Outbounds 2005-2006

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Anna Breedlove
2005-06 Outbound to Belgium

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Buchholz High School
Sponsor: Downtown Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Liège Chaudfontaine Rotary Club, District 1630, Belgium

Anna - Belgium

July 13 Journal

I’m leaving on a jet plane….

And, until very recently, it hadn’t quite sunk in that, on August 20, about 5 weeks from now, I would be leaving everything I’ve ever known to go to Belgium, a country I’ve never even visited, a country with a language I’m not fluent in, nobody I’ve ever met, to live with a family that I’ve only conversed with several times through e-mails in only French. Oh yea, my first host family doesn’t speak English.

Several weeks ago, after a series of reminders as to how very soon I was leaving, little comments from friends such as “wow, you’re leaving in about 6 weeks right?” or “so how do you feel about leaving so soon?”, reality and I had a little falling out. Unable to face such an enormous truth, I hid in bed under the covers with a pile of books for about 5 days, drawn out only to eat and see those I care about most.

“Already I’m so lonesome I could die”– Leaving on a Jet Plane

Finally crawling out of my hole, and facing the daunting task of preparing to actually leave, I started writing down all the hundreds of little things left yet undone, making the overwhelming slightly more manageable. Actually preparing, and thinking about all that the year would hold for me, instead of just looking at my exchange year as one long year away from all that I love, filled with huge personal challenges, helped immensely.

I began to wonder what meeting my host family at the airport would be like, what I would need to know in French to make that first meeting great. What would I call my host mother and father? I remembered that I will have an orientation weekend several days after I arrived in Belgium, and began to anticipate meeting all the other Belgian inbounds. I love my District 6970 outbound class, and meeting all these new exchange students, in my same situation would be a happy reminder of home and good times to come.

So, I’m not quite so afraid now. I’m still anxious and overwhelmed, but I’ve already begun leaving. My friends and I have begun a quiet withdrawal, with understanding on both sides that we’ll talk while I’m “over there”. I have someone I love more than anything who wants to see me when I get back.

Al joked about us outbounds misbehaving, so our parents wouldn’t miss us quite so much. And my mother and I, after an initial feeling of distance and discomfort and endless arguments, have begun working on being less mother and daughter, and more friends, and companions, and roommates. She told me that one thing she had finally learned about me was that I needed to make my own mistakes, but that I knew how to learn from them, so she was giving me my chance to be a kind of trial adult.

Thank you mom for letting me find my independence before I’m thrust out into the world, in a new country faced with all sorts of other unknowns.

Thank you dad for being my best friend and being that ear on the other end of the phone ready to listen to anything, even if it just involves several minutes of sniffles and comforting.

Thank you friends, for being there for me, for listening, for doing your best to understand, and for your confidence in me.

Thank you Al and John Brunner for reminding me of everyone who is there for me, all the Rotary people on both sides of this globe watching out for me, reminding me that I will by no means be alone on this endeavor.

And thank you all of my outbound class, I love you guys, I’m excited to read and hear about each of your adventures like we have with the last outbound class, except I know all of you, and think you’re some of coolest, most wonderful people I’ve ever met.

Anna

September 10 Journal

How do you describe being born?

How can you explain your world when every part of it has a story that needs to be told?

I guess I’ll begin the way everyone does,
I arrived at the airport…

Looking around in the plane, I smiled nervously at the other exchange students I’d met in the airport in Washington D.C. Some were anxiously adjusting luggage, some were discussing the French to use with the new host parents. Thanks to Bonnie from NY, I knew a couple of French phrases not to use with my new family.

We hurried off the plane, only to realize we still had customs in front of us. After much waiting, and collecting our mass amounts of luggage, we were faced with our first challenge “where was the door?” well tired as we were, collectively we knew enough French to escape, and there it was, our gateway to Belgium.

Right off the bat, I made my first cultural error. I tried to use the formal three kisses, while most everyone uses the informal one. Well no worries, everyone just chuckled, but I soon was faced with another challenge. My host brother Jerome was leaving for Canada, and I had a whole sobbing host family to handle. This is difficult after several days of little sleep, an international flight, and saying goodbye to everything you’ve ever known and loved.

Finally the car and the hour ride to Liege, my new home.

Sparing the gory details of the first day, difficult as it is for everyone, I recommend to all future exchange students to go to sleep as soon as possible. Don’t try to be Superman, don’t try to see everything yet, you have a year, sleep and the world will be a much brighter place.

French becomes easier with each passing day, but the fast paced French of students and teachers is still very difficult for me. I agree with Hannah on the easy habit of saying “oui” all the time and receiving that “that didn’t make any sense face” in return.

There’s a wonderful history of exchange here. Every January students arrive from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and some from Brasil. By August when the new students arrive, they’re called “oldies” and they take their responsibilities to the “newies” very seriously. Your oldie is usually designated by whether they’re in your host club host, but some will simply adopt you. This system is not managed by Rotary, but by a simple feeling of duty to others who are like, what you once were. An “oldie” can show you the bus system, introduce you to friends, explain cultural differences and just be there for you. We have traditions that reach back ten to thirteen years that are imparted to us by the oldies and that in January we will pass on to the new generation of exchange students.

School has started and it’s pretty difficult, but the teachers are wonderful and the students are amused by myself and my fellow exchange student Tina from the Philippines. Math is impossible, French unintelligible, Chemistry oddly satisfying, English is resisting the urge to teach the class, Art Expression strange but fun, and lunch as usual one of the best parts of the day. Tina and I are both 6th year students, so while new to the school, we still feel a sense of pride at being the oldest. Our Belge friend John has nicknamed the little students “hobbits”.

The concept of Belge waffles is one that I only thought I understood. They’re never for breakfast, they vary city to city, though only a Belge could explain how, and they’re amazingly good. Covered in chocolate, sugar, or sort of cinnamonized, I must learn to make them before this year is out.

Chocolate, also amazing, though the Belge laugh at how much we want to eat it. Then there’s the beer, such a huge cultural thing. Our Rotary club actually gives us two beer tickets for our dance, and after being here awhile you can only laugh and say “how Belge”.

Being here means:

No top sheet

Weird spreads for sandwiches

A strange obsession with Pitas

Beer is water for the Belge

It’s not fries, it’s frites, and they’re bigger and better

Frites as a side dish at dinner, in sandwiches, everywhere

You never insult the fries, beer, chocolate or waffles

Mayonnaise on everything

Dog poop on the sidewalk, don’t know why

New keyboard

Bad opinions of the Flemish part of the country

Nutella, never peanut butter

The only American music is rap, and cheesy oldies
cigarette butts in every single crevasse of the cobblestone sidewalks.
bisous (kisses) and bonjours from everyone
military time, but only some of the time
Exchange student best friends from every part of the globe.
Running for your bus.
Getting locked in the bathroom because you can’t figure out the key.
Accidentally speaking in French when talking to your friends back home.
Using msn instead of aim.
Being asked for your card after hanging out with exchangers

Belge French being different in random ways than France French
Serious pride for living in Liege vs. Bruxelles

Nightmares after only a couple of weeks about leaving

Techno, everywhere

Random festivals

A month off for Easter and a week for Carnival

Franglais

Boys with better fashion sense than the girls

Appreciating all that the world has to offer.

Having been here almost three weeks now, I want to thank Florida district 6970 so much for beginning an exchange with Belgium, this is truly an incredible place.

Anna

October 20 Journal

So now, I’ve been born, and I can tell you about growing up, and learning to speak.

It feels like a week ago I that I wrote my last journal, but I remember that feeling of reading the outbounds’ journals and wanting desperately to know what it’s like to live in each different country. So, for those considering Rotary Youth Exchange, here’s my journal.

I will have been here two months tomorrow, and while the first month went much like months do, the second has passed in the blink of an eye.

School is still incredibly difficult, but not having understood anything the first month doesn’t help. The professors are used to my blank expressions by now, and my math teacher stubbornly greets me with the most heavily accented “Hello” he can. The students are great, yes there is somewhat of a language barrier, but we both do our best. I have grown to love and depend on the morning bisous, the exchange of kisses and casual ça va’s? And nothing to pick you up on a dreary morning of cold, rainy Belge weather than a barrage of welcomes, and being called mademoiselle to make you feel special.

I decided the best way to pick up more French would be to take a class, and I found a good one at the local University. There are a lot of Erasmus students (college exchange) in Liege and consequently my class is very diverse and filled with students committing all different sorts of grammar mistakes, which is great, we cover the gambit in class. But from the absolutely painful level exam, I must have changed classes 10 times. I was given a class far too easy and at absolutely the wrong time for me, and as of today, I’ve had to move up two class levels, and two time changes later, we’re there.

So having begun to get French, I’ve acquired this bizarre craving to learn any number of new, random skills. I’ve joined a yoga class and an oriental dance at another branch of the university, and am planning on taking a guitar class at the start of the New Year. It’s like conquering what I thought was the impossible task of being able to speak French, learning the bus system, adjusting to a new family and way of life, and any number of little things, I’ve defeated my fear of beginning any new task. I now have an insatiable hunger for knowledge of anything. You know those random skills that some kids have? Like being able to juggle, or skateboard, or do any talent show worthy thing? I’ve felt my entire life like I was left out in that department, reading wasn’t something to flaunt, it’s to my knowledge impossible to horseback ride on stage, and now I don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, I just want to learn everything.

There’s also something called Guides here which is much like Girl Scouts back home. I joined the other week and am now a counselor for the Nutons, aka the really little girls. But, my intentions of going on a Saturday for a session just to check it out backfired, as usual. What I thought was just a trip to check it out, turned into me going with some other counselors on Friday, and spending the whole weekend there and returning home Sunday afternoon. Mind you, I knew no one there. But situations like that is what being an exchange student is made of, you make the best of it, and make new friends. I had a couple of uncomfortable moments, I personally I’m not at all affiliated with any particular religions, at least Western ones, and apparently Guides is Catholic. No big deal I thought, I can do prayers before dinner and such, but an hour or more worth of singing religious hymns and such, made me feel decidedly uncomfortable. These things happen though, and I took it an opportunity to learn some new French words.

I haven’t yet gained that infamous Rotary 15 yet, but I’m really hoping that’s 15 lbs, not 15 kilos (2.2lbs). But, Belgian food is not for maintaining a trim waist, and I don’t care! That’s my triumph of the week, my friend Thea and I have named our stomachs, and work on considering it well earned. Rotary makes you look past the exterior anyhow.

So, life being life and all, even if you do live in Europe, there’s been a fair share of frustration and the resulting waterworks. A couple of weeks ago I was explaining what leaving my friends and family was like, and if I was interested in having them visit later in the year and how it would affect me. I kept trying to explain that having done it once, I knew what to expect and felt I could handle it again. My host parents didn’t understand the explanation in French however, so they asked me to say it in slow English, using NO French words, and that for me is hard, I speak pretty much Franglais now. Nope, that failed too, by then I’m frustrated, fed up, and ready to give up on the explanation, when they ask me to then write it in English. So I begin to try, and the tears just start flowing, it’s a sensitive topic anyhow. My family though really did the best thing, they let me finish, they didn’t even mention that I was crying, which probably for me would have made it worse, they just let me have my peace and continue on as normal. Today, for example was one of those mornings where you wake up and end up wanting to hide under the covers because nothing goes right. Somehow between reaching for something on the bathroom counter and holding my perfume, the perfume slipped and hit the edge of the sink, somehow that broke the thick container and it knocked my container of tea tree oil for my nose piercing on the floor along with some of my makeup, the glass of course broke, and now I’m sans tea tree oil and my favorite perfume. This is life, merde happens, and hey, now my bathroom smells really good. Plus, I then went downstairs and explained the entire situation in French and used the “je ne suis pas dans mon assiette aujourd’hui” (I’m not on my plate today) expression that I’ve been meaning to try out, and my host parents couldn’t have been more understanding.

The more that happens to you, the better equipped you are to handle the next thing that comes along. Everyday I’m thankful for the bad that’s happened to make me stronger, and the good that keeps me coming out of the covers every morning. And, I’m proud to say writing this was incredibly difficult, I can no longer spell in English, and a dictionary was even necessary once or twice.

To thank Rotary, I’ll leave you with a few anecdotes.

I was lost in the village near my house a couple of days ago, and asked an elderly woman for directions. She was more than happy to help and she took me by the hand and led me to where I needed to go, she told me “I know it must be very difficult for you, my daughter was a Rotary exchange student in America years ago”. I also discovered last week, that my good friend Florencia, from Argentina, is the daughter of the family Christian is living with. Rotary, thank you for making the world such a small place.

December 16 Journal

I’ve quite honestly forgotten where we last left off, everything that’s happened since my last journal. But, that’s a good sign, it means I’ve been keeping myself busy, and looking forward.

Right now I’m a bit like a child of divorce. I have since changed host families, to my second, several months ahead of schedule because of certain unfortunate events causing my first host brother to be sent back from Canada and leaving me short a bed chamber. As of this moment though, I’m not even with my second host family, I’m with their lovely neighbor Dominique and her sons, who have adopted me while my host mother visits her daughter in Australia for two weeks. Moving literally across the street for two weeks was a change I was quite upset about making. I had just gotten really settled in and comfortable with my host family, when I had to pack up my life again, and move across the street for two weeks?! This seemed to me ridiculous, very very sucky, and unnecessary. I did it though, I’m an exchange student, we bite our tongues, buckle down and do what is demanded of us. As good fortune had it, Dominique and her boys are wonderful, I feel perfectly at home here, and have discovered a common passion for horseback riding with Dominique, I may even be able to ride now!

School, well the students at my school have exams now, and the couple I’m taking are next week, so I’ve really begun missing the grueling routine of waking up at 6am, talking a half an hour bus ride and walking 20 minutes in the freezing cold to see my school mates. I miss being challenged to thumb wrestling matches in class, surprising the students with understanding when they’re talking about me, and the general routine it gives to my week.

I’ve been keeping busy though. I volunteered to help a woman from my Rotary club pick up presents and bring them to an orphanage, and next week I’m going to see the children open them for Saint Nicholas. I wouldn’t say it was just a weekly good karma thing, it was a real wake up call for how fortunate I am with my life and how much of a home I really have here.

I’ve also finally picked my return date home, and while having a real ending to the year makes it seems far less yawning and intimidating, it also makes me want to be super exchange student! I will watch cheesy soaps and understand them in French, I will get to know the names of everyone in my Rotary club and attempt to be at every meeting! Of late I’ve found myself just wishing to go down that rabbit hole, lose all contact with everything, and become Belgian, dun dun dunnnnnn…. Immerse myself so deeply that at the end of the year, I look up, find so much accomplished, and still ask myself where the time went.

Hey my fellow outbounders!!! Keep up with those journals, I love you guys and can’t wait to see you in 7 months or so! I know it’s hard sitting down and explaining such a crazy year of our lives, but seeing each of your perspectives on your year is almost like getting to live there and experience it all with you, and right about now, I wouldn’t mind sharing some of that Brasilian weather with Jessie.

Oh yea, and I kinda did that exchange student thing and cut my hair…

February 20 Journal

I know, I know for sure that life is beautiful around the world.

– Red Hot Chili Peppers

Yada yada, the usual apologies for my tardiness in this latest journal. As every exchange student out there can sympathize with, I’ve been very busy.

Today I find myself in good health, and relatively good spirits. Tomorrow is my 6 months here in Belgium mark, what was only too recent feels like a lifetime away. The other night I had my first dream that I can remember at least, in French. It involved rainbow colored bridesmaid dresses, exchange students, and blueberry muffins, decidedly odd. I’ve successfully watched Amélie and L’Auberge Espagnol (The Spanish Apartment) in French and understood them completely. I watched my first Opera, in German, with subtitles in French and Flemish and kept up a running translation for some of the newly arrived exchange students. I found myself nodding along to the story line, and chuckling with members of my Rotary club over the dirty jokes in the second half of the story.

At the moment I can only find myself looking forward to all that awaits me as I enter the last stages of my year as an exchange student. Tomorrow is my last day of school for a week and a half as Belgium begins its celebration of Carnaval. Carnaval is really only an excuse to eat lots, drink lots of beer, relive hundreds of year old customs for a few short days, and then begin a month of repentance on Lent Wednesday. I plan on traveling around Belgium with a few fellow exchange students and maybe even a Belge or two and experiencing as much culture as possible. This means I will find myself wearing a ridiculous mask, avoiding drinking live fish, watching Flemish men dress up as ladies, dodging oranges, and all sorts of other charming local customs. Then, next Thursday I will be changing to my next, and last host family family the Cremers March 2.

Their daughter Amélie is in Florida (Salut Amélie!) and my friend Thea will be staying in their house about another two months after I arrive. The family consists mom Bernadette, dad François, twenty something older sister Delphine, my fellow American Thea, and their cat, Pussy. We’re working on becoming one of those strange and wonderful families that only Rotary can bring together, with a dad who’s a bee keeper but allergic to bees, an incredibly sweet host mom with an insight that has us convinced she’s really Jesus, a host sister who’s fond of snowball fights, tweety bird, and TATU. A cat who’s name is Pussy, and is pronounced as such, with her own chair at the dinner table, and Thea, an American with a Michigan accent, my other half in some alternate universe, and a penchant for couture and rap music. My current family is a dad named Jean François who owns an insurance bureau in town, and is obsessed with food and everything associated. My host mom Martine is a blonde after my own heart, who enjoys breaking out into monkey impressions, giving hugs, making fun of the boys in our home, and chocolate. I have a host brother Steven from Australia, who’s been in the house since mid January and is slowing working on turning me Australian. I still fear Vegemite, but I have actually said cheers mate, duner (instead of duvet), brekkie almost came out instead of breakfast and other numerous slips. I’d like to think that he is slowly turning a bit American as well, and has certainly picked up numerous Anna and Theaisms, to the point that his family back home think he ‘sounds funny’. Our life is an adventure as we navigate things like understanding the mechanics of the drain in French, chocolate breasts and penises for Saint Valentine’s day, and above all surviving this country and its infernal weather. It can actually snow and rain at the same time here, be within one day snowing hard, gray cold, beautiful blue and sunny, snowing, and raining.

I have passed my 17th birthday recently with small celebration, and am already beginning to feel much advanced in my years.

I have just signed up for the SAT in June and of course anticipate it with much relish (I kid). I find myself being young and cursing the conformity (my fellow outbounds understand) of standardized testing, school requirements, and oh my god I have to apply to college in the fall, stress. I think for the most part I’ve decided on art school, who knows where, to study Art History, and Photography and at some point pick up Spanish and Italian. I’m beginning to assemble a portfolio of my photography, work on a few photography contests and have convinced a few friends to be subjects. Scheming on how to somehow spend a month in Australia, Brasil, Italy, and visit every exchange student friend I’ve met.

I’ve discovered that I have very few free weekends from now until I leave in a little over four months.

Feb 25- Belly dancing Spectacle, ah I have to perform in front of a crowd with my class!
Feb 27-3 Carnaval, traveling Belgium and changing families
March 7- Death Cab for Cutie Concert in Bruxelles
March 11- Mexican Party
March 17-19 Paris with my third host family
April 1-17 Easter break, Ireland?
April 23 Walibi theme park with Rotex
April 28-1 Holland for the Tulip Festival
May weekend- Visit to the North Sea with third host family
May 25-27 Talent Show with Rotary, aka making exchange student boys belly dance
June 3 SAT
June 15-29 Euro Tour -Munich, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, Sienna, Florence, Pisa, Nice, Cannes, Monaco, Avignon, and Lyon

July 2 FLORIDA

This of course doesn’t include various cultural parades and visits with Rotary to sights of interest in Belgium.

Have no fear future exchange students, you will not have time to miss home after Christmas.

I think for now that’s about all. I’d like to include a quote from my mom

Mom’s friend- “I’m really looking forward to meeting your daughter”

Mom-“Me too”

I love you mom and family, and congratulations to my brother and sister in-law on the birth of their beautiful new baby boy Dane. I’m now an auntie twice over!

Happy Valentine’s day to all, until July 22 at the Welcome Home Banquet!

Pictures will be sent after Carnaval

Love Anna

April 21 Journal

Putting off the inevitable of course will not make anything easier, so two months after my last journal and I have finally been knocked off the most recent journals list, I have seen the future outbounds take the same exact pictures we took the year before in our fresh, white Rotary tee-shirts, I might as well fill you in on my multitude of goings on. Today, I have been here 8 months in Belgium, and I’m not sure I can even remember all the things I’ve done since my last journal.

I last left you right before my week off for Carnaval anticipating pictures which can be found below. A small group of us decided finally to go to Binche in Northern Belgium, to what is one of the biggest celebrations of Carnaval in the world, and avoid being hit by oranges. The day consisted of being rained on, snowed on, confettied on, and being politely handed oranges by a small little boy in the traditional costume of “les Gilles”. That was not the best Carnaval ever, better came a month later. I also participated in a local dance festival with my belly dancing class (danse oriental) to celebrate Oriental Dance from around the world as well as Arabic culture.

After a year of conquering scary moments such as; learning a foreign language, getting on a bus and being lost for 3 hours, figuring out how to change trains in a Dutch speaking city, hokey pokeing in front of a room of ex exchange students, moving to a foreign country for a year, and crying in front of a family you’d only known for 12 hours, belly dancing on stage with my classmates in front of a large audience of strangers didn’t really feel that scary. I did it, I did it rather well I think, finessed my way out of my scarf falling, and enjoyed the evening watching people from the ages of 5 to 60 enjoying the art of dance on stage.

Finally came the day when I went through the incredibly painful process of changing host families, packing up my life into two suitcases (and a couple of extra bags) and moving a little farther into the country Chez les Cremers. Obviously the transition wasn’t too traumatic as my best friend lived there and I’ve been visiting the family all year, but all the same, it was a weird feeling, knowing that the next time I packed my bags like this would be when I went home, that there was no more “next family” here. It was the beginning of March, 4 months left. Lucky Lucky me, a week after moving in with my new family, we all went to Paris for three days to see the Eiffel Tower, les Champs Elysses, Montmatre, Notre Dame, the Gardens of Luxembourg, just you know, the usual Paris sites. But this time, I went (well took the elevator) all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the very top, the itsy bitsy bit at the top, and I’m terrified of heights, absolutely terrified. It was probably one of the most frightening moments of my life, and I lived! And opening my eyes coming down in the elevator from the top floor was such a rush of accomplishment.

A couple of weeks later, my host sister, my host father, and I went to the Carnaval of Stavelot in Belgium, not too far from our house. Here we experienced another kind of carnaval, being beaten by masked men and boys with balloons blown up from intestines, hit by dead fish on poles, and absolutely drowned in confetti. Here also my host father played a rather nasty trick on me knowing my absolute dislike for cheese, he handed me over to a float where they put me in the stocks, spanked me with a piece of wood, and rubbed my nose in the nastiest cheese in Belgium, quel horreur!

Then came Easter break, oh lovely Easter break, lasting from the April 1-17. While my host sister was gone for a week visiting with her “real” parents, my host father and I went on a day tour of Belgium, visited the German speaking borders, one of the little villages that Hitler spared called Montjoie or Munchen in German I believe just because he found it so charming. There was this little plaque in the city as a memorial to those who died in the World Wars, and it was unnerving to see the names of entire families, men and women alike, in such a tiny village. We then went and visited the largest American cemetery in Belgium with thousands and thousands of graves forming a giant star. It was jaw dropping to see in person the sheer number of dead, it was almost unbelievable. Over Easter break I also read my first real French book, on World War II called Le Reseau Corneille, or in English Jackdaws by Ken Follet, 600 pages long!!!!!! Big moment of self accomplishment, I could now read in French, and understand! Boosted by this new found discovery I went on to read another two French books in a span of several days, suddenly, new entertainment!

And now, now comes me talking about the future and what I have before me. There rests just over two months left on my exchange filled with car trips with host parents, Rotary scavenger hunts, Eurotour, and a hundred last minute things.

I have since my last entry, dreamed in French two consecutive nights in a row, begun to think in French, found new European mentalities in myself, and realized to what extent I have become un-American. Called a friend from home and he was unable to recognize my voice, really really had the feeling that I don’t want to come home, and finally have begun feeling in my own skin, happy with everything, at home and a real member of a European family, and in essence, not foreign.

Here rests all my weekends until I leave, forced to make a schedule by my host dad, may they rest in peace.

April 22 Wallabi theme park with Rotary
April 23 Rotary Rally Practice
April 29 Rotary Trip to Royal Crypts/ Atomium in Brussels
April 30 Rotary Rally
May 6 Tulips in Holland
May 10 Fort d’Eben Emael with Rotary
May 13 Mexican Party
May 25-28 Belgium/Amsterdam trip with host parents
May 31 International folklore dance festival
June 3 SAT/ North American Party
June 10 Barbeque Goodbye Party
June 14-29 Eurotour
July 2 Florida

Good luck to you future outbounds, my only real words of advice are, enjoy every moment because before you know it, it’s over, and it’s the good old days.

Love Anna

La vie de l’étudiant d’échange est trop belle, et trop court.

July 1 Journal

Perhaps leaving my final Rotary journal until the day before I’m leaving wasn’t the best of ideas. At first I’d thought ‘hey, I’ll write it after Eurotour when I’m feeling all introspective and full of adventure stories’. Well I suppose I am both, but I am also overwhelmed, far too busy, sad, and decidedly incapable of encompassing all of what I’m going through right now in a journal entry.

Thursday, returned from my two week tour of Europe with 70 other exchange students. It was probably one of the best ways I could have chosen to end my exchange. Surrounded by close friends, exploring the Europe we’d come to love, full of adventures and a state of denial that most of us were leaving not long after the end of our voyage.

Reaching the end of the trip, I found myself in one of the most emotionally intense moments of my life. A flood of 70 exchange students, crowded around, sobbing, saying their farewells to friends they may or may not ever see again. None of us want to admit that we might never see each other again, but it’s there in the back of our minds when we’re tearfully begging each other not to go.

Time left, one day.

This evening, a final barbeque at my first host family’s house accompanied by my third host family.

Tomorrow, 12h10 Bruxelles to Washington, Washington to Jacksonville.

As for parting words, simply, treasure everything.

La Vie Est Belle

Au Revoir

Anna

Jessie Cordasco
2005-06 Outbound to Brazil

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Rotary Club da Bahia, District 4550, Brazil

Jessie - Brazil

August 13 Journal

“Life will go on, for good or ill.  The structure might be a little Crooked, but the foundations are still Strong and Unshakable.” ~Hunter S. Thompson

This quote explains a lot about the beginning of my exchange trip.  There are so many things going on in your mind before you leave, biting your nails over the thought of forgetting something.  Or when you get those wobbly legs when you first step off the plane and you don’t know if it’s the blood finally reaching them after that nine hour flight, or the thought of being just minutes away from greeting your first host family.  But it’s nice to think that it’s your feet that are planted here, you worked to get here and when you arrive it’s a great feeling to think “Well by God, I’ve made it.”  So all in all it’s important to know that even though your environment may be completely unreal you are the foundation of this trip, strong and unshakable.

I’ve been in Salvador for almost three weeks now and I have to say Thank you Rotary! Really you have no idea …this is what I do in the morning…ok when I wake up and look out my window, I see the beach and there’s always a nice breeze.  Then after the morning routine I make my way to the kitchen to pour myself a bowl of  Sucrilhos (su-cree-loos) cereal and some fresh squeezed orange juice.  Then until noon I do whatever, some studying, some room cleaning, some TV watching. Then around noon it’s lunch! Oh lunch is so good.

Ok so lunch works like this in Salvador: it is the most important meal of the day (kind of like the American dinner).  The most common food to see during lunch is beans and rice.

Then I’m off to school.  School here is a lot different than back home. The teachers are more friends with their students than administrators.  I learned this when I was given a tour of the school by the assistant principal.  This day happened to be his birthday (but I had no idea at the time). So we walked into this building and all these girls came out of nowhere hugging and kissing him on the cheek. I was thinking… “What’s going on? What’s happening here?” Then we walk into a class room and everyone is singing happy birthday in Portuguese and banging on the desks and clapping (making noise is very important here).  And he tells me he turns 35 years today and I was like oooooh ok…well very good, happy birthday! 

But that was just the tour. The next day was the real thing and I was really nervous. My mom and sisters were there to see me go as I walked out of the car and up through the gate to my school.  The same administrator was there to greet me with a girl from my class, Kelly.  We all walked up the many stairs to my room (2nd H).  Kelly and I wait outside the room for a while then another girl with curly hair kind of sneaks her way out to meet me.  The two girls are so excited they’re talking Portuguese to me and I just kind of look at them and make the …hmm I don’t know face…I tell them I can only speak a few words in Portuguese and can understand very little.  When I said this in Portuguese they looked at me with the same …hmm I don’t know face…then they paused for a minute and smiled and said ooooh and began giggling and smiling.  This was all happening while the curly haired girl was touching my hair, locking my arm with her arm – it was different but really nice at the same time.  I immediately felt like I was a part of the class, even though I was still standing outside.  Then I was finally allowed to go in and everyone just kind of looked and smiled. Kelly, the curly haired girl, and Maria pushed like five desks together and I sat in one of them.  They asked me tons of questions that all required the dictionary, kids were passing notes like crazy, all of this was going on while the teacher was doing his bit.  I’m thinking “what’s going on is this o.k.” but whenever the teacher said something about all the ruckus they would yell “americana ela americana!” Then the teacher would smile and say ooooh very beautiful.  But this sort of thing happened a lot! In fact the teachers walking by the room would stick their heads in just to say “americana es beautiful!” This went on all day long, and I realized that Brazilians say the word beautiful very well here.  But what took me by surprise is when biology class came and the teacher drew out the whole reproduction system of plants on the board and I realize the reason she is drawing this is because there are no books.  She doesn’t have a book, the kids don’t have any books, and there aren’t any books in the class.  Even though I can’t understand most of what she’s saying I can easily tell that she’s a very good teacher and really loves her work.  That goes for all my teachers here. It’s a different style they have here than back home.  School here I think is harder.  For instance my math class, there are no calculators, and they are learning very difficult trig. problems. Plus they put all their answers into decimals rather than fractions.  Over all school here in Salvador has been a great place to make friends and socialize.  I think it might be the end of their quarter because almost every other day it seems they have a test.  For the time being I am not supposed to take any of their tests so whenever I go to school on a test day they say “tests today, you can go home, no it’s ok go home.”  And I’m like I’ll go to the library and wait till break to talk to everyone (they look at me like I’m crazy) and they say “Don’t you want to go home to sleep or something? It’s really ok …you can go home.”  The library has about four rows of books for the entire school which is from basically kindergarten to high school.  So everyone works on homework or talks and very rarely you’ll get someone to tell you to be quiet.

The biggest culture shock here is the two kisses, one on each cheek.  It doesn’t matter who the person is either. I realized this when I went to shake the hand of my math teacher SIIIILVIO and I get pulled into the two kisses and I’m like ah!  This is with other teachers too when I see them in the halls, or my friends when I get to school. Everywhere it’s the two kisses, and it’s just so different.  When I fold my arms they tend to look at me funny like why are you doing that and I’m like huh? I never knew how simple gestures just don’t fit here.

What I love the most about school here is when I walk in and everyone is singing and banging on the tables and walls and desks and the guys are all dancing the samba.  They’re so animated here always talking with their hands,  no one is afraid to stand up and yell what they want to say.  In fact the other day we were all in the auditorium for some project the kids were doing for literature class on romanticism. They had to sing songs from the time period.  These were all Brazilian classics so everyone knew the words and eventually the kids who were sitting in the bleachers moving around and clapping their hands just couldn’t handle their seats any longer and were up on stage dancing.  One guy decided to say a few words on the mike to his girlfriend and la la la it was cute then like seven of the guys from class that were on the stage just dancing and doing whatever all came to the front of the stage with their arms around each other, got the mike and said this is for americana! and some more stuff in Portuguese that I didn’t all together understand but it was nice and they all sang a song for me – it was funny.

So I have to say that I’m really enjoying it here and I realized the other day from a true Brazilian why I am really here.  I was talking to him on msn and he told me “I love Salvador and I love the people here” then he asked me why I came and usually my answer would be to learn a new culture and language.  But this time my answer was “So I can love Salvador just as much as you.”  I know, how adorable is that? It’s so true though, there is no bigger goal I have here than that. 

October 18 Journal

ROOOTARRY what’s up from Brasil or more like “iai….beelleeza”

Wow ok I have sooo much news! This place is packed with culture and events and parties and dancing, the list can go on and on. The weather here is now getting even warmer as those of you in the northern hemisphere are slipping into the long underwear. Well maybe not Florida quite yet but you know what’s ahead as the air conditioners are gonna go off and the heaters are gonna go on, but here oh no buddy here its gonna get warm real warm. Even though my city is warm all year round they look at me like I don’t know what hot is. I say I’m from Florida, but even then they’re like, oh no ..its HOT. I asked my host dad about this (he’s been to more cities in Florida than I have), and he said to me, “it’s hot here Jessie but Florida, that’s hell!” hahaha This made me feel better because Salvador is on the coast so there’s always a good breeze and it doesn’t get as humid, so it wont be too bad. But it seems like the hotter it gets the more the people come out of their homes. There are more events lined up weeks in advance and you can almost feel the drums outside your apartment every weekend, and at night from the party that always has that o-so popular techno music. The language, let me tell you, is like eating Mukaka (a typical food here) its sticking to my ribs and each day I digest just a lil bit more.

So let me begin with the play I participated in …I was a curtain puller yaaay but evidently I even needed help with that too hahaha. It was tough though, those curtains were heavy. I also did a lot of prep work – this was a project that every class in my grade had to do; there are three classes. The subject was on how countries are becoming greedy over petroleum and getting to the point of destruction like….war…and the U.S. for example…or THE example. I tried to keep a happy face through this whole thing seeing as I was kind of a target in the midst of these once jubilant people. This project got to them and I realized it when I gladly whipped out my American flag and paraded around with it during the final construction of our project. Some asked me to choose between here and there. I gladly replied that there are comparisons between the two countries and I simply can’t choose. Then Marsio said while he had this ridiculous American hat on (this is the type of kid who can never be taken seriously – he’s full of jokes) and he said to me “to the fire” with my flag. I said “Marisio!! no you cant do that …I’m sorry ok…you have to give me my flag now,” but he had just too much fun running around with it like a cape. I learned a lot from this play and was really impressed with what our class had put together. There was no teacher to point the finger there was no administrator there to tell us when to practice or what we could and couldn’t do. Everyone worked very hard to make it good, I was surprised that I didn’t see any slackers or people sleeping or sneaking off – it was 100% effort and I was downright amazed. The next lil event on the list was a samba show – it was great fun. I went with a bunch of friends from school and everyone was very nice when they were trying to teach me their slick moves. I’m not sure if I have it completely down yet; I think I need that internal rhythm everyone seems to be just born with here.

The news on the TV was getting real interesting. The busses here, mass transit, taken by almost every Brasilian, posted that they’ll be raising the tolls from 1.50 to 2.20. This was a problem, and these Brazilians knew exactly how to reply – with STRIKES! There were tones, almost every day, traffic would be stopped, people would be in the streets, the news was getting way too exciting. Then one day at school my friend says “Jessie we don’t have school, come on let’s protest,” and I’m like, oh, alright. I’ve never protested before, I was really looking forward to it, but I didn’t expect anything that I saw. So I go out to this intersection and it’s huuuuggee … everyone from morning classes and noon classes and people are gathered in the middle. There were speakers set up attached to a microphone. People were sitting in a circle with green war paint on their faces. I couldn’t believe it, five lanes of traffic were stopped, only one was letting cars through – only cars, the rest were busses and they couldn’t get anywhere! Not past the green barricade we set up. These Brasilians meant business. Raising their bus tolls so people can spend more of their hard earned money that they simply just don’t have. The majority of Brasil are poor people, very few percent are middle class and even fewer are rich. The normal poor person in Brasil can barely afford to support their family – why would they have the money to buy a car. The average monthly payment is about 250-300R$ a month. This bus thing isn’t just something they can fit into their budgets, yet they rely on it every day. I was fighting a good fight and taking tons of pictures while doing so. The most memorable part of the protest is when all six lanes of traffic were stopped … the story goes like this: My friend Negou was all over the place, he had that walk like he was gonna make his footprint in the asphalt… I was proud of him going around with the nostalgic war face, this strike was brewing in him and now he was doing his best to make a difference. The sixth lane had cars come rolling through, the cars were then guided by my peers to show them where to go. When the next car came through she stopped and asked Negou what was happening. She, I guess, had that same fire in her belly b/c she turned off her engine put the emergency brake on and hopped out of that car. The crowd went crazy! People were singing and dancing and now no one was going anywhere! Hurraay Negou! After about an hour more of protesting, people started heading back towards the school. We took down the barricade, and we had to try to show the buses the way out. Traffic was a complete mess, and we eventually gave up. But this isn’t the first strike I’ve seen here – actually they have strikes all the time. There was one in the post office so it took like a month to get a package from my fam. Then there was a strike at the banks just a few weeks ago where they weren’t letting anyone get cash out. That was a beast because I had to put like ten dollars on food on my credit card and try and save all my cash for the bus ride home. But it mixes things up a bit … I kinda like it.

I don’t think I have a story to top that but I’ve still been keeping busy, especially this week. I’ve spent the night at my friend’s house two nights in a row, the next night was at a different friend’s house, and on the weekend I spent two nights at a Rotary/Interact meeting. I must say that was my first real home sickness …home sickness for my home here. Weird huh? But I was like, aaaah I want to go back to my house with my own bed and my own bathroom and eat at the table with my family. This shows you how much my family here has really provided for me and I am so grateful to have them here and have them be so good to me. I really appreciate everything they have done and I think when I come back with my little stories they get a real kick out of it. That’s what I like most is when we can sit and enjoy each other’s company. But so far this whole “you’re in another country” thing is incredibly fantastic. It’s shaped me in a completely new way, I’m no longer a “cold” American …yes we are, I have to admit. But that wall broke when Silvio my math teacher kisses my face almost every day at school so! I would have to say the whole weird foreign thing has gone now, but there are still those little culture shocks that still come out and get me. Like one day when I got up, took a shower, checked my e-mail, got some breakfast, and was like alright I’m gonna take a walk…. So I walk around a bit, go to the mall (I live really close to the mall). I’m out for maybe a couple hours and when I return home my maid tells me oh go take a shower. I’m like Maria! Why? I took one this morning? She’s like “you got hot go take a shower.. ok? I’ll make you food and when you’re done you can eat”. I said “OK Maria I’ll go take a shower”….and I did. But I thought that was just a special day, maybe I smelt bad, I don’t know. hehehehe. But if I were to even go out for a little walk she would say the same thing – go to take a shower, you’re hot. Then I realized talking with the other exchange students here, they were giving me the same kind of stories, and we realized that when you sweat you have to take a shower. Brasilians take about two to three showers a day, they’re so clean! Maria was a great maid, she loved to be in everyone’s business and was always talking and when she wasn’t talking she was singing. It made the house so interesting. So one day before I was gonna head out to the beach with some friends I said Maria what should I wear? I held up this long blue skirt and a white tank top she looked at me and said, oh no Jessie, that’s ugly. I said Maria!! Why? She said that skirt is too long you have to wear something shorter so I held up my shorts and she approved, now I was good to go. OK so those are my little Brazilian stories. Take care everyone – I cant wait to see you all and thanks fam, Rotary, the whole crew for everything … kisses! tchau

January 24 Journal

Who new Catholics could party! Man! I’ve been woken up twice these past few weeks with trumpets, drums, people dancing in the street.  This is like 9:00 in the morning and they’re already dancing! It’s best to be prepared for these sorts of things. Like last Thursday I wasn’t prepared – here is how the story goes. 

I’ve started taking drum lessons down in Peloriño (the kind of historical downtown – this area was first populated by the Portuguese – like our Plymouth rock). So every Tuesday and Thursday I take a bus around 9 or 9:30 a.m. and head over to my lesson.  Well last Thursday what I did not know was there was a big Bahiana festival. The Bahiana is like a Bahian (Bahia is the name of my state) – for example me, I’m a Floridian.  Well the typical Bahiana is Catholic and they have a big celebration every year to clean …well everything.  The Bahianas carry big things of water other their heads …perfumed water, is what they call it and they clean the street, the steps, the sidewalks, and dip leaves into it and shower the people in the street with them. 

So for me, when I woke up Thursday morning, I did the typical routine, and left for the bus around nine-nine thirty.  I’m sitting on the bus and it’s taking me almost 30 minutes to get just five minutes away.  I’m thinking maybe there was an accident up ahead, maybe something broke down… wow! why is there so many people in the street ….? I wait on the bus some more, probably making it up the road about ten yards in the past 10 minutes and it’s gettin’ a little hotter. A few people even left the bus and I’m thinking…. man they’re crazy leaving the bus, it’s gonna get better in a few minutes, we’re gonna start movin’ …..

Well I’m looking around and I notice that everyone is wearing white …Why is everyone in white …whoa! Everyone is in white! My host mom told me that for the first of January (the new year) everyone wears white but, it’s like the 12th of January now and that’s a long time to be wearing white …maybe its some crazy Brasilian event and everyone has to wear white…  I look outside some more hoping to catch some more breeze on the bus …..and woooww the people in the street are wearing white too … o-my-goodness did I miss the memo… is this like a special day… what’s goin’ on man!? 

I was completely in the dark so I turned to the lady next to me and asked why is everyone wearing white and she replies “You’re not from here are you? Where are you from?”  “I’m from Florida, I’m an exchange student.”  She tells me how excited she is to go to the party and meet her friends and how I should go too; bring some of my friends and have a good time.  It’s almost ten by now and the lady next to me just couldn’t keep it in, she had to go to this party.  So she wishes me all the best of luck here and tells me to go to the party and practically dances off the bus.  This woman is no teenager, she may have had her heels on and her lil’ skirt and top but she was probably in her late 40’s.  So I guess you never get too old for anything here. 

Well I spend about an hour more on the bus. Traffic is getting better and the wind is venting more through the windows when the teller stands up and asks everyone where they’re going. I realize that the turn we were supposed to make …we didn’t. And now I’m headed towards the opposite direction.  oh great I can’t believe it …we didn’t go by my stop…wait where am I ??   I ask the lady in front of me where the bus is going and she says Liberdade …I said “LIBERDADE! Isn’t that far?”  

She said yes and the man began asking everyone on the bus. Everyone replied Liberdade and not only was I skipped but everyone was going to Liberdade and I asked the lady in front of me, “Sorry but we’re not going to cidade baixo?” and she looked at me like I was nuts and said, “You can’t go down there, not today, no.”  whaaaat, what is she talking about? I always go down there – what is she talking about…oh my goodness where am I going? …  maybe Liberdade isn’t that far, maybe it’s close to downtown and I can walk to my lesson or something…  “But I have a lesson in Peloriño today.” And she said, “well, no busses can go down there, it’s crazy.” 

She told me how it was crowded with people because of the party. And now I had no choice but to sit on the bus and wait till it finished its route and went back to my stop where I got on that morning. So I sat and people came on and got off and I sat but I wasn’t bored … that’s the thing – you never get bored on a bus, especially since I was in a completely unfamiliar part of my city.   A more poor part of my city. 

It was interesting to see the people. I saw a kid probably no older than four with a cast on his arm walking with no shoes and shirt alone on the street.  I saw a man hike a wheelbarrow full of building rocks up a hill, again no shirt no shoes… it’s hot, it’s the middle of the day…. how can these people work like this?  Cars and buses are trying to make a two lane road into three and the people on motorbikes seem to race through traffic on all sides.  The houses were stacked to where it looked like gravity could just one day make them all fall like a stack of cards.  The windows and balconies were not decorated with curtains or shutters – they had people looking out them, faces of children and adults, probably to get some fresh air. Houses here sometimes have fans and rarely ever will you see them with air conditioning; considering the location I think that those houses have neither.  It’s all a different life, something I kept thinking I would never see in the U.S. 

It was a bus ride of just pure culture… it felt like one of those educational rides at Disney, like taking you on a little cart through some historical happening where you just sit and watch little mechanical figures stamp papers for other little mechanical figures to step through immigration, getting you to think that you’re back in the 20’s.  That’s what it was like except it wasn’t Disney and it wasn’t history. It was right now.  It was how people live in Brasil right now.  The only similarity was that cart at Disney. I was surrounded by foreign people, and there was a designated track that made sure I ended up at the same spot I started at.  With just a little bit more knowledge than before. 

We came to the turning point and I was the absolute last on the bus.  The teller and driver came up to me and asked why I was still there pretty much.  I told them they didn’t stop at my stop …and he said oh where were you going …I told him and he looked at me like that lady in front of me and just said “It’s crazy down there, no bus can get down there!”  I gave him that look like, well I know now, and he smiled.

The teller walked off the bus and the driver was talking to me about something and I looked out the window and the teller was takin’ a piss right outside the bus like that. I thought…ew man! that man gave me my change!… I use the bus more than twice a day sometimes and for the amount of people I saw get on and off today, the people who sell candies to the people, who just plain ask for money, and now with the teller who’s outside the bus peeing on the dirt like that … no wall no tree nothing … and I give these people money every day and they give me change aagghh…ew. 

I got over the grossness a little and opened up my purse to make sure I had a good amount of baby wipes.  Lucky for me I carry around more baby wipes than an 80 year old, and things like this just make me a little bit more glad that I do.  My throat was dry and the bus was heading back to my neighborhood.  I was so glad to get home … eat lunch with my fam, guzzle down some cold water.  Even though I missed my lesson and spent a whole four hours on the bus … I was glad that I got to go to Liberdade – I was right too…it was definitely far away.

June 13 Journal

Today I witnessed one of the most amazing things ever.

As you all know, or if you might not….Brazil is AAALLLL about the World Cup. I think it’s one of the biggest anticipations a Brazilian faces to see their boys duke it out on the “football” field once every four years. The first time I heard that the World Cup existed was right before I left for Brasil. (I know I’m so ashamed …but what can you do…I play golf.) I was completely confused how it works, why Brazil is crazy about it, and is it like watching a Gator game??

1. It is a huge soccer event that this year is taking place in Germany, Berlin. It occurs every four years. Various countries participate which makes the World Cup an intense global phenomenon.

2. Brazil LOVES soccer. To the core. They are five time champions of the World Cup.

3. NO! this is no college town and this is not college football.

Which brings me to my story….

Today was the first day I got to see the Brazilian soccer team in action. Everything has been built up to this moment, the start of the World Cup (for Brasil). It’s nothing like I could have ever imagined. I’ve been watching a lot of the games. Seeing the technique of other teams around the world play for only one goal…the cup!….I was at home with my mom, dad and a friend of the family George. We were all huddled in their bedroom with the gorgeous plasma screen, mmm felt like I was almost in Germany hehehe. I was on the bed with my mom and dad and their friend sat beside us in a chair. It was great spending time with them, and for such a memorable event. As the game commenced all our Brasilian bodies were exploding with anticipation – THE GAME! The two teams sang their anthems and then went to their positions. The two foreigners shook hands, the coin was tossed…it’s officially begun. I was impressed how fast the Brasilians were…it was like Kaká some super human speed, and Ronaldinho controlling the ball as if it had some magnetic connection with his shoe. Other players such as Roberto could shoot the ball with so much force you’d think it was a cannon. Robinho, 19 years old and such a great player.

But it’s when the first goal was made is what sent chills down my spine. It was by far the most unique experience in my life. You see a little prolog…. about Brasil is that today, work stopped for just about everyone at 2 o clock – the game starts at four. The entire city was stopped; more like the entire country had stopped. It was dead in the street, you could only see a few busses pass by. Brasil for the first time…was silent. Now that you know the set up… that first goal was more intense than the whole six days of carnival. First it seemed just a little bit more intense than a Gator game, my mom jumped up and screamed, then gave me a big hug – we were all just screaming at the top of our lungs, arms raised in the air, then my mom says to me… “now jessie” …as she opens the window …”look outside”. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life, for that moment after Kaká put that soccer ball in Croatia’s net, the TV became inaudible to the sound coming from a sea of buildings outside the window of my parents’ room. It felt like the Brasilian earth was shaking. The entire country was more alive than I’ve ever seen it before. I knew at that moment that this is something that I will never forget. It was like the country of Brasil turned into a huge stadium. It’s a feeling so indescribable but I know it’s something I’ll never forget.

For all of you exchange students who are leaving this summer to embark on new adventures in new places: These are the little morsels worth cherishing … these are the treats that are worth more than gold. Congrats! and Boa Viagem!

with love,

Jessie Cordasco

Bam!

Kerry Elison
2005-06 Outbound to Norway

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Farsund Rotary Club, District 2290, Norway

Kerry - Norway

August 23 Journal

Can it be? Am I really here? This, once a pipe dream, has now become a reality… Norway. I arrived here on August the 7th at Oslo airport. I spent my first week in a language camp just an hour outside of Oslo. I recalled my first few days here as a blur, a mix of languages spoken, strange new foods and lack of sleep. The majority of the exchange students coming into Norway were from the US, others came from various countries such as Brazil(3),Canada(3), Mexico(1), France(1), Taiwan(1) and Switzerland(1). All together we equaled about 19 students. During the language camp we spent several hours in an “intense” language class from about 9:00-4:30. It was hard some days to pay attention due to the lack of sleep, but we learned a lot of everyday vocabulary and some Norwegian culture (it has been very helpful!). The camp was beautiful, It was situated on the biggest lake I have ever seen, surround by green topped mountains. And everyday after class we would go for a swim, well… more like a dip due to the 15 degree C water temperature. The Norwegian teacher took us all to Oslo for a day. There we went to a few parks and museums. My favorite of these had to be the Vigelandsparken, the park has these beautiful hand carved, marble statues of people in different poses. It is suppose to symbolize how Norwegian people view life. To live it relaxed and free.

Everyone said their goodbyes at camp and then parted ways to our different host families. It was so surreal to think that it was kind of the last time you can have a real conversation with someone because there wasn’t any language barrier. I met my host family at the Kristiansand city airport about two hours from my town, Farsund. I slept most of the drive back right until we hit the sign for Farsund kommune. I remember looking out on to the bay and at the little white cottages that surrounded and thinking “This is my home.”

My host family (left) is truly wonderful. I have three host siblings: Tonje(22), Rickki(18) and Mads(15). Tonje spent a year in Michigan in 2001 and now goes to school in Denmark for Nursing. Rickki goes to school in Kristiansand during the week and is home for the weekends. Mads my little brother is the only one home during the week and he attends the local elementary school. I love my host mother, she is wonderful, every morning we sit and eat breakfast or førkost she starts the morning with an early Norwegian lesson in vocabulary, pointing out certain objects saying them in Norwegian and then I repeat her. My father is great – he helps me whenever I need it.

I had my birthday here in Farsund. I spent it running around getting my visa and residence documents done but, nonetheless it was the best birthday I have ever had. Later in the evening I went to my first Rotary meeting. I stood up and introduced myself (not in Norwegian, yet) and they presented my with a really pretty painting of one Farsund’s beach. The meeting was focused on a woman who spent the last couple months in Thailand as a minister helping to clean up after the tsunami. Of course could only catch every couple words but it was still very interesting to hear her speak. We went back to the house and to my surprise my host mother made a blueberry pie, with wild blueberry she had picked from the mountains in the summer. My two other host families came and I met them, they all seemed very welcoming. There are no children living at home in my other two host families.

I started school here on the 16th of August. It is very different to say the least. I am in a class that would be considered a year younger then mine if I were in the states. People were kind of hard to get to know the first couple of days, they seemed a bit stand-offish but once they figure you are kind of outnumbered they begin to approach you and talk to you more. Once they find you can’t speak very much Norwegian they are very eager to speak English which can get a bit frustrating if you want to learn the language. My school is very small; it has only about 260 students and class sizes are about 15-20 depending on the classes. I am taking Geography, English, Norwegian, Sociology 2 and 3, Psychology, Norwegian law and politics and Norwegian history. I have begun to understand some classes and some teachers when they speak, it may only be a few words but every little bit helps. It took a few days but I have found a group of girls that seem to welcome me despite my language deficiency. They are all great and help me even if I don’t ask for it. I experienced my first bit of culture shock I guess you could say. One of the girls asked me “Is your school like the the one in American movies?” I looked her kind of puzzled for a moment and thought about it. Then she said “you know everyone drives nice, expensive cars to school, you have lockers in the hallways, everyone wants to be popular and you party all the time.” It was so weird to hear other peoples perceptions of the American life style and that they really think that way.

There are times here where I feel very much an outsider. People can all communicate with each other and I feel no one will ever really know the real me in the beginning. Although everyone can speak English I hate when they do; I feel like I am being babied in a way. It only drives me more to learn the language faster.

I spent the last weekend at my grandmother’s summer house at the beach. It was very nice. I helped Rickki baby-sit these little children who are friends of the family. I never knew what a good teacher a five year old can be when learning a language. It was wonderful learning experience.

On Sunday the whole family got together in my host mother’s sister’s house in the mountains in a place called Oppland for a “little family get together” – there were like 60 people there. I would walk through conversations that would go from Norwegian, to English, to Danish and a little German. I was so overwhelmed by the end of the night. My host mother’s cousins from Florida came to visit as well. What is strange is that they live in Jacksonville too but, not only that they are practically my neighbors (2 miles to be exact). It was nice to have someone to talk to who kind of knew about your life at home.

My school celebrated its hundred year Jubilee today. There was a big assembly with a lot of guest speakers. It was interesting in the beginning but, when you don’t really know what they’re saying it’s kind of hard to follow.

I am going to watch a folk music festival in my town this weekend with my host family. All the artists are going to be playing traditional Norwegian folk music and some will sing in their native dialects (every area in Norway has a specific dialect to each region). I am excited, the music is pretty unique.

I am not going to lie, these past two weeks have had their ups and downs, but it seems that whenever I feel the most homesick a little piece of home seems to pop up in the most random places and helps me to get over it. I am having the time of my life here and I can’t wait to see what else this year will bring, the good and the bad.

Until next time!

Kerry

September 22 Journal

It is difficult to believe I have been here a month already. It only feels like yesterday, wandering through the Oslo Airport, dazed and confused about my new surroundings and anxiously awaiting my fate. So much has happen in this past month.

I ended August by attending a folk music festival my host father and some other local community members were holding. It was called Sailors Wake, it featured folk acts from all of northern Europe (Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, England, and Scotland). During the festival not only concerts were held but also, dancing courses and seminars on folk music as well. I took a dancing course with my host sister and her friend from Denmark who was in for the festival that weekend. The course focused on a specific type of traditional Norwegian dancing called the Hauling, which in my opinion looks like cross between a square dance and a waltz. It can be somewhat difficult to learn because the rhythm of the dance is off beat from the song. Once I had mastered the dance (hahaha) the instructor surprised me by asking if I would join him and dance at one of the school concerts. It wasn’t that bad – in fact it was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel nervous in front of a crowd; I felt comfortable, even if I was making a fool of myself. I loved the Festival – it was amazing!

Things began to kind of fall into place after the first few weeks. School became a lot easier and I began to understand most of my classes. Norwegian language is very unique in that in every area in Norway a different dialect is spoken. Even the town Lyngdal; which is twenty minutes away, speaks very differently then people from Farsund. I have begun to notice only very slight differences in dialects because now at least some Norwegian doesn’t sound like complete gibberish to me. I took my first test in my 2sk class (sociology) and while I thought it was going to be completely incomprehensible, it actually didn’t turn out so badly. I answered almost every question and most of it was accurate, granted I did get to use my book and a dictionary. I still felt like I accomplished something.

Since I end class at 9:45 on Thursdays I have started going to the local Barnhagen or Kindergarden for a few “lessons” in Norwegian. It’s nice to be able to have a conversation in Norwegian, even if it is with a four year and the extent of the conversation consists of what games I like to play. The children range from ages 2-5 so they haven’t started to learn English, so I am forced to speak in Norwegian. Even if my pronunciation is terrible and I am not sure how to form a sentence correctly all the time, they never laugh at you … you just get this look of utter confusion. I start my Norwegian language course next Monday, it should go until Christmas.

Something that is becoming quite a problem though is the food. I LOVE IT! I spent my first days at my family’s home afraid to eat anything because I wasn’t sure what I was putting in my mouth. Everything is so good here, still though I am definitely not a fish in the morning kind of girl. NO herring or smoked salmon for me!! Something that I have learned is quite traditional in Norwegian households is a special kind of cheese called brun ost, or brown cheese, basically. I can only describe the taste as very sweet and creamy and once you start to chew, it sticks to the top of your mouth. I have tried it about 4 or 5 times just to please my host mother and make sure I am not missing out on something good, but still each time is more disgusting then the other!

I have picked up some exercise recently to help with the Rotary 15. I started horseback riding again and hopefully maybe I can try some handball or volleyball in the next couple weeks. I have attended two Rotary conferences in the past few weeks and both required traveling so it hasn’t left me much time to be here in Farsund. The first was in a city called Mandal, about an hour and a half away. There are about 7 other exchanges in my district, so it was nice to see everybody from language camp. We had to introduce ourselves in Norwegian and perform our national anthems. They held the conference at a place about 20 minutes from Mandal called Lindesnes; the most southern point in Norway. It was so beautiful – rocks, cliffs and OCEAN everywhere you turn.

I just came back from a conference in Haughsund, about a 6 hour trip. It was a national conference so all the exchanges from Norway came for the weekend. We also got to meet the Aussies; who had been here since January. We again all had to introduce ourselves in Norwegian and perform some sort of entertainment as well. On Saturday afternoon we took a tour of Haughsund and the surrounding area. It is Norway’s oldest area. First we went to the Viking museum and took a guided tour of Norwegian Mythology and the history pertaining to it. Then we walked to a church which is rumored to be one of the oldest in Norway. There is a myth about the specific church and a pillar which stands adjacent to it. Old Mythology reads that over time the pillar will begin to sink and fall into the church and once the pillar touches the church, judgment day has arrived and the world has come to an end. Our last stop was a place where all of Norway’s 12 kingdoms were united 1200 years ago. There is one big pillar which stands in the middle and each smaller pillar surrounding it represents each individual kingdom.

I have begun to feel more and more at home in my little town. I can’t walk down the street or go into a shop without hearing a “Hei, hei” or “Heia.” I have learned to appreciate its quiet charm and cozy dwellings. As each day passes, my host family’s house feels more like a home. I have loved my every second here in Norway – it has truly been the best month of my life! I want to thank Rotary, I am so grateful, you have given me the greatest gift possible!

Tusen takk!

October 17 Journal

Fall is here in Norway… The once green-topped mountains have taken new colors of yellow and bright red… The temperatures dip down at night, and the once long summer days began to draw shorter… Time to break out the long wool scarves and heavy jackets… WAIT, no, I had those out ever since my arrival in the Norwegian summer, haha.

Well, where do I start – I finished my Høst ferrie or fall break about two weeks ago. I spent some of it visiting another exchange student Vanessa from Canada in Kristiansand, I actually ended up stay with Ricki and her family, a girl who was an inbound in our district last year. Turns out her family is Vanessa’s second host family, what a small world. I think that’s what I like most about this program, I have come to learn we are not all as different and foreign as we are perceived to be; in some way or another we are all connected to each other. It’s things such as this which begin to hit me at random times, the tears come quite frequently, but only tears of overwhelming joy and happiness, and disbelieve that I am actually living my dream. It can no longer be called a dream, IT’S REAL AND IT’S HAPPENING; I AM LIVING IT!

Rotary always tells you those first few months are your most trying… I am going to be honest and say, boy they were not lying. In the first few months you have an identity crisis I guess you could call it, you’re not sure who you are; Am I Norwegian or American?; Should I speak Norwegian even if I am not sure of what exactly I am saying or if it is even in correct grammar?; What about friends? Will they represent me or have similar personalities? All these questions seemed to surface, almost weekly for the first two months of being here. I think I have begun to level a bit though. I feel more stable in my surroundings and in my language, I am comfortable with my classmates, and making friends has become much easier.

I spent this last weekend at a family cabin in the mountains about twenty minutes from Farsund. My host mother’s family was in from Denmark for their fall break. I met my host mother’s cousins and their children, her cousins are also hosting two Rotary exchange students in Denmark. Larissa arrived in July from Alaska, and one Australian, Amy, had been in Denmark since January.

The family all took a trip up to climb one of the mountains on Sunday.. that was an experience… why is it that Norwegians are so active shall I say… each and every time I do anything involving walking or biking outdoors, I end up being very last in the line, about a half a mile behind – haha, at times I just want to scream, “I am not Norwegian, wait for me!!!”

The area in which the cabin and the mountain are located is called Brusland, and every time the family takes the two hour hike, they record in a little booklet which sits a small pile of rocks, on a peak. Everyone signs their names and the date, and they describe the trip up. It was so beautiful atop the mountain, you could see nothing but mountain tops if you look to the north, and nothing but ocean to the south.

I started my language course last Wednesday, good thing is I can catch on to vocabulary in school, I just need to learn the proper grammar usage.

Well… that is it for this month so far, taking one day at a time and enjoying each and every little moment. I will write again later and put some pictures up along with it. I came across this quote and I thought it explained perfectly, about what I thought of the beginning of my exchange year.

“Will you look back on life and say, “I wish I had,” or “I’m glad I did?” – Zig Ziglar

One more thing- I want to say a big thank to Nina and Ricki; for opening their home to me and letting me stay there, I know she reads these journals! 🙂 And I can’t say this enough, THANK YOU to everyone who has helped me get here! Love you all!

December 12 Journal

Heia venner!

Entering the fifth month of my exchange and all I can’t say is WOW! I spent the better part of November living out of a suitcase because I was traveling almost every week. First to Denmark with my first host family to visit my host sister in Viborg and relatives in Randers then a Rotary weekend in southern Norway and then to Trondheim with my second host mother for 7 days to visit my host sister and brother (both attending the university). After this month all I can say is I am so glad to be “home.” Each and every one of these trips was unique and amazing. Seeing different extremes of Norway and seeing a new country. But as I said there is nothing like the feeling of “home” and yes that is what my host family’s house has become, my safety zone…my comfort bubble.

Remembering the first moment when I walked into my new room and thinking, it’s so bare and empty, this is not my room…I am never going to be comfortable here, no pictures or books or not even a place to play music. But in the last few months it is now my new found haven. School Books, papers and Norwegian fashion magazines line the shelves and my clothing lays in between every free space of wood flooring. My birthday present from my Rotary club, a picture of one of Farsund’s beautiful beach scenes hangs near my window. And random objects which I have inquired over these five months fill every inch of table space. To say the least I have hit my comfort zone here and it pains me to think of packing it all into three tiny little suitcases, to claim a new space in a house to call my own.

I will be changing to my second host family after Christmas; my host Rotary club thought it best if I was with some sort of familiarity for the holidays and I agree, it will be nice to feel at home during, even though I am not really. My second host family is wonderful though, I spend time with them on a regular basis but that also might be because all three of my host mothers are good friends and also that all three of my families live with 500 feet of one another. But all three are equally wonderful in different ways and I am so happy to have had such good luck thus far.

So last Friday I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for some exchange students and some friends from class. Yes that’s right I cooked a turkey! Quite proud of myself and managed to read recipes in Norwegian. The dinner went really well and the food tasted pretty good. Although I ate turkey pretty much all weekend and I think there is still a bit left in the chilling room down stairs. A little strange having my exchange friends there and girls from school, conversation lacked greatly but, we acknowledged the fact and laughed about it through dinner.

The truth is now, all I feel is comfort in all most every aspect of my new found life. School has become a joy now, instead of a chore. It helps now that I understand classroom material and am not embarrassed to speak Norwegian aloud. My classmates are wonderful, I feel part of the class and am included in all matters. They look out for me and I am a source of entertainment for them.

It’s taken a while but I have found a great group of friends and am meeting new people daily. My Norwegian has been improving on a steady basis, I no longer speak English at home and for the most part no longer at school either. Telling stories is still a challenge but a good kind. I never usually finish my stories because I find that I start laughing at my story-telling abilities in Norwegian but nonetheless, it is nice to feel as though I fit in, well sort of.

But to say now I no longer have that feeling as though I am balancing on a weighing scale. Like I used to feel as though every little thing that went wrong or right during the day would affect my mood. Now I find I have more days where waking up in a good mood is much easier and staying that way is not as difficult as it use to be.

Each day things become increasingly better, even if it’s maybe something little…it adds up to the bigger picture in the end. I have no particular stories this month to share but I would like to say that I am truly happy and content for now. If you are reading this and have applied for the program TRUST ME when I say, YOU WILL NEVER REGRET IT, IT HAS TRULY BEEN A GREAT RIDE!

God JUl !

Hilsen, Kerry

January 13 Journal

Well my beautiful Christmas holiday had come to an end and with that my stay with my first host family did as well. My holiday here was one of joy and happiness despite Rotary mention of homesickness. My last week of school before break was to say the least a joke. We started our exams in late November making the work load a lot…well less then last two weeks before break, so for the last three days of school, they held different events and programs to keep us occupied.

