey for 10 months, you get used to the fact that everything around you is ancient. The fact that they were built in a time without advanced technology doesn’t even enter your mind. Its odd how numb you can become to something being surrounded with it every day.

Our first trip was to Gocek. This is a beach town on the Mediterranean. While in Gocek I met the outbound student who is actually coming to Florida. He seems to be very open-minded and I think he will do well. His first host family is actually a gay couple. However what disgusted me was the fact that my director was less than thrilled with this placement because she thought being in that “environment” might “confuse” the boy. In Turkey homophobia is a part of the culture, but sometimes it still shocks me how medieval the mindsets can still be. Personally I think that from the sound of this couple they are great people and their sexual orientation has NOTHING to do with how they will be as host parents. I think that at the very least this will be a very good experience for this exchange student to become comfortable with the diversity of the world.

Our next trip was to Bergama, which has quite a few spectacular religious sights including one of the famous eight churches that letters were sent to in the bible. Not many people know this; being that Turkey is a country that is ninety nine percent Islamic, but it is also home to many major Christian landmarks being that it is in the area where Christianity began.

One of my favorite trips this entire year was to Pamukkale. This is the home to one of the most interesting and beautiful natural wonders of Turkey; the crystal travertines. These are also called the “cotton castles” or “ice mountains”.  In reality they are actually huge calcite formations filled with spring water. The calcite formations are huge and white giving the illusion from afar that it is snow or ice. We swam in the pools and felt the warmth of the dissolved minerals in the bottom. Also while in Pamukkale there is a pool that was actually built for Cleopatra to swim in. We paid thirty Turkish lira, which is equivalent to eleven dollars and swam where Cleopatra swam. The water in this pool is also a part of the same hot spring and the pool has tiny bubbles in it, making the water feel like a carbonated drink. It is said that the bubbles that are everywhere have healing properties for your skin. I thought this was incredible and I would have stayed there all day if we had been given the time.

After this my parents came to visit. I met them in Istanbul and showed them all of the famous sights. To see their reactions to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque reminded me of my Orientation in Istanbul, which seemed like it was just yesterday. This year has been like a dream. It went by so fast. Do you know how sometimes you feel like you’ve been only dreaming for five minutes, but you wake up and realize you slept for twelve hours. That’s how my exchange has been, it felt so fast and yet it was actually eleven months out of my life.

My parents then came to Izmir, my home city, and I took them all around. Honestly my parent’s visiting was so hard for me. To go back to feeling dependent on them and having to act like a tourist. I built my life for a year on my own and as awful as it sounds there just didn’t seem like there was a place for my family in it. My exchange was mine and it was just so hard to share it. To have to stop everything I was doing to show them around. To have to answer the same dumb questions I asked when I first arrived. They were a reminder of my old self; the self that I don’t want to go back to being. It reinforced the fact that I was leaving soon and that I had to return to my normal life; the reality that my time is almost up.

After the extreme stress of my parents visiting, we had our five day Greek cruise. As beautiful as Greece was and as cool as it was to go to another country without Rotarians, I realized I’m just not the type of person who takes cruises. I prefer to sleep in the country I’m visiting, to fly in and have the freedom to go where I want to go, when I want to go. On a cruise you spend majority of your time in the boat eating out of sheer boredom. We went to quite a few different Greek islands and the mainland to see Athens.

I enjoyed most of the islands although they were extremely touristy, however I extremely disliked Athens. Honestly it was kind of just a run down cookie cutter city. Also it left a bad taste in my mouth because I asked a man which bus to take to the temple of Zeus and he refused to tell me because I didn’t say “hello” and “how are you?” before I asked. Then he proceeded to lecture me on manners. I then turned and walked away while he was still talking in response to his rude condescending response. Overall though it was an eye opening experience in terms of how Greece was financially doing at the time. The issues with the economy showed in the upkeep of everything and in the faces of many of the citizens.

In our district at the conference it is traditional that the inbound students every year perform a traditional Turkish dance and create a video of their time in Turkey. Obviously to prepare we took dance classes every week for almost 2 months before the conference. Most people when they picture dance classes think that they aren’t difficult and you don’t exert much energy. Well I am here to tell you this isn’t true and that traditional Turkish dances are actually extremely tiring. We danced for almost three hours every class nonstop. After every class we were soaked in sweat.

Our particular dance for the 2014-2015 inbounds was called “Ata Bari”. It is a dance that was created for Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” when he visited the northeastern border of Turkey. The dance has many Russian influences as well as Turkish influences. Therefore there is a lot of difficult jumping and falling to ones knees and hopping up again, especially for the boy dancers. The funny thing about all of this was that because of the fact that in my district we have only two boys and ten girls, two of the girls had to play men in the dance. Lucky for me I am tall and don’t really have a feminine figure, so I was one of the few that got the lovely task of cross dressing for the performance in front of my entire district.

Our District conference this year was held in Marmaris, a lovely beach city farther south than Izmir. We stayed in a beautiful resort right on the water and met a bunch of foreigners there. I met the representative of the Rotary international president who was assigned to attend our conference in 2440. It turned out he was from Alabama and he noticed how I was pretending to be a boy. His wife and him said they knew because I was too pretty to be a boy. I thought they were both very sweet for saying this. At the conference we were a big hit and it really was a great experience. My host mom was also there and received a few awards because she is the president of one of the most successful clubs in our area.

Coming into my last month as an exchange student in Turkey, I am starting to get nervous, but I am still holding it together because no one has left yet and for some reason it still feels like I have time. I know logically it is almost over, but in my heart I can’t imagine how this year will ever end. This place has become my home and I don’t want to leave.

 Thu, July 9, 2015

In past journals I have written, I have not been entirely truthful. Because of how amazing my exchange has been thus far I have been blinded to the negative aspects of Turkey. The truth, I think, is more important than the peace of mind of some Rotarians.

My exchange has been amazing. This is no lie, but I have encountered less pleasant aspects of my country that I think it is time I finally share them. One of the most major issues that rings true throughout the country, in even the most liberal of places, is sexism. Before coming to Turkey I knew I supported women’s rights, but I never knew to what extent. In my life I have been lucky enough to be given the same opportunities as any man around me. I was never told no just because I was a girl. I was judged based on my actions and my character, not on the absence of a male sex organ. I am sad to say that this has changed since I entered Turkey. As much as I love this beautiful country with all the wonderful things it has to offer, there is a major gender gap. I live in the most liberal part of Turkey where women have the most rights and to me this is incredibly disheartening. Officially women have the same rights as men in terms of legal situations (to some extent). However in social situations I have to say this is not the case. Previously I have talked about issues in Turkey with cat calling, but it is so much more than that.

I do not want to paint the entire country with one brush and one color. I have met many people and experienced many events that show the fight for equalization of the sexes is well underway in Turkey. When an atrocity was committed to a girl in a city in the far east of Turkey, women AND men wore mini skirts and marched through the streets to show women have rights. The mini skirt was a symbol that no matter what a woman wears, she is not a sexual object. Ever. Turkey is the place where for the first time in my life I was subjected to real unadulterated sexism. I have been told I couldn’t do things because it “wasn’t what pretty girls do” and that “I wasn’t as good at something as a man”.

The gender gap is not as clear to see here as in many other countries because it is hidden in the shadows of everyday interactions, but its still a prominent part of society. Every so often you will have an event that really gives a moment of clarity to the everyday injustices that previously had been unnoticeable. As an exchange student I am told to assimilate to society and the new culture around me, but there are some things that I do not find right and I don’t care which culture they come from; I will never allow them to become a part of my cultural ideology. The behavior many others and I are subjected to on a daily basis is grotesque and completely inexcusable. I don’t care if you were raised in barn; women are not your property, we aren’t your pets, we are your equals. Accept it. This is the twenty first century and feminism is alive and real.

The point at which I truly realized the extent of the issue was the day I found out about some of the archaic and medieval laws that are still in existence today in my host nation. In Eastern Turkey if a girl gets pregnant before she is married, her father has the right to kill her without consequence. This is called an “Honor Killing”. Personally I couldn’t think of a more ironic and disgusting name for this act. There is absolutely nothing honorable about these killings in even the most twisted and demented universe. The shear fact that this law is still in existence makes me want to vomit. As soon as the cloak of Turkey being a modern country is over your eyes they go and tear it off with news like this. Another aspect of everyday life in this magnificent country is the questioning of your virginity. Since when did it become socially acceptable to scream across a restaurant to a perfect stranger asking if they’ve “lost it yet?” If I had to choose which question I had been asked the most this would probably be it.

Every country has beautiful aspects and the aspects that most wish would just be swept under the rug. Turkey is no different. I could name countless examples of this throughout the world, including in my home country. This essay is not to destroy the image of Turkey that most have. It is to open their eyes to see the good and the bad. It is to enlighten those who do not know about the country they are about to step foot in. This is my way of shedding some light on the shadows of the world.

Wed, April 1, 2015

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to go to another country for my exchange, but every time I think about it I come to the same conclusion. I would never change my choice of coming to Turkey. It’s like sometimes moments of your life happen that you know will stay with you forever. Every moment of being in Turkey is like that for me. Of course if I had gone to certain other countries my language skills would probably be more advanced at this point because of previous knowledge or similarity to English. My experiences would have been totally different. It’s hard to believe I am almost half way done with my time here. When I think of my exchange this way it makes me a little sad and happy at the same time. It’s hard to explain the mixture of emotions that takes over. I’m proud of all that I have accomplished so far, but I’m sad it has gone by so fast. Time is slipping by at a rate that is almost unimaginable.

I am, however, proud to say that I have not let a moment slip by that I haven’t used in an important way. Every moment since I have arrived in Turkey I have explored new places and met new people. There is a phrase in Turkish my host mom loves to use when describing me; loosely translated it means when I was born my mother threw the umbilical cord out the window, so because of that now I feel the need to go out and explore all the time. My host family and I have a great relationship because they know I am not just going out to meet exchange students, I am going out with Turkish friends, learning about Turkish culture, and discovering the city. In Turkey, I am given a great amount of freedom by my host family because they know I am safe about everything I do and I stay out of trouble. My goal in Turkey is not to see how many rules I can break, but how many firsts I can have. Like my first time exploring Bornova (where I live in Izmir). My first time reading a an article from the newspaper completely in Turkish, my first time walking in hail, and my first time being able to find my way from one end of the city to the other; completely on my own.

Honestly in terms of language in my district I am not the best. I have made a huge amount of progress and I am steadily getting better, but what I have excelled at is cultural immersion. I am one of the few that has true Turkish friends and this I feel is a triumph. Here making friends with a language barrier is extremely difficult and I have succeeded! I have truly adapted to the atmosphere of Turkey and I find myself explaining cultural aspects to other exchange students. I find myself leading and showing them around places in the city they have yet to explore. I wish I could say that my life has reached a steady pace where I can predict what I will be doing in the next few days, but honestly everyday is an adventure. Besides school, which I attend regularly, I never know where I will be or what I will be doing. I always say part of being an exchange student is that you actually have the ability to make your own choices on where you go and who you choose to be with. Be wise in these decisions, but every so often take a risk that you think will pay off in the long run.

To all future outbounds (or any who actually reads this journal) I just want to say, follow your gut; in a country that is still new to you, your gut is the one reliable source that will tell you what is a good decision and a bad one. I want to warn you that by 5 or 6 months into your exchange you will feel cocky. You will feel like you have lived in the country long enough to know how it works and how to get around, but unpredictability will hit you one day and you need to be prepared. By five or six months you are not an expert on where you live. People can live in a country their whole lives and still not know that much about it. I don’t care if you are in a tiny village in France or a huge city in Brazil. Be prepared and be ready for anything.

For anyone coming to Turkey I recommend bringing all the jeans you think you will need for the whole year because its basically all people use here and they are expensive. I would bring a pair of waterproof boots like Timberlands or Hunters because it gets really cold and rains/snows a lot in the winter. Literally everyone also wears leather jackets and dark colors. My wardrobe has become very monochromatic in terms of color scheme. Plunging necklines are semi uncommon, but are still used or at least I use them. For boys going to Turkey, shorts are pretty uncommon no matter how hot it is and sandals for boys and girls are uncommon as well.

I had a trip to Mersin for five days last week and it was extremely interesting. Mersin is a city in southeastern Turkey. It is a few hours from the Syrian border actually, but it is very safe. Right now there is a great deal of problems going on in my area of the world. Everyday I feel I am witnessing history as the Syrian refugees pour into Turkey. Mersin has a different culture and feel than Izmir, but it has changed and become more conservative as the refugees have affected the cultural identity of the city. Mersin was one of the cities that had a huge amount of refugees because of its close vicinity to the Syrian border; much higher than my host city of Izmir.

Just before I went to this city a young girl named Ozgecan was raped, killed, and burned. I visited during the cities period of mourning. The death of this college student caused an uproar throughout the nation. There were protests all over the place to defend women’s rights. Men in Istanbul even put on mini skirts and marched through the streets to show their support. Personally I wished I could have marched with them. I find the whole story disgusting and disgraceful. Turkey in so many ways is incredibly modern, but in others I feel like they haven’t progressed at all. For example in all of Turkey women have the right to vote, but there is also a law that states if a woman cheats on her husband or gets pregnant before she is married, her family has the right to kill her. This is called an “honor killing” and it is completely legal. They consider it a family matter. When I heard of this for the first time I couldn’t believe that such a modern and beautiful country could have such a despicable law still in existence. I did and saw many amazing things in Mersin, but many of these were shrouded in darkness because of the shadow of the terrible event that had recently occurred in this city.

Looking forward on my exchange I feel sad. Whenever I look at the photos I have taken I know that the places I have been will never be the same as the instant I took that photograph. That everything is changing. Enjoy every moment in the moment because once its gone you can never relive that moment again. When you are an exchange student you thrive on change, but once you get to a point where you are incredibly happy you don’t want things to change anymore. You don’t want to continue on because you know the farther you get into your exchange, the closer you are to returning to the life you left at home; that the more friends you make, the more friends you have to leave at the end of the year, and the closer you get to the other exchange students, the harder saying goodbye to them will be.

When I have days that are incredibly amazing it’s hard to let them end because moments like that in life are so rare. For my entire life I have tried to stay emotionally detached from everything and everyone because it makes it so much easier to live for yourself and reach the goals you want; but now everything has changed. Everything about me is different. I have done a complete 180 on who I am as a person and although I am proud of who I have become and how open I am, I have become so much more vulnerable. Everyday I feel a few details of past days slip out of my memory and it makes me so sad. I don’t want to forget any moment of my time in Turkey. This sadness is however derived from the fact that my exchange has been exceptionally successful and incredible in all aspects. It has been far beyond my expectations and I currently have had almost no problems.

Since I have been in Turkey however we have had a tragedy occur and we all have had to deal with the pain of it. One of the students here had a parent murdered in their home country. They will not be returning home and so we have taken it upon ourselves to take care of them during this tragic time. I do not want to share the identity of this person, but I do want to express my deepest condolences to them and all other exchange students, past, present, and future, that have experienced something terrible like this on their exchange.

One of the great things about living abroad is that you get to test your limits and you get to know what is your breaking point. I have never been in a situation where I have actually reached my breaking point, but that doesn’t mean I won’t encounter one of these moments soon especially since I have almost 130 days left. I have had to learn to get along with people that I would never have chosen for myself as friends and I have actually found that I get along better with them than people I would think would be a better match for me. I have come to realize that you can connect to people that are just like you AND people who are complete opposites. I like having some friends that I can relate to and having some friends that I can debate with all the live long day.

I sincerely apologize for my English and how bad the writing of these journals have become, but writing about experiences and feeling I have had that have happened in another language do not always translate correctly and at times may come out awkward. I sometimes find myself putting English words in the Turkish grammar order. I find infinite typos and misspellings. I can’t even remember what half of the punctuation symbols mean. The SAT’s will definitely be fun when I return, especially in the essay section.

So I thought I would give you a briefing on Turkish people and what I have learned about them so far. Turkish teenage girls love drama. They love to gossip and start fights in school. I truthfully don’t know why and I don’t want to stereo type them and put them all in one category, but I have found it to be true. All of the girls here think I am literally in Turkey for one purpose; to steal their boyfriends. Believe me when I say I have no idea where this stems from. Apparently I have the look of a man stealer. Many of the girls here don’t really like me because of this, but they are all usually nice to my face. On the other hand the teenage boys never seem to leave me alone. They always want to talk asking me about everything and anything under the sun. They just can’t seem to get enough time to talk to the foreigners. I have been at my school for five months and I am still crowded at lunch so much that I can hardly find time to eat. The older generations here are pretty similar to the younger generations just a little more conservative and sedentary. They rarely do anything but drink tea and talk once they get past a certain age.

I received what they call a “traditional Turkish bath” the other day. I was very excited to go with my friend Lea to get it, but when we got there it was nothing like I thought it would be. A Turkish bath or a Hamam is basically an underground building that is split into two sides (one for men and one for women) and in these two rooms are two gigantic caves filled with steam and sinks and bowls with a large heated marble slab in the middle. Everyone basically gets naked and they wash in the sinks. Once you have thoroughly cleansed yourself and are soaked with water you go and lay on the marble slab. Women who work at the Hamam then come up to you and do the traditional Turkish scrub, rub, and shine. They take an extremely rough cloth and take off your first three layers of your skin all over your body and when I say everywhere I mean everywhere. Because remember, you are completely naked. Then they scrub you with soap and after this they massage you. They put carbonated water in ground coffee and rub it all over you following the soap. You then have to stand completely naked for 10 minutes so it can dry on you. They pour carbonated water on your face to take off the coffee grounds and the burning sensations it causes is one of the most intense I have ever experienced. After washing all the coffee grounds off you, the Hamam workers take shampoo and wash your hair and face 3 times. You are finished once the last bit of shampoo has been washed from your hair. It is tradition for a bride to turn on all the faucets at the beginning of the Hamam time to have good luck on her wedding day during her bachelorette party. I personally did not enjoy this experience, but only because my skin is not tough enough to take so much all at one time.

The last thing I would like to talk about in this journal is the fact that I have become a diehard tea addict. I have to have at least five cups of tea everyday or I can’t function. Turkey is the country where people drink the most tea in the world. Most people think its China or Japan, but its actually Turkey. The home of the famous two-kettle Turkish teapot. I have to admit at first I did not like Turkish tea at all I thought that it tasted like rotten leaves, but now I can appreciate it and I really have adapted to liking it. It is a true testament to the fact that your taste will change as you assimilate to the culture of your host country.

 Wed, April 1, 2015

It’s hard to believe how much a change in scenery can impact you. How a different lifestyle can set you on a completely different path. I never thought of myself as ignorant or unaware of the world; having traveled it from a young age, but exchange has proven me wrong. In my life I have never truly appreciated what I had. From the opportunities I was given, to the home I grew up in. Never having to worry about money or where my next meal was coming from. I have been introduced to people whose lives make mine look like a fairy tale. People who have endured hardships, that I couldn’t imagine in my wildest nightmares. I used to be a judgmental person. I thought that just because you dressed a certain way or talked a certain way automatically put you with a certain class of people.

Since being in Turkey my views of the world have been completely turned upside-down. I have met people from different countries, cultures, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and age groups. They have all in some way, shape, or form opened my eyes to the pieces of the world I had consciously or unconsciously chosen to ignore or not pay attention to. To each an every one of these people I would like to say thank you. Although my world views are no longer as clean cut, they are much more real and all encompassing. My black and white vision has been mixed into gray and I could not be more happy.

My perspective has changed, my views have broadened, and my mind has been opened. It is actually quite surprising how being in a more closed and conservative country has made me become open to much more. I have tried things here, I would have never tried at home because I would have been too scared. Not only have the people of Turkey impacted me, but the other exchange students have also made a huge impression on my life as well.

I read 5 newspapers a day now and I am more informed than I have ever been in my life. I have learned just because it isn’t in the news doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and isn’t a problem. Just because we have decided to put another issue at the forefront of our minds doesn’t make the other any less important. Everyday something is happening somewhere and the only way to keep up with our world that moves at a faster pace everyday, is to stay aware and stay involved. My entire life I have been working towards becoming a scientist, but now I have had a change of heart. I would like to be someone who is involved in the intercommunication of international groups. I have decided from this point on this is my new passion in life.

In my district in Turkey they say that I am very good at socializing, that I have the ability to walk up to anyone and start a conversation. I have always been a shy girl. I have been taught that just because you talk the most or the loudest in a room doesn’t automatically mean you are right. I have been trying to break out of this mindset because talking is an asset when you are an exchange student, but in truth I’m not outgoing. I just pretend to be outgoing; I am actually terrified to walk up to new people.

Obviously as an exchange student this is not acceptable, so I had to find a way to overcome this flaw. My only strength is that I can make people smile with a joke and as soon as this happens people begin to relax and open up. No matter what your nationality, race, or creed, everyone in the world enjoys a joke even if it isn’t that funny, it is an international ice breaker! Jokes will make getting to know someone a lot easier. In the USA I was always too busy with school to socialize that much, but now that I actually have the time I feel much more open and able to be myself with people.

The truth is I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to return to my old high school. I have changed too much to go back and meet my old friends. They won’t understand what I have become and the transformation I have gone through. I have actually begun to find myself and not just become what other people wanted me to be. I always tried to be what others were looking for so I could please everyone. Of course I hope people like what I have become but it is no longer my main concern. I am finally happy with myself; I have found inner peace at least for the time being.

It’s hard to look back at the US because everything is so different. There are things that I like about the US, but I have never felt as though this is the place I will end up. I have always felt that it is just a step along the way until I find where I need to go. I am a nomad. I have known this about myself my entire life. I know I will never settle in one place for long. My only true bond is to the open road and I plan to uphold it. It’s hard especially on American holidays that I have celebrated my whole life to see how easily they can be forgotten. How you don’t even remember they are coming up until they are passed and gone.

We have since traveled to Cappadocia one of the oldest places I have ever had the privilege to travel to in my life. We went to thousands of years old cave churches that were literally carved into the faces of cliffs, we went hot air ballooning in the wee hours of the morning in dangerous conditions with high wind turbulence just to view the natural beauty of the land created by volcanoes long ago. While it was freezing cold we slept in caves and tried some of the food native to this region.

Next we went on a trip to Konya, which is known as the most conservative cities in Turkey. I have to say that out of all the places I have traveled to in Turkey I felt the most unwelcome in Konya. Majority of the women there were almost completely covered. Even though it was cold and I was almost completely covered as well my skinny jeans and long sleeve sweaters were drastically different from the scene of never ending burkas. We as a group did receive many angry stares and were turned a way from a few restaurants because we were speaking English when we walked up. To this day this is the time I felt most like an outsider. The scenery in Konya is beautiful, but I have to say it was not worth the price of being there.

Because it is now after December, we are now allowed to travel alone around Turkey with permission. I am about to embark on my first adventure alone to Mersin, a city in the South East of Turkey a little west of Syria on the water. I am very excited to go and see an area of Turkey I have not explored yet. This is one of the best things about being in Turkey, I can see places that very few even seasoned travelers would go to. The culture is also so wildly different from all other countries that my experience is truly unique. I am also going on a school trip to Ankara and this will also be another city that I have never been to before. I am very excited for my upcoming months in Turkey and I could not be more happy with my choice of country and the people in Rotary who made this choice a reality!

 Sun, February 8, 2015

I know that literally everyone on exchange uses the lame excuse of not having any time to write journals, but for me it is completely true! I barely have time to check my email. In Turkey I have been so busy and having so much fun that I have not turned on the television once. Why would I when I can go meet friends from school and explore more of the city? My lifestyle has been turned completely upside-down, in the US my life revolved around school and getting good grades, getting homework done, and pleasing teachers. All of my extra curriculars were targeted towards getting into a good university. Here I can just have fun. I can focus on actually having friends and spending time with them. Socialization is my job. I am not expected here to be the valedictorian, or the star athlete. I am not even expected to, just encouraged to make friends and spread the image of America that is true. I am supposed to represent my country, my district, my club, and myself in a way that would make all those involved proud.

In school here I practice Turkish and I feel as though I am actually learning something applicable to my life. I’m not learning what the PH of a stomach is or why giraffes make no noise. I am learning something that is actually useful. There are many differences in school here. Unlike the schools in the US students are treated with respect and trust, not as juvenile delinquents who are likely to burn the place down if left alone for too long. There is such a thing as a student-teacher bond where they take care of us and we take care of them. If a teacher forgets their lunch everyone from class chips in and buys them lunch. We stand when a teacher enters the room to show our respect for them. Our teachers are the ones that switch classes not the students. So we stay in the same room all day with different teachers coming in and out.

We have ten minute breaks in between classes and this is when the real fun happens. Sometimes we have chalk wars where we throw chalk around and get covered in different colors; by the end we look like we celebrated the Indian holiday of Holi. We climb through windows to get to class and people carry each other through the windows. Our uniforms (especially for girls) are extremely ugly, so we shorten the skirts and change the shirts if we want to follow the rules at all. Most people just completely disregard the rules and wear whatever they want because no one enforces dress code. I know this sounds bad, but the more time I spend in the Turkish school system, the more I want to compare it to the US in the 80’s. People smoke in the bathrooms and kiss in the stairwells. There are no real restrictions enforced towards educational establishments.

Schools in this country are still places where free expression is thought of as healthy and good for the learning process. I agree with this thought process immensely. Since being in this Turkish school for three months I feel I have learned more than both years at Ponte Vedra High School. The people at my Turkish school are all immensely gifted. In Turkey you take a high school entrance exam at the end of middle school and how well you score on that determines which high schools you can go to. Izmir Ataturk Lisesi (my school) is the top school to get into in Izmir and top 5 in all of Turkey because it is 127 years old. We have some of the brightest students there from all over Turkey because of this. Turkey has managed to find the solution to getting rid of the time wasters no one wants in class; the kids who just go to school because it is illegal not to. The kids who are actually trying to go far in their lives have their own schools with likeminded peers, who benefits the learning process of others.

Sometimes when you visit foreign countries you have moments when you just know you are somewhere drastically different from where you are from. I am going to list a few of these moments just because there is no way of mentioning them except by just saying them. The first is getting on a bus and having the driver drive with no hands while singing the song “No Hands” in a tiny back street filled with traffic. Another is going to watch a surgery and being 2 feet away from the operating table because your host dad is the surgeon and says its normal to have people view operations. The last is seeing someone eat, smoke, talk on the phone, and parallel park at the same time while coming to the realization that they are still better at it than you. These things just don’t happen where I live in the US.

I went to the Mediterranean sea with my host family during the holiday called Bayram. Bayram is an Islamic sacrificial holiday where they sacrifice animals and give the meat to the poor. Although it sounds a tad barbaric, the thought behind the holiday is actually one of charity and equality. During the holiday of Bayram it is also tradition for young people to go up to elders and take their hand in a fist to their mouth as a sign of respect; in return they are given money. My family and 9 others decided to take a trip during this holiday, so we drove seven hours down to Marmaris and stayed in a beautiful ocean villa that had been rented out specifically for us. The villa was surrounded by orange, pomegranate, and olive trees growing freely and were open for anyone to take from. While there we rented a private beach and used it almost everyday. The water was crystal clear and beautiful! I would come up from swimming underwater and think I was hallucinating because the scenery was so beautiful; sapphire blue water surrounded by powder white sand with mountains and cliffs rising up all around.

Every night we would go out to dinner, which was really interesting because the restaurants we ate in were so extravagant! One of them was in a marina where the water was lit up from underneath and you could see all of the huge fish swimming around. Another was on a cliff over looking the bay with an all you can eat buffet bar of fantastic food (which I can tell you are not that common in Turkey). Always the rides back would be a little spine chilling because Turkey isn’t known to have many street lights, so we were on perilously small roads on huge cliffs in the pitch black taking turns at full speed.

The next weekend I had my second inbound orientation, which was actually a four day excursion to Istanbul. Although there are many geographical similarities to Istanbul and Izmir, I am here to say that they are wildly different. Istanbul is much more conservative than Izmir. There were many more people there with covered heads and prayer beads. Of course while we were in Istanbul we did all the touristic things such as go to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue mosque, the Tokapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and on the Bosphorous tour.

All of these sights were as spectacular as people say they are, especially the Hagia Sophia with its astoundingly detailed architecture, but these were not what impacted me the most while I was there. It was the interactions I had with people and the subtle differences to Izmir that caught my attention. For example when I was in the blue mosque an Arab man came up to me and rudely told me to show my respect by tightening my scarf around my face. (I would like to note that in the blue mosque because it is a tourist attraction you are not even required to cover your head if you are a woman.) Me being the feminist, I am, told him to go find his wife and leave. He then proceeded to march up to the women’s prayer room and leave with a woman who was completely covered except for her eyes.

This is a first rate example of the fact that a majority of Islamic people who I live and go to school with are completely normal and have a moderate view of their religion just as most Christians do, but the vocal Muslims who catch our attention are the crazy fanatics who are a severe minority. Every type of religion has some sort of extremist, but for some reason in the Islamic faith, this has become their stereotype. In the US we do not like being seen as the obnoxious stupid fat tourists in other countries, so why do we continue to give another ridiculous stereotype of being terrorists to Muslims. Where is the logic in this?

Another interaction that truly impacted my view of Istanbul was the true love for one another people have. We were walking and an old woman fell and men jumped out of their cars to go help her and call an ambulance and her family. Istanbul may be the biggest city in Turkey, but the neighborly feel of a small town has not been extinguished. A less flattering detail of Istanbul is the cat calling in the bazaar. Everywhere I turned a man would be giving me some outrageously cheesy pick up line and I kind of just wanted to sprint for the door. Contrary to popular belief pick up lines hardly work with strangers and they do not make me want to enter a shop. You would think they would have caught on to this by now, but apparently not. Also while in Istanbul, I realized how incredibly clumsy I am. I do grant the fact that majority of the streets in Istanbul are very uneven, but for some reason my feet decided to not work at all that trip. Even in the hotel our first night there when I was going down the stairs I fell and got a huge bruise all the way up to my elbow. Since being back in Izmir I have gotten a little better, but not by much.

I have to say that I think driving in Istanbul is actually less crazy than Izmir because a majority of Istanbul is straight traffic. In Izmir it is severe road rage with 3 cars next to each other on a one lane road seeing who can get out in front. Istanbul really is a beautiful city filled with history and I wished I could have stayed longer to see more of it, but I am happy I was placed in Izmir instead because it suits my lifestyle much more in terms of how I am treated and that I can walk down the street without tripping on a hidden ridge in the road.

Later that month we had Turkish Republic day, which is the day that Mustafa Kemal made Turkey a Republic form of government. In my city of Turkey, because it is very liberal, Ataturk is seen almost as a god. I agree with the supporters of him when I say that he did great things for this country that were ground breaking and that he was way ahead of his time in terms of ideas. During Republic day as exchange students, we were features in the cities republic day parade. We wore our Rotary blazers and did our best to look graceful while walking through the uneven streets of Izmir. At the end when the leader of Izmir gave his speech we were even mentioned as fine representatives of Rotary International. All the Inbounds of Turkey bought matching red ribbons to put on our blazers to commemorate this event and show our support for this great past leader of Turkey! I have become incredibly close with these people, they are like a second family to me and for all future exchange stude nts I can tell you that your fellow exchange students are your support system that will get you through anything. They can make or break your exchange and mine have helped me have the best three months of my life thus far!

 Thu, December 11, 2014

My First Two Weeks in Turkey! 

So it turns out I actually avoided jetlag, but not for the reason you would think. Since the day I landed in Turkey I have been so busy that I have not had the chance to feel awake at night. Sleep is so precious to me now that I sometimes don’t shower, just so I can catch an extra half hour of shuteye. For my entire first week here I have not gone to sleep before 11 at night.

So starting with my first day after the plane landed I had my first traditional Turkish breakfast, which consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, toast, different cheeses, and olives. It was really good because I was starving from the lack of edible food on the airlines. After eating breakfast I decided to iron some of my clothes that had gotten wrinkled on my way over here from Florida; only to discover that they all had been ironed, folded, and put away by my host family’s maid, Ayshe. Ayshe is one of the sweetest people I have ever met! She makes me breakfast every morning and cleans the whole house every day. She doesn’t speak any English at all, which is great because I practice Turkish with her all the time (most of the time though we have no idea what one another is saying). Then Idil (the daughter of my host mom’s friend) took me around Alsancak (the center of the city).

Izmir is beautiful and I can’t put that any other way. It has a beautiful ocean and coastlie. We have beautiful mountains rising up all around the edges of the city and if you look out over the bay, you can see more mountains that are actually in Greece. Idil and I got our hair done at this Turkish salon and it was definitely an experience I will never forget! Many people kept coming over to me and petting my hair, asking if it was real; there reaction when I said yes was one of shock and awe. I have not seen a single other person with natural red hair here, so this is probably why I am seen as such an exotic visitor.

Here in Turkey I obviously don’t blend in, but being different here, unlike the USA, is seen as a positive thing. Women in Turkey want to show that they are strong and independent; many do this through hair dye, high fashion, and color contacts. They keep telling me how beautiful I am, which is really embarrassing for me because I am not used to all the attention I am getting. When I walk down a street people do not glance, they fully stop and stare; cars slow down just to get a better look at the foreigener in their neighborhood. I do not know if I will ever be fully comfortable with this attention.

I went to my first Rotary meeting that night, which was basically a big welcoming party for me. I met many Rotarians, Interacters, and Roteracters. My host mom is the President of our Rotary club; Dokuz Eylul Rotary Club. She is so sweet and she takes care of me like I am her own daughter. The Rotary meeting was on a rooftop over looking Izmir. The view was breathtakingly beautiful. The Roteract president gave me a huge gift of Turkish traditional items and things to put on my blazer. My blazer is very full now and probably weighs about 10 pounds, which will make walking through the airport on the trip home much more interesting!

I am proud to say I have tried every type of food I was given so far and although some of the things I did not like, I smiled and thanked everyone for giving me the food. I have discovered that no matter how many times I try it, I do not like yogurt. In fact I find it extremely repulsive. Just the thought of eating yogurt makes me want to gag. I am sure that many people back home are thinking that I am crazy and that yogurt is delicious, but I am here to let you know that yogurt here is very different than the yogurt in the USA. Yogurt in the US is usually sweet and flavored. Here it is none of the above. In my opinion it is salty and plain and sour. It has the consistency of an egg yolk and tastes like spoiled milk. There is a specialty drink called “Ayran” here made with this yogurt mixed with seltzer water and salt that literally everyone drinks. If I am made to try it one more time I may scream. And to top it all off (no pun intended) they put yogurt on everything.

On a more positive note I have had some food that is amazing. Most of this was some form of lamb because the lamb in Turkey is incredibly tasty.