My winter break was certainly a welcomed one…all three of my host siblings came home, so if felt like we were all a family. Let me tell you Norway really loves their Christmas holiday….there are some many unique and special traditions in preparing. Christmas is celebrated more so on Christmas eve rather than the first Christmas day. So Jul aften, as it is called, was spent at my host family’s house with my host mother’s parents, my host father’s mother and my host mother’s brother-in-law and his daughter. It was a really nice dinner together… at one time I felt like an outsider in the family…when I first came…not having many experiences to speak of or being able to make jokes with my family members but now I WAS FAMILY. Afterwards came yet another Norwegian tradition…Ris grøtt…it’s a special dessert like rice pudding with usually some sort of berry topping. My absolute favorite food here. So it goes that you place an almond in one of the bowls and dish it out to everyone… whoever ends up with the almond in theirs gets a prize of a marzipan big…I wasn’t lucky enough…instead my host sister received it. Afterward we headed into the living room for some good old gift giving. We embarked on this task around 5:30 in the afternoon and finished about 11:00. Every gift was opened one by one to ensure the same amount of pride and attention was given. My gifts were truly wonderful in that each one represents something special or important here in Norway. I hadn’t expected much this year…or had I wanted much…but somehow my host mother figured out what I needed and got it for me…just like a true mother eh? Two of my most favorite gifts though, came from both my grandmothers…two troll dolls (which are important Norwegian tradition) They’re so cute!

Finally, it was almost 12:00 and time for some more eating…yes! Coffee, fruit, and yummy Christmas cookies. We all sat around and ate until we could no longer keep our eyes open. This day was probably my most memorable here…I was surrounded by family and good conversation and realizing for the first time that things are getting easier and that my time here is so short…And how just when things seem to finally be settling, your exchange year is half over…I know I know…stop talking about how much time you’re losing, I think I have mentioned it in almost every journal. But, in reality it’s true…time runs away from you.

My winter break was very relaxing…Snow finally came after Christmas, needless to say my dream of a “white Christmas” was crushed. But when it finally came it was worth the wait. The first morning I woke up and walked into the living room and ran over to the window to stare in amazement as white little flurries fell one on top of the other. My host sister looked at me with amusement and laughed. I probably sat at the window for almost 10 minutes in shock.

Ahh and Yes….ice skating. All my memories as a child skating on the lake at my grandparents house all came back to me. How much I enjoy this afternoon…and no, no falls…yes! The Florida girl did not fall on the ICE. I spent the first 10 minutes adjusting myself to the new surface and making sure that every move I made was executed with the same amount of safety and precision as the last. But after that…I spent an hour just goofing off with my host sister and pretending to be a pro…what a joke.

New Years was fun. I spent it with some friends from school at a party. We walked to town around 11:30 and rung in the New Year by watching all the fireworks fill the skies as everyone in my class congratulated one another and gave endless hugs and kisses. Didn’t matter if you were even friends…or even knew one another…everyone was cordial and happy to give greetings for the new year.

As my break came to end, both my host sisters traveled back to their own schools and my last week with my first host family had finally come. I was sad to leave my host family…crying as I hugged my host mother goodbye…but like she said, it isn’t goodbye…so that made it easier. I look at changing families as a new start to my exchange, the end of my beginning if you will…

Looking back on those first five months and realizing all the things I have experienced and accomplishments which I have done, brings a smile to my face and excitement for the next 6 months to come.

My new host family is great…I am the only child living at home, but I find it much easy to talk with them.

I began to swim every Wednesday and supposedly started Volleyball on Thursday nights. So…doing all I can to keep busy and now even attempting my homework; at least now I understand it.

Three weeks I am going on a SKI trip in which Rotary is host for all the exchange students in Norway. The Australians are coming this month making us a total of almost 40. So…skiing should be quite interesting for me.

Filling my next coming months with plans and activities…trying to keep myself on track…and not thinking ahead to the future any longer, wastes my all too precious time in the present.

That’s all for now…

Love from Norway…

March 23 Journal

Heia alle sammen!

It’s March, can it really be half over? It really just started. OK these past two months have been hectic, and I started journals but never fully completed them so I might have written some of this a while ago.

Winter Camp…Rotary club of Nesbyen, for something like the 5 years invites all the exchange students in Norway for a week full of skiing, snow boarding and sledging. All 31 one of us including the new Australians attended. We stayed in a beautiful area that had a cabin rental facility…Girls had 3 cabins to split among them and the boys two. Cozy little cabins they were… especially in the morning… six girls… one bathroom… a bit of a rat race to claim the first shower. Any who… the first day, our director divided us into two groups… the ones of experience in the area of skiing and well, my group. SO after gathering our cross country skis and other equipment…we headed out to the meeting area for a quick five minute lesson and then it’s on our own. This is probably the part in which the Aussies and I bonded, being that I was really the only American who had never tried any form of skiing. Everyday I enjoyed without a doubt. Cross country skiing became my favorite for the week. If we didn’t head to the Alpine Center, for some down hill skiing, we were taking out as a group for a beautiful long trip in the mountains. Each day we increased in distance and despite my shock the first day I welcomed it and enjoyed the good exercise. The last day everyone came together again for a last cross country trip – we skied a total of 2 Norwegian miles, almost 20 kilometers. It took about 4 hours. Skiing is probably one of my favorite sports now, even though it might be a little difficult to find in Florida.

The beginning of March was winter break. Meaning yes, more skiing. So my host parents took me and another one of the exchange students James (Australia) skiing for the weekend at a ski resort about two hours from Farsund. James and I downhill skied for the entirety of the trip while my host parents took long cross country trips each day. After the trip James and I went to visit Vanessa in Kristiansand. We spent a few days there, showing James around the city and catching up with each other. The rest of my break was with my first host family, attending family gathering and activities. Felt strange almost as if I had come home.

Last weekend Rotary held another gathering for all the exchange students and invited us to Oslo to tour the city and attend the international ski jumping contest on Sunday at Holmenkollen ski park. It was amazing, Sunday we were given a tour of the ski museum and a brief history talk about how skiing has evolved in Norway over decades. The Holmekollen ski competition is known as Norway’s second national day, because skiing is such a big part of this country’s history. Norwegians love their skiing. The competition began at about 2:00 in the afternoon, we sat right in the snow for 2 hours drinking hot chocolate and cheering on Norway, but sadly Poland came out with the victory. Ski jumping is really quite boring to watch on TV, but actually being there, the sound of the skiers tearing down the jump with incredible speed, and people all sitting down together in the snow wrapped in layers of wool, eating tons of chocolate and pastries and complete strangers speaking among each other as if they were all old friends. It was so pleasant, even though by the end I had lost most of the feeling in my toes.

I been traveling quite a bit since January, and started to attend a Rotary meeting at least once a month to speak a little and give them updates on certain activities I’ve taking part in.

My next few weeks:

31 March: Move till final host family

3 April: Mom comes to visit

11-18 April: Easter Break

20-5 May: Euro Tour

There is so much I’ve left out, but it’s hard to separate everything and try to compile into coherent English. That’s all for now… Enjoying my next and final months in Norway. Still so strange to fathom… knowing that in such a short time my stay and exchange will draw to an end.

The first day of Spring was a few days ago, yet the snow began to fall again today.

That’s it for this month.

Lykke til!

kos og klemmer,

Kerry

May 14 Journal

So it’s time for another long overdue journal. My 9 month anniversary was Saturday, which was a complete shock when I found out I have exactly 5 weeks left here in Norway. My life has completely flown by in these past couple months. I moved in with my last host family at the end of March, I find it absolutely comfortable in every regard. They are a wonderful older couple with no children living at home currently. In March snow still scatters the ground in some places and the temperatures were still low at night, meaning the small space heater in my room has remained on almost my entire year in Norway. My mom came to visit in the beginning of April for a week. It was a really nice visit, she got to see Oslo, Kristiansand and Farsund. She met my families, some of the other exchange students and friends. I felt proud; in certain conversations with my host families to be able to translate English and Norwegian when needed. It was a chance for my mom to see my life, all the aspects of everyday… my school, “hometown”, the culture, language and the country. My mom left right before Easter break, giving me another free week from school. Just spent my time relaxing, I visited Vanessa in Kristiansand for a few days and came back to Farsund for Easter. And finally, came my Europe tour. We left the 20th of April to Berlin, Germany and from there went on our crazy two week adventure. There were 32 of us from Norway and we were joined by three exchange students from Iceland. So my Europe tour in a nutshell: 

Germany: Berlin, Dresden 

Czech Republic: Prague 

Austria: Vienna, Salzburg 

Italy: Venice

France: Lyon, Paris 

England: London

Without a doubt my two most favorite cities were Prague and Salzburg.

On our first day in Berlin, we were accompanied by a tour guide who was in fact an American, who had lived in Berlin for 35 years. First we went to Olympic Stadium, soon to be World Cup Soccer Stadium, then we spent much of our time driving around the city on the tour bus because there was so much to see that we had to cram it all in one tour. Berlin is unique in that, much of the city is in a constant state of restoration or reconstruction, it’s estimated that it won’t be fully finished before 2050. We drove along the “embassy road” and were able to find all of our national embassies, including the Scandinavian branch. We also stopped at Checkpoint Charlie, which was interesting, they still have some sort of guard stand set up to symbolize that of one used during the war.

Then day three we stopped in Dresden, which was a beautiful City, we saw the old churches; some of which still burned from the WWII bombings. And we saw the opera houses, gardens and got to walk the city streets. Then after what seemed like an eternity on the bus we finally we came to Prague. We had a tour of the city highlighting all of the important attractions Charles Bridge, the 5-Star man (The statue of John of Nepomuk.), St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Astronomical Clock, and then given the rest of the day free to do as we liked. This city was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The architecture is amazing, and you can see the influences left from the prussic era.

Then we set off for Austria…it was a little disappointing being that Austria was done in two days with two different cities and didn’t give us much time to see anything but I did really enjoy this country. First we were in Vienna for the morning and then made our drive to Salzburg in the afternoon, allowing us enough time to attend the Sound of Music dinner show which was pretty entertaining. To me Salzburg was the most beautiful because despite the fact that it is touristy it wasn’t overly so, it still held it’s charm and city feel. After dinner we were giving time to just walk around the city and explore a little. We all just bummed around the city, got lost a little and finally ended up at a corner cafe. It was a nice relaxing city at night, people out on street corner cafes, conversing in several languages, people coming and going to various evening events, we even met students from the University who were studying in Salzburg on an exchange program.

Our next stop was Italy. We stayed in a town about 20km outside of Venice, right on the ocean. Upon our arrival at our hotel we were welcomed by a group of Italy boys on a class trip, shouting and whistling, seeing this our director turns to us and says “Thank God, you girls can’t speak Italian!” with a shocking look on his face, we all burst out laughing which creating a somewhat awkward moment but really funny. Not that Venice was absolutely terrible just that time wise it wasn’t worth it. The city has it’s interesting points, but all in all it seems very built up and not even a city at all, in a way I felt almost as if I were in a Disney World park exhibition, like Epcot almost… a backdrop or a movie set in a way. The canals were really interesting though and how the city is built.

After Italy we set out from Lyon then to Paris…we made a stop at the castle of Versailles (Château de Versailles) , located in the Commune of Versailles, which is a suburb of Paris. Our first day in Paris we all took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, which took a huge part of the day and then afterward we were given free time again. So we headed to the Louvre, I really enjoyed just wandering around and getting lost in every exhibition, just when you thought you saw some of the most beautiful works of art in one room, you stumble into another room filled with even more beautiful pieces. The next day we went to Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, then later that night we went out to the Eiffel Tower again and sat on the grass and watched a sort of light show…it was really beautiful. To our finally stop in London. I loved London. There was so much diversity, and history in this city. The first day we went by bus and saw such attractions as House of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Regent Street, Tower Bridge and other sights. Then given free time again until dinner. After dinner we were given the chance to attend a musical, The Lion King, which was really entertaining. Our last day, a couple of us decided to just spend the day in Hyde park, which is now one of my top favorite places. We sat around in the grass talking, sun bathing, playing soccer and Frisbee. It was a nice day together, we reminisced about old times and talked about our future plans. It really all kind of hit us, our 9 months has gone by so quickly, and in about 3 weeks some of us begin to head home from Norway. Goodbyes were really tough, looking at each other in the eye making promises of future meet ups but there’s that little reality in the back of your head knowing that it will never be this good again, you will never share the same circumstances like this again. Returning home was really difficult, in ways I felt like it was all over, my year. But I realized No, I still have got five weeks and I attend to make it wonderful.

I was excited to go back to school and see everyone again. But found out that exams had begun making my school week a little jumpy, only having to go to school three days last week and supposedly it will be like that until I leave. Yesterday, I went out with a group of friends on their boat and we met up with other people from school on an Island in the bay of Farsund. We grilled some food, made a big fire, sat around and talked for hours. The days are so beautiful now, the daylight lasts until about 11:30pm and although a little cold, it’s green and the whole atmosphere of the town has changed; it’s bloomed for the summer time.

Next Wednesday is Grunnlovdag, which is their national day. Everyone dresses in national costume, bunard and goes down to town for the big parade and various parties throughout the day. My first host mother asked if I wanted to wear one of their bunards so I can match everyone else, I’m pretty excited about that.

As for now…I know my time is limited. I want to thank Rotary again for this…This year has been completely mind blowing and you have given me something I can never repay. I am so grateful to each and everyone one of you who help to make this program work, you have done a WONDERFUL job!

All my love from Norway…

Dominique Ghirardi
2005-06 Outbound to Japan
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Takaoka West Rotary Club, District 2610, Japan

Dominique - Japan

September 1 Journal

When I stepped off the plane from Tokyo, all I could think is what might await me. Though we spent the night in Tokyo, so many people spoke English to us, so I wondered just how far English had come in this rural area of Japan.

All I needed was the random woman who approached us, for no reason other than to say “Hi” loudly and awkwardly, and I had my answer. Since then, I’ve gotten nothing but the strangest English and awkward stares from complete strangers, just because I might be the first one of me they’ve ever seen. Wow, that sounds strange…

To make matters worse, people talk about you, including your host family, because they assume you don’t understand. But that was where my other surprise lay. From the moment I walked into Haneda Airport, up to this moment now, I have understood the general idea of just about everything said to me. Every now and then, there will be a sentence with no words understood whatsoever, and my speech isn’t as good, so others probably speak simpler Japanese because they assume I don’t know any.

But still, that wasn’t what I expected. Instead of fearing this foreign language, I am at ease, even if I don’t understand. Since I arrived, I have made four speeches in Japanese, introducing myself. I found that it is easier to speak in public when you aren’t quite sure of everything you’re saying.

Now I am in for a huge challenge, though. I just moved into my first host family, which is pretty laid back. They have three sons, two of which live at home, Rei and Yo. They are older, Yo being only 3 days older than me, and Rei being 2 years older. The eldest son is a mystery to me. I was shocked by the parents, mainly because they want me to call them Yu-san (the father) and Yoshiko-san (the mother). Then again, even their children call them that. I find that so strange.

They own a McDonald’s, and they do pretty good. Also, they own a dog, which I have never had before, and I am slowly learning what makes the dog bite or growl, usually the hard way… (I have only had cats, and they are not at all the same as far as warning signs go…oh well!) To make things even more difficult, the only one who speaks decent English is Rei, who went to Canada as an exchange student. So, I am definitely getting used to trying to speak in Japanese, and I find it frustrating that I can’t express myself.

In fact, understanding, but not speaking so well is about the worst feeling in the world to me. I feel as though I am comatose; I can hear and understand so much, but I can’t always let others know how I feel or what I need. Then again, that’s just motivation to work harder on the language!

I also just started school today. The classes are a complete mystery to me, even P.E. is different from America. Also, they teach their English class in Japanese, which explains why everyone’s English is so bad in my school. But that’s okay, they all try their best and we have such simple and strange conversations. However, I have already made so many friends, and so I feel things will get better so long as I keep trying at the language.

As for daily life, I love Japan in so many ways… You can hear cicadas and crows all the time, and sometimes they get so loud that you can’t hear others so well. And while everyone complains it’s hot all the time, compared to Florida, it’s perfect. Even better, it’s so pedestrian oriented, and I have really gotten a chance to try out my sense of direction, as well as enjoying a new found independence. Growing up in Jacksonville, where everyone is so dependent on cars or specific busses, I have never before been able to just go somewhere if I need to, with my only limitation being my curfew or knowing the appropriate train time. I have already been able to do things with friends more so than ever before, just because I don’t need anyone to get there.

I plan on joining many clubs, and my second host father, Kanamori-san, has even arranged for me to have lessons in odori, a Japanese fan dance. Right now, my only sorrow is that I don’t blend in so well, but right now, that is to my advantage.

Ja matta ne! (see you later)

October 31 Journal

Konnichiwa! Sahiburi, ne?

That means ‘It’s been a long time…’ and it really feels like it. True, these entries have been few and far between, but this one month felt like it took years…. But before I start on October, September ended with a festival!

At the very end of September we went up to the city of Shiminato to participate in the festival procession (more like the practice session, but it was still fun!). The parade is filled with nothing but tall wooden floats with dancers on top and people riding inside. Moved not by cars but by people, one of the people inside waves a baton enthusiastically and shouts encouragement mimicked by those pushing below. Everyone wears hapi, these thin overcoats held on by a sash and a bandana, and we were given one by the Rotary club of Shiminato. You can feel the whole crowd liven as dozens of people helped push….and we got to help! It was hard work, but at the end my friend Victoria, who’s from New York, and I climbed up into the float, eagerly encouraged by the men within, and led the cheer!

Then at night, the actual event has a mysterious aura thrown in with the enthusiasm: lit by thousands upon thousands of lanterns, each float reaching almost the height of the small buildings, the dim lighting and old Shinto music makes you feel as though you’re in another world entirely…. And I have to hand it to the drummers on top….they have to be brave… For the real procession, there are only boys pulling so it goes faster. There’s also a Noh dancer inside with a white mask which adds to the atmosphere….I loved it.

As September eased into October, I began my odori lessons. I was thrilled to finally experience the beauty of this art which I had read so much about, and was not disappointed in the least. On my first lesson, I was given a purple fan, to match the kimono I bought, and then shown a picture of a geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) by my sensei. She told me that maiko were dancers, light and graceful, and all who do odori are maiko in spirit. It sounded so exotic and wonderful… Every week I go to my sensei’s house and don my host sister’s yukata (which Kanamori-san lent me) and though the lessons are all so specific, this just adds to the perfection and intricate nature of the dance. I’m currently working towards my performance in December … at the Rotary Christmas party.

Dance wasn’t all I started. Bored with chorus and finding myself with much free time, I decided to try volleyball. I’m terrible at volleyball, as I’ve never done it before just this summer, but I found that I enjoyed it and genuinely wanted to learn, and I was lucky in that they don’t have a competitive team here, but a club in which people were more than willing to teach me. I was surprised at this, as it seems everyone had done this sport since elementary or middle school and was amazing at it, but I found over time that there were two important exceptions to this rule, Mai and Yuka. These girls just started and, while they aren’t as bad as I am, they can’t really play with the others at the same level. Mai, who’s in my class, was thrilled to have someone to play with during gym, as the teacher is often hard on people like us, and though we have only barely scratched the surface, I’m sure we’ll grow to be friends. Yuka, on the other hand, is almost my best Japanese friend. I basically gave her something to do at first, as she’s even worse than Mai, and therefore can’t play with the others at all, but this evolved into a great friendship in which language didn’t matter. I can speak Japanese all right for someone who’s only been here two months, but she couldn’t speak English at all, and so every now and then we run into walls only just saved by the dictionary….but thanks to her, I’ve not only learned much more Japanese than I would have thought I would by playing sports; I also learned about Japanese people as well. I found that because she was separated from the others, she was troubled and was eager to find ways to connect with them. This helped me, because she showed me how I too could connect with them, which goes farther than the volleyball club. She wants to play better just as I want to adjust better and they seem to run parallel in a way.

As time went on in school, I found that because they don’t let me take the tests (as I can’t read enough kanji yet) studying is not a main priority. The classes I do participate in, that are actual academic classes, are mainly venues in which I can try to increase my vocabulary. As a result, because I go to a prestigious school which is very difficult, many of the friends I had made at first often find that they don’t always have time for me if I want to talk to them. I understand this, but again, luckily, there are exceptions. I belong to a small group of friends that always include me in their conversation if they can, mainly because of one girl named Ha-chan (her name’s really Hazuki, but that’s what we call her). She just happened to sit behind me at first and, because of my habit of turning around in between classes for conversation, turned into someone who I can trust and ask for help. She’s the one who introduced me to the volleyball club and she’s one of two who actually will talk to me first for more than English help. The other girl, Mickey, who’s real name is Mitsuki, has comforted me with her wildness and louder ways that remind me of my friends back home.

In fact, to be honest, while I did encounter much this month, my main problem was coming to grips with culture shock. I had clearly had a different vision of Japanese social life in my head and it was killing me for the longest time that I was mistaken. No one, not even the people in the easier schools, goes out, and the subjects of conversation never get as personal as they can between girls in America. Contact with the opposite sex is somewhat minimal, as most girls have girls for friends and boys are likewise. People are nice, but sometimes too nice, and much more quiet, with a whole different sense of humor. I longed for my friends and the louder lifestyle of high school back home, and came to a greater shock when I found that if I told someone this as confiding in them, such as my host mom or teacher, they’d only look at me as though I wanted them to solve my problem for me. It was nothing like what I was used to, and I had no idea that I had ever been so used to it!

To make things even more difficult, the stares and separate treatment was really getting to me. People would sit on the other side of the train seat (which is quite long) or walk on the other side of the street to avoid me. My own host brother stared at me for a while.. As I walked down roads, minding my own business, men and boys would call out to me in English, followed by laughter or sometimes my being followed…. I quickly learned which roads were better and when I could tell if someone was messing with me, but the fact that they were hurt me. It also hurt me when people tried to separate me because they seemed to miss the point that I wanted to belong.

But this wasn’t to last forever, though it’s probably what made this month feel like three. I was even sick for a while and even though I knew this was culture shock and tried to follow the guides I’d been given, nothing seemed to help. Then, one day, as I was living day by day for a while, I woke up and felt completely different. It was as though those feelings were a heavy blanket that had fallen off, and suddenly I could run again. It was probably no coincidence that this day was my most exciting of that month, in which I had an opportunity to do something no exchange student in this region had ever done before.

This happened about a week ago tomorrow, when I was asked to miss school and go to this famous temple in Takaoka’s center with my second host mom (though I’m still with my first host family), dressed in kimono. All I knew was I was doing tea ceremony and the kimono was being provided for me. But when I entered the room to be dressed, after having my hair done in a way I haven’t seen since my dad’s wedding, I saw the kimono I was to wear and I felt like screaming and hugging my host mom: it was furisode. I had read about furisode, they’re really formal and only for young, unmarried girls. Flashy and heavily decorated, though still stylish, with sleeves so long they reach your ankles, it was accompanied by an obi of equal golden beauty, which was long and elaborately marked. I beamed as they put it on me, and I felt suddenly closer to my second host mom as she told me it had been hers and that only one other exchange student had worn it, along with her daughter, and her. We then went to the temple, accompanied by many tea ceremony sensei, a violinist in a prom-like dress, and the Rotary governor of our district. When we arrived, I learned that we were doing a photo shoot for a popular nationwide women’s magazine, which I had seen in both my houses. We all had many photos taken of ourselves, either posing as directed or while doing a modernized version of the tea ceremony, which was unlike anything I’d ever done in my club at school. I had the time of my life and had a chance to talk to many interesting people, all of which lived nearby, and I was amazed at how networking works here in Japan. You should definitely never refuse a friend or make an enemy, because whatever friend you make, you make friends with their friends and family too, and likewise for enemies. And you never know who the other person knows….

On Saturday I had a chance to paint glass dolls with a sensei. I’ve had many craft opportunities like this, as my host families keep setting them up for me. I recently finished ceramics, where I was taught on a potter’s wheel for the first time and learned tricks from a man who seemed to have done this his whole life. I also was able to see a Noh drama, in which I could understand nothing but was entranced by the way the Shinto music and old Japanese note system, in tune with the disciplined, mysterious dances and costumes……..I felt like I was back in the periods during which they were written, and it was definitely an experience.

Yesterday I went down to the prefecture of Gifu, which is covered in mountains. It was amazing to see the autumn colors dotted all along their tall tops and I think it was my first time actually seeing anything so….autumn. Strange as this sounds, 52 degrees Fahrenheit never felt so warm…….. We also saw these amazing old houses of traditional style and thatched roof which are still being lived in and maintained up to this day. It’s so unexpected to find people still living as they did hundreds of years ago today, adapting only in small ways, and still surviving just fine. It was a real treat compared to the constant change of today.

Next month is my last month with this host family, and we’re going to Yokohama! I’ll be sure to post at a more reasonable interval next time.

Matta ne!

December 14 Journal

Chotto sashiburri, ne?

It seems ever since November ended, we’ve had about one day without snow or rain…..but first let’s get November out of the way.

November was fairly busy, and a huge improvement over the drama of October.  Culture shock has come and gone, for the most part, and while there were some issues with other exchange students, in the scheme of things that’s the worst of my problems.

Sometime in the beginning of November, I was taken ‘Nordic Walking’ with a group of many foreigners and some Japanese.  ‘Nordic Walking’ is a Finnish style of exercise in which you carry ski poles as you walk in such a way that it exercises your arms.  It wasn’t hard and we did so on a nearby beach after first cleaning up the beach.  There were three Fins there, one of whom I already knew, but neither of them had ever been Nordic Walking so it was an experience for us all.  I have to say the best part of it all was that there were people form all over: Australia, Holland, Scotland, Finland, Germany, Canada, and America, and they were all in Japan for different reasons.  Their ages and backgrounds varied largely and talking with them not only gave me new friends but also helped me to see this whole experience through another perspective.  I’m also learning how to make friends that are much older than me by finding things in common, where before this was somewhat awkward.

One person who really made me think was the Scottish man.  He was always a wanderer, and had only recently settled down in Japan when he married a Japanese woman and had a daughter.  There was some particularly good advice he gave me which I won’t forget:  ‘Every time you see a photograph of a place in a magazine or book, know that the photographer who took it studied that place in all angles, in all weather, in all different lightings, probably for a long time.  But no matter, sometimes, photographs just can’t do a place justice.  You have to see it with your own eyes to truly understand.  When you travel, it’s actually cheaper and much more worthwhile to stay longer as you don’t have to rush to see what you want to see.  Rather, you can take your time and really enjoy the place for what it is.’

In the next weekend, I was asked to show my friend Victoria, an exchange student from New York who is currently living in Toyama, around Takaoka.  It made me realize just how different this experience is for everyone, just by what town you’re in.  For her, the exchange is more social because there are many foreigners in her area her age and they often go to karaoke with Japanese, as opposed to Takaoka which is more culture oriented and has much fewer foreigners of all ages.  I’m starting to see why we all are having such a different time here.

On November 20th I went to an odori performance with my sensei and Victoria, who didn’t originally want to come but was asked to anyhow.  It was what I had expected of an odori performance, but much more varied and brilliant.  It’s amazing…..in odori, you can be who you want to be.  If you want to be a mysterious Noh actor back in the Heian period, go ahead.  If you want to be an exotic maiko performing in a tea house, it’s all yours.  You are confined by neither era nor status, all you need do is learn the dance and don the costume.  Even Victoria, for whom the traditional arts are not a big interest, this was fascinating.

The next day, my host mother and father, Lucy (the Australian exchange student here), and I all set off for Yokohoma.  It was an experience.  On the way we could see Mt. Fuji in the distance, and because we were near, decided to stop in at the nearby cemetery to meet my host father’s parents who had passed away.  I was told how, and I thought it was rather tragic as he was young at the time, but no one seemed to show even the slightest hint of awkwardness or thought at it.  We lit incense, took pictures, watered the plants on the grave (yeah, they have a little garden going there…..) and left without another thought, the whole time laughing and talking like we ere window shopping.  Interesting…  Oh yeah, and some things to note: in Japanese cemeteries, Christians, foreigners, and everyone else all have their own separate area.  I thought that was a bit strange.

When we arrived at our hotel in Yokohoma, which had a wonderful view of Yokohoma’s famous ferris wheel, we met up with my oldest host brother Kei.  He was pretty different in person, but I liked him.  Kei really is an older brother; if you have a problem, he tries to help you with it and doesn’t make his disappointment or anger known.  Having spent a year in Alaska, he understands the American sense of humor and it was fun joking with him.  We went to the Chinatown in Yokohoma, which is huge, and ate dinner there. 

The next day we set off for Tokyo via subway.  I have to say, it was my first time in a subway, and I prefer trains.  There’s nothing to see in a subway….though I did find it interesting that the subway and train are one and the same, as it darts above and under the ground at select times.  I didn’t even know we were in Tokyo until my host mom pointed out the Tokyo tower….I was shocked; there weren’t that many people at all on the street….

We then went to Keio University, the best private university in Japan, where Kei was having his school festival.  Honestly, it was no different from a high school school festival, but it was interesting nonetheless.  I admire the man who can wear a Hello Kitty character suit and keep a straight face…..  There were weirder things too; men in Chinese dresses, people running at you in all directions trying to sell you on their booths’ products, a man who could play the piano faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, just to name a few….  Not to mention they had an awesome hip-hop dance team; I was shocked.

After that we went to Herijukku!  I’ve always wanted to go there because I’ve heard it’s like no where else fashion-wise….but upon arriving it seemed so normal I couldn’t figure out what was wrong…….  Then we turned in this one street and it was like I was in another world.  The things I saw there and the people passing by could not possibly be boring in any setting, and only in this setting could anyone see them as normal….  It was pretty vivid. 

On the way back, I was reminded that I was in Tokyo, as the subway was so crowded that at every turn or jolt no one could move.  I wasn’t really that uncomfortable, though, only when it creaked did I worry….

The next day we drove back home, on the way we ate at a hotel which was famous for John Lennon having patronized it.  We looked around in the cute little town surrounding it, apparently a popular tourist spot despite it’s location in the middle of nowhere….  Upon returning, though, it was good to be back.

The next week was my last week with the Kawais, but no one was that sad.  For the longest time I thought I had done badly with these people because they didn’t feel anything about my leaving, but I realized that that was not true the morning I left.  As my host mom was leaving for work, we said our goodbye, and as she left and I turned around to go finish packing, she came back saying something to herself which I could not understand but could at the same time as she briskly came up to me and hugged me for a while and then left so quickly it left me standing there wondering what just happened…  The Japanese don’t hug.  I’ve gotten used to that, so I was somewhat shocked.

As we drove up to the Kanamoris’ house, I remember doing the same thing the day I went to the Kawai family, only it was Mr. Kawai waiting there for me, not Mr. Kanamori, who is now my host dad.  It was the strangest thing because while we had a little snow before, it had melted and the surroundings now looked the same as they had in summer, with a little taste of fall mixed in.  It was the strangest deja vu, and while it felt like I’d lived with them for ages, as difficult times seem to last forever, it now felt like it had only been an overnight stay.

I am now in my new host family, the Kanamoris, who aren’t really so new to me as they hosted me before for ten days.  Their children are grown and live in Tokyo, one is in college and the other works.  Misako, my host sister, is the younger and is the one in college.  We’ve met before but only for a bit; I stay in her room.  Her brother Yohei didn’t even know I was in the house until Oka-san mentioned something I said on the phone the other day….  It was funny, actually.  Oka-san is a sweet woman who enjoys tea ceremony and the traditional arts, so we have something in common.  Oto-san has excellent English, and sometimes is a little too willing to speak it, owns a company passed down for generations, and plays golf.  I love living with them; because their house is near the station and in the center of the city, I have a lot of freedom here.  I also just found out that they were both exchange students, though older at the time and much more briefly, at one time so they have some kind of idea of it all.  They both study English in their spare time.

Recently I’ve felt so at home everywhere I go.  I finally feel accepted here and now things are really picking up.  In school I have many friends, and am even getting invited to do things now!  As far as volleyball goes, I notice that when talking to them, I’m saying things I would normally say or ask my friends back home now.  We even have inside jokes, something that I would never have expected in October or even November.  At home, both host parents have stopped using polite forms on me already, meaning that I’m one of them for now.  Oka-san and I went to see a movie last weekend and then to a culture festival.  They seem to have time to do things with me or if not, at the end of the day we always talk about what went on just like I would at home.  In many ways it’s a lot like home, but in many ways it’s very different.  I feel like I’m on one of the highs right now.  This is great!

And to top it off, I’m up to my hips in 46 inches or so of snow!  It’s the powdery kind that you can do things with, and I find myself wanting to throw snowballs and make snowmen just because I never have before….  The best part is, if you wear the right clothes, it’s not even cold!  In fact, it’s sometimes warm!

Matta ne!

February 8 Journal

Konnichiwa!

It’s February 8th and now everyone talks of the coming spring, though outside snow still trickles, every now and then breaking into what seems to be a miniature blizzard. The days are warmer, but still not what you’d call warm, and in most exchange students’ hearts of Toyama prefecture lies the question of what the next half of this experience will bring. But first, let’s catch up on the most busy two months or so I’ve ever had here, as well as probably the best for this reason.

I left off on December 14th, which was the Takaoka West Rotary Club’s annual Christmas party and also my dance performance. It was a night to remember, if nothing else. That afternoon, I left school early to go have my hair done in the traditional style of a maiko, or trainee geisha. Everyone was shocked by my hair’s length and that no extensions or additions would be needed. Afterwards, I was rushed back into the car and off to my sensei’s house, where she dressed me in a beautiful blue furisode (long sleeved kimono) with red flowers along the hems. A brilliant red obi (sash) was draped around and tied to hang down long as a maiko’s does, which sort of resembles a willow in a sense. It was so long; it went from the nape of my neck down to my knees!

We had a quick practice and headed off. As ready as we could be, we met Lucy behind the stage. Lucy was to do a trumpet solo and was nervously messing with the trumpet as my sensei tapped her closed fan into her hand several times in a dull panic, as she too had to perform. Oddly enough, I felt nothing, and when Lucy had finished and it was my turn to go, all I could think was it was such a shame that there would be no more practice, no more of this song, which I had fallen in love with and looked forward to every week. You see, I’d done this for about 12 weeks and at the time was uncertain about whether or not I would be able to learn another dance as no one was talking about it yet… The performance went without problem and my Japanese teacher even got it on camera! She put it on DVD later, which I’m so grateful for as now I have a record of the dance to show my family!

But it didn’t stop there. After my sensei’s dance and a short speech, the party actually begun. Dressed as a maiko, I must have given many of the people there a real nastukashii or nostalgic feel, because I believe I had my picture taken with just about everyone there, save Lucy… I loved it too, for while in that moment, in that guise, it was as though I became someone completely different and enjoyed every minute of it. As soon as I’d removed it all, upon returning home, it was as though I’d removed that ‘self’ as well. Kimono are not ordinary clothes and so I feel as though they have a sort of effect on you when you wear them, each type being different.

The next few weeks were nothing but extra classes in school, which were none of the classes I took, not to mention the days were cut in half. Therefore, even the studious of Takaoka High School students decided they should loosen up and have some fun! As a result, I saw more movies, went to the mall more, and hung out with friends more than I’d ever done so. That was how I thought Japan would be before I realized that just because it’s convenient to go places does not mean that you have the time… Though I’d adjusted to the new way of life, I really enjoyed this short spurt of vigorous social activity, though my volleyball suffered for it….

It was planned that on the 22nd we would set off for Tokyo, so that we would be able to visit the emperor’s palace when it opened the morning of his birthday. My host family had invited Lucy along as well as my friend Tori and her host family, which happen to be my host father’s little sister and her family…..small world! However, as we hurried home that day from school, snow flurries were everywhere in a gentle blizzard. Just as we’d thought, our train was canceled and so we never got to see the emperor’s palace. Lucy stayed the night and we caught the train the next day. We got there late, so not much in the way of sightseeing was done, though we did get to see Tokyo Tower all lit up at night…..it really is beautiful in a strange, industrial sort of way…

As it was Lucy’s seventh or so time in Tokyo, she went off on her own as Tori, who had never been, and I shopped in Shibuya and Harajukku. It was such a different experience from before, I honestly think everything is depending on who you’re with and when you go… That night we saw kabuki, or traditional-style Japanese theater at the Kabuki-za. It’s pretty interesting; the actors are all male and the Japanese is old, so they sell audio guides in Japanese and English to help you understand what’s going on. Though I listened in English, it was only really funny and interesting to me because I could understand Japanese….the jokes are much more simple, no matter what type of Japanese used. I truly loved it and if I got the chance. I’d go again for sure!

We returned Christmas day, though it took Lucy surprising me with a last-minute tiny gift she bought at the nearby convenience store for me to remember…. As we rode back on the train, we had to stand, as it was overbooked, but it wasn’t a bad experience. I’ve noticed the things I once would have been angry about I can now tolerate if nothing can be done. Once we arrived home, we went out for Christmas dinner, which is a common practice, actually. Just think of it like this: the sort of things we do for Christmas, they do on New Year, and vice versa. Christmas is a time for friends and dates and eating out. Only if you have small children at home do you buy a tree or give gifts. I sort of think it’s a bit sad about the gifts, but then again, the Japanese give small gifts so often, what difference does it make?

On the 27th and 28th, an overnight orientation was held in Kanazawa. It was fun; we got to see the Australians one last time before they left and we got to meet the new students going out next year! I have to say, it really feels odd being on the other side of things…..it also explains why the inbounds I met last year all seemed to have things going on…..because within a district is a tiny community of people who have immediate connections from the moment they meet. Some come from the same country or district or some just live in the same area… It was really fun, though; it was held at the Rennias, which is a 24 hour hotel complete with karaoke, bowling, a pool, and a hot spring! We stayed up till it was time to go to the morning session and were sure to include the new people as much as possible…

Then came New Year’s Eve…. Misako, my host sister of whom I don’t see much, as she lives in Tokyo, came home during this time and the house was bustling with tradition in just about everything. That evening we prepared the special meal for breakfast while my host mom did flower arrangements. Later on, a well known annual music program came on which lasted until midnight. I’m not usually the type who can watch TV, and the radio here is not very popular, so I was pretty behind in music, even to my exchange student friends… But while watching that program, Misako singing the songs she knew or liked and my host mom gossiping to me about each singer or group, I feel in love with so many songs that I’m now hooked on music shows here… In Japan, it’s not just the music that’s good, the whole presentation of each singer is so amazing and range from elegant furisode and sexy, slinky dresses unlike any you’ve ever seen to men dressed as cheerleaders and people bobbing around in sailor suits. It’s definitely something to watch!

The next day we arose early and ate the special breakfast only oshogatsu, or New Year’s can bring….. It was unlike anything I’d ever eaten and that was a good thing, because it was awful! Well, actually, I think it’s safer to say that it was not to most of our tastes as there seems to be a natural understanding between the exchange students here about the ‘New Year’s diet’, but it was an experience! Afterwards, I was dressed in the furisode that I’d bought and Misako in one of her kimono. It was so exciting! I always love to dress in kimono, especially furisode, it gives such a special feel to the day! While my host mom got Misako ready, I set off with my host dad to the nearby shrine in Kojo Park. When we reached the top of the hill it sat upon, my host dad dropped an offering into the designated area and called me over to ring the bell. As he was trying to get the perfect picture of it, I had to ring it almost fourteen times!

As soon as we returned, we were off to my host grandparents’ house, my host dad’s parents. There we went straight into the traditional section of the house which ultimately leads out to a teahouse. In one of the tatami-covered rooms, Misako and I took pictures both individually and together in front of the tokona alcove, an area where a scroll and flower arrangement are typically placed for guests to view. Afterwards, we headed back to the main section of the house, where we had a specially made lunch of the exact same thing we ate for breakfast…. But the fact that my host grandma made it all alone, while back at the house it took three of us to make it, was amazing, so we ate it without problem. When that finished, we ate sweets in the shape of dogs (though we couldn’t really find the dog in them) accompanied by tea in honor of this year being the Year of the Dog. While leaving, my host grandma gave me a Christmas present, which was an embroidered bag from Vietnam, and an envelope that contained 3000 yen…..I was shocked! It was as though I was always a part of the family, the way grandparents in America send cards on holidays, and it made me feel most included.

Later on, we did something similar as we traveled to nearby Toyama for dinner with my other host grandparents, on my host mom’s side, which own a kimono shop. Because of this profession, which my host uncle had followed in, most of the people there were dressed in kimono. It was quite interesting, as it was my first time meeting my host uncle, my host aunt, or my host cousins. This greeting the family is an important custom in Japan; oshougatsu is when people migrate back to their hometowns and families show their appreciation to those who have helped them in the past year. These sort of celebrations and reflections continued on for the next few days, showing their face in various traditions such as special food or extra errands or business. As the Japanese celebrate the first everything of the new year, it always seemed that no matter how far from New Year’s the time grew, it never seemed to end.

But eventually Misako returned to Tokyo, where Yohei, my hardworking and ever busy host brother, was waiting, and the vacation took on the same face as it had before with lots of social interaction. My host aunt went to Hawaii with several other relatives on that side, which left Tori, my friend from New York, at my house for the rest of the vacation. We were given the rare opportunity to do an extra homestay for one night, which held three important things neither of us had really experienced to the full extent: they lived in a traditional-style house, they had small children, and they spoke absolutely no English.

We had seen traditional houses and we had had opportunities to interact with small Japanese children…..we’d also had more than our share of Englishless-ness in our exchange, but not living there. Though my first host family hardly spoke any English at all, the older host brother, Rei, had been to Canada and could be used as a reference when he was around. But this family had no Rei, which was a bit scary, especially for Tori who’s reading far bypasses her speaking and usually uses me as a translator when it comes to listening….(though I’ve definitely been guilty of that to her with reading) But it went all right. The house was so beautiful and I could have lived there in a second. It was completely unadulterated, despite it’s TVs and modern appliances, it still looked remarkably Japanese. It didn’t even have a bath; that night I was treated to my first public bathing experience, which surprisingly is not that big of a deal. Women and men are separated, the little girl of the house saw it as a game, and I was with someone I knew so I wasn’t alone in any of the awkwardness….though it’s hard to be embarrassed when everyone else is naked too and looks just as awkward as you do.

As for the children, they had two; a boy of seven and a girl of nine. However, as Japanese children are not pushed to learn at an early age the way we are in America, and therefore don’t enter school until six or seven, their maturity level was two years before their age. That didn’t matter, though, and I had fun finding that I had at least a nine year old’s Japanese and actually knew kanji they didn’t, though they were in elementary school…. They loved us; the family often hosted high school students so everyone was used to strangers coming in and out, but never had they hosted foreigners. We soon realized this as they oohed and aahed over my scrapbook and the father was proud to say ‘Hello, how are you?’ and not at all fazed by the fact that his daughter knew far more fruits in English than he. I could have easily had them for a host family if given the chance…

Not long after getting back, Tori, Lucy, and I all went, courtesy of my host family, to Wakura onsen, a hot springs resort on the nearby Nodo Peninsula. It was Tori and my first time in a hot springs, but it wasn’t bad at all! Because it’s a hotel, you walk around in really cheap, thin, cotton yukata, or cotton kimono, with jackets to match. As in a public bath, men and women are separated and they have indoor and outdoor sections. Before entering you wash off, as it’s not meant to be an actual bath, and get in, putting your towel on your head. No one stays indoors, as it’s much too humid and miserable. The outdoor section was beautiful with the sea in full view…. And no worries when it comes to people seeing you, it’s so steamy, you can’t see anything!

We drove back the next day and in Amabarashi you could see the most brilliantly clear view of the far off mountains, snow capped and all… This sort of view is rare…..few ever see it, save postcards and such. It’s also the only place in the world, as Lucy said, where the land curves around so much that you can look across the sea and see mountainous land. I don’t really know if that’s true or not, but I have to say…..it sure was a bad day to forget my camera!

The very next day school began with the opening ceremony, and Lucy’s goodbye speech. Lucy had been here about eight months or so when I arrived, and things were never smooth between us as my arrival muddled with her exchange and her being in the same club, same school, and having had the same host families certainly set a strange premise for mine, but we did learn to tolerate each other and I think we became sort of friends in the end. And so, as she told me my Japanese was awesome with her goodbye, and I replied the same, I really wish I could have told her her speech was awesome and it was the best thing I understood all day. It was sad to see Lucy go……..but it also meant that my exchange really started from here.

I’m definitely not saying these past five months didn’t happen, because they certainly did, but it was hard to be seen as an individual when there were two of us all the time, despite how different we really were from one another. It became so that Lucy was seen as the big sister and I the little one, and that was fine….for then. But now I think people are beginning to see the real me, as I’m beginning to see the real me, as well as being completely at home where I am. I have to say, I’ve never had that before, not to this degree. I was always dependent on someone or longing to be somewhere else. I really miss my friends and family back home, don’t get me wrong, but I really feel ‘right’ here.

This showed in my clubs too, as I eagerly tried volleyball again after a full two weeks of absence. Oddly enough, despite my absence, I improved more in that one practice than I had in the past month, and was able to do the things that I just couldn’t get before. I guess if you leave something and come back to it, the solution is much more clear… Either way, I was ecstatic, as were the other players, and I was for once able to practice together with the team! I was still the worst player on the team, but now I was on the team!

And this is why the next day had to be the worst of luck…. You see, I’ve known about ice for a long time, but never really had a big problem with it. But literally the next morning, I drowsily walked to school for only about ten minutes before a sudden fall really woke me up….in enough time to dodge the truck coming my way and not looking like it wanted to stop…. I raced back home, as my elbow was in searing pain unlike any I’d ever experienced before. We went to the clinic and had it x-rayed, later had an MRI, and eventually wound up for a week with it in a sling, making me unable to type or do several other things…

That weekend was the nabe festival. Nabe is a steaming hot dish cooked in a pot during winter in order to keep warm. On this day, Takaoka’s streets are filled with vendors of all kind, selling fried octopus or candied strawberries, little trinkets or used goods. The highlight of the festival is the huge pot of nabe they cook in the middle of it all. It’s actually pretty delicious, though it doesn’t look all that appetizing….

It just so happened that on the same day, the Tenjin-sama festival was held, in which many display the little deity statues of Tenjin-sama or the god of study in their homes. We walked around to several old houses in the city and viewed all the different types of Tenjin-sama, which you’d be surprised at how many there are! At the last one, I was introduced to a man who had been on TV to talk about the festival, who told me that in older times, a private school in Takaoka used to hang a scroll of that deity to motivate the students….he looked pretty strict with his metal fan to use on sleeping students!

The following Friday we had a Kangeiko, or early morning training tournament. For the past two weeks, my class had participated in various early morning training events that I missed out on because of my elbow. For these, you come to school by 6:30 and participate in a sport or activity, depending on your gender and year. The second year girls did dance, the first year girls basketball, while both second and first year boys had their choice of judo or kendo. On the day of the tournament, we were in awe of the intricate dances the second year girls were able to construct, amazed by the fact that my class came in second in the basketball tournament (when they can hardly play), and speechless at even the smallest boys’ display of power in judo and kendo. There’s nothing quite like it and I really wish I’d brought my camera….

Well, after a while my arm healed, only for more trouble to find me. You see, we were playing basketball in gym, doing passing practice. This has happened to almost everyone in my class at some time, but for me, it’s just all to convenient that it happened the very school day my arm was healed and I was ready to got to volleyball……I smashed my finger. My middle finger, to make matters worse, and had to go to the clinic again for a splint to keep it on for a week, all the while feeling awkward as I held my umbrella with that hand… This also prevented me from typing, which explains the ridiculous length of this journal. I almost think I’m breaking the previous record here!

To make matters worse, my odori sensei’s father passed away and, three days later, so did my Japanese teacher’s mother! I went to the wake for the father of my odori sensei, which was interesting to say the least, but didn’t see my Japanese teacher at all that week. This depressed me, as I was concerned about her, and not being able to write because of my finger made matters worse at that time…

When that finally healed, it was the day before setsubun. What’s setsubun? On that day, my Japanese teacher showed me. I love my Japanese teacher, her lessons are always far from boring, probably due to the fact that she’s just as easily distracted as I can be sometimes… Well, for this lesson, she decided to celebrate setsubun, or the old Japanese New Year, usually held on February 4th. The next day is said to be the first day of spring, which brings me back to the above observation that it still seems quite far from springtime…. On this day, the man of the household (or in this case, my Japanese teacher) dons an oni, or devil mask and the other members chase him, throwing soybeans and shouting ‘oni wa soto! fukuwa uchi!’, or ‘ Out with the devil, in with luck!’ Afterwards you are to roast the beans, though ours were pre-roasted, and eat the number of your age. That way, you are to have no illness that year. I’m glad my Japanese teacher decided to do this with me, as my host family never thought about it and didn’t prepare. This is common for families without small children to omit setsubun.

The next day my host family, Tori, and I all set out by express train to Kyoto. I was ecstatic! You see, going to Kyoto is something I’ve wanted for years, as it’s the birthplace of Japanese culture itself. We were there by noon and saw the Golden Temple first. It’s absolutely gorgeous with its golden leaf coated rooftop which glimmers in a perfect reflection in the water below. Next came the Nishin Textile Factory, known for it’s kimono and traditional techniques. We were able to see a kimono show and the old way of making fabric before moving on.

We did various things in our spare time that day and I’m amazed at the variety of old and new Kyoto has to offer. It’s also virtually impossible to get lost within it’s square-like pattern of streets and simple naming system. The night began in a French restaurant in a very old Japanese house before walking in the geisha districts of Gion and Pontocho.

I’ve read a lot about geisha and find them fascinating. When I approached these streets, confusion struck me. Gion seems not to have lost any of the prestigious air about it, as it’s the top geisha district and always has been. Pontocho, however, has given ways to bars and restaurants, a reality of changing times. In Gion, a rare sight was beheld to us as we saw an actual maiko hurry down the street in a hurry to get to her customers. She seemed not interested in us or tourist matters and rushed ahead with no difficulty at all, despite her forty pounds of kimono-wear and tall wooden shoes that would have sent most anyone flying forward without practice. We saw another quite like her as we walked towards Pontocho, only this one actually stared at us as Tori pulled out her camera….not what we would have expected from the gentile image a maiko usually presents. Unfortunately, I was unable to take pictures, though the next day we were able to get some of fake maiko….

The next day began with a tour of the old palace, which we were unable to enter for security reasons and so we continued up to a famous shrine. As going to the shrine was always seen as recreational, the street leading up to it is lined with old stores and tourist shops, restaurants and other little places of this kind. As we reached the huge wooden structure, toured it, and were heading back, Tori pointed out the vivid colors of the two maiko heading down the stairs and we could immediately see they were fake. They took their time with each step, timid in their shoes and posed for pictures as the approached the bottom. They were pretty, for sure, and had we not seen the two maiko the previous night, nothing would have told us that those two were merely regular women with a part time job unlike any other: to preserve Kyoto’s traditional image.

We saw a few more temples and shrines, each beautiful in its own way before it was time to go. I have to say, I dearly love Kyoto and could so easily live there that I was saddened to board the train and return to Takaoka, still laden with snow and a cultural battle between old and new that never ceased no matter where you go. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Takaoka, though, because while it may not be as beautiful or well known as Kyoto, it’s a sort of ‘home’ for me. Besides, in March, I’m to go to Kyoto with my odori-sensei! However, my father comes to visit in a little over a week, and therefore that’s taken over my mind for now…..

This has been very long and I don’t know how close I came to beating the record in length, but hopefully I’ll be able to update regularly again….with no injuries involved!

Matta ne!

– Dominique

Sierra Greaves
2005-06 Outbound to Denmark

Hometown: Alachua, Florida
School: Eastside High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Sunrise Rotary Club
Host: Aalborg Stigsborg Rotary Club, District 1440, Denmark

Sierra - Denmark

August 9 Journal

Hej! It is I, Sierra, here to tell you of the spectacular journey to Denmark! That is right, 8 days ago, I arrived here in Denmark and boy was it quite a journey…

Hallie and I left the Jacksonville airport on a flight to Detroit where we met up with 8 other exchange students, all going to Denmark. It was nice to see the familiar Rotary blazers once we arrived in the Detroit airport. So we all made small talk and awaited our plane that would carry us to Amsterdam, then Copenhagen, then Aalborg, DK.

Finally we were able to board the plane and we were all getting very excited, looking forward to the 8 hour flight to Amsterdam (hah!). Then an announcement was heard… it turns out there was a delay because a luggage carrier had hit the side of the plane and the damage was being assessed. So we waited some more… and it turned out we would actually have to change planes. Mind you, this is after being on the plane for over an hour, at least. So all of the passengers got off of the plane and on to another, and we finally left the Detroit airport, ready for the 8 hour flight.

Unfortunately, because of the 2 hour delay, all of the exchange students going to Denmark missed the connecting flight from Amsterdam to Copenhagen… and the next one wasn’t until 7:30 PM. Luckily, there was a way to get to Copenhagen earlier. Instead of waiting 10 hours for the next available flight to Copenhagen, the nice people at the airport decided to reroute us through Southern Germany instead. So we flew from Amsterdam to Southern Germany to Copenhagen. By doing this, we arrived to Copenhagen at 7:30 PM rather than around 9 PM… and we were able to spend a good couple of hours in a random German airport. By the time we arrived in Copenhagen, all of the exchange students that had domestic flights out of Copenhagen to other regions of Denmark, had missed them. Soo, we stayed the night in a hotel in Copenhagen, and FINALLY left for our final destinations the next morning. I was anxious when I arrived to Aalborg, but my host family and my counselor were there to greet me and it was a wonderful experience.

And that was the journey. Oh, what a journey it was. I was lucky though. I didn’t lose ANY of my luggage on the way. I think I was one of 3 people that actually got both of their bags.

But I love it here in Denmark. I have been doing so much! I have been meeting people and seeing movies and exploring the city! My 15 year old host brother leaves tonight for Chicago (Rotary Youth Exchanger as well) and I start school tomorrow.

Aalborg, DK is a beautiful city. The weather is perfect (Although most Danes think I am crazy for thinking so. Their idea of perfect is FL weather. How ironic.) and the people couldn’t be nicer. Oh and did I mention, I love DANISH. I can’t wait to learn it. I am working really hard, but at the same time it is difficult to talk in Danish when everyone talks to you in English!

The cuisine here is interesting… So far, I have tried many foreign foods. My family welcomed me the first afternoon with a lunch of bread with pickled herring on top. Pickled herring was quite interesting… raw fish with a slightly sweet taste. I can’t say I enjoyed it completely, but at the same time, it wasn’t unbearable. I have also tried liver paste and duck. Both of which were not that great. But hey, I’m trying! I was very proud of myself for trying such interesting foods, especially because I was a vegetarian before coming here to Denmark.

I can already feel myself growing up a little bit.

Well, that is about it for now. I hope all of the outbounds that haven’t left yet are as nervous as I was. It’s worth it. I think the pre-departure anxiety makes everything seem so easy once you finally get to your country.

So for now, I bid you adieu.

Farvel, Sierra

September 21 Journal

Hey everyone!

Denmark is amazing. I have been here for almost two months and I am having a spectacular time.

I went to a language camp last month and it was very helpful. I have begun speaking Danish with my host family as much as possible and it’s great. I feel like I have accomplished so much by being able to marginally understand this language. I think the best way to describe how Danish sounds is to imagine a person speaking German while eating mashed potatoes. Yeah that about sums up the Danish language. But it’s truly beautiful.

Danish people also say thank you for EVERYTHING. There isn’t a one-word equivalent to the English word ‘please’ so instead, they say thank you. I love the overabundance of thanks everywhere. Thanks for food, thanks for the ride, would you pass the water thanks. It’s adorable.

I am also very glad to discover that my Rotary Club is wonderful here. They provided me with a bike to ride to and from school and they have been very prompt about giving me my allowance every month. They have also been very good about having Rotary weekends for all of the exchange students to hang out and relax together. PLUS! Every time I go to a Rotary meeting, people only speak to me in Danish, as if testing me, and when I reply back in Danish, they congratulate me on my fast learning and invite me over for tea. Also, my Rotary Club took me bowling a few weeks ago. My counselor said I was good at bowling and he attributed this skill to the fact that I am American. I found that to be funny, seeing as I hardly ever bowled in the states.

Unfortunately, learning Danish causes my English to die. The other day it took me about 5 minutes to remember the word ‘citizen’ and before that I had forgotten the word ‘potential’. I feel like I need to tightly wrap my head in bandages so that English doesn’t slip out. Although I am forgetting my mother tongue, I am still learning this exotic language.

When it comes to school here in Denmark… it’s amazing. It’s much easier than school in the states. We never have homework other than reading, and in the 6 weeks of school, I have had only one test. I usually am able to leave school around noon every day and there is a 10 minute break to hang out with friends between every class. I tell people about how we had the same six classes every day in the states and how in nearly every class, we were given homework every day and people just gawk. They don’t understand how a social life would be possible with that much school. Before coming to Denmark, school didn’t seem that hard, but compared to the laid back pace of schooling here, I don’t understand how students in the states don’t fall over from exhaustion.

Being laid back seems to be very important here, not just in school, but in all aspects of life. There has to be as much “hygge” as possible.

Dinner is a particularly interesting event for me. In the states, I never ate dinner with my family. Instead, my mom and I ate dinner whenever we were hungry and we usually ate different things. But here in Denmark, dinner every night is an event, a time to sit together with the family and discuss what you have been up to lately. It’s a time to reflect and enjoy being alive.

So far, while being in Denmark I have learned the following:

  1. How to eat every meal with a fork and a knife (even pizza and burritos!)
  2. How to say thank you for everything.
  3. How to pretend to understand by smiling and nodding.

and most importantly…

  1. How to just sit back, relax, and enjoy living.

So thank you once again to Rotary for providing me with the chance of a lifetime.

Oh and pictures coming soon… I promise.

Med venlig hilsen, Sierra Greaves

November 5 Journal

Three months down. I know everyone says it, but it feels like I just arrived yesterday. Time flies when you’re in another country.

So here is the low-down as to what I have been up to since I last wrote…

Well, I wasn’t having such a great time at my school and my counselor and family believed it to be a good idea to try changing to another school. So now I am at my new school, Aalborghus Gymnasium, and I love it. The people are so nice and the teachers are great. I think the best part about starting over at a new school is that no one talks to me in English anymore. It’s a huge help to learning the Danish language. Everyone at my old school always spoke to me in English if even just out of habit. But not anymore!

Speaking of starting over, I will be changing to my new host family around December 1st. While I am a bit sad about leaving my host family, this will start a new chapter of my exchange. I know how to do it this time. I think the first host family is the most important family though. What they do impacts your entire exchange. Luckily, my host family is extremely helpful with Danish. We try to talk only in Danish (surprisingly I CAN!) and when I don’t understand, they just rephrase what they’re saying in Danish instead of switching to English to clarify. They also correct my Danish as I speak so I can recognize mistakes and not make them again. So to sum that up, I couldn’t have had a better first host family. I will miss them a lot.

A few weeks ago was efterårferie (autumn break) here in Denmark. My family took me to a cute little beach town about 30 minutes away called Blokhus. It rained the entire time we were there, but I still enjoyed it. There are so many differences between Danish beaches and Florida beaches. Florida beaches are sunny, crowded places with boardwalks to the beach because we can’t walk on the dunes for fear they will disappear. Danish beaches are deserted treasured beauties. They’re cold (those poor Vikings who had to bathe in the sea) and there are massive dunes lining the beach. Dunes you can climb ON! I felt like such an explorer as I tried to maneuver my way through the awkward overgrown paths. Also while at the beach, we went bowling multiple times. For some reason everyone takes me bowling here. “Oh you’re American?! We should go bowling sometime.” But back to the beaches… they take your breath away. A run on the beach in the morning is the best way to start the day.

As for my life back here in Aalborg, I must say, it’s nice to have good friends again. The first few months are incredibly hard. You leave your closest friends and family behind and are forced to start over completely with people you hadn’t met before arriving at the airport. It’s a bit like being thrown into a pool without knowing how to swim. First you go crazy and flail your arms fearing you will fail and drown… then you realize the pool has steps so you hang out on the steps for a while (steps being English language… just to clarify). Then one day (because you are obviously in the pool for multiple days) you gain the courage to try to swim. At first it’s a bit shaky, but that quickly subsides when you discover the system. I started trying to meet people by speaking English, but that didn’t completely work… so I tried in Danish… and people responded in English. I was utterly confused as to how I was supposed to meet people! But as the language came faster, the friends did as well. I have made some of my best friends here and it’s going to be so hard to leave them behind. Harder than it was to leave my friends in FL. The difference is that I don’t know if I will ever see the people here again. That is a horrible feeling. But that is why one must simply live in the now. Okay, I must change the subject, this one is depressing me.

Sooo for activities here in Aalborg, I have been trying to do EVERYTHING. I tried playing basketball, rowing, playing in a jazz band, playing with an orchestra. Unfortunately, I have realized I can’t do everything, it’s impossible. It’s so much better to concentrate on what you really enjoy. I love music and I plan on excelling at music during this year. There is no point in clouding that goal with activities that I just do to do. Time is just so precious here.

Ohh I nearly forgot! LAST WEEKEND I TOOK MY FIRST TRAIN RIDE EVER! Unfortunately, it was nearly 6 hours long, so the novelty wore off quickly. But it was a fun weekend. We had a get-together weekend in a town called Holbæk (kind of near Copenhagen) and it was a blast. We danced and talked all weekend long. Exchange students share a special bond with each other. While Danish friends are important to have, no one can understand you quite like another exchange student can. We share host family horror stories, talk about our fears, and just vent. It makes one stay sane in this crazy exchange student world.

So yeah, I am having the time of my life. And to all of you that are considering being an exchange student, stop considering. Just do it. You will never regret doing it but you may regret not doing it.

I have learned so much about myself and the world while I have been here. It feels like I belong. Who knew learning how to swim could feel so… natural.

Jeg savner jer.

Kys og knus,

Sierra Renee Greaves

December 9 Journal

Sooo. Starting out the fifth month here in Denmark. And I am really beginning to feel at home here. It’s mildly depressing considering I am leaving in about 6 and a half months.

I wasn’t quite sure how to start this journal, so I decided to make a serious of drawing to show how my transition has been so far here in Denmark.

The first drawing represents the first month I was here. The month most often known as the honeymoon period (wasn’t that it??). Yeah anyway. This period of time was filled with complete euphoria. I was in a new country and I was completely loving it! I never wanted the exchange to end!!!! (thus why I am tightly gripping the rope in the drawing)

The second drawing represents the second, third, and fourth months I was here. These were the hard months for me. I was constantly homesick and missing the comfort of being around tons of people that I love. My host family was really understanding, but during that time I did nothing but wish I was home… therefore I sort of let my exchange year rush by me… and I did nothing to stop it (notice how I let go of the rope in the lovely drawing).

The fifth month (current month) has been great. I just moved host families and I am loving my new family. I am starting to make some realllly close friends, and I am always doing something! Unfortunately, I waited to long to grasp that rope again, and now my exchange year is slipping away. It’s nearly halfway through.

I not only made these drawings for a visual image. I made these drawings for those thinking about the exchange program. If you do, indeed, go on exchange, pllleassee don’t make the mistake I did of letting go of that rope. Time is precious. Especially when you are on exchange.

As for new happenings with me… Like I said, I just moved host families and they’re great. We speak only Danish and I have even acquired a lovely 8-year-old sister, which is really great (I have always wanted a sibling. I used to ask for siblings for Hanukkah… my mom always just laughed at me). She only talks Danish to me and if I speak English, she yells at me. haha She is a cutie. But I feel much more comfortable at my new family. My first family was great, don’t get me wrong, but I just feel like I fit better here. I never feel like I am in the way like I did with my last host family. So I think the move was a really great thing for me.

Other than moving, nothing much has really been going on here. I have been going to school and living a normal life. Haha school is very different here though. They never get homework and they only have one test per year (exams at the end) and even at the exams, they only test in 3 of their subjects. I have no idea how I am going to get used to schooling in the states again… homework every night, quizzes every day. I smell a possibly burn out. Hahaha. I’ll manage. But I must say, it has been really nice taking a year off of stressful schooling. I feel much more relaxed and at peace with myself.

I wish I could tell you all of how I have climbed a mountain or fought a bear, but Denmark doesn’t have mountains or bears (according to them) so I can’t say anything as exciting.

Just know that I am having the time of my life and loving every second.

Thanks to Rotary… and everyone else that allowed me to do this.

Jeg savner jer alle! Vi ses om 6 en halv måned.

Sierra Greaves

January 30 Journal

I have a horrible confession to make. Take a deep breath… are you ready? Okay here goes, I have been a typical exchange student and let two months time elapse since I wrote my last journal. I now give you permission to kick, scream, and what-not. Alright, the next thing I have to do is apologize for my strong lack of any English ability. My English has nearly completely gone away. My American accent has morphed into a weird British Danish American accent. Basically, I am having a cultural identity crisis. WHERE DO I BELONG???

Partially this process was brought on by tasting instant macaroni and cheese for the first time since I have been here. My uncle sent it to me in a care package. And I was soooo excited. I used to eat it ALL THE TIME. Well my family doesn’t have a microwave, so I had to cook the pasta over the stove. And as I stirred the cheesey powder into the pasta, my heart did a flip… I couldn’t wait to taste macaroni and cheesey goodness. So here came the moment. The fork entered my mouth. And what I expected to be paradise… turned out to taste like pasta and cheesey chemicals. Is it possible for taste buds to change? I don’t know. But I have no idea what I am going to eat when I go home to Florida. Lots of… vegetables I suppose.

Anyway, I supposed I should also cover what happened over Christmas and whatnot. Instead of attempting to recall, I will simply send an excerpt from my journal to you all. Here goes:

December 26, 2005 – “So the 24th, I woke up early to help dress the tree. That is another difference here in Denmark. They don’t put the tree up until a few days before, or in our case, the day of Christmas. But it was fun. The tree is a lot smaller than those I have seen in the states. And part of the ornamentation involved real candles. The first thing that popped into my mind was “uhh fire hazard!”. But my first Christmas tree was adorable. So we hung out most of the day preparing for night time festivities. We headed to church around 3 pm… Christmas being one of the few days Danes go to church. And we listened to a short Christmas sermon that involved much singing and much standing up, sitting down. It was interesting. And the priest had one of those cupcake neck things on… I wonder if they aren’t a bit uncomfortable. Anywho, after church, we walked back home to find the table set and ready for Christmas dinner. But we still relaxed for a while and talked in the family room as we drank a French drink that tastes of licorice (my host mom’s mom is FRENCH and she has a cute little French accent when she speaks Danish). So when the time came, we sat down to dinner. So out came the first dish. I looked at the plate. A light brown substance resembling cat food stared back up at me as the two pieces of bread looked hopeful. So me being the adventurous one, I tried the light brown substance. At first it tasted of garbanzo beans… so I thought, hey I am safe. Then it started to taste a bit like cat food smells. So I was wary.

Then my host dad made the mistake of telling me what it was. Ground up duck liver. Mmmmm. Great. So out came the next course. Goose, potatoes, sauce, something purple and shred up. I tried the goose, but after eating the duck liver, I was a bit queasy minded. So I gobbled up many potatoes and patiently waited for dessert. Dessert on Christmas is fun. Danes eat rice pudding stuffed with cream and almonds in it along with a berryful dressing on top. There is a game to go along with the dessert as well. In the pudding is placed one whole almond. The person that finds the almond and doesn’t chew it up, wins a prize. I didn’t win, but I thought it was also a clever way to make everyone eat as much dessert as possible so there are no leftovers. So after dinner, we went into the sitting room and danced around the tree while singing Christmas songs. I couldn’t stop laughing. We had to change directions every once in a while when people became too dizzy. After dancing around the tree, we ran around the house in a train formation singing a song that was like “Nu er det jul igen… balh blah” I couldn’t catch all of it.

But that was fun. We went alllll around the house, up the stairs, down the stairs, and when we reached the sitting room again, we were able to sit down, relax, and open allll of our presents. I was lucky enough to receive all of the Anya and Viktor movies (typical Danish teenage movie), a necklace, a belt, some crazy leopard print rain boots, two lovely candle holders, and some movie gift certificates. So that was a lovely evening. A lovely first Danish Christmas, I must say.”

And that was my first Christmas.

As for new years, I had dinner and watched the Queen give her yearly speech on the television with my host family. Then I walked over to my good friends house and we brought in the New Year in a typical Floridian way. WE ATE SNOW. LOTS OF SNOW. Well, I guess it’s only typical for Floridians living in another country… but it tasted so good. So we added it to every drink. And when the clock struck 12 (no ball dropping, just a huge clock on the television), we all jumped and screamed and cheered and cried and did things people do on New Years. What really got me, though, was that everywhere, seemingly all across Denmark, was shooting fireworks off at the same exact time. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Of course, with this countrywide use of fireworks comes injuries. There was one Danish man sort of near Aalborg who was drunk and stuck a firework in his mouth and his jaw was blown completely off. Moral of story… don’t drink and set bombs off in YOUR MOUTH.

After Christmas and new years, I haven’t really been doing much. I have gone to school, hung out with friends, I got a membership at the gym. Oh speaking of the gym, I am proud to say, I have not gained any weight since I have been here. I have definitely lost a lot though. Kind of weird considering I eat more meals here than I did at home… but I am definitely not complaining. Back to what I have been doing though… my life has hit a real normal point since I have been here. I sit sometimes and picture what life is going to be like back in Florida. And I honestly can’t. I belong here now. I don’t gaze awkwardly at bus time tables, I know where to get a good cup of coffee. I don’t wander around in circles when trying to find my way around. And it’s nice to be comfortable in my surroundings after 6 months of awkwardness. But the next months have much in store for me.

February… the 7th is my birthday. That’s right guys, the big 1-7. I plan on hanging out with friends the weekend before and after my birthday. It’ll be a huge weeklong birthday. Then the 17th of February is the beginning of my week long winter break. On February 19th, I am visiting my host mom’s sister in Århus for a few days and then toward the end of the break, my family is talking of taking a trip to Germany… That covers February really.

March… the first weekend, I am going to a huge Rotary get-together in Copenhagen which I am stoked about. I have only been to Copenhagen once since I have lived here… and that was only the airport and a nearby hotel. The second weekend in March, I am changing host families… to my third and final host family (wow, that sounds so weird). Then the week after the moving weekend, my class is taking a trip to Rome. I’m not going with them due to monetary issues, but I plan on getting settled in at my third host family’s house and I will probably go to school with friends from other schools. Toward the end of March, I am getting some visitors from Florida. That’s March.

April… April 7, I am going skiing in France with my third host family for a week. And those are the only big plans in April so far.

May… not too much happening until May 18, when I am going on EUROTOUR. That’s right, 60kids on a bus traveling around Europe. God, I can’t wait. It’s going to be so much fun. We come back on June 4, so it’s a looong trip.

June… after coming home from Eurotour, I plan on traveling as much as possible around Denmark. My departure date has been decided for the 22nd of June. So I dread this month… it’s going to be full of many many many many goodbyes. Goodbyes I know I am not ready for.

And what scares me… is out of the 5 months I have left here, I have only 6 free weekends left. SIX. That’s absolutely nothing. This has been a slow month, but the next months are really going to fly with all the stuff that is going to be happening.

Oh and I have another thing to say. I HATE SNOW. Hahaha. The first time I saw it here in Denmark, I was like “awww it’s so pretty. I want to touch it and jump in and be happy”. Now I just want to walk around with a human sized salt shaker, battling the horrible monster known as snow. The monster that causes me much embarrassment when I slip and fall on my bum (every day, at least once). And the snow that quietly covers you without your knowledge… until you come home and realize you are soaking wet. I am definitely not a snow person… but I must say, when I am inside, I don’t mind it too much. It’s rather pretty and it keeps everything clean.

But yeah, there is my really confusing journal after two months of not writing anything.

If you upcoming outbounds have any questions, any at all, feel free to get in touch. That’s what we’re here for.

I love you all. And hope everything is going well… see you in a few months (STILL SO WEIRD TO SAY)

Sierra

 

March 31 Journal

WOO another two months since I wrote my last journal. I suppose I have been avoiding it in a sense, due to the embarrassment of my English. That, and I’ve been on my death bed for the past three weeks.

Yep that’s right guys, I’ve been extremely ill. Luckily, healthcare is free in Denmark, otherwise my doctor’s bills would be through the ROOF. But unfortunately, I’ve been to the doctor four times in the past three weeks only for them to tell me it’s a virus so it’ll go away alone (even before this sickness, they always told me that every time I came to the doctor — SUPER). But the last time I went, it finally occurred to the doctor to test me for the dreaded mononucleosis (horribly spelled). Yes, the “kissing disease”. I was in shock as they filled three HUGE vials with my blood and proceeded to bandage my arm up afterward. I thought, “MONO??!! THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” And they told me to wait two days until they could get the results back from the lab (the past two days actually… because I found out today). The main reason I was worried though, is because I am going to France a week from today… for skiing. And everyone knows that people with mono aren’t really able to do anything.

But it turns out, I don’t have mono! WHEW. Two days of worrying for nothing. But I honestly have never been so sick in my entire life as I have been in Denmark! It’s insane. Even the Danes say that unusual amounts of people have been really sick this year, more than usual. They believe it’s because the winter was incredibly long this year. It lasted from November until late March… complete with bundles of SNOW. haha. I will never ever say I hate Florida weather again. Now I know why so many people migrate to Florida. haha. Don’t get me wrong, snow is absolutely gorgeous, but after a while, a person can grow tired of a need for snow boots and huge jackets and hats and scarves and long underwear and socks and 500 shirts.

But I’m having the time of my life regardless of this sickness, and spring is on the way! I just can’t believe I’m going back to Florida so soon. I would say home, but it honestly doesn’t feel like home to me right now. Denmark is my home at this moment. To think of having two homes, is just mind boggling. I doubt it’ll hit me that I’m going home until I land in the airport in Florida and suffocate from the intense humidity in the air.

The weird thing is that every time I do think of going back to Florida, my Danish life is included in my Floridian life. I picture going out with all my friends from both countries and seeing my host families on a regular basis, at Rotary meetings and afternoon tea dates. But it won’t be like that. I’ll have to travel across an ocean to see this life I have created here. Hmph depressing.

Well, that’s what I have been feeling lately, sick and sad about leaving. But I guess I should also give a bit of an update on what it is I’ve been doing since I last updated January 30.

Well with early February came my well awaited seventeenth birthday. I woke up in the morning to my host mom and little host sister singing me happy birthday… in English. It was so cute. I had some friends over for pizza and cake and I made peanut butter cookies! Then we headed to a cafe and watched a documentary they were showing about Against Me!, a band from Gainesville. It was kind of cool that they showed it on my birthday, I thought. It’s not every day they show documentaries about Gainesville bands in Aalborg, Denmark. After that, Sebastian and I went to the student house to hang out and chat a bit, and we ran into two girls from my class, Pia and Camilla. We went to a bar called Hr. Neilsen and talked for a while before Sebastian and I nearly died of exhaustion so we headed home.

The following weekend, my friend Sebastian threw a birthday party for me and afterward we headed into the city to meet up with some other people and continue the celebration. So all-in-all my birthday was a lot of fun.

The next big event that happened, was winter break, where I went to Århus and Hamburg with my 2nd host family in late February. So here’s what happened…

-taken from my livejournal because its more accurate than my memory-

Saturday – Went to an IB party wooo. Twas fun. Came home early to pack and stuff for Århus the next day.

Sunday – Left for Århus with my host family. My host mom and dad drove Signe and I down to Århus (2nd biggest city in Denmark). We went to an Art museum then to a Turkish Bazaar. The Bazaar was so cool. There were Turkish people every where. Selling random music and clothes and food. It was like the Waldo Flea Market kind of. But definitely way cooler.

Monday – My host aunt (the person Signe and I were staying with in Århus) and Signe and I left early in the morning to take the train into Århus from Hjortshøj, where she lives. We got to Århus and explored a few churches. Then Fie (the aunt) and Signe went home and said I could shop the rest of the day. So I contacted my two Århus buddies, Mike and Dora… and we hung out and went shopping, went to a cafe, and grabbed some ice cream (which is surprisingly okay despite the freezing temperatures outside). Then I took the train back to Hjortshøj alone and we ate dinner and watched movies. On

Tuesday – we had some lunch and Signe and I took the train to Aalborg. Twas fun. I met up with Sebastian in the city and we had a jolly good time. We hung out at the student house and 1000fryd, where we met some new Americans. We had gotten to 1000fryd right after a show with two American bands. All the people had left, so it was just the bands hanging out.. we hung out and talked to them for a bit. It was fun to pick their brains about the first impressions of Europe compared to the States, etc. It reminded me of when I first got here.

Wednesday – More hanging out with people, etc. haha. Just relaxing.

Thursday – We got up around 7 am and got in the car for our trip to HAMBURG, GERMANY. I slept almost the entire way there and we got to Hamburg around 2 pm. It’s so weird to be able to say we drove to Germany… haha. We spent a long time looking for our hotel, but we found it eventually… located in the heart of Hamburg’s SEX DISTRICT. Too funny. There were like 15 sex shops in our vicinity of Hamburg, but it was nice because it was located in the middle of the city. Entirely accessible on foot (and we definitely didn’t use the car at all during our time there. My poor knees and ankles). Well after we checked in to the hotel, we walked to a few old churches and explored the city. We had dinner at a nice place along the water. I had pasta 🙂 and we all tasted some German beer (except Signe of course). It was nice to have a good beer with dinner. Afterward, we walked back to the hotel and slept off carlag. haha.

Friday – We woke up early and headed into the city for a museum trip. Our first stop was an old church that was bombed during WWII. There was an underground museum with pictures and information about WWII and the destruction of Hamburg by the allied powers. It was very very intense. And there were pictures of all the dead people and what not. It was definitely a downer. After that, we took a walk to a street called Deichstrasse. It was one of the few streets in Hamburg that wasn’t bombed, so all of the old houses were intact. One of the houses foundations was so sunken in, the owners of the house had to have special windows made due to the leaning tendency of the house. Haha. Quite amusing. Afterward we walked to another history museum all about Hamburg. I concentrated on seeing the display about Jews in Hamburg, which was, like the first museum, quite hard to fathom. It was an interesting display though. They even had a model of a synagogue. A life-size model, complete with headphones so the Jewish prayers could be listened to. After the museum, we went to a cafe and then shopped for a while. I picked up a cool hat… kind of like an old German woman hat. It was cool to buy things with Euro instead of kroner. We ate dinner at a little vegetarian restaurant but it didn’t taste that good. Then we went home and we slepppppppt. Apparently at 2 in the morning, some other Americans in their twenties checked into our hotel and were running around the hallways giggling and screaming. Ha. Americans.

Saturday, we went into town and we had time to do what we wanted. I walked around the city alone for a while and took some pictures as well as shopping a bit (of courseee). We then drove home to Aalborg and I met up with Sebastian in the city. Unfortunately, I took a cold with me back from Germany… and I still cant manage to get rid of it.

Sunday – relaxation and preparation for starting school again the next day.

So yeah.. Germany was cool. Much happened. Many weird things were seen.

First day – a random German guy came up to me in the street and started rapping in German… none of which I understood. Hahaha. But it was mildly amusing. Then he realized I couldn’t speak German and he started rapping in English. He rapped about how rapping is his job. And he raps in the streets every day to get money. buahaha.

Second day – I saw a man dressed as a clown (badly dressed, I might add. His makeup was just sad looking). And he started doing forward rolls on the sidewalk and ninja kicking the air. It was so bizarre.

Third Day – I saw a band that looked like they jumped out of the 70s playing a Fleetwood Mac song in the middle of the street. I might add, they were quite good. They had a stand up bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer with a bass drum made out of a box, a snare drum, and a cymbal. Too cool.

And there were tons of people just standing on the streets playing music for money.

I would actually consider moving to Germany, Hamburg specifically. IT was much more real seeming than Denmark. Less fakeness… a little more harsh. I like towns like that. They remind me of the US.

—— end journal excerpt.

You still with me, kind readers? Because this is becoming one of history’s longest journal entries… and there’s still more to come, just hang in there.

March 3, I went to a Rotary weekend in Copenhagen. Sebastian, Rasmus and I drove to Copenhagen for my get together (they were staying in Copenhagen, so I caught a ride with them instead of taking the train). It was fun, we rode the Ferry from Jylland to Sjælland. It was beautiful and the sun shined the entire time. Then we finished driving to Copenhagen and they dropped me off at the school the Rotary get together would be at. I was one of the last to arrive, but it made for a really warm welcome. Tons of hugs and cheers. I missed my exchange friends. Then we hung out for a while and just relaxed the whole night, going to bed eventually around 3 and waking up at 7:30. I’m definitely not a morning person and we were forced to sleep in the hallway on a cement floor with just sleeping bags so I didn’t sleep too well that first night. And I woke up to one of the people in charge pulling my sleeping bag out from under me saying “TIME TO GET UP”. So I said back to him. “Seriously man, that was really mean. Don’t do it again,” and I went back to sleep for 10 minutes. Then I learned how to do the Lancier, which is like the coolest dance ever. It’s like a Royal Danish square dance. Then we had time to get ready for the GALA fest which is like prom. So all the girls put on nice dresses and all the boys had on nice dress shirts and ties. And we paraded in with our dates and ate dinner… which elegantly turned out to be Mexican buffet… hahaha. It didn’t fit the occasion at all. Then we watched some performances in the auditorium and listened to a big band played (while we swing danced along with them). Then after the performances, we all got up and danced the lancier and then were dismissed to the discotheque awaiting us out in the cafeteria. Complete with strobe light and DJ, we danced until 3:30 in the morning. It was such a fun weekend, but it’s the last time I got to see a lot of my favorite exchange students, which made for a really depressing goodbye.

March 12, I moved to my third and final host family (strangle me now, it sounds so weird to say that). My host mom, Susanne, is hilarious and she talks so much and REALLLY FAST. And she’s like super mom. There’s always cake ready for afternoon tea and she’s been really nice about taking me to the doctor multiple times per week. My host dad, Steen, is an engineer and recently got 30 million kroner (6 million dollars) for doing something with engineering (not entirely sure about what… I get confused when we talk science things in Danish. Then I have two host brothers, Sune (14 years old) and Lau (18 years old). I was kind of scared about coming into a family with two host brothers, but I am growing to love it. They tease me and push me around and are like real brothers to me. My little host brother and I even stayed up until 12 am one night just playing video games. I almost wish I had some brothers in FL… this family is going to be so hard to leave.

Well, since the move, I haven’t really done anything except lie in bed because of sickness. But, a week from today, like I said, we’re going skiing… so I’ll just have to try to write a journal entry about it before two months elapses and Eurotour takes over the spotlight. EUROTOUR… MAY 18! Mark your calendars.

then I’ll be back to see all of you June 22. Woo.

April 27 Journal

Well, not too much time has elapsed since my last journal, but much has happened.

During the påskeferie (Easter break) my host family and I went skiing in France. It was beautiful. We stayed in an apartment on the ski slopes in Val Thorens (a largely famous ski town). It was so much fun. I fell down so many times, but I had never seen mountains so tall. I even paid a visit to Europe’s highest bar (located on top of a glacier that we skiied down). Unfortunately, I got bronchitis while on the ski vacation, so I wasn’t able to ski as much as I would’ve liked, but I still made it out at least once a day, because I’m a trooper. We even made a few night trips into town.. we went to a Danish bar called Cafe Snesko (yeah a Danish bar, in France). It was a great way to bond with my older host brother, because there was always live music. The only downside was the long dark walk home in waist-deep snow. Other than that, it was just so amazing to try something new like skiing and by the end of a week, actually understand it. It was a major exchange student moment when I realized how much I had learned.

Sadly, I have to put another “unfortunately” because when we came back from France I was placed in the hospital because my bronchitis had turned into pneumonia. I had high fevers and a bacteria count of nearly 200 in my body (supposed to be under 10). I found out my lungs and blood were full of bacteria and I was pumped with antibiotics for a week. It was my first time ever being in the hospital but it was a good experience, despite the whole being sick part. My friends came and visited me every day along with my families and the nursing staff was very nice. OH AND IT WAS FREE. Because Denmark is cool and socialistic. HIGH TAXES FREE HEALTHCARE. I’m not complaining.

But one thing I must say is that hospitals are not for people that don’t like being poked with needles (me). I had 4 different IVs, and blood tests every other day for a week. Ew.

But I’m all better now and getting revved up for EUROTOUR… which will be absolutely amazing. I’ll be sure to write another entry afterward, so see you all in June!

Kys og Knus,

Sierra

Hallie Johnson
2005-06 Outbound to Denmark
Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Ridgeview High School
Sponsor: Orange Park Rotary Club
Host: Rødekro Rotary Club, District 1460, Denmark

Hallie - Denmark

September 2 Journal

It’s been almost a month since I left home, and as this is only the first entry, it’s bound to be slightly on the long side. Please bear with me.

The flight over here was absolutely hellish! I got to Detroit OK, but while we were waiting to take off in Detroit some idiot hit our plane with the baggage carrier. We were consequently delayed three hours while they debated whether to put us on a new flight or fix the damaged one. We were eventually put on a new plane and sent on our way to Amsterdam, but we had missed our connecting flight to Copenhagen by that time. When we got to Amsterdam we were rerouted to Copenhagen via Stuttgart. We had the longest layover ever in Germany so that, by the time we got to Copenhagen, everybody who had had a flight somewhere else in Denmark missed it. I and five other exchange students ended up staying the night in a hotel in Copenhagen. The next morning I caught a new flight to Billund, and my family, thankfully, was waiting for me when I got there.

I fell asleep on the ride home, so I missed seeing a lot of Denmark. When I woke up I was in Rødekro and not five minutes from my new home. When we got home I ate, and then unpacked my stuff. The rest of the day passed without much incident. I went to the stables with my sister Iben, ate dinner, met the rest of my family, went back to the stables, then returned and went to bed.

Since the first day, this exchange has been a continuous roller coaster of ups and downs (mostly ups). The first week and a half of my stay was part of the summer vacation and I rather wished it would have stayed that way. I went to Germany three times with my family on shopping expeditions, we went to the circus, I met all my host families and my Rotary Club. It was just a wonderful beginning. Then school started. School is alright, I’ve made friends with some of the exchange students and with a few kids in class, but it’s still school, which means it’s waking up early and forcing my brain to concentrate (which is especially hard when you have no idea what is being said). It is however beginning to improve.

I came back yesterday from the Rotary culture camp in Bjerringbro. It was pretty fun. My Danish definitely improved, for which I am thankful. It was pretty boring until about the third day, by which time I had made some really good friends who I hung out with for the rest of the week. We visited this awesome castle, Kalo Castle, and I took almost an entire roll of film there. It was so cool. I can’t wait to develop my photos to show you guys. That day we also went to an old city called “Den Gamel By” (The Old City). Unfortunately is was raining when we went, otherwise it would have been really fun; as it was however I spent most of my energy trying, but failing, to keep dry. After “Den Gamel By” we went to Århus for two hours of shopping. I really liked shopping in Århus, and I would really like to go back when I have more money (big smile!).

I am finishing this up during a break in class (three hours of geography is a little much I think). Today I start my Danish lessons at the “Ungdomsskole” (youth school).

Med venlig hilsen

Hallie

October 1 Journal

Today is my two month anniversary in Denmark. I had a little one person party in my room this morning to celebrate.

By this time life in Denmark has begun to settle down. I have a pretty set routine to my life, and I must say I like that. Nothing like calm and order in an exciting chaotic life, that’s what I say. But seriously, this routine was what I was looking forward to here. The everyday ordinariness that I loved back home I now have here, just in a different sense. I don’t feel like I’m on vacation anymore and it’s a very comfortable feeling.

Though I may be glad I don’t feel like I’m on vacation all the time, I never mind a brief reprieve. Last Thursday one of my Rotarians and his wife took me to Copenhagen for the day and it was incredible. We got there around 9:30 and Vibica, the Rotarian’s wife, and I set off to find the gågade, where all the shops are. Being a little country bumpkin, I was not fully prepared for Copenhagen, though I managed to keep my jaws together. The gågade, walking street, must have been a couple of kilometers long. And the shops. I couldn’t have afforded half the things in some stores if I mortgaged my mother’s house. Luckily my companion was familiar with Copenhagen, so we were able to come away from our adventure with new things in hand and money still in our purses.

Around lunch time we met Kell, the Rotarian, and proceeded to the Copenhagen fire station, where he had been buying new fire trucks for Rødekro, where we live. (Kell is the chief fire man for Rødekro, don’t think I mentioned that earlier). We had a tour of the fire station, and we got to see the room where emergency calls come in, and all the fire trucks, and ambulances. It was really cool. After the fire station, Kell and Vibica decided to show me the sights in Copenhagen. We went to see the Little Mermaid statue. Kell was quite amused over all the fuss made about a such a little thing. Next was the palace where Queen Margarethe and the royal family live while in town, they weren’t there when we went. The place was extraordinary. Further beyond the palace was this incredible domed church, and it just so happened to be centered in the middle of the palace so that it looked as though it was a part of it. It was just beautiful. Across the street from the palace is a public garden on the water. Across the water is the new opera house, that was donated to the city by a very large company whose name I can’t remember, and the Queen when she’s in the mood for opera sails over the to the opera house via these really cool old boats that stayed harbored at the gardens awaiting her commands. It seems so very picturesque to think of the queen descending from her castle, boarding one of the boats and sailing across this tiny river to the opera house.

After the queen’s palace we went to Nyhavn, a very popular old street with a great many cafés on the water. My hosts told me Nyhavn used to be an area of disrepute, ten, fifteen years ago, but is now the most fashionable street in Copenhagen. We picked one of the cafés, sat down and had a coffee while listening to jazz music coming from a couple of street performers. By this time we were all getting a little hungry so when we finished our coffees we headed off to Tivoli where we were planning on eating supper.

Tivoli was fantastic, as most everything that day had been. It was really odd to think of this amusement park in the middle of a city. It was dark as we were leaving and Tivoli by day is one thing, but Tivoli by night is a completely different. It’s spectacular, like Disney World in Copenhagen. All these lights every where, in trees by the sidewalks glistening off the water. There’s this one building, like a miniature Aladdin’s castle as you leave, that is especially cool. It’s all white, and right next to the water and fully outlined in different colored lights. I had thought it pretty when we came in, but when we left it was magical. Just the effect of it’s reflection on the water set off by the dark canopied area right before it. I unfortunately did not take a picture of it, something which I regret severely now. Tivoli was the end of our tour in Copenhagen. We went back to the fire station, which was across the street from Tivoli, because that’s where Kell had parked his car. As we were leaving Copenhagen all the lighted advertisements came on and that was a beautiful, though modern, farewell to a perfect day.

November 1 Journal

Hej alle sammen,

Three months. It seems like ages since I first came here. I can’t believe so much can happen in such a short space of time. Last weekend was our Rotary gathering in Holbæk, a rather small town close to Copenhagen, and it was so bizarre to hear the exchange students from Australia and Argentina talking about going home. I can’t even imagine that now. It seems so far in the future.

The language is coming easier and more natural now, and I must say it’s about time. I would not for the life of me wish to go back to when I understood nothing, especially not now when I’m when it’s finally begun to come along. Something exciting happened in a grocery store the other day. I was waiting in line to weigh some produce for my host mom, and the woman in front of me was having trouble reading the German on the scale, we were in a German grocery store, and she turned and asked if I was German and I said no then she asked me if I was Danish and without even thinking I answered yes. She then went on to ask if I could read the German and unfortunately I couldn’t, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that I was able to pull off being Danish. I have never been able to do that before. Mostly the second I open my mouth the light clicks on to whoever I’m talking to that I’m foreign. But it didn’t here. It was so exciting, I felt like singing, but luckily I was able to refrain myself. Maybe this doesn’t sound so exciting to those of you reading this, but when you having been trying to fit in to a society without success and something like this happens, it’s just like all the hard work has paid off, and it is finally worth it to learn the language and try to fit in.

I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned this in another journal, but I took up riding lessons here in Denmark, both my host sisters ride and I’ve always wanted to learn. For the first couple of times I was on a horse I hated it. Maybe this was because I spent more time on the ground than on the horse, or because it was impossible to breathe when riding faster that slow trudge, with all the bouncing and such. Now however it is one of the highlights of my week, luckily they come on Mondays so it’s like consolation for losing the weekend. I can now remain firmly on the horse through all forms of trotting, walking, galloping, even jumping, though that’s sometimes a little iffy. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get home and I’m not riding anymore. I ride a horse called Montana, rather funny, and it looks a bit like a mustang. It’s a bit slow, practically have to beat the thing to get it to move (that was a joke), but I like it despite its drawbacks.

My host mom told me this morning when I was moving to my next family, and it makes me so sad to think of leaving. My family is so wonderful, and even though my next family is really nice, I don’t know if I can like them as much. I only have about three more weeks with the Heisels, I’m moving on the 25th of this month.

Well I think I’ve said just about everything. I would just like to congratulate Rotary on their new commercial, and say many thanks for this opportunity.

Med venlig hilsen

Hallie

January 31 Journal

Hej

I can’t believe I’ve been here for six months already.  Time for a cliché, but It seems like just yesterday that I first got here, and now my year is halfway over.  I think Sierra’s illustration pretty much nailed the whole exchange, and that by the sixth month you can’t ever imagine going home again. 

Well as it’s been a while since I wrote I have a bit of catching up to do, beginning with Christmas.  It was one the best Christmas’s I’ve had.  The food alone would be enough to make it incredible, it seems like we were always baking something new, and between the Jule Frokosts and parties I don’t think I was ever once hungry.  The time before Christmas was exciting, but Christmas Night, because Danes have Christmas the evening of the 24th, was the best.  My host parents’ (my new host parents) family came over, and as there was going to be little kids it was decided we needed a Santa, and who got picked to be Santa?…me.  It was so much fun, I have never played Santa before, but I think pulled it off pretty well, though I was having the hardest time trying not to laugh, as was everybody else, because trying to make a deep voice and talk in danish at the same time is not particularly easy, to say the least.  Anyways the little kids didn’t know the difference, even though I was an incredibly short Santa, 5′ 5″. After Santa left we danced around the tree, and sang, and then after that was done we opened presents.  It was odd missing the excitement that comes with waiting til morning for Christmas, but it was still really great. After Christmas of course comes New Year, and New Year’s Eve our neighbors came over to fire off fireworks.  I think we were out there for an hour or so with the fire works, it was so much fun.

After the holidays it was back to school again.  School’s going fine, still having a little difficulty in class, but definitely not as much as before.  We have a holiday coming up soon and my family and I are going up to Løkken, a town in the north of Denmark, for the week.  Jette, my host mom, told me that there’s a place on the coast where you can see the Baltic and the North seas colliding, you can actually mark where the waves hit.  Anyways I’m really looking forward to it.

The best, however is to come in March when my class and I take a school trip to Rome.  We’re going to see Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii on the way, and of course everything in Rome, the Coliseum and St Peter’s cathedral.  Oh I just can’t wait.  We’re having a fund raising thing on Friday where we cook dinner for our parents, Italian food of course- and that means spaghetti and pizza!

Other than this things have been pretty quiet.  My family has been taking me around to see parts of Søderjylland, which is the area I live in.  We’ve been to see Gråsten castle where Crown Prince Frederik and his wife Mary, and their new baby Christian Valdemar Henri John, are going to live in the summer.  I’ve also been to see the battle site where Denmark lost their border to Germany, and to Sønderborg Castle, which is now a museum which explains all about their switch from being German to being Danish, which is actually a pretty neat story.  Apparently the people living on both sides of the new border (because it was moved north after Denmark lost) voted on whether they wanted to be a part of Denmark or a part of Germany, and of course they all wanted to be Danes, so the border was moved south again. 

Well I think that’s about everything.  I just want to say to any of the exchange student hopefuls, if you picked Denmark, you are incredibly lucky.   There is no possible way not to enjoy yourself here and have a wonderful year.

Kan I har det godt!

Hallie

April 23 Journal

Kære venner og familie,

I am dreadfully sorry for how long I have waited to write this journal. I have been busy lately, which is what I’m using as my excuse. A great deal has happened since my last journal (considering it’s been a couple of months!) so this might be a long one.

February- The first weekend in February I went up to Århus to meet with some exchange student friends and it was wonderful, we were all from N. America, so it was nice being with people who could quote from the same movies and knew the same jokes etc. I miss the humor in America a lot, the Danish humor is really funny, just kind of hard to pick up on. The week of the 12th-19th my family and I were up in Løkken in the North of Denmark for our winter holiday. We rented a summer house close to the beach and the woods, really nice! We went up to see Skagen, the most northerly point in Denmark. It was amazing, so clear and light. The waves weren’t so prominent so we couldn’t really see the two oceans colliding, but you could definitely see the currents moving towards each other, and you could see so far out on the horizon, it was like it was shaped differently (ridiculous though it sounds). The last two days in Løkken (wow that vacation went quickly!) it snowed, so of course we had to go for a walk in the snow! I had earlier knitted (yes I can knit!) a scarf for myself, well more like a blanket, so I finally had an opportunity to use it. I had it wrapped all over my head like the Arab women do with their scarves, so all you could see were my eyes. This ended up being a bit of a draw back during the massive snowball fight we had on the beach! I was clobbered by my brothers several times because of my limited vision. That week was one of the coziest times I ever had, sitting by the fire place at night playing Phase 10, a card game for USA that my family loved, and going on long walks and relaxing, I could have stayed there for ever. It was however not to be and return home we did on Sunday. The next weekend I spent with a Rotarian family, Conrad and Maren, at their house in a place in Aabenraa called Løjt land. It was beautiful, perfect example of “rolling hills” and “patchwork farms” I have never seen those two expressions better described. There’s also this really rich Dane that works in Tokyo who summers in this area, and he also owns about 50 old houses, from 16-1700’s that he restores and rents out to people. These houses are incredible, with the thatched roofs and small widows, chalked walls. I just love them, it’s one of the most beautiful places in Denmark I think (Løjt land that is). It was unfortunately winter when I visited, but now it’s almost spring and they promised me another visit once all the flowers bloomed. I can’t wait for it!

March- The first weekend of March was a Rotary get together in Copenhagen, in a school in the Copenhagen kommune. It was a fun weekend, nice to see all the exchange students again. We learned how to lancere at this get together, and put on a show/dance for ourselves and visiting Rotarians. I thought it was great fun, learning to dance this lancere, got rather good at it too, if I do say so myself. From the 19th-25th I was in Rome(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and wow that was incredible, and amazing, and fun, and incredible. I did not think there could be so many interesting things in one city alone. We visited the Spanish stairway (I think that’s what they are called in English) and the Trevi Fountain, and St. Peters cathedral, and we saw the Pope, and the Pantheon, and the Forum (which I think was the coolest thing we saw in Rome, even more than the Lateran cathedral, or Peters Cathedral or even the Coliseum. This place was awesome, you could really feel all of Rome’s old glory and splendor here, see how the most important area in Rome once was built, oh it was just amazing), we saw the Coliseum and the Catacombs. We went out to eat every night and had some, well no, the best pasta I have ever eaten, there was this one really good restaurant were I got this ravioli spinach thing, for lack of a better description, and really this meal was good. We also went to see Pompeii, which is just as incredible as Rome, and entire ancient city preserved, with graffiti on the walls and the buildings foundations. In the streets they are placed these high stones at intersections, so that if the streets were flooded you could get over without getting your feet wet, smart huh? It was all these little things that you could see, see how people lived and how their city functioned, that I thought was the most incredible. We were supposed to go up all the way to Vesuvius as well, but the weather was really bad, foggy, and it was said to be not worth it. We did however get a great view of Pompeii while going up the mountain, so not a total bummer. The last day in Rome we visited, for those of you that have read Angels and Demons, Fontana di quattro fiumi, in Piazza Navona, where the cardinal was killed, the water element. Anyways, I had to present to my class on it, and it is a wonderful little plaza. Many famous writers and thinkers have come to this plaza because it is quieter than the rest of Rome. We had time to shop that day, then headed back to Denmark. My Granddad and my brother were already in Denmark when I got home, they were waiting for me at the Copenhagen Airport, so the next day I took a train up there and we walked around Copenhagen and saw as many sights as we could before we froze to death, it was snowing and windy, not the most ideal weather. But they saw most of the center of town. We went home to Sønderjylland the next day. It was lovely having my family there, showing them the things I have done and seen, my school, my town, areas in Sønderjylland that my family had shown me. They were there for a week, and it wasn’t nearly long enough to show them everything I wanted them to see. They left on the 30th, and on the 2nd of April I moved to my last family. It was hard to leave the Petersen’s because they were a wonderful family and I felt so at home with them. But my new family the Hansen’s are really sweet too, and I knew them before I moved in which has made things easier.

April- Like I said I moved the first weekend of April, and got myself settled in. I live in Aabenraa now, which is different, there are noises all the time, and I gotten so used to the quiet countryside. It’s nice being closer to my school and my friends though, most of them live here in town. Last week was our Easter holiday, and I met all my new family’s family. We went up to Århus, such a lovely town I would definitely consider living there, for a shopping trip. Otherwise it was a quite vacation.

Next month, in case I don’t find the time, or the will to write, I am getting more visits from my family, which I can’t wait for. In June, the most exciting thing of all is happening, I’m going to help the Haderslev Musuem (Haderslev is a town not far from here) with an archeological excavation in Rødekro. The town wants to expand but the area where they will be building has to be inspected first for items of historical significance, which is what the museum, and now I, am going to do. I can’t wait for this, because as you all know it is my utmost dream to become an archeologist, and this of course fits right in. I couldn’t believe when I got the news, my last host father Lennert told me and the poor guy had to listen to how excited I was for twenty minutes, plus I had just gotten back from Rome and was looking forward to seeing my family. I don’t think I once drew breath the whole way home.

Well that brings us to about now. Can’t believe I only have two months left in this little country. Doesn’t seem possible that my year is almost up. Thanks again to Rotary for this experience!

Kærlig hilsen

Hallie

June 30 Journal

Mojn alle,

So it’s soon that I’m traveling home, tomorrow actually. I have had the loveliest last three weeks here, a perfect send off from a wonderful year. I was out traveling Europe with my family, and flew from England to Denmark so I could be home in time for my ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG!!!!!!!!!, which was the coolest thing I have ever done, apart from this year. I have wanted to be an archeologist since I saw Indiana Jones, and now I got my first chance to really experience it. I met up with my group at the museum on Monday (12th) and we headed out to the dig site, which was actually not too far from where I lived with my first family, and Ingo, the archeologist, began to explain what they’d found earlier and what we were to do. They’d found evidence of three houses from the iron age, which he thought were built one after the other, maybe a family that had lived there and rebuilt the house another location when it got too old or burnt down.

The remainings of the houses were simply ceramics, and differences in the color and density of the ground. Where it was darkest was where the post holes had been, or a fence, and it was so cool how Ingo could just see what it was by noting the shade, etc. The same with pottery, just by seeing the types of decoration or the way it was shaped he could tell that it was so and so many years old. There were also two studying archeologists on our team and they were really good brains to pick, concerning schooling and finding jobs etc.

These last two weeks have been a series of goodbyes. Goodbye to friends, and Rotary and families. Quite depressing, haven’t really felt that I’m leaving yet, even the eve of departure. I’m exciting about seeing Florida again, curious to see if it’s like I remember, but then I want to come home again, and that’s the most depressing thought, that I won’t be coming back, at least not for a long time. This is my very last journal entry, not that that’s so emotional, haven’t really done so well keeping up with it, but I would like to just say thank you to my family, parents especially and Rotary for this year. I’ve had a lovely time, and would not have come to be so without you.

Mange kærlige hilsner

Hallie

Hannah
2005-06 Outbound to Switzerland

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Echallens Gros-de-Vaud Rotary Club, District 1990, Switzerland

Hannah - Switzerland

August 12 Journal

As I write this, the church bells are ringing in the distant village. My host mother prepares another delicious meal. Is it horse meat again? Or maybe some more veal sausages like we had at lunch.

What is she saying? I have to ask her to repeat herself, but slower this time so that I can understand better. Ah, ok, after dinner we will go for a little walk. I’m still sore from yesterday, when I tried to go for my usual run in the morning, but instead of finding nice, soft, flat ground, I found hills, a forest, and plenty of rocks and roots to make my journey either unpleasant or interesting, depending on how I chose to look at it. I think one would have to be pretty cynical and close-minded if they did not appreciate the beautiful creeks and flowers here, what with the way the Swiss keep up with nature.

I’m looking outside, and I see probably only one or two clouds, plenty of trees, a clothes line-are dryers expensive here? Hmm, well the fresh air does the clothes good, even if it might be an old tradition to me- and a swimming pool. Interestingly, the pool is warm, despite the outside air. It seems bizarre to me to swim in 60 degree weather, but here, it’s nice and toasty outside. Is it just me, or are my feet freezing right now?

Ok, so maybe I jumped into my experience somewhere in the middle; let me backtrack to when I arrived. I was fortunate enough to be traveling with Kerry, a friend and another exchange student from this district, heading to Norway. We arrived at the airport, already agreeing ahead of time, to say goodbye quickly to our parents so the departure wouldn’t be that difficult…..for them. Probably the worst part of the whole trip was waiting for each connecting flight. Just sitting there staring out the window, listening to the Shins, or Jack Johnson, or some other mellow music just tortures the soul, knowing that, ah, only….let’s see…ten more hours of planes left to go….8 and a half…Are they going to play a movie or something on this plane? We are flying over the Atlantic Ocean, you know. “Ma’am, is the airline going to play a movie on these televisions?” “What, they’re not working? I’ll reboot it for you, and it should work.” Oh, good grief, three hours on the plane waiting for a movie to come on, and all this time it was just broken?!

Kerry and I split up at Amsterdam. It was kind of confusing at first, and we had to ask someone for help. I looked around. Some young man working at a booth to let pilots past customs was looking at our confused faces with some sort of understanding that, ah, yes, just some confused Americans. It was the first time in my life that I felt kind of apologetic for my language.

I was too overcome with fatigue to be nervous to get on the next plane….Sorry, sir, what did you say? Yes, I speak English. No, no Russian. Good grief, this is kind of nerve-racking.

The last plane ride was the most interesting of all. The flight attendants spoke, I believe, German, French, English, and if my ears didn’t deceive me, a bit of Dutch as well. We landed in Geneva. There might not be anything more beautiful than the Swiss Alps…well, maybe Swiss chocolate.

After I went through customs, I had no idea where to look for my host parents. I spotted my host father. Stupidly, I completely forgot about French, and went right up and said, “Hi, I’m Hannah,” realizing at once that, oh crap, that was English, wasn’t it?! Woops. Ok, French mode, French mode.

Telling myself in English to think in French really messes with your mind, and sadly it didn’t help at all. I could understand practically nothing, maybe catching a few words here and there, but for the most part, I think I was expecting too much of myself, then, being distraught, couldn’t understand a lot.

Here, when one meets another, they kiss three times on the cheek. I learned quickly.

We had to take a train back, and it was difficult to sit with my host mom and dad, not knowing what to say. A person working for the train came by to check something. What on earth did he need? My passport? Ok. No, that can’t be right. They are telling me to get something else out. Ah!!!! The ticket my host father just gave me about five minutes ago. Oh, no, where did I put it. Good grief, I must look really really stupid, handing my passport to the ticket collector. Ok, here it is. Whew, glad that’s over.

We arrived at the house, with all the expected happenings. I met my host brother, unpacked my things, ate lunch.

My host father likes to learn new English words. Before every meal, one says “Bon appetite,” just like you read about in French class. So, my father asked me how to say this in English. “Enjoy your meal,” I said. My host brother came down to eat with us. “Bon app,” he said to us. “Bon appetite,” my host mother said. My host father turned to my host brother and said, very loudly, I might add, “ENJOY YOUR MAIL.”

Other odd things happen to me all the time; settling in takes time. For instance, I learned quickly how to lock and unlock the bathroom door. There is a key for the door, that can come out. Me being the experimental type, decided to explore what kind of key it was, since it looked old and interesting.

Trying to unlock the door, I turned the key and pulled. Clank. Woops, well that is an interesting key, isn’t it. Oh, no the door won’t open. I took it out a turn too quick, the door is still locked. Hmm. Well, this is a nice bathroom, it wouldn’t be too bad in here for a while. No, I can figure this out….30 seconds later, well maybe not. I found one thing out…yes the key was interesting and different; it didn’t work the same way as American keys, that’s for sure.

So, from my first week here, what have I done and learned? Well, it’s vacation-time right now, so I really haven’t done huge things. I go traveling every morning, either on a bike ride or for a walk or a run. I make myself get up and go exploring because it’s very easy to want to sleep. Every evening, I feel just intoxicated with fatigue from trying to comprehend the language every day. There seems to be predictable points in every day. The morning, I can understand a bit, and it’s good to start the day out with French. In the afternoon, its the best time (maybe after I take a nap) because I’m in the daily routine now. At night, I can’t understand the simplest of questions, like, “Did you have fun at the farmer’s fest?”….I try to learn something new every day; my host mother and I talk a lot about our different cultures, and it really is very interesting. Especially when we don’t know the words in the other’s language, and we are too lazy to get a dictionary, so we act out the word. She was trying to translate the word “fly” for me at dinner tonight because there was one buzzing around my food. So, she flapped her hands and went “bzzzzzz.” I understood, and then we couldn’t stop laughing.

Now I know what the first days are like for an exchange student. It’s difficult to explain, maybe it’s different for everyone. Just to keep an open mind not be afraid to make mistakes makes for a grand and glorious adventure, and I look forward to more experiences to mold me into a Swiss-girl.

P.S. Oh, and yes, the chocolate here is heaven.

September 7 Journal

The Swiss are an interesting folk. In many ways, they remind me of hobbits; their simple ways, their perfectly kept gardens, their shyness, their appreciation of the ordinary, their love of good food, good company, good wine. However, I find (as do other foreigners I have spoken with) that they are quite reserved. Yes, it is customary to say ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ if you pass someone in the street. However, it is with a curious and watchful eye that you do so. I get the feeling that the old women, slowly passing me while walking with their canes are secretly thinking in their heads as they greet me ‘Who is she? Why is she wearing that? Where is she going?’ Me, walking with a smile, my head up, skirt blowing wildly, flip flops flip flopping on the pavement, why I’m just that strange foreign wizard Gandolf strutting unusually through town. I might as well be shooting fireworks out of my purse by some looks I get. However, I must remind myself that it is not a mean gesture, just a cultural difference.

At school also, you find these reserves. I started school a week ago, and what an experience, I must be cliché. After being with my host parents for three weeks, they have become used to my English accent, and can understand me fairly well. However, meeting fast, slang-talking sixteen-year-olds is quite different. I have to repeat myself frequently, then the light bulb hits them. I feel like the detective in the Pink Panther, with that thick French accent whom no one can understand.

« Hello, ah vood like to rent a reuim »

« A reuim, sir? »

« Yeehs, I vood leik to rent a reuim »

« Oh a room, you would like to rent a room! »

« Yes, zat is wut I have been saying, you foohl. »

However, I feel that I can understand better than I can speak. At first this was not so. Many of you exchange students, and perhaps parents too, know of the Rotary Smile. This is an excellent concept that we exchange students were taught during our first orientation: When in doubt, when you cannot understand, just smile, and all will be alright. Well, I gradually started to change this concept. The Rotary Smile began to turn into the Rotary ‘Yes’ (or, in my case, the Rotary ‘Oui’ – see if you can make that sound funny). Let me try to explain, since my grammar skills are about as good as my basketball ones (i.e. I can make a three-pointer once in a while if I sneeze and aim for the wall at the same time): If I didn’t understand something, or if someone asked me a yes or no question, I thought it might be safe to just smile, and say the equivalent of ‘Oh, yeah.’ However, I began to see the disastrous effects of this. Yes, I could understand very well, yes, I wouldn’t mind reading aloud (this experience was horrible as I didn’t realize as I had said yes, and had the whole class staring at me, waiting for me to begin the article). A girl in class asked me the first day, « Tu as fait quoi pendant tes vacances ? »

Now, this is a very simple sentence and I could understand it perfectly well. However, being drilled in French lessons for the previous three hours, and she speaking very quickly, nothing registered immediately. I proceeded to just agree and say, « Ha ha, oui. »

She smiled a little uncertainly and looked sideways at her friend. Immediately I realized something went wrong a few seconds ago, so I tracked back to remember what she had said. « Oh ! What did I do during my vacation ?! » I said in French. « Oui, oui ! »

Sometimes, as an exchange student, you think you just can’t look more stupid. But, I have realized something this week. You can always look more stupid.

I continued classes that week, having the usual experiences (i.e. missing the train on Friday, getting a full body exercise by climbing five flights of stairs to music class). I found it hard to make friends, though. Already graduating, then being put in a class of the equivalent of perhaps tenth or eleventh grade is a bit hard on the friendship-making. After a few visits, I was able to make it into the equivalent of the senior year here, and today was my first day. I started the same as usual, however, with students my own age, and for some reason, that was more comforting. They informed me that we did not have physics that afternoon, so actually I finished school around 11h45. I took the 12h01 train, happy to be able to eat lunch with my family, and set off for home.

Now, there are three stops I can take to get home. There is the large station in the center of my little town, then two others closer to my house, Sur Roche first, and then Grésaley. I stop at Grésaley, for which I must press a button. Today, after the large station, the train began for Sur Roche. It being lunchtime, there were only two other people on the train besides me, so no one needed to stop at Sur Roche. So, the train kept going. We slowed down towards Grésaley, but, since we didn’t stop at Sur Roche, I believed Grésaley to be Sur Roche. Therefore, after Grésaley, I started towards the doors, ready to press the button for my stop. I waited for a few moments (after all, there’s only about thirty seconds between Sur Roche and Grésaley, so I was ready to get off). The train picked up some speed. Hmm, seems to be going kind of fast, I didn’t realize there was this much space between the stations. No, I know there isn’t this much space between the stations. Now we are going too fast, and why are we passing the corn fields that are to the right of my house ? Ohh, no. It hit me. Well, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. I’ll just check the times of the trains, get off at the next station.. ahh in two minutes, and take the next train back. One hour until the next train! Well, it’s only a few miles back, I can walk it, it would take less time anyway.

I hopped off the train after three minutes, and proceeded to follow the mini-sidewalk. Well, it won’t be so bad. Three minutes by train, what is that, like two miles? Even though I am carrying a backpack, wearing a white skirt, and a buttoned black shirt…I began walking along the little route. But then, the sidewalk decided to take a turn into the forest, which looked like it would be a nice scenic walk that may come out where I need to be, but chances are slim. So me, being me, decided the best way to get home would be to stay next to the tracks and walk through the nice soft grass between the forest and the tracks. Hmm. I realized a moment too late that it had rained last night. The nice, short-looking grass turned out to be wet, tall grass, covering thick slimy mud. Now this ain’t no Florida mud. No, this is the creamy-colored gloppy, pasty, sticky mud that hardens to cement on your feet and clings to your shoes like the green slime monster in Ghost Busters. Ah, well it won’t be that bad, after all I’m an exchange student! I can handle it! I flicked off my shoes, hiked up my long skirt, and trudged on, determined. Hopefully the train won’t go by now, any onlookers would think – what onlookers? I’m in the middle of nowhere walking by a cornfield and railroad tracks!

Finally, the grass came to an end. I couldn’t very well put my shoes back on, my feet sticky with mud, so I walked on through the rocks. I had no idea how much time had passed, was about a mile away from my house, and was just beginning to think of what my host parents would think of my appearance when I heard it. Then it zoomed by, the train, almost mocking me, whistle and all.

If I were to compile a book of all my journal entries while overseas, giving it the title ‘My Experiences’ would not do it justice.

March 13 Journal

Hi and my extensive apologies to everyone that has been wanting me to put up more journals! It’s been a difficult three months, and I haven’t been able to put things into words. First of all, congratulations to the new Outbound class, you all have so much that awaits you.

These past few months I’ve been learning a lot about myself, to say the least. These challenges have built my character in ways that I have to say would have been impossible to obtain had I not taken the opportunity to come here. At first, I thought that the Swiss culture was about the same as the American – people go to work, have kids, cook dinner from 6-7 pm…but I was extremely mistaken.

Everything from the way we say hello to whether or not we accept an invitation to a party to what our afternoon activities are defines us. The way you meet people here is exactly the opposite of in the States. You must go up to other people in order to show your interest in them. It is not uncommon to ask someone if you can come to their birthday party. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you don’t go up to them, they will not come up to you, seeing as they will think you do not want them to be their friend. If you do not accept an invitation to a party, it is seen as extremely rude, unless you have a good excuse.

I’ve become used to these manners now. Where I live, there are no other exchange students at my school, or within 45 minutes of me, so I am very much immersed in this culture. Before, I was not so grateful of this fact, as it caused me to work harder and change. Now, I see what a difference it has made, not only for my French, but for myself as well.

Now, to cut off the emotionals (I’ve had enough for a while), don’t think I haven’t been having fun!

Over spring break I learned to snowboard! It’s quite a site for someone in Switzerland to have never skied or snowboarded – which led them to ask me other questions as ”What, there’s never snow in Florida?!!!” A week of skiing, normal to the Swiss, was quite a new experience for me. We rent an apartment for the week, spend a day driving up to the mountains and getting settled in, big dinner at night with a large bottle of red wine to go around. Seven thirty am the next morning, wake up and stumble into the kitchen. Set the table with bowls, knives, butter, bread, jam, cereal, fruit, chocolate milk. They tell me, ”We have to eat a lot because when you’re up skiing all day long, you get hungry, and cold.” After breakfast, we pass around the mustard, dried meat, butter, and bread to make sandwiches for lunch, as we will stay up on the mountain. Then the uncomfortable task of getting dressed. I can’t remember how many layers we each put on, but let’s just say that it’s one horrible moment when you get completely dressed and zipped up and suddenly need to use the bathroom.

After climbing 1/4 of a mile uphill at 9 am to the ski lift, snowboards and skis on your back – or on the ground if you’re not coordinated – it’s war to get a spot on the ski lift. Although except for guns and arrows, you’ve got really pointy ski batons and snowboards, people shoving, and looking the other way as if it was someone who shoved them first. Little kids with ski goggles on getting lost three feet from the ground in between the jacket of their mother. After getting up to the ski slopes finally, there is an hour before snowboard courses start. So, I go to practice on the baby slopes, while the rest of the family heads up high for two or three quick slopes before 10:30. At 10:15, all the little three- and four- year-olds start lining up trying to find their ski coaches for the 10:30-1:00 classes. Thankfully, most kids learn skiing first and start snowboarding later, so I was with 12 and 13 year-olds, not two year olds.

Two and a half hours of falling, flying, and laughing, my family all meets up at 1:00 and stumbles in to the restaurant to try and find a table (second world war of the day, which I will not be so unpleasant as to describe). After eating and drinking something hot, its back on the slopes until about 4 pm.

Back home, we take turns showering, then get the big dinner cooking, and finally all crash in front of the TV and don’t remember how we made it to our beds. Now multiply that five times and you’ve got a week of snowboarding.

That was the end of February. If I’m to backtrack a bit, I can recount Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Thanksgiving, I made a big meal for everyone in my second host family, and put all the food on the table, and told everyone to dig in. This was odd for them, as a big dinner usually means being served about five courses of delicate and well-prepared food, not some sloppy bean casserole – which, after daring to plop some on their plates, they all loved. Forgetting the sugar in the pie crust, the apple pies weren’t a great hit, but finding a recipe ”Making Pumpkin Pie From a Real-Live Pumpkin-Yes, It Does Work!,” that one was surprisingly delicious.

Christmas, as we had been prepared for in our orientations, was difficult. People don’t decorate much here, nor sit and watch Christmas videos each night before Christmas – well, maybe that’s just me. We had Christmas on Christmas Eve, as was easier for everyone, and went skiing on Christmas Day.

I changed host families in the beginning of January, and now have two host brothers and a little host sister. I’ve been a lot busier and, having always been the youngest, have gotten used to having a thirteen-year-old sister, and feel sorry for my parents back at home for having to have me at that age :).

School is about the same as it has always been, difficult to make friends, I will be honest to the new exchange students. It won’t be hard for all of you, it depends on your host country, your adaptability, and your willingness. You have to be ready to accept that you are going to change. I was afraid of it, afraid of losing something. But changing is not losing anything at all. A part of me is still the person I was before I came here, but a better version. I surprise myself with some of my actions now, thinking for a split second, ”Was that me who just said that? Couldn’t be, that’s something a mature person would say.” … only I think in French now.

You new students, as has been said to you, I’m sure, have already taken the first steps to your journey, which is deciding to come. It’s the courage to start which changes and dignifies you. When you are told that you will have an amazing year, this does not necessarily mean that fireworks will be exploding each day and you will feel so full of exhilaration and will speak your new language fluently in two months time. It means that your experiences will be so meaningful and intense that you will be amazed at the new person you will grow into.

Well, I hope you all enjoyed a bit of reflection and stories (and I hope I didn’t stay too long on the soapbox!). I do miss you all, but in a good way. I wish you all sunshine and happiness!!!

With all my love,

Hannah

Joy “Kenzie” H.
2005-06 Outbound to Slovakia

Hometown: Palm Coast, Florida
School: Flagler Palm Coast High School
Sponsor: Flagler Beach Rotary Club
Host: Bratislava Rotary Club, District 2240, Slovakia

Kenzie - Slovakia

October 5 Journal

Ahoj from Slovakia!!! Slovakia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I absolutely love it here! My host family is the best family I could have ever wished for. My host mom, Zuzana, is giving my real mom a run for the money! My host dad, Iwar (pronounced EEE-Var), is a great tour guide, he is a very smart man. My host brother, Rasto, is an interesting young chap, and he eats like no other, you’d think he had an extra stomach somewhere. My other host brother, Richard, is now in America on an exchange. The family dog, Armon, took some time becoming familiar with. At first I would have sworn he was out to kill me, but gradually he has become my friend.

School started on my 17th birthday. the first day, lasting only 15 minutes, was by far the best day of school ever! At school I am usually bored to death, but I am hoping that once my language skills improve I will be able to participate more with the class. Majority of the students are afraid to talk to me due to their English skills. but the select few that do actually come up and ask questions speak English quite well.

Writing this is really hard, my mind is racing with all kinds of things to tell about, but I’m trying to keep it all in order, so pardon if some of this makes no sense. : )

 

 

Even though I’ve only been here for a small amount of time, I can say that being here has already changed me in some ways. I have become more independent and less shy, and when I first came here I had absolutely no hatred against pigeons… but now I hate them, they pooped on my jacket and scarf!!!!!! The Slovak people are very kind, and they appreciate me trying to learn their language. They are always willing to help me and are patient when I am struggling to make sense of what I am trying to say.

Slovakia is a beautiful country. I love all the castles there are. it is always amazing to see one jutting out from a mountainside, whether it be in ruins or in perfect order. So far I have visited 4 of Slovakia’s never ending supply of castles. Next weekend I will be visiting yet another!

I am so happy to be here and I appreciate everything Rotary has done for me.

October 20 Journal

IT’S COLD! When I first arrived in Slovakia it was nice and warm, but suddenly things have taken a turn, within just these past few weeks I’ve gone from wearing a light jacket to full blown anorak, gloves, scarf and boots. But I’m not complaining, I actually kinda like putting on all my layers and going outside into the cold, but I have a feeling that might change once the freezing rain everyone’s been promising me comes.

School is still school… boring and long, but I survive. More and more people are starting to get more courageous and are actually coming up to me and asking questions. And this week somehow my mobile number got out and I’ve been receiving strange text messages from random people. But I don’t mind, I find it very amusing and I’m glad they find me so interesting. Everyday I seem to meet someone new or find another one of the treasures Slovakia has to offer me. I am having such a wonderful time. I enjoy just going out and sitting on park benches and watching the Slovak people go about their busy lives, watching the children play and the dogs do their business (right on the side walk, and no, their owners DON’T clean up after them). I love all the friends I’ve made since I’ve been here. Everyone is so nice and willing to help me, or show me around. But out of all the friends I’ve made, I’d have to say that my most favorite is the one-eyed cat that greets me every morning on my walk to school. I love that cat! its the nicest cat I’ve ever met!!! Aside from it only having one eye, it’s quite cute. I usually bring him a little snack and pet him before I get on the bus to school. I’ve even given him a name, “one eyed Jack” (I hope it is a boy…)

Tonight I am heading off to Prague in the Czech Republic, I cant wait to go! I’ve been excited all week about this trip. I’m all packed and ready to go! The only down part is that I have to get on the bus at 3:15 in the morning to go!!!!! But I’m sure it will all be worth it. I am so happy to get to see all the other exchange students again, I have really missed them. I love it when we all get together, we always have so much to talk about. I enjoy hearing and telling stories about host families and little adventures that we’ve been on. And it is so great to be with other people who are going through the same thing you are, its like we all understand each other perfectly even if we make no sense to everyone else.

I will be sure to post some pictures of Prague next journal entry. I’m sure I will have plenty to share!

January 2 Journal

So much has happened lately. My life has just been a huge whirl of changes and gaining knowledge. The holidays were great, even though I did get sick on Christmas.

My Christmas in Slovakia was my first real ”white Christmas”. It snowed almost 2 feet in one night. I’ve really enjoyed the snow…when I’m not outside! Christmas here wasn’t too drastically different than Christmas back in the US except, Santa looks like the pope and he has a little devil as his sidekick. The devil is supposed to scare the bad kids while Santa gives gifts to the good kids. The traditional Christmas dinner is mainly cabbage soup and fish with other various side dishes. I really had a good time with my family at Christmas dinner, it was very comical. My host brother and host dad decided to pretend to be British English during the dinner so there were lots of (in British accent) “excuse me Zuzana, may I have another rrrroooolllll” and “oh, this dinner is lovely!” And at one point in the dinner Rastislav (host brother) decided to change his name to “Partyslav”. Host Grandmother wasn’t allowed to eat a lot of the food we were having due to her bowel condition but she fought with my host dad over the matter and he finally gave in and let her have some cabbage soup.

After the dinner we went upstairs and opened gifts. The Christmas tree was somewhat…. strange looking, but it was mainly due to the fact that it had been done by “Partyslav” and apparently he’s not too talented in that department. It ended up falling down 3 times during the evening.

After Christmas I felt better and took a train ride to visit my friend Mary from New York in the town of Zvolen in central Slovakia. I had a really good time in Zvolen, I even skied for the first time, but I wouldn’t consider it ”skiing” … It was more like falling a lot and then drinking hot beverages.

New Years was fun. There was an amazing fireworks show done from the river on two ships. And when the new year hit 2006 white balloons with glowsticks tied to them were released, it was beautiful to see all the glowsticks floating up into the black night sky.

Overall my holidays in Slovakia were amazing and I will never forget them.

May 21 Journal

So, I haven’t written a journal in a long time! Sorry!, things are hectic here with the year almost over and everyone leaving!

I guess I should start with Easter in Slovakia. It was, how should I put it… interesting? I found the Easter traditions here quite shocking… Basically, on the Monday after Easter, all the women and girls are awoken early and doused in VERY cold water by the men (who dress in the traditional Slovak costume). Then, the men proceed to beat the women with whips that are hand made from vines and ribbon. Afterwards, the women are expected to give the men food, treats and money. While being beaten and given a cold shower I couldn’t help but think to myself, “in America, isn’t this considered domestic violence?” But nonetheless, Easter was enjoyable (for the boys, that is!)

I’ve also recently gone to a ski week hosted by one of the Rotary clubs in my district. I am in no way close to being an Olympic skier yet, but I still had a good time. I got to meet all the Czech Republic students and we all got along very well. Last weekend all the students in my district went to a small town near the German border in the Czech Republic. It was an amazing town! It looked like it had come straight out of a fairy tale book! There was a huge castle that circled the whole village and around the castle was a moat, but instead of water in the moat they had bears! Huge brown bears that protected the castle! It was so awesome! We only spent two days in that town and I was sad to leave, because it was my last time to see the Czech students, so as the bus full of Slovak students was gearing up to make its departure there were many people crying and lots of hugs going around, but I know that we will all always be friends.

So, what’s new at school… My normal class at school is at the moment taking their graduation exams, so I’ve been moved to a younger class. It’s fun being with 14 and 15 year olds, but at the same time, it’s strange. But I am enjoying it. I like being with them because they don’t have to study as much as the older students so they are always free to hang out around the town after school and on the weekends.

I found a group of other exchange students in Bratislava recently, they are with a program called AFS. Most of them are from Germany, but there is one student from New Zealand, it’s nice to have some fresh faces. I really enjoy being with them and we’ve had some really great times!

I will be sad to say good bye to all the friends I’ve made this year, but I am glad to be going home. But at the same time, I will miss this country and I will always have so much pride in it! I almost feel Slovak now. Sometimes I forget that I am American and not just another normal Slovak kid living in Slovakia. I hope to one day return here and to see everyone and everything again.

Chelsea King
2005-06 Outbound to Japan
Hometown: LaCrosse, Florida
School: Santa Fe High School
Sponsor: High Springs Rotary Club
Host: Urawa North Rotary Club, District 2770, Japan

Chelsea - Japan

August 30 Journal

Kon-nichiwa

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS I think is the best way to describe how I am feeling right now. Japan is so beautiful and equally beautiful are the people living in this country.

As my plane flew closer and closer to my new home the butterflies began to subside and my heart began to ache…. I started thinking of what and who I was leaving behind and I realized that in one short year I would be a complete mess on the plane back to the U.S. for I would not dream of leaving this country that in just ten days I love….

I was greeted at the airport by four gentlemen holding a sign saying Welcome Chelsea King. As I approached them, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I quickly learned that two of the men were to be host parents, one was Matushima my first host father (Ota san) and the other was Saitou my fourth host father…. I was so incredibly grateful for Matushima spoke better English than I would have ever expected. The gentlemen all laughed as I spoke to them in Japanese that I could not speak their language…. Matushima was very polite and asked me many questions and told me I was going to have a blast on this adventure I call life. I fell asleep in the car and when I awoke I was startled because the night had already fallen and I supposed it was around nine, when in fact it was only seven at night. Matushima was very nice and he was so surprised that I am a vegetarian, I felt bad because when I got to his house his wife Mariko had prepared quite a lot of sushi for me to enjoy. We all just laughed at the misunderstanding.