For those of you who are wondering, my family here is very liberal, I dress the same way I do in the United States and do not attend a Mosque. My host mom does not cover her head. Actually, a majority of people where I live do not cover their heads. When they say that Izmir is a liberal city they are not kidding. Many people here are striving to be as western as possible. They love the United States and Europe. I have not met any fanatics of Islam so far on my trip here and I have been warned if I do to just walk away and don’t look back.

I met the two other exchange students the next day who will be going to my school Izmir Ataturk Lisesi with me; Barbara and Maya. They are amazing friends and I am so glad I met them. They are supportive and totally understand everything that I am going through because they are going through it too. We are already very close and they are a nice contrast to the Turkish friends I have made. We all went uniform shopping together and ended up looking like we worked on airlines with our outfits. I have had my skirt brought up to regular length and it fits well. My host mom also found me a skirt that her friend’s daughter used to wear, but it is very short.

I went to see Konak and the famous clock tower that was built by the same man who designed the Eiffel tower! It was beautiful! When we got there, a protest was taking place. Since I have arrived I have seen 6 protests. All of which were rather large and had police there in riot gear. Apparently protests are very common, but the fact that I have seen so many is highly unusual. I am starting to think I attract them.

I have attended a traditional Turkish wedding since I have been here and truthfully I would have to say it was somewhat similar to weddings in the USA. I have also been involved in a 27 km bike race, which was very fun! I really like bike riding and I wish I could do more of it here. The bike pros that assisted with the race were very interested in me and why I was participating. I have been to 5 different Rotary clubs and exchanged banners so I only have a few left to trade, but I am proud to say that many different clubs in Turkey have heard of the Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club!

I had my first two weeks of school and they were great. I have had no problems making friends here. People want to meet me and get to know me. I have a solid friend group now that I hang out with on a regular basis. They are like my second family! We all look out for each other and they try to keep me safe in the city. I have had an easier time than most of the other exchange students in Turkey. I think it is a mixture of the fact that I look so different and sheer luck. I stick out so people know that I am not from their country and automatically look out for me a bit more, however I was also put in one of the most welcoming classes in my school which is mostly luck. My host mom also being very outgoing has introduced me to many people. All of these factors has made my adjustment here very seamless and easy.

I take the subway to school everyday, but it takes me 15 minutes to walk to the subway and 15 minutes to walk from the subway to school. Overall it takes me around 45 minutes to get to school in the morning which isn’t that bad because I get to listen to music on the way to school. I don’t really understand anything that is going on in school except in chemistry and biology.

My English teacher is actually incredibly bad, he has broken English and a very thick accent so usually I end up teaching the class. Apparently his Turkish is very bad as well, but I can’t tell because mine is worse. I have 15 classes here including history, literature, math, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, counseling, music, PE, Grammar, religion, philosophy, English, and French. Because all of these are taught in Turkish I understand nothing, but the only class I am truly useless in is French. I don’t know how many of you have tried learning advanced French taught in a language you don’t know, but it is literally impossible. Starting out I did not know a lick of French, now after 2 weeks of class I have learned 3 words.

Luckily most of my teachers don’t care if I try in their classes. During most classes I just write down Turkish words and study. Many boys in my class have offered to give me Turkish lessons, which is helpful. None of them are very good teachers, but its fun to have someone to converse with during lunch and after school.

Everyday after school I go somewhere. I do not think I have ever gone home right after school before. My school is right in the center of Alsancak, which is great because there are many places to go and meet. I can find my way around Alsancak all on my own now which is a very big deal to me because it is so complex. I have found a great little English bookstore and I have already bought 4 books. Most exchange students spend their money on food, I spend mine on books. Speaking of which, while I have been here I have lost 2 kg. This is equal to about 4 pounds. I have started to walk a lot more and I am one of the few exchange students that actually looses weight on exchange. I truthfully thought I would gain weight, but I guess everyone is different.

We had our first orientation where we met all the inbounds and went to a traditional market place. When I arrived at the orientation I received a 15 minute lecture on how I should not have worn shorts when I “knew” that we were going to a traditional market place. They lectured me on how I get yelled at on the streets because I dress provocatively. I would like to say for the record that I in fact do not dress inappropriately in any way, shape, or form. I dressed more conservatively than many at the market place. I am very conservative in dress here because I know I do not want to attract any more attention than I already do. I attract attention because I have red hair, blue eyes, and white skin, not because of my clothes. Also my host mom speaks very little English and did not tell me where the orientation was going. However she did tell me to wear shorts because it was hot outside. When we got to this market, I realized I had already been there with my host family, and guess what? I wore shorts and absolutely nothing happened.

I would just like to say that a woman’s choices in what she wears should not constitute the wrongful behavior of others. Just because I wear shorts does not mean it is my fault that a man catcalls at me down the road. There is a line where, yes, I do believe you can dress inappropriately for a given situation and attract negative attention, but I was in shorts and a t-shirt not shorts and fishnets. This is not directed at the people who gave me this lecture; it was just their way of looking out for me. However, I feel very strongly about this issue in a global context and when it was applied to me I felt that I needed to address how truly insulted I was to have been told that my clothes and the clothes of women around the world constitute a reason to be treated in a lower manner.

Out of the inbounds in our district I tend to be the trailblazer in terms of making decisions and being out spoken. When we stopped for lunch we had to line up and choose a traditional Turkish food. The problem was that we had no idea what anything said on the menu. I ordered something that sounded like beef and everyone else decided to play it safe and get the same thing. It turns out that because of me everyone ended up ordering liver. I had never tasted liver in my life up until that moment and I have to say I don’t care for it. No one really ate their lunch that day, but its just a word to the wise that people really should not follow my lead!

There are many things in Turkey that are drastically different than in the US. For example, no one wears seatbelts. When I get into a car and put on my seatbelt people laugh at me, which is insane because the driving here is INSANE! I have almost been hit by cars multiple times and a car has crashed 5 feet in front of me on the way to the subway.

Another thing is that they don’t have dryers here! It takes literally a week for a pair of socks to dry, let alone anything else! Also the police carry machine guns, they really don’t mess around and won’t hesitate if there is an issue. Also we have chalkboards in our classrooms at school. I have never had a chalkboard in school ever. Even my parents had white boards for most of their schooling, so it’s like going back in time here.

Light switches go up to turn off and down to turn on which is weird and confusing especially when you are leaving a room. Also when you want to answer no for a question you click your tongue instead of saying no. Talking about politics is also very common in every situation. In the US we don’t do this too often for fear of conflict, but Turks love to debate so it is very open forum.

My exchange overall has been basically amazing. I can’t imagine ever having gone somewhere else. Turkey was a perfect fit for me. I have found my place in this culture and sometimes it is surreal how easily it happened. I hope my exchange continues on this high note!

Mon, September 29, 2014

My Journey and Arrival in Turkey!

My departure was supposed to take place on the 8th of September from Jacksonville Airport, but due to the classic Florida weather of thunderstorms, my flight to Dulles was extremely delayed. It was so delayed that I would not have been able to make my international connection. On the other hand, the flight plan I was given by my travel agency only gave me an hour to get from one plane to the other in time for departure, so thanks to both of these factors I ended up departing on the 9th. I realize things happen that are beyond my control, but the main reason I was upset was because I wanted to fly with the other Turkish inbounds from Munich to Izmir. However in comparison today’s flying hasn’t been that much better.

Actually my experience flying has been so full of bad luck that by the end I was laughing at how incredibly bad the journey had been. My flight to Dulles boarded promptly, but we were delayed because there was a backup in takeoff times. When we finally did try to go take off, we got about 5 feet off the ground and something malfunctioned, so we had to make a quick landing. As we were going to try takeoff again, a woman had a panic attack and demanded to be taken back to the gate. Once again we had to turn around. When we took her back she realized that she had checked bags on the plane and she didn’t want them flying without her. We had to have them open the cargo hold and look through all the bags to find hers. By this time we had been there so long that we didn’t have enough gas to make the trip to Dulles. We then had to refuel for the second time. Finally we took off, but many people missed their planes because unlike me they didn’t have a seven hour layover waiting for them in Dulles.

Once I arrived I found out that the gate that held my flight to Munich for later that night was at the literal other end of the terminal. For those of you that have never been to the Dulles airport each terminal is huge. Walking from one end to the other will take you 20 minutes. It will take you more if you have 2 heavy bags and a five pound blazer on. On the ceiling, in the international terminal of this airport are the flags to the world and I thought it was a tad peculiar that right outside the gate my flight would fly out of was the Turkish flag. My flight to Munich was also delayed, but nowhere near as long as the first flight. Other than that, the flight to Munich was pretty uneventful. My next flight was to Izmir and it was also delayed due to weather problems in our flight path. We waited for an hour and finally they planned a new flight pattern that went around the rain and through Croatia. I have also failed to mention that I can’t sleep on planes so by the end of my flights I had been awake for around thirty hours.

Finally I made it to Izmir! I used euros for the first time to rent a cart to use to carry my plethora of bags. I waited at baggage claim for quite a long time and all the other bags came out of the carousel before mine. I am not exaggerating. My two bags were the last ones out of baggage claim. The entire time I had been in the Turkish airport I had been stared at; I have never felt more visible in my life! Ever since I arrived in this country I have felt eyes on me all the time. After my bags came, I walked out and so many people were waiting for me I couldn’t even spot my host family! The group of people had signs and flowers and balloons, they had even made shirts to wear that said “Welcome Julianne”! We took a bunch of pictures and then got Turkish tea at the airport. Just the idea of drinking Turkish tea in 90 degree weather makes me start to sweat, but I’m sure I will get used to it soon enough!

We then went home and had a huge traditional Turkish meal. The dinner was amazing! I still have to get used to the idea of eating things immersed in lukewarm yogurt, but other than that I loved it! During dinner I learned that my host mom has her own home furnishing business, that my host dad is the most famous doctor in all of Turkey (the Turkish equivalent to Dr. Oz apparently), and that they have a summer home in Cesme. My school is right near where they work and so I can come visit them when I want!

The Turkish people are so nice! Every single one of them wants to get to know you and be friends! We exchanged gifts and they gave me a furry panda diary from Claire’s. After I showered and came back to say goodnight, they gave me Turkish coffee and baklava for the first time. It turns out Turkish coffee is like 5 times as strong as an espresso, but is thick and almost muddy. After trying it and having both my socks knocked off from the sheer amount of caffeine, I was told I would have to finish the entire cup to have my fortune read by my host mom. I then went back to my room and started to unpack around midnight. Eventually I collapsed into my bed and fell asleep around 1 am. Hopefully I will avoid jet lag!

 Fri, September 12, 2014

My final week in the Florida for this year!

It is less than a week until my departure date! I have actually had quite a few new experiences while still being in the US. I have gotten my first credit and debit card in the mail, which is very exciting, but also terrifying because I’ve never used one before! Both of the cards have chips in them, which I was told will be different than using a regular credit card. Because of the fact that I don’t know how to use a “Signature” credit card either, I actually might be at an advantage to use this new version called “Chip and Pin”.

I have been taught to iron, which after almost my shirts in the learning curve, I think I have gotten pretty good at. I have had my first ever going away party, which I would like to say should not be under the category of “party” because it was actually pretty depressing. I also had to say (a long) goodbye to my sister for the next eleven months because she couldn’t make it home from FSU on my actual departure date. To make matters worse the day we had to say goodbye, turned out to be her birthday; September 2nd. Although it was sad I know that exchange goes by fast so it won’t feel like as long as it is.

A rather unexpected and difficult part of pre-departure is finding gifts for your host parents. The actual shopping part is fun, but trying to think of ideas of what they would like is where it gets tricky. The whole point is to give your host parents things that represent your country and where you live, but also be something that they will keep and treasure as a memory of you. It is supposed to last; not be used and discarded like a candle. Finding a gift like this would seem easy, but in my case I do not want to give my host parents some tacky tourist junk that says Florida on it. So to find something genuinely Floridian and nice, takes time. Luckily for me, I waited until the last week to find great gifts, so I was running around everywhere I could think of and still coming up empty handed. Eventually I stumbled into a boutique in Sawgrass Village with my mom and found the perfect gifts! I ended up purchasing a starfish plate, a turtle plate set, and a coffee mug that are all beautiful and undeniably Floridian. After finding these gifts I am glad I maintained my high standards throughout my shopping ventures because I found exactly what I was searching for.

Packing on the other hand has been a nightmare. I have been traveling the world since I was three; packing a suitcase should be a snap for me, right? It turns out I was dead wrong. I can’t pack for my life. First of all, I am terrible at folding, so trying to save space by being very precise in the placement of each item is basically impossible for me. And second of all, I’m a girl and this entails the fact that I have options in my wardrobe. Now I don’t mean to sound like I am trying to pack everything I own, but you cannot imagine the frustration that comes with having to pack your life up in one teeny box. How can I pack necessities when I have 40 pounds of room, not only for clothes, but shoes, gifts, makeup, and pins (which weigh like 5 pounds on there own)?

The other problem is that although Izmir is less conservative than most of Turkey, I still have to have appropriate clothing for when/if I travel to a more conservative area of the country. I also have to pack for multiple contingencies in terms of weather because it fluctuates from 100 degrees to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I understand you don’t need to pack your entire wardrobe (which believe me I’m not even packing half), but how do you decide what stays and what goes! The same not only goes for clothes, but shoes as well! Do I need flip-flops, boots, sandals, flats, heels, sneakers, running shoes, and rain boots?

No guidebook ever really explains what is appropriate, all they give is some watered down generic response of “ be conservative if you feel you need to be” and “dress for the weather”. Both of these responses are also just a way of saying that the situation in Turkey varies so much we cannot give you a direct answer for fear of being wrong. Finally after packing and taking things out and repacking and taking more things out, I have fit everything into one bag. However upon further inspection the bag weighed almost 70 pounds. After all the drama of packing eventually I have just decided to take two suitcases; one of which holds mostly gifts and pins and the other holds my regular items. This will also come in handy when I am coming home and have all the extra room for things I buy while over in Turkey.

I attended my last Rotary meeting in Ponte Vedra this Thursday, September 4th and although it was a tad bitter sweet, they gave me such a great send off, that I know they have confidence in me and my ability to succeed in Turkey. I feel like I have been attending meetings at the Ponte Vedra Sunrise club for such a long time! I really am going to miss some of the amazing Rotarians I have met that have encouraged me throughout this entire process to try my best and to live up to Rotary standards. To my entire club and the entire Rotary organization in Florida and the world, I would like to say thank you.

I know it is a tad unorthodox to post journals before one actually departs for exchange, but I feel the exchange starts the day you find out you are accepted into the program. You do not start to change when you step on your plane; you start to change during the preparation for your journey, when you truly understand you are a part of something more and are making an impact. None of the changes you develop would be possible without Rotary and this is why I am so grateful to be given this wonderful opportunity.

 Fri, September 5, 2014

As an Exchange student with Rotary Youth Exchange in Florida I have been through many difficult processes including, but not limited to: the application, the two interviews, stays at Lake Yale, language camp, visa applications, and dreaded public speaking. However all of these pale in comparison to the pain and anxiety that comes with those few months before departure. In my case I will be the last to leave, out of everyone, to go on exchange. I truthfully do think it is well worth the wait to go to the country of my choice, Turkey, but I am going to explain the emotional context of what comes along with this seemingly endless wait.

First of all, watching some of my fellow outbounds leave more than a month before me is pretty excruciating, just in the fact that I have so far to go before I even step foot on a plane that will begin my own journey. Not to mention that a lot of them are my good friends and watching them leave, knowing I will not see them for at least eleven months is harder than I thought it could ever be. I try to keep busy with learning Turkish, sports, reading, and hanging out with friends from school, but it is getting harder to ignore the gap that was filled with my missing rotary friends. On the other hand I do have the privilege to meet some of the new inbounds who are wonderful people and we are so lucky to have them. School friends are hard to connect to because we both know that we won’t see each other at school or any where else for that matter until next summer.

One of the major benefits of leaving so late (if you are hosting) is that you get to actually spend time getting to know the person you are hosting. This year our family has gotten the privilege to host an amazing girl from Germany and if I had not had such a late departure I would never have had the chance to gain a second sister. She has taught me so many important rules of etiquette that I have forgotten to use in my own home and taught me valuable lessons that I can use with my own host family on exchange. Hosting has actually been a very good test drive of cultural immersion; getting me ready for the real thing I will experience in Turkey. Being an exchange student myself has also helped me realize how I would want to be treated in her situation and act accordingly.

Overall I am not scared to go on exchange. Actually I am so calm about the idea of departure that it is scaring me. I am so excited and ready to go, however I don’t dare be open about my excitement for fear that my exchange won’t happen. Not until the last minute will I share my true elation about this opportunity. I do however want to express now how happy I am to be a part of this program, to have gotten the country of my choice, and to have made such great friends along the way. Even though the process of actually going on exchange can be difficult at times, I can say with certainty that it is all worth it in the end and I haven’t even gone on exchange yet!

Mon, August 11, 2014

Kylie - Finland

Hometown:Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Gainesville Sunrise, Florida
Host District: District 1410
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Raisio

My Bio

Tere! I’m Kylie and I could not be more excited to say that I will spend the next year in Estonia. Currently, I am 16 years old and a sophomore in Cambridge at Gainesville High School. I played volleyball and golf for my school’s team but I also played soccer in middle school. Other than sports, I like to hang out with friends and read. I have lived in Gainesville my entire life, and although I love it, the thought of making a new home for myself in a whole new place is exciting. Rotary has given me the opportunity to add a lot of spontaneity to my life, and break routines that I have been accustomed to for the last 15 years. As far as my amazing family, I have three older siblings: Makena (25), Liam (23), and Conor (20). Each of my wonderful siblings had the opportunity of bettering themselves with the help of Rotary Youth Exchange. My family seems almost as excited as I am about my year in Estonia and has shown me unbelievable support. My parents are very happy for me to have this experience, and I am very happy to have my parents because without them, none of this would be possible. Seeing my siblings transform into the independent, multi-lingual, and mature people they are today through Rotary made the decision of whether or not to apply really easy. (Along with a strong wanderlust…) I want to become a better person with those qualities, I want to become a person who is not only sure of who they are, but also proud of it. I know that Rotary will make all of this possible for me, so thank you!

Journals: Kylie – Finland

Minä olen ollut Suomessa kahdeksan kuukautta! Jag har varit i finland i åtta månader! Guys I’ve been here 8 months, and I just wanted to say that I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity I have to live here in Finland. I feel like I cannot stress that enough. I have friends that I feel will have an impact on my life for years to come, and I have had the opportunity to become a part of two different families that I love. I honestly feel like I couldn’t have possibly ended up in better homes and consider myself really lucky. I have learned a lot from them and know that I can speak to them about anything. I am definitely in love with Finland, no matter how cold. Something that really astonishes me is that a lot of the people who are so important in my life in Florida, will have no idea about what life here is actually like. Something that is so important to me in everyday life, they have almost no concept of.

Anyway reader, I could ponder in my thoughts or tell you about how grateful I am to be here but what you’re really wondering probably is what I have actually been doing here the past few months.
Well, this is when it gets difficult for me to write. The thing about it is that the things that seem important to me are sometimes really small details, but anyway I’ll give you the big parts. So, I left you last time at the Wanhat. It was a really stressful week. I had an issue that apparently I am between sizes in high heels and waited until the week before to shop for them. So my amazingly patient host mom took me around the mall and several other stores to try on shoes. I actually ended up not buying any and borrowing from a kind teacher at school. Another issue was that my dress was flowy and quite long. So there was a large possibility that my clumsy self could have stepped on my dress and 1. fallen 2. ripped my dress or the last, and my personal favorite 3.been torn down from my chest in all its strapless glory.

My host mom and grandmother were angels and took up the hem of the dress and it turned out that none of those horrible things mentioned above happened! We danced 3 times that Friday. Once in a middle school with only 4 couples, the next in front of our school, and the last for the families in a large gymnasium. All went well and my host sister got a lot of pictures that I will keep (hopefully) forever.

A few weeks later, I had the sporting holiday from school so I got a week off. At this point in time I was missing the sun and warmth more than you can imagine and my sisters took me to this hotel where they have cool water slides, heated pools, a small lazy river and saunas. It felt so humid and warm just like Florida. Being there was just what I needed. That weekend, I went skiing with my Rotary district. The first time I went skiing I had the flu, so this was pretty much my first actual attempt at it. Honestly, it was terrifying but my friends helped me a lot and the Rotarians were really good about helping me get down slopes that were too difficult for me. By the end it was actually enjoyable as opposed to just straight up terrifying so I’m glad I went.

In the beginning of March, I went to Helsinki with Iris, my close friend, and something magical happened. As we were walking I spotted from a distance a place called “Southern Fried Chicken” and I got incredibly excited. I had been wanting fried chicken since the day I stepped off of the plane and finally I got it after 7 whole months.
Then, I guess you could say I was inspired by my fried chicken experience and decided to cook some more southern comfort food for my family. I made them chicken and dumplings, it was good I think but also not the same. I guess with the different brands and such it’s hard to make it exactly the same.

March 16th was one of the coolest days of my life. In the afternoon, I went to walk the dogs with my parents since it was very nice weather. They took me to the place where people lived in the Bronze Age, a short walk from my house. We walked through the woods and along the river in my city. I found it odd that even though I had been living here for 7 months already, I had never seen that area of Raisio before. Later that night, I found out that the northern lights were supposed to be visible in all parts of Finland. I walked outside with my dad and he showed me them. They were really faint, so my mom offered to drive me to a place where I would be able to see them better. We drove to the middle of nowhere and it was so much more clear, the way the lights moved and changed color made it seem like my eyes were playing tricks on me. The northern lights are a little like magic. They seemed to make everyone who saw them remarkably thankful for life, and for Finland.

One thing that I am really excited about is that I have been planning the trip my Finnish friend will take to stay with me in Florida in 2016.

Another kind of interesting thing I have been able to do recently is to go see a Finnish play called “SIG: the musical” with my Rotary club. It is a play that takes place in my city. It was also the first time I got to see my first host mom since I moved. It was really nice to see her after seeing her almost every day and then not seeing her at all for almost two months.

A few weeks ago, my host sister Isabella took me to her friend’s party with her. Her friends are really friendly, nice, and welcoming. I had an awesome time, I’m glad she invited me. It made me realize the slight cultural difference between the Swedish speaking Finns and Finnish speaking Finns. In general, the Swedish speaking Finns are more outgoing and welcoming to new people.

At the end of March, I had a lot of free time because I had exam week, and no exams. I went to Helsinki to say goodbye to one of my closest exchange friends, and to celebrate another friend’s birthday. Going to Helsinki is always a good time. It’s so exciting and different, at least for me. I think Helsinki in a lot of ways is different from the rest of Finland. One obvious reason is the population, and the fact that it’s a capital but also I feel like there is a lot more diversity there. There’s also more art, a different dialect, much more public transportation, a slightly different style, and a lot more to do…and it’s only 2 hours away from me.

Since it has been warmer lately, for example this week it was 15 celsius (I almost cried tears of joy) my family took me to the summer cottage on Easter. We drove the car to a motor boat which we then took to the island. It was astonishingly beautiful and I can’t wait for summer and to live there. Even if it means I won’t have plumbing. Later that day, I got to try a very typical Finnish Easter desert called mämmi. It looks very undesirable but to me, with vanilla cream and sugar it was actually good. When I told my friends that I actually liked it they were all very surprised. Mämmi is rarely liked. The week of Easyer, my host mom hid eggs in the morning and left clues on the table so we could find them. It was a cool spin on Easter egg hunts. Traditionally, on Easter children are supposed to dress like kind witches and go around to their neighbors singing a song to receive candy, much like Halloween. Although, I don’t think that we had any come this year. Probably because it is a long and tiring walk up the hill to our house. On Easter Monday we were able to go to my mother’s mom’s house for a meal with my aunt’s family.

Recently, my family went to see my first host brother’s floorball game and then went to my first host family’s house. Since I had been here, I have really started to like floorball and I’m a little sad that it doesn’t really exist in Florida, or the United States. It was fun to spend time with both of my families together. It’s kind of hilarious when they get together. Both of my dads have an interesting sense of humor so it’s always a lot of laughing.
This week I caught some type of stomach bug, and I was really worried that I would not be able to come to my Rotary district conference in Pori, but luckily I was able to. All the inbounds and gave presentations to the Rotarians of cultural differences, which ended up to be quite hilarious. My group did a presentation shedding light on the differences in meeting someone for the first time between Australians, Americans, and Finns.

The Americans met by one complimenting the other and then skipping off together. The Australians introduced themselves and decided to get together for a barbecue and the Finns met and just said hello and walked away. Obviously, these are very stereotypical, but I think everyone got a good laugh out of them because they still hold a lot of truth. We stayed in a nice dorm type place and we all went to the sauna and hung out at night. Sunday, we went to the mall in Pori and several groups of outbound gave presentations in Finnish, and we sang a song for the audience. All of us were dead from lack of sleep and sad to say goodbye!

One last thing I have to mention is my language progress. With Finnish, I think my confidence is going up but my skill level is not changing very much. In Swedish, I am understanding more each day and it clicks in my brain much easier than Finnish does. I’m very lucky because my host family has been doing a lot to try to help me improve my Swedish. Even if it means saying the same story twice in two languages.

Sun, April 12, 2015

This week, I reached six months in Finland. When  I think about that, it really astounds me and I am not sure how to feel. In the Florida orientations we spent many hours reviewing the exchange cycle: all of the stages you supposedly  go through on exchange. Basically it says that exchange has its ups and downs, well that’s definitely one thing they nailed right on the head.

In these past six months I think I have felt more than ever. I’ve had plenty of time to think, to cry, to laugh until my stomach hurts, I’ve been sick, I’ve been sad, and I have suffered through my share of embarrassing moments. I remember talking to my sister in the first month saying, “it’s so weird, I feel the happiest I have ever been and still sad at the same time.” and she said to me, “well that’s the exchange student feeling.” Sometimes it can be really hard to be a minor living without anything familiar. Leaving everything you know can open your eyes to a lot of the things that were happening in your home country, both good and bad.

For me, I’ve definitely started to realize how important family truly is, but I have also begun to realize faults in American culture and even in myself. It has also been a time for me to look at my friendships and see clearly who my true friends are and always have been. Then again me saying this is sort of funny because I still have a whole other six months to grow and figure things out and my opinions could change completely from what they are now.

With my half way point, came my new family. I’ll be honest I was a bit nervous to move. After six months with my first family, you can say I got pretty attached. Not only that, but also once you get comfortable it’s kind of hard to uproot and move, and to make yourself adjust once again. However, so far, I can say that I was worried for nothing.

My family has been very welcoming and I already feel very comfortable, but the thing is that I’m switching my focus language. In my first family, they speak both Finnish and Swedish but I go to a Finnish speaking school so I focused on Finnish. However, now I am beginning to study Swedish because it is the predominate language of my new family. This does create some complications since my school and my friends are still Finnish speaking but I will try hard and hopefully everything will work out. It does get a bit confusing though, even after one week because I go to school and I hear Finnish all day. That is, until I go to Spanish class. In Finnish. Oh, and Swedish class. In Finnish. When I’m thinking in English and listening in Finnish and translating to Spanish or Swedish. I anticipate that when I come back, my English will not be so good.

Next week, Friday the thirteenth (what a convenient date for something important), I have the Finnish prom. Before you get the wrong idea, I need to explain. So, the second year students in Lukio have been going to practices to learn traditional dances for several months now and next Friday we will present them to secondary schools in our town, our own school, and then in the evening for the families. Needless to say, I’m a bit nervous. The dances are not really difficult, but they are a lot to remember. Wish me luck!

Thu, February 5, 2015

I realized that in my journals I have not yet written the thing I think about every single day, so I would like to start off by saying: Thank You!! Rotary.  Seriously, I cannot imagine how different my life, or the lives of students all over the world would have been without Rotary Youth Exchange.

This past month has consisted of a lot of emotions, mostly good. Christmas was perfect. The weather was great too, a few days before Christmas it started snowing and did not stop until at least a week after. In the last few days of December it was very cold (-20 Celsius!) The day before Christmas (the 23rd here) I spent with my family watching movies, eating my father’s oven baked nuts, and drinking glögi. Glögi, for those unfortunate enough to not know, is a hot juice that is generally served with raisins and nuts (you just dump them in). It is basically the Nordic equivalent to egg nog.

The next morning, we all woke up and got dressed up. My father’s grandparents came and we watched the reading of the Christmas peace. It is a document that is read in Turku every year on Christmas, a tradition that has been upheld since the middle ages. Then, for breakfast we ate Christmas porridge, another Finnish tradition. The porridge usually has an almond hidden in it and the person that gets it gets to make a wish. This year, my mom actually put two. I got an almond in my first bite! In the evening we ate more than we should have and opened presents. Overall, Christmas was more than I could have asked for. I felt happier than ever and very much at home. In the days that followed, we ate and ate and ate. After all of the eating, I did not feel hungry for about two days.

A few days after Christmas, I tried avantouinti (ice swimming).  I went with my friend Mila and her mom. We first went into the sauna for about twenty minutes and drank a lot of water, then we walked across the icy dock and brought everything but our heads into the freezing water. Then we did it again. It actually was not as bad as I expected and was super interesting to experience. When I just stood outside, even though it was negative seven, I felt warm. The only drawback from it was the dizziness caused by drastic change in blood pressure.

On New Year’s Eve, I went with Mila to her boyfriend’s house. There I had basically the most Finnish New Year possible. We went in the sauna where we sang “Maamme” while standing and water was constantly being poured on the kiuas until we finnish the whole verse. After, we went into this thing called a palju, which is basically  a wooden hot tub without bubbles. We walked to an empty field by the water and set off fireworks.

The weekend after school resumed was my birthday, so two of my best friends from Helsinki area came to visit. We had a girl’s night in Turku that Friday and that Saturday was my actual birthday. My family woke me up singing the Finnish birthday song and gave me a nice card but unfortunately my brother had a floorball game and I had a friend’s going away party so we did not get to celebrate much on my actually birthday. However, we did celebrate on Sunday with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins and of course, delicious food made by my grandma.

Our oldies left last week. For those who do not know, oldies are the exchange students who started their exchanges six months earlier. It was really devastating to have to face the fact that we will not be able to see these people on a regular basis, and that we will not just see them at Rotary events. Last week was hard for all of the exchange students. It’s not only that we won’t be about to see them, it’s also that we realize that we will (sooner than any of us want to believe) also have to step on that plane and go “home”.

The good thing that comes out of our oldies leaving is that we get newbies! I will no longer be the only exchange student in my school because I am one of the lucky ones to get a newbie.

This past weekend was a lot of fun for me. On Friday, I went to my friend Hilma’s birthday party. I love parties in Finland because it’s a really good way to make new friends and practice Finnish. Then on Sunday I got to go ice skating with my brother, aunt, and cousin. My aunt used to be a figure skater so she taught me a few tricks and the proper way to skate.

In conclusion, I would just like to send out a PSA as a  warning to all of those Floridians who are traveling somewhere cold soon: Be careful of the ice, you probably will slip and it will hurt. I’m saying this from experience.

Tue, January 20, 2015

So I’m writing my second journal. This is a joke right? I’m already in month five and time has honestly never gone faster. I can count the number of days until my oldies leave in my fingers and toes and it’s just, well…sort of terrifying.
Before I give you a recap of everything that’s been happening in my life, I’ll start by answering some questions I’ve been asked recently. “How’s your Finnish? Isn’t Finnish the 3rd hardest language for English speakers?” Well to answer your question, yes. It is. I feel like the reason it is so difficult for English speakers is because it is extremely different. For those of you who don’t know anything about the language, here is a quick overview:
-Finnish (comparatively) has very few cognates to English
-No articles
– 6 verb types, and 4 tenses (no future)
– Free word order (to a certain extent)
-About 16 possible forms of every word.
– There is no such thing as prepositions, and endings to words preform their purpose.
– Spoken Finnish is very different from written.
So to answer your first question, no I am not by any means fluent, but what is important that I am trying and I am getting better each day. It can get extremely frustrating but I guess I look at it as the catch for getting to live in such a great country.

“How is your host family? Have you switched yet?”
I’m still in my first host family until sometime in January. I loveeee love love my host family. I feel like we get along very well and they help me out whenever I need it. They put up with me eating probably a little more than I should. They aren’t afraid to mess with me, surprisingly enough this makes me feel even more at home.

“Isn’t it always freezing an covered in snow where you live?”
No. It’s not actually. Until recently the weather has been afraid to creep below -2 c. It has snowed a few times but usually it only lasts 2 days. Luckily though, the snow is supposed to stick after it snows on the 26th of December.

“How much light is there?”
It’s been a rough fall. Every day was shorter than the last and it noticeably takes effect on people. It’s exhausting to go to school and it’s dark and come home and it’s dark. It’s good to have distractions and the snow helps to brighten things up. Now, since today is the winter solstice, the days will become longer! To be completely honest I think I miss the sun more than any person.

Now for the recap. The first Sunday of November was Finnish Father’s Day. My brother and I made cards for our Dad and on that morning we went and woke him up by singing a Father’s Day song (I did not know this song so I just kind of smiled and stood there) and then gave him some gifts.

The following weekend was the Martinex outlet. Martinex is the company that my host mom manages. They usually just sell products online, but once a year they have a weekend outlet so it gets really busy. It was nice because I got to meet her coworkers and help package boxes for costumes.

Later in November, I got invited to go volunteer again, but this time with my friend Mila. It was for a Christian rock festival. We worked and made sure that there was enough food placed on the buffet tables so that every person there could eat. After we finished, we got to go in and watch the performances. Mila was nice enough to let one of my best exchange friends, Pilo, join us too, even though she didn’t know him. I’ll be honest, it started off boring. As it got later, the music got better, and by the end it was more of electronic and everyone went to the dance floor.

The following weekend was the Christmas party for my district. We all met and went to a building where we prepared gingerbread cookies and Christmas tarts. After it was all devoured, all of us left in groups and went off to do whatever we wanted. I went to eat pizza and walk through the snowy streets and then met up with a bunch of people at Burger King, these sort of nights are amazing.

That next week I caught the flu. I felt really terrible and I was worried that I would be feeling horrible during Lapland which began that Friday. It turned out to be okay; I did still have the flu, but I felt immensely better. It was a longggggggggggg trip. Long. Around 16 hours. In order for almost all of the exchange students to go (somewhere around 140) we had to take 4 charter buses.

On Saturday, we arrived in Muonio in the morning and ate lunch after that we mostly just got to hang out, go sledding, go to our rooms, and went to the ski resort to make sure everything fit. Sunday was the skiing day. We left in the morning and went to the resort. I figured out something that day…that everyone has their thing and that skiing is most definitely not mine. It was a lot of fun though. After that, we got to cook sausages by the fire. Later that night we got to go eat soup in a huge tent and hang out and have fun that night.