Matushima was pleased to show me that he had prepared me with my own personal computer in my room. I fell into a deep sleep and awoke the next day to look up and see that I have a loft in my room, so awesome. All of the next day I cleaned and organized all of my things in my room.

My host family consists of my father, mother, sister, and three brothers; one of my host brothers lives outside of the home. I do not see much of the boys for they work all the time and when they come home they eat and go to sleep. My host sister, shortly after I arrived, had to go to the hospital; she was diagnosed with collagens disease, and she is very nice and sweet.

The people here are so petite. We went to dinner and I wore my heels and I noticed that I did not only tower over my host mother, but quite a number of people in Japan. It is a nice change to go from mildly short to tall in just a day.

Everyday is an adventure. I went with Ota san to his work by bike and it was every last inch of my effort not to scream and sing with joy… it is so fun to be able to get around so easily with nothing more than your bike. I met for the first time my very nice language tutor, Mrs. Hirooka and with only three hours spent with her she gave me full proof that this language was going to be a lot easier to learn than I had ever dreamed.

The next day I was to give a speech to my Rotary Club and I was quite nervous, but in the end I realized that I and anyone else, should never be afraid of speeches, for if you give a good speech and they like it or if you don’t do so good and people laugh at you it is only minute and hours until it is completely forgotten. My Rotary Club loved my speech, however, and thought that it was quite nice…. the meeting was held in a beautiful hotel on the 22nd floor with a miraculous view… not until that moment did I realize the enormity of the city I lived in.

After the meeting we went to size me up for my school uniform, and needless to say I felt like a small elephant… however, I am proud to say that the myth of the Rotary 15 pounds is not going to happen to me; on the contrary, I have been losing weight, with all the healthy foods I have been eating and with quite a surprise to me I have had quite a lack in the appetite. I have lost around five pounds since I arrived here in Saitama and I am very happy because of it.

I went to my new school and it is so wonderful. I still can’t believe that I am here in Japan. My class schedule is for the most part confusing I will be attending 14 different classes and they have been composed in the most unpatternized way that I could imagine. I pray to God that I will do well in them. I have five Japanese classes and three English classes and the rest are of random select.

All I know is that it really brings tears to my eyes to be living my life right now. More than ever do I realize that my life is an adventure all on its own. And I am so very blessed to be living out my adventure here in Japan. Finally I am no longer droning on in my effort at changing my mundane life, for Rotary has given me something that will burn in my heart forever: my life in Japan.

I feel the power of love overcoming me. And I feel that when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.

September 17 Journal

So here I sit thinking to myself, Can it be, is it even possible? So much has happened to me and it is only four weeks into my home stay.

God, Where to begin, where to begin. Well here goes.

I have seen the enormous Tokyo Tower. It is magnificent. It is a total of 333 meters which is right around 1200 feet, I’m not sure of the exact height because I am not positive of the exact conversion. Anyway, it was high, I was wearing heels and when I looked up I felt like I would topple over. And it was very beautiful indeed.

The night before my first day at school was OUTRAGEOUS……. it was so nice. You see, Mr. Heiji Yamagishi is a member of my Rotary Club and he owns a very nice restaurant. Mr. Yamagishi was nice enough to host a Welcome to Japan dinner in honor of me. I had a lovely time. He had the cook make a special vegetarian dinner just for me; it was Oishii (delicious). I had an absolute blast, with the club president on my right and my host father on my right. It took me a good long while to realize the reason for the increasing laughter and tone of voice. Not until I noticed that both the president and my host dad were tapping me excessively on the shoulder did I realize that they were all inebriated. When I realized it I took a good look at all the men sitting at the very long table we were at and laughed very loudly…… One of the men that picked me up from the airport said “do you remember my name?” I must have looked puzzled because he then said, “you can call me Kennedy.” I didn’t realize this was a joke so he said “and please call him (the man on his left) Michael, or Mr. Jackson,” and we all had a good laugh. The highlight I think was when a man showed me a picture of his daughters and my host dad said, trying to whisper, “SAY KAWAII,” which means cute, and I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long while.

We all sang Karaoke. I sang I will Survive by Gloria Gainer with my host dad. I was enjoying myself very much. It was a great welcoming dinner in my professional opinion.

My first day of school was grrrreat!!!!!!!!! It was like they made a new version of Where’s Waldo but it was Where’s Chelsea. You look at the page and scan it not for the red and white stripes but for the only person with golden hair. I have never heard so many people scream at me KAWAII KAWAII KAWAII it means the equivalent of beautiful and charming – it was like I was a celebrity or something. Everywhere I went I was approached by everyone – so many smiling faces and waving hands.

“You are so beautiful” they would say, or “You have such beautiful long eyelashes.” It was great, they asked, “Is that a perm?” I reply, “yes it is” they ask, “Did you dye your hair?” and I reply “No it is natural” and then they scream at the top of their lungs and bang on their desks “KAWAII KAWAII, We are so jealous.”

I go to the cafeteria and want to sit alone and have a minute to myself, but everyone wants me at THEIR table and I look up and everyone is waving and smiling for a wave in return and when I do wave back they burst into a fit of giggles and scream KAWAII KAWAII

I have never felt so revered in all my life.

On the way to school I read their faces like an open book – she has on my uniform, that girl with gold hair and freckles is going to my school. – I don’t think I have been stared at this way and so much ever in my life…..

I gave a speech in front of the school assembly and I realized that there is no reason to be afraid of public speaking, no need for shaky legs, for if you are asked to make a speech, don’t be scared, there is a reason people want to hear you speak – you are interesting and equally interesting is what you have to say. They clapped so much for me… in class I look up and turn my head in different directions only to see that I am being watched like an exotic specimen, which I guess I am, aren’t I?

A friend of mine gave me something I have never seen before: “Chelsea” – they are very good yogurt scotch hard candy and I well enjoyed them.

They ask why Japan, and I say I wanted to live an adventure and they say, I am afraid of adventures, don’t you miss home, and I say, no, for home will always be there, the USA will always be there, and a chance like this will not always be here……. it is so funny – anything I do or show them it is KAWAII KAWAII and they scream and giggle and bang on their desks.

Over the weekend I got to go to the Saitama festival. Everyone dressed in Kimonos, even me, and dancing, I really enjoyed myself. It was nice, and I met my second host mother for the first time, she seems like a very nice lady. The next day, I went to a Bar-B-Q and everyone is so amazed that I am a vegetarian, what do I eat they ask me, just vegetables? And I think to myself, Of course not, would I be my size if that were true? You just have to think outside of the box.

On Monday as I was leaving I hear the band tuning, and I stood and they began to practice, it was so, I am at a loss for words, but there is something in me that music is just completing, and I think one of the most satisfying things in life is to create music, damn me to hell if I don’t learn a musical instrument in my life, you should really invest in buying one.

It is so amazing, these girls, these brilliant girls, I nearly cried as I left the band’s music playing, they are really such little prodigies, I can not believe they are but the rare age of 15 and 16 and have accomplish more than I could dream. Most of them can play not just one instrument, but three, I am not kidding, and they can sing, amazingly, and they can dance and act and perform in musicals, it is spectacular. I am just so amazed at these people, and I pray to Krishna that a little Japanese prodigy girl rubs off on me and returns on the plane back to Florida. It has been 4 weeks, and it feels like it has been at least twice as long.

Japan is so beautiful and equally beautiful are the people that occupy it.

Thank you so much Rotary at giving me an opportunity of a lifetime.

Matte Ne

Chelsea King

September 20 Journal

Well, here goes, I am going to give you my best shot at recounting my days….

So, let me see, let me see….. I had no idea that I would have such a hard time concentrating on learning how to speak Japanese with a Japanese teacher talking very fast in the background…. so naturally I was so pleased when my school adviser, Matsumoto Sensei told me that I would be able to spend most of my time in the library….

However, the books they have here are so different from the text books for learning a different language in the states, for French I and French II it was so organized, and these books that I have are so scattered… I would do anything to look into one of my old text books, it would help me so much.

Somehow it was Friday and my fellow classmates and I had to get ready for the Akenohoshi school festival. It is amazing; every class has a different theme and is completely decorated by home made materials. My class was the ‘Japan and U.S.A. Friendship Rice Burger’  and my class made every decoration in the room. They put together large plastic bottles to make a table counter to take the orders, and we all painted different mats for the tables. It was really wonderful. It lasted for Saturday and Sunday, I walked around and took a picture of nearly every classroom, but it was with a disposable camera, so I can’t post the pictures, sorry guys!!!

I have to say it again, these girls are so talented, I had so much fun just walking around and looking into classrooms and seeing what they were doing. It was strange to see so many boys at the school, everywhere you turned there was a guy, the Japanese school boys wear their pants soooo low. And my classmate said to me ‘ So American boys are much more good looking?’ and I say ‘ I wouldn’t say that, you have some very handsome boys here’ and we both have a good laugh about it.

Oh yeah, don’t let me forget!!! I watched the most magnificent musical, it is called Takarazika, and it is an all girl musical, in which the females play both male and female parts. It is very popular here in Japan, and I think it is absolutely fabulous. They are such beautiful men. It is funny because I saw a poster for one of the Broadway type plays and thought to myself, he is so pretty, and it turned out he was a she!!!

Sunday I got to the festival late, because I had my first ever Inbound Orientation, and I met all the different kids in the program, I have to say they really were an interesting group of people. And the Rotex’s were so surprised that I didn’t even know I had a junior counselor, but as my Ota san says ‘Step by step Chelsea’. So I look forward for the Orientations to come and to getting to know this group of inbounds.

Monday rolled around and I went to school for the eighth day in a row to help clean up and get things in order for getting back to studying. But not to worry because we had a two-day vacation. I was so happy because a girl named Ayaka asked if I could go with her and her friends to eat cake the very next day, I was delighted to!!!

Monday night I went with my host mom and dad to a nice Mexican restaurant, it was my host mother’s birthday-eve dinner. I really enjoyed myself; the food was good, but not as good as her cooking!!!

So I thought to myself what can I get her? Well the chance came when I went to Tokyo to eat cake on Tuesday….. I saw a marvelous piece of chocolate cake that I knew my host mom would have to like. I went with my friends and made a very decorative picture sticker, they have so many of them!!! And they all insisted that we get matching bracelets……..and then I went back to get that beautiful slice of cake! I couldn’t wait to give it to her. When she got home I said, close your eyes and she looked at me like I was crazy, but she got the picture when I pulled out that fancy piece of cake!

I went to a Rotary meeting the next day and was happy because the Rotary president is a dentist and said that I should come after the meeting to get a cleaning. I love cleanings. But I was so surprised, he looked at my teeth and said, Beautiful, they are so clean, you don’t even need a cleaning. That made me smile.

I was so tired the next day, Thursday, that when I got to the library I put two chairs together and slept sideways for about two hours, but then I woke up an insisted to myself that I must WAKE UP and I ran around a little bit to get the blood flow up to my brain.

Unfortunately, on Friday I had a great fall down a flight of steps, and found myself lying face first with my panties exposed – thank goodness this is an all girl school. I was helped up and many girls helped me gather my things, but I walked calmly to the bathroom and had a good cry on the toilet. I have about six large bruises, two of which were very swollen by the end of the day.

I was soon laughing again with the help of one of my friends, Moe. She went to Wisconsin for a year, and she loved it. I really like her, she has a wonderful personality and she is so very kind. ‘What can you eat?’ she asks me because she knows I am a vegetarian, and I say ‘ Anything you can eat, just minus the meat and fish!’

Saturday was one of the most frustrating days so far. I had to watch the most pitiful display of teamwork soccer has every known. I had to take a walk and I felt so frustrated that when I was definitely sure that I was all alone, I covered my mouth and had an ‘inside scream’. So all I could do was do what I knew would cheer me up, I sang songs of Bob Marley and I was happy again. On the train ride home my friend Chihiro asked me what words I knew, and I did not only surprise her, I surprised myself as well! I named so many things I couldn’t even believe it! It made me very happy, very happy indeed!

All in all I am having a great time here in Japan. And I want to give a big THANK YOU to my fellow Rotarians for helping me get this far!!!

Thank you everyone!

Love,

Chelsea King

October 12 Journal

Well it finally happened. That last little hair fell on my back and it made me break, it made me crumble, it made me explode into a stream of uncontrollable tears.

I had already been so upset on my walk from school to the train station, as I let thoughts roll over in my head. I was so frustrated and agitated at the things that I began to realize. There are so many obstacles that I must climb over before I can even STUDY Japanese. It finally hit me today when I looked at the school clock as I started my journey home, it was five, which meant I would be home by six and if I leave home in the morning at seven thirty that is ten and a half hours, and surprisingly I don’t feel that the majority is going where I wish it would… studying…. so I began to think about it….

I hear in my head, ‘Chelsea you must help us decorate for school festival’ so I go to help, but everyone has it covered. They hand me five posters to hang up and so I sit twiddling my thumbs at a wasted eight hours of my day…..

‘Chelsea you must sit in my class for the lesson’ and I sit bewildered in the class for an hour not able to concentrate on anything with the rapid speech in the background.

‘Chelsea you must participate in P.E.’….all they are doing is preparing for sports day – something I know nothing about, however, ‘Chelsea you must participated in sports day’…….’Chelsea, you must stick out like a sore thumb in a sports game that we Japanese have played all our lives and you have never played’…… ‘Chelsea you must do this’…’Chelsea you must do that’…’Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea’

I think Please I just want to study….’Chelsea, you must go here.’…’Chelsea you must watch this’….’Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea’…

This is what I hear going on in my head as I climb down the four flights of stairs that separate my classroom and the grounds of Akenohoshi Private High School… ‘Chelsea, you must spend your holiday watching a soccer game that you can’t participate in, and it lasts from ten to five’…’Chelsea, you must go to a meeting’…’Chelsea you must…’

Then I think about my discussion with my homeroom teacher today…We were talking about the soccer game that I was told I would only watch and not participate in. I think of when my coach managed to say in English that I should learn how to practice… LEARN HOW TO PRACTICE???? I think I know how to do that thank you very much, but I must keep a good face and repeat to myself over and over, it is culture Chelsea, they are culturally different and this is just one of those little cultural differences, don’t let it go to your heart………..

Well my home room teacher asks me what I thought of the game so I am honest and say ‘ They perform badly, and I wish that they would take some tips from me because I believe it might help them.’ She says ‘Maybe so, but I think it is about the group’ so I say ‘Exactly – they play as a single person not part of the team.’ She says ‘I don’t know about your advice.’ I insisted, ‘But I have played with much more advanced players than these girls and I know what I am talking about.’ She replies back to me ‘Yes, but it really isn’t your position to give them advice is it? At least not right now….’

All of this is going on in my head as I walk to the train station and I think to myself, Please, Please, Please don’t let one of those girls come and try to speak English to me, I just don’t think I can take it right now….

I hear, ‘Chelsea’ – it is my history teacher. ‘Where are you during my classes?’ and I think to myself, you know damn well I am in the library studying Japanese, but I tell her the courteous answer, ‘In the library studying Japanese,’ she says ‘You must learn Japanese.’ Then it happens. She strings together some sentence she thinks I will understand but I have finally had it.

Left and right the tears spill onto my cheeks. Through gasps of breath I tell her I am trying but Musukashi, it is difficult… Nihango wa musukashi, ‘don’t cry Chelsea, what is wrong?’ ‘ I don’t have any time to study, that’s all I want, to study Japanese so I can communicate with you and not look like an infant.’ She looks like she didn’t understand any of what I said and says ‘is your family good to you, and classmates?’ ‘Subarashi, wonderful they are very kind.’ ‘Please don’t cry’ she repeats over and over.

But I can’t be stopped. I am gasping for breath behind a river of salty tears when I look to see everyone on the platform staring at the pair of us. And all I can say is Japanese is difficult; Japanese is so difficult, nihongo wa totemo musukashi behind endless strings of uncontrollable beads of tears falling from my eyes. Damn my lachrymal glands. I felt my goat had finally been gotten, gotten with its heart ripped out and left to bleed on the floor……….

But I learned today that beads of tears don’t bother me rolling down my skin quiet as much as the beads of sweat that I feel every morning and evening in the crowded train… I also learned that remembering that you didn’t eat your big fat grapes at lunch makes you feel a great deal better after an uncontrollable cry….  And I slowly walked home; I did not run as it started to rain, for the cold splashes on my skin cooled down my cheeks……….  Not to worry fellow family, friends, and Rotarians, this is just an episode I would like to title ‘Frustration at its Best’. The worst is out of me; even if is was through the outlet of uncontrollable tears………….. You can never truly appreciate the good if you have not seen the bad, am I right?

Besides good times were on their way.

The weekend came and I was scheduled to go see a Karate match and I must say it is the first time I have felt truly scared of a seven year old, but the faces the children made were so concentrated and serious… I really enjoyed myself, and I was introduced and I didn’t know but a Rotary member asked me to say something so I stupidly said Watashi wa Chelsea desu. I must have sounded like a barbarian, I said, I is Chelsea, oh well it is soon forgotten…

I went to a wonderful shrine in Tokyo and it was crazy, because leading up to the shrine is like a bazaar, it is a long aisle of covered booths on both sides, I ate a very good Japanese dish called Munju, which happens to be the name of a friend I have known all my life. My host parents and I laughed as we all agreed that my friend was so delicious!

I am not sure when, but one day about a week ago, on a whim I wrote my ex-boyfriend’s mother, because she is a vice-president of a company that merged with a company in Japan, and I knew that she came here for business occasionally during the year. It really was Krishna’s mercy, for she replies back to me that she will be on a plane to Tokyo the very next day!

Naturally I was worried that my host family would think to arrange a dinner on such short notice was impossible, but alas, they are Japanese, and I have learned that the Japanese find ways for everything. The Japanese are also, should I say, passive aggressive? Hmm…you see my friend that lives in Tokyo, Ayaka, arranged for me to go with her to the hotel to meet my companion. Ayaka then offered for me to spend the night at her house, I thought that it might be too difficult and maybe better to go home. She then called my host father and offered that she prepared everything for me to stay and I only bring change of clothing … it was at that moment it dawned on me, I said to myself ‘Chelsea, she is not offering, she is asking, will you spend the night at my house?’

It really made me smile, and I feel it will make me smile for a very nice period of time. Her family was so kind, they really made me feel like a guest of honor. I really couldn’t believe what was happening, and I must have worn my smile all day through … ..

People ask me ‘What is the biggest surprise coming to Japan?’ I finally found an answer, sitting directly in front of me in an Indian restaurant. Joyce.

It is hard to put to words the feeling you get from something like that…I still find it hard to believe that it was not some elaborate dream I had. We talked so much, and I was so happy to get that much out of me. I wanted to say more to her, but how can you keep from bombarding your company and achieve this in three hours? Therefore I told her to read my journals and hope her eyes run across this very sentence.

I am regretful to report about something I learned about my school trip to Nagasaki. It is wonderful to go there and all and spend five days on vacation at the end of this month. But I learned at school that I will be shown into a public bath house at the hotel and see at least twenty of my classmates strolling around naked. That is something I am not looking forward to. Really not looking forward to, especially because I am maybe in between the average size of the Japanese, so it could substantially be depressing and make me dedicate some time to losing more weight than I have lost already. However, I am sure the trip will be a success, and I will be sure to take lots of pictures, except of course in the bath house, haha!

I gave a speech to a class the other day. I am used to those by now. It would be a question and answer type thing, but the Japanese can be too shy for their own good. They all want to ask me questions, but hesitate, so I do my best at guessing what their questions might be. One of the popular ones is “Are you homesick?”. I have that question down word for word, but this time it was hard to get out. I started, “No, I am not, for the U.S.A. will always be there, Florida will always be there, but…” and I couldn’t help it, the words just wouldn’t come. I started choking up like you wouldn’t believe, I literally couldn’t say the rest of the sentence with out bawling my eyes out. I figured there was no use in trying to hide my emotions so I said the rest of it behind a red and wet face. I said, “…opportunity like this will not always be here, this is a chance of a lifetime, and I do not miss what I gave up to get it.” However, the class understands English pretty well, and had a rough idea what I was trying to get out of me. I never realized how much this means to me.

Last night again, I started crying on the way home. I looked up into the sky and started thanking God for everything, and I asked, “Can you believe it? I am here, I am here, in Japan, can you believe it? Thank you so much Krshina for blessing my path towards Rotary.” and I couldn’t help myself – I cried my little blue eyes out, as I asked myself, can you believe what ground you are walking on. It kinda overwhelmed me. But it felt good to feel so passionately about such a thing. THANK YOU ROTARY!!!

I really fight back the tears, but this time not from frustration, but happiness and honor. This is a dream that I am airily walking on day by day. Japan is truly an adventure, and has been the best chapter in my life so far. I only wish I could slow down the passing time for I don’t know how much they will have to coax me back on to the plane set for Florida. I see a long companionship between Chelsea King and Japan. I love this country that I am living in….I love my life … .and I love Rotary ….

November 28 Journal

Trying to put to words my time spent here I begin to see how strange and differently time passes on an exchange. For when you are abroad you come to see that your time is limited and always remind yourself the time you still have left until that fateful day when you have to ultimately leave neverland and grow up. My mom and I count down the days together, today is day 273, it helps me to not ever forget her, but it also shows me how time is always on the move, that the time I have here is so precious, and that everyday counts. Sorry to seem nostalgic, but in a place where you feel so alone, as I find myself feeling sometimes, you grow close to your family, as I feel I have, then you are ripped from them only to repeat the process over and over again, as I find myself embarking on the adventure of a new family life. At night lately I find myself crying like never before thinking, ‘God I hope I made them happy, I hope I made them proud, I hope I gave them reason to want to be a host parent again, I hope one day I can return the favor and show them around Florida, I hope they love me as much as I really love them…’

But let me get back to what has happened since my last recounting of time in Japan.

October 29th was a great day! I went with my Oto-san to a soccer game (photos at right)! The best part about it was that we had second row seats directly in front of the locker room. I was so close to the field that I could smell the freshly cutgrass! I had a really great time watching a professional game and how well trained the body can be and can perform!

Then the school trip came with the end of the month! For five days around two hundred and fifty girls from my school went to Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. We visited Nagasaki and Kumamoto and learned more than I imagined.

First and foremost is the tragedy that happened in Nagasaki sixty years ago at 11:02 a.m., August ninth. The Atomic Bomb Museum was our first stop when we arrived in Nagasaki, but it will be the last thing I will forget out of the trip.

People were caught in the middle of their everyday lives. Some were at their place of work; some were at school maybe in class or outside practicing for a club. Some were at home, but none could have imagined what was coming when the clock struck 11:02.

Described as a bright light and then a black cloud that blocked the sun is not the most vivid description, until you step foot inside a place that shows you the pictures of the suffering, the dead and the bewildered do you begin to realize the horrific truth. I saw a graphic picture of a girl walking around after the drop and looking at the ash covered body of a young boy, if only you could have seen the look on her face.

There was the shadow of a watchman that was burned into the wooden wall he was in front of by the light of the explosion. Such tremendous heat that melted glass plates together bent the iron of buildings out of place and killed more than a hundred thousand innocent lives. And all throughout the exhibits were signs that said the museums purposes were such that this tragedy never is repeated. I could not count how many times tears were brought to my eyes. I mean really, what a tragedy. People were ripped from life itself and if they survived just think of the life they had left to live, one of misery and unhappiness. What a horrific thing war can truly be.

On lighter subjects … We had the freedom of group day, in which we were able to go around the city and see different sites without the entire group of girls. This was really great! Everyone began their journey at the church dedicated to the twenty-six martyred saints. I wish I could have stayed there longer, looking at the exhibits showing how hard Christianity’s road has been in Japan and how many people have suffered because they refused to stop believing in who or what they conceived God to be. But I don’t think my classmates were too interested in that because they were only so ready to go and sightseeJ.

What a beautiful city Nagasaki is! We visited a large shrine, Chinatown, and a beautiful Park. The Park was the best; it had a wonderful view and great gardens! But best of all was that we were all there for the first time, it wasn’t only new to Chelsea, but also the members of my group!

I really liked the trip because I felt myself getting closer to knowing my classmates, trying to give up English and depend on Japanese alone.

Day three we took a ferry over the sea to change from Nagasaki prefecture to Kumamoto prefecture where we stayed for the rest of the trip. And on the ferry I stood with my friends by the edge just looking at the view and then I screamed “KURAGE” – it was the first time I saw a real live in-the-sea jellyfish!

Day four we went to the wondrous Aso Mountain! This was spectacular! I absolutely loved every minute of it! We didn’t stay long, but it was amazing to say the least, with the hot sulfur spring at the bottom and such wide-open spaces that my eyes have yet to see in my lifetime! We then went to Kumamoto Castle. This was great! It was so gigantic and had wonderful artifacts on display inside. One that I thought was remarkable was a game set like memory, but was it ever extravagant! It had the most beautiful paintings of such different things all on the inside of large shells. It was so beautiful. I climbed the steps up to the sixth floor to see the 360-degree view of the Castle grounds and the park outside of it. I tried my best to savor every minute, for my classmates kind of just looked and thought ‘oh wow’ and went outside to get souvenirs, maybe because they live in Japan and have the option of always going back. I mean I would love to think that one day I will go back to Kumamoto Castle to view its splendors, but what if I don’t? That was floating in my head as I looked out of the windows and realized what a real opportunity this time is for me!

Day five came faster than ever! We set off to go for a wonderful nature boat ride. I love nature and with twists and turns and bridges and riverfront stores it was awesome! The autumn was setting in so the leaves were turning a beautiful gold and red and there were so many cute little docks scattered on the bank. I loved it so much! The time was gone all of the sudden and we were at the airport. I really enjoyed the trip, for not only wonderful and beautiful; it was also educational, on Japan and my friends. I have a world more to learn in the next eight months!

We were all asked to make a little paper to hang up in the hall about our school trip. Let me tell you, every single ounce of effort I put into writing and translating and getting help for my mistakes was worth the look on my teachers face! I loved it! She nearly screamed at me, and she handed it to my classmates who all had the same reaction. They do say the best satisfaction is satisfaction, and I think they had a real point in that! (My paper, at right.)

I walked home today and couldn’t stop saying, oh my god. Yesterday I went with Hirooka sensei and my host mom to a sushi bar. It was nice, but it was also a kind of farewell for me. I had a good time with them, but it really began to hit me that I was about to start all over again so to speak. So today I kept realizing last things, like, this was the last time I take this route to get home. This is my last chance to take Gogo for a walk. Last chance for any familiarity I have found at the Matsushima families house, and the last time that this house will be my home. I really can’t believe it. Three months gone. I kept having big sighs, but I know all will be okay because I can still remember how scared I was when I got here, that feeling is back, but also the proof that I shouldn’t be scared because this home stay was such an ultimate success, I mean it had to be a success if I can feel the emotion of love for this family, right?

All I can really say is that if anybody ever considers to go into this program, just remember one thing, you will never be able to fathom how many people you will come to know and even love by the end of the year. If ever I felt a hole in my heart for love, understanding, and friendship, there is no doubt in my mind that it will become filled and overflowing in the growing passage of time. I really love my life here and I will do everything in my power to do my best and give my all and not to squander time because I love life and that is the stuff it is made of!

Thank you Rotary for changing my life and helping me grow into the person I am destined to become!

From this side of the world and back to you,

Chelsea King

February 16 Journal

Hisashiburi desu ne?

Looking back on the time that has elapsed since my last journal, it is no wonder to me that I have put it off for so long. I never imagined finding myself so busy that I was making myself go on with less sleep and less food to just have a few extra minutes in my busy schedule. I have gone through a complete transformation and I can’t believe I am the person I am, from the standpoint that I have writing this entry right now.

As difficult as this is going to be, I will go through it chronologically and as close to the truth as my memory permits me to do.

I changed host families, but there were so many things that I found fault with that it was hard for me to really appreciate them heart and soul. I will never suggest for a person to judge another, but in my case, it was damn near impossible. And in this situation the saying “If you judge people, you have no time to love them,” truly comes into play, for next week I move, and let me tell you, it took too long for me to see that real love had grown in my heart. I love these people so much, I love Japan so much, I love my Rotary club with all its Rotarians in it, and I love my school and my classmates, and all the exchange students so much that the very thought of leaving this paradise, this struggling paradise is making me cry right now, but let me tell you how I got to this point in my life. Never did I imagine I would do something so great with my life at the age of 18 when I was a little girl…. I never expected to be so globally educated.

Well, let me be honest, I was a darling little shy and uneducated female when it came to the knowledge of this country that I am living in where we last left off. I was even still in the mental setback that thinking that this year will never end can put you in. November was nearly over when I moved and nothing exceptionally wonderful really occurred except one thing.

On the 27th I went with most of the exchange students to the Asakusa Shrine and to the Edo Tokyo Museum. This day was significant simply because I was spending it with the exchange students. I realized that it wouldn’t take much for me to fall in love with the inbound from Sweden, Daniel. We became quite good friends and had just the best time ever. I was delighted when my history studying paid off while our tour guide explained many things and I was proud to put in little comments and have her exclaim that I was intelligent. The best discovery was Daniel; however, I was so glad to realize that I was making better friends with the exchange students.

Then there was December, starting off with a bang and a visit to the doctors as I was coughing up bits of blood and needing antibiotics. At school I realized I was being a bit ignored by the teacher in charge of me simply because she didn’t have the time, energy or experience needed to handle me.

I had to basically beg to take some form of examinations, as any student learning a new way of writing a language, not just speaking it will tell you, that you must know an exceptional amount to take the regular academic classes and their quizzes and pass them with good marks. I was given a Japanese language proficiency test, but I nearly cried by the end of it. It was the most elementary test I had ever seen and I thought that if this teacher really thought my language skills were like this I could not be more ashamed of anything for the rest of my life. I did the smart thing; I laughed it off and worked harder.

This was a month filled with shopping for presents and getting numerous invitations to Christmas parties. I went to Disneyland with my host family and it was then that I truly began to appreciate my host sister Momo and put aside her greedy ways. Akenohoshi (my school) had a wonderful closing ceremony for the winter holidays and we sang lots of hymns which was a treat because it is rare to find any school practicing teachings of Jesus Christ. I learned how to sing ‘Silent Night’ in Japanese and surprised some people that I know out of school by singing a verse or two. Akenohoshi also had a fundraiser to give a donation to a charity. This got me into the real spirit of giving, which is in truth the way we should live each day, like Christmas, giving not to receive, but to give and spread happiness as far as we are able.

I baked cookies with my host sister for an exchange student Christmas party. As any time that comes along my way to spend with this exceptionally interesting group of people, I enjoyed it immensely. Do not judge people, that’s my ‘no no’ number one, number two is, do not pick favorites, something I did. The girl from Canada, Paula, had become my number one faithful companion and I am so appreciative of her. However, this is a handicap I realized this day, I have such a good time with her that I forget to take time with the other exchange students, which is a shame. Everyone went to karaoke after and had a great time. I personally did as I popped in on the different groups that were spread out in different rooms because this allowed me to become acquainted with many more students.

The official Rotary Club Christmas party of my hosting club was a night to remember. It is something special to be an exchange student. So much attention you are paid. Everyone wants to take you places, and I especially feel as if the members of my hosting Rotary Club are just one large extended family that plays an enormous role in my life in Japan. I got many invitations to go places and spend time with different people and my host mom was showing me off as best she could. I had one person on my left talking to me, one on my right taking my arm, and someone trying to butt in standing in front of me, my head began to spin as I tried my best not to offend anyone or cut anyone short in their sentences. I met for the first time my last and next host mothers. It was like a whirlpool so many faces and names and so much Japanese, words and sentences running into each other as the voices were numerous to finally and at last the voice that I have become to feel at ease when I hear it, my host mother, Yumiko speaking to me on the sidewalk towards home. It was over, as soon as it began and I was walking arm in arm with my host mother as Yumiko, my host father, Mitsuhito, and my host sister, Momo and I walked home.

I unfortunately experienced something that made me want to give up on soccer completely. I spent three hours lost on a train with no means of communication from seven a.m. to ten a.m. and was so close to tears that I didn’t know what to do. The wonderfully difficult practices that I was used to at Santa Fe High School and the part of the year spent to playing this sport is so completely different to that which I have experienced here in Japan. It is so easy and the team is so poor that I have nearly quit, but have refrained because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings that is on or connected with the team. Games are held on the weekends and you have to get up around six in the morning and this is something I am just not used to.

This was two days before Christmas and altogether not something I wish would have crossed my path. I went on the wrong train had to come back and realized that they must have gone ahead to the game because I was about two and a half hours late. I got home and was asked to call a number that was written on the note pad. I was expecting the coach, who I got however, was my teammate’s dad. He can speak English so therefore, they thought he would be the man to talk to me, I didn’t think this was the way it should have been done. He yelled at me, was completely misunderstanding of the entire situation and blamed me, said they forfeited the game (which was a lie) and made me feel so bad that I never wanted to see any of their faces again. Oh, and don’t forget this was two days before Christmas, nothing like a good scolding to get you in the holiday season, right?

But no worries for the next day was a wonderful enough day so that it made me forget every word this man had said to me. I went to my first host family’s home to cook burritos and cake with their daughter and had such a wonderful time. Burritos are something I ate every week in Florida, but here in Japan, it is a rarity and my first host father absolutely loved my cooking that he asked for me to make them again. It was a special feeling to be in their home again, although it isn’t the same, it didn’t feel like my home, but I felt welcomed all the same. I must admit, that this night was my Christmas celebration, I waited patiently for them to open their presents and prayed they would love them. I promise you that you could have mentioned America and my life back in Florida to me that night and I would not have known a word of what you said. All has become lost in my mind, what is at the forefront of it is Japan and all the aspects that it has to offer to anyone with enough heart to take it in.

I am happy to say that I, a foreigner, educated my first host family on the height of Mt. Fuji on the early morning of December 30th as we woke up to view it for it appears red in the morning due to the reflection of the sun. It was beautiful and breathtaking all in same way.

I am changing so much and it is all because of Japan. There are some things in life that can’t really be documented, can’t be captured in a picture or a film, one of those things is life as an exchange student. I will never be able to truly explain what this adventure is to me, you have to live it yourself to ever really understand. It is one of those conditional moments in life, where you realize no matter who helps you, no matter what is done for you, it is the strength within that makes the difference, it is the power in your soul that helps you make it what you want it to become, you must find it inside, for if you search high and low you will never find it, I know this is true, because I have found such strength inside myself, inside my heart and inside my mind.

With these words and such thoughts down in the depths of my body I said goodbye to 2005 and welcomed in the new year, but I really welcomed a new Chelsea. I have become such an enriched human being from all this, and I was so happy to realize it. So many people, as this time of year comes about, make resolutions to better their life, but I realized the only thing you need to do, is be true with yourself. Don’t try and be a person you are not, just do now what you can look back on and be proud of, it lies within your very soul. For what lies behind us and before us are truly tiny matters of such complete insignificance compared to what power and meaning that lies within us, but we always forget such things in this hectic place we call earth.

All ideas such as these were running through my mind as I welcomed in the New Year and really became closer with my host family. I am proud to report that I went with my host family to the Tokyo Palace on the third of January, one of the few days of the year that it is open to the public for viewing.

As my Japanese is rapidly improving, I understand more and more of this family and am really becoming a part of it. Instead of filling up my agenda over the winter holidays, I took as much time as possible to rest and get myself back in good health and energy. I went on the fifth to a shrine for the second time, with the exchange students to do as my fellow countrymen do every year to welcome the New Year. I prayed for things like strength of heart, fluency in Japanese, good friends and health, and power of mind, all in Japanese, for what if the Gods cant speak English? They might not have been the most profound prayers, but the point was made, I do believe.

In the blink of an eye I was walking to school with the holidays over, and my grumbling on about the snow and how idiotic it is that I must wear a skirt as a school uniform. But that is only the journey there, when I get to school, I have such a supreme good time with so many wonderful girls all around me that nothing really can make me unhappy, and the fact that I walk arm in arm with someone home everyday, what other type of icing would be better on my cake of life?

The very day after school started, I was to go to a Rotary meeting. This was something else. So the Japanese have this custom called, Otoshidama, where grandparents and parents give their children amounts of money for New Years. I am at the meeting with the club president on my left and my counselor, Ishii san comes up and hands me a 10,000 Yen note and says Happy New Year, I am stammering out thanks and the president says something like, ‘What a good idea, Ishii san, here’s another 10,000 Yen note Chelsea, Happy New Years.’ Could life get better? I got nearly two hundred dollars in the matter of three or more minutes. I was speechless and so happy I didn’t pass this meeting up. And very happy I had taken the time to make hand written New Years postcards for these gentlemen two weeks previous to this day.

Then the weekend came, and I was off to Echigoyuzawa with my host family for skiing. It was a good time, but I must admit, it might have been more enjoyable if I was seven, for in that case, my crying would have been more easily accepted. The snow capped mountains and clean air as it filled your lungs was just the most incredible thing to experience for the first time in someone’s life. With the private bath and shower in our room, my host mother was happily surprised when I asked her what time she would be going to the public bath. With a sauna, Jacuzzi, steam room, and outdoor hot tub with the snowy scenery all around, why settle for anything less? Yes, there are about thirty naked women walking around, but I am a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, with an iron heart of steel, and it will take much more to scare me off. My host father said I was getting better much faster than expected, so he took me on a much more advanced course than I was prepared for.

I thought my knees were going to break, I fell against the joint so many times that by the time I got to the lift and my ski got stuck under someone else’s and pulled my knee out of natural position, I had it and walked to the lunch room early with tears of pain in my eyes. With my body aching like no other sport excursion I have experienced I set off on my last run. And although I acted like a complete baby about it all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And now, let me tell you about a teacher named Akaike. Scary to say the least, she nearly makes me cry every time I see her. She is like some teacher from a nightmare, and I am happy that I don’t see her on a regular basis anymore. This is what happened. She kind of butted into my schedule and said she wanted to give me lots of homework and tests and things like that. Although I am not too well equipped with time, I was all for it.

Homework comes before tests right? Well, she comes by and says here’s a test, you have ten minutes. I told her I didn’t know that much Kanji, as that was what the test was on, and she said it was okay. I got a sixty percent on it; it was difficult, very difficult. So she says “Oh, Chelsea! I thought you were serious about studying Japanese! I guess you don’t really want to learn this language after all!” she picked up her books and left with me and my mouth gaping wide open. Kanji is just one aspect of this language, the Japanese take six years learning it, and she wants me to learn all of that while I am here, that is just moronic.Akaike sensei wa sugoku kibishii desuyo! Let’s just say I avoid going down corridors that she happens to be in. … I may have an iron heart of steel, but let me tell you she penetrates it like it is water.

Now let me tell you all about February.

We are only half way through, and Valentines just isn’t the same honestly when your school is all girls, even though you give and receive chocolate anyway, so I don’t really have much to say about that at all. I have been seeing friends outside of school much more, and have so much more of a social life and acquaintance with life in Japan that it amazes me. I finally got a cell phone, me being the only one in the group without one, and me being the only person so uneasily accessible, it was a great weight once lifted that I didn’t really realize it was there until I got one.
The one big thing that I have left to talk about is the trip to Nagano for a Rotary Ski trip which will be with me for many winters to come. It was from the fourth of to the sixth, just less than two weeks ago, but somehow, I can still see the snow, and the butterflies are still present in me from being so happy to be spending so much time together with everyone.

Well, Daniel, Paula, and I have formed a triangle, and geometrically, where one of us is, the other two are not far off. We were on a bus for God knows how long, but I couldn’t have been happier. I ripped a hole in my pants near the butt and considered a diet until two other girls showed me that they were wearing there favorite pants that day, and both had a hole similar. We are exchange students, what more is there to say. So, have I mentioned that it is difficult to live life as a vegetarian in Japan before now? Well, let me tell you, with the amount of food I took in, and the amount of energy exerted during the snowboarding, I should have won a medal for the most energetic. I had things like lettuce and celery for dinner the first night. Stayed up late with everyone talking and just thoroughly loving the time I was spending with them. I fell asleep around three or so, no, it hasn’t been one of my most intelligent moves, but I don’t think I would have been able to fall asleep just out of my pure ecstasy of happiness I
was feeling with these people.

I woke up with three hours of sleep, at six a.m. and with breakfast at eight, what was I to do? I went to quench my thirst and got some green tea, and along with that I got an idea, and evil idea, or let’s just call it childish. What better way to wake up my best friend than pouncing on him early in the morning? Paula might hit me, but Daniel is just too sweet a boy to do that. And if I went back to bed, I would wake up late, and grouchy, yes, this was my only option. So I snuck into his room, the door was unlocked, which told me it was a sign from God saying it was okay. I sat on his bed quietly so that I wouldn’t wake him or his roommates while I waited. I sat thinking about how happy I was, and twiddled my thumbs till I couldn’t take it, and at six forty-five in the morning, I pounced on him with all my might like he was my prey and I was a mighty lion. Then I sang to him that it was time to wake up and time for breakfast. He loves me, so please, don’t think wrong of me.

I had an orange for breakfast, and was definitely the most spirited in the bunch. Well, I have called Paula my faithful companion, and trust me, you have no idea. Patiently she waited for me to come down what seemed like the slope of death on my snowboard for the first time, but she was happy as I progressed faster than expected and not much was lost, since we are such good friends. It was like a bath, a hot steam room inside my jacket as we broke for lunch, or well, as they had lunch and I ate some cabbage, which the cook called salad. I think not. We set back out this time accompanied by Daniel and just loved it, every moment of it. We went down this one course that was like Narnia. With snowcapped pines on both sides and blue skies it was breathtaking, and as I fell on my butt for the hundredth time and it beginning to bruise and numb all in one, I took a moment to take in this supreme beauty of nature that I had at my finger tips. How can it be that tomorrow was our last day in this winter land? We retired to the on-sen, public bath, and just couldn’t believe the day and adventure we experienced with each other.

Dinner was pineapple, and you may be getting sick of my recounting what I ate, but I only do so to show you exactly how difficult this was for me to stay so happy, with hunger pangs, muscles killing me, and not being able to sit, I was the least likely candidate for being a happy camper, but that is just what I was.

I ended up confessing my love to everyone I had finally grown close to and just let them know how happy I am to know them and be in there company. As I am proclaiming this joy and love, we all come to the same realization. Back home, it isn’t spoken so much, the ‘thank you, I love spending time with you’ kind of feeling, but here in Japan, we are all aware that these relationships are truly conditional and will be ending in a matter of months. I can always come back to Japan, but these people will not be here when I do, I am so in love with life it makes me sad, because eventually I will be having my heart torn apart, as we make our promises to see each other, and write, but life will not be like this again, never, and I am so sorry to say that I believe that is the truth. … What does it feel to be an exchange student? Falling in love, into a deep and forbidden love that you know, no matter what you do, will not be able to work no matter what you do in the end.

That night, I was just so in touch with my heart and talking so much that it was four before I knew it. I was sleeping as Paula led me back to our room and in an instant, tachimachi, I was awake, beckoning Paula to come with me to tickle Daniel awake, one last time, for, this kind of sibling torturing won’t be so graspable in the future. We set off on our last adventure, and I endured every pain with pleasure as the clean air filled my lungs. It was almost too much for the senses. I know that they are just names to you, but these two people mean so much to me, so much; I love them, honestly, and with all my heart. And just like that, it was over, we were on the bus once more, heading for Saitama prefecture.  As the three of us talk about the summer of 2007, and backpacking through Europe to board the Trans-Siberian Railway, the bus ride comes to an end, it almost makes me speechless, this feeling inside my body. It is so amazing, so much that I have gone through and the things that I have endured, but I am half way through, and by the end of it, I will have friends, real friends, to visit in Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, and what language shall we communicate in? You be the judge.

And now I will be leaving you with all I can give you and that is this, “Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire.” Japan, I know will be a raging fire in my heart, and all the experiences I have lived in it.

Do you want to know what it is to be an exchange student? He is a popular song to help you “Si, Oretachi wa itsu demo, futari de hitotsu da atta.” The ‘Si’ is Spanish for yes, so together it means, “Yes, together we are forever, two people living as one.” If that can’t explain how I feel about all the people that I am constantly submerged in, the feeling I have right now, I don’t know any other way to put it.

Good luck to the new outbound class of 2006 for district 6970, and my deepest apologies for taking so long, this was made possible by Rotary Youth Exchange International, and taking this path, has made all the difference.

Ja, mata ne.

Chelsea, or as they call me here Chi-e-ru-shii

April 16 Journal

Well, I promised myself that I wouldn’t let too much time pass me by before I wrote another journal, therefore, I am sitting up late on one of my only free days to get this done. It is strange, time just keeps going, and when I found my count down on day ninety-five, I decided it was time for an update.

Last time I left off on moving to my third host family’s home. I have really enjoyed my time with this family. They have been really nice to me and welcoming. They happen to be a bit old fashioned and such, but things like these can’t bother me much, besides, they are sixty and have grandchildren, so I don’t think I would have been anything but shocked to find them with different personalities. The grandchildren have been a real joy in my life when they come around. My host mom really enjoys them because they are her pride and joy, she is a housewife, so is very happy to have youngsters running around, and I must admit, I feel guilty to leave her at home when I go play with my friends after school or on the weekends. In truth, although I will celebrate my nineteenth birthday in Japan, I think that she views me as just a big kid, but it might just be because I have a rather colorful personality. Anyway, like I was saying about those grandchildren, whom I believe make me act younger, I really love their company. The three-year-old boy will sit in front of my view of the television from time to time until I play with him and throw him around and tickle him a bit. The six year old asks me to correct his homework, because he thinks my knowledge of kanji is so marvelous (but he also likes to look over mine as well, so I guess it’s a give and take relationship). The five year old is a bit shy, so I have to take the initiative to make her laugh, which I take with great pride might I add, from juggling to coming up with riddles to hiding when I hear her come so I can scare her, it’s good to be a kid again, yes it is.

The house is about a fifteen-minute bike ride from the station. No problem, what’s a fifteen-minute bike ride right? WRONG!!! I am petrified of the morning commute to the train station. I will not tell you the honest and truthful amount of times that I have nearly been run over, by bike, car, and fire truck; it is rather frightful. I listen to music and stretch in the morning, so on my way I have a song in my head and start singing away, but have to stop myself and concentrate, and this is no joke. I have to ride on the street because the sidewalk is over populated, but motorcycles ride that way, and people that run late run red lights, and that is how I got into a three bike pile up in the street, the cars were stopped, I was screaming “ATAMA GA ITAI ITAI ITAIIIII’ or my head hurts, hurts, hurtsssss”.. I was lying in the street, leg stuck in between the plastic wheel protector and the wheel, they were trying to pull my leg out and drag me out of the street”. Long story short, I went home crying – thinking I would get the day off because of my throbbing head, but I got a ride to the station by car instead. I almost broke my hand once, and my bike buggy got mashed in, but I guess now you can see why if these aren’t the only bike “incidents” I have had, I have reason to fear the morning commute.

I have done so much while living with this host family, I have acquired many more friends and just been improving so much with the language that it has given me much more mobility. With the beginning of March my school had a graduation ceremony. This was extremely sad for me. So many faces that I used to see in the halls everyday I most likely will never see again. It just made me really respect the experience that I am getting here. I go to a Japanese high school. I sit in a class with forty four other Japanese girls, I get lost in amazement; they say this wears off and all, but it subtly stays. I no longer look at them in as much marvel, but I still enjoy all my time at school. I don’t want to leave this country, and I know it sounds weird, but sometimes I expect to see a different face in the mirror. When the only hair color and complexion you see is so similar, and you see it for such a long amount of time, I guess you just expect to be able to adjust to things like that as well, adaptation, right? I just love my life so much, I love the uniform I have to wear, and how we aren’t allowed to wear nail polish or make up, but some how find a way to look beautiful naturally. It is a high that I have been living on for these past eight months, the natural high of Japanese living.

I went to a place called Yokosuka, about a two-hour train ride. There is an American Naval base there, and a friend of mine I have known since middle school is stationed there. I hadn’t seen him in a rather long time and had never been too good of friends with him, but this was a remarkably wonderful experience for me. I promised myself that if I get the invitation and have the time, I would go back once a month (3-4 more times) before I go home. It will be a good re-entry exercise for me, for I honestly felt like I was in America while I was there, and I wanted to turn and run back home screaming. There are just certain things you get used to, like seeing only Japanese people, and for the majority, seeing only thin to medium weight people. Or speaking English freely knowing only your English speaking friend is likely to catch everything you say, or being able to block out a lot of the random conversation that goes on when walking down a street if you try hard enough. This place was like some kind of nightmare for me. With schools there and bowling and movie theaters and shopping centers, you didn’t have to leave this place for many reasons at all. I felt like I was having withdrawal from being taken away from the Japanese. There were kids there that went to school, so I was curious, and I couldn’t help myself. My friend went to the bathroom and I got my chance.

ME: So you live and go to school here, huh?
Two teenage girls: We sure do.
ME: So – you speak Japanese or what?
Two teenage girls: Not really. We can say things like “thank you” and “how much”.
ME: Are you serious? Don’t you get taught it in school?
Two teenage girls: No, but they have a class you can take all year round.
ME: But you don’t take it?
Two teenage girls: No.
ME: How long you lived in Japan for?
Two teenage girls: Three years, but this isn’t Japan, it’s an American naval base.
ME: Oh (this conversation is OVER).

I was even asked to pay in the U.S. Dollar there, I was in shock, and it was a little hard for me to take. But I guess it will be a good thing for me to do before I go home. It was just a bit strange because it is in Japan, but it wasn’t Japan, nothing was at all like the Japanese, and I was homesick for it within half a day of seeing Americanism. I just love Japan so much, and their aloe vera yogurt, how you are stared at for being anything but Asian, and how they are so amazed when you speak their language with them, and how friendly they can truly be, it is wonderful, and hot towels in restaurants before your meal, and the trains. It’s like back home compared to here:

ME: Hey, do you think I could borrow five bucks?
Some person: What in the world could you even do with five bucks? Get lunch?
ME: Well, I was actually thinking about going to TOKYO!!!
Some person: You can’t get a train ticket under five bucks to Tokyo!?!
ME: HELL YEAH I CAN!!!!! Its only forty-five minutes away!

Or like sushi or meals for like three dollars in the convenience stores. Oh, don’t let me forget Pizza Hut for all you meat and fish lovers, (I’m a vegetarian) “Hi, I would like a large Pizza with rice cracker and octopus and shrimp on it, and a liter of green tea please.” Can you believe that? This country is psychotic, I love it, and the fact that I have to wear the extra large pants hear, ha ha ha, I am no extra large, but hey, it’s Japan, what can I say.

Well, with the coming of Spring Vacation, the coming of Cherry Blossoms also arrived. The wonderful light and warm snow of April was upon us and so nice to enjoy. I went to a Rotarian’s home and made Soba, and I don’t mean I cooked it, I am talking from flour and water, I MADE it and it was so good – oh yeah. It was really nice, it was a little Soba party. All of my host families were there together, this was the first time I was able to actually view them like that. It was a bit strange, for they weren’t at home, I wasn’t their child, and they were not in their actual element. It was wonderful all the attention they lavished on me. Talking about how my Japanese is getting so good, I was like “I could live life like this for so much longer than just a night.” They were getting a bit drunk, and I don’t know how many times they repeated “Chelsea, won’t you come play at my house?” It has been a good experience for me, growing up a second time at the rare age of eighteen.

That night I went in an RV with my first host family, to a place called Shimoda, rather historical, where Admiral Perry opened up Japan to trade, with his famous “Black Ships” that made the people in power realize that while Japan was sleeping the rest of the world was making progress toward the future and this could no longer be denied. We went up a lift to view the harbor and the Cherry Blossoms from the most desired view possible. The car ride was nice, the back roads we rode on was the chance I got to finally see the Japan I had expected before I came here. With thickets of bamboo and tall pine trees and thick forests, I let my mind drift back to a time where horses and Samurai were used in war. Just to think of how life was back then, it was a small peace I found in my heart that day driving. We went to an “on-sen” which is a public bath. I had a great time, there were naked women walking around, but it was very relaxing. We went to the outside bath and my first host mother taught me the national anthem and just relaxed and looked at the lit up Sakura tree. I guess it is just a different way of life, I didn’t even feel weird, soaking in a bath with my first host mom and sister, absolutely naked, it was anything but weird, it was wonderful. The next day it rained too much so we went home. It was a very nice way to start April in Japan, with nature, and besides, rain is not too bad, it brings life back to the earth after the winter.

I had the joy of meeting Daniel’s family from Sweden with Paula on a trip to Kamakura, for those who don’t know, there is a giant Buddha there where you can go inside of it. This was a nice trip, I had been before with Daniel and Paula’s mother when she came, but it was very nice because spring had come and jackets that had been brought were worn over your arms because of all the sunshine and blue skies. It was a little strange, because well, well honestly, up until this point, I hadn’t thought of either of my friends (or really myself in this light) as having lives back home. I just came to forget everything that was left behind and accept what was at my feet, on my plate, here and now sort of thing. It was another one of those re-entry exercises that I kind of needed to experience before this trip ended. My time in Neverland is actually coming to an end and although my Peter Pan (Rotary) will always be in my heart, and I will dream about him, and tell as many as I can about him, I don’t think many other things can compare to living in Neverland and for a year not having to grow up.

On the last day of Spring Vacation there was an orientation that I had forgotten all about. We had to give a little three-minute speech; I had given a thirty-minute one for my Rotary Club, back in March, so this was not daunting in the least bit. However, in retrospect, I think I did a better job as apposed to preparation. I had to talk about Florida and things about it, and just had to end the little speech with the fact that one of my friends was almost killed as a child by being nearly death rolled in a crocodile’s mouth. But, be sure that I was not trying scare them from coming, it was just one of those stories.

Then school started. With a new class, new classmates and a new homeroom teacher. It was refreshing and good for I would meet more people this way. I really like my school, and feel really lucky about going there. I am the only one out of the exchange group going to an all girl, private, Catholic school. We start school with a prayer, a hymn and a little hello from the principal, it is just one of those feel good things to me, like starting your morning off right with a power-protein shake or something. And gosh, how amazed the new students seem when they see me – it almost makes me laugh. I went to P.E. and heard the new teacher talking to my classmates: “So can she speak any Japanese? Is she going to understand me or what?” So I walked right up to her and said with a gleaming smile on my face, “I can speak Japanese, and don’t think there will be a problem if I understood what you just said right there. Don’t you agree?” She seems to like me.

One last thing before I leave you. I went to view the Cherry Blossoms with Paula one day and we saw a relatively good-looking foreigner on a bench all alone. I am not what you would call shy, so I sparked up conversation, for moments like these aren’t reoccurring, and life gets lonely at an all girl school, haha. This person had to be one of the most interesting people I have met my entire eight months here. Does not look a bit Japanese, but was born and raised here, is completely fluent in every respect, went to school here and is now a college student here. And not only that, can speak fluent French because that is what his parents are and learned enough English for me and Paula to not immediately realize he was French, but actually not, Japanese, not foreign, I actually had a hard time believing it. I actually couldn’t believe it, I met a nice college student here in Japan, who is Japanese, and looks completely foreign, there are some battles you just can win I guess.

So on this wonderful day 95 left on my exchange, I give you a piece of my heart, through the Beatles:

“There are places I’ll remember all my life, Though some have changed, Some forever not for better, Some have gone, And some remain. But these memories lose their meaning, When I think of love as something new.”

Thank you so much Rotary, so much, for giving me this year; no words can truly possess my feelings of gratitude.

Chelsea King

June 1 Journal

Somehow it comes as a complete shock to me. Has it really only been six weeks? It gives me that feeling I used to get back in high school when the nine-week quarter would be coming to an end and I realized I had exams coming up. Maybe my days are just so filled with happiness and my weeks and schedule so filled with events and plans that I don’t notice that it’s time to change the calendar to June. Ah, the only real passage I feel is the one that comes with the seasons, I have been waiting for the warm weather, now it’s hot, and as much as I wanted those cold days behind me, I forgot I would be going home shortly after the warm ones began. I guess, there is nothing like realizations. It’s kind of like when all you want is to grow up and then you’re hitting young adulthood and you say “Oh my, I am never going to be a kid again” – maybe it’s just that it is too hard to relish something while you have it, so easy to yearn and desire something, but so hard to appreciate anything. Life gets you sometimes.

Well, I left off around April, I do believe, but there wasn’t too much left of it. EXCEPT, I turned 19! Now, this must have been one of the best birthdays ever, so much so that I best not go into too much detail with my story. As the day came to a close my host father had a little celebration for me with all my other host families, club president, and counselor and wife at a soba restaurant. It was so wonderful seeing them all together again. I can’t believe how much time has passed since I have associated with them, I miss the Matsushima’s and the Saitou’s a lot, they were very good to me, and at that time, I was sure I would soon be missing the Enomoto’s shortly. It was so nice, really a splendid evening. They were all getting rather belligerent, or at least some of them were and the Rotary president asked me if I wanted some beer, then my host mom leans over and says something like “she turned 19, she wasn’t 19 yesterday” and I found that very funny. Then my second host mom after eyeing me from the other side of the room for a while came and talked to me. She sat down beside me and asked why I haven’t come and played at her house and said that Grandma missed me and I should come when I have free time. She was kind of inebriated, but it was just such a wonderful feeling, as we sat next to each other with her arm around my shoulder I was just in complete bliss to know that from my living with her family she had really grown to like me as much as I had grown to like her and her family. It was a good thing she was sitting there because not shortly after the club president asked me where I wanted to go in Japan and then started kidding in a way that she found perverse and I didn’t catch most of it, but she just told me to ignore his comments that had cracked up most of the people there. I had such a wonderful feeling as I left, to know that I would be leaving shortly, but have so much to come back to. They all have been such wonderful and generous people to me.

Hello May!!! I had to leave the Enomoto’s home and move to the Igarashii’s, but in the two months I stayed with them, I had become so used to living with them. I felt that I had gotten along with my host family very well, and really enjoyed living with them. I moved to my last host family’s home with much difficulty. It wasn’t just because I had really liked my previous host family, but I just had a hard time believing that this was the last time I would be moving houses in Japan and not going back to America. It might also have been hard because the term “Back to America’ isn’t properly defined in my head. I better work out for strength on that expedition. I had to say that this is the best house I have lived in, in Japan. My room has a tatami floor (mats made of straw, I think it’s straw) I have a REAL FUTON, and sliding doors that open up to a wonderful and peaceful garden that I like to gaze into while I drink my morning coffee. There is bamboo nailed on window frames outside, but not for security measures. It might actually be what I had in mind when I was told I would live in Japan, all except the treadmill and the stray cat that gets a “here kitty, kitty, kitty,’ from me and a “SHEW’ from my host mom.

I went camping with my friend Paula and her host family. Now, the Japanese idea of camping doesn’t seem to be too close to that of what I am used to in Florida. I mean, they were pulling out skillets and burners from their pockets, and with an ice cream vending machine in the direction of the toilets, you can’t really call that at the mercy of Mother Nature, can you? As the light began to cease Paula and I went on a nature walk, going back to life as a kid, racing to silly things, and seeing who would be the fastest to be hanging upside down on the monkey bars and deciding whether or not we could climb a tree or not, and oh yeah, pushing each other in metal carts. Then we found the obstacle course all deserted and went crazy, till we finally decide to take a bathroom break and go back to the campsite. We asked if we could go back for a bit even though it was nearly dark and I think they saw the childish light in our eyes and said all right. It was a very good time, I like her host family very much, and they have been very welcoming to me.

My counselor and his wife, the Ishis’ were so very nice to take me on a trip to the old capital of Kyoto. Now this is kind of difficult for me to put to words. I was only in Kyoto for two days, but I had this wonderful impression from the trip. Kyoto seemed like some kind of magically superb city so much so that it outstandingly stood pronounced in my appreciation of places of Japan. The thing is however, to me I had a realization that you just can’t take in what is ultimately conceivable from seeing a place in only a few days, it takes months, let alone years to take it all in. I tried to do my best, but being on a bus ride and only having two days to “see the sights” didn’t allow much to be taken in. I found it so sad that I saw so many people lining up to take pictures with beautiful buildings and then just glaring at it, not really seeing the significance that it used to make by being there, and then going on to the next place on the list of places to go. You have to take in a few deep breaths, let the noises and presence of all the other people fade out and listen to the nature that still remains, the running of the water, the chirp of the birds, and try to imagine what it would have sounded for the wind to blow through the open doors of the building you were looking at. Imagine the temple priests and monks repeating their prayers, or where their favorite part of the grounds might have been. Imagining what might have happened to you if you had been caught there so many long years ago, would you have just gone home crying to your mother, or would you be in much more trouble to be in such a close proximity of the living place of the Shogun? I know that the thing that made me sad in turn made it possible for me to see such a place myself. It must have been beautiful, not too long ago even, just before such tourists came in the herds. Back when you could go to Kiyomizu Temple and look at the magnificent view and not worry about the people fighting for a little look at it, when you could say to yourself, this is beautiful and not have anyone in earshot.

And although I feel this way about Kyoto, I highly recommend this to be on your list of places to see, for me, however, it’s on my list of places to live, to take in with deep breaths and hope to hold a small bit of understanding of the significance it has to its country. .

Shortly after that I went and saw SUMO!!! Yeah, can we just repeat that once more for the fun of it? I went and saw SUMO! Probably the number one thing that I wanted to go do since I have been here, I mean come on, what could be better than men proudly showing their bums and tearing each other in half, or at least out of the ring. It was so good, before I went I was kind of like this, “Hello! I’m happy to meet you! My name is, WHO CARES? I’m going to watch SUMO.” I had also started thinking of ways to talk about the experience, (so excited that it felt like I had already experienced it … is that weird?) “He’s my favorite, I call him ‘Chubby Cheeks’ but not to his face”. My host mom was so kind to get tickets for us to go watch it, and we saw it together for the first time, but I think I was more excited by it than she was. However, as fierce as those wrestlers are, it might not have compared to what I would have done if I were more than one person. Let me explain, I went to get my host mom popcorn, without my camera, and can you guess whom I stood behind? I will give you a hint, lots of people ran up to take their pictures and I wouldn’t have called these two men slender.

Yeah, and if that wasn’t the worst part, when I went to go to the toilet there they were again and there I was again, once more with out my camera … But I got lots of pictures and enjoyed it exuberantly. I think Aristotle would have been happy at my practice of cathartic methods, but I might have enjoyed it too much. I had to control myself part of the time; while my host mother slept during the not so eventful beginning I was pumping myself up for the higher ranked wrestlers by chanting on the first ones to go. “Get him, get him, he ain’t got nothing. You can do it … yeah, I might have been a bit over enthusiastic about it. I highly recommend this to any traveler to Japan and its multi faceted cultural experience it has to offer.

Now I would like to talk about my new class at school. I graduated to the third year at Akenohoshi, the highest rank girl school in my prefecture. This was back in mid April, but there are just so many things that happen at school, and I just spend about half of my time there so it would be wrong for me not to talk about it. I am not sure why, but I was very shy towards these girls at first and still am a bit shy now. I think it might just be because they are just so cool, I guess. A few of them were in my last class, so I was really happy about that and my best friend, Asuka, would come at the end of school to walk with me to the station to go home, so it hasn’t been too difficult not having her in class with me. Now, I am not a shy person, but when I am in a classroom with girls I don’t know too well and they are just so darn cute, I get a little bit offstandish. I think it has something to do with the fact that one of them is in a band, a few of them are rather good in sports and dance clubs and they seem to me as being the American high school idea of popularity. They are very nice to me, but it’s so hard for me to ask them to do anything after school or on weekends, partly because they spend a lot of time studying, and partly because I kind of feel like the nerdy guy asking the cool girl out on a date. However, I don’t believe they see me that way, so that is helpful. Akenohoshi had a sports competition for the entire school. Every class participated, in basketball, volleyball or dodge ball. I was a member of the dodge ball team. Now, one of my classmates, Sayaka, was on the team, and boy could she ever play. I really like her, she is really nice, and just so awesome. I was happy I was on her team; otherwise I might not have played dodge ball at all because she just throws that ball so hard that I would have been too scared to be on the receiving end of it. We won out of the entire school, and it sure felt good. My moment of glory was when we were in the finals and the other teams strongest player belted the ball at me, but I caught it, it was very relieving, I did not want to be tagged out. I remember before the final, Sayaka was tagged out and the other team just cheered (knowing well enough she was our strongest player) but it was just minutes before she was back in again.

The basketball tournament was also really good, our class made it to the final, and were really good, but the defense lacked off a bit and the other team got two three pointers and that was the game, on the over all, if they could have stopped that from happening, we would have won, no doubt in my mind. It was so amazing to see this event. After, they cried and cried about losing, to me, it was a sports event, but to them, doing this every year at school, it was their last chance to be number one and to do this before going to college, and maybe it helped them realize it was the end of the beginning for them, it made me realize it.