Then Monday started off for me by going to a small museum specializing in the animals of the region, after that we went to a reindeer farm where we learned about the indigenous people of Lapland and about the life of a reindeer. It was crazy to get to see a bunch of reindeer right in front of my eyes and we even got to feed them!! After the farm we got to go explore an unfinished ice hotel. It was amazing, it was entirely made out of ice and actually pretty warm inside. After that, we got to go on a husky sleigh ride. This is something I have wanted to do ever since I was 9, when a friend told me that she went on one. Then later we got to go on a sleigh pulled by reindeer!

We walked back to the hotel in snowshoes and ate reindeer and mashed potatoes. To be completely honest, reindeer is not my favorite. However, it’s definitely a unique flavor and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to try. After dinner came the sadness. It was our last night in Lapland and we had a party where the fact that our oldies (people who came in January and will leave in January) are actually going to leave soon.

Everyone, semi-unsuccessfully, tried to hold back tears. Then, as always, it turned into a huge dance party. Tuesday it was time to leave so we headed off to Rovaniemi to Santa’s village. Forget what you’ve heard, Santa lives in Finland. It was funny to see how excited some of my friends were to meet Santa because they are from countries that don’t have Santa Claus. After the time in Rovaniemi, we went to eat and said our goodbyes again. It was really hard, knowing that we may never see some of those people again but we tried to smile through it.
Coming home was weird. It was the longest I had been away from home and thinking about coming back was sort of a reality check, like I realized what I was coming back to.

The next Friday was one of my best friends here in Finland’s birthday parties. I spent the night at her house and we had a lot of fun. That Saturday it was Finnish Independence Day so we went over to a family friend’s house and watched the president and his wife shake hands of people invited to his dinner for about 3 hours. It sounds boring, but it’s kind of fun to comment on all of the dresses and stuff while indulging in great food and, of course, with good company. The day before, at school, we had a program where students went up and sang or danced in honor of both Independence Day, and of some students graduating.

Last weekend, I got the honor of visiting Finland’s capital city for the first time. I went to Helsinki to visit my good friend Kat for her 19th birthday. Helsinki is different from everywhere else I have been here. Most places in Finland are pretty spaced out and even large cities are relatively quiet (until nightfall when people get drunk.) The amount of foreigners was noticeable because I heard a lot of English, and also a lot of noise in general. It was so nice to spend time with some of my favorite people there, but I almost think my favorite part of Helsinki was the food. It was actually pretty cheap and there was a better variety of restaurants.

The Tuesday after Helsinki, something crazy happened. Kylie was in a Finnish play. I had been in a drama course for about 2 months after being, well quite frankly, forced into it. Generally, I get nervous in front of crowds. My role in the play was a circus director/ light man. My character was sort of insane, and I got to wear a golden hat and jacket. The play was in front of around 400 of my fellow classmates and I started out terrified but actually when I went out in front of the curtains, it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but that doesn’t mean I would willingly do it again. Now I’m on winter break and I get to celebrate Christmas the Finnish way. Today my family went to my mom’s parents’ house and had dinner and decorated their Christmas tree. It feels a little odd not having my family with me, but I guess you could say that I do. These people are my family now, just not by blood. I plan to make my family a pumpkin pie, which they have never had before! Here, we open presents on the 24th in the evening and it might actually be white. Merry Christmas/ hyvää joulua!

 Sun, December 21, 2014

This week, the cold came with the autumn solstice and brought snow to all over Finland.

Honestly, I’ve been putting off writing this journal. Writing a journal about everything that is happening in your life when you’re on exchange is hard work, your life never stops moving! Even if you’re just sitting on the couch watching TV it’s still so new to you because you are sitting on your new couch in a new house, with a new family, listening to a new language. So I guess I should start from the beginning…

I left from Orlando on August 1st and little did I know how mentally and physically exhausting the journey to Helsinki would be. I traveled a lot over the summer, so I thought that getting around the airports wouldn’t be a problem. I was so incredibly wrong, but I won’t get into how awful the process was but I will say that just because getting somewhere is a hard process, it doesn’t mean that when you finally arrive it won’t be worth it- I guess that applies to life too.

After I arrived I was placed in a hotel just outside of Helsinki for a night before all of the students went to the language camp in a place called Karkku. I was a little nervous for language camp, I thought that there would be tests and if I didn’t pass they would send me home. Again, I was wrong. The camp actually was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. It was over a hundred students from all over the world and nights filled with talking to amazing people, the sauna, swimming in the lake, and traditional Finnish foods (and of course I learned a lot of Finnish too). After camp, all of us students became a family.

Immediately after camp, my amazing host mom took me to Tallinn, Estonia! This was interesting because if you read my bio, you probably noticed that originally I was placed in Estonia. Although Estonia was beautiful, I could not be happier that I was ultimately placed in Finland. I never thought that I would feel so much at home here, but I do. Almost every single Finn I have spoken to has asked me why I would ever want to leave Florida and come here, and it’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s because every plate of food I eat here is amazing, maybe it’s because it’s so peaceful, maybe it’s the gorgeous nature or the modern houses or the school or the fact that when I told one of my friends that I was feeling a little sad, she brought me 3 pieces of pulla, or maybe just the fact that I ended up in an amaz ing family. I don’t know really. All I know is that I love it here.

Immediately after I returned from Tallinn, my school started. On the first day I was really nervous, but it turned out better than I expected and I officially like Lukio better than High School. My gym class has actually been a lot of fun. With them I have played floorball, Finnish baseball, and went canoeing! There are a lot of differences between Lukio and High School: people here seem to take school more seriously because they go by choice. You can use tablets/ computers/ cell phones during class. The schedule is rotating and you usually have each class 3 times a week and they last 75 minutes with 10 minutes in between and most people have about 4 classes every day. School has no official start and end, and no bell system, and if the teacher has nothing else to say, you can just leave. Another huge difference are the school lunches, they are completely free for students, and buffet style, and they are not allowed to bring lunch to school. Oh, I almost forgot! My school has a candy bar machine which is heaven on Earth. It’s not surprising because Finns love candy you can tell if you walk into practically any store and see the aisles upon aisles of it.

A few weekends ago my mom took me to our summer cottage which is on an island off of Turku. This was a huge cultural experience because almost every family in this part of Finland owns a summer cottage. Our summer cottage had no plumbing so I got to use an outhouse for the first time! It actually was not that bad. The weekend that I went to the summer cottage, was a special weekend because everyone creates huge bonfires because they need to get rid of the waste because the summer is ending and also because in the old times, boats were guided by fires to signal where the shore was.

They also took me mushroom picking in the forest, here there is something called everyman’s right which allows anyone to go onto another person’s property and pick and berries or mushrooms as long as they do not damage or disrupt the property. I went with my mom, aunt, and two cousins. One of my little cousins kept saying in Finnish “Kylie knows the path!” and he was not a typical Finn, he kept talking and kept talking to me about everything even though I could barely understand anything he said. Most of the time, I just stared blankly at him but he still told my mom “Kylie is a nice girl.”

I think I learn more Finnish when I am with them than any other time because even if I do not understand, they just keep repeating it slowly to me until I get the gist or they give up. That night we went in the sauna. Yes, it’s true, Finns go completely naked, but it’s not true that men and women go together, at least in public places. When I first came here, I did not like the sauna. I thought that it was too uncomfortable, and felt like I was breathing in water! However, I kept trying and soon enough I started to love it. It really is a huge part of Finnish culture and it’s something so different than anything I can explain. It’s like when you are there, you are closer to someone, and your conversations get more in depth. Of course, afterward my mom jumped in the lake while my aunt and I went straight into the hot tub. We talked about Finnish culture while looking out at the still ocean and surrounding islands.

The following Friday there was a celebration for the 3rd years (basically the seniors but they are called abi) because they only had 100 days of school left. They went to all of the younger kids and wrote and drew on their faces. My cheek had “insert coin” written with lipstick, andd then a slot to put the coin in. They also decorated the main hall of the school and dressed up in crazy costumes that were jungle themed. One guy came as a gorilla, another girl came as a smurf and was completely painted blue, and one of my friends painted his whole body brown. Music blasted through the halls and everyone was smiling and laughing.

I think that I got very lucky with my placement too. Since I live in Raisio I have the best of both worlds. I am living in a peaceful small town, but if I get in a car for 15 minutes I’m in Turku, the 5th largest city in Finland. This past weekend, it was Turku day so there was a Rotary dinner which ended with a firework show. Everyone gathered on the streets near the river and watched the show, it reminded a little bit of the fourth of July in The States.

This week, the cold came with the autumn solstice and brought snow to all over Finland. My region did not get snow but it’s sure to come soon. I also started taking Vitamin D pills to prevent depression caused by the darkness.. Oh Finland. So far I am loving my life here, although people are much more shy here, they say that once you make a friend they will always be there for you. I can see myself changing and I feel like I am getting to know myself. My style is changing, the way I eat is changing, my taste in food, and the way I look at people.

When you’re on exchange you have to be ready to handle any type of situation: uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, or different but you are so incredibly honored to handle these situations because you love your host country and know that the good will come, and when it’s good, it’s really good.\

Note to Kylie: Your photos didn’t get uploaded. Maybe try sending two at a time. I tried to send to your email but it came back. Candy 

Photo description:This is pulla, a traditional Finnish dessert

Photo description:The view from the island our summer cottage is on

Photo description:A crawfish party which is very typical for summer, and so much fun!

Photo description:This is a typical Southwest Finland terrain, there are walking paths and trees everywhere.

Wed, September 24, 2014

Parker - Japan

Hometown:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Allen D. Nease Senior High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Deerwood Jacksonville, Florida
Host District: District 2770
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Ageo

My Bio

Hello all! Or should I say Konnichiwa? I’m Parker Hamilton, currently a senior at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida. And, I’m pleased to say, after a long application process and even longer period of waiting, the results are in! In just a few short months, I’ll be heading to the Land of the Rising Sun:Japan. For a whole year. The concept is still a bit foreign to me, but nonetheless I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity! The thought of going to a faraway land has enticed me for several years now. My first choice has always been Japan, in fact, so you can imagine my exhilaration upon learning my destination. Now for a little more about me! I live at home by the beach with my parents, my brother, and my dog. I also have two more brothers both attending college. I’ve actually lived the same house my entire life, so changing countries should be quite the experience, I’m sure. After school, if I’m not doing homework, eating or sleeping, there’s a good chance I’m at some sort of musical rehearsal. Since entering high school, the band program has been my greatest passion and outlet of time. I’ve marched the baritone for four years, and had the honor of leading the marching band as drum major this past fall. We received the highest score in our school’s history, so needless to say the season made many fantastic memories. I love listening to all different types of music, and I’m eager to explore everything Japan’s rich history has to offer. More than anything, I’m ready to meet the wonderful people of Japan! I’d like to thank everyone who has made my opportunity possible. I’m sure it will be a great one.

Journal: Parker, Japan

Hello Florida!

As I type to the sounds of the Japanese Disney Channel, with a three year old tucked under my right arm, it’s starting to sink in that my time here is drawing to a close. I’m in my final home with my final (wonderful) family, spring is on its way out, and so am I with just 50 days or so left until returning to Florida. It’s been a busy two months, so apologizing for the delay between posting I’ll try to describe them with what brevity I can.

March was filled with travel and a blessed break from the routine of school. My fellow inbounds and I visited Hiroshima via bullet train (a first for me!), as well as the “ground zero” for the atomic bombing. Simply put, it was quite sobering, perhaps magnified by my own heritage. I don’t expect to forget those images, nor the ones I saw in Okinawa. That aside, it was also a time of great friend and fellowship with my global family, whose time together is rapidly dwindling. We fed biscuits to deranged deer, crawled through ancient temple tunnels, and stayed up late talking about any and everything. It’s an amazing and empowering thing to know I’ll always be welcome in 16 different homes around the world.

March’s biggest event, however, was the arrival of my entire American family to Japan for 10 days! With never a spare moment, we dashed all over the country and managed to see Tokyo, Kamakura, Odawara, Takaosan, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara… But in case you have no idea where any of those are, I’ll just say it’s a lot, hah. Aside from the obvious joy of seeing my family, perhaps the most fulfilling part of the trip was the opportunity to share all my discoveries and insights about the country, and through their eyes rediscovering things that had since grown routine. Sparing illustrious descriptions of the itinerary, I want to put down some of my perspectives here.

Well, first off, after greeting everyone upon their late-night arrival, one of my first thoughts walking around downtown was “whoaaa, Tokyo was not meant to seat 8 people to sit together at meals…” We were flatly rejected by a number of places before settling for unlikely Spanish food. Fortunately that wasn’t a recurring experience, but it set the stage for the many differences of Japanese restaurants. Despite our size, we were unfailingly given just two menus (occasionally in English, hopefully with pictures). This wasn’t troubling, because rather than ordering individual entrees we ordered many things to share in the center of the table, as is the norm here. I generally did the ordering, and asking for an extra pitcher of water, because Americans tend to drink more with their meals. When finished, the main party exited the building while the person paying did so at the front counter. This is consistent with the hands-off Japanese waiting style: they won’t take your order without being summoned, nor interrupt your meal and conversation to bringing the check.

Perhaps naturally, some of my most precious memories come from their visit to the town of Ageo, where I’ve lived the past eight months. Something felt wholly unreal about getting off at “my” station with the Hamilton clan at my heels, waiting to tour the school I spend so much time in each week. They met my (adorable) English teacher, sat in my sturdy wooden seat in the classroom corner, and watched a tiny portion of a typical judo practice. The feeling continued into that night, when my true family and my extended Japanese families met over a lengthy, wonderful dinner. True to form, the event was kicked off by the male heads saying a few words of greeting and appreciation. Acting as translator, I got to see both sides slowly come out of their respective shells to converge by the end into one big, laughing, international family. Just the mental picture of it makes me happy, even as I type these words. It was a special time for me.

One of the most “different” aspects of the trip compared to past experiences was our means of transportation, namely, trains. The Tokyo metro system is a labyrinth of interconnecting subway lines stacked several floors deep and covering every corner of the city. Supplementing these are the numerous above-ground trains, which cover the heavily commuted lines both in the city and out into the “suburbs,” in essence mini-cities of their own that house the millions of Tokyoite workers. The trains themselves have differing degrees of rapidity, some stopping everywhere, some bypassing the “small” stations, and the bullet-trains heading clear across the country at breakneck speed. Scattered across the metropolis are large hubs connecting multiple lines, sometimes with over a dozen platforms and a distinctly airport-like atmosphere. These and every station in between also serve as commercial centers filled with restaurants, bakeries, and other retail stores.

You might expect all of this chaos to amplify the same delays and backups that happen in US public transport systems. You’d be wrong. If a train leaves at 16:42, it leaves at 16:42. Scrolling on its interior will be screens detailing exactly how many minutes until arrival at each subsequent stop. You can confidently look up departure times the day in advance and plan accordingly, figuring in the time it will take to park your bike in the storage garages near stations… Given that all of this has been second-nature to me for months now, when plotting our routes around town I didn’t give it much thought other than the rusty multiplication it took to calculate train fare for eight. Only upon the astounded reaction of my family did I take a step back to appreciate how truly impressive it is.

That rediscovered sense of “newness” was a common theme, as I tried (in true Japanese style) to pack as much as possible into each day. We walked around plenty of Buddhist temples, cleansing our hands and mouths, burning incense, tossing coins into the offering box with a bow, and discovering our fortunes written on tiny strips of paper. They marveled at the convenience of vending machines and the drinkabilty of the perfectly heated coffees therein. We all laughed at the cry of “Chee-zu!” (cheese) that accompanies every Japanese photographer, and scratched our heads at the seemingly incongruous lack of both litter AND public trash cans.

Their presence also provided a benchmark by which to observe the changes within myself, as they extend beyond the language acquisition. Besides apparently running like a penguin now, and accidentally bowing to family members out of habit, living abroad has truly impacted my person. Particularly as pertaining food, and my complete comfort with fish roe riceballs for breakfast. I didn’t realize how accustomed I’ve grown to Japanese fare until noticing the slight sense of disappointment upon walking into an English or Italian restaurant. I think I’ve just REALLY grown to love rice… and fish… and veggies and sweet bean desserts and soy and half-boiled eggs and every types of noodle and… you get it. Luckily we did cover most of the Japanese delicacies, including a delicious fondue-like dish and a savory egg pancake.

I discovered new things which bothered me and new things I appreciated. For instance, during a lengthy period of down time without benches, I felt a little uncomfortable at my family sitting on the ground by the train station entrance. On the trains, I had to restrain myself from shushing my brothers’ humming and tapping to the music in their headphones. I groaned a little at leaving a bakery with crumbs all over the floor… and other such OCD-esk quirks… At the same time, many things were refreshing and welcome.

Departing some days at 10 AM was a glorious contrast to my school trip to Okinawa, which began each morning promptly at 6 AM. Seeing my parents kiss or even just hold hands in public made me smile, as I hadn’t seen anyone do the former in months. Receiving regular hugs was a plus, as well as the sweet, sweet, sarcasm that I crave in daily conversation. So much more comes to mind, but the interesting part was simply witnessing the “new” within me.

Entering a ninth month abroad, it can be easy to slip into routine, jaded to the everyday around you. Somehow, pulling out chopsticks to eat octopus while talking to Japanese juniors about their girl troubles starts to seem like a normal thing to do. Your dreams fluctuate between languages, and bidets are a regular part of life. Watching figure skating in a 200 degree sauna with 20 naked strangers is just another night… Perhaps that’s a testament to the effective cultural immersion that RYE offers, but regardless, my goal for the last month and a half in Japan is to shake myself off and appreciate more fully the experiences and people around me.

Already, starting this new school year (April in Japan), I’ve succeeded in making a core group of friends with whom I’m going to karaoke and Disney soon. Judo is demanding and rewarding in itself, and my language is improving like the slowest, steadiest tortoise of all time. The nights of gritting my teeth on blustery bike rides home lie far behind me.. So what am I waiting for? Time for me to sleep now, to start a brand new day in the morning. Only so many left, after all…

Take care, all! Till next time,
パーカー

 Wed, April 29, 2015

Hello all! Somehow February is mostly over already and I’m just now posting this, apologies. Since last entry, I’ve switched families not once, but twice according to schedule, and experienced the plenty of “new” that accompanies such changes. It’s been interesting to view objectively the differences in lifestyle, housing, parenting, etc that vary by family. There’s too much to address in one blog, so I’ll just list some interesting things instead, and try to fill in more at a later date.

My mode of transport switched from soccer-mom van to Maserati(!) and then back to van. I spent considerable time chilling in big tubs with naked old guys. I tour guided a couple of Korean boys around Tokyo (and skipped school for it!). I’ve run a marathon (albeit broken up over many PE periods), passed two judo tests, and skied down Japanese mountains. I sleep each night on a mat on the floor, and I’ve experienced cold and snow riding my bike to school. I’ve gotten lost on trains, chatted about marriage (and rice) with strangers, and prepared guacamole for a traumatized Mexican living in a hotel. I’ve thrown beans at my host sister. I’ve learned baseball drills with old (fully clothed) Japanese men, and cross-dressed as a female bowling pin. I’ve also gained about five pounds!

… But despite the excess of stories within just those few lines, I promised myself I’d take this entry to detail something I find fascinating: the Japanese language itself. This is likely an excess of new information, but hopefully I’ve formatted it in such a way as not to bore. The language essentially defines my life here, so I thought it worthwhile to share some thoughts. Here goes!

Looking at a Japanese text for the first time, before grammar or vocabulary even enter the picture, it’s apparent something is different. Namely, you won’t be able to voice a single sound to match what you see. The page will probably resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle of black and white… A fair assessment, really, in the sense that written Japanese IS a jigsaw puzzle of sorts. But under the seeming randomness of its markings lies a very organized set of rules governing their arrangement.

The first thing to address is that Japanese has no one single alphabet, like these ABCs you’re reading. It has three! Well, actually, it has two syllabaries and one logosyllabary, but we’ll get there. Using three writing systems together means that any given chunk of Japanese text will lack the uniform appearance of the above. Instead, it might look something like this: こんにちはアメリカ人、元気ですか?… Can you distinguish between the three different scripts?

Breaking it down, we’ll start with kanji (漢字), the characters most likely to spring to mind at mention of “Asian” writing. Kanji are the thousands of pictographic characters which constitute the vast majority of Japanese words. A 2,136 “must-know” character list was issued by the Japanese government to be instructed through high school graduation, and thus reading the newspaper is the culmination of twelve years of effort. Among to the first learned are simple, stylized representations of common objects. For example, can you see the “mountain” in 山, or the “tree” in 木? Unfortunately, not all are so easy, and it can be daunting to confront pages of dense kanji like 柔道部。

But just as many English words can be broken into their Greek and Latin roots, so too can kanji be broken down into smaller components to discern larger meaning. This occasionally occurs with extremely satisfying elegance, as with the characte rs 林and森。What better way to represent “grove” and “forest,” respectively, than by simply repeating the character for “tree” two and three times? Given a splash of imagination, the meaning is evident within the picture itself. Such combinations can occur within one kanji like so, or across multiple kanji, such as with 入れ歯, which combines meanings for “to enter/to put in” and “teeth” to make “dentures.”

It makes sense to look at kanji first, because they came first. Like so many other cultural aspects of Japan (and greater Asia), written language traces its heritage back to ancient China. Beginning in the 5th century, Japanese started adopting the characters of visiting Chinese merchants and missionaries. Prior to this, they had no formalized writing system of their own, contrasting the ~2500 years of written Chinese. So great was China’s influence that the “civilized” wealthy men of Japan studied for years to read and write in Chinese, leaving the other, evolving variants of Japanese to women and the less educated masses.

The problem with this, however, was that the two languages don’t share any sort of grammatical structure. As Chinese script flowed into the country, Japanese had an overwhelming body of conceptualized characters to choose from, none of which they could pronounce without years of training, nor which captured the basic framework that makes a Japanese sentence coherent. The solution? Simply to “steal” the meaning of characters for their own purposes and apply a new, Japanese pronunciation to each one. Almost every kanji in Japanese writing has origin in a Chinese “hanzi.” For example, writing 火represents fire in both languages, despite different pronunciations. This means that any literate Chinese person could function quite capably here, provided they needn’t speak… Meanwhile, I’m largely illiterate and quite jealous, hah!

Those meanings (and a large number of cognates associated with them) are where the similarities end, however. Because Japanese features concepts like tenses and conjugations which Chinese lacks, further modifications evolved over time. Namely, two identical-but-not-identical syllabaries known as ‘hiragana’ and ‘katakana’. It’s probably important to clarify what a “syllabary” is before I go on. As English speakers, we’re accustomed to a an alphabet, in which each letter can stand perfectly fine on its own as an “a, h, m,” and so on. Japanese, on the other hand, in its most basic form is divided into syllables. The same vowels “a, e, i, o, u” exist (albeit in ‘aiueo’ order), but a solitary “m” simply makes no sense. Instead, select consonants are combined with the vowels (i.e.: ma, mi, mu, me, mo) to make the building blocks which form larger words.

And this, in essence, is the role of both hiragana and katakana: to depict these phonetic blocks, which in turn perform a variety of grammatical functions. To continue in the above “m” theme, 「ま、み、む、め、も」and 「マ、ミ、ム、メ、モ」represent “ma, mi, mu, me, mo” in hiragana and katakana respectively. If certain characters, like ‘mo,’ look similar to you, they should. In fact, both scripts evolved as shorthands for reading and writing Chinese texts, particularly for Buddhist monks in their daily recitations (religion, yet another ancient export of China). Complex kanji were stripped down to their most basic skeletons and over time standardized and accepted as legitimate scripts. Often times these shorthands derived from the same “parent” kanji, explaining their similarity: it’s fairly easy to find the “mo” within 「毛」.

That said, it’s important to note that one pronunciation of 毛 IS “mo,” and it can just as easily be represented as 「も(う)」 Every kanji has corresponding pronunciations that fit into the “easier” system of the syllabaries. So why not do away with kanji altogether and make things simpler? Well, for one, Japanese text has no “space bar” function (and very limited punctuation, for that matter), so switching to a singular script would make things quite difficult indeed to tell whereonewordstopsandthenextbegins. More importantly, the lack of structural variety that comes with using syllables rather than individual letters results in fewer physically capable sounds in Japanese than in English. The language simply does not contain many unique combinations of letters. Among other things, this means that homophones and similar-sounding words are abundant. The word “jishin,” for example, means both self-confidence and earth quake. It’s probably a good idea to clarify which one you’re talking about, but written in hiragana or katakana the meanings would be indistinguishable…

Enter kanji! In using the distinct characters 自身and 地震, the confusion is avoided. Well, that is, if you understand kanji, including the over TWENTY ways to write our good friend “mo.”.. Multiply that by all the other letters, and factor in that most kanji have at LEAST two different readings, and you can see how this might get difficult..

Okay that got pretty dense, forgive me, but there’s just a little bit more. Because even if Japanese must have both kanji and a phonetic script, why the heck does it need TWO of the latter? This is where it gets fascinating (for me). After morphing slowly over the years, each now plays a defined role, with hiragana in particular serving as grammatical “markers” that I won’t get into here. What I will, however, is how the origin of a word affects the script in which it’s written.
As a general rule the majority of words are written in kanji, which you’ll remember comes from Chinese. A large percentage of words themselves are Chinese in origin as well, after adapting the pronunciations to better fit the Japanese tongue. Next comes hiragana, used for many general phrases and prepositions, like “little by little,” “the other day,” and “thereabouts.” It’s also used for distinctly Japanese things, like native foods, creatures and certain customs. Last and most dynamic, katakana is used almost exclusively to write “loan words” – those words borrowed (abundantly) from other languages and adopted into Japanese. It’s also used to write foreign nouns, like パーカーハミルトン、paakaa hamiruton, my name.

The part that fascinates me is that altogether this means that a page of Japanese text (or indeed, a conversation) is not simply a randomized jumble of scripts. Rather, it is a living, breathing history of all the influences to enter the country. Going all the way back, what was Japanese like before Chinese influence? We have very little idea, since it was a strictly spoken language before foreign tools arrived to put it into writing. Now close to 40% of vocabulary has direct Chinese origin.

Going forward, who were the first Europeans to touch soil on the islands? Portuguese, in the 16th century. As a result, to this day people visit the supermarket to buy パン、which spells ‘pan,’ meaning bread. Until that introduction, bread simply didn’t exist in Japan, and thus its name hails from Portuguese. Later, after the borders reopened in the mid 1800s, a wave of Westerners broke upon Japan, bringing with their languages new concepts of economic and social roles developed during the Industrial Revolution. That’s the reason you’ll see so many signs nowadays advertising openings for アルバイト, arubaito, or part time jobs: it comes directly from “arbeit,” the German word ‘to work.’Interestingly, it was also during this period that horizontal, left-to-right writing was introduced on a large scale. Now half of my textbooks open the same way they do in Florida, and the other half open from the “back” cover, and read vertically, right-to-left, in the traditional fashion.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the language du jour since the end of WWII has overwhelmingly been English. The coincidence of American occupation with an increasingly global economy increasingly dominated by Americans cemented English’s place in Japanese society, to massive effect. An example: native Japanese words rarely start with ‘P,’ and so a dictionary from 100 years ago would be unlikely to have many ‘P’ words. In my modern pocket dictionary, however, on a ‘P” page of sixy-seven entries, SIXTY were imported directly from English. For the most part, the English pronunciation is merely adapted to fit the appropriate syllables, with words like ‘pasuwaado’ for password, and ‘petto’ for pet. Others get more creative, like ‘pasokon,’ a shortening of “personal computer,” or my personal favorite: “piiaaru.”.. Which is a literal import of the acronym PR, and the way to refer to “public relations” here.

English is borrowed so profusely that sometimes I feel like I’m living in some sort of bizarre alternate universe, in which I sit at the ‘teburu’ (table) in front of the ‘terebi’ (television) eating my ‘hanbaaga’ (hamburger) while I watch ‘baraitii shouzu’ (variety shows). The part that gets me is that Japanese are gradually losing the ability to distinguish when a word comes from English. I’ve been asked how to say “supin-offu” (spin-off) and “shoto-stupu” (short stop) in English, among many other more conspicuous words. Sometimes it’s snuck into hybrid words, like “ha-burashi,” which despite first glances does not mean hairbrush, but instead slaps the Japanese word for ‘tooth’ in front of English ‘brush’ to make a new word for toothbrush. Occasionally this willy-nilly language nabbing makes me indignant, like some kind of Ancient Roman waking up in modern day Italy and wondering what sort of nonsense everybody seems to be babbling in “his” language… Okay, it’s really different from that.. But the image does highlight my own hypocrisy: namely, that English, too, borrows exhaustively from other languages, despite general ignorance of where many words originate.

I could keep musing, but the length of this entry is getting just silly and I need to sleep. No doubt you’ll appreciate the respite as well. I’ll finish on one last bit of food for thought, though, for those who’ve read this far: that you should be very, very, very grateful. Not because you’ve been graced with my ramblings, rather because you’ve had the capacity to read them and understand their tone and quirk and meaning. Living abroad has given me a new country to call home, but it’s also illuminated many things to appreciate about my first home, perhaps most critically my native ability to speak English. Every single inbound student in my district has a working knowledge of English, but only the four Americans spoke it from birth. The others had it crammed into them through years of effort and schooling. I have (at least) one English lesson a day here, spent listening to my classmates struggle. They have to, because English is THE international language, and thereby imperative in a shrinking world. I’m very blessed to have learned it in the easiest way possible.

And for many other things as well, for which I’ll quickly give thanks here and try to post again sooner. Thanks to all!
またね~

Mon, February 23, 2015

As 2014 draws to a close, I find it especially fitting that New Year’s is the biggest holiday here in Japan. Various ceremonies and traditions cast off the shackles of the year past, and celebrate the untarnished year in waiting. Temple bells toll 108 times leading up to the stroke of midnight, releasing the year’s transgressions of the 108 sins of Buddhism. Friends, neighbors, and business partners exchange postcards in the hopes of continued pleasant relationship. Most everyone spends the first three days of the year with family, enjoying time off from work or school. These things and more apply to me, because after the festivities wrap up I’ll switch host families and leave the home I’ve lived in for over four months…

But before getting into all that, I want to list a bunch of cultural observations I find interesting! With a bit of research it’s easy to discover customs like the taking off of shoes indoors, but in my experience many interesting differences are largely inaccessible until witnessed firsthand. With that in mind, here we go:

– Pretend there is a person down the street, and use your hand to motion for that person to “come here.” Now motion for a nearby person to “go, shoo!”… Yeah, these are different in Japan. The motion you may have used for “shoo” -a flicking of the hand turn downwards- that means“come here.” Needless to say I had a lot of confused moments for a while, wondering what I’d done to make teachers and adults so angry. Turns out I’m just in the wrong place a lot.

– I mentioned that 2015 is upon us, but just as easily might have said the year 27. Documents here will be dated with one or the other. Why? Because the current Emperor Akihito ascended to his title 27 years ago, after Emperor Hirohito died. From that point onwards, the country entered a new “age,” and accordingly reset the year to one. Interestingly, Hirohito will never be referred to as such here, because after death emperors are posthumously renamed to their corresponding era. He is thus referred to as Emperor Showa, to match the 64 years of the Showa Era he reigned. “Reigned,” however, somewhat overstates his level of political authority, as the revised Japanese Constitution drafted under United States occupation after WWII diminished the position to less than that of UK’s figurehead monarch. Despite this, the emperor remains a revered “face” of Japan.

– Japanese people LOVE vending machines. It seems that way, at least, from the sheer abundance of them. On the five minute bike ride home from school, I pass no fewer than eleven. From my experience, if in a place people exist, so too do vending machines. Riding around at midnight through the crop fields of a sparsely populated Okinawan island, I saw a solitary light glowing distantly. Lo and behold, upon closer inspection it was a vending machine. With no buildings or other signs of population in sight, I bought hot cocoa (yes, hot), and enjoyed it like some sort of creepy, oddly delicious scene out of a Steven King novel. Vending machines have everything from Red Bull to corn soup to chocolate milk and everything in between, always priced reasonably, and never out of stock.

– Almost without fail, Japanese people BACK into their parking spaces. It matters not where or when or how crowded the place in question might be, when it’s time to park, it’s time to put on the hazard lights and back into that puppy… Erm.. Poor choice of words, blame it on English disuse… In any event, it’s not uncommon to see entire parking lots of cars facing uniformly outwards. Imagine a typical setup, with opposite-facing parking spaces sharing a common “backbone” of a white line. Even if the lot was completely empty, I’d bet most cars would back into a space per usual, forgoing the opportunity to pull through the center line to achieve the same ends. I’ve witnessed it.

– Do you know your own blood type, exactly? If the answer is no, you’re like me and rather un-Japanese in that regard. Everyone knows their blood type here. On more than one occasion the question has been posed to me as a conversation starter (didn’t get far). It’s as integral a part of self identity as eye color… Which, now that I think about it, is a bit of a nonfactor for the homogeneously brown eyed population of Japan. Huh.. A cultural substitute of sorts?.. Either way, everyone knows whether they’re A or B, positive or negative, etc. As for anyone who answered yes to my original question, can you go further and name the blood types of all your family members? If yes, congratulations! If no… it’s okay, don’t cry, just join me in ignorance.

– Japanese cars drive on the left side of the road… Wait, but I thought that only applied to places with a history of British rule? Wrong, but semi-related. The first reason for leftiness dates back to the Edo period (1600-1867) I described in my last post; a time when samurai and sword-bearing folk frequented the roads. Because most of said folk were right handed, their scabbards hung on their left hips. The better to defend against approaching attacks, samurai thereby took to walking on the left side of roads. This also avoided the incidental bumping of scabbards between opposing traffic, a problem with a pesky tendency to escalate into dueling and death… Britain enters the picture in the late 1800s, when newly opened Japan strove to rapidly modernize and westernize. The UK won the contracting rights to build Japanese railways, and continued their custom of left-sided transportation.

This both solidified the existing tendencies and ensured a thoroughly left-minded society that continues today. The “up” direction on escalators and stairs consistently occupies the left half, which resulted in a lot of awkward moments until I finally assimilated… The significance of this for those living in Florida? Not much, except that you really ought to watch out for me when I’m back behind a wheel again.

– At the risk of exhausting the subject, one more directionally related tidbit: Japanese timelines run from right to left! This forced some questioning of things I’d never given a second thought. Why am I so mentally conditioned to visualize the passage of time as a left-to-right movement, and who decided that was the “correct” way represent it? Different cultures write in different fashions and from different directions, so it shouldn’t be so large a leap to extend that difference elsewhere. Time isn’t a human invention, only the way we perceive and represent it is. Regardless, I’d never considered the concept, and it’s interesting to imagine where other cultural, mental distinctions like that might lead…

But even more regardless, time has indeed passed and I’ll be with a new family in few days. It’s difficult to describe without sounding melodramatic… Rotary gave ample and appropriate warning about homesickness, but they failed to mention that it might extend beyond your biological family. Although I’ve lived in Japan for less than five months, the relationships I’ve formed here are very real and very strong.

Japan is not an easy place to make friends with peers to go out with after school or on the weekends. Everyone goes to school, then to their respective clubs which often end quite late and practice 6-7 days a week. Combined with the heavy emphasis on studying, this means that Japanese teens don’t often “hang out” in the way I’m accustomed to in the United States. Rather, social circles are largely dominated by the club of choice, with other get-togethers occasionally happening on weekends. This isn’t a complaint as much as an explanation; it’s simply the way it’s been in the very small bubble of my experience, and those of several other exchange students, past and present.

I only mention it to show how the potential problem is largely negated through the presence of my host family. In fact, upon typing that I had to go back and insert the word “host,” as I’d forgotten it as I so often do. That’s telling of the way we act on a daily basis: they are my family and my constant source of conversation and laughter. As my ability to understand daily conversation has increased, especially since December, I feel assimilated in a way that I never expected.

As the month progressed, I often found that the highlight of my day was simply to come home, and share a long conversation with my host mom as we prepped, ate, and cleaned up dinner. It became a ritual of sorts. And while my kitchen skills improved slightly (Japanese knives are out of this world), my communication skills improved greatly, to exciting results. We’ve shared shared stories about family trips gone wrong, discussed philosophy (albeit in pretty broad terms), traded our dream locations to live. She’s motivated me to get back on the Judo horse after several injuries.

As a family we poke fun at one anothers’ tendencies, like the sleepyhead 19 year old, and the exasperation it causes the constantly nagging mom. That same mom nags and laughs at me, and my unprecedented ability to lose and forget my belongings, everywhere. I’ve cracked up at family banter, like when my host dad told his oldest daughter to tell the sleepyhead to get out of the bath, and she replied, “tell her yourself.”

But all the above and more took place in the home, often sitting in the same chair around the same table. It doesn’t include the countless excursions and day trips both large and small that have peppered my stay. We’ve been to museums and aquariums, theaters, sky towers, rotary functions and dinners, grocery stores aplenty. We’ve shared just about every type of cuisine. We’ve visited an “onsen,” or hot spring bathhouse (the sexes are separated), and accordingly gotten quite naked together… Thrice. That tends to throw away some barriers.
I could keep listing, but it wouldn’t capture the little moments, like high-fiving and giggling through panted breaths after running from the parking lot all the way into the train cabin right as the doors shut. Or napping contently on the way back home from grandma’s house in the car, then settling down to watch Finding Nemo in Japanese together.

Those aren’t moments that happen while living in a hotel, or among strangers. Those are moments of a family, and I’m so lucky and grateful to have joined the Shimamura family this past year. They’ve shaped my my stay completely, so hopefully I managed to touch their hearts a bit in return along the way. My host mom has teared up once already at the prospect of my leaving, so I think it’s safe to say I did…

It’s not goodbye, though, not yet! I’ll drop in every now and again, the time has come to start the process over and do better. It’s just another extension of the New Year: a new family, new conversation, new routine. This month marks the halfway point of my exchange… That’s motivation enough to squeeze every-thing out of every-day! I’m excited for 2015, and the challenges ahead.

Thanks again to Rotary and the Deerwood Club for making this stay possible.

– But that’s it for now, so bye, and あけましておめでとうございます!(Happy New Year)

 Sat, January 3, 2015

Hello all!
Another month has gone by, and I suspect each of these entries will open with disbelief in that fact. My mantra for this exchange has been ‘One day at a time,’ which when translated for my host mom became something like ‘Every day is a new day. Don’t worry about tomorrow or next week, only today.’ That’s well and good, but tomorrow and next week have a habit of coming regardless, and as I write this it’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it, my one hundredth day in Japan… Time flies! But they say time flies when you’re having fun, and it’s impossible to deny the truth in that. This has been one of the busiest Novembers in memory, so I’ll try to go over a few of the highlights.

The month began with a bang, going to a festival with four other inbound friends and sharing every available food, including roast squid on a stick. This was followed by a 15 kilometer charity walk and a barbeque where I taught everyone the game Ninja, learning to my ironic unsurprise that despite its name the game is unknown here. Over the following weeks I watched a Blue Angels-esk airshow and a traditional Japanese play, went to the Disney Sea theme park and an aquarium, and harvested fresh vegetables on a farm. One high point included delivering the introductory speech for the inbound students at my district convention, in Japanese, then celebrating together with an evening of karaoke… And these things are just the tiniest snippet of what goes on in one month of exchange!

I could go on describing all the experiences, but I’d never do them justice. Instead, I’d like to take a small look at culture. Doing that will take a little explanation, though, so settle in folks for a history lesson! This goes back to the year 1600, when the Battle of Sekigahara in central Japan effectively determined the fate of the country for the next 250 years. In the absence of a unified ruler, opposing warlords rallied under the two flags of Tokugawa and Hideyoshi, representing eastern and western power, respectively. Long story short, the east won and power was centralized in the infant town of Edo. That town would one day grow to become Tokyo, the world’s most populous metropolitan area boasting upwards of 38 million people… including me!

It’s an absolutely fascinating chunk of history, but the part I want to focus on is the extreme isolationist policy implemented by the shogunate from 1633 until 1853. Upon penalty of death, no foreigner was to enter the country, nor was any Japanese to leave. The flows of foreign literature and news were extinguished, and commoners and elite alike were kept largely ignorant of the world beyond the shores. In an era of global emergence and industrialization, Japan was wholly incubated in a feudalistic bubble, set aside. The result of this, aside from complete control, was the fostering of many of the accessibly “Japanese” practices we know today. Sushi, sumo, haiku, geisha culture, kabuki theatre: these things and many more found their popular birth during the isolationist period. Free from foreign influences, an exceptionally unique society flourished.

Further than this, though, and where it applies to me, is the demographical impact of the time. While much of the world entered the first stages of globalization and experienced the shifting of populations that accompanied it, Japan’s demographics remained unchanged. Although the borders have since been open for over 150 years (I’ve yet to be detained), the precedent was nonetheless set: the current population is 98.5% native Japanese… That is a wild statistic, to me. Perhaps the effect is magnified because of my own heritage as an American, and beyond that as a mixture of varied European lineage. Japan has no Ellis Island, no storied legacy of worldwide immigration; rather, quite the opposite. Its borders were sealed for a time span roughly equal to the age of the United States itself. Think about that, for a moment.

The effects of this fundamental difference are far reaching. Because foreign faces are so scarce here, the sight of one often induces double-takes. For instance, attending a high school judo regional for my area (a story in itself), I nearly froze the warm-up dojo as I entered. The students were flabbergasted that a white person was wearing the appropriate gear and practicing some of the very same techniques they were. This staring was not meant in an offensive way, but was merely the result of intense curiosity: I’m quite confident I was the first white student to use the facility for judo since its inception. I’m also certain I am the first white person that most of my classmates have interacted with, ever.

Perhaps the best example comes from my very first day in the country. On the other side of customs, I was greeted by my new family and rotary district… as well as a horde of television cameras and microphones! They were part of a program that airs weekly on the biggest network in Tokyo, called “Why did YOU come to Japan?” The crew waits outside of international terminals and approaches interesting looking people (thanks, Rotary blazer) to inquire their reasons for coming. A few stuttery Englapanese (my version of Spanglish) sentences were choked out as I tried to process what in the world was going on. Aside from being an overwhelming and hilarious first adventure, it also illustrates the point I’m trying to make: foreigners are altogether rare, fascinating, and… well, foreign.

And in case I’m painting a negative picture about all this, let me dispel that now. Although it can be admittedly tiresome at times, being an anomaly is a good thing. Thus far, I’ve categorized people who meet me into two basic groups: those who light up with WOW!, and those who stare for a moment and then avert eye contact. The first is accordingly easy to navigate, as the same questions are repeated and answered as they have been for months now. Eyes inevitably grow wide as I respond in Japanese quite capably.. But don’t be fooled, I’m not fluent, not nearly. I’ve just gotten REALLY good at saying where I come from and what I’m doing, because I’ve had the same dialogue a hundred times! My very existence amazes, and incites requests for photos together (don’t worry, said photographs show that my head has not, in fact, gotten bigger). Once, riding my bike home from school and passing a huddled group of college-age kids, a cautious “Hello?” called out behind me as they anxiously tested their English. My wave in response triggered an avalanche of amazement that they had successfully communicated with a gaijin, or foreigner.

And while these instances remain a consistent source of both entertainment and easy conversation, I’ve found that I often appreciate the second group, the shy one, even more. Because in 99 cases out of 100, the Japanese person acting a bit shy and closed off is in actuality quite interested as to what you’re all about. The trouble is that with little to no gaijin experience to fall back upon, they simply have no idea how to approach you. This, coupled with a distorted “us and them” mentality propagated by general news outlets (hmm, that part perhaps not so different from the United States) as well as television shows like my interview, mean that many are unsure as to what you truly represent.

The solution is again twofold, with the first and most obvious step being to LEARN their language. You cannot expect to make meaningful relationships if within your conversations the native person is the participant reaching to express themselves in a foreign tongue. As you were the one who chose to come into their country, it’s your responsibility to learn how to express yourself in kind, not the other way around. The process is frustrating, tedious, belittling, humorous, empowering, and altogether incomparably rewarding. With each step, a new door opens to make and expand relationships with those around you. Through conversation, beyond the introductory level, one uncovers a more relatably ‘human’ side to faces that once seemed distinctly different. The side that holds personality, individual quirks, laughter, sadness, pain; the side that is eager to share stories or gorge on a favorite food or help a friend in need.

Because for all the many cultural differences, sometimes the things that astound me the most about living here are the human qualities and experiences that seem to transcend culture. Like sitting in a private room of an upscale restaurant with about fifteen people, honoring the anniversary of my host-grandfather’s death, and having half the table play the “Can youuuu touch your nose with your tongue??’ game. Or watching my host father wrestle with the family dog in the exact same way that my dad does at home, or listening to people talk to her in the same sing-song voice that the world has decided applies to cute babies and animals alike. Or conspicuously glancing around to discover that the combination of intermission feast, dark room, and theatre appears to be a global recipe for droopy eyes… and contentedly succumbing to its power.

These things and more all point to the second way to make connections: exploring the personal similarities and differences as a means of facilitating conversation. It’s a bit like looking at a “Culture Venn Diagram.” Some things occupy totally separate circles, and some things fall in the common section between. Discovering and discussing what lies where is a game that will never grow old for me.

One memory that stands out involves a boy in my class who I’ve affectionately dubbed Quiet-But-Nice-Baseball-Kun (in the same way that “-san” is used in place of Mr., “-kun” is a blanket term given to boys. Call me Paka-kun, if it please you). Quiet-But-Nice-Baseball-Kun does have a name of course, but Japanese names largely remain a mystery to me. Anyway, one day eating lunch I noticed him sitting engrossed in a book filled with pictures of the Beatles. Upon inspection it turned out to be a complete songbook with every Beatles song ever composed, written in English on one page and Japanese on the next. Amazing! He shared an earphone with me, and together we followed along with the lyrics to various songs, something he told me he does for English practice. The next day in music class, during a section of free time I sat down with him and taught the chords for Hey Jude, then wrote out the lyrics and how they corresponded to the strumming pattern. By the end of the class we were slowly playing and singing together. He told me his love for the Beatles came from his dad, and that he couldn’t wait to tell him all about that day… That was a pretty magical moment. An interaction so little as that, fifteen minutes spent teaching one of the simplest songs around, formed a bond I know I can call upon for conversation. He has since recommended to me some Japanese artists, thus confirming to me both that the boy-band era is alive and well here, and that I’m soo okay with that fact.
But really, therein lies what’s special about this whole program called the Rotary Youth Exchange. Because while that name refers to the physical trading of students all across the world, its meaning can and should be taken further. This is an exchange, in all senses of the word. Just as everyone I meet impacts my stay and understanding of Japan, so too do I inevitably form impressions on the people around me. That’s both an honor and a responsibility, because in contrast to the multitudes of Japanese people available to interact with, on a regular-day basis I am the only American available to interact with. How I compose myself therefore does not speak only for me but also for those who sent me. And that’s why I love the concept of exchange, because how cool is it that I get to represent the United States?
Naturally, as I strive to present the best that America has to offer, I’ve taken to wearing Jaguars apparel as much as possible… Truly, though, I love sharing stories and cultural tidbits from home. I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this with the host family is through food: no matter where you live, everybody eats, right? With this in mind, while also combatting the painful dearth of Tex-Mex fare, I held a seminar on burrito folding earlier this month. More recently, as a thank you to my host mother for her birthday and a means of sharing tradition, I cooked a full spread on Thanksgiving. With mac & cheese, green beans, stuffing, roast chicken, and brownies with ice cream, it was the result of a lot of planning. I was thrilled with how it went, and not only because the food turned out well. Rather, because during a time that Rotary warns is prone to home-sickness, I found myself fully integrated into a new home, sharing a table and talking and laughing without any forced or stilted feelings.
Before the meal began, I asked my family if since I honor Buddhist traditions at various temples and the grandfather’s altar, they would join me in a small Christian one on Thanksgiving. Everyone holding hands with eyes closed, I said a little prayer. Afterwards, I explained that while the thanks were indeed to kami-san (literally ‘Mr. God’), they were undoubtedly directed to them as well. I still can’t wrap my head around how kind and generous these people are, much less adequately express those things here. I’ll simply say that I’m very thankful.
I’ll then extend that to the many people who made the above possible: thank you so much for all of your support. It won’t go wasted, I promise.
With that, I’ll wrap up this novel. Thanks again, and I’ll try to post here again in a month or so. – bye bye!

Mon, December 1, 2014

As I write this, I mark TWO months of living in Ageo, Japan. What!? It seems like just yesterday I was getting on a plane to come here… for the second time (refer to Blaine Kinne’s page for an excellent account of this)! I’ve been to so many new places, met so many new people, and there’s altogether too much to ever fit into words.

For starters, I’ve climbed a mountain, navigated a subway labyrinth, been interviewed on Tokyo’s largest TV network, ridden rollercoasters in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and eaten octopus stew for breakfast. I’ve visited ancient Buddhist temples, run a 200m dash, baked a carrot cake, fractured a thumb and napped in a hammock. I’ve had my leg hair petted on numerous occasions, made friends from every inhabited continent, and discovered the joys of both Japanese toilets and convenience store foods (note: the two are not related). Oh, and started learning how to speak a different language! That’s perhaps the most exciting part of all.

​At a loss to choose any particular event, I’ve decided to instead to describe my daily life here. This only scratches the surface, but hopefully it gives a little picture of what it’s all like!

My average day here goes a little something like this:

​Wake up at 7:30, and throw on my school uniform from where I left it the day before. Groggy, head to a breakfast of many little assorted plates. These might include sauteed veggies like cabbage and bean sprouts, some scrambled eggs, a few little mini hot dogs, a left-over from the previous night, a main dish (today’s was a fish filet), some fruit, and of course the obligatory bowls of white rice and miso soup. Sometimes I look up with a “huh? Why are there so many plates right now?” But really that reflects the Japanese attitude towards food: rather than massive portions of two or three dishes, a variety of small portions is the norm.

​Next, get ready and head out on my bike to school. If I’m late and rushing(typically the case), I can make it in about 5 minutes. The gate closes everyday at exactly 8:25am,which has led to some interesting scenarios in the event of showing up at 8:26! I park it in my class’s designated section of the enormous bike bay, one of several around campus. The first bell rings at 8:30, at which point I’ve climbed the stairs to the fourth and top floor, taking my seat in classroom 2-3, seat 41. I sit in the very back left corner by the window, and on the clearest days can see Mt. Fuji!

​Unlike the United States, each classroom is specific to the students inside it, not the teacher. Every period, a new teacher cycles through the classroom for 50 minutes. Also, each day of the week has a unique schedule of classes, as opposed to the uniform schedule of Florida. My classes include Japanese , Japanese History, Ethics, Health, Math, two English classes, and several others. I do have a homeroom teacher (who conveniently teaches English), but I only see him at the very beginning and end of each school day, or when he teaches our class. It should also be noted that at the beginning and end of each period, everyone rises for a collective bow of respect. This bewildered me at first, but I now find it completely normal.

​My participation varies by class: some teachers make efforts to struggle out a few words in English, but much of the time I’m left to my own devices. Classes like world history are convenient, because often times the material is review for me. Written in Katakana, one of the three Japanese alphabets, foreign names are spelled entirely phonetically. Trying to read this usually results in the following: “Ko…Konsuta.. sutanti.. nopuru… Konsutantinopuru… OHH, Constantinople!!” Rinse/repeat for anything of Western origin. Most of the time, I self study Japanese during class, and occasionally go to the library during lessons over-my-head like Japanese Classics (ya know, casual stuff from around the year 1000).

​Lunch is eaten in the classroom, in peculiarly gender segregated clusters. None of this is enforced, but Japanese students and boys in particular tend to be a little bit shy towards the opposite sex. On days I buy lunch, I eat in the lunchroom, and randomly choose a lucky(?) group to plop down next to. These conversations, especially with the senior students, are always the most fun! Outside of the classroom setting, they tend to open up a bit more and ask fun, semi-extremely-inappropriate questions. Nice!

​After lunch follows a few more classes and then the school day wraps up and continues onto “Bukatsu,” which essentially translates to “activity club.” With a wide variety of sports, music, and arts clubs available, I naturally decided to spite my nonathletic nature and choose Judo! Developed in Japan, Judo combines traditional martial arts techniques with wrestling. The sport is centered around throwing your opponent to the straw mat floor and pinning him/her for twenty seconds. Because of this, we practice various means of grappling, twisting, and forcing a partner to the ground. Beginning each practice with a deathly array of flippy-somersaulty-handstandy warmups, I was pretty pathetic the first few weeks. I’m still the worst by far, but can now (sort of) walk on my hands for a few steps! So that’s exciting! Judo is tough, but rewarding, and the small atmosphere of the seven member club ensures that I receive one on one attention, and that I have plenty of opportunities for talking with kids my own age.

​From there, it’s a five minute ride home and I’m greeted at the door by one of my best friends here. No, it’s not a human, it’s a little toy poodle. As one avowed against small dogs back home, I must admit that I’ve been somewhat swayed.. As it turns out, little dogs and even poodles can be amazing. Monica is probably the most human-like animal I’ve ever met, with incredibly expressive eyes and a passion for bananas.

​The house is usually empty except for my host mom and I. Honestly, I’m fine with this! She has undoubtedly been the largest influence on my exchange thus far. Kind, patient, thoughtful, she never begrudges a question or hesitates to help. My host mom absolutely provides my most consistent amount of language practice. While both daughters are semi-proficient in English, she is largely not. This is a good thing! Sometimes she can’t hold back a chuckle when explaining something to me and receiving naught but a blank stare in return. This occurs in in the opposite direction too, so I know what she’s experiencing! Rather than get frustrated over the language barrier, we talk and laugh all day long. Smartphones are a godsend for accessible communication: exchange students before the modern era, I don’t know how y’all did it..

​Despite being shooed off a few times, I try to help out around the house as much as I can. This usually means setting and cleaning the table around meals, but when I get the opportunity I try to cook as much as possible. Everything is so delicious! I want to retain as much as I can for cooking back home in the States.

​After dinner, often just us two, the others start to trickle in after long days at school/part-time jobs/full-time jobs. The family room is just that: the room in which the entire family convenes every night, whether it be to watch TV, talk, do things independently, or some of everything. Used to spending a lot of time in my room back home, I actually enjoy the change. Even if everybody is engrossed and working in their own world, we’re all together.
​Inevitably, the train of bathing starts, and I’m generally given the first slot. Normally this wouldn’t be much of anything, but in a Japanese home I’ve come to realize the politeness of the gesture. The Japanese don’t shower and exit, like I was accustomed to. Rather, they shower and clean completely, then take a bath in what’s known as an “ofuro.” The catch? The piping hot water is only filled once a day: with a clean body from the shower, there’s no need to cycle new water in. In a family of five, this means that the last person is entering water soaked in by the four before them. Now, that concept may seem gross, but after going last several times it ceases to phase you. In fact, the ofuro may be my favorite part of every day. Traditionally, this was practiced to raise internal body temperature before sleep during the winter. The ineffective insulation of the time meant that if you went to sleep cold, you might wake up hypothermic, sick, or maybe not at all. In modern times that’s not much of an issue, but it does mean that a peaceful, nightly soak in hot tub temperature waters: no complaints!

​From there follows a bit more studying and lounging, and then back down my corridor, through my sliding doors, and into my room. Pitch black at night, the lamp in the center of the ceiling has a hanging cord to turn on. I may or may not compete with myself to grab the cord on my first try… You gotta do what you gotta do to stay amused, sometimes. Getting in my slightly short bed, it’s time to sleep, and then back up again at 7:30.

​The above is essentially my daily life here. And if it seems prone to monotony after a while, don’t be fooled. Every day, amid the rhythm and routine of daily life, special little moments hide and bear reflection. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes sad, or ironic or painfully awkward or just plain fascinating. Not a day goes by without moments that leave me in awe that I am actually here, 7100 miles away from the house I’ve lived in for 17 years. And what’s more, moments that stand testament to just how flexible and malleable the human mind is. Far more quickly than I ever expected, little quirks and habits form, old ones fall off, and my head is upside down with language.

Rather than simply talking about them, I’ll share some of the highlights from an ongoing list on my phone:
​Meeting my “grandmother” for the first time and having an instant connection despite the vast language barrier. The 75+ year old woman decides I look like a Cowboy movie star, dubs me “John Wayne,” complete with firing finger-gun signs… I love her!

​That one time on the first day of school where 1000 students were standing completely silent in ranks about to sing the school song and my phone went off… Yeahh..

​Spending the best dollar of my life to have a homeless man buy me the correct train ticket and send me on my way home.

​Trading tongue twisters in respective languages with family over dinner, then teaching everyone how to play blackjack and poker. They’d never played before! We bet with little hard candies (I won!).

​Semi-intentionally getting lost on a solo bike-ride through the countryside in the rain, then using a map and compass to find my way to my destination. Savoring the feeling of competency from approaching strangers for directions, understanding and following said directions, and eventually turning back onto my street.

​Shaking myself out of a doze to realize that I had just absentmindedly folded a paper crane, while listening to a lecture about Chinese Buddhism, in Japanese. Sometimes it just hits you.

​Pouring sacred water on my deceased Grandfather’s grave on the Autumnal equinox, and burning incense and praying before his picture and shrine. Learning that his brother was KIA in the Pacific Theater of WWII… Then having a conversation this week with my host mom about the conflict, and how its memory remains to this day.

Discussed the merits of peace and understanding, and how part of the reason I’m here this year is to change foreign perception of Americans. We are loving, too. She said as much for Japanese people as well: every country has plenty to atone for, but the only thing to do is move forward and try to understand each other.

​Oh yeah, and that one time I thought the ashtray was a teapot.

​That’s just the smallest handful of all the moments that connect each day. Every moment I get here is one to observe, reflect, and internalize. Not to mention have a ton of fun in the process! There’s been no shortage of that.

Being the first, this journal has been mostly descriptive, but there’s too much to talk about. Going forward I’ll aim for once a month, and talk about some of the (innumerous) differences of life in Japan. Want to send a warm thank you to everyone back home who have supported me thus far and made everything possible!

Truly, I won’t ever forget this year.

Till next time, take care,

Mon, October 27, 2014

Paxton - Hungary

Hometown:Jacksonville, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:South Jacksonville, Florida
Host District: District TBA
Host Club: TBA

My Bio

My name is Paxton Sanchez, and I will be spending the next year of my life in Hungary! I am more than thrilled to be given this opportunity and cannot wait for it to begin! I live in Jacksonville Florida with my mom and grandmother. My mom and I live together along with my kitten Link. My grandma lives around the corner, so she might as well live with us. I go to Douglas Anderson School of the arts, for performance theatre. Douglas Anderson is ranked as one of the top art schools in the nation, so as you would imagine the theatre program is no easy task and ends up taking up a lot of my time. But I’m not complaining, because theatre is one of my favorite things to do. Besides theatre most of my other free time is taken up by biking and most importantly hanging out with friends. I think I am fairly outgoing and am definitely not afraid to try new things, hence me going to Hungary for a year! I would like to formally thank Rotary for this opportunity, and I would like to also thank my future host family for having me in their home. Kívánj nekem sok szerencsét!

Savannah - Spain

Hometown:Gainesville, Florida
School: P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Gainesville, Florida
Host District: District 2230
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Murcia

My Bio

Hola, My name is Savannah Branch; I am 16 years old and a sophomore at P.K.Yonge DRS in Gainesville, Fl. I have a rather large family with my Mom, Stepfather, and younger sister living in Gainesville; And my Dad, Stepmother, and four younger brothers living in Melrose, Fl. I am a member of the P.K.Yonge varsity soccer team, cross country team, women’s’ ensemble choir, and Odyssey of the Mind club. However, I have made the decision to leave all of this behind as I am about to embark on a new adventure in…. SPAIN!!!! I will be spending my entire junior year studying and immersing myself in Spain’s beautiful culture. Words can’t express how excited I am to represent Rotary Youth Exchange in Spain. I have seen the amazing experiences and opportunities my close friends have had through Rotary, and this led me to pursue an adventure of my own. I have been fortunate enough to spend the past three years studying Spanish at my school and I hope that this experience will help me achieve my goal of fluency. I know that after this exchange I will return a different, yet better person. So, I would like to thank Rotary, my family, and my wonderful friends for supporting me. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I can’t wait to see all the wonderful experiences Spain has to offer.

Journals: Savannah – Spain

You would think that the more time I spend here in Spain, the more I would have to say. Well, I can tell you that as my time here grows shorter and shorter it gets harder and harder to put things into words. There is a certain point in exchange where everything just becomes harder to do, harder to say.

Any reflection, presentation, or Rotary meeting turns into a crying fest or overly sentimental period of time. Over the past month we have had our final Rotary meeting, welcoming of the new outbounds dinner, and for some the ending of the school year. Unfortunately making time pass faster than I believe it should. I remember very clearly the moment it sort of “hit me”; well, hit “us” is more like it.

Sitting in my friend Mia’s house working on our Rotary presentations one afternoon, I pulled up a calendar and found myself staring at a tiny little square of a month. There were nine little checked off squares behind it and now I only had one little square left. I wasn’t ready to lose my squares. I freaked out, and kind of came to the realization that I do actually have to go home. I can’t speak Spanish forever, take siestas every day, and continue to eat dinner at 10pm on the regular. I actually have to deal with the whole “reverse culture shock” and trying to fit myself back into the role I was in before I left. It’s all really scary, and I can’t honestly describe how I feel about facing a family and set of friends that expect me to be exactly the same as I was before I left. However, one way or another it will all sort out.

Now, the month of May was very interesting. To start, I had my mother come and visit me here in Spain. To say that experience was strange is an understatement. I had created my life here and had been comfortably living in it for 9 months, and now this strange person from my life before was just….here. Don’t get me wrong, playing translator was fun and I liked being able to put my Spanish to the test. However, it was strange to be with this person that couldn’t really function in society alone; thus, making me appreciate my first host family even more because they had to be patient with me for a lot longer than a few days.

We stayed in my city for a couple days and then made our way to Madrid. I had been to Madrid briefly before, but it was so nice to be able to go and see all the touristy sites and whatnot. Overall Madrid was lovely, but I have to say that I missed my city so much while I was away for an entire 4 days. I remember saying “ugh, I’m ready to go home” and my mother “only a few more weeks, sweetie”. Um, sorry but I meant home in Murcia, not the United States. After talking to the other exchange students in my city who had gone away with their parents too, I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. We all have fallen in love with our city, and can’t stand to be away from our home for very long. I am so happy to know how much Murcia means to me, but it will only make going back to the U.S that much harder.

Overall, I feel that this month started out crazy busy with my mother coming, proceeded to get somewhat depressing as the exchange student went through a teary sentimental phase about our impending departures, and now has resolved into a state of anticipation as we prepare for Eurotour and summer time festivities. Speaking of Eurotour, on June 8th I will be embarking on a 10 day journey through several European countries with my fellow Spanish exchange students. Starting in Paris, then Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, and finishing in Prague. When I return from this trip I will have two days of school left to say goodbye to my classmates, and then a measly three weeks to say goodbye to the country that has become my home. Therefore, my next journal will be my last; I hope those who read them have enjoyed what I have to say. Until next time!

Mon, June 1, 2015

Here we are, 2 month out from our returning ventures back to the U.S. I can’t help but think about how fast the next few weeks are going to fly by, especially since I am going to be so busy. Speaking of busy, the past month has been quite an eventful one. At the beginning of April we had a huge festival here in Murcia capital called Bando de La Huerta. Basically it is “party in the orchard”; Murcia is known for its fruits and vegetables that grow so nicely in our many orchards. So, every year during the spring there is a daylong party to celebrate the traditional Murcian attire and culture. If you were here you would have seen hundreds of teenagers running around the city in very flattering baggy white pants, white shirts, colorful vests, and sashes around our wastes.

From about 10 am to 10 pm people are in the parks and streets having a wonderfully loud Fiesta!!! I expected nothing less from Spain, especially my home of Mur cia Ciudad. Shortly after we all returned to school to finish up our last trimester and let me tell you, it DEFINITELY feels like the last trimester. It takes everything I have to wake up and hop on that 30 minute bus ride to school at 7:30 am.

In other news, this month we celebrated my best friend Raven’s 17th birthday!!! My friend Mia and I organized a “surprise” party with her host parents and invited all our friends over to celebrate with a huge Tarta (cake) and pastel de carne (Murcian dinner pastry). We also organized for her best friend from Colorado (currently on exchange in Sweden) to come for the weekend. It was so much fun to have some good old exchange student comradery. Also, it goes to show how hospitable and loving Spaniards truly are. They open there home to anyone and everyone and want all visitors to experience Spain to the fullest; another reason why exchange in Spain is so amazing. Anyway, our friend absolutely loved Murcia and I hope to see him here again before he leaves for home. On his last day, which was Raven’s actual birthday, we all took a bus to the airport in a neighboring beach city called Alicante. We said our “see ya laters” and saw him off to his plane. However, being the exchange students we are, had to hop over to the beach and make a day out of it. We had pizza and music on the beach and enjoyed a beautiful Monday in Alicante. We danced, waved our American flags, and befriended our fellow beach goers.

I am currently rounding off April with school and some beautiful weather that I have been waiting a long time for. Also, there are SO MANY British people here this time of year. My friends and I always joke about how annoying the foreigners are even though we are about as foreign as you can get. However, we do speak Spanish which usually makes up for our blonde hair and blue eyed-ness. In May I am expecting an impending visit from my Mother and cousins. I’m looking forward to seeing her, but I feel like it will be kind of weird to have my two worlds colliding. I have two families here that call me “daughter”, so I think it will be interesting to see how it all goes. Also, right after a visit from my mother, I can get excited for eurotour!!! I’m only doing the first half but I’m so stoked to travel with all my friends from Spain. It’s going to be amazing. We are all being pretty frugal with our spending in efforts to save for the trip, so hopefully we can keep control of ourselves for the next few weeks. Until next month!

 Wed, April 29, 2015

Hola todo el mundo! Yo no puedo creer que he estado aquí para 7 meses ya. Alguna veces parece que yo solo estaba aquí para 3 días y otra veces para 3 años. Yo no quiero volver a mi pais, yo prefiero quedar aqui con mi nueva familia y amigos. Esta ciudad tiene mi corazon para siempre y yo quiero decir gracias a Rotary. Sin Rotary esto año no es posible.

Okay! So, 7 months have flown by, no big deal or anything. Only that my year is ALMOST OVER! My friends and I are constantly on the verge of tears when we are together. We can’t stand the thought of leaving this country, or each other for that matter. Even my Rotary friends back home are texting me to say that the next three months are going to go by so fast. It just goes to show that you need to make the most of every moment that you have, because soon you’re organizing plane tickets to journey home.

I am currently sitting in my room listening to the sounds of one of many Semana Santa processions marching under my window. During holy week we have a parade every night for about 4 hours that marches very slowly throughout the city. They play drums, carry candles, and hand out candy to the little kids on the street. The people marching wear long robes and pointy hats, each night a different color robe. It is so much fun to sit at a tapas bar munching on some snacks while you watch the procession march through. My friends and I have really been enjoying this week. However, next week gets better because everyone in the city dresses in typical Murcian costumes and goes to parties all throughout the city; the girls in long dresses, and the boys in pants and vests. Unfortunately, the temperature has risen the past week so it won’t be the most comfortable attire to be parading around under the hot, Spanish sun in. Once the festivities conclude at the end of next week, all the students have to get ready to return to school. Only one more trimester and we will be free! I am so looking forward to going back to the beach and sleeping the hot afternoons away in the shade. Summer, please please please come soon. Until next month!

Wed, April 1, 2015

Hola, everyone! Well, here I am, celebrating 6 unbelievable months in Spain. It is truly remarkable to think about all I have done, and all the goals I have achieved since my arrival. I am currently writing this journal as I sit in the sunshine on my family’s rooftop terrace. I have an amazing view of my town and the valley containing the city that has become my home. Behind me stands the towering statue of Christ that my town, Monteagudo, is famous for.

I have yet to change host families, but I expect to be moving to the city shortly. The move will be difficult, yet I’m excited to have the challenge of adapting to city life. I have grown accustomed to our chickens that roam around the courtyard, the quite evenings free from traffic noises, and my afternoons on the roof with our dog sleeping at my feet. Living such a relaxed and natural lifestyle has been so nice. In the U.S, we are always so busy. We zip across town all day, eat meals with one hand and drive with the other, and don’t spend a whole lot of time together. Living here I have had the luxury of being able to slow down and enjoy everything. My host family has been more than I could ever hope for. They have given me an awesome home, and made me love every second I’ve spent here. I will miss them so much when I move, and even more when I have to return to the United States.

With 6 amazing months spent in Spain, I have definitely been feeling the effects of living abroad for half a year. My English is getting worse with every day spent speaking in Spanish, and my Spanish is definitely not improving as fast as it was a few months ago. I have had to really push myself to learn more and more. I write my personal journals in Spanish, and I often just write conversations or stories in my notebook during class. Which brings up the fact that paying attention to 6 hours of philosophy, economics, or Spanish literature lectures is extremely hard to do. I have definitely been more successful in practicing Spanish or other subjects that are a bit more accessible.