It’s going to be so difficult to leave this school, to not go to Akenohoshi every morning, to wake up and catch the train and walk to school. And although they will always be in my memory and have a place in my heart, it will be so hard for me not to lose touch with so many of them. This year abroad has really made a good foundation for what lies ahead on my road of life, especially when I return to this wonderful place.

I found it so funny, the other day, I glanced at the calendar and said, “Wow, I have only been living in this house for four weeks” and it surprised me how at home I feel within such a short time. Now, I know that it has been said that you can make or break a habit within 21 days, but I don’t think I have ever had so much proof to make me really believe it. I mean, changing families changes your whole schedule most of the time, unless the families were similar, right? I feel so at home that I don’t feel bad about arguing about what I eat because of my diet and that I want to fit into Japanese jeans before I go back to America, by the way, the Japanese size large is closer to a size 0 to 2 from what I am used to. However, now I have about 48 days left until I go back to America, and I don’t even want to think about it. I have a farewell speech to give on the 18th, but sometimes I wish I could forget how to say the word goodbye. It’s just going to be so hard for me, or that is what I am expecting, I have just really grown to love Japan and all the people that I have gotten to know over these few nine plus months. I supposed that is how all exchanges go, but I have really enjoyed mine and hope to make the most out of the last 48 days I have to make happy memories with.

I hope everyone has enjoyed reading this, but most of all, I hope the Rotarians have enjoyed it, because if it weren’t for Rotary, I would not be able to say that I have lived in Japan and lived life as a Japanese school girl and relished the culture it truly has, just like many places in the world, Japan is beautifully unique.

To the outbound class of 05-06, have a wonderful end of your exchange, and please, please take care.

With deepest gratitude,

Chelsea King

July 14 Journal

Well, it sure comes to me as a shock. The far off and nearly mirage-like beginning of June where I last left off. As of now I have a little less than one week and it brings the most sensational feelings that I could have ever imagined. It’s really more internal than external, what has been going on I guess you could say. I have said good-bye to friends and accepted the fact that not only may it be a good three years until we meet again, but in truth that day may never come. I have accepted this, but not with open arms.

Everyone expects those feelings of mixed emotions to be running high, and they are. However, to expect such things and then to experience it are so very different. I can become indifferent and then become dripping in emotion in the course of a few minutes and such emotional imbalance is new to me. That should tell you right there that this is not bound to be a very long journal indeed.

I went to Kabuki with my counselor’s wife in Ginza. This was very nice. Kabuki is theater in which all the characters are played by male actors. The dialogue is in ancient Japanese and if you are not familiar with the performance and dialogue that is used then you are able to get cassettes that have the dialogue in modern Japanese or English. I was rather shocked at how many of the Japanese were listening in on the head sets. The one that made me laugh the most was the play in which a feudal lord is trying to sneak out of his house to meet up with his mistress and his faithful assistant sits and waits in his room in his dressing gown weary of his frightening witch of a wife. He comes back to retell his adventures of the night and remarks that his assistance was much needed and how it must have been awful frightening when the witch came around when all the while it is her waiting under the clothing. Their make up is also rather spectacular. The costumes and music make it all such a wonderful performance.

For the first two weeks of June at my school, Akenohoshi, we practiced for a chorus competition within the school. All classes competing. In Japan this is rather common but I had never heard of it. It was a most wonderful experience being able if not made to practice after class, mornings, lunch breaks, and the weekends with everyone. Things like this really make you feel like you are part of your class and that you have a sense of loyalty to your classmates. I may have been a bit of a traitor as I congratulated everyone that won because we lost. What can I say? I am sportsman like, and I just can’t help that.

I have been going to karaoke a bit too often if I may say so myself. It is just so much fun and any version that we have in Florida doesn’t come close to what they have here in Japan. There are shops dedicated to karaoke. With all different rooms where you can eat and be merry and just have fun with friends and sing as much as you like. With songs of all different genres and languages, where can you go wrong? They even have Disney songs. Naturally I am a soprano, but occasionally when there is a male part I like to go into the deepest alto there is possible just for laughs. It may be because that I am, or well everyone is leaving so soon that we go so often. It is a way to kind of relax and be happy, it is one of my favorite pastimes.

I went to the beach, yes, I know, I am coming home to beach two hours by car on all sides, but I couldn’t turn the opportunity down could I? I went with Paula and her Rotary member’s wife, Okuzumi. It was a very fun time. We were very lucky on the weather, for June is a rather dull and dismal season for sunshine and it just rains off and on with no set pattern what so ever. We got this idea that we would swim to the temple on the far end of the shore. The shore was in a ‘C’ shape so we swam across. Half way there with nothing but black below us and nerves going wild we hit a patch of seaweed – we went a bit mad screaming, “it’s gonna get us, swim for your life!!” then I started yelling “No Paula, wait for me, its got me, help!” and while all this was happening Mrs. Okuzumi was just laughing waiting with our towels to tell us that it was impossible to begin with. I don’t think land ever felt so good and comforting.

I spent the night at my last host families’ home a little while back. Nothing too memorable happened that really needs to be commented on, we really just spent time together and enjoyed each others’ company. However, there is just one thing that I feel is important. I went to the bathroom, and I saw the calendar and I had this strange realization, I thought to myself “that’s not the right photo”. It is because such time has elapsed, and I guess subconsciously I didn’t realize it was. And while I was having this deep thought in the bathroom I thought about the room upstairs now inhabited by their daughter. I though, “I had shed tears in that bed, I laughed up there, I used to look out those windows and think how small Gainesville is, I used to study up there … I can NEVER do that again in that room.” I realized that it was no longer my home, that the boundaries I never had before really were there, I mean, I am sure they would have loved for me to be as loud and silly as I used to be while I lived there, or to lay on the carpet and try to blend in with it, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing such a thing.

On an exchange year, because it is short, just a year, you change continually, so fast that sometimes you don’t feel it at all. You forget to take time to say, I can only live here for three months, after that I will be no more a guest than any other relative. It is something that I never really thought of until that night.

It happened a little more dramatically when I went to my first host family’s home. I had been there many times before, so the sights didn’t bring it about at all. It was the smell. Rotary may tell you (if you’re an exchange student) to always be smelling a new smell, to not let yourself become accustomed to a single smell, i.e. your room. The house you live in will no doubt be registered, you can’t help that, but in the way it’s registered is something I never expected. You see, I was going home, at the entrance and putting on my shoes and I got this magnificent fragrance I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Then BOOM it hit me – it smelled like a sweaty summer, like not knowing my way around town, like I hadn’t mastered the trains yet or even better that I knew little of Tokyo at all. Over all it smelled like I couldn’t speak Japanese. You may have smelled some extraordinary smells in your life, but to smell your mindset, your beginning of when you knew close to nothing when you have come so far is something I don’t think I would trade for anything.

So, I have six days left, busy, busy, busy, but it is a good feeling because it is not only welcomed but feels normal to me now. All of this month has been filled with saying good byes and get-togethers and I still have a few before I leave. Six more days, it sure has been a good 11months, not much, if anything, can compare to the spectacularity of it all.

Thank you so much Rotary for making this possible, and to those that read this, hope to see you at the 3rd annual welcome home dinner.

Chelsea King

Michael Murray
2005-06 Outbound to France

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Wissembourg Rotary Club, District 1680, France

Michael - France

September 2 journal

The first day of an exchange is much like being born again. Bright lights, being hugged and kissed by strangers. You obtain a newfound sense of innocence and naiveté. Speaking, reading and writing proves to be difficult, and your food is prepared for you. Much like a newborn, you are spoiled. Your heart pounds, all the while your stomach replicates a child’s shoe string.

When I wanted to start writing this journal, I couldn’t seem to convey the feelings one has in his, or her, first week of an exchange. Unless you have done it, you simply can not understand the emotions one goes through. In essence writing this entry feels as though I am preparing a speech for a deaf and blind convention. I apologize if that sounds somewhat arrogant, but in all honesty, I am just being well…honest.

Nonetheless I will discuss about my happenings, and whereabouts. I am situated in a nice-sized village known as Wissembourg. It is as French as French gets. The town streets are lined with shops, cafés, and fruit stands. On any given morning you will see old men playing Bocce in the park, while women carry fresh baguettes, direct from the bakery. Teenagers wiz by on mopeds while the younger children and elder men prefer the more manual form of transportation, bikes. The town is situated at the foot of the black hills, and just 10 minutes from the German border. Surrounding the village are fields and fields of corn, grapes, and apples. It sounds somewhat clichéd but it really is everything I read about in French class. The landscape is pure and breathtaking, it simply negates the contents of your wallet.

My host family is wonderful. My host father is a pharmacist, and owns his own local pharmacy. I have 2 host brothers, and a host sister. All three kids enjoy horseback riding. My youngest host brother of ten years is very adamant about me learning the language as quick as possible. Who knew board games with a ten year old could be so educational. We all eat lunch and dinner together every day, so whomever says the French lack morals, hasn’t the slightest clue. On that note, every negative stereotype I have heard about the French has proven to be false. They are warm, inviting, people and flattered to have foreign guest amongst them.

My summer comes to a close today, as tomorrow I start school. My last few days of summer consisted of a drive to the Maginot line, coconut ice cream, a German water park (where I learned no man is ever too obese for a Speedo), running up a mountain, and cafés. I think I hit the jackpot.

September 28 Journal

“Little acorn becomes the mighty oak” – The Fruitbats.

Month one has come and gone. Alors…

Born out of wedlock, the Alsace region is like the child of Germany and France. His parents had quite a few custody struggles (Franco-Prussian, WW 1, WW 2) and in the end his mother, France, was awarded custody. He eats dinner with his father (Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, Beer), and dessert with his mother (tarte, crepes, champagne). He embodies many traits from his mother, and more then he likes to admit from his father. For years he struggled with identity issues but has since evolved into a well rounded individual. I imagine Alsace and Switzerland would get along quite well.

Yes the analogy seems rather strange but its the most accurate description I could conjure up. When I wrote my last journal entry I think I overlooked the Germanic influence that fills the area, but shhhh, don’t let any Alsatians know that I said that. The Alsatians pride themselves on being individuals.

The last time we talked was the night before school started. Aside from my three, nine hour days, I really enjoy school. My first day resembled the testimonies of most exchange students. Following students, pretending to take notes, and smiling while shaking my head with indecipherable motions when questions were thrown my way. Nonetheless I survived. I think most exchange students will agree, the first few weeks of school are the most tiring days of your life. I was physically exhausted every day after school, and the 2-mile walk home seemed almost impossible. Luckily, I have a pastry shop that conveniently falls in the middle of my route. This isn’t just any pastry shop, this is Réber’s. The man chosen to represent all of France in global pastry competitions. And it just so happens he lives in my village, and my host parents are good friends with him.

I have been going to school about a month now, and understand a majority of what’s being said, and can carry on a conversation with classmates with little or no trouble. The only class I seem have any trouble in is “Sciences, économiques, et sociales.” I love the topic, it was one of my favorite classes in the states, but the vocabulary can seem out of my league on most days.

What I really like about school here is the lack of social hierarchy. Each morning kisses and handshakes are exchanged by all, regardless of the clique you fall into. Every day I eat lunch with a hodge-podge of characters. Which brings me to my favorite anecdote thus far.

Everyday someone shoves headphones in my face and politely asks “Can zoo make zees verds in French for me?” But this one particular character (5 foot nothing, and 120 pounds) wanted the lyrics for some god-awful 50 Cent song. In exchange for the lyrics he offered me his “gang’s” protection. Needless the say, I now walk the (cobblestone) streets of Wissembourg feeling a little safer.

Football, or soccer as some say, is my new sport of choice. I watch it just about every night with my host dad, and play with his team.

The highlight of my month was an afternoon trip to Strasbourg with my friend, and fellow exchanger Brandon. Being that it was a Wednesday, we got out of school at noon. From school we walked to the train station to catch the 12:18 from Wissembourg to Strasbourg. While on the train we joked about the amount of fètes, or festivals, the French have. In just my first month we have had Fète des Chevals (Festival of Horses), Fète de Vin (Festival of Wine), and Fète de la Bière (Festival of Beer). But I had never laughed so hard then when Brandon told me of his trip to the post office 2 days earlier. Upon his entrance he saw balloons, flags and tables filled with drinks and pastries. Fète de la Poste. Why Not? Back to the story. We arrived in Strasbourg, about an hour after departing. The train station in Strasbourg is a work of art, and I would soon learn that just about everything in that city is. He showed me the ropes, about purchasing tickets, where to punch them and where to check for your platform. We left the station hungry and in search of our long awaited lunch. Enter Kapob. It’s simply the best food I have ever eaten, and has since found its way into my regular diet.

Once filled up, and possibly overfilled, we departed for the Cathédrale. Upon carelessly turning a corner, my eyes opened as wide as they ever have. I have never seen something so large, and so detailed. After finding our way into a few German class photos we departed for the top. The spiral staircase, at times small, seemed to turn forever. Every now and then there is a little hole in the wall to show you how far you have climbed. Once at the top we walked through a little arch that led me to the maybe the most thought provoking moment of my life. How did they get this giant bell get up here? How did I get up here, or even here in France? The city expands across the land below and at the horizon are rolling hills and mountains. As I sat and watched the workings of a city, I decided my life is one in a million. Thank you Mom, Dad, family, friends, and Rotary. I love you all more then you know.

October 19 Journal

Round 3…ding…ding…

I have some advice for future/current exchangers and travelers alike…

Never ask what you are eating. The question itself is not rude, but your reaction to the answer may indeed seem, should I say, unmannerly? I.E.:

Mike – This is pretty good what is this
Host dad – Sausage…
Mike – I noticed you were a little hesitant with your answer, may I ask why?
Host dad – Well it’s “black sausage” mike.
Mike – That being…
Host dad – Sausage made from pigs blood.
Mike – makes a face similar to a fish being hooked.
Town Butcher (seated directly across from Mike) – You don’t like my sausage?
Mike – Rotary Smile. It’s…wonderful monsieur.

Time here has been well spent but I wouldn’t be painting an honest picture if I sugarcoated everything. This is life. I have homework, school, boredom, and a sufficient amount of frustration. If you’re reading this, and considering applying for the program, please note you will not be some happy go lucky tourist bumming around romantic, foreign cities every weekend. You will get homesick, you will get frustrated, and you will have rainy days (I say “rainy days” metaphorically and literally because quite frankly, I don’t really care for rainy days). With that said, you will also have sunny days, the best moments of your life, conceive unexplainable thoughts, and yes on some weekends you will bum around romantic, foreign cities. An exchange is an emotional roller coaster. You could hit rock bottom, and within an hour be at the peak of your happiness. But hey, this is what you’re signing up for, to push yourself. I hear it’s a lot like being pregnant. So to all the mothers reading this, we can break bread in that sense.

It’s fall here in Wissembourg. It’s a rather tragic season. Everything is dying but not without vibrancy. I’ve been deprived of this season for 4 years now. It’s really a shame Florida doesn’t have a real fall. There is a really neat sense of “preparation” that comes over everyone. The dinners are getting warmer, the heavy blankets are coming out, and all the men are chopping wood for the fires.

The park next to my house is covered with leaves. Walking in it has become rather habitual for me. It’s where I’m learning to be my own best friend. Before leaving I was a very needy person. For instance I dreaded a Friday night spent at home, but now I’m overcoming that, and giving a lot of time back to myself.

A few weekends ago 7 exchange students and I got together for the John Butler Trio concert in Strasbourg. One of the girl’s host mothers insisted we stayed at her three story apartment in downtown Strasbourg. (I know, I spent a paragraph talking about how tough life can be here.) I really “dug this pad.” It was situated right next to the massive cathedral I talked about in journal two. Every window and balcony offered a Kodak view of the cathedral and in the foreground were rows and rows of uneven European roof tops, think Mary Poppins. Before heading off to the show, I had heard there was a Mexican restaurant near the apartment. A Mexican/Australian (geographically impossible) exchanger and I were the only 2 that had ever known the word “enchilada.” After some convincing we all left to eat. It wasn’t La Nopalera but I managed to find some solace that night in dinner special #4.

With our digestive systems on their death beds, we departed for the concert. I didn’t know much about the artist beforehand but he turned out to be a really cool guy and had some good things to say about life, war, and poverty.

After the concert we did some dancing, kind of irrelevant but I like dancing.

When you spend a weekend with fellow exchangers like this it’s really interesting. Everyone is pretty like minded, and silently acknowledges that we’re all here with similar ambitions. This is the formula for good conversation and what I like to call “Tanner Family Moments”

This past weekend my host dad came home with tickets to the big soccer match in Strasbourg. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Earlier that afternoon I asked my host counselor if I could go on a trip to Sweden for a week with my English class. Denied. So you can imagine I wasn’t in the best of moods. When my host parents told me I was going to the match my spirits were lifted immediately. You see, I have been watching soccer just about every night with my host dad, so to finally go was pretty exciting.

The matches are unlike anything in the states. I noticed a large group of hooligans cheering at the beginning of the match. 30 minutes later I thought, “My gosh they are still going at it, and they haven’t let up one bit.” Strasbourg’s team isn’t even that good! Even when they were losing these guys were belting their team’s song. They sang non stop for 90 minutes. I’m not naive. I am pretty sure there was some beer involved, but nonetheless I had a new metaphor for “never give up” sitting just a few rows away.

Upon leaving the stadium a homeless man struck up a conversation about the match with me. The match wasn’t televised, so I made the connection and I thought, “This guy has no food, and no home, yet he insist on going to soccer games. Stupid? Probably, but he’s doing what he loves.” I had some thoughts that are pretty difficult to put into words. The best I can say is, do what you love, regardless of what struggles and setbacks you’re going to encounter for it.

Thank you so much Rotary. You have opened my eyes to what really matters in life. I wholeheartedly believe in this program and its motives. You guys make the world turn.

With Love, Mike

November 2 Journal

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

I’m standing on the balcony of a castle. A castle that lies on the highest mountain of Alsace. In front of me lays an infinite collage of villages, vineyards, and autumn leaves. So far detached from shopping centers and teenage demographics, I have formed a desirable bond with nature. You see, when you utilize a park bench as a school desk you are going to learn a lot. It’s not so much scientific information, but practical information. Take for instance something such as leaves. I couldn’t tell you the scientific logistics of a leaf, but what I could tell you is when you apply the life span of a leaf to your own, you will discover a wealth of happiness. Blow with the winds, live vibrantly, accept your change and pass on with peace. If I am Thoreau, then Alsace is my pond.

Today is the last day of my 2 week vacation. Lets recap…

I visited a castle with my host parents. Knights, drawbridges, the whole kit n’ kaboodle. I woke up to a gray, gloomy, rainy day. I came down to breakfast a little upset because of of the weather. I knew that we wouldn’t be going if the weather wasn’t spectacular. Lunch came and the sun started to come out. We took our chances and headed to the south of the region. I feel really guilty sleeping in the car because the landscape is always so pretty. We made our ascent up the winding roads and finally arrived at the castle. It was mind blowing. So much history. The castle was first built in medieval times. Over the years it became ruins. In the early 1900’s it was rebuilt for the emperor of Germany and Prussia as a place to stay on the WW1 front lines. I can’t justify how amazing every view was, perhaps some of the pictures can.

After our visit to the castle we headed down to a small village known for its white wine. I was walking up the streets with my jaw dropped. All I could do was wonder at what time “Mickey’s Toon Town Parade” was coming through. It was everything Disney ever aimed for, only this was the real deal.

I spent 2 nights at a friend’s house. He lives in a village about 20 minutes away. This village was about as Alsacian as you can get. His parents asked me what my favorite Alsacian dish was. I answered, “la tarte flambée” and without hesitation his mom insisted that we have it for dinner. Thomas and I rode our bikes through the town (when you get a license you really forget how awesome bikes are). As we rode down the sloped streets everyone we came across was quick to say hello, in Alsacian. The warm Alsacian greetings are so nice.

We played some soccer with about fifteen ten-year-olds. I really like little kids. They really make me want to be a teacher.

On the third day the family took me into Strasbourg. Thomas’ family was heaps nice, and got a real kick out of me trying to speak Alsacian with them. It’s a really interesting language. Most parents speak it, and although their kids don’t speak it, they understand every word of it. It’s a little bit of German, and a little bit of French. Nobody can write it either. I consider myself pretty lucky because the language is on its last generation, and it’s estimated to be dead in 30 years.

You wouldn’t know it was Halloween here unless you looked on a calendar. I searched the market for a pumpkin to carve but came up short.

We had a Rotary meeting. My Australian friend Brandon had to give his big presentation to our club. Our club is really small. Brandon and I are the only students. All the old men treat us like their grandsons. The presentation really put everything in perspective for me. Time wise that is. I swear I go to sleep on Sunday night and wake up on Thursday afternoons.

While at the meeting, I had the chance to meet my next two host families. My second family has a boy in Canada, and my third family has a girl in Texas. I learned that I’m moving in with my second host family towards the end of this month. Its going to be interesting. Doing it all over again, only this time I will have a clue as to what’s going on.

My third host family has a farm, tractors, and corn. I’ll be living with them just in time to start planting for the summer. I’m really excited.

Every visit to Strasbourg is a little more difficult then the last. 2 days ago I found myself standing in a department store just dumbfounded with the things people buy. As a society we have done a really good job at blurring the lines between “need” and “want.” You need water. You don’t need a Mercedes, you simply want one. I really like my rural, secluded village.

I leave you with my Top 5 for November.

5. Henry David Thoreau
4. Sigur Ros
3. Trying to speak Alsacian
2. Tarte Flambée
1. Nature (parks, mountains, trees, etc.)

December 3 Journal

Today, on my way back to school, I saw a woman get hit by a car. She was crossing the road and before I knew it her body went ragdoll to the pavement. She was still conscious when the ambulance arrived, but blood dripped profusely from her cotton white hair. For the rest of my classes I found myself staring out the windows wondering why people can be so frivolous when the end just might be around the corner. Take risk, be humble, and don’t be worried by trivial happenings.

As far as Mr. Walt Whitman is concerned I have been contributing my verses…

On the first Sunday of November, fellow exchange student Brandon and I went to a village festival with his current, and my third host family. Upon arriving at the festival we found a large dining hall with an abundance of Alsatian food and music. We addressed our appetites and preceded to court ladies on the dance floor. One of them being my third host mom, Mary Paul. I’m not too familiar with Alsatian folk dancing but she showed me the basics. She endured 4 waltzes and left smiling with all 10 toes intact.

After the festival we all went back to the house for some coffee. I have found that it is a good idea to meet your host families before actually moving in with them. Makes the move-in process a little more relaxing for both parties. They gave me a tour of the house and afterwards took me out back to see the endless rolling fields, and the bulls. Brandon and I kept our distance, all the while admiring our host dad’s fearlessness. Its a shame I left my Matador equipment at home.

Thanksgiving morning I found myself sitting through a 2 hour lecture on 17th century French poetry. My left hand on a sheet of paper, the right hand tracing around it with a pencil. I was drawing hand turkeys. In light of a little nostalgia, and regret for not preparing a big dinner, I marched into town and bought the pie I could find. I brought it home and explained the holiday to my host mother. I went upstairs to wash my hands for dinner and when I returned downstairs I found the table set with candles and Thanksgiving colored napkins, plates, and placemats. The color combination turned out to be a coincidence but nonetheless I was flabbergasted at how generous the Bonnaves have been with me. After our dinner, my host dad, Thierry opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast to me and wished me luck with the rest of my time in France.

A little later that night, while watching a soccer game Thierry called me to come outside. Snow.

All that night I sat in a trance, watching through my window. As the snow was mounting around the cars and sidewalks my feet screamed with anticipation, while thoughts reflected on the past three months. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the streetlights. I had never been so happy to be alive.

I woke up the next day to find Wissembourg blanketed in snow. I put on my new winter jacket, scarf, gloves and hat and made the mile trek to school. Everyone at school had the same feelings running through them. The first snowfall had come and with it came excitement, and a sense of winter camaraderie. My entire class decided to skip our hour of German and go join what seemed to be the entire school in a snowball fight.

That night I walked home from school with all the town Christmas lights illuminated. It was my last night with the Bonnave family. I came home and everyone got ready for a big warm dinner. They took me out for my last night to try the ever so popular escargots. I was really hesitant at first, but bit the bullet and “assimilated.” They actually turned out to be really appetizing. For dessert we had my favorite, “La Tarte Flambée à Pomme,” which is lit on fire right before you eat it.

The next morning I packed up my belongings and said my goodbyes. It will always be difficult to leave your first host family. They bring you into a new world and watch you take your first steps. After 3 months a room becomes a bedroom, a house becomes a home, and strangers become a cherished family. But changing families is part of the deal, and keeps things interesting. I remember Al told me “You’re not losing a family, you’re only gaining another.” And that’s just what I did.

My new family is wonderful. My host dad, Bernard is an amazing cook, and teaches me the finer points of wine, while my host mom Michelle is a Pharmacist. Dinners here are amazing and afterwards I talk to my host mom for an extended period of time at the table. They have 2 sons. One, 17, is on an exchange in Canada, and the other who is 22, is currently enrolled at Cornell University in New York. The latter of the 2 will be home for Christmas. Last Sunday, after lunch we took a tour of my new village Seltz, and visited the Seltz Christmas market. Children running through the streets, Santa Claus, and everyone talking over a cup of hot wine. While there I met the Mayor of Seltz who invited me along with my host dad to see The European Parliament in action. That said, in January we will tour the parliament itself, and get a chance to watch a session.

With all the emails I got in regards to the subject I feel as though I should take a second to shed some light on the riots. From what I saw, the American media portrayed every city as ruins gorged by mass hysteria. Yes, France has a problem with racism and poverty, but at no point was there an effort at a “Muslim led coup” as one American journalist put it. That said, don’t watch the news.

Be humble, and enjoy the things that don’t cost a dime.

January 26 Journal

“Here’s me overseas, across the pond by the Dover peaks. I’ve smuggled myself into new nationalities.”

-Matt Pryor

Time has quietly slipped 5 months out of my pocket in exchange for a plethora of great experiences. The last two months have certainly been a bombardment: beautiful landscapes, marvelous friendships, thought provoking conversations, 5 new kilos, and a few goodbyes.

I am really starting to establish myself here. I have inside jokes with kids at school, I know the train times like the back of my hand, and “I didn’t understand,” is no longer an excuse for why my homework is incomplete. Teachers would just respond with “Well Mike, you certainly don’t have any trouble talking to your friends during class, do you?”

Just to get it out of the way, I feel as though I have to say that you will find people who you don’t get along with on any continent, in any country. I found the best you can do is keep your spirits high, and try and find the better in them. They may say discouraging things, but just take it with a grain of salt, smile, move on and as mom always said, “be the better person.”

From the top…

The beginning of December marked the first weekend with all the other exchange students in our district. We had all met up before but no longer then a few hours. The day started with Brendon and I leaving school at noon to catch a 2 hour train to a small city in the south of Alsace. Once all assembled in Belforte, we were picked up by an array of Rotarians with whom we would be spending the first night. We were provided with an interesting cast of characters. My Rotarian happened to do some underground fur trading while another had boasted about a secret society he had belonged too. Nonetheless, they were kind enough to put beds and fine cuisine at our disposal. That night we all did some bowling. Bowling alleys are indeed an international institution composed of, but not just, creepy regulars sporting even creepier mustaches.

The next day we all met up for breakfast and were interviewed by the regional paper. We all posed for a bunch of photos donning our pin clad vest. The photos, nor the article did I ever end up seeing. From there we headed to the city’s soccer stadium to take a guided tour. We were shown just about everything and were even given the chance to run around and play on the field. After the stadium we piled back into our vans and headed back into Belforte to attend one of the region’s many Christmas markets. We danced, took pictures, walked around all while the street performers never fell short of providing perfect holiday music. That night we returned to the stadium to attended a match. All the girls complained it was too cold, meanwhile the hooligans in the section next to us opted not to wear shirts.

The final day we beared the cold weather and faced off against Rotex in an extremely competitive soccer match. Seeing as we were all from countries where soccer is not a religion (yes, they do exist) we lost. We then ate a fine meal with the local Rotary club. While on the topic of food and Rotary clubs, I would just like to say, at times, being a Rotary exchange student in France feels criminal. It seems like an elaborate scam set up to eat the best food possible all the while leaving each restaurant with my wallet intact.

We all said our goodbyes that afternoon, and headed back to our respective cities, and villages. Going to school after being with all the exchange students is always difficult.

One Wednesday afternoon Brendon and I headed into Strasbourg to see the much talked about Christmas market. Strasbourg boasts itself as the Christmas capital of Europe, and boy did it live up to its claims. The city squares hosted an array of booths. From homemade art to hot wine and crepes. Night fell and the the city became illuminated by lights strung from building to building. We purchased a hot wine, found a nice spot to sit and reflected on our years. All the while people passed, and musicians played. I tried my hardest to really soak up the moment.

Soon enough the Christmas break arrived, and my host brother returned home from college in the states. I spent most of Christmas break in my pajamas. I developed a pajama ridden routine that much differed from the usual French school days (8:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.). Christmas eve came before I knew it. My host grandparents came over for a big dinner and we all exchanged gifts. That night I also opened all the gifts that were sent to me from the states. I would like to say thank you to everyone back home (specifically Adam, Greg, Joey, and Mac – you guys went over the top and renewed my sense of humor). The holidays passed without any of the predicted homesickness.

For New Years, I went to a party in a village with a bunch of kids from school. Turned out to be a really good time. Nobody really watches the TV on New Years here so I was caught off guard when people started counting down. As we entered the new year, everyone exchange hugs, kisses on the cheek, and best wishes. Someone put it as a “bisous fest.”

Because Brendon was a southern hemisphere student, he completed his year at the beginning of January. We had more going away festivities then I can count. On his last night we all went out with all our friends from school. The night quickly passed and before we knew it, we had reached 5 o’clock, and it was time for him to say goodbye to everyone. He said encouraging things to everyone. I went back to his house where we slept until noon. When my host parents came to pick me up, we wished each other luck and parted not with “Adieu,” but, “A la prochaine.” I would just like to thank him for all the help he so willingly gave me. He’s a great mate, and if you’re lucky, someday you too may cross paths with him.

January brought a long overdue chance to explore this country I have been calling home. Along with 50 students from school, I departed for a week long ski trip in the Alps. While on the road, we crossed through Switzerland where we stopped at a highway rest stop. While in Switzerland, I “assimilated” and bought way more chocolate then necessary. The lady at the counter only spoke Swiss German, providing for an interesting transaction of chocolate and money.

We arrived in the Alps late that night. The next morning we woke up and got ready to receive our ski equipment. The instructor asked me if I was a beginner. Though I had never skied I dreaded the word beginner, and feared a week long crash course confined to the bunny slopes. So I thought for a second…”It’s probably just like ice hockey, and I played ice hockey for a long time. How could it be any different? You have some blades attached to your feet, only they are wider, and instead of one stick you get two sticks. I am probably already a professional skier and I just don’t know it!” I told the man with the equipment no, I had skied before. When he asked me what size skis I was, I could only give him a blank stare. Beginners group it was. I quickly learned the big difference between hockey and skiing are these things called mountains.

I could only help to think that our group, the beginners, were the Bad News Bears of the mountain. I made up one fifth of the ski crossed hodgepodge.

By the third day everyone pretty much had the hang of it and we had little or no trouble on the slopes.

For the duration of the week I shared a room with 6 other guys from my class. In this room, I learned that no matter where in the world you are, when you put a bunch of teenage boys in a room together, there will be people spraying deodorant on other people for obnoxious lengths at a time, someone’s mattress will probably end up outside in the snow, or a kid will get locked in the bathroom.

On the last day the entire group went to the peak of the mountain for a sunny picnic in the snow. Here was the prettiest view I had ever seen in my entire life. We also saw wild mountain goats, none of which responded to my calls.

Today I took a much anticipated trip to see the European Parliament in action. My host parents and I, along with the mayor of my village and some other locals headed into Strasbourg, to visit the European Union’s capital. We started with the European Council, where we saw a live session taking place. We sat above the chamber and watched as the council prosecuted a representative sent by the Belarusian totalitarian government. As tempers flared below us, I had way too much fun with my 9-channel translation headphones, each station projecting a different translation of what was being said on the floor. They were oh so diplomatic. I was amazed to learn that some of these translators spoke upwards to 11 different languages. Just as things started to turn on the fiery Belarusian, we had to leave in order to tour the European Union’s parliament. The difference between the council and the parliament is that the council is a body of representatives from each country that investigates different situations in Europe. When the investigations and debates are concluded they simply make suggestions. Whereas the parliament assembles once a month in order to vote, enact laws, and distribute capital. We got the chance to talk with some representatives, and they were kind enough to field our questions. For me, a political buff, this might be one of the coolest experiences I have had here so far.

And so I conclude, until next month…

“J’ai trouvé des amis. Je leur ai donné un peu de mon âme un peu de ma vie.” -Tryo

With Love, Mike

March 6 Journal

At times I felt as though I had a strong grasp on reality. Days where I woke up and felt like playing by “the rules.” Other days I would wake up and debate reality, and ponder a future riding the rails, and swear I would do everything in my ability to avoid a monotonous, day in day out lifestyle. I have recently learned it’s the median of my old thinking habits that turned a math class daydream into reality. I had an idea, to live in France all while walking the tight rope from childhood to maturity. I took the initiative, and worked to create a productive life that also strays far from ordinary. Everybody works for something that makes them feel alive. To some, that’s a new car, to others it’s experiencing the world.

Happenings…

On the exact day of my halfway mark I walked into town and decided to get a haircut. I will save you the story of making two trips to two different haircutters trying to convince somebody that I wouldn’t regret cutting it all off. When it was finally all gone, I felt ready to start the second half of my year.

I was lucky enough to take not one but two ski trips to the Alps this winter. This time I actually got to stay in Switzerland. Apart from feeling oh so neutral and eating way too much chocolate, I did some skiing and snowboarding. In Switzerland, people don’t seem to be too fond of chair lifts, rather little poles that go in between your legs dragging you up the mountain. Sure sounds easy until you fall off about a mile into your trip and are forced to walk another mile in snow up to your knees. One particular voyage I fell off in what felt like the arctic grand canyon. This remains the only instant of my exchange year where I thought “I want to be home, in my bed.” I sucked it up and finished my trek to the top of the slope to find the rest of my group.

A few days after coming home from Switzerland I was invited by a Rotarian to make a day trip into Germany. I have lived on the German border for 6 months now, and seeing as this was my first actual trip into Germany I was pretty excited. I spent the day walking around the city with the son of the Rotarian who was studying at a local university. Because he was a history major I saw him as a great person to spend the day with in such a rich city. We visited a castle and he showed me old trails where persecuted philosophers used to sneak around. After walking around a bit we decided it was getting chilly and took a coffee in a local café where we talked about secret societies, the new world order, and such.

Right before my two week vacation from school came to a close, I changed families. While packing up my things I could only help to think, “the next time I do this I’ll be going to the airport.” My third host dad and brother picked me up on Friday afternoon. I had already known the Hammers pretty well so the moving in process was much more relaxed and felt pretty natural. I live in a pleasant village called Kaidenbourg consisting of just 3 streets, and some 200 inhabitants. My host family has a farm and six cows. Life is good.

It has been snowing every day for the past 5 days so I took it upon myself to finally make a snowman. With the help of my younger host brother, I built my largest snow man to date. He would later be named Sydney. Upon waking up Sunday morning, I learned that somebody in Kaidenbourg is not to keen on winter fun and decided to ruin my five-foot-five carrot-nosed friend in the wee hours of the morning. Je vais te trouver, et quand je te trouve ça ne sera pas jolie…

I saw that the new outbounds had all been selected. Seeing those photos was just another nail in the coffin. I can’t even process that I have but 4 months to go.

To next year’s outbounds, congratulations. I can only really say that your exchange year is what you make it. It’s true that the first half can be tough, but take it from me, work hard and you’ll be reaping the benefits this time next year. Good luck, and I look forward to meeting you guys at the Welcome Home Dinner.

Until next month…

May 6 Journal

Spring has arrived, and with it came the long awaited, and highly acclaimed Bus Trip. The trip that consists of 52 exchange students, 14 days, 12 cities, 4 countries and 1 bus. A formula that can only produce the best of atmospheres.

My trip began at the crack of dawn on the 5:45 train to Paris from Strasbourg. Once in Paris, myself and the other participating exchange students from district 1680 would meet up with the rest of the group. From the eastern train station we were led directly to the bus where a few other kids had been waiting. A half hour had gone by when I realized the bus was packed. I still continue to be astonished at what happens when exchange students are together. The fact that we were all exchange students naturally made us amicable but because we would be spending the next two weeks sharing the same bus, hotel rooms and dinner tables we could sense the familiarity that was yet to come.

We did a quick (to some disappointing) bus tour of Paris, only stopping at the Eiffel Tower for what seemed like a quick photo shoot. From Paris we headed to Strasbourg. To a few of us this was home to us. I could sense a look of misunderstanding on the faces of the other exchange students who were not fortunate enough to have been placed in such a region like Alsace. I recall one person seeing all the local village names (Niederbroan, Ammerschwihr, Kaysersberg, etc.) and asking if we had already crossed into Germany. Once in Strasbourg we were let loose to find something to eat. Alsace being one of the more conservative regions, and the day happening to be Good Friday, everything and anything seemed to be closed. We trekked on, found some kepab, and proceeded to the guided tour of the city I thought I had known so well.

From Strasbourg we departed for Munich. This was one of the cities I had been really looking forward to on the trip. I can’t lie, before this year I had the impression that German culture seemed to fall on the colder side, but a trip to Hofbräuhaus certainly proved me wrong.

Within a 4 hour drive, what once was Germany became Austria and gloomy cloud-filled skies became clear as glass. We were more then mildly amused in the two lovely cities of Innsbruck and Salzburg. I found as though the sausage vendors and Austrian folk groups who were displaced in the streets proved to be crucial elements in making Austria one of my new favorite countries.

Next stop Italy. The drive through the Italian alps was astonishing but my tired state left me feeling rather guilty for not having my eyes plastered to the bus window. So I stood up, and let myself ride shotgun with the driver. We arrived to our hotel which was situated in what seemed like “any beach town U.S.A.” about 20 minutes from downtown Venice. Gloomy weather was back in town but that didn’t stop all the girls in Italy from donning oversized sunglasses that made them look more like insects then super models. I hate to be honest but I would hate it even more to lie. Venice, to me, resembled a pair of jeans from Abercrombie and Fitch. Meticulously dressed yet all too expensive. I did however amuse myself a little too much with the ever so famous pigeons.

From Italy we drove across the coast into the south of France. The most breath taking sights I have seen since my coming here. Villages perched on cliffs seemed to hang on for dear life. Like many places in the world the south means sunny weather which in conclusion gave us the first day where we could throw on a pair of shorts. A lunch break in Nice had me on the brink of making a down payment on some real estate. From Nice we went to a perfume factory where I learned about the most boring job in the history of employment. On the way to Marseille we made a small detour in a little seaside village. It was here that I was perusing up and down the streets with 2 other friends and happened to see 2 famous French actors. One of the kids who was present at the time happened to a huge fan of their soap opera and asked if we could take a picture. Later that night back at the hotel we watched the series and went nuts every time they came on the scream telling everyone in the hotel lobby that they were our friends. Didn’t believe us? The proof is in the pictures…

We left Marseille early in the morning and headed directly for Lyon. We only got a quick guided tour of Lyon. Everything I saw was through a bus window so I don’t feel as though I have much to say about this city although it looked like it could have been a good time.

Like every morning the loud banging on our door with a voice telling us we had 5 minutes to be in the bus became rather habitual for the kids in my room. We hit the road in search of Geneva, Switzerland. We took a guided tour of the United Nations headquarters. I learned a lot about bureaucracy and my tour guide conveniently denied any knowing of the New World Order and the powers that be. After the tour we were let loose yet again in search of a late lunch.

From Geneva it was off to our last city, Dijon. The ride was rather melancholy. Everyone had known the end closing in. After a fun night in Dijon we all woke our tired eyes to pack the bus for the last time. The group had already started to split with certain students taking the train from Dijon back to their respective cities, and villages. Those of us still remaining boarded the bus for a 5 hour drive back to Paris were we would be disposed at selective train stations. The goodbyes were hard. In two weeks these 52 kids had become family. We shared everything from headphones and opinions to hotel rooms and classic exchange student stories. These were the best two weeks of my life.

I returned to Kaidenbourg eager to see my host family and sleep in a real bed. I still had a week left of my school vacation to recuperate from the fatigue brought on from the voyage. Since then I have found myself back in the classroom, back to the simple life in my wonderful farming village of 150. For the past few days we have been anxiously waiting the arrival of a baby calf.

Life is perfect right about now. Ici tout va bien.

I would just like to thank my amazing parents and let them know how much I appreciate all they have taught me over the years. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

La vie est très belle. Alors, souris.

July 3 Journal

The curtain-call,

And so like all things in life, my voyage has come to an end. The last few weeks have been filled with every emotion you could think of. I look back on my year in France and can only smile and exhale with a sense of accomplishment and understanding. Nobody can take this from me. The size of my heart has doubled in making space for the amazing people that have graced my life. Whether it be my amazing host parents or the lady in the Paris airport who tried to convince me that going home was not the end of the world, I’m convinced people are good. Coming home is hard. I’m trying to embrace this culture without losing everything I learned to appreciate in France. It does a number on your heart, and feelings.

In a matter of a few days after coming, I moved to Miami to start college at Florida International. As for now, I will be studying French. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at the welcome home dinner.

I would just like to again thank you all. La vie est belle alors profitez bien…

Christian Ray
2005-06 Outbound to Argentina

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bishop Kenny High School
Sponsor: South Jacksonville Rotary Club
Host: Lomas de San Isidro Rotary Club, District 4820, Argentina

Christian - Argentina

September 19 Journal

OK so where to start? I spent my last few days in the states saying my goodbyes and last minute packing. The morning of my trip I prepared myself for a very loooong trip.

The flight to Argentina was only ten and a half hours but I had to make a detour to Washington D.C. like many other exchange students from around the United States. Even though it was a little out of my way to fly three hours north and have a nasty wait in the airport, it was worth it. The exchange students on the plane with me were awesome. Like all exchange students are. We were loud and rowdy getting on the plane and full of energy and stayed that way for much of the trip to the chagrin of some travelers. I myself have a slight problem with sitting in a cramped seat for ten hours. The seats on airplanes really are not made for people over 5’5”. As the hours ticked by, the exchange students talked and played cards, listened to music or tried to sleep. Only about four people were able to get any sleep. As we closed upon Argentina I was entertained by a wonderful lightning storm out my window. It was so beautiful and I could see the flashes in the different thunderheads because we were up so high.

Once we landed and got into the airport we faced the “challenge” of customs. The customs in Argentina were the easiest I had ever been through. Once through customs we were taken to claim our baggage and then “herded like cats…” as I heard it put, to meet our families. Feeling like I was in a sauna with my Rotary jacket on I slipped it off and threw it over my bag I was carrying. And of course, with my great luck I was not met by my family, no, but my exchange counselor and most of the people in charge of the exchange program in Argentina, the ones who told us to wear our jackets. You just have to love first impressions.

Anyhow, I was taken to meet my first exchange family and in the process also got to meet my second family and the student staying with them from Belgium. Once I had slowed down and dropped my stuff in my room I realized just how tired I was. I had been up for approximately 24 hours. I was just a little tired. I spent my first three days in Argentina just adjusting, and letting it sink in where I was and for how long. It rained for the first few days but I was fine with that because the rain calmed me and I just regained energy from the trip. My family are excellent cooks and are very warm and caring people.

My first day of school was very exciting. The school itself is very large and there are over three thousand students. Many of the students in the class spoke understandable English and I realized then how lazy Americans really are that we only know English and that is it. I also found that some people here speak better English than people in the United states. So sad. It made it very easy to make friends, but the subjects here are extremely difficult for me. I am loving it here, with its new foods, crazy drivers, warm people, awesome architecture, and the new lifestyle I am living. A month has already gone by and I found myself saying, wow, where did all that time go. I will have to make the most of what time I do have left.

From Argentina with love.

Christian

November 15 Journal

Hey guys,

I am now closing on my third month in Argentina and although communication is still somewhat stressed sometimes, things are good. Right now I am feeling very good about my surroundings and the good group of friends that I am making at school. Luckily I haven’t been really sick like some exchange students get when they travel but I do have some bad allergies here, but it is a small price to pay for such an adventure.

WEATHER: Ok, so the weather here is really weird. When I arrived in Buenos Aires it was somewhat chilly and from then alternated between chilly and downright cold with some days of nice weather thrown in just for kicks. Now as I am writing it has been quite hot and and my school uniform which consists of sweatpants and a shirt that is literally made out of the roughest fabric they could find is not the most comfortable thing to sit in when the class has no air conditioning. Ahhhh, one thing I miss more than ever, the Floridians’ over use of air conditioning. Although is is hot right now, I am told it gets hotter in the months of January and February… oh great. But that is ok because I am headed to the beach with one of my best friends here and his family rented a house for a few weeks. Rock on.

SCHOOL: The schools here are very relaxed and the teachers and the kids converse on the same level when not in class. Although I heard the Latin culture is somewhat lazy and have been seeing a little of it myself, they have really really hard subjects in school. All of the classes are more advanced than in the states and I am definitely lost even when I can slightly understand the teacher. The kids in the school are great. Everyone is nice and many of my classmates are helping me with leaning phrases and words. Even though some of the things might be inappropriate, they think it is hilarious to have the foreign kid say things he has no idea what they mean, I am still learning nonetheless everyday. All of the classes are really kicking my butt, trigonometry, chemistry, biology, and physics. All things that I have never seen before or don’t remember how to do, but the English classes…. I got those covered. =) The English classes here show me how much you miss from not learning a language where it is spoken. It is very interesting for me also because I have to listen hard to the accent that is Argentinian and British mixed because they learn British style English. The school is gigantic and everyone is relaxed. On hot afternoons all the students go into the courtyard and find any shade and just lay around talking and enjoying the outdoors and good company. It is really a nice change compared to the fast paced schools of the United States.

ARGENTINIAN NEWS: You may have seen some glimpses of Argentina. Luckily my part of town is really safe. Here is a briefing of what has happened in the past month in Argentina. In the middle of October there were elections to choose the new senator. For the first time in Argentina a woman was elected. There was very mixed reactions to this, and resulted in some protests. Here is it obligatory to vote. Only if you are disabled or too far away from the voting stations are you excused. The penalty if you do not vote is you are not allowed to leave the country and have to pay a fine of 1 peso. Kind of a strange penalty but it works. A couple days later the trains and subways went on strike which resulting in rioting and a train catching on fire. They do not know if it was on purpose or not. The week after a huge shopping mall right near my house caught on fire, there was over 20 fire trucks from all over Buenos Aires. Then came the biggest news. The meeting of the Americas. 34 of the leaders of the countries in South and North America, except Cuba came and had a meeting in Mar del Plata. Which is 2 hours from my house. Huge riots erupted all over Buenos Aires protesting the arrival of Bush . Fires and bombs were set and many injuries happened. Although all this happened in Buenos Aires, I saw nothing of it except on the news.

THE TRIP: So as I mentioned above I am going on a trip to the south of Argentina. I am going with 25 other exchange students. This will be really awesome because in my district there are only 10 exchange students, and most of them live at least an hour away. We are visiting the provinces La Pampa, Neuquen, Rio Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego. The last province Tierra del Fuego is known as the end of the world, with breathtaking views of glaciers, and penguins too! We are also doing activities like whale watching, hiking, visiting lakes, and much much more. We are going for something like 20 days and every day is jammed packed with activities. I’ll try to smuggle back a penguin for anyone that wants one. HAHAHAH (just kidding Al, I promise I wont get arrested for smuggling illegal birds)

HOLIDAYS: What to say about holidays? Holidays here are really well remembered. Argentinians love a good time and will never forget a time when they can have one. Birthdays are a huge thing and there is a pattern that is always followed. Don’t ask me why, I am still trying to figure it out myself. The girls bring the cake and the boys bring something to drink. Always. Makes it easy that way to remember. Halloween here is not celebrated, much. I say this because no one decorates for it and only three people came by dressed up. Anyways, every other holiday is celebrated with an asado, or a barbecue.

FOOD: My favorite part. as mentioned above most people have asados, all the time, which are barbecues, but these are no ordinary barbecues. They cook almost every part of the cow. Including several of the inner parts. Although slightly disgusting to think about, just don’t ask and everything tastes fine. Another part of the food here is lack of seasoning. They do not season any of the meat. They say that they wish to taste only the flavor of the meat and not the spices. The only spice used in abundance here is salt. My dad would love this country. As he says, “if it isn’t liquid or chocolate, it needs salt.” A phrase heartily upheld by the Argentinians. Fresh bread, vegetables, and fruit are also a large part of the diet. I found out the fruit was very fresh because it goes bad after a week or week and a half instead of the fruit in the states that stays fresh for like what.. three weeks. The fresh bread is great and when ever I am missing home I go downstairs and break out the secret stash of peanut butter. Yeah for peanut butter. Although I have found dulce de leche which is addictive in its own way and when on a kind of Argentinian cookie called an alfojor, it is to die for. I have liked every part of the food I have tried here except one. It is a sausage called morcella. It is made with the blood of the cow. It has a very interesting taste and a very odd texture that is disgusting to the touch. I can predict now that I will most likely come home with the exchange student fifteen pounds and a craving for dulce de leche and alfojores.

OTHER: My Spanish has improved so much since I arrived it is absolutely astounding. I am learning words everyday and new things also. I have been out to see the night life and dance the entire night away and then gone to school the next day. Fun stuff. I’m definitely going to miss how alive and booming this city is when I am gone, but I can’t think of that right now. I am going to have to soak up as much as I can and live my time to the fullest. I can’t think why anyone would not want to be an exchange student.

From Argentina with love.

Besos

Christian

December 18 Journal

Hey everyone, OK I have heard the expression that time flies and that it goes faster the older you get but this year is INSANE. Four months have gone by and it feels like its been one… or scratch that I have lost all sense of time. All I know is that I have seven more months to do everything that I want to do. Achievable. I hope. But if I don’t make it, maybe just maybe I will have to come back and visit. Hehehe.

I have just returned from the Rotary trip to the south of Argentina. WOW it was crazy. There is every type of land formation you could ever want in Argentina, well at least to me. There are the plains of Wyoming and the mountains like The Rockies and then again aren’t they part of The Rockies, well anyway they were beautiful. There are gigantic lakes of emerald and wonderful waterfalls in every national park. I have to say that I think we saw every national park in the south of Argentina. After a while they all look the same though, but that’s after about the fifth one. But I am not complaining. There were twenty two of us on the trip so it was quite diverse. Many of the students were from the states. A lot from New York and Minnesota. I have no idea why. But they were all cool and there were four people who spoke German so they spoke German almost the entire trip and anyone that was paying attention picked up on some of the words… even if they were the bad ones. We also had people from Belgium, France, a Swiss, a CRAZY Dane, a Hungarian, and a Austrian.

The trip itself was very tiring since we had to cover three thousand kilometers in twenty days. This meant several days were spent entirely on the bus. We only got grumpy when all of our ipods and cd players ran out of batteries. Otherwise we were always in a fairly good mood except on the mornings that we had to wake up at six to the sound of CHICOS, CHICOS! Those two words struck irritation into all of our hearts when we heard it… unless we were making fun of it. The trip traveled down the Atlantic coast, not right on the coast but sometimes we did catch glimpses of it, and traveled down to a place called Tierra del Fuego. We did stop in other little towns along the way to get there but they are not super important so I won’t bore you. But there was one town that we were right on this lake/port thing and all the boys and some of the girls went swimming. Really cold but super fun. Anyways Tierra del Fuego is part of Argentina but you have to pass through Chile to get there unless you fly. Yeah!!! Now I can say I have been to Chile and its stamped in my passport. Yeah!!!

Sorry. Once you pass through several hours of what seems to be desert and wasteland you come to the southern part of the area and it is really quite nice. Ushuaia is the southern most city in the word and is really a nice little town. A little chilly for flip flops which were quickly changed out for closed toed shoes. HEHE. Many of the students went around and bought things in the town and the Crazy Dane as before mentioned bought a cowboy hat. We all though this was stupid at first but it was really cool and everyone came to love the hat and girls were always wanted a picture with the hat. SWEET. Well we only were staying for a day so that night we decided to see what the night life was like at the bottom of the world. We paid our entrance fee and soon found out that the exchange students were the party on the bottom of the world. We stayed out until we had to leave because our bus was going to leave without us. In the south there we got to stop and walk on a glacier and drink glacier water and eat Argentinian candy on top of the glacier.

On the way back north we stopped at a lot of national parks but a few were very cool because one was by what seemed like a jump off point for tourist hikers and mountain bikers. There we had some great fun. We hiked three kilometers into the national park/tourism thingy-ma-bob and stopped at a waterfall for lunch and spent the entire day there just sun bathing and having fun. The water fall was about thirty to forty feet tall and me and one other guy named Joe from Minnesota (amateur photographer) went to the top of the waterfall and got great pictures and found a little secluded spot that had its own private waterfall and a pool area. Later that day some of us just laid out and looked at the stars because they were so clear. Another major town we stopped at was Bariloche. Bariloche is the party capital of Argentina. Although of this fact we decided to forgo the partying because it was fifty pesos to get into the club and we didn’t feel like walking twenty three kilometers each way. Because the last few days left us with very little to do. In one small town four of us dyed our hair. I am now officially a black haired boy. As the trip came to a close and we were on the bus for the last night, Argentina granted us with a beautiful sunset. That morning as we rolled into Buenos Aires, we were all destroyed but had so much fun that we didn’t care at all. We all said our goodbyes and hoped that we would see each other again on the trip to the north. Now I am feeling free and having a great time because I am on summer vacation and about to go to the beach. yeah!!!! I hope you all enjoyed my rendition of the trip but I know that you will never know the true amount of fun unless you experience it for yourself.

With love from Argentina.

Christian

February 11 Journal

All I can say right now is “wow I am really tired”. I have just returned from the craziest month of my life. For the past month I have been chilling on the beach and having fun during the night nonstop for the past thirty or so days. Alright now that you know why I am tired I will tell you what happened during that crazy month.

To begin, Pinamar is one of the best beaches in Argentina so I was extremely fortunate to be invited by a friend to go and stay at a house they had rented near the beach. We left on the 29 of December so we could make it for new years. For some in the states twelve pm is late and they stay up until midnight like twice a year, well here if you even made the suggestion of going to bed at midnight they would seriously check to see if you are ok. Normal curfew for kids around here is about thee or four in the morning. In other words the new years dinner lasted until midnight and everyone was having a good time. If there is one thing Argentinians can do, it is eat. It is absolutely incredible how much the people each here and then most of them are in good shape.

Anyways the dinner was asado or barbecue.  The asado is almost a reverent ceremony but with the drinking of lots of beer and good good company.  The meal consists of several different courses and different types of meat.  First there is a sausage called choriso and is almost always with bread, and then it is called a churipan. Really good and only the beginning.  Although the meat here is only seasoned with salt I find that I enjoy it as much as seasoned meat.  Along with the choriso is salads of lettuce and potato and eggs.  The next course is several different types of meat from different parts of the cow.  Such places as the neck, intestines, and other places I didn’t ask.  The next course is meat from the ribs and pork.  And the last course to come in is the regular cow meat cooked the slowest so it is the most tender.  When the cook walks into the room with the last part of the meal everyone claps and cheers and praises the cooking.  After everyone has had their fill of meat and the chatter starts to build the plates are cleared away and ice cream is brought out.  That is the overview of an asado.  In some families there is one every week and in others they have one only once a month.  But every one follows this pattern whether big or small.        

After the magnificent meal all the kids go into town to have some fun.  Pinamar is relatively small so it is a lot of people is a very small area.  A very common and favorite game of the kids here is metagol or table soccer.  It is very easy to meet lots of people because if you know one person they know five more and those people all have friends and so on and so forth.  I was amazed at how well I could remember the names now.  The names here are all different so I couldn’t remember the names to save my life but I started to remember all the names.  Yippy.  After about a week of having fun and getting to know people the next big thing was The Wailers concert.  For those that don’t know who The Wailers are, they are the band that performed with Bob Marley when he was singing.  And the coolest thing was that the concert was free. 

After the concert we were all starving from dancing to reggae for several hours so we went to a place called Pancho Pueblo.  The name means pretty much “hotdog town” but these are not your normal hotdogs.  nooooo.  These are foot long hotdogs with with ham and cheese melted on the top and then two sauces of different kinds such as spicy, four cheese, and things of this nature with little crunchy potato fries on top.  One thing I have to complain about here is the french fries.  They are more like potato slivers.  In other words the panchos are awesome.  Every morning around four we would eat one.  I am addicted. 

The next really nice thing was on the beach when they had a bikini fashion show and some of Argentina’s biggest models were there.  I can say only one word.  GORGEOUS!  I love it here.  Just about the only advertisements here is beautiful women.  For everything, drinks, drugs (legal ones), clubs, beaches, and clothes. 

The last week was the best and by this time I was well tanned also after being on the beach for the minimum of four hours a day.  I went out twice to party and had a great time.  The first time we started the day by playing pool and then went to a little bar/club.  The dance floor was small but there was a lot of people on the floor and a really good DJ.  The second time I went out was the last night I was in Pinamar.  We left for a place called Ku.  One of the biggest night clubs I had ever seen.  It was so big it needed three entrances.  The main building was two floors and then it had several smaller building surrounding it.  There were rooms for every type of music you could want.  There was the techno room, my personal favorite,  the rap and hip hop room, thecumbia room,  kind of like Argentina rap, and then several areas of normal all around mixes.  It was really nice – if you didn’t like the music, change the room. We entered around two and watched the sunrise from the back of Ku over the ocean.  A real sight.  To accompany the sunrise was another fashion show. 

Around six or so we left to go home and get some rest and then the next day we left for Buenos Aires and back to normality again. Well almost.  When I got back we realized that the family that was my next family was in Brazil and will be there for the next two weeks.  So maybe normality isn’t the word I want to use.   I will never forget my month in Pinamar.  I still can’t wait to see what comes next in an adventure filled with surprises of every shape and form. 

With love from Argentina.

Christian

March 14 Journal

Hola muchachas y muchachos,

Wow things are really starting to speed up or slow down. I have no idea which but I do know that I have lost all track of time. I have also lost all of my spelling abilities in English. fun huh. That will not be fun jumping right back into school when I get back. Alright but where to start with my story. There are so many stories and side stories and I want to tell them all but then I think I would definitely win the prize as longest journal ever. As the life of a the normal exchange students goes, nothing is ever easy except in rare occasions and then usually someone is messing with me. But anyway I can take and keep on ticking.

When I returned from the beach I was welcomed with the news “oh yeah, your host family is in Brazil for another two weeks.” At that moment I was having pictures of me sleeping on the street. But that has never happened to an exchange student before so I quickly dismissed the thought and went on to think about where I was headed to next. To my surprise I was headed to the house of my club’s president. His family warmly welcomed me and I felt like one of the family in no time. But when two weeks were up I was headed to my next family and spent a month there (I don’t know why) and then I was switched again to a family that is great. But I was rather surprised when I walked into my new room and it was pink. Not just pink but TWO different shades of pink. Their daughter Dana is in Jacksonville right now and to tell the truth I am a little jealous. I really miss my big semi boring city for some reason. Maybe it’s the beach.

The last few weeks for me have really been busy. I had my birthday for which I was surprised with trip to a theme park for a day with several of the exchange students here and my host brother. Lots of fun and there was this thing that they towed you up about twenty stories and I was strapped into a harness with Oliver the student from Switzerland and then they proceeded to drop us into a huge parabolic swing. It was wildly fun but extremely hot. Surprisingly I don’t miss air conditioning a lot and I am most likely going to freeze my butt off when I get back though. Exactly eight days later one of my good friends here had his birthday and we partied and had… you guessed it. An asado. This was his 17th birthday which is pretty big here because here it means you can drive. It’s like our 16th birthday. After that I had the good luck of the exchange student with me and I got tickets for a show of Argentinian history. All of the show involved horses and some form of Argentinian cowboys. A very good show and a quick history lesson for me. hehehe.

I am starting my second week of school this week and the past weekend was I think the busiest weekend of my entire life or maybe not the busiest but definitely the most tiring. On Saturday I went walking around the capital trying to see everything I could see in the tourist aspect of the city. It’s like trying to see all the things in Washington D.C. – it’s not possible. I have to say since I haven’t seen Washington or Europe, Buenos Aires has awesome architecture. I spent seven hours walking around the capital and when me and my friend decided to head back we both fell asleep on the train. Not the most safe thing to do but we were exhausted. But that didn’t even finish my day at all. My day was not going to end until six thirty in the morning. After I got home I got cleaned up, said adios to my host parents again, and I was off for an asado (barbecue) with my friends. An asado here always includes meat, music, and friends, lots of them. And after that you can do whatever you want. During the party I was invited to a party and of course I want to go party with you guys. Well, lucky for me that I was a foreigner because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get past the door. There were so many people they had bouncers at the gates. Once inside it is absolutely incredible how fast an accent can make you friends. Soon I was surrounded by a group of people all asking me questions and things like that. The party wrapped up around six and I caught a cab back to my house. Around three the next day my host mom woke me up and I sleepily ate my food and then took a shower and I was much better and then the entire family went to a place called Palermo. A place full of culture and noise of Buenos Aires. During the weekends there is a market of sorts like a old medieval town or something with lots of people and lots of little tents with vendors calling out to people to buy their wares and other people performing for money and things that are all colorful and alive.

I hope that one day everyone can just experience a little piece of a different culture if not for a year at least for a day. Because it needs only a day to change your view.

Lots of love to all. Un beso.

Christian

May 19 Journal

Hey everyone, the last month or two or however long I have been off the grid for have been absolutely amazing. All the exchange students know exactly what I am talking about when I say that we have really come to be a part of our country and love and enjoy it. I am apologizing in advance if my English is somewhat unsatisfactory. I guess that means I have really become immersed when your mother tongue is horrible and it’s easier to understand things in Spanish.

I know that I don’t want to leave but I kind of have to when my visa expires and governments don’t really like illegal aliens in their country no matter how laid back the country is. It’s amazing how much I have changed in the last months here. I don’t know exactly when or how I changed but I can tell there is a definite change in me. I have been trying to do as many things in the wonderful city of Buenos Aires as possible in the short time I have left. Right now I have been visiting the free jazz festival that is being held right now all over the city. I have never visited a city like Buenos Aires and I hope to visit more but BA will always have a special place in my heart forever.

Over the past two months I have seen ever more of Argentina in the trip to the north with the some really cool exchange students but not as cool as the group from Jax. While the trip on the bus was a little uncomfortable it was unbelievably fun with the crazy Germans and the one and only Swiss. I will remember them forever and always have fond memories of getting into trouble but never really because we were just too darn cute and charming. As I said I spent most of my time with the Germans and the Swiss who also spoke German so my German has also improved incredible. hehe. In every place we visited we tried to do something out of the ordinary, not on purpose, but because it was something to do so that we would remember the trip even better. We did things like hiking in our boxers or trying to always find the highest place and get to the top and back down before we had to go. It was things like that that I will always remember about this trip. Gracias Matias, Philip, y Oliver por las memorias. Some of the places we travel to we places like Jujuy, Tilcara, Salta, Mendoza, and Tucuman. Very nice all of them but a little dry for me. Almost all of those places are high altitude desert so my lips died on that trip.

We visited the Waterfalls of Iguazu or however you spell it I forgot. INCREDIBLE!!!!! If you ever have the chance to go there DO NOT turn it down. There are also a ton of butterflies and tons of wildlife. Its just too bad that I think I got water in my camera from the falls but its all right, they were amazing. We also went to several restaurants that had special people come in for us and dance and play music and we got to dance and have a grand time. We also visited some ruins that were really neat and reminded me of a series that I read when I was little that the castle was made of all red stone just like the ruin we went to. I have a ton of pictures despite the fact that my camera is a piece of crap and always can’t focus or doesn’t have batteries. Well the last one is partly my fault but I like to blame it on the camera anyways cause it can’t fight back.

One of my most vivid memories is the last night on the bus when all of us were on the bus singing and dancing and talking and enjoying maybe the last time we would ever be together again. It was in that moment the national anthem of Argentina came on because it was one on of the cds and all of us started singing at the top of our lungs the national anthem of Argentina. when it finished we then proceeded to sing the national anthem of every country represented there. Canada, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. After all the anthems we all cheered and went immediately back to singing and having a jolly old time. I have now traveled this country from top to bottom and there really is no other country like it in the word. It’s beautiful. I can’t believe it!

My host family is incredible. I am saddened that I will have to leave and finish my year in another house but I guess that Dana, their daughter will want her room back. Wow that’s right my year is almost over. I only have two months left. But in the same instant I am happy to see my friends again but like when I left I have to leave the friends I have made here and there isn’t the known chance that I will see them again because I don’t know when I will return again and that saddens me but I know that every student in another country will be doing the same so I must go on and look to the future that I will see them again one day, or just save my money and come back next year.