All in all, I am confident in saying that I have achieved proficiency in Spanish. However, I would love to have a bit more to show for a year abroad when I return. (fingers crossed). Apart from the language, I was expecting to have had a harder time being away from home. I miss everyone a lot, and can’t wait to see them again. However, I honestly haven’t had much homesickness to deal with. I find that I am really at home here, and could honestly probably stay a lot longer than ten months without any problems. I think the vast majority of my exchange friends feel the same way. The friends I have here and the exchange students from back home are all in love with where they live. I know we are all sad that time is passing so quickly, and want to make the last few months really count.

This journal was rather short, yet there will be lots more to write about later. Until next time!

Sun, March 8, 2015

Half-way through exchange already?!?! It is almost scary to think about how far I’ve come since I arrived in Murcia. So much has changed in what seems like a few short weeks. I remember being a very excited outbound preparing for my exchange. Everyone warned us about how fast the time will go, and before you know it you will be back home. However, I didn’t really listen, because I knew I’d be here for an ENTIRE 10 months. It seems like such a long amount of time when you’re looking at it from a distance. Yet, here I am, 5 months in and it seems like only last week I was getting off the plane. So, make the most of every moment and always try new things.

Now, last entry I believe I was coming down from the Holiday high that was Christmas, New Years, and Dia de los Reyes Magos. Unfortunately, I have had returned to the daily routine of school and homework. Not that school is bad, because it isn’t. My Spanish is better and I have awesome friends and teachers. However, with better language abilities comes the obligation to up my homework game. All in all it’s really helping me learn a lot and progress academically.

So far February has been a busy month. Exams to study for, projects to work on, but the exchange students have also done some really cool stuff. For starters, my Rotary club sponsored a city wide scavenger hunt. We split up into teams of three and hunted clues throughout Murcia. I was able to see a lot more of the city that I didn’t know about. Also, we were running round for about 4 hours so it was quite a workout as well.

In addition to the hunt, the Holirun finally came to Murcia! It’s a 5k color run with music and tons of cool stuff. The Murcian exchange students and some kids from Alicante all met up and did it together. It was so awesome and probably one of my favorite things I’ve done so far. I did tons of 5ks back home, but this was so different. Spaniards definitely know how to do it right when it comes to 5ks. There was a giant stage blasting music all day with about 7,000 people participating. Nobody actually ran, though. If you were there you would have seen everyone walking, dancing, stopping for beers and tapas, and most importantly playing in all the color (basically anything other than racing). Afterwards we danced at the foot of the stage with everyone else and sported our colors all over Murcia. However, this is only the start. The weekend coming up we are starting our Carnival celebrations that will last over the next two weeks. Parties, costumes, food, and tons of fun can be expected. I’m really looking forward to having one last big celebration before I have to switch families.

Speaking of, I only have about 2 more weeks left with my current family before I leave Monteagudo to live in the middle of the city. I’m pretty excited to have a new experience, but really sad to leave my family. They are so nice and have taught me so much about Spain.

I think this is the same for all exchange students. This time of year we are switching families, and coming to the startling conclusion that we are well over the half way point in exchange. It has turned into a countdown to when we have to go back home. It makes you realize that you have to take advantage of every moment left here. I’m cramming as much language as I can, going to as many places as I can, and trying not to freak out as I book return plane tickets to the U.S.

Yet, despite all of this, it makes me realize that I’ve done it. I have a family here, friends, a life. All is proof that I have assimilated into the culture and made myself at home in a place so very different from my home country. Just the other day I was rereading my personal journal from when I was preparing to leave for exchange, and I saw a huge difference in myself. The way I write, how I view the world, my ideas and thoughts, they are all changing and beginning to reflect the person I am becoming. All in all just proving what can happen in a short year. I try to remember this if I ever feel worried about leaving. I came here and did what all exchange students set out to do, and I’m so happy to even have had this amazing opportunity. I have learned, and will continue learning more about myself and the world I live in. I hope all exchange students get to feel like this, and encourage everyone to make the most of every moment they have abroad.

 Thu, February 19, 2015

I can’t believe I am currently working on month number five of my exchange! The past few weeks have been filled with Holidays, friends, family, and no school! For those that go to countries that celebrate Holidays around this time of year, it is the best time to really learn more about the culture.

So far, I have celebrated Navidad (Christmas), Noche Vieja (New Year), and dia de los tres reyes magos (Three King’s Day). It has been so much fun and definitely the highlight of my exchange so far. In my last journal I talked about how there are lights all over the city and music in the evenings. Well, that doesn’t even compare to the actual Holidays themselves. There are bands playing, parades going on, life size nativity scenes in each neighborhood, bounce houses, ice skating rinks (so scary, I’m terrible at anything ice/snow related), and so much more.

Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) it is usually spent with your family at home. So, my family and I had a lovely dinner and skyped my host sister in Canada while we were eating. I also took it upon myself to put up our Christmas tree and other decorations. It was a lot smaller than I’m used to. Back home the normal Christmas crew includes about 20-30 people, no less. However, having a very intimate Christmas with my family was really nice.

The same went for Christmas day; everyone in Spain is with their families and relaxing at home. Many, like my family, found themselves munching on Jamon and holiday sweets throughout the afternoon. Soon after came New Year’s Eve! This being an even bigger deal than in the U.S, and so much more fun. Like Christmas, we had a nice dinner and then prepared for the countdown to midnight. In Spain, you eat twelve grapes, one for each chime of the clock at midnight. Then, you celebrate the new year with champagne (called Cava in Spain) and head out to spend the night celebrating. It was by far the best New Year’ s Eve I have ever had.

Once Christmas and the New Year came and went, my family and I took some time to explore the region of Murcia together. It is difficult to take trips because of school and soccer, but we found some time to do some really cool stuff. First, we went a bit north of my city to the border of Murcia and Alicante. We went to this awesome mountain that has a spring at the bottom. People come to wash clothes, get drinking water, or just enjoy the fresh air.

My family and I had our car FILLED with water bottles because this is where we get our drinking water from. It is fresh, natural, and free. It was so nice to be able to sit and talk to the people who live there. Often, people aren’t quite sure why I’m with my host family because I tend to stick out a bit with my horrible accent and blonde hair. However, my parents like to tell people I’m their temporary kid just to watch them be confused. After, we went into the very small town to a winery. There were actually quite a few wineries in the town, but this one had giant barrels of wine with huge hoses dangling from the top. We also managed to bring several jugs home with us. It was really cool to be able to visit and learn how they make the wine.

The business had been in this family for years and they were so passionate about their work. They were so excited to know that I was so interested and intrigued by the process. It is the little trips like this that always teach you the most. You don’t always have to go to the biggest cities, or the most famous monuments. If you really want to learn about the culture, take the time to talk to the everyday people you may not have noticed before.

Another really awesome trip was when my family and I drove up to the mountains on the east side of the valley. Here you can find the cathedral dedicated to the Patron of Murcia. Each region has a patron. In Murcia, we have the Fuensanta and the Santuario de la Fuensanta in the mountains. This cathedral had the most amazing views of the entire valley. I could see where I lived, the cathedral in the city, where I go to school, everything. This cathedral was built in the 1500s, with the most recent parts being added on in the late 1800s.

In addition to the cathedral you can follow the roads on the mountain to castle ruins, a convent, an abandoned orphanage, a wildlife rehabilitation center, and many cafes for the much needed coffee and snack breaks. Along the mountain you can find cyclists, horseback riders, runners, and the occasional horse and carriage. People come from all over to spend the day here and enjoy all there is to do. I will definitely be returning to hike more of the mountain.

On the way home from the mountain, we went by our friend’s Panaderia. Let me tell you, there is nothing in Spain that I love more than a good bakery. Well, they only make bread, but it is my favorite thing in the entire world. The bread here is so good and they bake in these huge wood fired ovens. I love visiting the bakery because it is so warm and smells so good. Also, you can always find the best people in places like these. Normally In smaller towns like the one I live in; the people all know each other and are very close. So, there is always the usual crowd of old men smoking their cigarettes and playing dominos outside the bakeries and cafes. I love being able to talk to them, and they like asking me things about America and if the food in Spain is better (which it kind of is).

So, spending the days hanging out with friends and family, exploring Murcia, and relaxing by my living room fireplace has proved to be the proper way to enjoy the holidays in Spain. Over the next month or so I can look forward to some really cool Rotary trips, starting school again, and maybe even some warmer weather. But most of all I am looking forward to my impending trip to Barcelona! However, that is for another journal.

Also, shout out to all the new outbounds back home! I hope y’all are getting really excited because the day you leave will be here before you know it. Also, I know of only one person coming to Spain, but anyone please feel free to contact me through email or facebook if you have any questions. Same goes for all the other outbounds, the best way to prepare is by talking to those who have experienced exchange before. Until next time!!!!

 Sun, January 4, 2015

Well, three months in Spain have come faster than I would care to admit. The more and more time I spend here, the harder it is for me to write these journals. While I want to blame it on my busy life here, I can’t deny the fact that it is just simply hard to talk about what I’ve gone through. You definitely see a change in yourself early on. One that I’m sure will only become more significant with more time spent away from home. I’m more patient when working through situations that normally would stress me out, I’m more willing to push myself to achieve my goals, I’m not as intimidated by the need to problem solve, and I’ve also really learned to just trust my gut. These are skills that will be evolving and improving throughout this year, and I can’t wait to see this person I become at the end of this exchange.

With that said, I’m also beyond excited to point out that it is almost CHRISTMAS!!! Some say that the holidays are the roughest time for an exchange student, but I’m finding them to be the most fun. Starting with my Thanksgiving in Spain, I really got into the holiday spirit with my friends and family here. They all came over and we sat around the dinner table eating and laughing. We were also equipped with some fancy Thanksgiving themed table settings curtesy of my Grandma back home (Thanks Mona). Another lovely thing about Christmas in Spain is that the city is now lit up at night! I have absolutely loved walking around the city with my exchange friends and seeing all the decorations. There is Christmas music playing, lights in the trees, and Christmas trees in the display windows. It is also really nice to be able to bundle up by the fire at night because it is freezing (only about 35-40 degrees but that is basically the Arctic.).

The only down side about our upcoming 3 week break from school is the fact that finals are currently consuming everyone at my school. My friends have been really stressed out for the past few weeks. It physically pains me to see them at school because they are in a constant state of panic, thus drawing my attention to the differences in schooling here. Everyone has to memorize definitions, theories, formulas, and word for word passages from the text. This is very different for me because in the U.S you are tested on your ability to use information to infer, do, and show your understanding of a concept. Here all you have to do is memorize and write as much as you can. Of course, many subjects are a bit out of reach for me. However, I’ve been doing well with math, history, English, and my photography and image classes. Normally I am the English go-to for last minute help or simply comic relief when everyone looks a bit too nervous.

Once break has commenced, I’m planning on spending a lot of time exploring the city with my exchange friends. There are 10 of us in Murcia and we have gotten really close these past few months. When you hear exchange students say that exchange students are the best people you will meet, we’re right. Exchange has a way of bringing so many different people together, and uniting them for one cause; to live in a foreign country for an entire year without knowing the people, language, or general culture and somehow make it work. I have to admit, I think we are doing a pretty good job. We all come from different walks of life and that has made it so much more interesting. I cannot wait to see what the rest of this year holds for us, and I only wish we had more time in this country I have come to love.

Thu, December 11, 2014

Well, the journals are coming along a lot faster than I had anticipated. I want to believe this is happening because I am just so eager to put all my adventures and experiences into a well-crafted journal entry. However, the big motivator hit me about 20 minutes ago as I was browsing RYE Florida’s website. I have come to the startling realization that there is about to be a BRAND NEW set of outbounds, itching to find out when they can leave for their exchange.

This is totally scary seeing as how my exchange started two seconds ago and I feel like the end is getting closer and closer. It seems like only yesterday that I was nervously entering the interview rooms, waiting for that dreaded phone call to tell me my fate, and finally finding out where I would be studying for my year abroad. So, upcoming outbounds, I envy you. Because this next year will fly by, and soon you will be boarding those planes and entering your country knowing you h ave a full 10 months of awesomeness ahead of you. It is literally the greatest feeling ever.

So, even though time has NOT been on my side, I’m still enjoying every second in Spain. If you outbounds are anything like I was, you’re probably reading as many journals as possible to see what’s the what with the countries you chose on your application (just because you put certain countries on your application doesn’t mean you’ll be sent there. Spain wasn’t on my list but I couldn’t be happier. Just remember that Rotary knows you best and will place you were you will succeed). Anyway, here is to a fantastic 2 months in Spain, and even better ones to follow.

It is crazy to think of all I have accomplished in only two months. It’s hard to measure how well your language or cultural skills have improved, but I often look back upon my first weeks here and realize how much I have truly learned. A lot of the success has definitely come from school and the help of new friends and teachers. I am finally in a place where I can somewhat complete homework assignments, read aloud to the class when we’re reading in our textbooks, and converse with my friends about almost any topic; some more smoothly than others.

My English teacher has me do all the assignments in Spanish, so that is another way I can improve my writing and speaking skills. Over the past few weeks of school, we have done some pretty cool stuff; my favorite being our rafting field trip. My grade took a bus to a nearby city for the day, and went on a rafting trip down the river. It was freezing! But still the best field trip ever. We rode down waterfalls, and were pulling each other out of our rafts along the way. I feel like that in America, schools would never take kids on those types of trips. However, that is just one of the many differences between American school and school in Spain.

Another significant difference is the way people treat each other here. In America we have a huge problem with bullying and disrespect towards other people. However, I have noticed that all of the students here, whether they like a person or not, are never mean to them. Apart from that, the way students handle school work here is very different as well. In America, it isn’t very common for students to fail a year. If they do, the blame immediately goes towards the teacher. It is always something that is wrong with the teacher and how they didn’t do this or that. In Spain, the teacher comes in the room, teaches what needs to be taught, and that’s it. The student has the choice to listen and take notes to pass the exams, or fail and s imply repeat the year. Many of the people I know have repeated multiple years. Whether or not this is an as effective or more effective education system isn’t really the question. These are two completely different cultures that have found what works for them.

Other than school, I have also been able to figure out more little life hacks here in Spain. The public transportation system has been conquered (didn’t even get lost), do some shopping on my own (I mostly buy food tbh), and have been able to ask questions and converse more and more. Once you reach this point it is the greatest feeling ever. I hated the awkward phase where you are pretty much settled in, but your language still sucks so you can’t really do a whole lot by yourself. It is so nice to be able to go out without having a chaperone or translator by your side at all times. Yet another reason to practice your host language as much as possible before you leave!!!

I highly recommend any future outbounds to try and join some type of sports team or activity in Spain. It gives you another group of friends, and an opportunity to go to new places. I have been playing soccer for a team in my city and I absolutely love it. It is great exercise, and I love having the familiar feeling of a team family like I did back home. I recently went to the coolest town EVER for one of our games. It is a small city called Caravaca, about an hour and a half north of my home in Murcia. It is so incredibly old, and full of history and beautiful cathedrals. It was the site of one of the battles in the Crusades and just walking down the streets will take your breath away. There are so many places in Spain that are like this, and I only wish I could visit them all.

 Mon, November 3, 2014

One month in Spain, only nine more left….. 

A MONTH ALREADY?????!!!??? It’s so hard to believe that I have been living in Spain for a little over a month. It seems like only yesterday that I was arriving in Spain without a clue of what I was getting myself into. However, here I am, 30 days into my new life in Spain.

From being here this long I can safely say that this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Now, before I get into sharing all my stories and adventures, I want to point out how absolutely amazing this opportunity is. If you are even the slightest bit interested in what Rotary Youth Exchange is about, PLEASE take the time to find out more. Read and reread journals from current and past students, find one of us on Facebook, or just contact a local Rotarian. The biggest help for me in making the decision to study abroad was reading these journals. Hearing about all the adventure, excitement, struggles, and growth one experiences through RYE made me want this m ore than anything. So, please enjoy!

So, a little more about my host family before I start….
I live in Monteagudo, Murcia. It is an extremely small community just outside of the city of Murcia in Spain. I live with my host Mom, host Dad, host Sister, and numerous pets. My school is in a neighboring town called Llano de Brujas, and is about a 10 minute bus ride every day. I have been in Spain for a total of 4 weeks and have been going to school for 2 ½.

Being here for a month has allowed me to basically check out everything in my town and city. I have been to the beach in Murcia, twice to the beach in Alicante (literally the most beautiful place I have ever seen), went camping in Madrid for Rotary’s orientation, Bicicleta Festival in Murcia, and much more, with my favorite definitely being going to the beach in Alicante. It is such a beautiful city and it has AMAZING beaches. Water in the Mediterranean Sea is so calm, and the temperature is perfect. You can see all the way to the bottom of the crystal clear water. (I could have stayed there forever tbh). I will definitely be returning as often as possible.

Now that school has started I have pretty much settled into a routine here. The weekdays all usually run the same, and have started to blur together as time goes by. My average weekday in Spain looks a little like this….
1. Drag myself out of bed at 6:45
2. Get ready and hop on my very fancy school bus, that conveniently stops across the street from my house, at 7:35 (the buses are not the smelly yellow school buses we Americans know so well, they are nice charter buses that have A/C…… praise)
3. Start school at 8:25 and sit through six hours of Spanish instruction.
4. Get home by 3 and eat lunch with the fam
5. Siesta for about 2-3 hours (my favorite part of the day)
6. Finish up homework and do whatever we want until dinner which is usually around 9:30-10:00

Now, school in Spain is very different from school in the U.S. In Spain, students stay in the same classroom for the majority of the day, while the teachers switch rooms every class period. So, I have become really close to all of my classmates and have been able to make a lot of friends this way. Being the exchange student was pretty cool at first, and still is. The teachers understand that I can’t necessarily produce the same quality of work as the other kids, so they often help me out and give me assignments that allow me to practice my Spanish writing and speaking skills.

I take notes throughout the day and go home and review what I didn’t understand during the lectures. However, I do participate a lot in my English class and even my World History course. Outside of the classroom, you would expect to find clubs or sports teams at a school. However, in Spain, they don’t have these things affiliated with the school. So, you have to join these activities through your town or city’s organizations. I have recently signed up to be a part of the Real Murcia girls’ soccer team. I will start practicing Tuesdays and Thursdays, with games on the weekends!!!!! (I’m super excited) Other activities that are really popular here are martial arts classes, Boy Scouts, gymnastics, volleyball, and basketball.

When the school week ends, the weekends are usually spent hanging out with friends, going to the beach (when the weather is nice), or doing things with your family. So far, I have spent two weekends going to the beach, and the rest just exploring the city and towns with my new friends. I have made so many good friends in my school and especially good friends through Rotary. There are two other exchange students living outside the city, and another 5 in the city of Murcia. I think I speak for all of the exchange students when I say that Rotary, and Spain in general, have been so welcoming and take really good care of us. But that’s just part of the culture here.

I feel that no matter who you talk to, or who you meet, the people here are always so willing to help you out. Whether it is language struggles, directions, or just a friendly conversation, everyone is really open to you. However, one of the most rewarding parts of living in Spain has to be learning the language. I have improved so much in the past few weeks; even my friends and host parents have complimented my language several times. Another good sign is that it was surprisingly difficult to write this journal. I’ve become so used to Spanish that none of this English sounds right as I type it or read it aloud.

Well, that’s it for this journal J You will probably hear from me again next month with more stories from Spain!

 Wed, October 8, 2014

My first week in Spain!!!!!!! 

I have been in Spain for a total of three days!!!! Honestly these past days have been the weirdest, yet most exciting days of my life. To be completely honest, at the beginning of this week I found myself questioning whether or not I would be able to handle this exchange. I was a complete mess trying to travel from Boston to Madrid, and then Madrid to a smaller town called Alicante. I managed to find myself on a plane that was arriving late to Madrid (this gave me less than an hour to connect). For those who don’t know, the Barajas airport in Madrid is HUGE so walking to where I needed to be took a solid 15 min. Anyway, to make a long story short…….

  1. Missed my flight to Alicante
    2. Couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi to communicate
    3. Had to wait an hour to find my checked bag
    4. Argued with customer service lady because she wanted me to pay a fee for a new ticket
    5. Found an ATM and reluctantly took out 210 Euros for my ticket
    6. Checked my bag AGAIN
    7. Arrived in Alicante 4 hours after I was supposed to be there. K

But other than that it was GREAT! But really, once I was with my host family everything was fine. We ate lunch by the beach in Alicante, walked on the beach for a bit, and heading to our home in Monteagudo, Murcia. Over the past couple days I have been meeting new friends and seeing the town with my host sister. I absolutely LOVE Monteagudo. It is a very small place, but that is what gives it its charm. One of the most famous monuments in Monteagudo is the statue of Christ that looks over all of Murcia. My favorite thing I have done so far is climb to the top and look across the valley. We have also been to the city of Murcia, several ice cream shops, and to neighboring towns to get kabob. Also, I have made a beautiful discovery in that there is an ice cream shop in Casillas that plays classic rock and has foosball.

Now, all of this fun is extremely tiring. Especially since everything is in Spanish. I am slowly starting to get used to the accent and speech patterns common to those in Murcia. For example, in Murcia they have a phrase that says “nosotros comemos letras” or “we eat letters”. They said this because when they speak they often talk so fast that they just don’t include the ending letters of most words. When I realized this I felt a huge relief. I now realized that I may not be as stupid as I thought. I finally understood why I didn’t really understand anything being said. It seems that just knowing that this whole eating letters business was a thing, has made it a lot easier to comprehend what people say.
Until next Journal!!!

Thu, September 11, 2014

Savannah - Belgium

Hometown:St. Johns, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:St. Johns, Florida
Host District: District 2170
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Bruxelles-Europe

My Bio

Bonjour! Hallo! I’m Savannah Stephens, I’m 18, and I’m going to Belgium!! I am so thrilled to have been chosen to go. Belgium is all I’ve been talking about since I found out my destination and I’m sure my friends and family are sick of hearing about it. I’m a senior at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns. At school, I participate in the clubs: Future Teachers of America, National Honor Society, Quill & Scroll Honor Society, Interact, and the Oracle. My favorite subjects are math and science. But although I’m in FTA, I don’t want to be a teacher. I actually want to major in International Relations. St. Johns is where I was born and raised; I’ve never moved and I love it here. Reading, hanging out with friends, and listening to music are what I do on a day to day basis. Living here is relaxing. But whenever we do leave on any trips, I always love to see museums (particularly art) and historic sites, simply because I love to learn. Whatever an area has to offer, we try to do it. The “we” meaning my fantastic mom, wonderful dad, awesome brother, and our doggie Milkshake. Both my parents are retired and plan to spend a lot of their time camping once they’re free of me. My brother is 23 and a recent graduate of UNF. I could never ask for a better family, they’re amazing and I love them so much. I don’t even want to imagine being away from them for a year; it’s too scary. But they’ve always been there for me, and I know they’ll always be a constant in my ever-changing life. This upcoming year is sure to be full of changes, both good and bad, but I’m ready to handle them.

Journals: Savannah – Belgium

I totally forgot to update my journal this year and for that I’m very sorry >.

This year, I’ve traveled to Spain (10 or so cities), France (3 cities/regions), Netherlands (Amsterdam), Italy (Rome and Sicily), Greece (Athens), and England (London and Cambridge). I’ve definitely caught the travel bug. Anyone going to Belgium, know that traveling is much easier than I was originally led to believe. You can fill the TRF (travel request form) online and just send it to your YEO and have your parents and your host parents send an email too. IF during school, the yeo will contact the school. I didn’t realize how easy it was until I did it for the first time. So I could have had a lot more opportunities to travel, but I missed out. Oh well 😀 I still loved my year.

Belgium is truly amazing. (Although It really doesn’t rain as much as people say it does. Don’t believe them). And I did get to travel Belgium a lot! I saw most of the major cities and a good handful of the smaller ones. I’m better traveled in Belgium than most Belgians XD It’s crazy how little they tour their own country. But they do love to go out to town for a drink or shopping a lot. Belgium really isn’t big on having time to do nothing. I’m still not sure if that is just me and my experience with all four of my host families or everyone. It might be a big-city mentality. But I could stay home one day (one) and they’d ask me “aren’t you bored?” They were always surprised that I didn’t want to go out after school on like a Tuesday. Very strange, never got used to it. But that did make it very easy to ask permission to go anywhere. They never said no.

I ended up having 4 host families. My first was amazing. Incredibly helpful and open to hosting me. My second, well…not as much. To be honest, I think my host mom never meant to be mean. I honestly think her intentions were always true. However, we did not mesh. At all. We had different personalities. I also think that she decided to host if only so she could have someone to show off to friends. Kind of a “oh look, I’m such a good person, opening my home to someone.” She was never malicious, just never looking out for me, I think. My 3rd host family was amazing. So kind and wonderful and open. I’m very sad I was only able to stay with them for a month and a half. My last (which was originally my 3rd, but I had the new host fam. This was also the fam I was most apprehensive about, just based on first meetings.) But they turned out to be lovely 😀 Just as welcoming as my first.

I never did find real milk in Belgium. Such a tragedy.

My teachers turned out to all mostly be very nice. The teaching assistant really went out of her way to help me. And we had meant to do a presentation for one of her English classes, but the time when I was supposed to do a rough draft, over Christmas I forgot, and then after that I had so much other work and trying to deal with my 2nd host fam was tough and I just never had a chance 🙁

Belgian festivals…woah. Go to Ommegang. It was the last thing I saw before I left Belgium- late June early July. It was amazing. Don’t pay, just get there early and stand off to the side. Truly spectacular. Belgium in general has amazing festivals, and ALL the time in Summer.

I know at outbound orientation they told me that I had a chance to learn Dutch, and they told the other outbounds to Belgium that mine was the only district where that was possible. Nope. I don’t know if that was a mix up, or what, but nope. 1620 will have French speakers only, I believe (that district is dubbed at the cult district XD). 2170 (mine) had only 1 Dutch learner, so I think it’s VERY unlikely you’ll learn dutch. 1630 had a whole little group of Dutch speakers. You are most likely to have to learn Dutch in 1630 than the others, but it’s still unlikely.

Okay, that French test that I was warned about. Nothing. Didn’t happen. :/ Total joke. So if you’re like me, don’t worry. As for my French. I would say I can understand about 80% and be understood. I’m not the perfect student that Rotary tells you about, you know, fluent in 3-5 months. That didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen to a lot of people. I wish somebody had told me that. Everybody learns differently. I tried my hardest and that’s what counts. I’ll continue my French also, because I refuse to lose what I fought so hard to gain. Another thing that RyeFL really pressed was learning the language. But you’ll find that almost no one else considers this to be an exchange to learn a language. It’s a cultural exchange. That’s it. Try your best at the language, but don’t ever be trapped by it. I would rather see the country and meet people than stay in my bedroom studying French.

I personally don’t think Belgium is very different from the US. But all my host parents thought I was weird for saying that, and that I was the exception to the rule. They really do tend to think that Americans eat a lot of fast food 🙁 and that we don’t really eat a lot of home-cooked meals. But other than some stereotypes, I never encountered hostility for being an American. Everyone was open and kind to me the entire year. Especially my fellow students. Shout out to them for being amazing! All the students went out of their way to help me this year. To adjust, with the language, with school, whatever. They were amazing and I already miss them. And speaking of stereotypes, it was really only ever the adults who had them. The kids were always much more open minded and I never had a “stupid” question from one of them. But maybe I was just lucky 😉

As for how I’ve changed. I don’t really know. I’m the same I think. My mom says I’m the same. If anything, I’m more willing to just do what I want to do. Like if I want to see a museum and my friend wants to shop, I’ll go alone. No biggie anymore. But that’s about it. Rotary talks about independence, and in a way, I think it’s true. But I also think they didn’t exactly explain how we arrive there. We, as exchange students, are so constantly alone (which they did talk about, I’ll admit), that it’s do what you want or don’t do anything at all. You are so far forced to do things on your own that yes, you become independent, but it’s not at all a pleasant ride.

Belgians like electro.

For packing to go home, just accept your fate and buy another suitcase and pay the fee. It’s still cheaper than shipping. And the Belgian mail service is SO slow, so you wouldn’t see your luggage until like a month later.

And please accept now that RyeFL won’t help at all once your over there. You have your Rotary in your country and you need to use it because Ryefl won’t even respond to your emails. Or if they do, it’ll just be to tell you that you’re on your own. That was fun. Not. No hate to Rotary, they’re a great organization that gives amazing opportunities to students. And my Belgian Rotary was spot on amazing, and I’m sure FL really supported their inbounds. It’s just I was expecting a bit…more support for the outbounds, not just total abandonment.

I think that’s all for the basics of what I needed/wanted to cover. It’s not really a journal, just some tips and random observations, but that’s all I got 😛 Sorry again that I just stopped with my journals. I had such goals for myself, but that didn’t happen. It’s strange how easily you can forget once you’re immersed.

Thu, July 9, 2015

A month – two months in Belgium!

Okay! So I’ve tried submitting this journal at least 5 times over the last month, so let’s try again! I think it’s the pictures, so sorry, I’m not going to add any :/
I haven’t really updated the journal I wrote since I wrote it, so possibly in my next post, whenever that will be, there might be some overlap.

I forgot to mention in my last post a few other things I noticed (more pointless ones 😉 )

1) The toilets are separated from the bathrooms.
2) They always eat breakfast and lunch in the kitchen nook at a small table and they eat dinner at the formal dinner table. I wonder if this is only my family, I guess I’ll find out in a few months time.
3) There’s no screens on the doors. I know this isn’t a thing everywhere, but it should be. In the south in America, it’s to keep mosquitoes out (mainly). Here, they don’t have them, but they should in order to keep the stupid flies out. They annoy me so much, although there do seem to be less of them lately.
4) They don’t have real milk :”'( I say that, but what I mean is they ONLY sell boxed milk. If you’ve ever had it before, then you know that it tastes perfectly fine in cereal or something, but it’s weird as just a drink. So no milk to drink here 🙁 And half the time, it’s warm because my host family buys them by the liter so we’re constantly opening a new box. Warm milk in cereal just isn’t right. They also don’t refrigerate eggs. Which, logically I know these things don’t have to be stored in cold places, but it still bothers me.

Also, in my last post, I mistakenly said you kiss on the left cheek. It’s actually the right 🙂 And the reason for no sheets is because the comforter itself has it’s own little case!
Another update, The garages aren’t ALL weirdly small, I just seemed to have weird luck those first few days. And the cars are….hmm…about 50% of them look like a stretched out smart car, I think… They look strange to me 🙂
And the beds are all really low to the ground. Like only six inches – a foot off.

So what have I done since my last update? Well…

I applied for my Belgian ID. I’m going to try to give people tips that I didn’t know throughout my journals. What’s a lie: You actually DON’T have to register within the first 8 days of arrival, or at least my commune didn’t require it. They also made me get a copy of my birth certificate, which was definitely not required and I shouldn’t have had to do, but did anyways. So anyone thinking of going to Belgium- just know that your visa will only last 3 months and when your host mom freaks out because Rotary didn’t tell her this and she thinks your exchange is going to be cut short and ruined, you need to remain calm 😉 In order to stay longer than 3 months, you need to apply for an identification card once you’re in Belgium. Police will come to your house and everything. Until you have your card, you NEED to carry your passport everywhere, and rest assured people will ask for it. Until you have your ID, you can’t buy anything (not major at least). For example, I can’t buy a phone plan, bus pass, or open a bank account without it. Your ID will take about a month to receive, maybe longer. I’m set to get mine in about 2 more weeks. So…you’ll need those 3 months.

Also- to Rotary, when people ask me why I chose Belgium and not France (they have no national pride), At first I said truthfully, “I didn’t choose Belgium… but I didn’t ask for France either!” and now I just say “I didn’t get to choose, we weren’t allowed. But I’m glad I’m here!” My point being- it’s awkward. I feel like that I’ll just end up lying to these nice people just to make them happy, saying something like “Because I heard France sucks and Belgium rules!” if only to maybe instill some pride in these people. They have a tiny bit of a complex when discussing France.

My host brother Corentin left for his exchange in Canada. Before that though, they had a party for him. My host mom was going to make dinner and then leave him (and me because I’m the same age) for the night so he could have a party with his friends. I basically thought it would be absolutely horrible. I mean, 1) I couldn’t leave and 2) I didn’t understand anyone anyways. Luckily however, my host sisters from my second family came (they were dropping off their brother for the dinner + party) and asked if I wanted to come with them for dinner. I said yes. We had Mexican lol.

My first time eating out in Europe and we go to Mexican. It wasn’t very good and they put a strange spice in everything, but it was still fun. I unwittingly ordered a large water, which turned out to be a liter of water in a glass bottle. I think a large was meant to be for the whole table, but I had it all to myself 😛 I drank it easy though. It wasn’t as much as it looked to be. After, they took me to get the famed Belgian waffles. Holy Mother of God, those things are good. They ordered for me and got me a Brussels waffle and it was heaven in my mouth (since then, I’ve also gotten Liege waffles and they are super yummy too! They’re basically injected with sugar).

After that we went to the Grand Place. I missed going there with the other inbounds in Belgium because my host family took me to France. But I’ll get to that later. After the Grand Place, we walked around for a bit more before heading back to my house around midnight. By then the party was just beginning to start and already getting out of hand. I talked to my host sisters for a little while, but when they left, I just kind of wandered up to my room (lame I know, but I’m not a partier.) There are no locks on any of the doors in the house because they’re too hard for Noémie to work. This, however, leads to a never ending number of teenagers trying to get into my room while I am trying to sleep. Eventually, I just put a chair in front of the door and barricaded it close. I think around 4am I finally got my make-shift lock perfect and with a little help of my ipod, was able to get to sleep. The next day was a smaller party just for family. It was a combination birthday party for Corentin and Noémie. Thus, I got to meet my host family’s family. Everyone was really nice. I just want to point out that my host mom bought 4 pies. She kept saying cake, but they were pies (at least as we know them).

Finally, that Sunday was the day Corentin left for Canada. I woke up at 5:30 to see him off. A couple of his friends came also. Everybody cried and sang him the Belgian national anthem (it was kind of weird and we got strange looks). Everyone cried….except for me. I was actually kind of glad he left; I didn’t like him much. Once he was through security, we headed back to the house and packed up the cars for our trip to France! 🙂 Goodness gracious, I thought my family took a long time to pack up and get ready, but not compared to my host family. We were all packed the night before, but I understand that there is stuff you need to pack up the day of. But it took a solid two and a half hours before we left. I had time to go through my stuff and double check I had everything twice and 30 more minutes on top of that before we left.

I basically slept the whole way. But we did drive through Paris and stop and picnic on the outskirts for lunch. I saw in the far distance the Eiffel tower :). My host parents promised to take me to see Paris, France and Spa, Belgium before I leave. (Fun fact! The word “spa,” as in “a day at the spa,” comes from the city in Belgium!) The drive was long, but we finally arrived to a renovated cabin in the middle of no where. We were in the Perigord region of France, specifically a small little town called Rouffignac (rue-fin-yac). Perigord is an area known for its castles, cave painting, and food: Limousin cows and foie gras (duck or goose liver). The whole area is basically the country side with a few small towns scattered about. But driving to anywhere, you always have a view of the rolling hills and pointy trees :). Since it’s made in the area, foie gras wasn’t all that expensive (as compared to if you get it in any other location in the world). It was also sold EVERYWHERE. Every little shop had some for sale. We ate that and other duck parts the whole week we were there (well, at least for lunch and dinner). I liked it on bread as a spread, but I couldn’t quite handle eating it plain like my host parents could. It didn’t taste that good…

Anywho, the cabin had a pool, which is what we spent the entire first day in. We did nothing else. The water was cold and because I’m a wimp, I didn’t go in past my waist. 😛 This leads me to:

13) What they consider to be vacations are very relaxed and laid back. If you don’t do something one day, well that’s fine, unlike American vacations where we plan everything out day by day, hour by hour.

While in France, we went to see a fort house IN the side of a mountain, a castle that was absolutely amazing, a 14,000 year old cave with old paintings and carvings, and we went kayaking on a river where we saw two more castles, and on our last day we went out to eat at I swear the most French place you can think of- food-wise. We had 5 courses, all ity-bity and colorful and fancily plated with dots and dashes of sauces. It was so good, yet unlike the stereotypical French restaurant, it was only 28 euros for the entire meal. I didn’t bring my camera though, so no pictures of it! Sorry 😛

Then we went back home! Another long drive, another picnic on the outskirts of Paris. A few days of doing nothing again and then school started. Gross. 😛

It technically started on the 3rd of September, but that day was only 2 hours and was just to get your schedule and have your (homeroom) teacher talk for a bit. Classes actually started on the 4th. Whoever thought up the plan for my school needs to be fired. I’ve read that in a lot of countries, the teachers change classrooms instead of the students, and that’s true here, except for the fact that the kids change too. Everybody switches classes. And I don’t know why. What’s the point?

Okay, I’m going to try to explain, bear with me: On Wednesday, all the 6th years (seniors) gathered together when it was our turn and we were called off by name to go to different classes. I’m in 6A. Everyone in 6A is given the same schedule…kind of. They all get one copy of a schedule and then a paper with their name and what classes they have specifically. Some classes everyone has. For example, 3rd period on Monday everyone has French; that’s the only option listed there. But then some periods there’s 3 different options and everyone has one of those classes and you might be mixed up with other 6 year classes. They do this because some classes are required while others are still required, but you can take less of them a week. For example, you have to take 4 hours of French and 3 hours of Dutch, no choice. But, do you want to take 4 hours of math a week or 6? 3 hours of science or 4? 2 hours of English or 4? You also get a choice between 4 hours of history or social studies. If you choose lower for math/ science, those hours will be replaced with classes like Latin and Spanish, both of which aren’t required and only have 1 or 2 hours a week. So essentially, you choose between 6 hours of math OR 4 hours of math and 2 of Latin.

So what about MY schedule? Well, I’m special 🙂 It took a few days to work something out for me because I would only be wasting the Dutch and Latin teachers’ time because they were teaching kids who were a few years into the languages. Thus, I was removed from all language classes except English and French classes . I was also put into year 1 and 2 French classes (with 7th and 8th graders).

I will say that the first few days, the teachers in the language classes were really nice! (As were all of my teachers). The Dutch teacher straight up told me not to bother, so I just started translating an article for geography class. During class, she even came over and asked if I needed any help 😀 And during French class, the teacher assigned a task and made sure I knew exactly what it was that we were doing and how to do it. It was really nice of him! Although I didn’t do it… I’m sorry, but an essay was so not going to happen. And I can’t even believe how nice everyone in my classes are. They are all so helpful and friendly. Honestly, I didn’t expect everyone to be as nice as they are. And I don’t think it’s just because I’m the exchange student, they seem like they’re naturally helpful and nice 🙂

The lower level classes are a bit different. They’re MUCH stricter with them. Also, they don’t have a choice between any classes at all and I don’t think they change classrooms as often as the older kids. When classes are about to start, the kids line up in the courtyard by their class and the teachers come to collect them. They have to walk in twos side-by-side lines to class silently. If they make too much noise, they have to go all the way back outside and start again (which, is a long way, like 4 or 5 stories down and then back outside). A lot of the lessons, at least early on in the year, revolve around respect. The teachers…hmm…

I have the same teacher with all three of my lower-level classes. She’s nice and incredibly helpful and willing to repeat herself as many times as it takes. But for the class with the 2nd years, there are two assistant teachers, both young and pretty harsh with the kids. One knows English so If I’m ever totally lost and nothing is working or I need a word, I was told to ask her,… but I’m going to stop that because she has this you-are-not-my-job attitude. I was told to read an excerpt from a story and I came across a word I didn’t know and wasn’t in my pocket dictionary, so I asked her. At first she tried to get another student to explain, but when he tried, he just blew up his face like a frog and it didn’t help. So she tried and I understood her French, but I didn’t understand her definition so she finally gave up and said it in English and it still made no sense but I could tell she was annoyed so I just smiled and nodded.

I still don’t understand what that word means. (Her definition was “one who repeats.” Wth does that mean?) And in one of my classes with the 1st years, there’s a co-teacher. She’s the head teacher of the 1H class. She’s older and smiles a lot but she’s one of those who seem evil beneath the smile, the type you DO NOT want to piss off because she’ll start screaming. But until then, she’s ready to hand out smiles and “good job”s! She speaks real softly and seems controlling. I hope she goes away…

The 1st year class is really nice to me! They kind of exploded on me the first day with questions but after that they calmed down. Know that I’m not “popular” because I’m an exchange student here, everyone is just nice and welcoming. And after experiencing what Rotary meant with the 1st years, well…I’m glad that it only lasted one day. Anyways, the 1st years are very sweet and ready to help me just like the 6th years are. The 2nd years are…brats. Plain and simple. I also have two religion classes with 5th year students and they don’t seem as welcoming as the 6th years. All in all, I think I’m extraordinarily lucky to have such an awesome school!

My school starts at 8:25am and ends at 4pm. There’s a 20 minute break between 3rd and 4th period and a 35 minute lunch break after 5th. Wednesdays we go home for lunch and have no afternoon classes. Classes are 50 minutes, but that includes the time it takes to get to your next class. So really, classes are around 45 minutes.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed between school systems is that everything in America is separated. For example, math back home is separated by subjects and difficulties. So one year you could have geometry, or algebra, or calculus. Here, it’s just math. History is just history. It’s not broken up by world, US (or Belgian :P), government, art, European, etc. like in America.

My schedule:
Monday: 1- free period 2- Math (6 hrs) 3- Religion (5th year) 4- free period 5-Math (6 hrs) 6 & 7 free period 8-French (6th year)
Tuesday: 1 & 2- Math (6 hrs) 3- History 4 & 5-sports 6-free period 7 & 8- Science (3 hrs)
Wednesday: 1-Math (6 hrs) 2-French (6th year) 3- Religion (5th year) 4 & 5-History
Thursday: 1 & 2-English (2 hrs) 3-Religion (6th year) 4 & 5-French (2nd year) 6- free period 7 & 8- Study of Surroundings (1st year)
Friday: 1- Science (3 hrs) 2-free period 3- History 4 & 5- French (1st year) 6 & 7- French (6th year) 8-Math (6 hrs)

Let’s talk food. What do I normally eat?
Breakfast: When we have time, my host parents go out and buy fresh baguettes and we have that and various jams and spreads. If we’re in a rush, we have cereal. The only cereals I’ve noticed from home is Special K, Rice Krispies, and Cookie Crisps.The vast majority are healthy. General Mills doesn’t seem to be sold here, but a lot of Kellogg’s cereals are, and I noticed they’ve made a few knockoffs. Like some loop one that is obviously Cheerios. On Sundays, my host granddad brings over croissants and rolls. 🙂

Lunch: If at home, the baguettes from morning/other bread, with meats and cheeses or something my host mom cooks. If at school, I eat at the cafeteria which is the nicest thing ever. Omg. I’m amazed by it. You walk in and to your right is a little open freezer of drinks (sodas, waters, other fruity things). Next to that is silverware (real ones!) and trays. Next to that is a bin of baguettes. Then you walk on a little more and you see some toppings for your baguette: salami, cheese, ham, spreads etc. Or you can get a pre-made baguette sandwich. Or you can get a cold chicken pasta salad or whatever meal they have that day. Next to that little area are desserts: cakes, donuts, muffins, puddings, tarts, you name it. Next to that is where you can get your typical school lunch. But I’ve yet to try that. After all, why would I when I can eat a baguette and muffin? And don’t think that any of what I said is like that lame old pudding you get at a cafeteria, the ones w here you take a bite and end up only with disappointment. Nope. The desserts and food are really fresh and yummy! OR you can leave the school and go out to a local shop and get something. I’ve gone out once to a sandwich shop!

Dinner: I eat what my host mom makes! Which is very much like what my own mom makes, just with different spices and styles. And then in general they’re different recipes. For example, my first day in Belgium and my host mom made roasted chicken and hot apple sauce- not as a side, I mean the apple sauce was on the chicken.

Also, anyone going to/wanting to go to Belgium, mark down the third Sunday in September. That’s when Brussels has its No Car Day. Cars are not allowed in the city for the entire day. Instead, people are encouraged to walk or bike everywhere. The bus systems and metro are free all day too. The city is turned into a giant fair. There are tents and food and games and rides and music- the entire city is like that! It’s a lot of fun and no matter where you are in Belgium, you should go.

Other random stuff:

I’ve been invited placesssss!!! 😀 WHOOO!!! I’m so happy. There are people here I already consider my friends (not close friends- it’s kind of hard to be close to someone when you can’t understand them) who have asked me to go places with them. I went to watch a movie at a friends house one Wednesday, out to dinner with them, there’s a Halloween party I’ve been invited to as well as a birthday party, so I’m pretty busy this month. There are two girls in particular that I like. They make sure I’m always in the loop and they’ve taken it upon themselves to help me with French. For example, we didn’t have sports class one Tuesday and they spent the entire two hours helping me with pronunciation and learn some phrases they promised to help every time we had a free period together. Also, we had a presentation in Religion class and the teacher wouldn’t let me read a section that my group assigned me to say and afterwards, one of the girls was not happy. She went off on a whole rant that as a teacher, he should concern himself more with his students’ progress and take every chance he could get to help me and you get the idea. Not happy. And it really touched me that she cared so much.

So one of the teachers (history) is a bit easier for me to understand, more so than other teachers. I was pretty happy about this until I learned later that this is because she speaks simply and down to her students. She sounds very condescending, and they hate her for it… :,(

The French language is weird. My host mom says my pronunciation of everything is very good,…except for my R’s. What even is the French R? You roll it, but with your throat. My host mom, in an effort to explain where the sound came from, had me gurgle water. She said that that was the R, just without the water. I’m no closer to mastering that sound. Also weird to me are the words that end in -re. To me, they don’t sound finished. It’s like people just stop halfway through a word and leave the rest unspoken.

As for French in general, I’m not picking it up really, or as fast as I should be. It’s been two months and I still have no idea what’s going on. And because we’re tested in January for fluency (or near fluency), I’m really scared. I don’t want to be sent home, so I’m panicking. I hear other exchange students talk about how far they’ve progressed in their languages and I can’t say that. I really don’t like that Belgium tests us. It’s creating a lot of panic for me when I should be enjoying the culture and my time here.

That being said, I think my lack of progress and the looming threat of being sent home are what’s contributing to my homesickness. Yes, a month and a half in and I was already homesick. To be honest, I didn’t think I would get homesick until way later in my exchange, but here I am. I asked other exchange students, and no one else seems to have it this early except for me and Bailie (who is also sharing my struggle in learning French). Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no where near wanting to go home, but I have started to hate stupid little things about Belgium- like their traffic lights (they’re not across the street, they’re right next to your car so you can’t see them. Also, they have lights in the middle of the intersection, so you have to stop in the middle and wait to finish your turn). And how they only put one little ity bity slice of meat on a sandwich. I’ve also already cried randomly in a department store. I didn’t know my size in European sizes, and instead of just picking some up and trying to figure it out, I cried. 😛 You might think being able to recognize that you’re homesick would help you fight it off. You’d be wrong. I am happy that I’m here though and I’m still excited for the rest of my exchange!

The weather isn’t as bad as people say it is. It doesn’t (or hasn’t yet) really rain all that much, and if it does, it’s mostly just a light sprinkle. Some days have actually been warm and rather nice. Some afternoons it can actually get pretty hot, and once it reached a whopping 79 degree and everyone was dying and I was just sitting there all amused. There were a couple of boys drenched in sweat and I was just thinking they would never survive in Florida.

I think my host mom thought I haven’t ever eaten anything but fast food and junk food in America. I mentioned in my last post that she thought I didn’t like any fruit, but this has extended into real foods too. I’m really confused by it too because she asks if I know/like some really normal foods. Do I know cantaloupe? Mussels? Grapes? Cous cous? Do I like chicken? Rice? French fries? Tomatoes? Garlic? Have I ever had lamb? Pork? Pears?
And then she’ll make weird comments like “I know it’s not McDonalds…” and in the same family, but nothing to do with food: “I know it’s not all technical and automated….” and I don’t know how to respond to that, so I don’t… 🙂 But being here for awhile, I think she’s started to realize I actually do know what’s she’s cooking and I like it. I find that I’m a lot less picky than her own kids. For everyone who knows me- shut up. But she doesn’t cook anything with foods I don’t like….like bananas or fish (except she did make salmon and that was yummy! -aka the only fish I do like). I don’t like fish, but if absolutely forced to, I can eat it and not die. The same cannot be said for Léa and Mattéo. They wouldn’t even touch the fish.

For lunch one day while in France, my host mom made a salad with foie gras, something that looked like bacon but was duck, and another part of the duck that was really dark but I thought was just normal meat. The next day at the butcher, my host bro’s girlfriend pointed out to me something a really dark color and said “that’s what we ate yesterday in the salad.” I have. no. idea. what that was. I knew she was talking about the part I thought was normal meat. It looked like it was a ball of meat inside an oddly shaped structure that had obviously been part of the duck. Idk, it looked like you had to break it to open it. I walked away.

I don’t know if this is just me or not, but it seems like music isn’t as much a part of the culture here as it is at home. In America, almost everyone has a music player and listens to it a lot. We have favorite artists and songs and its very much part of our daily lives. Music can represent our moods and it’s a means of expressing ourselves. In Belgium… not so much. Yes, I see people with ipods (mostly shuffles) and yes people listen to music, but it doesn’t mean as much to them, I don’t think. And a lot of people don’t have any type of mp3 at all. My host siblings don’t.

A lot of the kids in my classes don’t. A couple people in my classes have even told me “I don’t listen to music” and others don’t even know the names of genres of music- rock, pop, country, blues, metal, jazz, alternative, etc. They listen to what plays on the radio, and I’m not sure how many stations there are. If they play an instrument, it’s almost always the piano or violin. Then there are the people that do listen to music, but again, I think it’s more of a means to pass the time on the bus or something rather than something they love to do or care about. I’ve only been here a month, but this has really stood out to me. If I find that I’m wrong, I’ll definitely update to say so! And don’t get me wrong, I have seen people that do seem to care a lot! It just doesn’t seem like the majority.
Side thought: At the Rotary ceremonies or orientations in preparation to coming here, since I don’t really -do- anything, I would always just say I listen to music whenever I was asked my hobbies. But being here now, I realize that that actually -is- something, because it’s not a worldwide thing to do. Apparently.

No one here knows any card games or even how to shuffle. It’s kind of sad, really. I mean, next to not listening to music and playing cards, what do these kids do?

Everyone does two things when they hear I’m from Florida, USA.
1- Them: “Florida!!? You’re from Florida?!” *sighs longingly* “Do you live next to the beach? Are there palm trees everywhere?”
Me: “yes.”
Them: *sighs longingly*
One of my teachers on my first day asked me if I came to Belgium to learn French, and I said yes, because it is true, even if that’s not the whole reason, and he just laughed and said “Of course! That’s that only reason anyone would willingly leave Florida to come to Belgium!” These poor people don’t have much national pride 🙁
2- Them: “Can you drive!?”
Me: “Yeah, I started at 15 when I got my permit and I got my license when I was 16.”
Them: “Wow! You’re so lucky, we have to wait until we’re 18.”
Note that I do emphasize that we’re behind the wheel at 15 because earlier I said we started to learn at 15, and they said they started to learn at 17, but it’s not the same. They’re not allowed to drive until they’re 18. All they do at 17 is study the mechanics of it out of a book.

One last thing! When I was writing my essay about Belgium, I contacted a Belgian guy and asked him what teenagers do as after-school activities. He said that stereotypically, girls ride horses. And I was just like whaaa-? That’s stereotypical? Well I’m here to say, yes. Yes it is. I’m taking lessons myself 🙂 My teacher says I’m doing well, but she’s probably just trying to make me feel good.

Tue, October 14, 2014

August 20th, 2014: 3 days in Belgium!
So my flight left Jacksonville on the 17th of August, at 2:11 pm. It was on time and even arrived 30 minutes early. We (Bailie and I) found our flight to Atlanta with relative ease and there we met up with a girl from New Jersey, Megan. We all went over to Brussels on an 8 hour overnight flight. I watched two movies and tried to get sleep but couldn’t 🙁
The flight landed in Brussels at 8:30 am and I guess not getting up even once on the flight was a bad idea because once I did get up, I felt faint and had to sit back down (for the record: Mom, I did eat. I ate a lot on the flight actually) and had to ask the flight attendants for some water. But I was okay! I did lose track of Bailie and Megan though, they both got carried away with the crowd.
Once in the airport it was a madhouse of people in line for customs. Hundreds of people. Apparently every international flight landed at the same time. I saw Bailie in the distance and somehow Megan got behind me? Customs was really easy and took like 2 seconds. Then I met my host family and they seem so nice!! They’re very welcoming and I think I will like them very much. Before we got home, they stopped at a bread shop and bought bread (baguettes and croissants ) for breakfast. They were yummy 🙂 After that I wandered up to my room and crashed for like 4 hours. During that period, I’m not going to lie, I felt pretty bad. I cried and pretty much doubted every choice I had made. Not to mention my stomach hurt! I’m pretty sure it was jet lag because 1) I looked it up in my handy-dandy outbound handbook and 2)the next day, I felt so much better, so don’t worry mom and dad!
I did get up eventually, and I’m glad I did because my family took me to a fair that was in town. It was so cute!! They had animals and rides and it was such a stereotypical fair that it was adorable. I went with my host mom and youngest brother to the grocery store to get food for dinner. I think they might buy food each day before dinner. I can’t say for sure, but so far everything looks pretty similar in price range. My family eats a lot of veggies, which I’m not a fan of, but I’ll make do. And somehow my host mom has it in her head that I don’t like fruit? I’m not sure why, but I’ve happily eaten the tomatoes and cantaloupe she’s offered so far. And for the love of God they have so many tomatoes. The pile of tomatoes is so tall! We even had a dinner of stuffed tomatoes, and my host mom made 12 and it didn’t even make a dent in the pile of tomatoes.
So far my family has been speaking to me in English, so I’m not sure how much French I’ll end up learning before school starts, but we’ll see. I can understand why kids say they don’t like to arrive more than a few days before school starts, it’s awkward doing basically nothing. I try to study French, but again…we’ll see.
The first night I slept for like 14 hours- I think it surprised my host family that it was even possible to sleep that long… oops. The second day of my exchange was my host sister Noémie’s birthday. She turned 21. She’s mentally handicapped, but so sweet.
As I’m writing this, it’s the third day of my exchange. I’m not really doing anything, no one is really doing anything… My family will be taking me on a trip to France after my host brother Corentin turns 18 and leaves for Canada for his exchange (they’ll be having a party in a few days to celebrate both). By going on the trip, I’ll miss the meeting of all inbounds in Belgium. It’s the only time all inbounds will get to meet each other, so I won’t get the chance to trade pins there. They’ll also get to go into the palace, so I’m sad.
I have one more older host brother, Guillaume who’s 22 and 2 more younger host siblings: Léa who’s 14 and Mattéo who’s 12. Léa is eager to help me find whatever I need, but usually Léa and Mattéo just run around and play together or watch tv (and not cartoons, like the news or documentaries)
Some differences I’ve noticed so far, I’m going to list them all, even the obvious ones:
1- Roads and cars are smaller. But not just this, the ceilings to garages are smaller too. Like a normal sized truck back home would not physically have fit. The ceiling was max 6.5 feet.
2- The band-aids are different! They’re more of a cloth texture and they’re waaay stickier. At least my family’s are.
3- Kisses are done as greeting, one on the left cheek. Once you’re introduced, you’re basically required to do so in greeting or leaving.
4- You’re (unspokenly) expected to eat all the food on your plate. And don’t for a second believe the portions are smaller, because they’re not. They’re just as big as back home. And then these people go for seconds and thirds! If you physically cannot finish what is on your plate (like me), someone else will eat it. I don’t eat a lot as it is, but I’m flabbergasted by how much they expect me to eat. Already on the second night my host dad gave me a smaller portion 😛
5- At least in my house, there’s no central air. Only problem, I don’t know how the heat works. There’s a radiator in my room, but I do not know how to use it. And that whole “heat rises” rule apparently does not apply to this house because it is degrees colder upstairs.
6- People leave their doors and windows open, except this lets flies in. Only thing, no one notices them. I’ll bat them away but the rest of the family doesn’t even register their existence. (I’ve asked a few other people, this is not just my family).
7- There are no sheets on the beds, only covers
8- There’s no bags in stores. Whatever you buy, you walk out with in hand. Also, the people who work in stores aren’t as friendly/helpful. You know when you walk into a store and someone who works there (usually) comes up and asks if you need anything, or if you look a little lost they’ll ask to help you. Nope. I was looking for a hairdryer and the one they had on display wasn’t below with the other hair dryers. There was a lady right next to me for the entire time I was looking and not once did she ask if I needed help 🙁 By the time I gave up looking and was trying to word in my head how to ask this lady for help, my host dad walked up and helped me.
I’ll update with more differences (because I know I love reading those) and more experiences once school starts in a few weeks (September 4th).

Wed, Aug. 20, 2014

Stephanie - Thailand

Hometown:Jacksonville, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Riverside Jacksonville, Florida
Host District: District 3350
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Siquare

My Bio

Hi! My name is Stephanie Bird. I am 17 years old and currently a senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. I am a piano major, and I have been playing piano since I was 5 years old. I enjoy taking music classes at school such as electronic music and music history. After my exchange I plan to go to Florida State University to study music therapy. One of my favorite things to do is travel. When I was two years old I lived in Thailand with my family for one year. I’m excited to go back again, but I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about being on my own. Over the summer I went to France and Belgium for two weeks with a group from school. It was the best trip I’ve ever been on, and I loved being able to immerse myself in a different culture, even though it was a very short trip. I was inspired to apply for this program by my older sister Sarah, who went on an exchange to India a couple of years ago. It was a great experience for her, and I hope I can learn as much from my journey as she did from hers. Thank you so much Rotary for this great opportunity!

Journals: Stephanie – Thailand

From March 26-April 1, my district in Thailand had a bus trip to the south of Thailand. During this trip, I saw the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. If anyone is ever traveling to Thailand, I highly recommend going to the beaches in the south (which is what most people go for anyways, right?) and taking a boat tour to see some of the islands. This trip was very special to me because when I was a baby, my parents were missionaries in Thailand for one year and we visited the south. I have photos from 15 years ago in the same places that I just visited.

I was actually really surprised because the trip was very well organized. Day by day we had a schedule that showed us everything we would do that day, and the times when we had free time or when we had to be somewhere. During the trip, we went snorkeling, boating, swimming, a little bit of rock climbing, shopping and watched some Thai shows. The best show was called “Phuket Fantasea.” It was really incredible because in the show, they had live animals such as chickens, sheep, a tiger and even elephants. We ate a lot of sea food and a few international buffets, which were really delicious but kind of my worst enemy because it’s so easy to eat a lot and not even realize it.

The most breathtaking part of the trip for me was not all of the beautiful places, but the beautiful people we met along the way. One day on the trip, we went to an island and did community service at a school there. The tour guide told us that most of the children that go to the school never leave that island. They usually just become fishermen or open a shop on the island. The kids were all really sweet and so happy that we were there. My friend and I did the Hokey Pokey with our group, and I think we had more fun than the kids did. They couldn’t speak English so they were really confused about what we were trying to teach them but they really liked all the jumping around. I was really sad to leave them because I bonded with them and I wanted to take them with me! Also our tour guide was really amazing; shout out to Brittney for calling us the Rotary Bioches for the whole trip and making us laugh when we were tired and grouchy.

The trip was sanook makh (very fun) overall. Even with all the sunburns and cuts and bruises (from the rocks under the water) I feel really fortunate to have had that opportunity to see “Unseen Thailand” with Rotary and all my YE friends.

 Wed, April 8, 2015

I cannot believe I have lived in Thailand for seven months. I still remember the feeling of when I first arrived and saw my host family in the airport, when everything was completely new to me. The feeling of being somewhere new, completely alone, is insane. Sometimes, it’s so uncomfortable to the point where you just want to get on a plane and go home. But the great thing about exchange is that you can’t.

You are in your country for one year, with barely any contact to your family and friends back home. That’s not a bad thing though, and honestly, the less you talk to your friends and family back home, the easier it is to make new friends and learn the new language. It’s amazing to make the friendships that you make on exchange because you never know how long you will be able to see the people you meet. Some days I meet entire crowds of people and take literally hundreds of photos, and I know I will most likely never s ee those people again. I also lived with an exchange student from Indonesia for one week, and she was one of the best friends I made here, even though our time together was really short. Exchange really makes you appreciate every friendship and acquaintance that you make.

The thing about being an exchange student in Thailand, or any part of Asia really, is that you will never really feel like you are “Thai.” That is really hard for me. I know that no one will ever mistake me for a Thai person, I have blonde hair and blue eyes, not to mention my skin is pastier than white rice. I have a really good host family, and most days I really feel like I am really my host mom’s daughter. She always tells people that I am; she says “The foreigner really is my daughter, it is my fault because I have two husbands.” (hahaha I love her) There are quite a few people here that think I really am Thai even though I don’t look Asian at all.

There a lot more days where everyone just stares at me like I am an alien and calls me “farong” (foreigner). Sometimes, even my teachers at school are scared to talk to me because they think I can’t speak Thai. As soon as I try to speak to them in Thai they relax a lot and get really excited because they know they can talk with me (which is really adorable until they start speaking rapid Thai and I don’t understand anything).

My most memorable time in Thailand was in November, when I went to live in a temple for one week. My councilor organized a trip for me and a few other exchange students to go study Buddhism and meditation in a temple in the north of Thailand. The temple itself was absolutely amazing, it was in the mountains and we could see some little villages from the top. During that week, we walked barefoot for a few miles every morning at 5 am with our teacher, and only ate two meals a day; one in the morning and one at noon. We spent the day meditating, doing yoga, and learning about Buddhism from 24 year old monk who used to live in Australia. This experience taught me to really appreciate every moment and to not worry too much about anything, especially about the things that I cannot control.

I am really enjoying my time in Thailand more than I could have ever imagined. Thailand was not my first choice, but now I cannot picture doing my exchange anywhere else. Thai people are always extremely kind and helpful, and my family always helps me with everything that I need. My RYE friends always have my back and support me through everything. Thai food is indescribably amazing. I am even starting to enjoy the 100° weather every day. The only bad thing is that in a little less than 4 months, I have to leave this amazing country. I just want to say thank you to Rotary for making this possible. 😀

 Tue, March 17, 2015

Almost two weeks in Thailand! 

It’s only been two weeks since my exchange adventures began. So much has happened already! I’ve seen so many new styles and people and experienced culture shock beyond my expectations. I first set foot in Thailand on August 11th. My host family is so sweet. They made a poster for me with my picture and my name on it. My exhaustion from traveling for 26 hours disappeared when I saw them! I hugged my host mom, and then we took a bunch of pictures together. The whole family was there to greet me. There is another exchange student living with my family from France, and she arrived the same day as I did. It was a 3 hour drive from the Bangkok airport to my home in Nakhonsawan. It was all a blur when we got home. I remember showering then going to sleep.

The first morning in a new place is always kind of awkward. I didn’t know what to do, so I found my host mom and she took me to get breakfast. I was surprised when we hopped on a Vespa and drove 5 minutes up the street to get some rice and orange juice. My host family gave me a Thai name, Saruta Suesontaranon, and a nickname, Ohm. My first day, we ate Italian food for lunch and Chinese food for dinner. The “Italian” food was noodles, onion rings and pizza. For dinner, the whole family came. Cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents. We ate so much. All of the food was new to me. They encouraged me to try everything. The next morning, one of my host sisters, Earn, left to go to Colorado. It was very very sad. My whole host family cried. I wanted to cry even though I just met her 26 hours prior to her departure. That day we went to a huge outside market, and to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Amelie, the French exchange student, is here for one month on a short term exchange. My family wants to show her everything in her one month here. I am not starting school until she leaves so that we can see Thailand together. So far, we have seen a lookout in Nakhonsawan, a few temples, a crocodile show, two aquariums (one of which had a poster for the Everglades in Florida!), a waterfall, and many animals. My kun dah, grandpa, took us to feed monkeys the other day. We threw about 3 dozen bananas from the safety of our car.

My favorite part about Thailand so far, besides all of the smiling people, is my host dad’s resort. He owns this hue resort/museum that’s home to thousands of trees and a bunch of animals. My host family and I stayed there one for night. I was confused when we first got there, because we had a long day of watching Muay Thai, and it was late at night. When I woke up and looked outside, I realized I was in a very beautiful place. My host dad collects ancient artifacts from all over the world, such as Chinese porcelain and French silver. He has a bunch of old record players and juke boxes with American 80s music!

So far, other than being mildly confused at all times, I’m really happy in Thailand. Thank you Rotary for this awesome opportunity!

Fri, August 22, 2014

Stuart - Germany

Hometown:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Ponte Vedra Beach Sunset, Florida
Host District: District 1870
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Neuss

My Bio

Hello! My name is Stuart, and I will be spending a year in Germany! I am currently seventeen years old, living in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. I feel like I can’t do this without thanking everyone first, kind of like the Oscars. To Jeff Hart, Daphne Cameron, Al Kalter, Bob White, and everyone else involved in my exchange, thank you endlessly for your help! And of course, thank you to my mom and dad, for putting up with my last minute problems, and for helping me with my application. So, about me. I like to surf, and be around friends. Preferably both at the same time. I love being outdoors, and finding new and cool places (I guess that’s the “adventurer” part of me Rotary was looking for). I also love to film things. A lot of things. When I see something I like, I enjoyed doing, or is cool in some sort of way, I want to share that. Be it a ski trip, a football game, or even just a sunrise in the back yard, someone will take joy in watching it. So to my future host families, if you’re reading this, do not be surprised if we first meet with a camera strapped to my head. The application process was long, and stressful. When I finally heard that I had been excepted, I’m not sure if I was relieved that I was going, or that it was all over. All of the lost sleep, paper work, interviews, and nervousness, was more than worth it. And I’m sure all of my fellow outbounds feel the same, but there is no way to express the excitement and curiosity that I feel towards what is to come. That, and the long wait until we actually leave. That’s the worst part.

Journals: Stuart – Germany

It hasn’t been too long since my last one of these, however I figure I should make up for my lack of journals and just start pumping out what I can more often. I’m at about month 5 or so right now. Everything has slowly started to become more and more normal, easy, and just more fun in general. So here’s a recap on some things and some other things, as best as I can tell them.

I’m currently living with my second host family, on a nice (and rather large) farm just outside of town. I of course spent Christmas here, where we had the entire family over. German Christmas is definitely different. My favorite thing being the markets. Starting in late November or early December, many towns have Christmas markets, filled with little sort of huts, decorated all festive, with all sorts of nic-nacs and sweets for sale. And of course, Glühwein, a traditional German drink usually reserved for the Christmas season. It’s a sweet, sugary kind of wine served hot. And let me tell you, people buy that stuff and down it like it’s hot chocolate.

Unlike in the US, Germans don’t put up their Christmas trees until a day or two before Christmas, and then leave it up a few days to a few weeks afterwards. The only thing about the Christmas trees here that I still seriously can’t wrap my head around is they way they do the lights. That’s just the thing, there aren’t any lights- There’s candles. Yes, candles. Like real ones. With fire. ON THE TREE. As a person who’s lit a Christmas tree on fire before, I still don’t understand why anyone would think that’s even remotely a good idea. I even asked and nobody seemed to think it was a bad idea. At one point a relative asked if I wanted to help light the candles. It’s probably the only thing I’ve given a definite “NEIN” to while here, because quite frankly I don’t want to share any responsibility for when the house burns to the ground.

Christmas is also celebrated more so on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day. Presents and everything are done in the evening. In the US the religion part of Christmas is slowly and slowly fading, where as in Germany it’s certainly the opposite. A big part of it is Advent. If your family is Christian, then of course you go to a church service Christmas eve. For whatever reason a thing people eat on Christmas eve here is Fondue. Delicious never the less. The next day was possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. Fresh, locally hunted fawn venison (Bambi meat), made into a Gulasch type deal with this soft pasta kind of stuff.

As my family lives on a farm, throughout most of the year they’re, well, farming. And summer is especially busy. In Autumn, everything is harvested, and prepped for the next year’s planting. And in winter, nothing. Paperwork and a cup of coffee. So every winter my family takes a vacation to Austria to ski, and they were incredibly nice and decided to take me with them. And let me tell you, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. We drove all the way there (7 hours total), spending a night on the Bodensee before heading to our ski resort, Obergurgl. I’ve already been skiing a few times, so seeing snow and mountains and all that wasn’t anything too new, but still always a little breath taking.

We were all rather concerned when we got there, as there wasn’t too much snow for being halfway through winter. However, the first three or four days of skiing was nothing but heavy snow. At one point on the mountain, visibility dropped to about 100 ft. Because it had been snowing so heavily for so long, I actually really hadn’t seen any of the surrounding mountains. Although, there were still breath taking views here and there.