And recently I have started taking salsa classes in my neighborhood. The teacher is very nice and it’s very informal and there are only a few people per class so every class is very personal and fun. I have never taken a dance class before but it is really fun and now I can impress the ladies. heheh…. yeah anyways.

For the past months we had nice weather. Kind of a fall in the north kind of weather but now it’s bitter cold. This morning it was 4 degrees Celsius. For those of you that don’t know I am in my house with a sweater and a scarf and sweat pants. I have also bought many clothes here and I looked at myself one day and I realized that everything I was wearing I had bought here in Argentina. I have also been looking for clothes for Florida when I go back because the clothes here are much cheaper. Looking for clothes for summer when it’s almost winter here doesn’t work. I ask “do you have t shirts?” it’s kind of a rhetorical question because I know the answer already.

In the end of it all I have become a different person, hopefully one that you will all like but a different person and I hope to surprise you all. Love from the bottom half of the globe. To the exchange students can’t wait to see you all. See you in July.

Christian

Amber Ridgley
2005-06 Outbound to France
Hometown: Palm Coast, Florida
School: Flagler Palm Coast High School
Sponsor: Flagler County Rotary Club
Host: Issoire Rotary Club, District 1740, France

Amber - France

September 19 Journal

I waited patiently on the plane awaiting the journey I had gotten myself into. I arrived in the Paris airport – who knew it was soo big!!! The French language echoed in my mind it felt as if I was dreaming. From the Paris airport I had an hour flight to CLERMONT airport were I would see Pierre again and greet my host family for the first time. By this time anxiety filled my body.

I remember directly walking through the baggage clam area as some glass doors opened in front of me. There stood a crowd of people waiting for me. I gave Pierre a hug and said long time no see, and then my host mom hugged me as if she already knew me. I gave my host dad two kisses the famous French way and greeted the president of the Rotary Club here and my counselor.

OK I will fast forward a week into my stay. Wow school here is so different than in Florida. Kids here do not talk in class at all; they all come in, sit down, and do their work … no side conversations or questions being asked about weekends. Is it possible for me to have culture shock this early on? At school is where I truly feel that I am an outsider in a foreign world. Getting adjusted to their system is hard, but a challenge I am working through. Advice I have for others: take things slowly and try not to get frustrated. I seem to be doing fairly well in my language – I find it much easier to understand than to talk back. I’m still working on that part.

I have my own room with pink sheets on the bed – very chic. A wooden desk and a very pretty chest door thing to put my stuff in. They have a cat, her name is Zora, and she seems to like me. Also it took me 5 minutes to figure out how to flush the toilet and I thought toilet flushing was universal, all done the same way. The weather here is much different from the heat and humidity of Florida. It’s cold cold cold!!! At least to me it is and it’s not even winter yet. I have snow and skiing in the mountains to look forward to and might I add I have never seen snow!

I live in a small town here which is absolutely amazing and everyone knows each other. You cant pass a corner without saying hello to someone you know. Everything is old which adds an extra uniqueness to the homes and buildings. Cafés are everywhere. The true French essential. I must say the French really do love their bread and cheese. These two items are a must have for every meal. The bread is fine for me but….. the cheese is another story!!!!

The past 2 weeks I have been here I’ve seen some beautiful places and of course I took lots of pictures that I will share once I figure that part of my camera out haha.

I guess we can say I’m still trying to find my place here. It seems to me like I am sitting back observing how the French live. Like I am moving in slow motion enjoying every little moment of the day. It’s wonderful I made it here. I keep telling myself that as I stare into the mountains that make up this town.

Thank you to all that made this exchange happen for me. I truly appreciate it!! Shout outs to my other exchange students across the world – hope all is good !!!!

Until next time

October 21 Journal

EVOLUTION MOVES FORWARD NEVER BACKWARDS BUTTERFLIES NEVER BECOME CATERPILLARS

(eric jerome)

With that quote in mind I’m going to start my second entry. THE FRENCH LIFE THE FRENCH LIFE that rolls through my head every sec. of the day. Every thing is lovely here. I couldn’t ask for anything better well… maybe a million dollars lol just playing. My host family are the sweetest people to me. I feel so much like a part of the family I don’t even feel like I’m living in someone else’s house!!! My host brother Antoine is the cutest thing ever. I think me and him have so much in common, he likes to break dance and always has music blasting in the house. I like to dance and I’ll die if I don’t have my music!!! He reminds me of an older version of my little brother Mario – it’s so weird how this family is so alike with my own family!! Vincent (that’s the magic name right there) my host dad is the most funniest person I think I’ve ever met. He is always joking around and he sings around the house no matter what he is doing and for fun he runs all the time and I do mean all the time. My host my mom Francoise is soooooo sweet, she’s just like a mommy to me “ambert (my name pronounced in French) are you hungry … do you need this do you need that???” me- non je suis bein!!! And of course my now older brother Pierre just understands me so much I can talk to him about anything and he is willing to listen no matter what it is!!!

Ok Issoire is an amazing town. I’m always there walking around with my friends and we go to cafes quite often, guess you can say I’m blending in with the French quite well. My life here is starting to become just that LIFE! I do normal things, wake up go to school, do work, come home, and all the while I’m thinking, OH MY GOD I’m living a French life yeah!!!!!! For me I walk down the vast assortment of streets Issoire has to offer saying, I made it here, I did it, I did it! And then splat I stepped in dog poop, one of the many things France has to offer – it’s everywhere here!! ok moving on. At school I have an adventure everyday. I can never just go to school, something always has to happen to me. Let me share one of my school days with you and let’s keep in mind French school is not the same as in Florida – the class splits into groups sometimes and maybe one group has class one hour while the other group does not. Me being the exchange student that just hears blah blah blah all day didn’t know I was in the group that had class! So I went to a place where kids go when they are free for one hour. After 30 min passed a unusually big French man walks in the door and says ATTENTION EST AMBERT ICI???? English is Amber here??? Everyone looks around and I stand up OUI C’EST MOI!!!!! English yes that’s me!!!!! The conversation after that……

FRENCH GUY– Ambert don’t you know you are suppose to be in class right now
ME IN MY HEAD– if I knew I had class would I be here right now?
MY REAL REMARK– oh really look at my schedule it says I don’t
FRENCH GUY– oh yes but you are in the other group today so you have class
ME– oh my god what!!!! sweat dripping down my face
ME AGAIN– ok I will go to class – puts on Rotary smile

i stood up then in horrific embarrassment, looked around at the other kids wondering why my French sucks so bad and why I didn’t know I had class. I moved my legs to walk and they felt like I was glued to the floor; with all the strength I had I walked out the door. Fresh air hit my face relaxing me for a cher min. but then I realized I have to walk into my class a half hour late. Then I felt a tear roll down my face, my whole body felt so heavy, and it was hard to breathe. Somehow I managed to make it up the 3 flights of stairs to my class without breaking down completely. My fingers gripped the door knob and I think my guardian angel pushed me in the door because I would not have walked in on my own. With French eyes staring at me I went up to the teacher as some kids yelled oh Ambert est la!!! then giggles!!! the teacher looked at me trying to figure out what to say to me and the best she came up with was oh did you forget you had class??? conversation…..

ME IN MY HEAD AGAIN– no how in the hell does one forget they have a class maybe just maybe I didn’t know I had one!!!!! can you stop laughing at me please I’m an exchange student I don’t always understand, can you step into my place for a min. live my life for a hour!!! tell me how you would be feeling right now??? it’s not fun not always understanding or not knowing!!! after all this could you still smile could you last being in my position (evil laugh) REALITY– oh I didn’t know I had class, sorry it will not happen again – Rotary smile (starting to wear off)
TEACHER– find a place and sit down!

Yes and that’s just one day at school. The other day I went to school thinking I had class but noooooo I wasn’t aware that my teachers were not going to be there and neither was my class. WOW I feel like I’m in an episode of diary on MTV ….. you think you know but you have no idea this is a day in the life of AMBER RIDGLEY the exchange student hahaha but it’s all fun!!

I’m looking back on those experiences and they don’t seem as bad as they did when it was happening! And in a way I’m thankful for that because if not I wouldn’t have any stories to share with AL and the future exchange students at those interesting meetings when I get back!! So I’m loving all my experiences good and bad and to the onlookers don’t worry that’s just one of my many exchange student breakdowns, not the first and I’m sure its not the last!!

Never thought I would be able to share such interesting things about my life and that’s just it, now I have a LIFE!!!!!! THE FRENCH LIFE!!!!! And now back to my quote that started this off. I’m thankful for all of this because I can’t stop time… I can’t pause the world to suit my enjoyment… and as I watch the days disappear into memories I think about what I can do. I can enjoy every single second of the day even if I am just sitting around. I can and I have opened up my eyes. I see everything now. I’m starting to see ME! The real me. I’ve abandoned that insecure Amber, the one who always cared what people said or thought about me. Because here it’s so different you can’t help but to change and grow up a little everyday!! And I truly am in love with my life!!!!

until next time my curious friends……

December 8 Journal

Flash makes me feel good, feel like a queen and it gives me all the panache that I want that I need and it will all be over in a flash!!!!!! (Lenny Kravitz)

Wow how long has it been? It’s my 3 month mark and it feels nice to live life in France! Ok I will start things off with the weather. Well here in the part of France that I am in it’s pretty cold. It snowed one day but not that much. I was fascinated b/c it was my first time seeing snow! I was on my way to school and it was raining a little and before I knew it the rain turned into ice and the ice turned into snow. I stopped walking, held out my hand, and started jumping up and down saying snow snow snow!!!! For me it was great but I think I scared one guy with my excitement – he gave me a look like wow did you take your meds this morning? To get a little more familiar with the snow my host dad took me to the mountains where there were tons of it! He also threw a snowball at me!! (thoughts) hmm cant’ wait until it really snows b/c then its war hehehe!!

Alright November was the most busy month I have had. On the 19th it was my host brother Pierre’s B-Day. So to celebrate he went to a Moby concert and then with the family we had a really big lunch with everyone and he got a lot of gifts and we ate some really good cake! On the 27th I had dinner with all 3 of my host families at my Rotary counselor’s house. I enjoyed it b/c I got to spend time with everyone. My 4 host brothers and my host sister was able to get to know me a little better. Not to mention my host parents as well. Here I found out the dates I will be changing families: Jan. 1 I’m going to my second family, then on the 15th of March I’m going to my third family and then on the 1st of July I’m going back to my first family for goodbyes. I also found out that I will be going to the Alp mountains in February with my second family. With my third family we are going to travel around the south of France! So yep Ima be pretty busy. Ok now on the 28th of November I had an important school presentation to give about where I come from along with the other exchange students. So that was some major anxiety. Actually my presentation went great. I made a poster, did a power point and had lots of pictures to share. (Thank you Rotary for the tons of speeches you made us give before leaving b/c that really helped me) I was able to give my presentation smoothly in French. My Rotary counselor was there with his wife and all 3 of my families to support me. I felt so special!!!

School is going ok. I mean there is nothing I can really say – school is school no matter where you are. Now that the teachers have noticed I understand, I do work now. Like reading in front of the class, taking notes and having questions asked to me. You know school stuff. French kids really take school seriously not saying that lightly!!! Me I’m like wow slow down enjoy life a little bit. But I would be the same if I were French. All comes down to culture, the magic word. It explains everything when you’re an exchange student! (even the food that raises question marks).

I’m not really homesick, I’m enjoying my time. I mean I do miss my friends and things but I will be back! I won’t ever be in France again at the age of 16 as an exchange student. So I’m making the best of this moment. And it is wonderful b/c I understand French now. I do have my moments when I have to ask someone to speak slow or something. But the thing is I understand!! Now I just have to work on talking. I still think in English so talking is always a lil more complicated. Of course I’m going to get it though!!!!

Right now I want to take this time to talk to my fellow exchange outbounders. Hey you guys we made it!!!!!! You’re in your destination!! I miss y’all bunches, can’t wait for us to meet up again. Enjoy this because everything comes to an end. And to those inbounds enjoy the Florida life. Wear some flip-flops for me and drink some Dr. Pepper. Hope you guys are enjoying life!!!!

THANKS FOR EVERYONE WHO HELPED ME GET HERE. ALL OF OUR HARD WORK IS PAYING OFF !!!!

January 3 Journal

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL 2006 YEY!!!!!!!!

So yes we have entered into a New Year bringing more wonderful and interesting experiences.

My Christmas was awesome. I spent 3 lovely days in PARIS. Paris being my number one dream place in France and I was there!!! I must say Paris is exactly what I expected. There are so many people from all parts of the world enjoying everything the city has to offer. Languages flood your ears as you walk the streets of the city. The fashion really is outstanding too!!! I was with my host family, yes all 5 of us in a European car. Interesting experience, but the city did make up for the car ride there. On top of all that it was during the holidays so the city was decorated with tons of Christmas lights. The lights added a wonderful romantic fairy tale view of Paris. Guess what you guys – I stood under La Tour Eiffel!!! It’s huge but I think Hollywood blew it out of proportion, it seems taller in the movies. I walked through the grand doors of Notre Dame and took pictures of the Arc de Triomphe. I was reduced to the size of an ant in front of the modern glass pyramid of the Louvre. I took a night ride on the famous Bateauw Mouches on the Seine River. I stood exactly in the middle of the Champs Elysèes and snapped a picture of myself!!! I even stood right on the Rose Line for those who read the book the Da Vinci code or know your history well then you know what I am talking about. I’m still flying in the sky from my trip to Paris!!!!!!!!!

I spent Christmas eve here in Issoire with the family!! We went to the parents of my host dad and ate a grand dinner. The French don’t eat that much so I can’t seem to figure out how we spent almost more than 3 hours eating. Don’t get me wrong, I love the food, it’s great!!! So we ate and at 21:00 pm we opened our Christmas presents from the family!! I got some cool things!!! On Christmas morning me and my family opened gifts from Papa Noel (wink wink) and then we went and ate some more for long hours at the mom of my host mom. It was our 5 hour lunch!! Overall Christmas was nice. I did miss my family and friends some. This was my first holiday without them so it was kind of hard!

OK for New Years I went to the mountains with a friend and her family to celebrate!!! That meaning having no signal on my cell phone eating for long periods of time and watching a movie next to the fire place!! Actually it was pretty funny my little host brother was having a party so the rest of the family had to find their own things to. My host parents went to the south of France and Pierre went with some friends. I had fun with my friend though when 12:00 came around, we gave kisses and acknowledged our accomplishments and all our future ones!!! I even got to take a hot bath!!!!!!!!! See I know that sounds ordinary but in a normal French home there is just a shower and no bath. So it had been a long time!!!!!! It was like my New Year treat hahahaha

So the holidays were not bad at all. Now I have found myself being able to count my remaining months on one hand! It’s a bitter sweet happiness with that! But I did make a New Year resolution……. it’s to be fluent in French in the next few months. YES YES I know I should be practical so in the next 2 weeks I will be completely fluent hahahaha I’m just joking = )

May 31 Journal

Jamais dit jamais mon père ici ill dit ça tout le temps !!!!!!! et maintenant je compred!!!!!

Wow long time eghh yes I know my journal kinda stops in December, but folks let’s not forget that I’ve built a life here and with that said I’ll start my entry……. hmm but where lets see……

JANUARY- I changed to my second host family les Foulland a very nice family here I had 3 host brothers but I only lived with one because the others were away at school!! This family a completely different dimension than when I was with my other family – we were very different people. I know that this exchange is about getting to know and understand another culture but well I’ll just say our differences separated us and caused for me to leave the family earlier than planned; mais bonne c’est la vie!!! So in the middle or end of

FEBRUARY – I changed to my third host family which was a well needed and welcomed change! Les Martins – they are such a kind and caring family I will miss them a lot! I had a mom Carman, a dad François, host brother Charles (10), and my host sister Cecile(16) comme moi I had an amazing time with this family. They took me all around France. I went down to the south for 3 days to see the beach … ok let’s say that the water in Florida is waaaaaaaaaaay warmer but nonetheless it was beautiful. I put my feet in the sand for the first time in 7 months it wasn’t quite yet summer time so I didn’t bust out my swim suit, but the vacation gave me time to get to know my host family a lot better and it brought us closer.

SCHOOL – ummmm I LOVE the French kids. I was able to experience something truly French. I’m not sure you Americans heard but throughout the month of February, March, and April there was a HUGE strike here concerning CPE – all the high schools and college kids around France protested, schools were closed for weeks, and I learned some really cool protest songs!!! VIVE LA FRANCE

Also with my second family they took me on a week vacation to PARIS; for the first 3 days we went to Disney World for my little brother Charles. Let me say that this is the only park in Europe so there were TONS of people, like always I had fun!!!! With this family I saw another side of Paris that I had never seen before. My host dad enjoys history a lot so he put a whole new outlook on things! I was able to visit the tomb were Napoleon is buried! I saw where they kept Marie Antoinette the last days before she was beheaded (that’s the last French queen if you guys weren’t sure) I went to many French theatres I was even lucky enough to see an opera in the famous Paris opera house – A ONCE IN A LIFE TIME EXPERIENCE! I have lots of memories, feelings, and emotions that I just can’t express with writing so hopefully I’m expressing myself well enough for you guys to understand!!

At the end of April I changed back to my first host family not because there were problems, but because my host mom missed and wanted me back so now i’m here enjoying my last few weeks where I started all this first. AMAZING AMAZING AMAZINGx100000000 I say this because my French well……of course I’m fluent and as of now I find it hard to write in English so sorry if there is mistakes. I can’t not believe I could NEVER (jamais) have imagined I would get to this point now!!!! I’m happy that I choose to do this, in the end it really is worth it, all the tears and hard work. I’m just now coming back from Toulon with my family for 3 days – that’s on the Cote D’Azur in the south of France.

I’m enjoying my last few weeks here sucking up the last of the French vibes just relaxing and living it up!!!! I have some bittersweet feeling because I really am going to miss my life here, my friends and family, my daily routines, and I must say that I’m scared of coming back because I have changed so much, and the Amber you knew before is not there anymore. I grew up in more ways then I expected and you can see it showing through everything I say and do. Also I find myself now thinking with 2 perspectives on life: the AMERICAN way and the FRENCH way, the two mixed up together!!!! The more things stay the same, the more they seem to change, don’t you think it’s strange?

Merci à tout pour cette experience!!!!!!

(Pictures coming soon.)

Tajah Schroff
2005-06 Outbound to Ecuador

Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Orange Park High School
Sponsor: Orange Park Sunrise Rotary Club
Host: Latacunga Rotary Club, District 4400, Ecuador

Tajah - Ecuador

July 6 “Pre-Departure” Journal

“Oh! Do not attack me with your watch! A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”  — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

44 days. 44 days is all that is left before I leave for Ecuador on Aug. 19th. It seems as though the day that I will say goodbye to my life here will never come. I want to be on the plane now, waving to the life I once knew. But at the same time, I still have so much to do before I depart. I’ve made the list of things yet to be done a thousand times by now, making sure that I am not forgetting anything, and my lists grow endlessly.

44 days seems like an eternity . . . until I think of everything I have to do. I finally have my paperwork together, and sometime in the next couple weeks I’ll be making the trip to Miami to meet with the consulate from Ecuador in order to get my Visa. My birthday will be here on the 14th, and the welcome home dinner is on the 21st. Right after that I’ll be flying up to Wisconsin to say goodbye to my grandparents and all my relatives. By the time I get back I will have only 18 days to pack, prepare and say goodbye to all my friends and family in Florida….

It’s crazy to think that all this began when Ken Weiss gave a presentation at my high school. I knew that I would be graduating soon, and that I would do something after high school, but I had never been quite able to put my finger on what. From the day that Ken gave his presentation, I knew that this program was meant for me, and that I was meant for this program. And, to my surprise, my mom supported me 100%.

The application process and the interviews were grueling, and for a brief period I doubted that anybody had made it through . . . maybe they just weren’t going to send anybody this year. And then my acceptance letter came. I had been selected, and I was going to my first choice country: Ecuador! Twenty of us made it out of who knows how many applicants, and I feel honored to be given this opportunity. Since that day in January, it’s been a whirlwind of orientation weekends, frustrating activities, jumbled languages, and new friends.

My graduation came and went and only one thing has been on my mind. Ecuador. I have already come to have an appreciation for Ecuador. I have talked to exchange students who’ve already gone and returned, people who live there, and members of my community who were raised there. I’ve spent countless hours reading and learning about Ecuador. It seems as though the travel bug has bitten me, and I haven’t even left yet. . .

My home in Ecuador will be quite different from my home here. I am a Florida girl born and raised. I only own two pairs of non-flip-flop shoes (apparently they don’t wear flip-flops in the Andes), and I own two light-weight jackets. I have no sweaters, no long sleeve shirts, nothing that would even protect me from a slight chill (shopping is a big part of my list). I have never seen mountains. There aren’t even hills where I live. I never thought that out of all the things that I will experience during my exchange year, I am most excited by the fact that all of my new memories will be created in front of a dramatic backdrop of mountains and volcanoes.

44 days. 44 days. And tomorrow it will only be 43. As a whole it seems so long, but as each day passes, I have no sound comprehension of time.

And to be honest, I’m scared.

How do you prepare yourself mentally for something of which you have no idea what to expect? My mom acts as though I’m never leaving, and my friends act as though I’m already gone. I find myself taking on household projects that have no significance. I’ve re-painted my bathroom twice. I’ve hung shelves, re-arranged, re-modeled, and re-decorated. It’s as though part of me won’t be ready to accept that I’m leaving until once I’m already gone.

A lot has changed between my family and I, and the same with my friends and I. So as I prepare to leave, I am leaving so much more behind than my country. I am leaving any sense of reality as I know it, I am leaving friendships that I thought would last forever, and I am leaving the remnants of my family behind. So I will be starting a new life twice, once in Ecuador upon my arrival and the other in my return to my home country. It is a very sad feeling knowing that I am not saying goodbye for only a year, but rather for a lifetime…

MOST IMPORTANTLY: I need to take the opportunity to thank Al and everybody involved in this program. It is an amazingthing to be able to experience, and without their hard work and dedication it wouldn’t be possible. They truly are changing the world one exchange at a time. Thank you!!

I also want to thank my Aunt Chris and Uncle Kerry. They have supported me from day 1, and without their continual encouragement and love, I would not be preparing to make a journey that will change my life. I love you both very much, and am eternally grateful for all you’ve done for me.

September 4 Journal

Hola to all. Things here in Latacunga are simply amazing. I arrived late on Friday night, Aug 19th, and my host family was waiting with flowers and balloons. The flight from Miami to Quito was relatively easy, and all of us exchangers stuck together….but one thing made a lasting impression on me. While passing through customs, we had to wait in line to hand our documents over to the customs agent. There was a quaint little sign asking us to please wait behind the line. And, consequently, there was a bright yellow line painted on the floor….and it dawned upon some of us that crossing that line meant crossing into a world completely and totally different and unfamiliar to us. The sign might have well said “No english beyond this point´´ Of course, this was expected, but to have such a concrete manifestation of such an abstract idea blew my mind…

It was a two hour drive from Quito to Latacunga, and the view was amazing. I’m from Florida, where everything is flat, flat, and more flat. I was awed to see lights shining from all levels of the horizon. It looked like a painting. Luckily, I understood everything that was said to me, so it wasn’t a quiet or awkward ride.

I got the grand tour of the house upon arrival, and man o man, it’s huge. I got lost a little at first, as there are many different levels. I have my own bedroom and I share a bathroom with my sister, Sophia (14 – but her birthday is July 4th, how cool is that?). My host brother, Eduardo, or Llallo as we call him, is adorable. The entire family likes sports a lot, so I do a lot of that. There’s a game room in the house that has a pool table, ping pong table, poker table, and a mini gym. My backyard is a tennis court. The view from my balcony is amazing. Silhouettes of mountains grace every horizon. My host mom and dad are very nice, and they do everything they can to make me feel at home. The maid is also very nice, and helps me to understand how to use things. It’s cold, a little colder than I expected, but the weather is insane. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s raining, it’s sunny, it’s everything at once and nothing at all. It’s very hard to dress for. But I love it all the same. At night, it can be deathly cold, and no central heating. My parents here bought me a space heater, bless their hearts.

Ecuador is so…honest. It doesn’t try to hide its problems like the states do. You see poverty here, you see the people on the streets and the little huts tucked here and there in the foothills. And it’s beautiful. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way things are.

And it’s the little things that I have fallen in love with…

…like how I know I’m so much closer to the sky (2800 meters closer), but it still seems so much farther away. Though at times, I swear if I was a little taller, I could touch the clouds. The stars are infinite. At night I have a hard time discerning where the streetlights in the mountains end and where the sky and stars begin. Days pass by in perfect increments of time. Twelve hours of illuminating daylight, and twelve hours of impenetrable darkness.

…like how people here honk at everything. They honk to say hello, goodbye, how have you been? They honk to say excuse me, they honk when they pass, they honk when being passed. They honk at literally everything. I was very confused at first, coming from a country where you usually only honk out of anger. I appreciate it now. People here drive, for the most part, insanely. No one wears seatbelts, which never ceases to amaze me. The little white lines mean nothing. Oncoming traffic means nothing. Passing is a very common occurrence, often five cars passing at a time. It resembles a game of leap frog. A lot of the time is spent going down one way roads the wrong way, or passing in the left hand lane, while other traffic is passing in the right hand lane. It seems very dangerous, but I have yet to see a wreck or an angry driver.

…like how everything is so cheap. Things are a fourth or a fifth of the prices that I am used to paying. Ice cream cones, 30¢, taxi rides to anywhere in the city, $1. I get $55 from Rotary every month, and I have a feeling that it will be more than plenty.

…like how the graffiti isn’t just mindless tagging or the rivalry among gangs. It’s meaningful, often poetic. Like, “there is no more meaningful struggle of life than the struggle of life”, “what is love if not given truly”, or my favorite so far “Ecuador is, for better or for worse”

…like how there are signs along the roadway that state the mission of the national police “educating to save lives”, “working for an accident free Ecuador” and “Here for your protection”. And it’s true. There are armed guards at many places in the city, and you get the feeling that they really are there for your protection, unlike the soldiers in the US who seem intimidating with their guns. One even tipped off my mom the other day that a traffic officer was issuing tickets for people illegally parked…

…it’s the beautiful statues that are at many intersections. Mama Negra, and others. I don’t know the significance of all of them, but they are beautiful pieces of art. I sometimes forget that this is the 3rd poorest country in the western hemisphere….

I have already been to a Rotary meeting here, and it’s a lot different than my club in Florida. Here they meet at night, for one, and they always meet in the house of a Rotarian. My first host father was the president for the past two years, and now is the vice president. One uncle is the chairman, Al’s counterpart, and another is the treasurer. I really like the Rotarians, they are all very sweet people, and most are very young. And yes, Florence, I did meet Carlos Donoso, and he says hi. Carlos Donoso embodies all of what Rotary is trying to accomplish. He really struck me as an amazing person, and was very easy to talk to, in Spanish of course.

I keep English to an absolute minimum here. No one in my family speaks English, but my brother knows random phrases (mostly bad – or just plain awkward) that he blurts out over lunch. A couple people in the city speak to me in English, but I always answer back in Spanish until they get the hint. I understand everything said to me as long as its not said super fast, which at times kills me. I can answer back, but it’s a lot harder. I talk as often as possible, and I can usually get my meaning across. My cousin Sebastian is very sweet in the sense that he loves explaining things to me and asking questions. He talks slowly, so I love him all the more.

School, which starts in two days, will be very different. It starts at 7, and for me ends at five till 3. It’s a Catholic school. The uniform is very much so that of a Catholic school girl. Black shoes, blue knee socks, blue pleated skirt, baby blue sweater. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, white tennis shoes, aqua track paints, white tee shirt, and aqua track jacket. I’ll be studying the equivalent of twelfth grade general studies. I’m sad that I won’t be taking chemistry, but I know that I will learn a lot more of the language this way.

(Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep this short, but I know that I am going to be so busy for the next month or two, so I might as well write a lot now)

I’ve already met one of my classmates, Mauricio. He’s a “super-chevere´´ guy, and has helped me a lot so far. He has taught me a lot of Quechua words (the indigenous language), and when I found out that my Grandma back home was in the hospital, he forced me to watch Camaramania (the Ecuadorian equivalent of America’s Funniest Home Videos) in order to lift my spirits.

Also, there’s a member of Rotex that lives just a couple a streets away. Her name is Belén, and I really appreciate all that she does for me. If I’m having a problem or if I just need someone to talk to, I know that she’ll be there for me. It’s all about resources.

There are two other exchange students here in my city, and both will go to my school. The first, Ashley (16) is from Reading, PA. She’s crazy in the sense that she has a ton of energy, but we get along really well. The other, Eric (16) is from Gibson, Canada. Need I say more? -just kidding. He’s into a lot of outdoor sports, so hopefully we’ll all be able to climb Mt Cotopaxi (world’s highest active volcano). Ashley is going to be in the grade below me, but Eric will be in the same grade. Neither spoke nor understood Spanish all that well upon arrival, but both are learning very very quickly. And I think that it’s safe to say that we have all lost at least part of our English (I would be screwed without spellchecker and dictionary) It’s like that guy between time zones, I’m out of language. I speak neither Spanish nor English without pause and hesitation.

The food is amazing. I even like the things that I didn’t like to eat back home (clams and shrimp). Breakfast usually consists of hot milk or coffee and bread. Lunch is the main meal, and is usually eaten anywhere between 2 and three. It always starts with soup of some kind. The second course is meat, rice, and usually a potato dish. Very few vegetables are eaten here. For desert, fruit or cake. Lunch is always served wish fresh juice. Our maid is an amazing cook, and I really want to learn how to prepare a lot of the dishes. Dinner is small, and eaten late (8 or 9) It’s usually bread, if anything. The other night, I had a hamburger from a street vendor. It seriously was the best hamburger that I have ever had. No joke. Every house has their own version of ají, a tomato based condiment that can be anywhere from mild to really freaking hot. It has onions, herbs, and other stuff in it. Every restaurant has it as well. I love it, the hotter the better. So far there has been only one dish that I haven’t liked. Animal skin done in a lovely peanut sauce. It was like rubber. No me gustó, no me gustó.

I’ve been to Quito and Ambato so far. I loved them both. I bought my first chimba in a mall in Quito. A chimba is a knock-off. Definitely bought an adidas jacket, except that the symbol is backwards and the stripes on the sleeves are too close together. Oh well. It’s warm. Quito is a huge freaking city, but I only spent a day there, so I’ll write more about it when I know more of it.

Today was a very exciting day for Ecuador. The soccer team of the country won today against Bolivia. The game took place in Bolivia, but seeing it on TV there seemed to be many more Ecuadorian fans in the stadium that those from Bolivia. There was a lot of celebration immediately following the game. Eric and I, along with many of my cousins and friends, drove through the streets honking (more than usual) at people wearing the yellow jerseys. There are actually caravans of people who do this and honk at other caravans. Everybody wore yellow and waved the Ecuadorian flag out of car windows. It was very interesting, and a lot of fun. Pictures soon, I promise.

I feel very much at home here. There are differences, and of course I miss the people back home. But this is my home, for the next year at least. It’s only been just over two weeks, but I no longer feel like a stranger. I still get stared at whenever I go anywhere, but I’ve even gotten accustomed to that. Time is flying. And all I can do is live every moment that I can.

Chao

Tajah

PS Love to my Mom, Aunt Chris, Uncle Kerry. Hugs, Kisses, and Best Wishes to Busha and Papa, and all my Wisconsin family. Congrats to Ryan and Jenny on their Marriage. Love to Einstein. Good luck to Sean and Allen with college. Love and everything else to the best friends a girl could have, Jarrod and Kanwal. Man, oh man, I miss you guys. Love to my exchange student homies half a world away. And love to anyone I forgot. Oh, and love to Al and all the rest of Rotary!!!!

PPS Thanks to my mom for letting me go, my aunt and uncle for making it possible, and Rotary for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

December 23 Journal

So yeah. You know. These are pretty much the only English phrases that I can still use correctly. Which I guess is alright, but when it comes to writing a LONG overdue Rotary journal, it just doesn’t seem sufficient. Actually, I had been debating when would be an appropriate time to write my second journal. Then, it happened. By some twist of fate, my maid made a very delicious lunch that consisted of barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes, and cole slaw. And for dessert, apple pie. It was the worst apple pie of my life, the crust had to be at least an inch thick…needless to say, I ate three slices…

…and with more determination than anyone has ever known, I sat down to write my journal. And that was two and a half months ago…

Busy is a word that you don’t fully understand the meaning of until you’ve been an exchange student. Or God, because I am positive they take the same amount of effort. There is always someone more to spend time with, something else to do, somewhere else to see. Sanity is an illusion. But this is a good thing. When you know your days are numbered, you tend to appreciate a full schedule.

So, here is where the apologies come in. This journal is about three months late, and I owe it to my fellow exchangers, my dear district 6970, and currently applying exchange students to keep them updated on my ever so interesting life south of the border (you know, the equator). Sorry guys, it will get better, I promise. Also, due to my lapse in writing, WAY too much stuff has happened to write about it all, so some things might be lost forever. Furthermore, my English is on a downhill slide. More like an avalanche, so this is actually being written with the aid of the kind university English students whose class I teach. Fun Fun. Sincerest apologies. Either way, here goes nothing…

TIME:
I have been in Ecuador four months. I have been in Ecuador four months. It still sounds weird to me, it doesn’t seem like four months have gone by. I have absolutely NO sense of time. Rotary ruined that one for me. All I know is that the days seem slow and the weeks seem like they are at hyper speed. One third of my exchange year is gone, and I can’t get it back. I cherish every day, and treat it as if were my last, because I know in just seven short months, it will be.

OTHER EXCHANGERS:
There are three Rotary exchangers here in my city. Me, Eric (Canada) and Ashley (Pennsylvania) There were about eight kids from AFS, but very sadly two decided to leave early. Vilde (Norway) and Joanie (California). They will be missed. All us Rotary inbounds are in the same school, along with an AFS-er from Germany, named Jessica. I love her to death. Same with Ash and Eric, we all get along really great, which makes it so much easier.

SCHOOL:
School started way back in September, and I am a proud student at a very prominent Catholic high school in my city. It’s got about a thousand students total, ranging from fourth to twelfth grade. I was in the social science track, but after a series of horrible events due to their inherent aptitude for delinquency, resulting in the erasure of our school motto, I switched to the chemistry track. I absolutely love my class mates, though I might just be one of the tallest girls. They are some of the sweetest people I have met. The teachers are good, when they some to class, which is I guess regularly compared to how it was in my previous course. If they don’t come, there is always soccer and volley to be played. I am still getting used to the pleated skirt and sweater, especially cuz it just doesn’t seem to keep me warm here in the Andes mountains. You know… it’s definitely a different experience, like in chemistry class when they shake acids using there hands to cover the opening of flasks, etc. I might just die in a freak accident, but they tell me it hasn’t happened yet and that I shouldn’t worry. Laugh out loud.

EDUCATION:
Very different from school, as it is practically non-existent in most of the schools here. It’s a different level than I am used to, and sometimes I have to force myself to understand that this country is in a very different economic position than I am used to… it’s a continuous struggle. I go to my classes, for the most part, but it’s really hard to apply myself in some classes that seem to me to be on a 7th grade level, especially when I have already graduated. But I do my best, and help out with other classes if nothing else…

ROTARY:
I know that I am not here to complain, I am here to observe and learn. But from my observations, I am left with nostalgia for how Rotary works back home. Even for the most urgent matters, the response is ‘don’t worry about it.’ Which has made legalizing our visas, paying for trips, pretty much everything and anything, about ten times more difficult than it should be. Monthly allowance is given, kind of. It’s never on time and you lose track of what month you’re getting it for. Here’s an example of the binds I have gotten in: The thing I was supposed to do within thirty days of my arrival was finally done in November, every deadline has been horribly missed, my chairman was the brother of my first host dad, the club was composed mostly of members of my first host family, and my counselor quit Rotary two months ago without telling me, and I still don’t have a replacement. I would give anything for an Ecuadorian version of Al Kalter. I miss the detailed planning, the care and consideration. Inbounds to 6970 have the good life.

ROTARY BINGO:
Very interesting event a couple months back. Exactly like it sounds, it was a bingo hosted by Rotary. I wound up dancing salsa with drunk Rotarians and swing with Ashley until six in the morning. But it’s made up for by the fact that I won a microwave. I know you’re jealous.

HOST FAMILY ISSUES: (host family number one)
I am always someone to tell the truth. If something is amazing, I say it’s amazing. If something is god-awful-horrible, unless you directly need to know, I will sugar-coat it ever so slightly and say that it and I have our differences, to save the face of the other party. With that being said, my first host family and I had some very very drastic differences in thinking, which led to a very severe clashing of personality, which led to very severe things to happen, which led to me not being the happiest camper for the first three months of my exchange. Which led to me requesting a change of host family back in October, and after two months of waiting, I have finally switched.

FAMILY NUMBER TWO:
As unhappy and as miserable as I was in my first host family is made up for by the family I am in now. Their last name is Paz (peace in Spanish), and I would not be lying if I said they are the most wonderful people in the world. I showed up the eighth of December with my two suitcases, a bag just for shoes, my backpack, and a microwave. I know I am a heavy packer, but it was ridiculous. This family accepted me into their house without even knowing my name or anything about me. Which automatically gives them five cool points. We had café shortly after I arrived. They bought me peanut butter, creamy (only us from Latacunga know what a treat it is). Another five points. My bed had a down comforter, meaning I didn’t die of cold the first night, ten more points. I got home from school my second day, my brothers had made me brownies. Ten thousand cool points. And it has been like that since the very first day.

My parents, Diego and Anita, are in a class all by themselves. They are some of the most cultured, most understanding, most compassionate people I have ever met. My two older brothers, both former exchange students, live and study in Honduras. But they are here on vacation. My sister, who is my age, lives and studies in Quito but is also here for the holidays. The entire family pretty much speaks English, which makes it easy, not because I speak English with them, but because I can ask them the most random words and they can tell me. We live on a farm, which is pretty cool. I drove a tractor, without crashing into anything, complete with the get up of a sombrero and overalls. It had to look hilarious. I also milked a cow. I help out with a lot of stuff, when I can, and I adore spending time with my brothers and dad. It’s different for me, because back home I didn’t have a father figure, and it’s so great to have one here. I get in dirt wars with my brothers, we play around a lot. My sister is such a sweetheart, so we get along really well too. I’ve taken a couple spills on the motorcycle, but nothing serious yet. I love them, and I really do feel like part of the family. I am happier than I have been in a very long while. This time of they year is supposedly the most difficult for exchange students due to the holidays etc. But it has wound up being the best. Words cannot express how at home I feel here. It sucks that I have to change again early January, but I already know the next family. They’re not Paz, but they are very nice, so I am sure I’ll be alright….

ROTARY TRIPS:
The first trip we had was to the coast and after about ten hours of traveling we finally got there. It was absolutely gorgeous, very different from Florida though. It was insane being with all 104 exchange students, from all around the world. We had a talent show, the Canadians sang anti American songs (very funny and well done), the Taiwanese kid did a rap, and us USA-ers did the hokey pokey. All fifty-something of us. It was a lot of fun. We didn’t do too much cultural stuff, but it was really nice spending time with everyone…

The second trip was about a week ago. It was really great. This time we went to the northern part of the country. We saw the churches in Quito, some awesome lakes, etc. We went to one city named Otovalo, which is the main tourist city, for good reason. In this city, the indigenous weavings and craftware are sold. In good faith I can say that us exchangers helped the economy of Ecuador in insane amounts. My favorite part of the trip was when we went to the equator itself. Of course I fell (I am famous for falling), but the interesting part was that water doesn’t swirl down a drain, it just drops straight down. Also, we are all very weak bastards on the equator. Here’s an example. Make your hand into the ok sign, and have someone try to pull apart your thumb and index finger. They can’t, can they? When you are standing right on the equator, they can with almost no effort. It is insane. It was a really fun trip, but it makes me sad to realize that the year is almost half over. The friendships with other exchangers are so strong it’s unbelievable. Even the annoying people you love more than life itself. It’s one of the beauties of the exchange life.

PRESIDENT:
So Nov 11th, the independence day of my city, Latacunga, wound up being a very interesting day. I’ll start from the beginning. After a huge parade, Ashley and I went back to my house to get ready for a session with her mom (kind of like deputy mayor but more important). In my hurry to get dressed, I accidentally decapitated a statue of the virgin Mary, shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I super glued it back together. We got dropped off a couple blocks from the Municipio, and we walked the rest on foot. We noticed two guards standing on the street, and as they always bother us, and as we were very well dressed, we took the very long way around them in order to avoid their harassment. We went way out of our way to do it, and they were ticked off, but we were very proud of ourselves, having avoided the unavoidable. So we kept walking, very smugly, very indescribably proud, and as soon as we turned the corner we found ourselves face to face with, oh I don’t know, about a hundred more armed guards. We froze, needless to say, but pushed our way through and entered the building. We were escorted up to the main room and seated. The presidential session soon began. Afterwards, we were ushered into a room by Ashley’s mom, and a couple seconds later, the president entered. I was introduced, and we proceeded to talk. He asked me where I was from, I said Florida, he asked what city, I said Jacksonville. He then asked, to my surprise how the Super Bowl went, and whether or not that little restaurant on such and such street was till open. It dawned on me, that I was talking to the President of the Republic of Ecuador, and he knew my city, furthermore, he knew it well, and named a really great restaurant. It was insane. I then ate hot wings with him, and had a coke. It was sheer insanity. Absolutely insane. And, his English is perfect. Whadya know. Here’s the great part. He is a Rotarian, and I definitely gave him a Rotary card and district 6970 pin. Beat that.

THANKSGIVING:
This is an interesting one. For school, Ashley and I did a Thanksgiving Day presentation that involved two very hilarious costumes of a Pilgrim and a Native American. And a skit, where Ashley rowed with a broom from the old world to the new world. It turned out quite nice, actually, and the school really enjoyed it. The problem was after the presentation, we had no clothes to change into to, and proceeded to walk through town in full costume. No taxis would dare pick us up. After breakfast, still in costume, we went to Eric’s house, changed, and headed to Salcedo, a town twenty minutes south of here. We volunteered at the orphanage there for a couple hours, and afterwards, as we couldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving due to above mentioned family differences, we went on an ice cream eating spree, which is what Salcedo is known for. Eric ate ten, Ashley and I ate nine each, at an average speed of one every ten minutes. It was good, until after the fourth one, when we started getting ice cream sick. I think I puked for about a week, and wound up having an intestinal infection. Fun Fun. Happy Thanksgiving!

CHRISTMAS:
Not only am I spending Christmas with an amazing family, my mom sent me my Christmas stocking and I also got a whole bunch of little presents from family and friends. Nothing makes an exchange students day more than a letter or package, so I’m high as a kite. Merry Christmas to everyone back home!

RESOLUTIONS:
I figure I should at least make some, or maybe just some tiny little goals for the new year:
– I will not pass up a single opportunity to try a new food or enjoy the amazing bread they have here
– I will not gain weight, I will not gain weight
– I will play soccer and dance salsa as often as possible
– I will not fall and injure my knee again
– I will not pass up these amazing prices
– I will not spend more money than necessary
– I will start writing more Rotary journals
– I will start writing more Rotary journals

REFLECTIONS AND HOME:
Home is still a really hard concept for me to deal with. I have only been here four months, and I already feel like I have been here all my life. There is the Floridian in me, the American in me that I know will always be there, but at the same time, there’s the Ecuadorian part of me that grows every time I wake up to this beautiful country. Before I came here, I had nightmares about leaving home, and I still do, but my concept of home has changed. This is my home now. The states will always be there, but when is going to be the next time I get to be here, like it is right now? I am so blessed to have this opportunity. I will know the Amazon rain forest and the Galapagos before my year is through. I know two languages (I would say at about the same level, if not better in Spanish than English). I dread the day that I leave, but I don’t waste time thinking about that now.

When people ask me where I am from, I no longer say that I’m from the states. Without hesitation, I reply ‘Latacunga’. They don’t always believe me, but for the most part they do. This is my country, my city. I know these people, I know these streets. I know the ins, the outs, the rhythm of life. Being adapted means the following:
– I no longer mistake the garbage truck music for the ice cream music back in Florida
– I know where the loose stones are in the main side walks, and no longer fall, and if I do, I know the appropriate swear words
– I have learned not to ask what I’m eating until well after. I have come to like snails, beetles, and cow intestine.
– I have my favorite restaurants, songs, dishes. I know what I like and what I am not so fond of.
– I have given up hope for real Columbian coffee and settled for Nescafe.
– I am no longer the first to show up at places, due to the famous Hora Ecuatoriana, I know to show up about an hour late for everything
– I have gotten used to street vendors and door to door salesman. It topped the cake when I saw a guy selling computer chairs door to door…
– I have learned to bargain EVERYTHING, and I am good at it. I will have problems when I get home, I can picture it now, ill be at a McDonalds drive through, arguing about the dollar menu.
– I am no longer terrified by the driving here. Its still insane, but I feel safe, and I no longer have the urge to wear a seat belt or hold on for dear life
– I have seen some insane protests, and I know how tear gas tastes and smells. It’s not fun
– I have had my share of sicknesses and trips to the doctor. And I have fallen in about every place imaginable.
– I have learned to deal with seeing incredibly poor people everywhere. It still breaks my heart, but I have accepted the fact that there is nothing I can do.
– I have eaten rice, every day, sometimes more than once a day, since august 19th, and there is no end in sight.
– I have gotten used to the fact that even though it’s really freaking cold, I will burn severely without sunscreen. I am used to freezing cold, rain, wind, horrible sun, and sometimes hail, all in one day. And, I have learned how to dress for it.
– The post office knows us, and we can all pick up each others mail.
– Ashley and I are experts at switching plates, bargaining prices, and achieving the impossible with our silly missions…
– I have given up with my name. Said Tajah, it is really close to talla, which means size. And said Ta-Ha, it means slice. I cannot win, and I realize this.
– I can roll my r’s!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

FUTURE EXCHANGERS:
Man, has it been a year since I filled out that horrible horrible application? A year since that painful interview that reduced some to tears? Yes, yes it has. Here’s to the future outbounds of 6970. I wish you guys the best of luck, and I hope you brush up on the hokey pokey. You never know when you’ll need it. This will be the most amazing experience of your life, think hard about where you want to go and if you can handle the most blissful times of your life along with the most difficult and painful. A year without home is not easy, and an exchange year is not for everyone. But if you are brave, open minded, and ready to take a ride on an emotional rollercoaster, I look forward to seeing you all at the Welcome Home Dinner. Please feel free to email me or whatever, Al has my information.

SHOUTOUTS:
I want to give a shout out to my fellow exchangers from 6970, I hope you are all having a great year and I can’t wait to see you all in seven months or so. Especially Christian, because my English is so bad I wont be able to talk with anyone else.

Love to Eric and Ashley, adding sarcasm to the Spanish language one failed joke at a time. Love to my mom, I miss you so much, but you have always raised me to be independent, and you’ve done a hell of a job. To my family in Florida and Wisconsin, my cousin’s new wife, Jenni, and my other cousin’s new baby, Sam. Love to Chris and Kerry, my financial and emotional backbone, and a whole bunch of friends. Woo and Jarrod, you guys are always in my thoughts. Love to my amazing Rotary club back home, to 6970, and to Al Kalter, The Man (in both hemispheres).

January 26 Journal

PREWARNING: This is the most awkwardly flowing thing I have ever written. Chalk it up to the fact that it’s late, chalk it up to the fact that English has hit rock bottom and is digging, chalk it up to whichever reason suits you best, just please o please don’t blame me…

So here is to that resolution of mine, writing more Rotary journals. There is so much to update on, so much to write about, like recounting long gone histories that in actuality only occurred in the last month. But being on an exchange year completely distorts your perception of time, and therefore into the archives of jumbled memories I go.

When I last wrote I was still the adoring daughter of the Paz family, happy and in love with life in general, anticipating the holidays, Christmas, new years. And all was good.

Christmas came and went, with only a *touch* of homesickness. Christmas is pretty much celebrated the same here as there, the main difference being that the stress is placed on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Either way, I spent it surrounded by family, which consequently means friends, and I felt so much at home because they tried so hard to include me in everything, and make sure I had a great time, and I did. The hardest part was returning to the farm late on Christmas day and opening presents my mom and relatives had sent from home. It was almost as if seeing all the things they sent to me brought a part of them here, and I couldn’t tell if I was crying from happiness or sadness, either way my host family was great, and all was good.

New Year’s came, as it tends to do after Christmas, and once again, we grouped as a family in Quito. We bought crazy amounts of homemade fireworks from little stands on the street. The traditions here are very different, but I plan on taking (some of) them home with me. The really great tradition about new years, besides all the guys dressed as female widows dancing in the streets collecting money from passing cars, is that everyone builds a doll of themselves, life size, and at midnight you set it ablaze to signify the passing of the old year and the old you. It’s very symbolic to watch all the events of the old year burning away. After the festivities, driving to their house in Quito, you could see little piles of burning rubble, remnants of once-were dolls, smoldering in the darkness. The piles burned and the widows danced away.

The morning after new years I awoke to my family calling my name. I walked to the window and looked out, only to see them already in the pool, fully dressed in their pjs, waiting for me to wake my lazy butt up and join them. And so I did. It’s an odd feeling to be in a hot water pool in close to freezing weather, in your pjs. I wish I had pictures. We must have stayed in the pool a good while, we ate lunch there and got out thoroughly pruned. Fun Fun.

Sometime between Christmas and new years we went fishing. Twice, because the first attempt the car broke down around six in the morning, so we went back home, fixed the car, and tried again the next morning, with an even earlier start, around four thirty. I left the house fully prepared for the cold with two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a jacket, a coat, hat, gloves, and a scarf. I might have had two pairs of undergarments on, it was just that amazingly cold. The lake is two hours up in the mountains, and the early rise was worth the while to see the sun rising over the city. Absolutely gorgeous. We fished for a good six hours or so, and I caught a decent sized rainbow trout. I’m not much of a fisher, so I was proud. And that was my fishing adventure.

As quickly as the holidays came, they went, leaving me with the harsh truth that on the second of January, I would switch again, to yet another host family, my third for the year, and surely not my last. The day I left, my mom cooked my trout for me for lunch. That’s love. I went for my last motorcycle ride with Alejandro, went to take some pictures of the baby cows, and that was it. My stuff packed, my chairman in my driveway, and me choking out goodbyes to a family that I fell head over heels in love with. I cried so hard when I left, it feels like your heart breaking in a thousand pieces, saying goodbye. I can honestly say that that was one of the hardest things that I have done in my life so far. Which is completely irrational, because they live 15 minutes away and I can visit whenever I want. That thought comforted me none, and it still felt like a part of my soul was being taken away, I couldn’t speak, let alone breathe. Just choke on words that I hadn’t prepared myself to say. I still don’t know how I managed to leave.

My new host family is really great. They aren’t Paz, but they are wonderful in their own way. My mom Jessy is the vice-mayor, so I go to a lot of functions and whatnot with her. My dad Mario is a civil engineer, but took the year off to help with the exchange students. It’s such a role reversal, the mom working, and the dad playing the part of a frantic house wife. Quite funny. I have two siblings, an 11 year old sister Mariuxi, and a 14 year old brother David. I love them both, but I get along with them in very different aspects. They are all very nice people, and though I miss the farm life, it’s nice living back in the city. A few days after the switch, I had to say goodbye to my Paz brother, Alejandro, who was heading back to the university life in Honduras. I already had a broken heart from leaving the family, but saying goodbye to him was even harder because I honestly don’t know when or if I’ll ever see him again. Once again I choked out the words that I have come to hate….and to make it worse, Francisco Paz is leaving at the end of this month to study in Argentina for a bit, meaning yet another difficult goodbye. I can’t think of that yet, I just can’t. It is all just an early reminder that in six short months, I will be saying my own goodbyes, and I will be the one leaving everything behind. And it will be so hard, knowing I won’t be just 15 minutes away from the family I love, but rather a continent apart. Knowing that I might not see most of these people ever again in my life. I can’t imagine it, and I don’t want to…not yet.

School seems to be something that occupies my time between 7 in the morning and two in the afternoon. Some classes are decent, but for the most part I feel like it is a giant waste of my time. Luckily I have Eric in my class as well. Misery always loves company…just kidding. We do what we can in the classes that allow it, and when there truly is nothing to do, it’s independent study. I work on my chemistry, the language, he works on music and the like. Some days the classes are great, other days it’s an extremely long study hall. Either way, I am always learning and working on the language, which is really all that can be asked for.

Things that require planning here are unbelievably unorganized. Which is so frustrating when I am trying to pay for trips and see what’s required and everything that is the life of an exchange student. Monthly allowance that’s given once a month, on time, would be a blessing. We get no warning for anything. For example, someone just called me tonight to let me know that there’s a mandatory meeting tomorrow. It’s not that I mind the meetings, but when it involves canceling plans with my favorite uncle to go get my favorite food, I am not a happy camper. But, not everything in this world is equal, and not everyone has the planning, organization, and consideration, that my beloved Al Kalter has back stateside. And I guess sometimes I have to force myself to realize that.

On a happier note, I baked cookies today for Anita Paz’s birthday. Very fun adjusting the recipe for the difference in ingredients, and the altitude, and converting everything to the metric system. You know. But seriously, it was a lot of fun as I really do like baking and the sort. It reminds me of home. And you guys will never believe where I eventually found baking soda…of course not in the stores, but rather in the pharmacy. Cool, huh? I thought so…the cookies turned out well, and I just got home from the Paz house. She liked them, and that’s the important part. Happy Birthday!

PS. We have no school this week woot woot

Monday morning I woke up with the most terrible urge to go to Ambato, a city about forty minutes south of here. I took a shower, got dressed, and asked my dad if I could go. He said no, and I was left there with an odd look on my face, as he hasn’t said no before. He noticed something was wrong, and explained himself. Apparently, you know, like if it was any other event, on any given day, the transit system was on strike, and almost every major highway was blocked with buses on strike, effectively paralyzing movement between any two given cities, and transportation in the entire country. It was so odd how he said it, kind of like oh, look, a strike, a complete and utter gridlock of the road systems, who wants lemonade? I watched the news, as there wasn’t much else to do. These strike things get violent in some parts, complete with police brutality, gang activity, and gas bombs. Luckily not in my quiet little Latacunga, but definitely in Quito and the larger cities. Because the roads were blocked, many people were on foot, some walking more than eight hours to get to a destination. I wasn’t sure what to think, it’s just such a different attitude. It’s like, hey guys, we really want this, let’s freeze the entire country for an indefinite amount of time. But, I woke up Tuesday morning with the same terrible urge to go to Ambato, and lo and behold, the strike had ended and life was back to normal. I guess these things happen…

The Rotary fifteen has come, and gone, and come again, and is in the process of leaving for good. I’m actually lighter than I was when I left, but not as slim as I would like. It’s the battle of the exchange student I guess.

Not too much else has been going on lately. I have oodles (have I used that word in the past five months?- I think not) of reflective thoughts and whatnot. But English is a struggle, with the grammar and the spelling, and the use of only one side of exclamation points and question marks. Much better if I head off to bed, share those thoughts on another night (also keeping up that resolution!) when I can think more clearly. Hey, at least the monotonous updating is done and out of the way, right, right? I hope so. And here is where I leave you all. Right after this point. Here.

Lots of love from Ecuador

Tajah

Here’s a quick mention to the up and coming outbounds of 06-07… did you guys make it alive through the interviews? I hope so, for your sake. Maybe they weren’t as nerve shaking as ours, but knowing Al, they were worse. Some were reduced to tears. You guys should be finding out soon who made it and where you are going if my memory isn’t wrong. Are you reading all of our journals faithfully? You should be, with the exception of mine, they seem to be of much higher quality than those of last year, full of more insight and advice. Just as we learned a lot from the people before us, you guys are going to learn a lot from us as well. And because we just happen to be spread out halfway around the darn globe right now, our journals are the memoirs that we leave to you. I wish you all the best of luck, and look forward to meeting you all at the Welcome Home Dinner in July!

February 12 Journal

PRE-NOTE: I actually did write this during half time, or at least I started it, but due to my famous ability to procrastinate, it’s being sent a week later. But hey, a journal is a journal.

WARNING: highly unorganized thoughts ahead, proceed with caution

Has there ever been a more fitting time for an exchange student from the states to write a Rotary journal? I think not!! Can anyone say HALFFFF-TIIIIMMMMMEEEEE!!!!

I can only wish that touchdown would translate into gooooooooooal in Spanish. It would make me happy. Indeed. But, alas, no such luck.

So, now, in the almost exact middle of my exchange year, in the middle of the most important American football game of the year, I sit here in front of the computer typing my thoughts away. Which I guess isn’t the best time to pour your heart and soul out, you know, while Mick Jagger is doing the same thing on the world’s most televised event….but I guess you win some and you lose some…

Looking back a year, I had just finished those brutal district interviews, didn’t know if I’d be accepted into the program or not, and Al still seemed like a grumpy old man to me. And since then, so much has happened as you know, and Al is now somewhat similar to Santa Claus in my mind. A round jolly man with his sack full of exchanges and wise words, which get distributed right around Christmas. He no longer seems old, nor grumpy, but rather one of the kindest, most young at heart people I have ever met. My fellow exchangers know exactly what I mean.. But, thinking a year ahead is seemingly impossible. I assume I’ll be in college, unless my English has deteriorated to the point that no respectful university would accept me (typing this is painful and slow). Wouldn’t it be amazing to know where you’d be in the years to come, how your life would develop? I think that it would be, but it’s so much more interesting when things are hazy shades of gray.

Let’s see if you can picture this, how I am right now, at this moment in time. . I just had café with my father, mint tea and empanadas, and we talked a good hour or so about life. I’m upstairs, typing, occasionally glancing hopefully out the window, Jessy should be home earlier tonight than last night, and I haven’t seen her all week (explanation later). A friend just called me, one of those people whose very voice fills the room with sunlight. And I’m listening to Frank Sinatra, the other love of my life. I am happy, so very happy. I waltzed up the stairs when Claudia called, but I decided typing was a little more important, and knowing my good graces with gravity, a little less hazardous as well. And here I am, racking my brain for words and phrases in English that only spell checker can bring back to life, singing along with songs I haven’t heard in months, but still know every note. It’s a wonderful feeling. Just thought I’d share.

Time is still flying by, insanely too fast. Especially now that I know when I will get home. 8:15 Friday night, July 21st. I knew it would be around that time. But assigning an actual day, an actual minute makes everything so final and official. It’s a deadline, the flat line of my year. It seemed like so much more time when I’d say, oh I’ll go home sometime this summer, but now there is no doubt about it. Damn Americans and their infernal planning.

As a general rule of thumb I hadn’t spoken English for my first couple months here. Only when talking to people back home, or the occasional conversation with Eric or Ashley when Spanish didn’t quite suffice (which it oftentimes doesn’t). However, with the Paz family, though I didn’t speak English much, when I did, I realized how very different I am in the two languages, how different my brothers were when they spoke English. I have no earthly idea why it is like it is, but it gives me motivation to learn as many languages as possible. You really can’t understand a person until you can communicate with them in their mother tongue. It breaks my heart to know that most of the world speaks English (or dreams of it) because I can’t help but wonder how much culture has already been lost or continues to be lost. Just something to think about I guess….

Maybe it’s the realization, the settling in that this is home. I have felt like that for a while now though. This is my home here in this city. I know these streets, I have my friends, my favorite restaurants, things that I like to do and things that I don’t. I can identify the strange noises in the night. I no longer mistake the damn garbage truck and its misleading music for an ice cream truck. I know the bus routes, I know the general rhythm of life. But I think that it’s the realization that it’s home, but by no means is it permanent. In five months, it will all be over, all be gone, like some dream that I don’t want to wake up from yet. I have so many things to look forward to in the coming months. The trip to the Amazon rain forest, to the Galapagos, the visits of friends or family (maybe), and my birthday. But I also realize that with each thing I look forward to, time has to pass for it to come, meaning one less day that I will be here in Ecuador. Which was alright when I first got here, because a year seemed like an infinitely long amount of time, but now that my year is half gone, each second counts. Sometimes I fill with panic, knowing my days are numbered. It’s insane how quickly time goes by, some moments I feel guilty for sleeping, for blinking, because its one more second I can’t get back. I despise waiting in lines, but that’s not new. And the ‘hora ecuatoriana’ doesn’t help at all. Pretty much, it means that when someone tells you that they will be somewhere at 3, you go there at 4, and still wait half an hour for them to show up, on a good day. There have been times that I’ll be two hours late, and still the first one to arrive. It’s kind of entertaining at times, but when I feel like time is slipping away from me anyway, it doesn’t help……..

You know you’re truly an exchange student when every moment that passes by seems to float before your eyes like a series of snapshots and self portraits. Every thing you do, everywhere you go, you can imagine showing the pictures to your family and Rotary club, explaining every sheer second of your year. But even more than this, every instant seems to find a way into your heart, every single second becomes one more part of who you are, of the person who you have become, and continue to become. And it’s not fair how quickly it all fades away…days are spent absorbing sights and sounds, not because they are new and exciting like they were the first part of your year, but rather because your heart can’t bear the thought of forgetting them. Driving with my family, I dare not take my eyes off of the mountains, fearing that if I do, even to blink, they might disappear.

Now that I am plunging rapidly into the second half of my year, everything has doubled in importance. Every food, every flower, every friend, seems so much more significant. I enjoy every second of every day, but there is that tiny little voice in my heart that whispers, in five months it’s over. And it’s true, I know it, but that does not mean that I have to accept it yet. Hell, I have five months to do that (even as I type these words I know how quickly five months will pass)…to contemplate that my life here is only a temporary part, not meant to last. A learning experience, full of friends and family and adventures. I plan to put that dreadful part off until the last possible second, figuring it better to pretend that it will never end than to face the cold hard truth that it will, and way too soon for my comfort.

But even so, I know better. That little voice grows louder every day, warning me, threatening me with what might be the end of the best year of my life. That doesn’t stop me from living life to the fullest, appreciating everything that is my life here. But with every hug from a family member, every outing with friends, every kind word or encouragement, I create a new voice, one that says that even though my time here will end, my impact here never will. I might be gone, but I am damn sure taking a part of the heart of every person that I have met here with me when I go, and I’m leaving behind a million parts of my own.

One thing that I truly admire about Ecuadorians is their wisdom, and honesty. I would say that almost all of the upper class society, though they may not all be intelligent (there are stupid people in every society of the world), they are very very wise. They know how to look back over their lives, and they appreciate criticism of what they have done wrong, and never pride themselves excessively on what they have done right. From what I’ve seen, the general opinion is, God means for me to do right, so if I do, it’s me being won over by fate. But I must really be stupid to make a mistake, and there are things that I am obviously meant to learn from it. They have such a unique view on the world, on youth, on how things should be and how the will be. They understand so many things that only the few and far between understand back home. It’s a wonderful outlook on life, though a touch too religious for my personal taste, but the foundations stay the same regardless. And they are some of the most honest people I have met in my life. Though it takes them forever to get to it, they always do. It’s that type of deal where they will call to ask a favor but first spend ten minutes asking about your day and your family. And it’s genuine concern, which makes it so much more pleasant. These are some of the things that I want to take home with me, there are so many beautiful aspects about their culture. Sometimes I wonder why the country is so poor, why it has so many problems. But the simple truth is that because so many of the people are so far below the poverty line, they never get an education, they never advance, because there is no economy, there are no jobs, there is no money. There are hardly opportunities for the rich people, let alone the people that have been living day to day for generations, people who don’t know if they will have enough food to eat today, let alone tomorrow, but continue to have eight or nine kids so they can help with work, they can help beg on the streets. It’s a very sad reality, but true nonetheless. And when the population is so split like it is, it doesn’t matter how many wise people there are, it doesn’t matter what revolutions start, it will never change. It can’t. Unless some tremendous disaster happened and all of the population was wiped out, things will never change. And even if that did happen (knock on wood), society would more than likely re-develop exactly as it is now, if not worse, because it’s habit, it’s tradition, it’s all these people have ever known. I am not sure how I will handle living at my next host family this spring, one of their maids is only 10 years old, and has already been with them two years. Can you imagine? She is a real sweetheart, a very mature little girl, but still. Ten years old with more work experience than a lot of kids my age.