At one point I was waiting with the group at the bottom of a hill, stuffed between some trees sitting in the snow. I was looking up the mountain waiting for the others, and for just a few minutes the clouds cleared a little. Although it wasn’t much, the dark outline of a pointy mountain appeared, dwarfing the one we were on. It was the first I had really seen, so I really didn’t have any idea of the surrounding views.

The few days were mostly completely clear, and also incredibly beautiful. Because it had been snowing so heavily the first few days, there was heaps of fresh snow. And because it had also been so windy, cold, and just generally awful weather, most of it was untouched. It was possibly the best skiing I’ve ever had, and ever will. It was nothing but knee deep powder that never stopped.

On the first clear day we went to a high point on the mountain, which over looked a vast range of mountains that continued into Italy. Despite the awful wind and cold on some days, it was still some of the most fun skiing I’ve ever done. We were all in ski school groups, and eventually people who weren’t asked if they could join until the bottom simply because they had lost all orientation of where to go.

The whole trip also made me realize how (for lack of better term) “Germanized” I had become since arriving. At least a third of everyone there was English, and I was constantly noticing differences, where as a few months ago everything would have just been the same.

Because it had been snowing so heavily for so long, I actually really hadn’t seen any of the surrounding mountains. As for New Years, I actually fell asleep early. But right as I was just about asleep, the clock struck twelve. Which meant fireworks. Twenty minutes worth the fireworks. After six days of skiing, we packed up and drove to Munich, where we spent two nights with some of my host dad’s family.

As far as other adventures go, it’s come to be an unfortunately sad time of the year. While most students arrive in the district in August, some come in January. So when myself and the other 50 some exchange students arrived in Germany, a dozen or so had already been here for ten months. Mostly from Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Over the past few months, especially since I haven’t really been in school, these people have come to be some of my closest friends, with the best memories. Sometimes it was walking up a mountain, sometimes it was hunting down a Chinese buffet outside the airport. Never the less, some of the most best people I’ve ever met. It’s been bitter sweet the past few weeks, as it’s come time for all of them to go home. With that, it also made me realize not only how fast time goes by, but how great the little things are that you never thought about. Before this point, I never really thought about the things we’ve done. But now it’s a hard reality that some of those things aren’t going to happen again.

We used to meet Friday nights at a spot in Dusseldorf on the Rhein river at least once a month, but it’s a strange feeling that it won’t really happen again. Even small things like just hanging out in a train for hours, bouncing between cities. It’s really made me just sort of slow down, and cherish things a little bit more than I did before, as I’ve realized that my year away is a lot shorter than a year. I keep thinking about “the end of my exchange” as being this mystical, imaginary far away point in time that I’ll eventually reach. Kind of like the way one would think about the end of the school year.

Of course, no I’m not at the end. I’ve still got time, but put into perspective it almost still feels like I’ve only been here a few weeks, but yet with no time left. What’s also hard is not really being able to share what you’re experiencing. Sure, you can send photos back home, send some candy in the mail and tell a story over Skype. But I can’t ever just introduce someone to my friends back home, or my family, I can’t just take someone to see a place, or try a new food.

Culture wise, Germany isn’t too different from the US. With that said, I never really thought about anything being too grand. I may not be Alice in Wonderland, but I’ve still come to realize there’s just great little things. Like taking the morning train over the Rhein, or just being goofy with friends in the Christmas markets. It’s just not something that can be shared. So for those of you new outbounds who may or may not be reading this, take note. Time goes fast, and there won’t always be a next time. The Rotex and Rotarians will always tell you to make the most of your exchange in any way possible, and the easiest start is by just cherishing whatever it is you’re doing.

 Tue, January 6, 2015

So, my first entry. Finally stopped putting this off. Just gonna go ahead and give my apologies to Rotary, should have done this a while ago. BUT, better late than never! I’ve been in Germany for almost exactly four months now. Over those four months I’ve both seen, learned, and experienced a lot. So I guess I’ll get to explaining myself.

The whole adventured started a few months ago in this mysterious place people call “The Jacksonville International Airport”. Originally my flights were simple- Hop on a plane to Atlanta, sit around and eat some chinese food for a while, then get on another plane straight to Dusseldorf. But that’s just too good to be true, isn’t it? About a half hour or so before boarding, the pilot came to address everyone. It was something along the lines of “We’re really sorry, but we ran into something the size of a bowling ball and the engine’s a little messed up”. So instead, I ended up getting rerouted through NYC-JFK, where I was blessed with the opportunity to take a lovely sprint across one of the world’s largest airports. I then got on a flight to Amsterdam, where I again, I found myself running through the airport. There I encountered European customs- something I wasn’t really expecting until Germany. With not a lot of time until my flight, I talked my way through with the nice Dutch customs officer, who I think was just as confused as I was. I finally arrived in Dusseldorf, 25 hours after I had originally gotten to JAX. And of course, hadn’t slept a bit. My family was waiting for me at the airport, and we made the short drive to what would be my new home.

I live in the town of Neuss, a relatively small town just over the Rhein river from Dusseldorf. It’s mainly industrial, with factories and smoke towers scattered across town. Neuss rather beautiful, with a busy main street, trams, old buildings and a few beautiful churches. It’s located in the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, an eastern state bordering Holland. Neuss is also about 20 minutes (by train) north of Cologne. My new family’s house was only about a three minute walk from the train station, and a fifteen minute walk to school.

There’s really no good way to put it, but my first few weeks were rather exciting and exhausting. After two weeks, started this thing called Schutzenfest. I really hadn’t grasped the scale of it until it came around. Essentially it was five days of a (VERY) German celebration. What does it celebrate? Still no idea. I don’t even think most people in it know, but it’s fun and that’s all that matters. It’s almost non-stop parades, meals, and various parties and what not. I was given the opportunity to march in one of the first parades, which was absolutely incredible. At one point was the “Fackelzug” parade, which was two hours of hundreds of light-up paper parade float things. Some of which were rather impressive. The next morning was the Koenig’s Parade, in which all 7,550 participants marched through the town in their various uniforms. On the last day was a shooting “competition”, although I found it a little easy and no t much of a competition. However, still great to watch.

During October, myself and the other 50-some inbound exchange students in my district were able to go on our district’s Deutschland Tour. For about two weeks, we travelled essentially around the border of Germany in a big ole bus touring various city’s and places. Our first stop was Heidelberg (more beautiful than it sounds), then a drive through the Black Forest, and then Freiburg (Actually looks about like it sounds), a ferry across the Bodensee (big giant lake thing at the bottom of the country), and I think everyone’s favorite stop was the next, Oberammergau. It’s really just a small Bavarian town, settled into a valley.

Our youth hostel was way up on a hill, with a road steep enough that the bus couldn’t handle the road-which meant walking. However the view along the way was well worth it. At the top it was absolutely beautiful, overlooking the town with a mountain to either side. Through out the trip, we were eating breakfast and dinner in our youth hostels, and lunch was on us. This one was certainly a change. The place offered a deal, where it’s all you can eat. If you run the kitchen out of food, then it’s completely free. I can assure you it was not free, but we didn’t go down without a fight. I think ate at least a dozen pieces of schnitzel. And of course we got to visit one of Germany’s most famous places, Schloss Neuschwanstein. Still can’t pronounce it in one try.

We also got to visit the memorial site of one of Germany’s larger concentration camps, Dachau. Walking through everything was strange to say the least. We moved onto Munich, Rothenberg, Dresden, Berlin, and Hamburg. One of the best parts of everything was getting to spend time with a lot of awesome people from all over the world, and also the shenanigans to go with it. Singing along to Abba and various songs in the back of the bus, and all 50 of us suddenly yelling “AUSSTEIGEN” (Get off) in the subways never got old. At one point one guy managed to break an entire door. We mysteriously lost two people in the red-light district of Hamburg for two hours. Making fun of our Rotex, for being (although great), the absolute worst people on the planet. I’ll never forget that three mile walk to see a cathedral that was entirely covered by scaffolding, from a tucked away corner by a construction site. Forgetting my passport and hanging out in the Berlin train station instead of the government building. Wouldn’t have changed any of it.

For my first four months, I haven’t actually been in school. Instead, my host club placed me in two different German courses, that lasted about all day. The first, was actually at my new highschool. However it was mainly ages 8-13, the teacher spoke just about no English, and also never gave me any actual lessons. So after a few weeks I put in a request to be removed. However instead of getting circulated into school, I was then moved to another course located in Dusseldorf. This one turned out to be far, far better though and actually really enjoyable. With that said, after four months I’m able to hold up a conversation, answer questions, and understand about half of what is being taught in school. I’m currently only in my first week. German school however is much like American highschool. There’s no sport teams, or really any elective classes either. But, it runs a lot more like a college. Your schedule is different every day, which is nice. So you only have each subject two or three times per week. You’re also aloud to actually leave school. So if your teacher isn’t there, ya just go home. A lot of people leave or go home for lunch as well. Looking at it now, I find it rather ridiculous how it’s such a big deal to leave campus back home.

There’s not too much different in culture, by as time goes on you find more and more. It’s however mainly just little things. Where the line generally gets drawn is politics.

-Food: Bread. It’s the answer to everything. It’s generally what’s eaten with breakfast, usually with butter and some sort of jelly. Sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner, but then with some slices of salami or cheese. Coming from eating Angie’s or Firehouse Subs on a weekly basis, I’m convinced Germans just haven’t had someone explaint to them the potential a sandwich can have. Table manners are for the most part the same, except you eat just about everything with a fork and knife. Especially if you’re in a restaurant. I think I’ve finally got the hang of eating pizza like this.

-Sleeping: There’s a pillow case for the blanket. Found that interesting. The blankets are also just big enough for one person, even if it’s a larger bed, and even if there’s two people in the same bed. My family also sleeps with the windows open. Still can’t wrap my head around this, as it drops below zero during the night.

-Commuting: Trains. Trains everywhere. And busses too. You really don’t have to drive anywhere, you can just take a train. My host club pays for a regional transportation pass as well, so I can pretty much get where ever I need to go, up to three hours north of me. People also take their bikes everywhere. They’re also treated more like cars here. You have to have a light at night, use the bike path, or ride in the road. If it’s a one way street, you have to go in that direction. It’s actually not unlikely to get a ticket from the police while on a bike. People also will always stop at crosswalks for those lights. Like, the ones that tell you when you can cross. Even if there’s no oncoming traffic in either direction what so ever, if the light’s red, you stay.

-Fashion. Well, it’s European. But it sometimes makes me laugh. Some people follow really, really closely to fashion trends. People everywhere wear those yellow/tan Timberland construction worker boots. Every one. You walk past any shoe store and there’s a wide selection of almost identical construction worker boots. I can also tell you that there are more people wearing Chicago Bulls hats in Dusseldorf than there are actually in Chicago. Sometimes people just wear big snapback hats with “New York” or “Miami” written on it. I’m still not understanding it.

-Driving: My god it’s like a roller coaster. Everything is fast. EVERYTHING. Accelerate fast, stop fast, fast speed limits, fast turning, fast everything. There is no relaxing and cruising on a German highway. But at the same time, it’s rather nice.

Okay, so some of that may have come off negative (I think everyone has that problem when writting these), but don’t get me wrong, Germany is absolutely wonderful and absolutely great. I’m looking forward to every day, and every new opportunity. So that’s my journal. They’re a lot harder to sit down and write than you’d think. But I promise to write another one (for the most part) on time!

Wed, December 10, 2014

Sydney - Peru

Hometown:St.Johns, Florida
School: Creekside High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Bartram Trail, Florida
Host District: District TBA
Host Club: TBA

My Bio

¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás? Me llamo Sydney Hale and I’m going to Peru! I have lived all my life in the beautiful town of St. Johns, Florida. I am 17 years old and my birthday is New Year’s Eve. My parents are Rick and Kerry and my two siblings are Aaron(27) and Kendall(18). I love competitive cheerleading and hanging out with my friends. I am learning to surf and have a 9-foot yellow long board I named “Big Al.” I have a Basenji named “Izzy” and 2 red-foot tortoises named “Speedy” and “Tank.” My sister was an Exchange Student in 2012-2013 and lived in Poland. She was a huge inspiration because I saw what a great program Rotary Youth Exchange was and what an impact it has had on her life. I am extremely excited to have been selected as one of the 2013-2014 Exchange Students and I can’t believe I will be living in Peru in less than 8 months! People dream about when they will encounter a life altering experience or for their life to begin; well mine begins this summer! I know exactly when my adventure will begin and I can’t wait! Thank you so much Rotary for giving me this life changing opportunity! Traveling through South America, learning different cultures and languages, and meeting new people will make memories and friendships that will last forever. How could you not be excited?

Tatyana - Hungary

Hometown:Orange Park, Florida
School: Fleming Island High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Fleming Island, Florida
Host District: District 1911
Host Club: Szentes-Csongrad

My Bio

Szia! My name is Tatyana Lewis, I am 17 years old and I will be spending a year in Szentes, Hungar I am very happy it is where I get to spend my year! I live in a home of eight people, my parents, my aunt, my two sisters, my two nephews, and myself. I love art, music, and reading. My favorite outside activity to do is play soccer. I attend Fleming Island High School and am going into my 12th year of high school. I am inNJROTC and I love it and spend most of my time working with it. I really love animals and I volunteer at the Jacksonville Zoo every chance that I get.When I grow older I wish to be a Zoologist. I have a lot of support in doing this exchange and when it is over I hope totravel the world as much as I can.I am really happy to be going on exchange and I can’t thank Rotary, my family, and host family enough for allowing me to partake in this experience. Köszönöm! Búcsú!

Journals: Tatyana – Hungary

December: Okay, so December was a pretty cool month.

On December 6th, all of the exchange students went to Györ. We stayed in a school’s housing dormitories for 3 days. In Hungary, it is a tradition that on December 6th, Santa comes to visit you and gives you a bag of chocolate. But to receive this gracious gift, you have to give something to Santa, so what we exchange students did was preform for him. The American exchange students sang Jingle Bell Rock and offered him cookies (since cookie offering is what we usually do for Santa).

The rest of my days were pretty chill, around mid-December we had winter break. The day right before, my friends and I did a Secret Santa and I received tights, chocolate, and earrings. On the 24th of December we had a Christmas eve dinner and of course on the 25th we celebrated Christmas. I received Oreos, slippers, chocolate, a sweat jacket that says Hungary on it, and a Rubik’s Cube (they originated in Hungary). We had more fancy dinners until the 27th.

On the 27th-29th my friend Axel, from Australia, visited me in Szentes. We went ice-skating…which I failed horribly at and had dinner with our friend Zita; my YEO’s daughter (awesome people). On the 28th we woke up to snow…the first time in December. We immediately changed into warmer clothing and ran outside, almost slipping on the steps of the porch. We were having so much fun throwing snowballs and making tracks in the snow. I decided to take Axel out to the country side trail because I knew there would be a lot more snow to play in…what I forgot was that it had rained a couple of days in a row a few days prior and had frozen over…and the snow covered it. We had a lot of fun figuring out which part of the ground was safe to step on and which part was a half frozen puddle that we might fall in! Unfortunately all things must come to an end and Axel had to go back to Debrecen on the 29th. And that was my December!!!

 Sun, February 15, 2015

Sziasztok!

I am Tatyana and I am currently living in Szentes, Hungary! I have been here for a little over four months now so I most likely have a lot to say.

Month 1 week 1: My first week was kind of crazy. It was actually crazy starting the first day! All of my flights were delayed due to one reason or the other. And due to the flight delay from Atlanta to Amsterdam was so long, I missed my flight to Budapest by 30 minutes. Paxton (another exchange student from Florida and going to Hungary) and I had to reschedule our flights but instead of going from Amsterdam and straight to Budapest, we had to go to Rome first and then Budapest. We were racing against the clock because we had to get to our camp by the 10th of August and it was already 7-something in the evening on the 10th. By the time we arrived in Budapest it was about 12:40 a.m. But we had a problem…our bags weren’t there. We waited until we were almost the only people in the airport to see if our bags would turn up but they didn’t. Paxton went to go file missing bag reports and then we were off to our camp in Szeged.

We arrived at our camp at about 2:30 a.m. on August 11th. We went to sleep and woke up later that day to start our new life in Hungary. I woke up that morning and met so many new and wonderful people. The days passed by quickly and everything was going well except for one thing…I still didn’t have my bags and I only had the clothes on my body and one extra pair. I was gross but I had to deal with it. We did some pretty cool stuff while we were at the camp though. We went to a Museum and had a cook out, went to one of the biggest water parks in Szeged, and unintentionally raced in Dragon boats.

My favorite experience while at the camp was when a few of us needed to go to the convenience store and we had already missed the departure earlier that day. Due to this, one of the instructors, Evett, took the five of us later that day. When we went to the convenience store near the camp it was already closed so she took us to one that was a little further away, but that one was also closed. Still needing things from the store, Evett took us to the center of Szeged. We walked around and got to sight see. Since by the time we would reach camp and dinner would be over we got to eat at McDonalds. On our way back, Axel (an exchange student from Australia) and I saw a cotton candy stand and bought the largest one possible. Almost to the camp, all of us were tired of walking. One of the people in our group said that they knew another way into the camp that would be a lot quicker and sure enough, they did, but that didn’t mean that it was an actual entrance to the camp. It was more like slipping through a hole in the fence.

Month 1 week 2: The second week at the camp was when our families came to pick us up. Before they came, all of us swapped pins and cards and took a big group picture. Finally my family came to pick me up and I was off to Szentes. My host mom asked me basic questions about myself on the ride. At one point in time my host brother, Maste, and my host mom were discussing something. My host mom turned to me and asked if I liked dogs and I responded with a simple yes. In turn she replied with “Good, the puppy that Maste brought home is yours.” And that my friends and family is how I ended up with a puppy in Hungary. I was really happy and to add to my happiness, my host dad bought me a bouquet of flowers. One thing that they taught us at camp was that when you greet someone in Hungary, you hug them while you give them a kiss on each cheek. They told us that since we are new to Hungary, we don’t have to do that right away since it might make us feel uncomfortable. Well I had to learn to accept it pretty quickly because as soon as I got home I met my youngest host brother, Benedek, and that is how he greeted me. Later that day I met my other host brother, Máté. The rest of this month was used for me to get settled into my new accommodations.

Month 2: September 12th is when school started. I had classes with Máté even though he is in 11th grade and I should be in 12th. It took 3 whole days for people to talk to me. I learned that Hungarians were pretty shy so I didn’t just go up and start talking to them because I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable. So I waited until they were comfortable enough to talk to me. That is how I met my four friends; Bianka, Bogi, Enikó, and Chenge.

If I am spending a day alone or just want to hang out with someone I go to my friend Meron. Meron is an exchange student from New York. She was originally supposed to be living in Eger but her host family moved to Szentes before she got here. Sometime late November or early December she will be going to her new host family in Eger and I will be the only foreign exchange student in Szentes. At one point in September, my family took a trip to Eger for Máté’s Water Polo match. While we we re there in Eger we visited a very famous castle from the 1600’s. Eger was under Turkish rule for over 400 years.

Month 3: October was an exciting month. October 17th to the 19th I was in Vienna, Austria with the Hungarian exchange students and Austrian exchange students. We went around and visited historical sites and ate delicious food. In Hungary, they don’t celebrate Halloween. But Rotary in Debrecen set up a Halloween party. I went as Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures. But it was really fun. On Saturday, everyone who didn’t live in Debrecen started to head home. Me being who I am misread my departure time for my train. My train left at 12:24 but I thought it left at 12:48. There were no other trains going to Szentes that day so I was stuck in Debrecen with no one to stay with. Thankfully Axel’s host parents said that I could stay with them and so I got to stay an extra day in Debrecen.

Month 4: It is now November and nothing much has happened except that I spent 50000 forints on 3 articles of winter clothing. I honestly hope I do not have to go shopping anymore because shopping stresses me out. Around the end of October and beginning of November, my computer crashed and took forever fixing itself. This is actually the 4th time that I have written this journal. But now, thankfully, my computer is fixed and I can turn this journal in.

I would like to thank my home Rotary and my host Rotary again for allowing this to be possible. I would also like to thank my family and host family for also allowing this to be possible.

Köszönöm,
Tatyana
SZIASZTOK

Mon, November 24, 2014

Tiffany - Brazil

Hometown:St. Augustine, Florida
School: St. Augustine High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:St. Augustine, Florida
Host District: District 4550
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Itabuna

My Bio

Oi! My name is Tiffany Shave and in less than a year I will be living in the amazing country of Brazil! When I found out that Brazil was where I would be going I could not have been happier. I actually screamed when I was given the country flag. I will be leaving my beautiful life in St. Augustine Florida for the journey of a lifetime and I could not be happier. I come from a family of five. I have two brothers who are my best friends and I will miss them dearly. My oldest brother is Zachary and he is 21 and a senior in College. My youngest brother is Mitchell he is in 8th grade and 14 years old. They are both big surfers and are both jealous and excited for me to go to Brazil. My parents Candice and Nathaniel have truly been the greatest parents in the world. Family is very important to me and I know how blessed I am to have the love and support from both my immediate family but also awesome grandparents and Aunts and Uncles!! I will be graduating from St. Augustine High School “Go Class of 2014”! I am very involved in my school and have been a member of the swim team, cheerleading team, Dance and Tennis. I am also very involved in school clubs. I enjoy helping my community and being with people. It is such a strange feeling to know that you are closing one chapter of your life and opening one that will shape who I will become. Thank you Rotary for this amazing opportunity. Thank you in advance for those families who will open there homes and there hearts to me. Fondly, Tiffany Shave

Journals: Tiffany – Brazil

Happy Holidays! So once again a lot has changed from my last journal. As an exchange student change is the only thing that is normal. If that makes any sense at all. Because everyday something is different from your life at home in Florida.

I have switched host families which I can honestly say was one of the hardest days of my exchange. My first host family really was incredible. My little 9 year old brother wrote me letters and bought me a piggy bank to put money in to come back. Of course I burst into tears. And my mom and dad bought me this BEAUTIFUL necklace and earrings and wrote the most beautiful letter ever. My last day my whole family took me to get my hair done and then surprised me and took me to a really fancy restaurant. As we drove to my next host the whole family burst into tears. We all cried and hugged in the middle of the road. It was so difficult but I know now I have a family here who will be there for me always.

My new host family is AWESOME! I have a sister my age who went on exchange to Germany so she understands homesickness and all the stages of emotions that we encounter on exchange. My parents are so charming and really spoil me!! My first weekend there they took me to a place called Barra Grande, Google it right now it’s insane, they took me there on their boat and we spent the weekend in paradise!!!!! They also took me to a private island. I literally cried when we got there it was just so beautiful.

The holidays!!!! The holidays are difficult. Luckily my family and I traveled to Salvador for Christmas so I could try to get my mind off of home. We had a really incredible time with my dad’s family. He has 9 brothers so just imagine how big this family party was! We played a game called “amigo secret” which I’m sure you can all figure that one out. Except this had a twist! You had to sing and someone had the other half to your song and that’s how we got partnered up. And of course my luck I was the first to go because my cup had number 1! So here I am trying to read this song in Portuguese before I get up in front of a hundred people and sing, trust me I do NOT sing. As being an exchange student this little embarassing moments make the best memories. My advice for future exchangers is just smile and give it you’re best. This is what YOU signed up for! Anyways I got up there and sang and I got a standing applause (I’m guessing I read the lyrics right). It really was a great Christmas one I will never forget.

For New Years I will be going back to Barra Grande with about 20 of my really good friends. It’s going to be a blast.

I am already about half way through my exchange which is so scary. I am so jealous of all of the new exchange students who just got their countries. I would love to go on exchange again. It’s the best, hardest, most confusing thing ever but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks Rotary for the best year of my life. I wish I could repeat it for the rest of my life. About 5 more months left ):
Tue, December 29, 2015

Olá! Sorry it has been extremely long since I have written but my life is really crazy busy here and I am very happy! So yes here we go…..

Holidays: the holidays for me were actually REALLY great! I spent my Christmas in Salvador with my host dad’s family, he has 9 brothers so it was so fun. I had to get up and sing a song infront of the WHOLE family! Like 100 people. I wanted to die hahaha so embarrassing but definitely one of my favorite memories. New Year’s I went to an island called Barra Grande with my host sister and 10 of our best friends. We had a blast. I only got teary eyed and homesick at midnight New Year’s Eve because I realized how much I have changed this year and how happy I really am. It was also such a perfect night I just wish my family could have been there to enjoy it with me. In February was my birthday! It was one of the greatest birthdays ever. Brazilians are very good at making you feel special. My mom woke up and made me a special breakfast and made me wear a princess crown all day because she calls me her beautiful little princess. That night she said I could have a few friends over for food and drinks and cake. My few friends turned into almost 40 people! I felt so loved and so happy on my birthday it was truly amazing. So for me, I didn’t have the emotions and homesickness during the holidays like many other exchange students have. I mean really how “sad” can you be with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world with the best people in the world!

Weight Gain: IT WILL HAPPEN! Yes I have gained 8 kilos here! I am not saying it’s okay to gain wait….but you really need to just eat like you’ll never eat again….because really you only have one year to eat it. Although I have lost 4 kilos now and I’m having fun Doing workouts and different Brazilian actives such as soccer, capoeira, “academia”. My host mother also got me a personal trainer it’s awesome.

Traveling: I went to RIO! And fell in love….Rio is officially the most beautiful place in the planet. If I could live anywhere in the world I would live there. Although the water was extremely polluted which was so sad. I also went to the worlds best carnival!!! After my birthday party at my house me and my exchange friends jumped on a 8 hour bus ride at 11 at night and headed to Salvador Bahia. We arrived, slept, ate, then made some of the best memories of my exchange. Carnival is a huge party with over 3 million people. Everyone has matching shirts based off of what music you want to listen to. Once you find your “group” you follow the music artist in a big truck and dance and sing until the sunrise! David Guetta was there and waved at me! Just like a dream.

FAMILY VISITS: YAY! So in March my little brother mom and dad came to visit. I can honestly say they were some of the greatest days of my exchange. It made me so happy to see my real family love my families here as much as I love them. I also felt very proud of my self and realized I have come a long way. I felt proud of myself for being the form of communication between my families. It made me feel really proud. I think my family was also shocked at how far I’ve come. Being raised in very safe environments, great schools, the perfect life. But that life is sheltered. My city, Itabuna, has just been voted the most dangerous city of teenagers. When I told my friends this back in Florida they freaked! Telling me to come home, but this IS my home! Yes it’s dangerous but I have learned to become more self aware and I have learned SO much about what life really is about and how important family is. I am proud of my city here and I love it. Violence is unfortunately something that won’t ever go away but I feel like living here has made me really appreciate what life is like in the USA.

Time is running out: as I am writing this I have about 87 days left in this hot country. I can’t really explain how I feel to be honest. I am sad but excited. I’m happy but I’m mad. I’m jealous but I’m not. I feel excited to know that my life of traveling and exploring has only just begun. With Rotary I now have connections ALL over the world. To me the world isn’t that big anymore. I have best friends in Denmark, Germany, France, Brasil. And many other countries. I feel sad because I don’t know when I will have this wonderful worry free exchange life again.

If any future out bounds would like to talk or have questions I am available on facebook(: I would love to talk and relive another year of exchange through you guys! I’m incredibly jealous your journey is only just beginning.
BEIJOS

 Tue, April 14, 2015

Happy Holidays! So once again a lot has changed from my last journal. As an exchange student change is the only thing that is normal. If that makes any sense at all. Because everyday something is different from your life at home in florida.

I have switched host families which I can honestly say was one of the hardest days of my exchange. My first host family really was incredible. My little 9 year old brother wrote me letters and bought me a piggy bank to put money in to come back. Of course I burst into tears. And my mom and dad bought me this BEAUTIFUL necklace and earrings and wrote the most beautiful letter ever. My last day my whole family took me to get my hair done and then surprised me and took me to a really fancy restaurant. As we drove to my next host the whole family burst into tears. We all cried and hugged in the middle of the road. It was so difficult but I know now I have a family here who will be there for me always.

My new host family is AWESOME! I have a sister my age who went on exchange to Germany so she understands homesickness and all the stages of emotions that we encounter on exchange. My parents are so charming and really spoil me!! My first weekend there they took me to a place called Barra Grande, Google it right now it’s insane, they took me there on their boat and we spent the weekend in paradise!!!!! They also took me to a private island. I literally cried when we got there it was just so beautiful.

The holidays!!!! The holidays are difficult. Luckily my family and I traveled to Salvador for Christmas so I could try to get my mind off of home. We had a really incredible time with my dad’s family. He has 9 brothers so just imagine how big this family party was! We played a game called “amigo secret” which I’m sure you can all figure that one out. Except this had a twist! You had to sing and someone had the other half to your song and that’s how we got partnered up. And of course my luck I was the first to go because my cup had number 1! So here I am trying to read this song in Portuguese before I get up in front of a hundred people and sing, trust me I do NOT sing. As being an exchange student this little embarassing moments make the best memories. My advice for future exchangers is just smile and give it you’re best. This is what YOU signed up for! Anyways I got up there and sang and I got a standing applause (I’m guessing I read the lyrics right). It really was a great Christmas one I will never forget.

For New Years I will be going back to Barra Grande with about 20 of my really good friends. It’s going to be a blast.

I am already about half way through my exchange which is so scary. I am so jealous of all of the new exchange students who just got their countries. I would love to go on exchange again. It’s the best, hardest, most confusing thing ever but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks Rotary for the best year of my life. I wish I could repeat it for the rest of my life. About 5 more months left ):
Mon, December 29, 2014

These journals are getting harder and harder to write every time. Not only is it hard to find time but it’s nearly impossible to tell you everything I am experiencing.

In my opinion I am living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I have been traveling a lot through out my state of Bahia with friends and family. I am not really an emotional person but I am not kidding when I see some of the natural beauty Brasil has I cry. Haha seriously it’s breath taking and to think I LIVE HERE! Wow wow wow I’m seriously living my dream.

For future exchangers you WILL have bad days. The bad days only make you appreciate the good ones even more. Just know that it’s normal and it’s ok to be sad. You will hear this a thousand times but when you’re, sad go out! Party, eat, laugh, be Brazilian! (Or whatever your country is). My greatest experiences so far are my experiences as a Brazilian. Just Immerse yourself in the culture because one year goes by fast and you will always wish you had done more.

Ok enough of that haha so today marks 4 months in Brazil. This past month has been the best yet. I have a lot of Brazilian friends now which makes my life so much more interesting. A few weekends ago I went to Morro de São Paulo (google it it’s the most beautiful place in the world). I went with my friend for the weekend to this island and it was a BIG concert. We danced, sang, and caught sun all weekend. It was also great because she doesn’t know English, so it was a weekend of Portuguese. Best weekend of my life!

Portuguese, well it’s difficult, very difficult but I can officially understand everything and I can respond it just might not be the correct verb conjugation. It’s a pretty great feeling speaking politics or world events in another language. I’m proud of me! Haha

My family!!!!! Well this week I change families. I am HEARTBROKEN! My family now is literally my family. We all have the same birth mark! My mom is one of my best friends. She pushes me to be my best in everything I do. Speaking Portuguese, or running, or the gym. We run every night and talk about everything. I feel very lucky to have such a strong relationship after 4 months. I know I can count on this family for anything forever. So thank you rotary because I now have 2 of the most amazing moms and dads in the world.

It’s Summer! Seasons are opposite down here in South America so it’s summer for me(: a normal day is gym, reading, helping prepare lunch, friends, running, sleep! And the weekends are spent on the beach(: When I tell you I’m living the dream, it’s true.

I couldn’t be more thankful for this opportunity. Truly Rotary has changed my life in so many ways. I have a new home in Brazil, many friends and a loving family. I have noticed a change in myself and the way I look at life. I can’t really explain anything it’s just so difficult. I guess you will have to experience it for yourself. Congrats to all of you future exchangers because your about to have the year of your LIFE! But it isn’t easy so be prepared. It’s not a vacation it’s not all site seeing and fun, it’s a life with sad days bad days but you the good outways the bad. If anyone has any questions or just wants to talk I’d love to!
Tchau & BEIJOS pra vocês ❤️

 Tue, December 2, 2014

Good days and bad days I wouldn’t change a thing.

Olá(: so it has been over a month since I have written my last journal and I have been doing and learning a lot since!

I’ll start with my family: I am SO LUCKY! My mother is one of my best friends here and she is helping me get in shape. We will be running a race next month in Porto Seguro (google it) its absolutely. She is amazing and literally caters to my every need I love her! I also have a little brother and we are TRUE siblings we fight all of the time but end up laughing because my arguments in Portuguese are pretty weak. Haha I bring him to play sports with me and my friends and he loves it. My dad here is officially the best in the kitchen. Everyday is something different and So, so good. He is also really goofy so if I ever feel sad or homesick he helps a lot. All of my aunts & uncles here are equally amazing and begging me to live here after exchange.

School: Ok so school is rather insane. There are about 50 kids in one room. All white walls with no windows (it drives me crazy). Brazilians are loud, very loud so it’s not the greatest at 7 in the morning. I usually sit in the back with my friends and they have new vocabulary and conjugations for me everyday. We have three classes a day but we stay in the room and the teachers switch from room to room. The biggest difference is the teacher-student relationship. It’s okay for your teachers to hug and kiss you or play with your hair. My Spanish teacher even comes out to parties with us, very strange haha. My favorite thing about school are my classmates. They are willing to do anything for me. Truly some of the nicest people ever.

Language: I’m actually not struggling as bad as I thought I would. I completely function on my own which is the greatest accomplishment. I take the bus alone, walk around town, and buy items all on my own. Because of my language improvement I have been given a lot more freedom in my family and Rotary. I have friends in the next town over so all I need are signatures from my Rotary and parents and I can go take the bus to spend the weekend there. It’s great! I just need help with forming my sentences but that’s normal.

WARNING for future exchangers – you will have really bad days, you will have really good days. Just know it’s okay to be sad or homesick. I have three Americans with me here in Itabuna so if one of us has a bad day we meet up at someone’s house eat skittles (because they don’t have them in Brazil) and watch Mean Girls or Friday Night Lights. It’s become a tradition. I think it’s important to understand that what you are feeling is normal. I was very frustrated that sometimes I will just be sad, but then I realized if you left your family for a year and you weren’t sad at all I would be so surprised. I have had some of the saddest days and some of the happiest days ever but everything I am going through I cherish because it is happening so quickly. 

Extracurriculars: this is definitely the most important thing for exchange students.  Three times a week I do Muay Thai, it’s a form of kick boxing and is amazing when you have a bad day. Two times a week I do volleyball at the other school. Other days all of the exchange students play soccer or American football. Every Friday night I have Interact Club meetings which was a great way to meet people and I am giving a presentation for it next month!