Something that really struck me when I first got here was how cheap things were, on average one third of the cost that I am used to. But then I realized that the salary is proportional as well. Rich people are still rich, of course, often times filthily so. But if you’re not rich, you’re pretty much screwed. A very extremely well paid maid that lives at the house, works everyday, from sun up to sundown, does all the cleaning, laundry, cooking, might make 150 to 200 a month. Maybe, if they are very very very lucky. And that’s considered a very good job. Taxi drivers make a killing, and they are among the rich people. But the poor people, the really poor people, might make 10 to 40 a month. That’s it. I cant believe it sometimes. It’s just sad. But there isn’t anything that I can do, you know? I have seen so many little kids begging for money, so many people missing limbs, dragging themselves through the streets, bloody, and it kills me to think that they make more money like that than if they were healthy. My old host mom was telling me that she had tried so many times when she was younger to help get legless people prosthesis or even a wheelchair, finding funding and a willing hospital to donate, but every time the people refused because they make so much more money without a leg, with no arms. It’s a horrible reality when being handicapped is often consider lucky and an economic benefit. It’s things like this that break my heart. Which brings me to my next paragraph

So as unorganized as my host Rotary Club seems to be, I have recently learned that they sponsor one event every year, that is one of the most amazingly organized and wonderful things that I have ever seen in my life. Project C.H.A.N.G.E. (children’s health and nutrition goals through education). Each February, the Latacunga Rotary Club serves as the sponsors for Project Change, a group of doctors that comes mostly from the states, but originating from around the world. These doctors come to the small town of Salcedo, about twenty minutes south of my precious Latacunga, to perform free plastic surgery to men women and children. They operate on anything from cleft lips to scars, free of charge.

I had known that the doctors would be coming since the first week that I was here in Ecuador. I was told way back then that it was essential to know the body parts and to speak good Spanish by the time February rolled around. And of course, by the time they got here, Super Bowl Sunday, my Spanish and body part vocabulary was more than sufficient. Woot for being bilingual!!

I arrived at the hospital early Sunday morning, only to be greeted by a crowd of about two hundred people waiting outside. A member of Rotary was standing in the bed of a pick up truck, screaming things about groups, order, and patience to the crowd through the megaphone. As many times as I heard the phrase please divide into groups, the less organized the crowd seemed to become. Luckily for me, another Rotary member saved me and escorted me to the other side of the fence, away from the crowd and close to the hospital. The doctors arrived, a seeming stream of white that separated the crowd with their bags and belongings. I thought to myself, ‘that will never be enough supplies’……little did I know that semi truck was filled front to back with box upon box of medical supplies, stuffed animals, and clothing. The first part of the morning, after unloading the boxes from the truck, was shuffled between getting to know some of the doctors, helping to translate between doctor and patient, and sorting drugs. A seemingly easy job until I realized that there were several large boxes filled to the brims with random medicine, tiny little bottles of hell, as I like to call them. But either way, by the end of Sunday night I had organized and sorted all the drugs by type and expiration date, had them put into little slide out drawers, alphabetically of course. Those of you who know me, know how neurotic I am about organization once I get into the swing of things. But sometime between the morning and evening, I found a way to get a piece of glass from a broken bottle jammed in my thumb. Not being fond of glass pieces under my skin, and surrounded by doctors in a hospital, I decided to ask one to remove the glass. Big mistake. The person I asked didn’t really want to, and recommended another doctor to do it for me, the ‘splinter expert´ apparently. So I found a new pair of pick-ups, and headed in search of the doctor. I realized with growing dread that he was in the main room interviewing potential patients. Can you imagine how awful I felt as I made my way through the waiting crowd, some without ears, some with horrible burn scars, others with worse conditions yet, with nothing more than a mere sliver in my hand? I felt, as irrational as I knew it was, like a prissy over-privileged white girl. Although I knew it was important to remove quickly (not knowing which medicine bottle had broken), I felt like such an awful person, squeezing my way to the front of the ever growing line to the front. I know it’s stupid, but just a thought, I guess. I got out of the hospital late Sunday night, and sat down to watch the half time (where this journal originally started)

Monday morning, bright and early I was back in the hospital, organizing other things, and about midday I headed into the operating room. I was able to talk to patients while they were waiting, explain to them what exactly was going on, and help keep the non-sedated ones calm during surgery. I had always wanted to be a doctor when I was a little girl, but in the back of my mind I had always figured that the blood would bother me. But, luck be had, it didn’t. Tuesday and Wednesday passed the same, an early rise, and a late end, often times not getting home till ten or eleven at night. Very tiring work, but it didn’t bother me a bit, I was happy to do it. Thursday morning I went with two of the doctors to the orphanage to donate some toys and clothing. And the rest of Thursday and Friday I passed much like the beginning of the week, bringing drugs and supplies back and forth, talking to patients, setting up IV’s, and assisting in the operating room and recovery room. All in all the doctors performed an amazing 92 procedures in five days, with only three operating rooms, three nurses, and a team of plastic surgeons. I saw so many surgeries, and learned so many things during this past week. I saw tumors removed, noses and ears reconstructed, everything imaginable. I was fine with the surgeries themselves, but seeing some of the patients broke my heart. Like a young boy that they have been operating on for nearly ten years, when he was six his parents sent him out to get gas with a candle, and he tripped and fell, and now has full body burns. Apparently it was so bad that his chin got burned onto his chest. Another young boy was doused in gasoline by his classmates and then they set him on fire. I cannot believe the cruelty in this world, sometimes. But at the same time, the fact that there are doctors that are willing to volunteer their time and money to such a worthwhile cause is absolutely amazing. I guess it’s just another balance in life. Some of the patients were the most incredible people, smiling and cheerful. My favorite, a ten year old named Jonathan. I have never met a cooler little kid. I think the most interesting surgery that I saw was an ear reconstruction. What they do is draw a stencil of the shape of ear they need, remove just this shape from the rib area, and insert it in the ear area. Lots of blood, but it was really cool seeing the doctors carve the ear shape from a chunk of cartilage. I never would have imagined that’s how it would be done…..the miracles of modern medicine I suppose. The week went by insanely fast, and I got to know a lot of the doctors really well, some from Bermuda, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Missouri, California, New York, and my favorite, the one from Scotland that lives in Bermuda. It was a crazy week, I saw and learned unbelievable amounts of things.

Its such an amazing thing that there are projects like this in the world, and such an awarding experience to take part in one. A huge thanks to Project C.H.A.N.G.E. on behalf of my countries (both the states and Ecuador) and of course my Rotary Club of Latacunga, District 4400!!!!!!!!!!!

There seemed to be more that I wanted to write about, but the crooning of old blue eyes has distracted me from any logical thought procession. I apologize. I really ought to go now, but I will write again soon I promise. Tuesday I leave for the Amazon…I have plenty of bug spray, no worries.

Con Amor

Taj

PS….Here are some random shout outs: Lots of love to my mom, you’re still the best, the world over; To my aunt and uncle who fund all of my crazy adventures here and always offer unconditional support and love; To my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Wisconsin, lots of love; To Woo, the most amazing and beautiful girl I have ever met; To my wonderful sponsor club back home; To my chairman and my counselor, enjoy my random letters and treat the next class of outbounds as well as you have treated us; Lots of love to the most amazing boyfriend in the world, Broderick, complete with cordial cherries and puzzles in time for Valentine’s; To Jarrod, you crazy artist you…will my room be filled with sculptures when I get back?; and while I’m at it, I might as well send a little love out to Harvard and Duke University…I’m looking forward to the interviews; Love to my brother Justice, wherever in the world you may be, and I hope you cause an international incident first, I would hate to take your claim…lol; To my friends and teachers from high school, know that I love you and haven’t forgotten; To Donna, the chem papers finally got here, thanks a bunch hun….and lots of love to anyone who actually takes the time to read this darn journal..

PPS….TO THE UP AND COMING OUTBOUNDS: Congrats! You made it, you proved yourself worthy of this exchange year. You don’t know how jealous I am, you have an entire year in front of you, and we only have less than half of ours left…Are you being good children and starting to study your new country, culture, and language. You better….There’s no excuse not to, you guys have the best resources in the world. Write to us whenever you want, and we will answer, occasionally in English! Congrats again, and enjoy the orientation meetings to come (don’t dare be late, I made that mistake – flat tire and bad directions). Lateness is not tolerated, be warned. Other than that, live up the Florida life and start preparing for your year!!!

March 30 Journal

I would like to start off by saying that this journal is a TON longer than I though it would ever be, but due to an excess of time on my hands (which will be explained near the end) you guys will just have to deal. Or you can just skip this month, I’m fine with either one. But I’m warning you right now…this may be the longest journal ever!!!

OK, update…I’m still typing, its more of a novel, be warned!!!!!

Man oh man. I am not sure that I am entirely comfortable with how fast time flies. It’s March, whether I want it to be or not.

OK, so last time I wrote, I had helped with the surgeons that came, and was completely hyped to go on my trip to the Amazon. I had originally planned to write the very day I got back, BUT things never seem to work out like that.

THE TRIP: So, Valentine’s Day Ashley and I caught a bus to Quito around six in the morning. Once in Quito, we met up with the kids from Riobamba at the bus terminal and cabbed our way to the national airport. Where, we got food. I don’t think anyone knows how to eat like exchange students do…but it was good. Overpriced, but good. Around ten, the other members of the group started showing up. Which was a surprise because the web page said that we would be a group of eight. And in Rotary, eight obviously means twenty three. So we all waited in the airport, catching up on everything that has happened in the past couple months, and welcoming the two new inbounds from Brazil, Fabio and Gabriella. It’s amazing how good of friends you become with other exchange students, even if you’ve only spent a total of three weeks with them. It’s a bond that words can’t describe. Jade and Jessica wound up being in my group, of which I was very excited. They are the two coolest girls this side of the equator, I swear it.

So, around noon, the eleven o’clock flight left (la hora ecuatoriana no tiene un reloj). We all boarded the plane, not quite knowing what to expect. It was a short flight, only about thirty minutes or so, marked perfectly by Jessica’s odd hand clapping thing. We landed in Coca. (This is your cue to pull out a map so you have an idea of what I’m talking about…) As soon as we stepped off the plane (we all got roses – it was Valentine’s day) it hit. It felt like Florida, but hotter if that’s possible. It was so damn hot. Like that type of heat where suicide starts to seem like a good idea. We gathered our bags, melting, but mainly just stripping any expendable clothing. Since I’m from the mountains, I had a lot to shed. We piled the bags into the back of a pickup, and climbed into the bus. It was originally planned to make the trip by canoe, but due to the late flight, the bus seemed more practical. It was like sitting in an oven from hell. Thankfully, hell’s ovens have windows…

After about twenty minutes we made a pit stop at a hotel. We, of course, thought that it might be our hotel. Which was completely ok with us, the water slide was a welcoming sight. But alas, it wasn’t so. Most of us wound up changing clothes into cooler things. It was just my luck that sock-wise all I have are school socks, meaning blue knee socks, and an abundance of long cold-weather toe socks that my loving family sent me for x-mas. Nothing like the shorts and rolled down knee socks look to start off a trip. We played with the monkeys for a while, way too friendly. Mike got peed on. All the roses got attacked and eaten. Good fun. We piled back into the bus, still dying from the heat. I sat next to Jessica, which if you remember, is one of the coolest girls this side of the equator.

We got some of the saddest lunches I have ever seen. Bananas and sandwiches that consisted of well, bread and bananas. But that’s ok. Just the bus ride itself was so gorgeous. It’s such a different landscape and general feel than the mountains. Coca is a huge city, mostly known for its oil drilling. Nothing like some nice clean oil drilling in the middle of the Amazon Rain Forest. It breaks my heart.

The bus ride was two hours long, where we got to know our guide Hector, and basically just chatted the entire time. We arrived somewhere along the Napo river, where the bus let us off. Randomly, on the shore, off of some ‘road’. All the luggage was put in a canoe, and we waited for it to make its return trip. Thirty minutes later, we ourselves were making our way to Yachana Lodge. The canoe ride was really nice, seeing the river bordered by those crazy walls of green trees. Breathtaking.

We arrived at the lodge, gathered our stuff and were shown to our rooms. Our side of the lodge had a camp feel, as we were divided up into three rooms with multiple bunk beds in each one. I got the top bunk, Ashley got the bottom. She figured heat rises, I figured I would rather sleep next to the screen window. My logic definitely kicked her logics butt.

We had dinner, and walked around to get more of a feel of the lodge. I met the owner and founder. A really great guy, very interesting with a more compassionate heart that most people I have met in my life. I’ll write more about the lodge and high school in a little bit.

Dinner was good. Soup, rice, some type of meat. The diet never really changes much. Ever. I hope that Melanie likes rice…

After dinner, we caught a couple hours of sleep, then had a small party. Lots of card games, etc etc. No Rotary supervision, which was nice. It doesn’t mean we broke rules or anything*, but it was a more free feeling, as the past two trips had been crazily structured. It was nice just hanging out and doing our thing.

The next morning I woke up, took a shower (no hot water-prolly better that way anyway), and we all went to breakfast. Where we were issued knee high rubber work boots, and told the day’s agenda. The first item for the day: hard physical labor. That’s not necessarily what you want to hear your first day on a trip, but our opinion changed with time. So we all donned those damn rubber boots that I have come to hate with a passion, and met outside on the patio hut thing, still very early in the morning. Keep in mind that this lodge is right on the Napo river, in the heart of the Amazon. Just setting the scene.

So, with Hector leading, we began our walk to Yachana high school. Remember, I’ll write more about it in a little bit. The first part of the walk was nice, it was still ungodly hot, but that’s one of those things you just learn to accept. We walked through the small pueblo of Mondaña, with a population of less than 100. Then we navigated the path, the log bridges, the random stairs, and all those type things. Twenty minutes later, Hector told us we were close to the high school. And then we found ourselves at the bottom of a staircase, all made from logs imbedded into the dirt. All 102 of them. Stairs and I never quite get along (more of a gravity thing than anything), but due to my super lung capacity from living at 10,000 feet, they weren’t an issue. We stopped midway, as Hector showed us some ants, explaining that they could be used as stitches if you get injured in the wild. And then he demonstrated their pinching ability by placing one of Jade’s nose, who demonstrated her dislike for ants by doing something similar to the world famous pee-dance, attempting to pull the ant off. Hector was right, they have an incredibly strong ability to pinch and hold on. Poor Jade.

So we dropped by the high school, picked up some tools and made our way to a clearing/field nearby. By clearing/field, I mean a hectare of land that used to be a corn field but had grown over a little with grasses, plants, and still had tree trunks sprawled all over it. Ten students from the high school were waiting with even more tools. We were divided up into groups of two or three, and paired with a student. I got paired with Jade, still bleeding slightly from the ant. A student came over, introduced himself as Jhony, and handed us machetes.

There’s nothing quite like physical labor. And handing exchange students sharp tools may not be the best idea in the world.

Our job? Clear the field. All of it. Every square inch of that hectare. Jade, Jhony, and I got to cutting down all the plants with the machetes, hacking away. Jade and I agreed it was blasphemous, as both of us have quite a love for nature. But some things are how they are. So, in the middle of the Amazon, with people from all over the world, in the blazing sun, we worked and worked and worked. Time seemed to stand still, due to the heat. Within minutes we were all drenched with sweat. Puddles formed in the bottom of the boots (black rubber up to your knees is not ideal for keeping cool) While we cut brush and plants, others had heavy metal rakes, raking the dried corn stalks and freshly demolished plants into giant piles. So, what do we have to do? Yes, that’s right, set the piles on fire. So now, we are not only working crazy hard in the blistering sun, we are working next to giant piles of burning brush. Not fun. Jhony and I talked a long while, and though it may be from heat stroke, it felt like I was talking to an old friend. It was a really great feeling, and as crazy as it sounds, I felt very much so at home. We worked until the afternoon, and between us we cleared about half the field that day. Some of the locals brought a giant pot of chicha for us to try. It’s yucca beer. It was good. You know, white, bitter and slightly chunky. Yummy.

We headed back to the lodge, on the way stopping to watch a dance performance in Mondaña. It was really interesting seeing the traditional dances from the east, as they differ tremendously from the ones from the coast and mountains. Each region very distinct. The costumes were great, most of them consisting of strategically placed palm leaves. Pictures will come, I promise.

We got to the lodge, took showers (cold water becoming more and more of a blessing), changed, and napped until lunch. People back in Florida understand how much energy the sun can take out of you, even from just sunning at the beach. Imagine hours of labor…Lunch was good, soup, rice, meat, potatoes. And an endless supply of lemonade (in Ecuador, this means limeade), that looked more like water than anything, but was crazy tasty.

After lunch we napped a little more. No one knows how to sleep like exchange students do. At three we met with Hector, again with the damn rubber boots. (I have never hated something so much in my life-though I began to love my knee socks even more). We headed on a jungle walk. Abel, a student from the high school that we lovingly called jungle boy just because, well, that’s what the shirt said. It was a very apt name, well-deserved. People with such knowledge at such a young age never cease to amaze me.

We started heading deep into the Amazon, and the further we got, the more of an uphill climb it was. That’s a very common misconception, I think. We all learn about the rainforest in school, about the canopy, all that type stuff. But somehow, in all the illustrations, its perfectly flat. That’s false advertising, buddies. Stairs began to show up, much like the ones we climbed to get to the high school, all built from logs. My legs ached, after the first couple hundred, but I pushed on, with my super crazy awesome lung capacity. One of the first things we saw was a red and blue poisonous dart frog. To me, the entire thing just made such an impression on me. I was walking around in the Amazon, something I’d only ever seen in books before, seeing animals that make their way onto discovery shows, things you hear and read about, and see pictures of, but even with all that, it all seems so unreal, so far away, so intangible. But, seeing these things in person, smelling the smells, feeling the heat, changed everything. It makes it so real, so crazy beautiful that words in any language will never be able to convey the true meaning. I will never find a way to express how much I fell in love, how amazing it was. So, you’ll have to take my word, and try to understand the emotion behind it…

What really stole my heart were the trees, those crazy trees that seemed to reach the sky, stretching up infinitely, blocking the sun, blocking the blue of the sky except for tiny little patches peeping through. One of the thoughts that I couldn’t get out of my head, and still can’t was ‘I could live here forever, and never lose my lust for life…but can I leave, and still keep it, this passion that I feel now??’. I don’t think I have my answer yet, but I fear the worst.

We stopped along the way to have a tree climbing contest. I didn’t bother, gravity and I are at eternal odds. But it was fun seeing the guys shed the boots and climb this tiny little trunk that wound up being a lot stronger than I thought possible. They all struggled, and I could see their muscles shaking from the exertion. Benner won. Then after all the guys had gone, and some girls (we were less willing to shed the boots, oddly enough), Hector looped the vine he had been holding for quite some time, forming a small circle. He shed his sandals, put his feet in the loop, and using it to grip onto the tree, effortlessly made his way up to the top. Damn jungle tricks. Keep in mind that Hector must be in his forties and is a round little man…you know its just not right when he beats a group of teenagers at the peak of their physical condition.

Hector taught us about the countless usages of the different plants and trees. Most of them being medical. He talked about how the drug companies had caught on to the secrets hidden in the forest, and in order to find new usages had begun exploiting the forest, exploiting local knowledge, destroying the habitat of thousands of species of animals and plants. At this point, I couldn’t decide which broke my heart more. The oil companies, drilling and destroying for energy purposes, or the drug companies, destroying in the name of the ‘greater good’. Bullshit. Hector said something that really impacted me. ‘If there is a cure for cancer, I am sure it is here, somewhere. We all share the responsibility of protecting the rainforest, so it can be found.’

More stairs followed. Interrupted by downhill slopes, which though a blessing to leg muscles in reality only meant that more stairs would soon follow. I lost count of the stairs, but we eventually wound up at this little hut thing on the edge of a cliff, way high up, looking over the river and the canopy of other sections of the jungle. We arrived just in time to watch the sun go down. Beautiful.

We headed back to the lodge. No party, just some hardcore sleepage.

So, here’s the deal. I can try to wrack my brain remembering what we did which day, etc etc, or I can do what I do best, and write it in conveniently random bulleted form….hmmm…what ever shall I do? ITS BULLLETT TIIIMMEEE!!!!!!!!!!!

-The field story: Over the next few days, we continued working on the field, always in the morning after breakfast till just about lunch time. We spent another day doing the raking and hacking thing. Jade and I kept working with Jhony (who I now know is one of the coolest guys this side of the equator), switching between hacking and raking. Both caused crazy amounts of blisters. At the end of the second day of field work, we had finished. It was clear, spotted only with burnt patches of black and the tree trunks that the machetes did nothing against. So on the third day of work we cut up all of the trunks into smaller sections, and rolled, hauled, and pushed them to one corner of the field. Which doesn’t sound bad in theory, but in reality is exhausting work. Especially when its not like nice smooth tree trunks, but old crooked ones that have become infested with ants, spiders, and/or beetles. There’s no way quite like hauling logs around without gloves to get hurt. I gave Jade what she swears is the coolest scar of her life by dropping a log while we were carrying it, having been attacked by ants. Mmm…fun stuff. That was some of the most exhausting work I’ve done in my life. We got nasty dirty, and we all got our share of bites, cuts, and scrapes. It was absolutely amazing how quickly we cleared that land, even though it took a lot of hard work, it was so worth it to look and see it cleared. The next time we went to work, we planted the entire thing with rice. I don’t know if any of you have ever planted rice, but it involves poking shallow holes in the ground about eight inches apart in rows, also about eight inches apart. The hole poking is the easy part, you just use a pointy stick and walk along poking holes. Or, you can double time it, and use tow sticks, poking holes on either side of you. The bad part is the filling of the holes. This is what I got stuck doing. You have to put about four or five grains of rice in each hole. Let me repeat. You have to put about four or five grains of rice IN EACH AND EVERY HOLE. Do you know how many holes there are in a hectare of a rice field? Yeah, I thought not. Even that doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that to place the rice, you walk permanently bent over at the waist, carefully putting the rice in the holes. Try doing that for three hours or more. You get dizzy, just following the rows of holes without standing up or looking around. But what a feeling of accomplishment when we realized that in the course of a week, we had cleared a lot of land, and planted the entire thing of rice. It somehow made all the work, the bites, the sore muscles and injuries completely and totally worth it. The fact that the students helped made it so much more meaningful, like we were contributing to their community, because even after we left, we all know that they will reap the harvest in the months to come. Good times.

-One of the days, after working in the field, we took a break by shucking dried corn. Have you ever shucked dried corn? I thought not. As I shucked, others beat the kernels off the cob. The image of Eric whacking away with a pole with be forever burned in my mind.

-One of the days of work on the way to the field, we made a short detour to help the high school students pluck some chickens. You know. A normal everyday detour, to pluck us some chickens. Though I lived on a farm for a good while, I hadn’t had the opportunity to pluck a chicken yet. I wouldn’t say that it was a un-agreeable experience, but I doubt that I’ll ever wake up with a craving to repeat it…

-The kind people of Mondaña invited us over one of the nights to a music competition that they were holding. Hector sang some amazing ballads. Eric was invited to play, and on his sad little guitar with one string missing, he played Hotel California. It wasn’t his best performance, but as usual, he sounded amazing. The traditional music from the east is very different from that of the sierra, so I think that it was a great opportunity that we all got to experience it, in living color.

-The tubing adventure: We were informed that we should all put our bathing suits on and head to the canoe. We complied, of course, some less willing than others to done a suit (the Rotary fifteen has become more like the Rotary twenty-five for some of us), but eventually we all made it there. We piled into the canoe, and headed a good hour or two up stream. The view from the river is absolutely amazing. The narrow shores are covered with round gray rocks, and lined with walls of green, broken up in random little places by waterfalls. It’s amazingly beautiful. They pulled up to the shore, and we all piled out. We unloaded eight inter tubes, shed our outer clothing, tightened the life jackets, and waded into the water. It was shallow, for all of a good ten seconds. And then the current swept us away, and we were floating down the Napo river. Some had the tubes, playing king of the hill and what not, but most of us were more than content to just float and observe the beauty of it. If you haven’t ever been tubing, it’s a very relaxing experience, with no effort at all, you make amazing time, and are free to float along with the current. There was only one rapid part of the river that we encountered, and we made a mad dash to keep to the right, slower side of the river. Swimming against the current is pretty freaking hard, let me tell you. But Hector is a great guide and kept us all a safe distance from the rapids and the rocks. At one point, the river got to be only about two feet deep, so we had to float on our backs, still swimming to keep to the right. It was just so peaceful, but alas, it only lasted about forty five minutes, and we had floated ourselves right back to the lodge.

-We also had the opportunity to meet the local medicine man, Domingo, which is very different from a shaman as we were told. The main difference is that shamans use chemical substances, while medicine men do not. The whole group of us took our seats in the hut, and Hector gave us a small lecture about having an open mind to other cultures, that not everything from our culture is 100% right, and that other cultures, as odd as some aspects may seem, have their merit as well. I think that we all felt that it was pretty much unnecessary for our group, as to be here we are obviously more open minded than most people, but we also recognized that there are, without a doubt, people out there who would say ‘medicine man-what a load of crock’ So, we paid attention, and Hector gave another introduction speech, explaining the role of the medicine man in a society, his duties and responsibilities, his training, etc etc. Domingo then introduced himself, a man of seemingly thirty years or so, but actually fifty, with eleven children. He seemed very wise, and very intelligent. After the formalities were over, Domingo lit the fire in the middle of the hut, and rolled a couple of cigar-type things from tobacco leaves. One by one, we took our seat on the chair in the middle, and Domingo performed the traditional cleansing ritual on us, brushing us with a small bunch of leaves, and blowing smoke down our backs and around our faces. About halfway through the ritual, he walks outside, blows a stream of smoke towards the sky, and with a swooshing sound, shakes the leaves as if he were ridding them of the bad energy he brushed off of us. He repeated the ritual, each time with a new bunch of leaves. The purpose of the ritual is to free you from any negative thoughts, and rejuvenate the spirit. And although I do happen to be a believer in western medicine, I also believe in the power of faith. It was all very interesting, and I think that people like Domingo deserve a lot more credit than they’re given

-Right after the cleansing ritual, jungle boy taught us how to throw a spear and blow darts through a very long blow gun, explaining different methods of hunting. After a couple tries, I really did get the hang of it. But I have to say that if I was the hunter for my village, they would all more than likely starve to death. But I can sure spear a papaya like nobody’s business.

-We took a walk through the woods, in the opposite direction of the high school. On the way, we saw the world’s smallest monkey. Eventually, after random log bridges and stairs (always with the random log stairs), we arrived at a large hut type thing. There, an indigenous lady taught us basket weaving and pottery. I failed at both. Which isn’t entirely my fault. One of the monkeys from the lodge had followed us on our way, and each time I would get a strip woven through, it would defiantly pull it back out, taunting me. I don’t think people realize how smart monkeys are. And then it stole my earrings. Damn monkeys.

-The first couple days on the trip it was hot and steamy, with a blistering sun like you can’t imagine. And I began to wonder ‘why is this called a rain forest?’ Well, close to the end of my stay, the skies opened up and showed me how it got its name. I got trapped midway between lodge and high school, and nearly got swept off my feet by the torrent of water that came down. It rained harder than I have ever seen in my life, and never ended, two days of rain like that. Yes folks, a rain forest indeed.

-This is completely irrelevant to my exchange year, but over the course of my stay at Yachana lodge, I have come to hate rubber boots with more of a passion than I have ever hated anything in my life. They cause blisters, cuts, and all sorts of ungodly discomforts. It got to the point that we began to arrive late to some activities during the trip, just out of dread of donning the boots again. That is all.

-Victor, from Denmark, is the funniest guy alive. That is all.

-Realizing our quickly diminishing supply of socks, Eric and I washed clothes, by hand. Fun stuff. My socks were Irish Spring fresh.

So, I guess I hadn’t realized how absolutely much I love this Rotary program until on the flight back from Coca to Quito, I wound up sitting next to a high school teacher from New York that had brought her Spanish class on a trip to Ecuador. I somehow found myself bragging about the program, surprising myself with how passionately I talked about how much of a great opportunity it is. Of course I gave her my Rotary card, and told her how to get someone to come to their school to give a presentation about the program…

-I had my first Taco Bell in six months when Jade and I went to the mall after our plane landed in Quito. It was disappointing, but still deserves a small mention in the journal. I <3 hot sauce

Here’s that information about Yachana Lodge etc. that I promised. It’s worth the read, I swear. But if you don’t want to, skip through till you see END.

Here’s the background. Yachana Lodge was constructed in 1995 by FUNEDESIN (the Foundation for Integrated Education and Development) to help the world better understand the rainforest and its inhabitants. It was constructed on the banks of the Napo river, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Since then, Yachana lodge has generated over 2.2 million dollars that have been reinvested in the region. The lodge invests 100% of its profits in FUNEDESIN’s conservation, poverty reduction, education, and healthcare projects.

Yachana means “a place of learning” in Quichua (the indigenous language of Ecuador).The goal of the lodge is to find solutions to the problems of realistic life in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the ideals of forest conservation. They sponsor many conservation projects, including the 3,600 acres of Protected Forest and environmental education efforts. Their poverty reduction, income generation, and agricultural assistance programs complement their conservation projects by promoting sustainable living and providing viable economic alternatives to logging, cattle ranching, and the raising of illicit crops. It was named by Lonely Planet Travel Guide as “the best true example of eco-tourism in Ecuador”

The mission of FUNEDESIN (in short) is to “find sustainable solutions that will contribute to reversing the spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation that is ravaging the people and tropical forests of the Ecuadorian Amazon.”

A few of the most important accomplishments of FUNEDESIN are: – The founding of Yachana High School: In October of 2005, FUNEDESIN opened the Yachana High School to benefit high school-age indigenous and mestizo students who live in remote rural communities in Ecuador’s Amazon region. It is absolutely free. It is a non-traditional technical school, which promotes the conservation of the Amazon through teaching sustainable use of natural resources, providing professional skills to improve employability, and mentoring management of student-run micro-enterprises. Subjects include eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture, forest and wildlife management, and environmentally sustainable micro-enterprises. The students learn by being actively involved in all aspects of FUNEDESIN’s ongoing development and eco-tourism projects. Students are split into two groups, each group living at the school for 21 days, then switching. This allows students not only to be present at the high school 365 days of the year, but also to be able to help with family businesses/farms on their off schedule.

-The establishment of the Mondaña Medical Clinic in 1997, which offers the only full-time healthcare to 8,000 Quichua indigenous and mestizos living along the Upper Napo River

-Created Yachana Gourmet, an ecologically conscious company that has established a stable cacao market by annually buying tons of organically grown cacao directly from small-scale growers.

-Constructed 17 micro-credit programs, known as village banks, which allow farmers to increase and improve their production, cover health and education expenses, and open their own micro-enterprise.

-Constructed 21 schools in impoverished communities throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon.

-Purchased and conserved over 3,700 acres of rainforest…

Here are some random statistics that make me sad, but I think should be known: Health in the rural areas of the Napo Province: -the infant mortality rate in 70 per 1,000 live births (in the states it’s 6.3) -more than 95% of the inhabitants suffer from intestinal parasites -1 in 4 children under the age of 5 suffer life-threatening diarrhea every two weeks -only 32.9% of children receive all necessary immunizations before the age of one -there is no potable water or electricity in most of the communities Education -30% of elementary school children in the Amazon region do not finish 6th grade -only 5% finish secondary schooling -15,000 elementary schools in Ecuador have NO source of potable water*

-random fact: The Executive Director of FUNEDESIN and Yachana Lodge is Douglas McKeekin. END YACHANA STUFF

So, I got back from the jungle, complete with over 300 bug bites, halfway freaked out because I had just hit my six month mark, but mostly extremely motivated to make my best of the time I had left, live every day to the fullest, and not waste even a single moment. And of course, the day after I got back I got really freaking sick. Like vomiting, every two minutes running to the bathroom, fever and chills, crying from pain type of sick. The next week was a feverish haze of pills and questions and doctor visits, followed by a Saturday where I felt better, and went with my mom to a mass in Pujilí (a tiny little town close to here). Little did I know, in this city everyone dresses up to go to the mass. Even the horses are dressed up, all in costumes from the Mama Negra. It was very interesting, to say the least. Saturday night came, and I was back to bathroom running, vomiting, fever, and extreme abdominal pain…to the point of screaming and crying, again. More hazy memories of a trip to the doctor, and more pills.

Sunday we left early in the morning for Ambato, a city about forty minutes south of Latacunga. Traffic was insane, and it took us two hours to make the drive. Why? Carnival, and Ambato is one of the three hotspots to go in Ecuador. We got there, I saw a bit of the parade. It was amazing, countries from all over the world represented, traditional music and dances, beautiful costumes. It was amazing, but somehow didn’t seem to merit the month leading up to it that I had spent dodging water balloons and arriving home from school with egg, flour and/or shaving cream in my hair. Crazy Ecuadorians.

We went back to my grandparents house after that, where I proceeded to stay the next three days in bed, still with horrible abdominal pain, nausea, and an inability to keep anything except Gatorade and the occasional saltine down. Finally, Wednesday we returned to Latacunga. I still felt amazingly awful and so weak I could barely get out of bed, and hadn’t eaten solid food in a week and a half.

So they took me to the doctor, yet again, where he prescribed more medication, and ordered some tests. The prognosis? A severe intestinal infection and parasites. That’s not what you want to hear, ever. Parasites. Bleh. So, I was put on even more medication, for any imaginable symptom. I had already been extremely ill for just over two weeks, and the medication was not making me feel better. So, not thinking clearly, I did the thing that Rotary tells you not to do, and I called home. Which was both good and bad. The bad thing was my mother got very worried, as she hadn’t known about the situation until this point, and my aunt also became extremely worried. But, due to her concern, I was put in the hospital, put on the correct medication, received the proper treatment, and got better rapidly. And I am proud to say that I am 100% parasite free. Wooo!!!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Al Kalter for his support, my chairman this side of the equator Renato Lanas, and of course Julio Gutierrez, head of Rotary YE here in Ecuador. All three of them helped me a ton through the entire process, and helped keep families both here and there calm and reassured. Thank you all so much!

I also have to make a quick thank you to my amazing host family that kept me sane through everything, especially my host mother who loves me more than anything in this world, and who I love even more, if that’s possible.

OK, so in order to make this journal as short as possible at this point in my writing, I’ll cut it off here. But I warn you, there’s another half…including stuff about Baños, all the crazy strikes that have been going on, the continuing TLC debate, Quito trips, and just random reflections. And as I’m leaving for Galapagos tomorrow, it will also cover that. Sorry again for the sheer length of it. It won’t happen again.

Lots of love Taj

PS, I just wanted to make a few quick shout outs…happy birthday to my brother Justice and Jarrod, lots of love to Stephen <3, a ton of love to my aunt, my uncle, and my mom. Of course, to my fellow exchangers and this fall’s outbound group (congrats – how’s the language going? are you keeping in contact with us of us who are in your countries??) To Sean and Triscuit, and most importantly my dog. Oh yeah, also to Al Kalter and my amazing Rotary Club of Orange Park Sunrise!!!

April 24 Journal

OK, so here’s yet another journal. This will be short and sweet. I promise.

WARNING: broken English ahead!

Part two from the other one: Right after getting better after my bout with parasites, my mom decided we should take a vacation. So we made the two hour drive to what is my favorite city in the entire world…..Baños!! (not “bathrooms´´ for those of you who know Spanish but aren’t familiar with Ecuador). I fell in love right away (I talk as though I haven’t used this phrase to describe every experience this part year…). The city is situated right next to the active volcano Tunguragua…southeast of my city, Latacunga. The climate is moderately hot, which is the type of weather that I have been pining for since I first left Florida to come to the Andes Mountains. It’s a very popular tourist city, though it keeps the small city charm.

My wonderful host mother, wanting to make up for my two weeks sick, decided we would do everything possible on the trip. And she kept her word. One of the first things we did was rent four-wheelers with my brother and tour around the city on our own. Then a tour of the numerous waterfalls, all of which were breathtakingly gorgeous. At night we took a tour of the city on Chiva (double-decker bus), which took us to a beautiful lookout point on the side of the mountain. I don’t think riding a bus has ever been so much fun!! (my brother and I rode on top like crazy people). The next morning we went white water rafting, and after that, we rented horses and just saw some more of the city (we actually did a lot more, but for the sake of keeping it short, I’m not going to go into detail).

That trip with my mom and host brother was my first time to Baños, but has not been my last. Because it’s only about three hours away and the bus there only costs $2 maximum, I have been more than three times since then. And it continues to be my favorite city in all of Ecuador.

We got back to Lata late on a Sunday night, already with plans to travel to Quito the following morning, as my mom needed to do some work at the University, and I just happen to like Quito quite a bit.

Unfortunately, like any time that I have plans to do something, a strike happens. So that Monday at twelve in the morning, the indigenous people declared a strike, blocking all major highways in five provinces here in the sierra. Which is fine for bigger cities, like Quito, but in the smaller cities you begin to run out of food after a while, as the farms are usually located outside of the city, and no food supply can enter. The strike of Monday was started because the government promised money for certain projects over two years ago, but never gave it (I assume it has to do with the drastic changes in presidents, but you know…). Another strike started that Tuesday, against the TLC (free trade with the states), which really didn’t change much, just made the protests a touch more violent. Wednesday morning the mayors of some of the cities here in Cotopaxi took a helicopter to Quito and declared a hunger strike to show that they can complete their goals without help from any indigenous people. Thursday there were protests against the TLC, mainly from dignitaries and the sort, and most of our Rotary Club marched as well. I’m not sure which one ended, and which one was only temporarily suspended, but both were called off for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (I used the opportunity to visit friends in Quito), which thankfully allowed food supply back into the city, and some people who had been caught between cities etc. to get where they needed to be. The tourists that had been trapped in Lata were very happy indeed to be able to get out finally.

One restarted the following Monday at midnight. No one knew exactly what they wanted, whether it was about the money or the TLC, but it got pretty violent. Any cars that passed in the roads had their tires slashed, and the Pan-American highway was blocked with burning tires and crowds of very angry people. Finally Thursday afternoon it ended, after nearly two weeks of indigenous strikes and no transportation.

Gotta love those crazy Ecuadorian strikes.

That was a while ago, but even today there continues to be protest marches against the TLC, mostly university students, sometimes the indigenous population, other times the upper class. Eventually everyone seems to join in. I’m not really quite sure how I feel about it. All of the marches and the like are directed towards convincing the government not to sign the TLC, the signing of which would lead to free trade between Ecuador and the states. But a good number of the marches have a quite violent undertone, more of a hatred for Americans and what they represent on a global scale than the actual agreement itself. So that leaves me pretending to be either Ecuadorian or German, whichever happens to be more believable at the moment. It’s not that my safety is ever in danger, as it’s a very tranquil city, but it’s always better not to test the limit of tolerance. Especially that of angry strangers. You know.

After the strikes ended I think I made a good three or four trips to Quito to a) spend time with my most wonderful host mother that I sometimes swear I adore more than life itself, b) to bask in the big city life that I was once so accustomed to, but now translates into me gawking in awe at racial diversity and pharmacies that are big enough to walk into…and c) spending time with Jade, one of my very best friends here in Ecuador, which consequently means having an amazing time and eating a ton of shawarma´s. I <3 Jade!

Even though I’d love to write more about my adventures in Quito…I’m keeping my promise…short and sweet. On to Galapagos!

So, on March 31st all the kids from the sierra and the people closer to Quito than Guayaquil met in the airport. And even though it’s the national airport of the capital city, its not nearly big enough for exchange students…especially keeping in mind how much we pack. It is always such an emotional rush to see everyone…I don’t think anyone truly knows the meaning of the word emotional rush like an exchange student. Airports are not meant for this type of gathering…I’ll tell you that right now. Luggage heaped in a giant pile, crying people hugging each other, running towards one another…to anyone else I’m sure we look like lunatics.

The flight was delayed a good two hours (after all this IS Ecuador…it wouldn’t be right if anything happened at the scheduled time…it would break some unwritten law – hell might freeze over or something equally un-natural). Luckily it was only a 32 minute flight into Guayaquil. Flying in was quite impressive. The coast is in its rainy season right now, and I kid you not when I saw the entire thing seemed to be covered in water from the view of the plane….the ground was just shiny….rivers blended into everything else. We got off the plane, and not only was it as hot as blazes, it was so humid it felt like I was breathing in pure water. Crazy stuff. We did the strip down to the least amount of clothes necessary routine, and entered the airport, where we met up with the other half of the exchangers. Another emotional frenzy.

Then we all boarded onto the plane, and a short hour and 45 minutes later, about 100 teenagers from around the world set foot on the famous Galapagos Islands for the first, and most likely last, time of their lives. As amazing and impressive as that looks in writing…it was more like a “hey, were in Galapagos dudes…sweet´´ type of deal. Having already shedded extra clothing…we had nothing much to do except continue talking. In a short amount of time we had paid our entrance into the islands (as the entire thing is one giant national park), and gathered our luggage. It was pretty cool, one of the first things I noticed was a giant iguana just kind of chilling in the baggage area. Very Galapagos.

We then took a bus ride, a ferry ride, and another bus ride to the hotel on Santa Cruz Island. As we arrived late afternoon that first day, the only thing that we had time to do was go to the Charles Darwin national park. You know, where they keep all the giant tortoises for safe keeping. Lol, but we did see some really huge tortoises, some up to 140 years old, over four feet in length. Meaning that they were there when Charles Darwin was. Which is pretty amazing if you ask me. However, I am positive that I learned more about tortoises than I would ever want to know in my life.

That night we ate dinner, and just walked around the island. Two things struck me at once. No graffiti whatsoever. And all the vehicles seemed to be white trucks. The first was just weird, because every city in Ecuador that I know of is pretty much full of graffiti, and well, what type of place has only white trucks. It wasn’t until later that I found out that both the taxis and the police use white trucks, and because of the abundance of police, no graffiti. Sweetness.

The next morning we all woke up god awful early and ate breakfast, divided into six groups, and headed out to do our respective activities for the day. My group headed to Tortuga Bay. It was quite a walk, but well worth it. The sand on the beach was pure white with a texture similar to that of flour. The water was blue blue, and mostly clear. The first beach we visited was La Playa Brava, literally, the angry beach. At first we were limited to only taking photos, but when we went to the second beach the tide was too low to go swimming, and therefore we swam at the angry beach. Angry indeed. I have never seen waves so big (except for Florida during hurricane season). I got thoroughly roughed up by the waves and the current, and gave up to sunning a little bit. Which, looking back, I shouldn’t have done without a full body suit because I got burned burned burned, even with spf 75 sun block that I put on like it was going out of style. It was gorgeous. We headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then afterwards we went lava walking, and learned a whole bunch of history about the islands and how they were formed. End day two

Day three. You couldn’t pry me out of bed with a crow bar, being burnt and exhausted form the sun. I didn’t go to breakfast, but afterwards I finally got up long enough to be coerced into going cliff diving with the group. We took a short bus ride, then walked quite a ways, climbing rocks until we eventually wound up at the cliffs. In between the cliffs was a pool of crystal clear water that had filtered in from the ocean. It was so clear you could see the rocks way down at the bottom. Meaning it made it that much more scary when we climbed to various points on the wall of the cliff and dived into the water. A very big adrenaline rush, and the cold water felt great for the burn. After scaring ourselves silly for a sufficient amount of time, we took a bus ride to the coast and got onto a smallish boat. We were issued snorkeling gear, and much like you always see on TV, we dropped off backwards into the ocean. The first place we snorkeled was on the shore of a small rock island, we didn’t see too much as the water was deep, but we did see a bunch a schools of fish and an giant manta ray hiding in a hole. Fun stuff. We spent a bit of time there, then headed to another rock island, were the snorkeling was, in simple terms FREAKING WONDERFUL. Jade and I got caught up looking at a school of rainbow fish, then a blow fish, and then a giant manta ray feeding on the bottom. In the middle of this, a shark swam up, and while we were warily watching it, we got the bejeezus scared out of us by a rogue sea lion that dived right in front of us. The rest of the day was spent trying to catch photos of the amazing marine wildlife, and once again at night we toured the island.

Day four…We took an incredibly long bus ride, then got on a larger boat than the day before, heading off to Seymour island. The guide took us onto the island, showing us the different species of birds, including the all so famous blue-footed boobies. It was very interesting to see the mating dance, and how they incubate the eggs. We also saw more land iguanas, and my favorite, the Fragata birds. They have these huge red sacs on their necks that they inflate to attract females. Interesting. It kind of looks like a heart when its inflated and their beak is down. Hmmm. I liked the random sea lions just lazing about. They smell bad, really bad, just warning you. Like awful bad. Ok moving on. Once again we were issued snorkel gear. We hit the SNORKELING JACKPOT. We seriously were swimming alongside of a good 15 sea lions or so. It’s so funny how curios they are, they swim right up to your face, and then dive down. It seemed like they were playing with us. It was a photographer’s dream, all these sea lions in clear water doing flips, playing with each other. One I found was particularly peculiar. I was adjusting the mask above water and I noticed a pair of sea lion feet just poking out of the water. I looked down below the surface and there was the little baby sea lion just chilling upside down, staring right back at me. I seized the opportunity, took the picture, and the second the button clicked, the little dude did a crazy flip and swam away, like he had been waiting for someone to take a picture of him. How odd. At night we had a buffet style dinner, ate our selves silly, and packed.

Day five. We left very early in the morning en route back to the airport. On the way we stopped to see Los Gemelos “the twins´´, two very large craters caused by seismic activity. Very cool indeed. After that we got to the airport, loaded on the plane, that of course took off late, and flew into Guayaquil where we said the first round of our messy goodbyes. Then to Quito, where round number two took place. The goodbyes are always hard, but get harder with every trip that we go one, reminding us that our days our numbered. A lot of people broke down saying goodbye to Eric, who won’t be on the last trip, therefore meaning he was saying his final goodbye’s to most people. It didn’t bother me too much, he lives in my city. It was kind of like “bye dude, see you tomorrow´´. And that was my Galapagos trip.

What else?

A day after getting back from Galapagos, we found out that we would be switching host families the next day. Gotta love my Rotary Club and their talent for giving us a little warning… So, after breaking the news to my family, bawling like a baby, and procrastinating till five in the morning by talking with my host parents, I began the long process of packing.

I just couldn’t make myself start. Every time I would go to fold a shirt or bring out the suitcases, I would just cry, realizing that the next time I would pack would be my last. My host mom was more upset than I was, angry at the Rotary Club for making us change a month earlier then expected, angry that they didn’t let us know until a day before the change, heartbroken that I was leaving the house, just upset with the world.

My host brother and sister cried a lot when I told them that I was leaving, but like always my host dad was the rational voice of the family, explaining that in life, not everything goes how you would want it to, and although I would be missed by that family, I would be equally welcomed in the next family. So, with these words of wisdom, we made it a family project to pack my bags, talking about all the good times we have shared over the past three months, telling jokes, mutually comforting one another. We all passed out in my room, waking up the next afternoon. My mom headed to work, my brother and sister to the last couple hours of school, leaving me in a blank room with nothing to show for my past three months except two packed suitcases and two carry on bags, and my backpack full of books. As Eric was the next one to come to the house, I kindly left a Canada flag on the wall, and knowing his odd hunger attacks in the middle of the night, I left a drawer full of crackers and cookies and the like. It was the least that I could do. I also kindly put pink sheets on the bed, but I’m pretty sure my host dad changed those before Eric got there. Darn it.

The rest of the day passed by with a melancholy feel, waiting the hour when my chairman would come to the house, I would choke back tears, saying my goodbyes, or better yet, my see you later’s, and I would be whisked away to my next house. My chairman said he’d be there at four, meaning that at ten till seven he showed up. And that’s how it went. We chatted with my chairman for a long while, waiting for my mom to get home, and I choked out my goodbye’s, crying ridiculously hard for someone moving only ten minutes away, but it felt so much like the real goodbye that I know I’ll be saying in a few short months. And just like that, I was off to my next house.

Luckily, I already new the family, all except my host brother who returned from his exchange to the states early. But it is always awkward arriving at a new house with all your belongings and being like `here I am, there you are, this is my house now….´.

So, around eight at night, I arrived at the house. It was raining outside, which had some kind of poetic justice to it. My chairman drug my luggage inside, made polite conversation and high tailed it out of there. His wife is pregnant and the baby is due anytime, so I don’t blame him one bit. I spent a little time getting to know my host mom and host brother and sister, waiting for my dad and other brother to arrive home. It went nice, we went over the first night questions, and then we all headed to bed.

My new family is really sweet. I have a dad, Byron, mom Nancy, little brother, Nico (6), little sister, María de los Ángeles (12), and older brother Byca (18). My dad is the owner and founder of one of the biggest hardware store chains here in Ecuador, meaning my parents are unbelievably loaded. The house is only two years old, three stories, a yard and tennis court. It has like six or seven bedrooms, an equal number of bathrooms, and random other living rooms, dining rooms, entertaining rooms. You know. It’s a little further from the main part of the city than I’d like, but still within walking distance. My host brother automatically made me feel right at home, inviting me to go out with him and his friends, joining a kickboxing class with me, stuff like that. My little brother and sister drag me out of bed to play in the morning if I don’t get up early enough for them. My host parents are really intelligent and understanding people. I wish I saw more of them, but I don’t because they work every day from eight in the morning till eight at night, coming home for lunch of course.

I thought it might be kind of awkward entering an already full family, but it wasn’t like that at all. I guess the only thing that bothers me is that even though I’ve already been there for almost three weeks, my room has no furniture, only a bed and a nightstand, meaning I am still living out of suitcases. I’m not quite sure what the deal with that is, but I’m getting used to it at least.

Easter came and was oddly disappointing. We went to my grandmothers and ate rabbit. I wasn’t sure how to go about eating it with my hands, so I looked to my aunt as an example. Bad idea. Right when I looked over, my aunt was busy sucking the brains out of the skull. Yummy. The day was spent sharing stories, drinking beer, and playing ecuavolly with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. It was a lot of fun, but didn’t feel like Easter. You win some and you lose some. It’s not like I knew how to explain what chocolate bunnies and colored eggs have to do with Easter either….lol

My recent adventures have been, as usual, going to Quito to visit Jade. It’s always a lot of fun, but the bigness of Quito never ceases to amaze me. It’s so dangerous at times, at least compared to my tranquil Latacunga. It shocks me the amount of crime sometimes, but part of being an exchange student is knowing how to judge situations and how to avoid the bad ones. So I’ve been lucky so far. A lot of other exchangers haven’t been. It comes down to knowing your surroundings, expecting the unexpected, and hanging out with the right crowd. While in Quito, I hit my eight month mark, meaning I only had three months left. Crazy stuff.

English is a continuing battle. I feel like I should start practicing, or something, before I get home otherwise I’ll get the same odd looks from people back in the states that I got from people here when I first arrived. Oh well. Um, no school today, so I headed to Volcán Libro, a great little bookstore slash café that I have been going to religiously since September. The owner, Lalo, is a really great guy and a close friend, and we often find ourselves talking about great poets and authors from around the world, about politics. Today we got started up on something about the TLC (free trade with the states) which is by far, the biggest political issue in Ecuador right now. Side note: I have noticed that you can always tell what the big political issues are by the graffiti that covers every square inch of this country. Things about the TLC is plastered everywhere!. Anyway, we get to talking, and next thing I know we are doing a radio talk show about it. I’m not quite sure how I got suckered into it, but I was so proud after I had finished. The radio show guy mistook me as someone from Cuenca (city in Ecuador), and I didn’t disagree. Fun stuff.

It astounds me that I have less than three months left. That’s a matter of weeks, not months. And it absolutely kills me that Eric, my best guy friend here in Ecuador, is leaving to go back to Canada the fourth of May. That’s a matter of days. He is one of the most genuine people that I have ever met in my life, and will be greatly missed. But, that’s the way life is. Things end, things change. And the entire reason that he’s leaving early, is to go climb the seven summits of the world. So I suppose it’s a worthy cause. Crazy Canadians.

So, considering that I only have eighty something days left!!!!!!!!!!!!! this is where I leave you guys.

Con Amor

Taj

PS: lots of love to everyone stateside and good luck to all the outbounds!!!!

May 19 Journal

OK….so here’s the deal guys. I have pretty much no time to write, but the next month of my time is going to be chock full of Ecuador fun, so if I don’t update my Rotary journal this very instant, it is entirely possible that I will never actually get around to it. So, here goes nothing.

When I wrote the last time, I had just gotten back from Galapagos and switched host families. Man, I have A LOT of updating to do. Damn me and my infernal procrastinating. And my English sucks. Fun fun. Here we go.

Ok, so the 25th of April I headed to the Paz house, to spend time with my old host brother Francisco who came back from Argentina a little bit early. It was so amazing to spend time with the family, and it was a complete and total surprise that Fran was there because when I said goodbye to him the last time, I thought it would be forever. Or at least longer than five months. But I am by no means complaining. It’s always a weird feeling, going back to an old host family to visit. To me it feels much like I imagine going back to Florida will feel like. An old sense of familiarity, but you can’t quite remember where they keep the spoons. You know. Anyway, I stayed until late that night, catching up with the family and just generally having a good time.

Early the next morning I headed back to the Paz family, as they had invited me to come and help plant artichokes. It was one of the best `homecomings´ that I could ask for. I miss working on the farm with my host parents, fixing the tractors with my host siblings. So, working side by side with them planting artichokes was the perfect way for me to spend time with them. Between my host dad, Fran, me, and the workers, we planted about 8000 artichoke plants. Of course I got completely and totally covered with mud and dirt, my back hurt from being bent over for hours, and I was dead exhausted when we finished. The absolute perfect day. And I say that with utmost sincerity.

The next thing I knew is that it was the 28 of April, and I was crying my goodbyes once again to Francisco at some god-awful early hora of the morning. It didn’t seem real. My old host father and I waited until well after his flight had left to leave the airport. I just kept expecting that he’d come walking back out, say it was a joke. But of course that never happened. I cried on the way to my dad dropping me off, while I tried to remember where Jade lived. I didn’t remember, wound up having breakfast with my Paz host dad and sister, and then we found Jade’s house, a good two hours later than when I told her I’d be there. Oh well. It is Ecuador, these things are ok.

After that, I spent time with family and friends in Lata. Mostly Eric. We bought some fabric and what not and got him a guitar case sown. We found the only wooden light post in all of Latacunga, it reeked of dog urine, but we were both so surprised that we hadn’t noticed before that I took a picture. In fact, I think I took a picture of everything we did those couple days, wanting to document to my fullest capacity his last days in Ecuador, and more importantly, his last days with me. I helped him pack, because I am the master packer. He gave me a lot of stuff, Canada paraphernalia, clothes, random books and movies. He wound up having one suitcase, two guitars, a backpack, and a churango to take home with him. Fun stuff.

He left early to get to Quito and do the last minute things that he had to do. So it wasn’t until the 3rd of May that Ashley and I made our way to Quito in bus. It was a very solemn ride, neither of us said very much. I stayed at Jade’s house that night, like whenever I am in Quito. At four the next morning Jade and I took a cab to the airport, where we met up with all the other people that had traveled from all over Ecuador to say goodbye to Eric. You know, because in all honesty, he is the coolest guy ever.

Most of us started crying as soon as we saw him there. Others managed to hold out until right before he left. But, for the most part, I bawled from the second I saw him there with his luggage. He didn’t actually leave until around six thirty, so we each said our goodbyes over and over again. He signed his Canada handkerchief and gave it to me. “Tajah, taj, size/slice. Whatever. Anyway you’re way too cool and smart to hang out with a hippie like me. I love you and I always will. Maybe you’ll see me again, for being too cool. Kick those engineer’s a**es. I love you. Tu Eric.´´

I have said some really hard goodbyes this year. I have made it through things that I never thought that I could have before. I have done amazing things, difficult things. I have grown and matured a lot. But when he left, I wasn’t sure if I would ever stop crying. And it was a long time before I finally could, and even then, the only way I could make myself stop was by reminding myself that he would never want me to cry over a `hippie´ like him. That as soon as reality set in for him, that he would be doing his own crying, and he would need someone to be strong for him. So, eventually I stopped. But I’m going to go ahead and say it:

Eric, I miss you, I love you, you’re one of a kind, and things aren’t the same without you here.

I never had thought that the day would come. But it did, and it passed. And now its some foggy memory, like a bad dream. Saying goodbye to someone who has been your best friend for a year, who has been by your side for the good and the bad is never easy, and it never will be.

I stayed a couple more days with Jade in Quito. One of the nights I went to a reggae concert (Alma Rasta) with some very good friends of mine, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite Eric’s absence. Afterwards, somehow, I met the friends of a friend, who all just so happened to be street performers, jugglers, flame-swallowers, that type of deal thing. They truly are some of the most genuine people I have ever met in my life, and I had a great time talking with them.

It was so interesting to me, like it always is, how people can find their niche in a society like the one of Ecuador. There are no jobs, so they make their own. They find some talent or passion and that is how they earn money to live, to eat. I always wonder, how do people decide what they are going to do for a living? Do they wake up one day and be like: I’m going to be a juggler when I grow up. Or, I am going to sell gum to win my bread. It’s so different from how things in the states are, where everyone pretty much goes to school, most go to college, and the majority of people get normal jobs working for some company or another somewhere. But I suppose that different societies force people to develop differently.

Before, I’m not really sure how I felt about street performers. It’s different, because here I live with the richest of the rich who tend to look down on the poor. But at the same time, no matter how prejudiced they may be, no matter how much they might influence my thinking on the world, no one can change MY views, MY sense of what is right and wrong, good and bad in the world. Yeah, sure, the little things might change, but my core feelings, my core judgments can never be altered. Because, in reality, that is who I am. I was brought up to never discriminate based on color, creed, religion, or anything like that, but rather to judge people by the character of their heart, of who they truly are, not what society has made them to be.

And although, in this society of mine that I live in Ecuador, I was more out of place than ever…a white girl from the upper class with natives from a lower social class, with people of the street, talking and laughing into the night…although that may be unheard of here, I have never felt more comfortable with a group of people. Have never admired a group of individuals so much. Have never felt more respect for someone. And it reminded me of who I truly am inside. And it was a good feeling. And, I swear to god, Carlos, if I ever have the opportunity, I will buy you that accordion.

After getting back to Lata, life was pretty normal. My host family is really sweet, but after five weeks of not having furniture, of my host parents not getting home till almost nine at night every night, of five weeks of spending time alone in the house with the maids or with friends, I was very very frustrated with my living situation. I think it would have been different if any member of the family was ever home. But between my parents and brothers working, my other siblings’ school, violin lessons, tennis lessons, karate, they are literally never home. And although being with friends and outside of the house is ok, I would get so depressed just going home to a continually empty house, to a room with no furniture and no curtain. This isn’t how an exchange student should spend their last bit of time in their host country. It’s a horrible feeling, and it was made worse by the fact that in spite of me attempting to talk with my host parents or chairman about it, nothing worked. My parents were never home till late, meaning we would eat dinner and they would head to bed, and my chairman’s wife just gave birth to a baby boy, so his time is tied up between two kids and work. The talk that I had planned down to the very last words never happened despite the attempts I made. And each day, I felt a little worse and worse, more in despair.

So, I got to thinking. I was determined to get myself out of the funk that I was in. And staying out of the house as much as possible was not an option. I had to do something that would make me feel ok with being at home. I decided that the only true thing that I had control over was the furniture and curtain thing. It wasn’t like I could change my parents or siblings schedules, so it was the furniture thing that I decided to dwell on for a bit. I think it’s a very universal subject, that when people have a little place to call their own, to put their stuff, they can adapt to any environment. At least it’s true for the states and Ecuador, and that’s what matters in my personal situation.

I was appalled that my family hadn’t provided anything for me after a month and a half of being in the house. And even more than that, they had made some sarcastic comments like ´oh, what beautiful furniture you have´, things like that. But any time I asked about it, they said that the furniture would get there the next day. I mean, I understood that their son had come home early from exchange and that they had to put me in the room where the maids had been. I thought about it for a long time to see if it was me who wasn’t adapting to the situation, maybe if it was my American culture not understanding the Ecuadorian culture. But when you are in a house where everyone has their own TV, own stereo, own walk-in closet, own everything, where even the maids have furniture and other commodities, it doesn’t seem to be part of the culture to put the exchange student in a bare room. I made sure that I had a right to be upset, that I wasn’t crossing some cultural line by being upset. And I wasn’t. I was right. It wasn’t fair to me to make me live like that. I would have been fine if they had at least explained to me what was going on, that they understood that it wasn’t ok, but rather they seemed to be mocking my situation. So I had no idea what to do

In this culture, what you would normally do is wait for someone to come build the furniture. And in Ecuador, these things can evidently take a while. But that was obviously not doing anything but make me feel miserable in my own house, so I decided to think outside of the box. I figured if I couldn’t solve the problem with this culture, I would solve it with another culture, and I started thinking what I would do if I was back at home. And it struck me. Back home, I would never wait for someone to do something for me, I would do it myself. So that’s what I did.

Ashley and I went to the local supermarket, asked for some empty cardboard boxes, and I made myself furniture. Something to store my school stuff and books in, something for shoes, and something for clothes. It wasn’t much, just a couple of little things that would make me feel like the house I was living in was my home. I decorated them with wrapping paper left over from Christmas, and lined everything with tissue paper. And in my opinion, they looked really nice. So it wasn’t like I was bringing dirty cardboard boxes into the house, but rather some really spiffy furniture. I was very proud, very happy. I hung a blanket that I had over the window, having been more than fed up with not having a window covering on a window that overlooks not only what might be the brightest street light in the world, but also the driveway, the maid’s room, and the side yard. And all was good.

My host dad commented about it, he thought it was a clever idea. My host mom was not happy by any standards. That night, she took the measurements of the room, made a single phone call, and the very next day, I had real furniture in the room. Which was fine by me, though it really really made me wonder what had taken so long in the first place. She made me take my blanket down, saying it made the room too dark. Which was the point, I can’t sleep with a light shining in through the window. But whatever. The morning when the workers came to install the furniture, I went to Quito for Jade’s old host families Grandma’s birthday party, because, when I spent time there, the grandma and I got along super well, and she invited me to come to the party. So I went.

I got back in the afternoon, only to find twenty dollars and a ring missing, my stuff an absolute mess in the closet. Like clothes and lotions had been put in the same drawer, shampoo and books. Everything was a mess, and I had to go through and clean all of my stuff. Some is ruined, some is gone. Not a fun thing to come home to. I politely confronted my parents about it, they pretty much blamed me. The conversation escalated to the point where they told me that the only reason I was in the house was because of a personal favor to my chairman, that they would prefer not to have any exchange students in the house, this that and the other thing. They were not nice, at all, and I felt even worse than before. And on top of that, when I mentioned the furniture deal, they said that it shouldn’t be an issue, that it is my responsibility to adapt to wherever I am, not them to me. Which is true, and I understand that. But some things are over the line. There are bare minimums in any culture that should be complied with.

The next day was mother’s day. They didn’t invite me to breakfast; I said good morning and was met with silence. When we left to go to my grandma’s house, they sent the maid to my window to tell me they were leaving. They were all outside in the car, and the house was already all locked up and the alarm set. And that’s how two days passed. They never said one word to me, no matter what I said to them, what questions I asked. I would come home from school, and the maid would not serve me lunch unless I asked. Which is not normal, because my place at the table is usually set and the food waiting for me. I would get home to an empty kitchen, nothing on the table, no food in sight. So, once again I felt even worse than before.

In fact, my parents didn’t talk to me until I called my chairman over to mediate. My host mom pretty much yelled at me, my chairman took her side, meanwhile my host dad apologized to me, and defended me from both of them. My chairman brought up that I hadn’t been to school in a couple days, and my mom yelled at me over that. Meanwhile, my dad brought up the fact that the inspector from school had told me not to come to school that week, because classes were almost over and everyone was taking exams. It just got uglier and uglier, my mom being in reality very petty, and my dad being more realistic and keeping my mom’s story to what really happened. A horrible night overall. Nothing was solved, and everyone went to bed in a bad mood.

Went to school the next day to check with the inspector, he told me once again that even though it was really nice to see me, that I didn’t need to be there. So yeah.

One of those nights I talked to my parents. I waited until they got home, had eaten, and somehow intercepted them before they went to bed. As politely and as diplomatically as I could, I explained to them absolutely everything. I apologized for the incident of the other night, even though I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I told them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I talked and talked. I reminded them that even though their son is home, it doesn’t mean that I’m not here. That it’s not fair to me to spend so much time alone. That it makes it difficult that they aren’t home, that they live far away from everything, that they only have a laptop in the house that they take to work with them everyday. That it will just be harder in the weeks to come because they have family arriving, I have things to do, I have my Rotary trip, the day after I get back from the trip my dad and my older brother are going to the world cup in Germany, meaning my mom will be working even more. That my last month here in the country will be spent completely alone. That that isn’t how I had hoped to spend my last little bit of time. I talked for a long time, and they agreed with me. They understood what I was going through, and agreed that their house is not a good house for me to be in. SO that made me feel at least a little better. That after two months of not being understood of feeling alone, that someone finally understood me.

I talked with my chairman, after hunting him down over a period of days, about the possibility of me switching families. He didn’t seem keen on the idea. I insisted, and so did my host family, and there have been more than a couple times when he said he would call me or come to my house to talk that he just hasn’t called or shown up. I understand that he is very busy and that he has a life outside of Rotary, but at this point in my year when I am pressed for time, I expect more from my chairman. And it’s not like they ever issued me a new counselor after mine quit back in October. So. Once, again, am I stuck between a rock and a hard place. Right now, I face the option of hoping for another host family soon and only spending at most three weeks with them, or which is what’s going to more than likely happen, spending my last month in Ecuador alone.