Advice for future exchangers: do it! Even on my bad days I would recommend exchange. Always say yes to everything even if your so tired you can’t keep your eyes open, this will happen a lot. ( I did this and ended up meeting Dilma, the president of Brazil!!!!!!!!!!!!) so my advice is to say yes, but stay true to your morals. Take chances even if it seems out of this world. After all you are pretty brave to be doing this in the first place. Just always know the exchangers are family and always will be! We all go through the tears and we all go through to joys. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you will make plenty. Represent the United States well and most importantly, be proud to be an American! If I have learned one thing this year I have learned Americans are extremely blessed to live in such a beautiful country.

Tue, October 14, 2014

My exchange is going too fast!

Oi Amigos! So a lot has changed and happened since my last journal!

I’ll start with the most difficult difference….my host brother left! Coming to a new country you crave something that reminds you of home…like comfort food! But instead of comfort food I had my host brother we got along so well it was strange. We were partners in crime and had a daily routine that I quickly adapted too. Until….we went to Salvador because he had to leave for exchange in France ): . It was almost like I was restarting a different exchange because once he was gone everything was different.

I had a lot of free time which I think is the exchange student DEVIL! It is important that you stay busy or else you starting thinking and wondering if this was a good idea. It’s not a bad thing to have difficult times. We all have them. My advice would be to try something new! I’ve started kick boxing!

One week after my brother left I went back to Salvador by bus and met all of the other exchange students in Bahia! It was SO MUCH FUN! I felt like I was on a reality show because all of the exchange students here look like super models and we rented this Gigantic boat and traveled throughout different islands. Yah, I know, your probably jealous. I still can’t believe it! I was sitting there like wow I am in Brasil right now with incredible people and I’m living my dream, literally! Rotary really knows what exchange students want and need and they do a great job providing us with those wants and needs.

After orientation I went back to Itabuna and I now have exchange student friends here! Yay! Yesterday we went shopping and we spoke Portuguese all day. I was impressed with myself because I was speaking words I didn’t even know I knew.

I have notice myself change, a lot! I am much much much more independent and my wants and needs for the future have changed too. I can’t believe I have been here for one month already and that makes me sad because how is this all happening so fast? I know that after this year it isn’t the end for me and Brasil because I have fallen in love with this country and I will be back(: I think I secretly have Brasilian in my blood.

Random comments :
1. I was told I dance like a Brasilian (greatest compliment ever)
2. My host mom is kicking my butt into shape
3. I adore brigadeiros (Google it)
4. What is makeup? I never wear any here it’s so nice
5. Chocolate with pizza? Different but I’m not complaining
6. I’m going to Itacare this weekend (insanely beautiful beaches)

  1. Brazilians are brutally honest, I have been told my feet are ugly and I have a fat roll (exchange student problem)

That’s all for now! 1 month down, dear exchange please slow down because I love you!!!!

Wed, September 3, 2014

Two weeks already?! How!?

The idea of living in Brazil for a year is unimaginable. Before I arrived all I could think about was Brazil Brazil Brazil. As it got closer to my departure I started thinking to myself what the heck am I doing?!?!! I realized my Portuguese was not where it should be and I was so nervous. I told myself I wouldn’t cry but that only lasted about an hour. My family means more then the world to me. My brothers are my best friends and hugging them for the last time for a year kind of made my heart hurt!

Once I arrived at the airport my parents walked and waited with me at my gate. I anxiously waited and I thought I was going to puke I was so nervous. I finally boarded the plan and cried like a little baby (the guy sitting next to me was attractive and looking at me like I was crazy) once I arrived in Miami I met another exchange student from RYE Florida going to São Paulo. At 11:40 PM we went our separate ways and I boarded the plane to Belo Horizonte Brazil. I sat down and heard NOTHING BUT PORTUGUESE. It was extremely intimidating. I couldn’t sleep but what seemed like years I finally landed and I had one flight left.

There was a bit confusion with my bags but my small amount of Portuguese and body language (like I was playing charades) everything was fine. As I flew into Ilheus I was shocked. Not what I expected at all. Little wooden hut houses, dirt roads, and jungle. Where were the big buildings fancy beach houses?!? I was greeted by my three host families who gave me kisses and chocolate. I was already feeling at ease. I then went to my first Brazilian BBQ anddddddd yes I ate chicken hearts. I could feel my eyes watering as I ate them trying not to gag hahaha. Things went quickly I immediately started school which was CRAZY! Very little structure so my school days consist of dancing. I can now salsa, samba, ahosa, and many more. Fortunately instead of the exchange student 15 pounds I have lost weight! I dance every day, run, go to the gym and eat healthy. I have been to a few festas (Brazilian parties) which are pretty crazy but I just dance allll night haha. Life is pretty awesome I am extremely happy. I’ve been jetskiing, to the beach, parties, school, Brazilian BBQs and many family events.

RANDOM BRAZILIAN THINGS:
1. What is a seatbelt? ( no one wears one)
2. If you can’t dance, just leave haha
3. EVERY GUY CAN DANCE…EVERYONE
4. The kindest happiest people
5. Everyone knows English (come on America we are slacking big time)
6. Do you know Harry potter? Twilight? The Hunter games?
7. How many guns do you have?
8. BEST CHOCOLATE EVER
9. BEST FRUIT EVER
10. I find it a bit dirty here in Itabuna
11. Homeless people sleeping everywhere
12. Kiss everyone because it’s rude if you don’t
13. Meat meat meat and more meat

I will add more soon but something I have noticed and really admire about here in Itabuna, Brasil is even though there is a lot of corruption with the government and life is far from perfect, everyone is so happy and so giving. This is something I feel sad that many Americans don’t understand. You don’t need the biggest car or house so have a good time and be happy. You need to be with good people and take life one day at a time. I have already noticed a difference in myself and I am very excited for what is to come. 

Sat, August 16, 2014

Zack - India

Hometown:Ponte Vedra, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Host District: District 3060
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Narmadanagri

My Bio

Namaste! My name is Zach Johnson and I’m going to the amazing country of India next year for my foreign exchange. What is there to know about me? I’m seventeen years old. I live with my mother, aunt, and dog in a town called Ponte Vedra, which is in Florida, although I’m originally from Jacksonville, which is a much larger city just north of my present location. At school, I’m in 12th grade and take all college-level AP classes, in addition to weightlifting. That’s one interesting thing about me, I suppose: I like to improve both my mind and my body. As far as hobbies go, I’d like to say I’m well rounded – and completely disorganized! I’m a singer in the Sharkappellas, which is a singing club at my school that runs a style of music called accapella (voices are used in place of instruments), which takes up a lot of my time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I also go to, and sometimes lead my church’s youth group on Wednesday nights. I work Mondays and Saturdays, and go to church on Sunday. So yes, my weeks are rather busy. I’m going to a foreign country next year. Wow. I’ve never even left Florida for any extended time. This is definitely going to be an adventure. But that’s ok. That’s part of why I’m doing this exchange, is to be adventurous. If I had to say the main reason for my exchange, though, it would be this: I love people. I love the way they talk, the way the walk, the way they think and the way they feel. People are so valuable. And I have the opportunity to go to somewhere I’ve never been before, and meet, know, and love people there. It’s gonna be incredible -I can’t wait!

Journals: Zach – India

Hey there everyone! It’s been about two months since I got back from India (and longer, I know, since I made a journal entry – sorry). The readjustment process is… difficult to describe.

To be honest, for a while when I returned (and, in hindsight, at some points in my exchange) I was bitter about some things. The main thing that bothered me was that I had so many host families – about eight in total, and the final seven were all short stints at different houses during the second half of my year. I guess I had been getting pretty close to the Raja family and I wanted that relationship to continue to develop. So I was bitter about some things, and it definitely impacted my journals as well as my thoughts about India for a while.
This past weekend, though, I went to the Rebound Orientation program in Florida, and my goodness did I need that. Spending time and sharing stories with other exchange kids, even though I was the only one to go to India, was necessary for me and incredibly cathartic. I really feel so much better about my exchange year, now.
I mean, how blessed was I?! I got to experience and see some absolutely amazing things – dancing Navratri for hours on end, climbing mountains in the Himalayas, simply walking and talking and soaking in this incredible culture. It was, without question, one of the best years of my life.

I feel as though I owe you, beloved reader, an apology. During my year I often took to my journal in some harder times to express what I was feeling – as is natural for any journal, I suppose. But you have access to what I wrote and I hope that your view of this beloved country of mine wasn’t skewed by my moods that could at times best be described as cloudy. I grew so much, and had such a great time in India… My heart actually aches thinking about it now.

I don’t know what I could write here to accurately describe the feeling. I’ll try to make an example. Imagine you had just finished your favorite book of all time. There were some challenging parts of the experience, to be sure, but you just couldn’t get enough of it. You finally get to the last chapter, the last page, the last paragraph, sentence, and word. You want nothing more than to start it over again. Only, in this case, you can’t. You shut the back cover, and it remains forever closed, only to be remembered in thoughts and dreams. There’s such a longing, and yet such a contentment. It is, as I said, very difficult to describe.

I can only reiterate that India marked me, shaped me, helped me discover my purpose. I cannot express enough gratitude to all that helped me get here – Rotary, who I saw work wonders for those who needed it most; my lovely Mother, who gave me support and guidance whenever I needed it; everyone who helped me pay for the trip and in so doing showed me such love that defies description; and above all, my Father in heaven who was with me every step of the way, who was at times my only and strongest Companion.

See, look at that… At the beginning of that long sentence, I wrote ‘help me get HERE’… I guess I still haven’t fully realized that I’m back.

There is a Hindi song I’ve been playing over and over again since I returned here, called “Tere Galiyaan”, which means “Your Streets” in Hindi. Some of the words are:

“Yahin doobe din mere, yahin hote hain savere.
Yahin maurna aur jeena. Yahin mundir aur Medina.
Tere galiyaan, galiyaan tere galiyaan.
Mujhko bhaave, galiyaan tere galiyaan.
Tu mere neendon mein sota hai. Tu meri harshko mein rota hai.
Sargoshi si hai khayaalon mein, Tu na ho, phir bhi tu hota hai.”

The translation is as follows:

“Only here do my days end, and only here do they begin.
Here is my life and my death, here are all my pilgrimages.
Your streets, your streets, They suit me well.
You are there in my sleep, you are there in my tears,
You whisper in my thoughts – Even when you’re not there, you’re there.”

This pretty accurately describes the longing I feel for my new country. It’s the strangest thing. I never dream. But these days, if I do, it’s in Hindi. The memories are sharp and bold, almost pungent in my mind. I will never forget my wonderful time in my new country. God knows I miss it.

I’ll give you a quick update on what I’m doing these days before I close this… for what I guess will be the last time. I am currently working about thirty hours a week, as well as trying to learn some Russian (I’ll expand on this later). I’m hanging out with my best friends and doing American things. I move to FSU in about three weeks. I’m technically still an Exploratory major, but I think I’m going to dual major between English and Russian/Eastern European Studies – I guess I just have a thing for learning languages and cultures that don’t use our alphabet – as well as doing Army ROTC. So I suppose my tentative plan right now is to do my time at school before spending five or ten years in the Army. Once I get out I’ll have the option of working abroad if I want, or teaching English here. That’s what I’m thinking now, I guess – we’ll see how things shake out.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that my time on Exchange has made me a better, more effective person. I will always cherish my time in India, and I hope to return one fine day. I couldn’t have asked for a better country, better friends, or a better year.

I guess this is it, then. God bless you guys, and thank you all, once again. Ao jo – goodbye.

Tue, July 28, 2015

Hi there everyone! The date is 17 April and a fit of inspiration has come upon me, so I rushed home to convert it to journal format as soon as I could. The topic of this journal will be three qualities that I think are direct causes for Indian society.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention, before I begin, that my mother came here for about two weeks. I showed her around Bharuch and the neighboring city of Baroda, and then we went to Delhi, Darjeeling, and Bombay. It was a fantastic trip, and a great time was had by all. Seeing my momma was great and it made me even more aware of how close I am to the end of my exchange.

Anyhoo, back to the sophisticated, high-brow stuff. I was brainstorming causes that are irrevocably bound to Indian society, and three qualities remained at the forefront of my mind. These are: the population of the country, the almost unbelievably immense regard with which they hold the family unit, and the slow speed of change, which is what really cements it all together. They blend together to a certain degree – for example, one reason they’re resistant to change is because of their large population, and one cause of their large population is the family values. I’ll go one by one, explaining as well as give examples for each, before I try the impossible task of boiling down life in India to a paragraph or less.

First things first, the population. There is, if you didn’t know, quite a lot of people in this country – 1.2 billion is the stated number. I personally believe it’s higher than this, however, as I imagine it’s quite difficult for a government to get an accurate census over an entire subcontinent when the infrastructure is, in some places, terrible or even nonexistent. What this massive population does is render most forms of rules completely ineffective. For example, if you find a sign near a building that says “DO NOT PARK HERE”, it’s probably a safe bet that you’ll find it surrounded by scooters and motorbikes. This is because there’s no other place to park. The population also has a role in the traffic, which, as I’ve stated before, is without a doubt the most beautifully rendered version of chaos I’ve seen on earth. They drive like maniacs because there is, at any given time, tons of people (and animals, for that matter) on the road. This population also leads into a lot of the more serious problems that affect the country – too many students and not enough teachers, lots of crime and corruption that are very difficult to track down, and, unfortunately, far too little clean water to distribute among millions of families. It’s not all bad, though. Everyone here has quite a lot of friends. There’s a funny statistic, though. If you tell someone in India that they’re so special, they’re “one in a billion”… well, here, that means that there is someone exactly like you in every way.

The second quality I want to talk about is the family unit. In the States, of course, we have the nuclear family, uncles/aunts/cousins/grandparents, and -if you’re very lucky – a good set of in-laws. In India, there’s a phenomenon called the joint family. This joint family is massive – I’ve seen some in excess of a hundred members – and in some cases some of the members don’t even know each other. The way these huge units are created is through very close, deliberate tracking of each child, that child’s spouse (and their family) as well as their children’s spouses. My current host family has a joint family that keeps track of all the families that sprung from a great-great-grandfather who had five children. Think of that for a second. That’s five spouses, and we’ll go low and say they each had two kids. Then you have ten more spouses, each, we’ll lowball again, with two kids apiece. We’re already at fifty, and we haven’t included in-laws or the youngest generation’s spouses. So it’s easy to see how joint families can realistically and easily grow into the massive affairs they are.

However, more than just their size (which is, as I said, just a result of really great tracking and get-togethers), families in India have a degree of control over their members that would positively shock the normal American. And it’s here, unfortunately, that many of the stereotypes about Indians prove true. You want to get an education? Great, try to be a doctor or engineer, anything less and we’ll be dissapointed. You want to get married? Fantastic, we’ll look in the newspaper (this actually happens and it makes me sick) and find you a good match, and the family a good “alliance”. You earned some money from your job? Excellent, just put it in the family bank account and if you want to use it for something, your parents will decide. These situations aren’t hyperbole, I’ve seen examples of each several times over here. And those three examples I’ve given above are really indicative of how much control the family unit has over an individual’s (and, in consequence, the society’s) life in India. If you doubt how comprehensive this dynamic is, ask yourself what you would have the ability to control in your life if your education, romantic future, and finances were dictated to you by someone else.

Once again, though, it’s not a complete negative. Indian families are closer and more loyal to each other than many I’ve seen in the US. And here’s a thought that I won’t pursue here (cause God knows I go off on enough tangents as it is): the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the US is over fifty percent, whereas in India it’s miniscule, less than twenty, I believe. In the States, we have no barriers on who we can marry, but we evidently end up making the wrong choice more often than not. Here, Indians don’t have a choice but they stick it out much better than we do. So the question I would ask is, “What’s the better type of marriage for an individual? For a society?” I’m pretty sure that most everyone in America wants to choose their own spouse, and I’m no different, so I’d say that I’d prefer the Western style for my individual marriage. But I am also a child of divorced parents, so I know how disruptive divorces can be to children. Is that enough for me to say that it’s more beneficial for a society to have arranged marriages than love marriages? I don’t know. What I do know is that this ability to learn to love someone you’ve never met is a trait that I greatly admire in Indians, and it’s a big part in my final summation of their culture that you’ll see below (we’ll get there, I promise). Oh, I guess I pursued that thought that I said I wouldn’t pursue. Sorry.

Quickly, on to point number three before my wandering thoughts get the better of me again. This final point is the slow speed of change. We have to remember, when we talk about India, that this is one of the oldest cultures in the world. They have millenia of tradition to fall back on, and in a lot of cases this is really stinkin’ cool, although at times it can be a detriment. Let me give you a few examples so I can show you what I mean. The sari is a traditional dress for Indian women that is comprised of a shirt that leaves the stomach bare, a long, thin, scarf-like thingy called a duppatti, and a dress that is made of one long cloth wrapped around the body. It’s a very beautiful, very traditional get-up. So when you see someone driving a car, or a scooter, or doing some other equally modern action whilst wearing such traditional garb… that, right there, is to me one of the best representations of modern India. A traditional society in a modern world.

Let me think of another example… okay, here we go. The other day, as I was continuing my endless, noble, and often ill-fated struggle to avoid boredom in Bharuch, I saw my host mom sweeping the floor (there’s no carpets in India except the flying kind and Aladdin went out of business a while ago) I volunteered to help her with her task. She does all the cleaning by herself around the house and I wanted to be of assistance. She declined, saying that boys in India don’t do that kind of thing. This is also a great representation of modern India – a task being more difficult than it would otherwise be if the society adopted some pretty widespread, mainstream reforms. This really slow pace is the cause of many of the unique facets of this society. We keep animals in the street? Well yeah, we’ve always done that. Our families are big? Yeah, that’s just an Indian thing. We treat people differently due to gender and caste? Yes, because that’s how it’s always been. Living in India has taught me many lessons about the danger of manmade tradition. But it’s also taught me how incredible it can be. Beautiful dresses, extravagant dances, social customs of respect and honor that make me reevaluate how I treat people. There is bad tradition and good tradition, and India has plenty of each.

So, now the big one. If I had to define Indians by one trait, one special quality, it would be this: spiritual toughness. Let me explain what I mean. It can, at times, be a bad thing, as Indians have a saying: “Chalega”, or, “what will be, will be”. Their almost unnatural toughness can be such a dominant part of their mental makeup that they will refuse to change a bad condition and instead simply withstand it. For the most part, though, this trait is something incredible to behold. Indian men who are willing to withstand terrible work conditions to feed their families. Indian women who put up with second-class status in order to keep the peace. Indian families who are willing to sleep ten people in a room so that everyone has (at least a part of) a bed. A society that is willing to sacrifice its freedom of choice in marriage, its “right” to be offended , and generally speaking, it’s happiness for that of another. You could also call it, I suppose, reckless humility, or unbounding patience. Whatever its name, it’s an honor to experience and hopefully adopt and something that I hope more Americans take a look at.

You know, we have all these rights in the States, and we’re very polite, which is all well and good. What can sometimes happen, however, is that we’ll get so used to those rights being protected, and people putting others before themselves, that if someone doesn’t bend over backwards for us, we’ll get offended. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest blights on the personality of our people. I thought before I came here, and my time here has only reinforced it, that one can choose whether or not to be offended by someone else, or emotionally impacted by them in any way, really. There is no law, no instinct, no spiritual requirement or emotional quota that allows someone else to control your reaction – to anything. The only ability anyone or anything has to influence your attitude is the ability you give it. This is really what it boils down to: say somebody cuts in front of you in a line – did that simple physical action of him stepping a foot in front of you out of turn give him the mystical power to force you to be angry? No, of course not. Or if you break your phone screen – was there some part of your soul hidden in there like a Horcrux, so that if it shatters you’ve got to start worrying about everything for no reason? No. What logically follows is that if there is no power that can force us to have any sort of attitude, then we have no excuse for, frankly, acting like jerks to other people. That means no shouting at someone and then saying we had a long day, or being prejudiced against someone only to excuse it on an upbringing – as if the other person’s day was shorter than yours or your upbringing artificially put words in your mouth. We have the priviledge, the responsibility, and the great opportunity that we can really be in control of our emotions, and, consequently, our happiness.

So hey God bless you, everybody, take it easy, work hard. Remember what’s important. Stay safe. I love you all and I’ll be back before you – or I – know it.

 Fri, April 17, 2015

Hi there everyone! Kaise ho? I’m doing very well. The date is 4 April, and I’m currently on a train to Agra with my mom, so I have some time to tell you all what I’ve been doing recently. This journal will, I think, be of a more average variety than my last entry.
So the main thing that’s happened since my last entry is the North Tour. It was an excursion of eighteen days to, as you might expect, various locations around the northern region of my adopted country. It was my favorite tour of the three I’ve been on, due to the quantity and quality of our experiences, as well as the relative health with which I enjoyed them all, which was a first. I’ll cover the highlights of the trip and then make some other comments.

So the first highlight was, believe it or not, the transportation. We were on trains for close to two days, and in a bus (which had twelve seats for eighteen passengers) for the remainder of the journey. I’ve spoken briefly before about the great quality of character my fellow exchange students possess – and I’ll touch again on it later – but I really cannot say enough good things about these guys.

It takes a very unique kind of relationship, a very strong group, to be able to put up with cramped travel arrangements for any length of time, and yet we only grew closer through difficult circumstances. We, at various points throughout our journey, sat the majority of our group in one train compartment designed for six, utilized each others’ laps as seats during bus rides that lasted literally all day, and packed all of our belongings on the roof of the bus at four in the morning using nothing more than discarded rope we had found on the side of the road.

The kind of stories that we’re now able to tell are phenomenal, and the shared experiences are of the kind that can define an exchange. I can tell you that, as a result of these transportation arrangements, not only are my friends and I much closer, but I’m a much better poker player (with my wallet a few rupees heavier), and interested in many more kinds of music than I had been before these rides.

Another highlight I can relate to you is an account of my trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. But first some backstory on the Taj itself. The Taj Mahal, which means “Crown Palace” in Hindi, is in actuality a tomb, not a palace. A long time ago, one of the Maharajas (“Great Kings”) of the Mughal era was at the bedside of his Maharani (“Great Queen”, one of his wives). She was dying and, as a last request to her husband and liege, made him swear to fufill three oaths of her choosing. He complied. Her first demand was to take care of their children, giving the males good land holdings and assignments in the Kingdom. Simple enough. The second – never love another woman. This was quite a bold request, especially for a woman in such a society, even more so considering the fact that the Maharaja had multiple wives. This, too, her husband agreed to. And her final request was that he would make her the greatest monument the world had ever seen. As you can tell, this woman must have thought quite highly of herself. At any rate, the Maharaja honored his oaths, and the Taj remains today, despite the rise and fall of multiple empires.

It’s quite difficult to adequately describe the appearance of the Taj. Of course you could look at pictures, but that doesn’t do it any sort of justice. It’s sheer mass, it’s polished stone, it’s perfect symmetry are probably the highest form of beauty in architecture that I’ve seen in my life. I recommend going to see it, as it’s unique and unmatched throughout the world. Some interesting things about the Taj – the four spires on the exterior actually lean out to a small degree. This was done (by incredible foresight on the part of the builders) to avoid a collapse of the central structure should an earthquake ever strike the compound. In such an event, the spires would simply fall outward, leaving the main building intact. Another interesting aspect of this wonder of the world is it’s mosque. Mosques in India are oriented to the west, so as to allow worshippers to face Mecca. However, due to the exacting symmetry of the Taj, an identical copy of this mosque was placed on the eastern side. The only problem? There is no point on earth to have a mosque that faces away from Mecca. Muslims can’t use it. So what they did was take this copied mosque and call it a guest house. No one has ever stayed there, of course, since no one wants to be guests at a tomb, but the builders’ dream of perfect symmetry was achieved, and the Taj Mahal stands strong as one of the most unique and impactful cultural achievements of India, especially during the Mughal period.

As much as the Taj impacts you, however, it was overshadowed in my mind by the Himalayan mountain range. The Himalayas were at the tail end of the trip, to finish it off in style, I guess. Coming from Florida, these things absolutely defy explanation. They are probably the most beautiful pieces of creation I’ve ever seen. With trees crammed between snow on top and villages on the bottom, there’s a different kind of beauty everywhere you look. It’s extremely difficult for me to adequately describe the feeling it inspired in me now, so instead I will quote something I wrote as I was riding through the twists and turns of the mountain range, marvelling at the sheer rock faces, wide forests, and waterfalls.

The Himalayas rise like a crown from the brow of India, bejewelled with bright, snow-capped peaks and inlaid with flashing and cascading waterfalls. Few wonders of the natural world can compare to the beauty of these mountains, or effect the same breathless wonder as ensues when beholding the earth from her majestic heights.
Aside from being possessed of stunning and glorious beauty, these mountains afforded me another great experience- my first time playing in snow! I had more fun than I had even hoped for, having snowball fights and nailing my friends in the face. Another discovery I have made – snow is, believe it or not, quite cold. I got a chance to see just how cold, as well as just how beautiful the mountains could be, when I and some friends decided to do some trekking.

The group of exchange students was in a tourist area, a kind of snowy valley between all the peaks. There was lots of expensive stuff to do there, and so, with our customary aversion to spending, three of my fellow students and I went off on our own. One was a Brazillian boy named Sascha, and the other two were a French boy and girl named Hubert and Louise. We saw a hill (we judged it to be about nine stories high, given the fact that it was thrice the size of a three-story building) covered in snow and capped by a rock formation, and decided to reach the top. Our old, rented snow-suits and boots repeatedly failed us, oftentimes completely seperating from one another and allowing ice to take up residence next to our toes.

I can pretty easily say I’ve never been colder in my life. The snow was probably about eight to ten meters deep, and we were sinking up to our thighs. We had to alternate between walking, crawling, and resting, choosing the best paths and taking turns leading – walking in someone else’s footprints wasn’t terrible, but God help you if it was your turn to make the initial carve through the ice. It took us about two hours and nearly all of the feeling in our extremities, but we made it to the top, and the view did not dissapoint. I have included pictures to give you some idea, though they can’t capture either the beauty of the surrounding or our feeling of accomplishment at having completed so difficult a task. On the way down, of course, we found the steepest slopes we could and slid. What a fantastic time!

But now, North tour is over. Indeed, all the tours are over. The number of planned days we have left to enjoy each other’s company is down to less than a handful – for some, even less. I’ve already had to say goodbye to three of my new friends, and let me tell you that it isn’t easy. In fact, it straight sucks.

The youth exchange program is focused on learning about the world, picking up a language, all that stuff, but what really makes it a fantastic experience is the people you meet – specifically, the other students in your host country. The requisite intelligence, bravery, compassion, and questionable sanity common to us is what binds us together. You grow so close with this group, all the while knowing that your time together will be very temporary. This is especially true for me. The majority of the group is from Europe, which is far beyond the distance a ‘casual flight to hang out with friends’ extends. Then we have some from South and Central America, also not easy trips to do. Even the three other Americans here are concentrated in the Northeast. So I’m trying to confront the notion that I’ll never see most, if not all of these friends of mine. And I definitely cannot overstate how important these friends are to your exchange. I’ve spoken before on how little there is to do in my city Bharuch. I honestly would have probably gotten seiously depressed if my two new best friends, Chloe and Caroline (both French) were not there this year. When they leave… well, let’s just say I’m glad I won’t be in India too long without them.

Alright, alright, time to bring this to a close. Some more advice to whomever is still reading these things, and this applies to life in general as much as to exchange. Relationship is the only thing that matters. Everything else is window dressing. You could be all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinite, and still desire relationship – in fact, that’s why people were created. We were made to be the object and the generator of love. Because Love crosses political and societal boundaries, language and class barriers, and it is the only thing (to roughly quote my new favorite movie “Interstellar”) that can “cross space and time”. Ok, here ends my requisite cheesy section.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the day. Happy Easter, folks. I’ll see you soon. God bless you and take it easy.

 Mon, April 6, 2015

Hi there everyone! The date is 19 February 2015 and it’s time for me to make another journal entry. This one will be a majorly different, as I’m going to talk chiefly about a current affair that is weighing heavily on my heart and mind at this hour. I ask that you read with an open mind and be ready to evaluate some things about yourself. I have wanted to say these words for a long time, but haven’t felt quite sure how to put them. As you read these words, know that I have considered each one carefully and ask that you do the same.

What I want to say, in introduction, is that safety is overrated, and that if you make it the first priority in your life you’ll never accomplish anything. Let me explain. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I can’t wait to be safe today!” It just doesn’t happen. For an outbound, for any human being, safety should be a factor, not a goal. So what does that mean in real life? It means that you don’t evaluate the decision of going to India, as so many do, by the possibility of disease and the relative lack of living standards. It means that you don’t stay in a bad situation simply because of your fear of the bad possibilities of change. It means you don’t refuse to draw a line in the sand because you’re afraid of its finality. Now, that doesn’t mean throwing your brain away. But listen. If you wait to seize an opportunity until all risk is gone, you’ll never seize an opportunity again. There’s always the presence of fear when you’re going into a dangerous or uncertain situation – everyone who denies this is either lying or stupid. In this instance, I turn to the wisdom of John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” When in doubt, turn to John Wayne.

This brings me to my main point in my undefined list of points, world affairs. The issue that I specifically want to discuss is ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Levant, in this instance, is a broad and loosely defined group of territory that is generally accepted to include Syria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Israel. They’ve obviously been directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, regardless of religion. By the way, the Atlantic made a really great article about it, I suggest you read it. So why am I bringing this up? Because I, thanks to this exchange, have a vastly different perspective than almost everyone reading this journal. I am currently in a country where the majority faith is not some flavor of Christianity or Atheism, but where instead I am in the minority as far as population is concerned. Indeed, as I’ve noted in past journals, every morning I’m greeted by the sounds of Muslim prayer, and in fact it’s one of my favorite things to listen to. It’s beautiful. Even though I’m not a Muslim or a Hindu, I can respect those religions, and much more importantly, I can love the people who belong to them.

Here’s the rub, though. There’s now a force in the world, a force that controls more territory than the United Kingdom, that inherently cannot practice that same empathy. This force doesn’t rest until its enemies are dead or subdued, and it defines ‘enemies’ as anyone who stands in the way of the execution of a medieval style of government. Completely take away the fact that they’re Muslims, because most Muslims don’t act this way, and because, frankly, it doesn’t matter what religion they profess. If they were Christians I would be condemning them more strongly than I am now (as would the media, I’m sure). I could care less if they were Muslims or Christians or Athiests or worshipped the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It really doesn’t make a lick of a difference.

What does make a difference is what they’re doing. Their territorial expansion, treatment of civillians, and apparent relish of showing it all off to the world is evil. Let me say that last word again. Evil. It’s become something of a four-letter word in our society, as has its opposite. Everything in the West has become so relativized, to the point where we can’t call a spade a spade – “it might look black, and it’s definitely not a club, heart, or diamond, but we can’t absolutely call it a spade.” That sounds funny, but it’s essentially where we’ve drifted to as a society. We refuse to call evil by its true name. The effect of this is that our resolve weakens to such a critical state that we – we who have the mightiest armed forces in the history of humanity – frequently leave conflicts bitter and unsure of what we gained or hoped to gain, with far more casualties on either side than is preferable. We did not have this problem during World War 2, and we won decisively – although it took a terrible cost.

It was a cost that we were willing to pay, however, because we knew two things. We knew that we were protecting the world from a force that knew no notion of compromise to its horrible, stated ideal, an ideal which, if it reached fruition, would neccesarily result in the loss of life and freedom for millions of people. In short, we knew what would happen if nothing was done. The second thing we knew was that there was no one else who could stand in the gap. France was an occupied ruin, England was on the verge of collapse, and the whole of central and eastern Europe was already lost. Of course we entered the war due to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we could easily have left Europe alone if we so desired. So, in full knowledge of the cost to ourselves, not knowing the end result, we entered into the war and the rest (as is, I suppose, all of this that I’ve been writing) is history.

So what does this have to do with you and me, with my exchange, and with ISIL? A variety of things. To start with the simplest point, it relates with ISIL in that the historical similarities (as understanding the past is among the surest ways to predict the future) between Nazi Germany and ISIL are striking. Each are motivated to reclaim a lost empire (German-speaking peoples; ancient Caliphate territory), each are highly influenced by a radicalized religion (Nazi-infused Protestantism, Radical Islam), and each shows a blatant disregard for international reaction. The similarities don’t stop there, though. What’s important is that we look to history and learn from it so that we don’t repeat it. Can we let ISIL, as we let Hitler, annex soverign territority with impunity, while implementing fear tactics and propoganda on a mass scale, and expect a different result? Of course not. And I’m not advocating for the traditional response of sending in the troops. But we cannot make the same mistake as we made with Hitler – that mistake of allowing the ‘final demand’ of a dictator, or of refusing to back up our condemnations with something a little more solid. I’m no tactician, and ultimately what I’m trying to say goes far deeper than our interaction with ISIL.

What I’m trying to say is (and this ties in with you and me, as well as my exchange) that we, Western Civilization, need to take a step back and take inventory. Do we believe that good and evil exist? If the answer is yes, then we need to recognize where things stand in the world, whether we are on the side of good or evil, and where everyone else stands. If the answer is no… well, if the answer is no, on what authority is our or any code of laws based off? If there is no right or wrong, there cannot, by definition, be any rights. This is something that has been really hammered into me over the course of my exchange, that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist, and that they have nothing in common. When I see injustice on the streets and in the classrooms here, I know deep down that it is wrong. If you’ve read any of my earlier entries, you’ll know some of the stuff I’m referring to.

It isn’t easy to have such a view of the world, I know. Absolutism is viewed nowadays as archaic at best, judgemental and xenophobic at worst. But take away the public perception. Remember that good and evil, if they exist, are and have to be polar opposites. There is no white in black, there is no black in white. Am I arguing for the existence of such a world? Yes, I am. While I would love to reside in the comfortable, responsible-free zone of the relativist, the world isn’t “Fifty Shades of Gray”. If, for example, you peeled open an orange and found it infested with maggots and reeking of corruption, save for a small clean spot the size of a dime, would you say the orange ‘has good and bad aspects’ and proceed to eat it entirely? I certainly hope not. Ask any metallurgist – if there is anything in gold that is not gold, it’s not pure gold. In the words of an ancient Greek logician, A is either A or non-A.

The time has come to draw a line in the sand, and to not be afraid of its finality. Take a stance and stick to it. Find your resolve and guard it jealously. Don’t be afraid to learn and to grow, but never betray what you know to be true – what you know to be right. Otherwise, if you have one foot on each side of that line, or if you choose to not see the line, I can promise you that what is on the other side won’t care. Evil won’t take the time to thoughtfull