But, this year is about adapting, and even though it royally sucks, I am stronger than that, and I have gotten to the point where I am ok with being alone in a house, being without family. It is not ideal, but the way I figure it, it will make the transition to back home easier. So, like usual, there’s a silver lining to every cloud.

So that’s that deal. I am sorry to write so much, but hey, people home should know what’s going on this side of the world.

What else is new? The times that I have gone to school, my classmates are overwhelmed to see me, and the inspector usually pulls me out of class to talk to him, to do whatever, and more than often tells me to `go out and enjoy the country my last month rather than sitting in school´.

Here is some exciting news. The American doctors are here again. There are only three of the same guys as last time, but they were my favorite three, so all is well. It’s a much bigger group this time, literally five tons of supplies, and the doctors are spread out between two hospitals. I have no idea how many procedures that they will do, but only a handful of them speak Spanish, so my help is very welcomed and needed. Plus, due to the last time I helped with the doctors, I have a much better comprehension of medical equipment and knowledge. They arrived this morning, and since then we have been unpacking and sorting, and doing consults. We finished early today, giving me the time to write this journal, but the surgeries start at 8 tomorrow morning, and they will be super busy until the 28th when they leave. Corey, a really amazing nurse tech whatever from California, who was also on the last trip, definitely brought me like ten pounds of gummy bears. <3

So, I’ll be busy with the doctors until the 28th. From the 28th of this month until June 4th I will be on my Rotary trip to the south. June fifth my host brother and dad leave. And my flight home is the 23rd of June. It breaks my heart that I only have a month left. It breaks my heart even more, because I had had a date in mid July confirmed and ready, but due to the time frame that my university gives me, I have no other choice but to come home a little early. But it feels like someone just stole a month away from me. Man, today is my nine month mark, and I only have just over a month left. Time flies.

So that’s why I decided to update today, because I will be crazy busy until the day that I leave. Crazy crazy stuff.

So, rather than waste more time here typing away like a maniac, this is where I leave you all. Lots of love to everyone

Taj

PS. <3

Patricia “Trish” Smith
2005-06 Outbound to Austria

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Paxon School for Advanced Studies
Sponsor: Jacksonville Oceanside Rotary
Host: Bruck an der Mur Rotary Club, District 1910, Austria

Trish - Austria

August 10 Journal

Ach Österreich!

Well guys I actually did it, I am in Austria. I must say that the hardest part has got to be leaving because that was nearly unbearable. My 1st home is nice, it’s 2 stories and has tons of doors! I have a balcony in my bedroom! I am right in between mountains! It’s beautiful. Everything is so nice and tidy and the town is like a mix between an old village and a new age city. it’s cool. My baggage was lost in Amsterdam… I should get them back today

Wow, guys, all I can say is wow. So many little things are different here… like the bathrooms, the plugs, the keyboard, the doors, THE LANGUAGE!

Well Sonntag (Sunday) I go to a Deutsch (German) Language Camp for 2 weeks. I haven’t met any other people my age yet but I know I will.

 

 

My next host family I go to on September 1st and leave them März something or other.

I was watching TV in German and the funny thing was the good shows they have are all American shows like … Tool time, Hello Holly (or that show that has Amanda Bines in it), and Charmed. It’s funny knowing I once watched it in English.

Everything’s in Celsius here… which is only to be expected. So this morning it was 16° and yesterday I think it was 30°. Soooooooooooo much better than the sweltering heat in Florida… ‘cept for the fact that you can only swim here on a hot day and tanning seems out of the question.

Things I can imagine missing in the future are the beach, swimming, and the carousel in St. Augustine – that’s besides me obviously missing my loved ones … other than those things I think Austria will fit me quite well!

Tschüs! Trish

August 28 Journal

I would love to keep everyone updated! But I cant send pictures until probably the 1st week of September because I am moving around until then and so that is when I will be able to sit down and load the pictures onto the computer.

But I will tell you all that I have never seen anything like this before. For the past two weeks I have been at an awesome German Language Camp where I have met so many wonderful people that I know are going to mean something to me for the rest of my life. I got to know the cities of Gmunden, Altmunster, and Hallstadt. I walked halfway up what I have deemed my favorite mountain in the world and drank water from a pristine waterfall straight from the mountain. I saw what they called “The bone house” (it is basically a room of bones that are decorated because the graveyard got full so they made more room and in order to not disrespect the dead they painted they skulls and put them all in a room to be revered for all time, it’s in Hallstadt). I went to the famous mines of Hallstadt that have been in use for about 7,000 years and so much more.

Today on my way home from the German Language Camp my friend Nick’s (the Canadian who happens to be the only other exchange student staying in the province of Styria along with me, which I find odd because it’s the largest province of Austria by far) host parents took us sightseeing at a monastery! When I walked into it’s actual church my jaw dropped and I had trouble keeping it closed because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was of the Baroque age and so the architecture was phenomenal. Everything was painted or sculpted to a level I had never known. It was so detailed and most of it was actually GOLD. I wish I could remember the name of the place for you specifically but it seems to have slipped my mind.

Also in a day or two some of my Austrian friends are taking me to Vienna to show me Vienna from the eyes of an Austrian; I cannot wait. Not only that but my host father told me that I could end up taking piano classes throughout the year! I cant think of any better place to learn than Austria. Well I am done ranting about the wonderbar Österreich.

Joyfully,

Trish

October 4 Journal

Some friendly faces, some hesitant ones from the people still too nervous to try and break this communication barrier, but I manage. The teacher tells of the great history of the world from what was once the center of it, my beloved Austria. I am thirsting for the knowledge that is flowing from my Professor’s lips, but I can do nothing but wish that I can catch onto the language as fast as possible (and by the way Austria has two types of language: High German and Dialect).

Austria is so wonderful to me. I know so many people already and I yearn to know them better. As familiar as everything is feeling already I am still so intrigued by its mysteries as to be entertained in my deeper investigations of Austrian life. One of the best feelings I have had lately is when I am walking down the street of a town in which I knew no one a month ago and getting warm greetings along the way. As much as everyone told me that I would grow and learn so much about myself this year I could never really fathom the extreme truth of what they said, but now it is becoming quite clear how much I will learn about myself this year. For those of you thinking about doing exchange, DON’T pass this up! There will never be anything else like this EVER!

Love,

The only Floridian Rotary Youth Exchange student in Austria)#

TRiSH >^..^<

November 5 Journal

Dear my lovely readers,

I find that I truly do love classical music; it affects me in a wondrous way. When I listen to Mozart in his own country in an Austrian music class I feel as though it takes on a whole new meaning and you can understand his melodies all the more.

My favorite part about this time of year is the fact that for the first time in my life I will witness a REAL Autumn. Sometimes I just sit by my window and gaze at the brilliant colors the trees of the Alps are turning. From majestic golds to deep romantic reds, the whole country is slowly changing into a completely different world. Every corner I turn I am greeted by the falling leaves and none of my Austrian friends can quite understand why it fills me with such a genuine joy and why every now and then I just stop and stare at everything around me without so much as a word. It’s clear to me why, of all the places chosen for this Florida girl, Austria was the victor.

Being an exchange student here is something special. Some people think that being a foreigner in a country might hinder one’s ability to makes friends but I find it quite the opposite. They all are so interested in the fact that I came from another country (the USA and Florida no less), don’t speak the language, and I came to the little city of Bruck an der Mur. Not only that but in Austria the exchange students are all very close. We get together at Rotary functions about once a month and sometimes in between. I now have friends from literally all over the world, places such as: Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine, Turkey, Brazil, and many more. The Rotary Youth Exchange organizational leaders here have met with all of us at Tauplitz and Vienna so far, bringing us together.

Speaking of Tauplitz, I actually saw a snake there! It was crazy because the night after I saw the snake it SNOWED! I saw my very first snow! It was glorious! I never realized how cold and wet it was! I guess I shouldn’t have announced the fact that I was the only one who hadn’t seen it before because everyone then on decided to get me very acquainted with it; like rolling me in it, making me eat it, throwing snowballs at me, and such.

On the subject of Vienna I must say it is a very lovely city. I go there very often actually because it is only two hours away. On my last trip to Vienna (which was with Rotary) we saw the musical Elisabeth, went to the Schönbrunn Zoo (probably the best zoo in the world), and toured all over. My favorite building is a building called the Hundertwasser haus. Hundertwasser is a very famous Austrian architect and artist who designs some crazy looking modern buildings, which I adore. The Hundertwasser haus is like an apartment building in Vienna that I found so attractive I have decided to live there one day (no matter how ugly the inside may be).

I am very glad to be in Austria, which is so centrally located in Europe that taking trips to other countries is barely any kind of a problem. In fact back in September I went with my host father on a trip to visit Ungarn or Hungary. It had a completely different smell to it and this year the mosquitoes were worse than Florida’s mosquitoes. But I still had a great time seeing the country. I went swimming in a natural lake that gets its water from underground and is known for its healing powers because of its high quantity of sulfur. I went on a boat ride on a huge lake and visited tons of vineyards. The best part though was when I went horseback riding for two and a half hours across the Hungarian countryside. It was intense, I have never ridden so hard, so long, or so challengingly in my life.

My Rotary club went on a trip to Italy last week and actually brought Lani (an Australian exchange student) and I along with them! It was a great experience. We went to Trieste and Muggia and saw a ton of things. We went to castles, museums, and other historic landmarks. I got to go shopping in Italy, which is a wonderful experience! The food was delicious. Italy actually kind of reminded me of Florida because it was on the sea and when I saw the seagulls fly by me the first time I almost thought I was back home. There is a distinct difference between the water of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Mediterranean is the most beautiful shade of blue green I have ever seen and still so clear you can see right to the bottom! My favorite site in Italy though was on the way home when we stopped at a random old church and just walked around the grounds. Around the church nature seemed to be at its height and there was a breathtaking trail that went along a stream.

I am so glad I have such cool friends here – otherwise my Halloween would have been a terrible time. Halloween is one of the biggest holidays of the year for me back home and I knew that if I didn’t do something for Halloween this year a depression would surely seep in. Luckily my friends held a Halloween party and we even went trick or treating that night (although I don’t think the neighbors liked it too much).

My typical schedule here is pretty good even on an “uneventful” week. On Mondays I go to a dance class where I learn everything from the waltz to the foxtrot and swing dancing. Tuesdays are my piano lessons, which are going along smoothly. I have even finished one song, and am now able to sing and play at the same time, it’s very rewarding. On Wednesdays I travel to Leoben (a neighboring city) where I take German lessons. Thursdays I leave open in case I am invited to Rotary meetings with my host club (which happens about once a month). Of course other than all that I go to school and on the weekends I travel or hang out with my friends in Bruck.

Actually tonight I am going to my first Matura ball. A Matura ball is like what we would consider our prom. There are significant differences though. Here they open it up with a big performance by the graduating class and they even do synchronized dances! Everyone attends these balls who knows anyone in the performance. Instead of just hip hop music and that kind of dancing, here they also do the waltz and other very classy kinds of dancing. I can’t wait. At 5 I have to be at a friend’s house to get ready, it’s nice to be able to do such.

On another note: I know I make most everything here sound so wonderful and like there never is a sad moment; that is just not true. I mean yes the feelings of joy I have had here are so extreme and wonderful, but it’s not all just so. Whatever goes up must come down. I have already experienced “culture-shock” and I am still having whiffs of it here and there. There are times I get extremely homesick, it’s always initiated by something random. Sometimes just a word someone says, something I see, or something on the TV can just make me utterly homesick. At those times I write in my journal, play piano, or anything to get it off my mind. Most of the time the cure-all is just calling a friend and going to hang out with them. Sometimes there are feelings of such self doubt and a loss of control but I think reading the Exchange Student Survival Guide, where it tells you that random bouts of such sad emotions are only normal and will pass, really helps me put things back into perspective. I am not going to lie, being an exchange student if definitely not easy, but it’s worth it all.

Mit Lieber,

That crazy Floridian girl called Trish

PS. I must say that the two best things about Austria are: 1. The Mountains 2. Manner Schnitten (the best sweet in the world, created in our very own Vienna, a perfect combination of Hazelnut crème and wafers!) 🙂

January 14 Journal

Dear Florida and those who flatter me by spending their time reading my journal,

I decided to resort to the most efficient way of updating when such a long time has elapsed and that’s my recent agenda. Also I think this method pertains to some of the feelings I have had lately. This exchange year to Austria has finally made it clear to me that this is not a long vacation. Quite the contrary, I practically have a routine now and am feeling at home. Thus, I find something as familiar to all of us as a date-by-date record of what has been happening in someone’s life expresses the fact that so much of Austria has become so familiar to me. Oh and if I leave out a day it’s not because I forgot it or it got deleted somehow, it’s just that I didn’t write down anything on the day in my agenda and so nothing in particular happened.

>Nov 4th Friday:< I went to school and I really enjoy the sports classes here. Everyone participates and the boys and girls are split up so it’s a much more reasonable way to play sports. Then I went home and sat around until Nadja and Yvonne called me to come with them to this thing called “street talk”. It’s where a small group of umm “interesting” people come together and hang out, it’s an outlet for people who have no one they can really talk to about things, I enjoyed it. Then I went to Yvonne’s house after walking Nadia home. Next we went to a café and played poker, then met with other friends.

>Nov 5th Saturday:< I slept in then when I woke up. I started preparing for the Matura ball later that night. I went to my friend Ruby’s house for all of us girls to get ready and then we met up with some more people, then off to the ball! It was a fun time. There were synchronized dances and a midnight performance for everyone.

~Sundays seem to have become my sleep days, my one day of rest in the 7 day week and it works out nicely because in Austria on a Sunday barely anything is open. The only thing I know for sure that’s open is the church!

>Nov 8th Tuesday:< I had school and piano, then I went to the city with some friends and on the way home I ran into another friend who I really needed to see and I went with her to her flat and got some stuff I had left at her house and sat there drinking tea and having an in depth conversation that lasted hours, all about life and religion and love and so much more.

~Lately I seem to be very tired. And always aware of the need to manage the money I have because there is so much to do here and so one has to be sure that they don’t spend money when it is better spent on other things.

>Thursday the 10th:< I went to school and then after school my host mother and her friend Evelin took me to a spa! It was so sweet; they have a lot of this sort in Austria it appears. It’s basically like massive hot swimming pools that every 15 minutes have bubbles like a hot tub… ok so it’s like giant hot tub you can swim in. It feeeeels sooooo good. We spent hours and hours there. There was a sauna and a deep concentration music room and 4 different areas of swimming to choose, one it 32°C, one is like 36 or 39°, another is regular cold water to be used in the summer, and then one for kids but anyone can go in it (it has a slide and a whirlpool and it’s sweet!). It’s a great retreat from the cold that is settling in.

>Friday the 11th:< I had lunch with Martina and Evelin (Who is a close friend of Martina’s and is to watch over me whenever my host parents are out of town for some reason unavailable). After lunch I went to the city with Sabrina and Steffy to see the MartiniMarkt (a once of year kind of small festival where tiny shops all line up along a certain street and sell weird things). Then I went with Peter to a church meeting! It was similar to the small youth groups back home and all who were there were Protestant, although not Baptist they were the closest you could find anywhere near here. After that I went home, then Marina called me and asked me to come out to the city, so I did. I had a great night, I love Marina, she’s loads of fun and her friends all seem very nice.

Loneliness is officially the archenemy of the exchange student. We are all susceptible to the random depressive feelings that it stirs up in us. But we are also responsible for understanding it will pass.

>Nov 14th -17th:< I went to Evelin’s house for the first time. Then I went to dance (where we learned the tango this week), had my fantastic piano lessons, and a German course that went well. I started going to volleyball training for the beginners on Thursdays (it’s tough work but very fun).

>Nov 18th – 20th:< Reese spent the weekend with me. All day Friday I spent with Reese and two Australians (Penny and Elyce). This weekend was my closest oldie friends’ Matura ball (Lani, Aussie). So they all came in for the weekend. Reese and I spent Friday watching movies and Saturday too until the Matura ball. It was nice and a bit crazy. The performance went very well. Reese and I nonetheless left early and went back home to make grilled cheese’s with turkey dipped in ketchup (try It before you turn away from this post in disgust, they do it a lot in Austria) and watched more movies. Sunday Reese went home and I rested. The 7th day I like turning into a day of rest (keep the Sabbath holy!).

>Nov 21st-24th:< Monday was a pretty relaxing day. As soon as I was home I just read a book ALL day long (Looking for Alibrandi). Tuesday I went to school, had piano practice, and Sabrina came over. We watched The Sound Of Music and had a good time as usual. I really enjoy the random days Sabrina and I just sit around teaching each other everything from piano songs (of which I can now play The Pink Panther) and languages. Wednesday (23rd) I did the usual school and German course bit but then I left German Course early because Sabrina called me and invited me to see Harry Potter played in English at the cinema in Leoben (which is the city where I have my German Course), so of course I went! I had been dying to see it! Thursday was a lazy day (I just hung out with Elias, Tops, and Elias’s Brother).

>Nov 25th Friday:< I went with Elias and his punk friends to a Punk Rock concert that was playing in Graz (a city 30 minutes south of here). I knew everyone in the band Tint fax personally! They all performed really well! It was a great concert for sure. We even caught a ride home and didn’t have to ride the train.

>Saturday Nov 26th:< Today was my school’s Matura ball, I went. I went home early though because I had been having a terribly homesick day and just needed to sleep.

Thanksgiving and the time around it in America so far has been my worst time. You’d think that Christmas would be the worst but for me it was Thanksgiving. Perhaps it was because they don’t celebrate it here (understandably) or the fact it was the kick off for the holiday season. Regardless I just had to stick it out and eventually the festivities of the Austrian Christmas season wept me off my feet.

>Nov 27th:< I stayed home all day, slept, ate, and watched movies.

>Nov 28th to 1st of December:< Monday I stayed home feeling not too good so Evelin came over to try and help out (it was so sweet of her). At this point we have gotten pretty close. She teaches me German and I teach her English. We do little riddles that are in the newspaper together and have a nice time. She even told me to call her my 2nd Austrian mother! Tuesday was fairly normal. Piano school then Sabrina came over and we had our usual good time. Wednesday I finally got my Visa all straightened out so I can stay for while here in Austria. OK Thursday (1st) I for my Host family and Evelin to make up for all the cooking they had been doing for me. Then that night I went to Volleyball with Sabi (Sabrina).

>Dec 2nd to the 4th:< Friday after school and sport I just went home and spent time with my host family. (I was invited to my friend’s concert but I just didn’t have the energy and money). Saturday my host mother went with me gift shopping for Christmas in Bruck an der Mur and Kapfenburg. After shopping I stayed home the rest of the night (even though everyone else went out including my hosties), I just wanted to relax and start working on the letters and gifts. Sunday Siglinde and her Husband (my favorite local Rotarians) picked me up and took me to the “Rotary Christmas-Party”. For this even the whole Rotary club of Bruck an der Mur (a bunch of older people and Lani) went to a church in St. Marein and there was some speeches and very nice music played by a group of four young people (one being my old temp. host brother on the viola). It was nice and the church was FREEZING. Then we went to a Gasthaus (restaurant) where we got a four-course meal and four different drinks (in my case water, cola, wine, and champagne). Then I went home and rested.

>Monday Dec 5th (Krampus Tag):< This is the day of the year where at 6:00 in the town centre tons of boys dressed up as “Krampus” (basically they dress as big monsters, anything big, hairy, and scary works) and whip the innocent people of the city on their thighs. It’s kind of like the idea behind Halloween where we dress up to scare away the evil spirits for the harvest (not that that applies anymore), they are the evil spirits and they come and we survive them. I think if you don’t act scared then you’re ok and they wont hit you (unless the boy is just dumb and wants to hit you anyways). The Krampus are like demons and they punish you for being bad by hitting your legs, if you act scared or run or try to avoid the whip then they know that they should hit you. It’s a nice festival to see but I am not particularly fond of it. You do get lots of chocolates and such for the holiday though. There are even St. Nicholas’s running around and giving out candy.

>Dec 6th (St. Nicholas’s Day):< On this day you get some more candy when you wake up if you have been good and coal if you haven’t (here jolly old St. Nick is only a very good man, not Santa Claus). School, Lunch, piano. Then I went to my friend Kathi´s house for a movie day. A group of us just sat around having a good time and watching Bruce Almighty in German. Then I went home and spent time with my host mother, she even gave me a Shiatsu massage! After that some guests (Oswald and his wife, people I know) arrived and I practiced my piano and loved the fact (although I was surprisingly embarrassed) that randomly someone would walk in and listen and tell me how good I am at piano. O I forgot to tell you all that I am learningMad World by Gary Jules on the piano now, along with Silent Night (Stille Nacht), and Joy to the World. So I went to sleep. My letters and package to Florida are already sent out now. €20!!! Wow, and I am not done. Money is certainly tough here.

>Wednesday Dec 7th:< Well it was a long day at school and I did a lot of studying. Then I came home and cooked some food because today my hosties are out and about. I guess I will just practice some piano, some German, and then go to my Deutschkurs in Leoben. Tomorrow and the day after there is no school because tomorrow is a national holiday (Mariä Empfängnis). So I was invited to go to the town with Sabrina and I did. I had a good time chatting it up with all my lovely young little friends. Even being surrounded by so many people I know, somehow I met more people, yet again.

>Thursday Dec 8th:< Today I woke up and ate with my hosties. Then we went to this restaurant where the Cordon Bleu was like €2!! Then to a grocery store and then they surprised me and took me to a small little town with lots of snow. We watched snowboarders and skiers; it was nice (Eisenerz). Then we went to this Christmassy thing in Leoben where we walked around and had Kaffee and Punsch. I ran into Elias and Colby and went with them to a café. Then we came back to Bruck and went into Bayer (my favorite hang out place along with Life-style, it’s a café-like place), I walked home after about an hour. It was really cold out but it was still a nice walk. I even jogged, some exercise made me feel really good.

I got my official return date around this time as well. It was definitely a shock to realize how finalizing it was. I gave myself about a week or so after school ended so that I can get the summer train ticket right after school and travel all over Austria getting in the last bits I really wanted to have before I left.

>Friday the 9th to Saturday the 10th:< Time with host parents. Driving around Styria on Friday and visiting some graves of deceased relatives (they visit the graves of their old loved ones often). A long walk and relaxing day Saturday. Trip to visit family in Vienna on Sunday as well as visiting the ChristkindleMarkt.

I’ve decided that when I come home I am continuing piano. You wouldn’t believe the compliments I get from even very good piano players. I definitely seem to be connecting very well with it all. I have fallen in love with music all over again. Also, before I die I must see the Aurora Borealis in Alaska. Visit every country in the world (the UN states that there are only 192). Speak 4-7 languages. Play 3-5 instruments. Sing, write, paint, dance, and act. It’s all so dear to my heart! When I come home I want to stay close to Jax for AT LEAST a year. When you leave your home you begin to realize just how special it was.

*Sometimes I just want to run away. Nature is the safest place.
Love is the only thing that can save us now. Love and understanding.
We’re all so different yet so the same. People are always people.
Kiss me on both cheeks and say goodbye. We have a mission, the world and I.*
-Me

>Monday Dec 12th:< Today I went to school and got on the computers etc. Then I came home and slept and slept till dance class, which I left an hour early because now it’s just becoming rather boring. We learned how to Polka today… I think that’s the funniest dance I have ever known… to the funniest music. Nice to be in the know though. That was my last time at the dance class actually. I started picking up other things over the holidays so I not only had no time for it but my lack of interest in it anymore contributed. It’s hard to continually dance with 14/15-year boys when all of them have two-left feet.

>Tuesday Dec 13th:< I went to school then home for a bit then off to my piano class. After piano class I went home to eat with my hosties then off to see my Host brother from my next family (Stefan)´s Bass recital. I met up with Thomas the half British boy (Stefan’s best friend) before and then we found Stefan in the musikschule. Stefan is so funny and his mom seems really nice so I think when I switch host families in March it won’t be so bad. He also said when I move in with him he is going to be my new bass guitar teacher, which is wonderful because in Florida I play the bass guitar and I will be able to brush up on everything. Then I went home and spent a long time reading the book `Body of Evidence´ by Patricia Cornwell.

>Wednesday Dec 14th:< I had the usual school and my German course in Leoben (I think it’s been helping out a lot with the language). ; Dec 15th: school, I had another Rotary dinner to attend, it was Lani´s last Rotary meeting so she had a speech and everything to do. It finally hit me then that our oldies (oldies are the January to January exchange group predominantly made up of Australians that ends up mingling with the group that arrives in August) were really leaving, my oldie was leaving. The girl who took care of me when I was really down and listened to my problems no matter how much it might have not been exactly what she wanted to do, she was there when I needed her. Thank you Lani.

>Friday Dec 16th- Sunday the 18th:< Rotary weekend in Salzburg. It was the last official meeting for all the oldies and newbies (my last time seeing so many people for probably the rest of my life and that, my friends, is a terrifying feeling). It was an awesome last Hurrah with us all together. I learn more about myself every time we all get together and as it all came to a close I cried as I said goodbye to so many people. I got closer with certain learning things about both of them that I think no one else knew or could understand. I will always remember and appreciate my own lonely departure as I walked away from the youth hostel in tears so I could catch up with all the others taking my train home and the Aussies & co. sang out behind me “What do we think of Trish?” “She’s all right yah, she’s all right yah, she’s all right yah” and then all sounds began to fade as it took me hours to really regain composure. I was quiet for sometime on the bus and train ride home.

> Monday Dec 19th- Friday the 23rd:< A pretty normal week all-leading up to Christmas. I went to school, piano lessons, and my German lesson but other than that I couldn’t recall too much more happening in the week. Friday I went out on the town again and had a great time, also my host grandma on my host mother’s side came to visit. I didn’t get to know her well considering I was in and out but I do know that she brought me a bag full of candy for Xmas.

> Saturday Dec 24th (Heiliger Abend):< Christmas Eve here is really their Christmas, all the celebration is done on this day. I woke up late and Tante Hilda came over (the lovely woman!). We have a wonderful Christmas tree decorated with ornaments from places all over the world! When the holy evening (Heiliger Abend) approached we lit candles all over the tree and even put sparklers on it! The fire alarm went off but they assured me that we don’t actually have to worry about a fire occurring! I got so many gifts it was unreal! I truly had a great Christmas. My host mother even made Schnitzel and tomato soup as our meal because it’s some of my favorite foods. My hosties did their best to make me feel comfortable and even though there was a slight family drama and Tante Hilda got sick. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas here. I almost was led to tears.

I am no longer dreaming of a white Christmas! This year was a special year here over in Europe. There was an incredibly surprising amount of snow fall before Christmas. Normally in Bruck an der Mur they don’t have snow on Christmas day because a little bit of snow falls in December but not enough to stick throughout Christmas. I was a very lucky girl to witness the overwhelming amounts of snow! Even today it hasn’t snowed for a long time and we still have leftovers to deal with from the large amount of snow we received before.

> Sunday December 25th:< Christmas day here is mostly a laid back day. This is when I think the best TV shows and movies are on the television! Due to the fact they celebrate most everything on the 24th today is a winding down time. A TV time mainly

> Tuesday the 27th:< I spent the day with Yvonne shopping and going to the movies it was real nice. She has become a very good friend. It feels good to get out and do things that were so normal to do in Florida.

>Wednesday the 28th:< We went to visit more family down in Corinthia/Kärten. I had a great time. I got closer with their relatives especially Martina’s mother while playing poker and setting up the dinner table. And all the older ladies were saying how “chic” I look, which is like sheik or something. Which to them is very stylish! I had bought this new hot pink hat that makes anything I wear look stylish! We all also went ice-skating for a while and it turns out I am not too bad (although I am no medalist either!).

> Thursday Dec 29th & Friday the 30th:< Thursday was my first day sledding ever in my life and it would be an understatement to simply say I didn’t know what I was getting into. First we all (Sabi, Marlene, Nadine, and many more) met at the Kalte Quelle (the bottom of some mountain) and then we had to walk up a mountain in the cold snow. walk up a freaking mountain. I have no idea how long it took to get up there it could have been between one and two hours or more – all I know is I seem to have lost consciousness after the first 45 minutes and I just trudged on without so much as a word coming out of my mouth except maybe the occasionally “I have never walked so long on such a steep incline in my whole life” or ” I cant believe I am doing this” or “we don’t even really have hills in Florida”. I will always remember the intense joy when we finally reached the top and there was a little inn just waiting for me to run in and get a nice big glass of water! I made it! By then it was dark and I teamed up with a girl to sled down the mountain together. it was awesome! So exciting to be alone in the woods in the dark, sliding down a mountain, and because we were in front we had no idea where we were going. It was a great day. Afterwards I came home then went out into the city with the girls. It wasn’t too bad a night I stayed out till about 3 or so. ; Friday I went out into the city again but I didn’t stay out late.

> Saturday Dec 31st and January 1st:< I woke up late as usual then we had dinner with another family and talked and talked and talked, although I was for some reason incredibly tired and I had to go take a 2 hour nap before I was going to go to Stefan’s (my 16 year old next host family brother) party. In Austria New years is called Sylvester and is just as big as in the states. At 12 midnight traditionally Austrians watch the Stefansdom in Vienna and hear it ring out the New Year followed by dancing the Vienna Waltz or at least watching it, also they give out tokens of good luck which include pigs (something about how pigs are always moving forward by sniffing with their snout and so a pig is good for moving on into the new year), 4-leaf clovers, peanuts, lady bugs, and what ever else you just happen to like (for instance I got cat stuff as well). There weren’t too many people at Stefan’s house but I liked them all. There was Thomas, Kathi, Lisa, Steffy, Rafeal and a few others. The girls all had our bonding time as I gave them advice on current issues that phase 15/16-year-old girls based on my past experiences. Spoke with my family a bit and Stephen too. We all went outside at midnight and watched the fireworks going and so much more. I even got to drink champagne with real gold in it.; The first day of the New Year: They say that what you do today decides what you will be like the rest of the year so instead of sleeping the day away I took my Bible and went for a long walk through the wilderness ending at a creek where the water was so low I could walk to the middle and sit down on the exposed rocks to read. So I spent most of my day in religious contemplation. On top of that, Tante Hilda came by to visit again.

> Monday Jan 2nd and Tuesday the 3rd:< Gareth (my best guy friend in Austria who is an exchange student from South Africa) came early in the morning to meet with because he was going to stay the night at my house so we could see each other one last time before he has to depart back to the jungle he came from (hehe). We had a nice time sitting at the café, then meeting with Lani and having a few drinks in the city. Afterwards Gareth and I stayed up watching ´The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants´, which is one of the gifts I had just received from Kaitlyn and Rochelle (it meant so much to me); Jan 3rd: Gareth and I went ice-skating (he had never done it before and wasn’t too bad!). He left and I went for another long walk out in Nature. After my walk I came home to have dinner with my host family and my next family who I know I am really going to enjoy living with (except I don’t think I will like the fact they live so far from the city). I went to sleep early.

> Wednesday Jan 4th – Friday the 6th :< I tried snowboarding for my first time with Herr Professor Kramer (or just Rafael haha) as my teacher. It’s a lot harder than it looks, I learned it’s going to take more than one day to get the hang of it and I don’t like rum with hot chocolate. ; Jan 5th: My host parents surprised me and took me to the Lipizzaner stables! It was awesome! I got to see the place where the famous Spanish Lipizzaner horses were when they were young, old, not as well trained as the ones in Vienna, or female. If you didn’t know they are the white horses that are very famous especially in Vienna where they have a Spanish Lipizzaner performance house. These horses are incredibly smart and they are born black or brown! I made friends with a couple of them. Then we went to a city where there is a church designed by the infinitely talented Hundertwasser. It’s much better from the outside though I must say. He normally designs things that at first appear to be a chaotic arrangement of colors and such but after close inspection it all makes sense. After that we went to a spa and swam around in the warm waters for while. I was exhausted. ; Jan 6th: My host parents took me to Semmering so I could see a really harsh Austrian winter (it’s a famous skiing area here). There was SO much snow it was unreal. Then we went to Mürzschlag (forgive my spelling errors) and went into the Winter Sports museum that was very interesting.

> Jan 7th & 8th:< I spent most of the day at home and spoke with my sister. She told me our dog Gunther was dying and I had a very hard time with it all so I just went back out into the wilderness and tried to run the pain away. ; Jan 8th: I decided it would be better to get out and talk to someone so I met with Yvonne. She even had a present for me since I had told her the day before about the bad news. she got me a card saying she would always be there and a little wooden tiger to let me know I still have Tiger. Her thoughtfulness is abounding. We went to a café for a while too and I got a drink called the Florida, which is a tropical tasting alcohol-free cocktail (it tastes great). When I got home I was terrified of the call I was going to receive from my parents because I knew what was coming (they had tried to reach me all day). Then they called and told me that it was for sure and Gunther had in fact passed away. It was a terrible night. I couldn’t sleep and I think my angst over Gunther about to pass away was the reason I kept having serious chest problems since I heard he was sick the day before. But that’s all gone. done with, quickly becoming more and more a part of the past. He was such a loving dog. It’s too much. So I spent a long time on the phone with Ali (my best friend) trying to get over it all and playing my heart out on the piano.

The piano has become such a relieving outlet for me. As well as singing show tunes (songs from the Broadway musical Cats in particular). I always have to keep in mind that ‘when God closes a door He opens a window’.

> Monday Jan 9th:< It had seemed I was going to be better. School was good and I got a lot of support from friends. In my 7th grade German class all the little kids even held a big interview of my holidays and me in German! I was proud of myself and the things that I had understood. Then I spent the whole day sleeping the last of my sorrows away.

> Tuesday Jan 10th:< School, piano, and the fitness studio with Yvonne which turned out to be not so bad. Today I felt like I am officially a member of the family. As difficult as the situation was it’s the bad times that can bring people so much closer.

Exchange students may want to be the super perfect exchange student sometimes, but we must understand that we are still human and therefore we do made mistakes and must move on. We have to learn to forgive ourselves and to just keep trying.

> Wednesday Jan 11th:< At school I had a speech about Jacksonville, Florida and its history (in English class). It was great! So after lunch with my host family I went to the fitness studio and practically killed my legs on the hydro cycling machine (it’s a weird machine that really wears you out) and then doing my rounds with my upper body work out followed by a trip to the kebab store to get a nice big juicy kebab to eat! Next I took off to my German course, which went well as usual and afterward I met with Lani for her last night in Bruck an der Mur and Austria altogether. She’s really been a great oldie and I will miss her a lot. Neither one of us was too sad though because I know we both felt like this wasn’t the last time we would see each other, I have an open invitation to Sydney Australia! One day I will make it out to Australia and see her again, I just know it (perhaps she’ll visit Florida one day as well).

> Thursday Jan 12th:< I went to school but had a lot of free time as well. Many people in the school seem really down lately and I don’t know if it’s the weather. It is so tiring trying to get a smile out of everyone lately. After school I went home, ate and then went to volleyball practice and home. I am so worn out now. My body can’t handle any more exercise for a while.

Winter depression hits people living in cold regions for many reasons. If you think about it, it’s too cold to do most outdoor things anyways. You have to wear layers and layers of clothing to even step outside and so often times people just revert to staying in or around the house. The days are getting shorter and the nights longer, making even less time to really spend outside. We hadn’t had too much sun lately either, but it breaks through every couple of days. it’s as if you not only see the seasons change but you change with them.

>Friday Jan 13th:< Look at that, Friday the 13th! Hmm I hope something interesting happens! Today I got to watch my favorite show The Pink Panther/Die Rosarota Panther again, always in German of course. I have developed a true love for the cartoon Pink Panther. I am obsessed! The Pink Panther is hilarious and so witty and funny and pink! Ok and so after that I went for another long bus ride and had a Latte Macchiato while reading my latest book ´Men are from Mars Women are from Venus´. Ok, so the book does state that in some cases there’s a role reversal and so I guess I am that exception. Anyways so I spent the whole day laying around at home waiting a ride to another Matura ball but I never heard from them so I just went to Yvonne’s along with Nadja and we had a girls night.

This is the poem I made using the sticky letters people have on their fridges (which may I add don’t give you much of a selection). It pertains to the low and high points of the exchange year, my personal mission as an exchange student, and the reason to keep on going.

Bruised Avenue

When this secret evening
is as dark sounding
as cracking glass
it is only consumed
with a loving song
or by the immense
Smell of a morning bouquet.
So stagger out through
to the lacy wild,
for you can win over
your people.

I am still reading the Bible steadily, at times I thought it would be hard to hold on to my beliefs in a culture where they can be so different (trust me Catholicism here and the beliefs of my little beachy Baptist church can be completely different at times), but it just takes effort and understanding for everyone.

Well I hope this has been a thoroughly enjoyable entry for everyone even though it was painstakingly long.

Liebe Grüße,
Patricia Leigh Smith
Aka TRiSH >^..^< or Sha

Hugo Villanueva
2005-06 Outbound to Thailand

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Laem Chabung Rotary Club, Si Racha, District 3340, Thailand

Hugo - Thailand
September 26 Journal

Well, I’ve been here about two months now, and I guess it’s about time that I let the other side of the world what’s going on with me. I’ve had to put writing my first entry off a few times, but now it’s vacation and I have all the time in the world. I guess I can start from the beginning. O.K.?

Before I left the United States, I’d have to say the tension was a bit disappointing. No sweaty palms, no butterflies in my stomach. I’d even say that my “goodbyes” to my family and friends felt a little lukewarm. Now I can safely say this was only because I had no idea was I was getting myself into. This became even more apparent as I boarded the connection flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. Instead of the usual three hour flight, the plane had to make a detour and I ended up on that plane for about seven hours. I think it’s safe to say those seven hours were among the most intense hours of my life. Although there were several other exchange students with me, I kept envisioning different outcomes of my first meeting with my host parents. Maybe they would speak English perfectly, and I’d have no problems communicating with them, and it would be a marvelous first night (even though I knew this was not true, since I had already spoken with them previously. Maybe I was delirious?) Another scenario I envisioned was no one would be there to greet me, and I would have to walk home in the rain or something. Even though I knew Rotary wouldn’t let that happen. Well, out of the twenty or so possible outcomes, I think I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of just my host family, I was greeted by the entire Rotary Club that was hosting me. They showered me with fruit necklaces (or whatever their called, lol) and many welcomes. All the nervousness and the uneasiness passed instantly, because Thai people are so darn friendly. Even though most of them didn’t understand a word I said, and just smile and nod, and I smile and nod back, even though I thought I heard a “farung ngong” in there somewhere. I arrived there very late, so the predetermined tour of Bangkok never went through. Instead I went straight home, playing charades with my local Rotary Club in our escort van.

When I arrived to Sriracha, (or Khor Khao, which is where I REALLY live) which is about a one and a half hour drive from Bangkok, I noticed many temples of the Buddhist faith, which are very beautiful. I live in a nice house, close to anywhere that I would need to go. The weather here is EXTREMELY humid now, because it is the Rainy season here. The humidity is even more noticeable than the heat at times. Well that said, I’m very happy with my host family. They are very nice, and I could not have asked for a better host family. It saddens me that I have to move soon, but I guess it is inevitable. I have a host mother and father, and a host brother and sister. My host brother is 18 years old, and is also an exchange student. He already left for the United States, where he will be staying in Illinois for a year. My host sister is a student in a University in Bangkok, called Chulalongkorn. So as you might have surmised, I am alone with my host mother and father. My host father works in an oil refinery plant, for an oil company called Thai Oil, and my host mother is a school teacher at a private school.

When I first arrived almost two months ago, my fluency in Thai was minimal at best, and unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for me my host mother did not speak any English at all, other than the ever so popular “Hello”, “Sorry” and “Thank you”. My father could speak English fairly well, so a lot of the communication difficulty was softened. However, when my father was not around, it was a game of who had the better sign language abilities. It was REALLY frustrating at times, but my persistence has paid off a bit. My Thai language is much better, and most of the time I can get my meaning across without too much wordplay. My first weekend in Thailand, my parents took me to a famous temple about 20 minutes away from my house. It was simply huge, and the design is very unique. I got my first glimpse of some Thai dancers there, and (as I’m sure a certain Rotarian will be happy to hear) I saw some Gratoys, or lady boys. The thing about Ladyboys is that sometimes they are obviously men, and sometimes indistinguishable. And my school is full of them. Well, moving on…

One thing I noticed quickly about Thai culture is the respect people pay to each other. Most of this in the form of a “Wai”, where you clasp your hands together in front of your chest or neck, and bow your head down so your face touches your fingertips. People who are younger generally Wai to older people. Also, people of lower status Wai to people of higher status. It’s quite confusing sometimes, and as a foreigner, I end up looking rather awkward when I wai. I have made some big mistakes, like Wai’ing to the kitchen staff of a restaurant, and wai’ing to our waitress. I think my culture skills are improving however, but not without some difficulty, much to the pleasure of onlookers, as they love to laugh in delight when they watch me stumble on the Thai language. Of course, this is not scornful laughing. Thai people are very friendly for the most part, and I can always practice my Thai with happy, willing strangers.

No more than two days after I arrived in Thailand, I started school. This brought a whole new wave of nervousness and anticipation. Instead of blending in with the Thai people, I tend to do the exact opposite. I thought that maybe since my school was big, I wouldn’t receive so much attention. Man was I wrong. Turns out my first day, I had to give a speech for my entire school…. IN THAI. Haha, was that a circus act if I’ve ever seen one. My Thai was pitiful, and I think I managed to pump out three of four sentences in Thai before I gave up and ended my speech. However, instead of being criticized, I was applauded for my efforts by teachers and the school director. Well, as I know now, my Thai was actually very good for a farang (foreigner). Well, all my hopes that I would blend in with students at school were blown away the same day I gave my speech. It turns out, I was the only exchange student that year, and Si Racha really doesn’t have a lot of foreigners. Well, that said, you can imagine how my first few weeks of school were. EVERYWHERE I walked, everyone wanted to shake my hand, or speak English with me. I was constantly stared at. No matter where I walked, I was looked at with curiosity. My school goes from the seventh grade to the 12th grade. The little seventh graders followed me everywhere, even to the bathroom at times. For a while, I’ll have to admit, this wasn’t a bad feeling. I felt like the President or something. After a while though, it did get kind of irritating. I couldn’t even sit down and eat because everyone would yell my name (in Thai, my name is Saharat, meaning “United States”) and offer me snacks and food and comics. Most students at my school spoke minimal English, even less than I spoke Thai. Most of their English consisted of “Hey Yo” and “Sup Man” and “Shake it down”. So, consequently I have learned some Thai slang. My Thai has improved considerably as a result, however. I always find myself helping the English teachers at my school conduct lessons, or read words for students to repeat. My pronunciation of words sometimes sounds strange to them, because they are taught British English.

My host Rotary Club is very nice. It has about 12 members in it, and everyone is well acquainted with each other. I received a special welcome from them in the form of a Welcome to Thailand party. I am one of two exchange students hosted by this club, called the Rotary club of Lam Chabang. The other exchange student is a boy from Germany.

For a while, it was frustrating not knowing any Thai, and it still is. They speak very fast, and even when I ask them to speak slowly, they seem to think by slowly I mean LOUDER. For a while, a typical conversation went something like this.

(Translated for your convenience)

Friendly Thai stranger: “Hey! Where are you from?”

Hugo: “Uh.. What?”

FTS: “Where are you from? You don’t look Thai.”

Hugo: “Uh. Can you repeat what you said?”

FTS: “Where are you from?”

Hugo: “Uh…Can you speak slower please?”

FTS: “WHERE ARE YOU FROM!”

Hugo: “Eh.. Excuse me?”

FTS: “Where…are…you…from…”

Hugo: “OH! No I haven’t eaten yet, thank you.”

FTS: “Oy. Never mind!” mutters to self: “Farang ngong (confused foreigner)”

Of course this isn’t every scenario, but it’s safe to generalize my earlier conversations this way. At least now, I can get by in the language in quite a few scenarios.

When I go to the shopping mall, or anywhere for that matter, I am always stared at, even now. I thought since I have tan skin, I could pass off for a Thai southerner, but I was wrong. While I’ve gotten used to it, it sometimes brings a sense of uneasiness. This will pass with time, I’m sure.

One last thing I’d like to point out is the food, and the cost of living. Food is very cheap here, and very delicious at that. For the equivalent of 50 cents, I can eat and fill up. Noodles, chicken fried rice, beef with sauce, any kind of seafood. The variety is incredible. Some foods are extremely spicy, and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to taste something, before you try to eat it. “Gin Len”, or eating for fun is great. They have many different kinds of snacks and foods, all readily available. The snacks that students here eat my sound a bit strange to American teenagers. Sometimes they eat eel skin with spices, or fried fish strings, or squid crackers. I was also skeptical at first, but I’ve gotten quite used to them and they are very good. Transportation is also relatively cheap. You can get somewhere for prices ranging from 20 cents to one dollar. Transportation is never a problem here, as their are always Red pickup trucks (Rot Song Tao) and Tuk Tuk’s and buses to take you wherever you need. Motorcycles are also available, but I’ve decided to steer clear of motorcycle taxis after seeing a few accidents involving them. Motorcycles are abundant here, sometimes ever more so than cars. Almost everyone has a motorcycle here. It is not uncommon to see a thirteen year old or twelve year old kid driving around on a motorcycle. It looks dangerous, but some of these kids are pretty good at it.

Well I know I’ve rambled on and on, so I guess it’s time to wrap this up. I am extremely happy with my host country, host family and host Rotary club. I would definitely like to thank my sponsoring club in Gainesville, Florida. I’m having a great time, and I’ve only been here about two months. My language skills are improving, and I am beginning to really understand Thai culture in depth. My only real complaint is the lack of tissue paper in public restrooms. They make you pay for tissue paper, and sometimes I’m short a Baht or two. Oh well, I guess it’s not THAT serious. I’ll update the western world on my experiences in another month or two. Thanks for reading.

3oD Rules

Antitrust
Tonic
TK = Dream Team
Kate

Oh… And I guess ET.

-Hugo Villanueva

Mike Williams
2005-06 Outbound to Italy

Hometown: Ocala, Florida
School: Lake Weir High School
Sponsor: Ocala Rotary Club
Host: Cremona Po Rotary Club, District 2050, Italy

Mike - Italy

July 28 “Pre-Departure” Journal

I finally had a chance to feel it, the feeling that until this day seemed absent in my spirit. Today I along with good friend and also outbound exchange student Anna Breedlove, accompanied by several host families, excitedly awaited the arrival of inbound exchange student Viola Balzaretti from Italy, at Gainesville Regional Airport.

Making sure not to miss such an insightful event, I was the first to arrive at the airport greatly anticipating Viola’s arrival. Armed with a gift of flowers and my digital camera, I sat in silence thinking of the days to come. The day when strangers enthusiastically await my arrival, bearing hugs, kisses, and gifts. The day when I step off of the plane, and an unreal hush overcomes the airport followed by the over joyous cry from those that you will indeed go through hard times and good times with. I sat in a nearly paralyzed state of mind staring out the terminal window thinking of the days to come. Soon after Anna Breedlove along with some friends and others arrived. We sat and chatted excitedly about Viola’s arrival, as well as our departure, and what awaits us in our host countries, we also talked about what such good times Rotary was able to offer us.

Later a midsized jet touched down and pulled up towards the terminal window, instantly my stomach began to flutter with excitement, I looked into Anna’s eyes and knew without asking that she was feeling the same. We all sat in silence peering out the terminal window, waiting to spot that familiar blue Rotary Blazer as crowds of passengers exited the plane. I was getting worried, many people were coming off of the plane but none resembled Viola. The constant stream of people getting off of the plane began to decline in numbers and still Viola seemed absent. The once before heavy stream of people ended, my heart dropped like a stone and I could suddenly hear myself breathing deep inside my head. Anna noticed my panic-stricken face, and began to comfort me, reassuring that this plane was indeed Viola’s flight and she was indeed on it. She got me to smile when she said “Don’t worry Mike, maybe she is just sleeping.”

Finally a familiar short-statured girl, with noticeable thick bouncy curls, exited the plane wearing a blue Rotary Blazer. Everybody including Viola was ecstatic. As she ran towards the crowd of strangers with open arms as well as open hearts, I became overwhelmed with shyness, I could not believe that this was the same Viola. The same girl I became good friends with soon after she was selected by Rotary, the same girl who joked, and wrote funny messages that at times were not meant to be funny, but ended up that way because of the dreaded language barrier, the same girl who talked to me several times over the phone, both tutoring me with my Italian, and of course having regular conversations, I felt as if I had known Viola for years rather then months.

Anna and I huddled closely together, giggling and talking about how it will be when we are in Viola’s shoes. I had to compose myself and fight back the happy tear that unfortunately I cannot remember I ever had. I approached Viola and handed her my flowers, but as she greeted me, I could not speak. All of my pearly whites were being exposed as I displayed my appreciation for her existence with my Cheshire grin. Soon everybody was huddled around Viola swamping her with gifts, hugs and kisses. And that is when it hit me. That feeling. I finally had the opportunity to witness how a very nervous person enticed with fear and excitement, will quickly change the appearance of their heart moments after realizing that these specific people were a different type of stranger as Viola did. These strangers would soon love and care for you as if you were their own. They will be there for you when you experience some of the hardest parts of your life to comfort you, and they will be there to celebrate with you when there are definite good times. I think I really like that feeling and I can’t wait until it is my turn.

September 17 Journal

After dreading 16 tormenting hours of fatigue and confusion I had finally made it to Italy. Well…I guess it wasn’t all that bad. Actually my flights into Italy from the U.S. were all on time and were quite comfortable. I met two very friendly exchange students also going to Italy at the airport in Detroit, they accompanied me all the way. Our first stop en route to Italy was Amsterdam. I was quite tired but also reeling with excitement knowing that I was less than two hours from my new life. During our two hour layover, my friends and I excitedly chatted to each other, anxious on knowing what the year will bring. Finally our boarding seats had been called and before you knew it, once again we were hurtling down the runway, heading towards our final destination. When we arrived in Milan, and claimed our baggage, we began the long walk to the arrival section of the airport. A sudden shrill of excitement rang out from one of my new friends as she ran into the open arms of her new parents. Well…. 1 down 2 to go. Shortly afterward I heard “Ciao Chad, welcome my son.” Well… I guess I’m on my own now. About 2 minutes later I heard a familiar voice call out my name “Ciao Mike! Benvenuto in Italia”. I turned towards the voice and saw a familiar face, it was the guy in the pictures, that had been sent to me from my first host family. I called him Pop.

“Ciao Ciao pop, uh uh, Come Stai?” At that very moment I felt as if God had pressed the reset button to my memory because all of my long, hard earned, basic Italian speaking ability was gone. Pop answered my question and then asked another rather familiar simple question, which to me was very important especially in Italy. “Hai Fame?” I knew the answer to that question but at that moment, I just stared and smiled not understanding what was said. “Mike, Have you hungry?” ohhhhhhhh!! that’s what “Hai Fame?” meant: have you hungry? or are you hungry? How could I forget that?

Moments later me and my pop were cruising down the autostrada (highway) at the SUGGESTED speed limit of about 120km/h which I think is between 70 and 80 mph. But talk about scary, cars were jutting in and out of lanes at break neck speed, tailgating Semi Trucks and all that good stuff. I was just sitting back relaxing munchin’ on Patatine (Chips) and thinking about how my life would change, and most importantly how I would react to the change that I now have somewhat of a real father, and not just another football coach or teacher as my male role model. I was both excited and scared because I did not know how I would react when I am no longer the only male voice in the house. But after the past week with my host father I now know, everything’s gonna be all right.

Finally about 2 hours and 5 or 6 close calls with some serious thrill seeking speed demons, my pop and I had finally made it home. And soon after, my host mother had come home from work. I was very happy to see her, she was the person whom I talked with on the phone the most. We sat and talked about my flight and about how my host sister (who is currently residing in Texas also an exchange student) was doing. Then I heard a timer like a bell, coming from the kitchen. When my host mom opened the kitchen door, a heavenly smell perfumed the small flat (apartment). “La chene pronta.” Dinner is ready.

After filling up on home cooked Italian Cuisine (I would tell you what it was, if I knew what it was, but trust me it was good) we went for a stroll in the bustling cobblestone streets of Cremona. The city was filled with very archaic beautiful hand carved statues and ancient 500 year old churches and ruins. Also there were many modern window shops, shops that sold everything from food which is usually served outside on small elegant tables, to designer clothing which ranged from 25 Euro to about 450 Euro. It was all magnificent. I was also excited about how many people were out and about, laughing, talking, little kids playing tag and screaming, the sweet smell of a bakery, and best of all, teens my age, they were everywhere. I knew on the spot that this was where I belonged.

I have just completed my first week of Italian School. It had its good experiences along with its bad. First, I definitely cannot wait until I can be communicable and literate in Italian, then I am sure school will not be as boring, because I would have something to do. As of now my only job in school is to listen and learn which has proven to be very difficult especially when they speak very fast. Usually I am able to catch 1 or 2 words out of about 500. But speak slowly and I can almost understand you. I’m getting tired of playing “pretend I know what they are saying, and say Si” but that is all I can do for now. Luckily, to most of the Italian students I look like a Rapper, perhaps maybe because I am the only Black student in school. And also a majority of American Super Star musical entertainers in the U.S. are Black Rappers. Anyway, I ain’t complaining. Well my new superstar status has made me popular in school, so now I have quite a few Italian friends to go to when in need of cultural differential help and translation which is almost close to always.

To sum up my first week in Italy, I LOVE IT HERE, Thanks for everything God, Family, Friends and of course Rotary. I would probably have never had this opportunity if it wasn’t for you. Because of you I have a new Home, new friends, new family and a new life.

October 9 Journal

I have been in Italy now, what seems like three weeks actually one month. Time surely flies by quickly. I don’t miss home yet, sometimes I wonder if that is a good thing or if I am a little twisted, but anyways my first month in Italy has gone by quite well.

Everyday I learn something new. From phrases, to new words or even just some good ol Cremonese or Italian History. Ohhh, talk about history, my little city is packed full of it. There are soo many ancient churches here, some soo old, that it is prohibited to go inside. One very ugly church in particular always caught my attention as I passed it heading towards my school. I wondered why nobody demolished it. Yes, I know it was old but so are about 30 of the other ancient churches here in Cremona. Anyway…. believe me this church was hideous. It was a very ominous looking structure, with old broken eroded gargoyles some with their heads missing. The church itself was structured with very ugly red brick with many streaks and blotches on them. It looked as if 1000 pigeons decided to…. well… have their way with it. One day I asked my host father (in Italian might I add) why they didn’t just demolish the old thing because it definitely was not “Kodak worthy”. He looked at me with a surprised look and said, this church holds a very important piece of Cremona history. This church was once covered in beautiful marble, but when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, he came to Cremona, saw the church, and stole every piece of marble that was on it, and brought it all back to France. All the blotches and streaks was where the marble once was.

School for me is going quite well. I am beginning to hear and understand more words coming from the teachers, despite the amazingly fast speed in which they speak. Sometimes if I’m feelin’ lucky, I will actually attempt to respond to questions asked in class. Usually I am incorrect both in language and the answer itself, but I can tell that my teacher is proud of my courage and progress. Also the students in class are beginning to go from chuckling, whenever I speak to impressive oohing. I, along with the other exchange students here in Cremona, have been taking language courses every Tuesday and Thursdays. It is a big help to us. Also I have befriended a Custodian at the school that has nicknamed me American Express and in courtesy I have nicknamed her Napoli Express (I tried Italian Express but she was persistent not to be called that). Everyday, I meet her on my way to class and she always gives me a cup of caffe and a mini lesson of Italian, she is actually a big help to me. Often after school I am asked, to play a game of Futbol with some of the school boys, I tried to tell ’em I couldn’t play but noooooooo, “Everybody can play Futbol”. Boy, did I prove them wrong. Talk about GOD AWFUL, but still I always have fun, and the guys don’t harass me too much, about kickin’ the ball in the wrong goal every now and then.

I have joined the local Palestra (gym) to help me out with the infamous Rotary 15. Well, I guess if you are in Italy it is more appropriate to call it the Rotary 55. But going to the Gym definitely helps me. And it also gives me something to do. It seems to be working out pretty good, perhaps maybe because my personal trainer is a world class body building coach, I said please please please don’t make me look like a steroid pumpin’ maniac, but his English is minimum, and the way he has been making me train, I’m not too sure he understood me. But I’m not too worried, My body won’t tolerate muscles on top of muscles. There are some professional body builders that train in my gym, I thought they would be too busy to come up to me and chat, especially since they know that at the moment I am not able to speak to them well. But actually they are very friendly, they often come up to me and chat. They explain to me different ways to work out and also the right way to eat, some have even invited me to one of their bodybuilding competitions. I have noticed a big difference in the way people eat and care for their bodies. Before seeing for myself, I thought most of the Italian men were the stereotypical fat stumpy guys with nice suits, being fed mounds of spaghetti by their wives or mistresses, and you would think so, knowing that Italy is Carb Central. But it is totally different – most of the people I have noticed in Italy are in pretty good shape. Also I have noticed that the Italians eat food in a much healthier way than in the U.S. There isn’t a McDonald’s for miles from my city. And the fast food that is available here is quite healthy. A typical meal consists of 2-3 different servings, usually pasta or some sort of carbohydrate, a serving of meat and salad or fruit, and for dessert, Gelato (Ice cream) or one of the 3,000 different types of Cheese. All washed down with either water, tea, or juice. A formal meal usually consists of 6-8 servings, it sounds like a handful but with the portion sizes it really is not bad at all. Buon Appetite!

I having been walking and riding my bike everywhere in Italy. Some of the streets in my town are for only biking and walking. There are definitely more riders and walkers in the city then there are drivers. With gasoline prices as high as they are, not only in Italy but in all of Europe (now America) it just isn’t feasible to drive everywhere, anytime. Anyhow it is much more relaxing and healthy to just walk or ride wherever you need to go that is in decent distance. Also, I think that it is socially better to walk or ride because you often meet friends and family in the streets.

Fashion in Italy is very important. Italians pride themselves on how they look. Most of the Italians often whip out their second to best clothing, just to stroll through the city, or to meet with friends. It looks to me as if everybody just stepped off of a runway show. Every Saturday and Sunday nights the streets of the city square are packed. Often there are many concerts, with both professional and amateur bands, dancers, and all types of entertainers doing what they do best, entertaining in the city square. Hundreds of people, everywhere, all ages, races and genders. Everybody I know from school is in the city square Saturday and Sunday nights either sitting in the bars conversing and listening to music, or outside eating , drinking, singing, dancing, talking, waiting for the Discos to open. It is nothing quite like I’ve ever seen in America. I can already tell. My new life in Italy will be an experience like no other.

October 28 Journal

Ciao Ancora, tutti Ragazzi. MAMA MIA!!!!! Where is the time going to soooo fast. Already it is the beginning of another month. This month was very exciting for me. I met new people and learned more about those I already know. I am speaking with my Italian friends and teachers in my new language. Yes.. my Italian is still quite rough but it only gets smoother as time passes. Everyday I am learning something new about my old city, And each time I learn something new I just gain more and more respect for the age and history of this 2000+ year old city. Often, sometimes in the most random places, you will see an important piece of Italian history, whether it be an old church or a broken old statue. Sometimes the history that may be in your very presence is hidden beneath layers and layers of dirt.

After a shop owner decided that it would be better for his growing business to have more underground parking space and storage, during construction he stumbled on an important lost piece of Italian history. While his workers were excavating nearly 50 ft underneath the ground, they discovered a wall, that should not have been there according to excavation blueprints. Worried that he might have struck something important such as a water or gas pipeline he called in the experts to give him an all clear so that he may continue. Well… he definitely did not receive an all clear signal because what he had struck was the wall of a portion of a lost Ancient Roman city, complete with roads, homes and public baths, that date back to nearly 500 B.C. The discovery has attracted news media, archaeologists, historians and enthusiasts worldwide, the owners once soon to be parking lot project is now a major archaeologist dig site.

School for me this past week was very exciting, not only for the fact that I am becoming more communicable with my friends but for one week, 19 exchange students from England have come to visit Italy. They have been going on Italian excursions and luckily since there are only 6 Rotary Exchange students in my district (unfortunately all from the United States) we had been invited to join the British on their Italy Tour. Venice was part of the tour. A truly magnificent city built on water. I remember seeing Venice on TV, and in books and in magazines, but I could not truly appreciate its beauty until I saw it for myself. Although Venice was physically right there in front of me, I felt as if I was out of reality, in my personal La La Land. I just couldn’t believe I was actually here, not as a tourist but as a visitor. It was just as I had seen it on TV. The gondoliers gondiling their gondolas, looking snappy in their striped shirts and flagged hats, hundreds of pigeons flocking down on you after the first sight of food, the marvelous palaces that lined the shores of the Mediterranean, the lazy cat being lulled to sleep atop a boat, gently rocking with the calm waves of the sea. Everything was just soo magnificent.

At the end of the week, I realized that all good things must come to an end. My new friends that I just met days before and started to bond with, are now preparing to go home. The English have left the building. It hit me. Going home for me is gonna be a major bummer. I’ve only known these English people for a few days, and now when it is time for them to go home, I find myself fighting back tears because well……”God forbid I cry in the presence of the British.” But I have only known them for such a short time, how will it be when I have to leave my new Italian friends, not even just my Italian friends, but the other Rotary Exchange students that I’ve bonded soo much with. In one year, you watch someone mature and grow with you. Sharing the same emotional ups and downs. You grow to love them like your own family, and then one day BAM!!!!! It’s time to go home, at the end of my exchange, I can picture myself saying, “well, its been really nice practically living with you, bonding with you for a whole year, being able to talk to you unlike any other friend and grow together in all aspects of life, but now I’m going home, and I’ll probably never see you again, thanks for being there when I needed ya, bye now.” It takes a very special person to be able to cope with that type of pressure, leaving your new family, your new friends, your new home. But It is truly amazing, how much you grow with just that experience. You become another person, a better person by just realizing what you have gained from your year abroad.

Advice to future exchangers reading my journals: Don’t let my last two paragraphs of this journal scare the living hell out you. Going to another country not just to be a tourist, but to actually live there, is the experience of a lifetime; you will be amazed at how much you mature and grow, learning to think open minded, and preparing to cope without Mommy and Daddy. Meeting new people, sharing new thoughts, becoming a leader. You will view life in a way different perspective then you perceive it to be now. You must be able to think out of the box, you must learn to accept and respect differences than back home. Just by applying to the program, already you show that you are ambitious, adventurous, courageous and different from the rest. You will never forget nor will you ever regret.

December 5 Journal 

Ciao Ancora Tutti, Again, back for yet another journal. Yep, I’m definitely twisted. Still I haven’t, I don’t, and I don’t think I will miss home. This month was crazy, I did a little travelin’, a little protesting and I almost got caught up in a riot. No worries though, just good times.

Usually I start out my journals with a little bit of Cremonese or Italian history, usually pertaining to my town, that I find quite interesting, but this time I’m going switch it up a bit and tell you something a little different. Soccer is and always will be the biggest sport in Italy, and just about everywhere else in the world. Rivalry games usually bring out the inner beasts of all people. Usually people get very excited prior to rivalry games, and sometimes get a little out of control. Well that is just exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago in my little town. The biggest rival for the Cremona Soccer team is a small town about 20 miles out called Brescia. Brescia and Cremona, the two teams, have a rather extensive soccer history, that seems to be getting a little more out of control every time the two teams meet. This team does not respect the history of that team, that team is full of traitors, this team is full of liars and cheaters, that team pays off the referees, and so on. Just enough bickering to fuel enough anger to start a small riot. Well it just so happened that the same exact riot occurred within 50 ft of my house. I was enjoying a nice dinner when I heard a train pull into the station, nothing unusual – trains come and go every 15 minutes, but this was a little different. I heard a lot of yelling and shouting coming from the train, so of course with my curious nature I had to check it out. People were climbing out the windows of the train because the police had ordered the train conductor to lock the doors, so that no angry testosterone fueled Bresciano fans came out, because there were too many testosterone fueled Cremonese fans waiting for the Bresciano fans. Well… anyways, the Bresciano fans escaped through the windows of the train and then began to urinate on the train (serves them right huh). There is a small bridge which the railroad goes over, and under that bridge is a walkway, which is important to get from a road, the main street where all of the fun is. Ordinary people were going about their business walking under the bridge. Well what is one way for an excited group of fans to “soc it to em?” Urinate on the passing peoples heads too.

After the Bresciano fans were content from urinating on various things and people, they proceeded to the main streets, where they met the Cremonese fans accompanied with some police, and then the fun began. Yelling, Shouting, Pushing, Punching, Kicking, Swinging police batons, the works. And of course I was just staring in awe wishing that my camera was not in the shop. It went on for a good 20 minutes until the police brought out the big gun. I will tell you from experience, “Tear gas sucks.” First my eyes started to water, then sting a little, then burn like hell.. but I stuck it out like a true soldier, and stayed and watched. Well about 10 minutes later and about 2 more Tear Gas capsules later, I could not take it anymore, and neither could the rioters, so we all dispersed. I went back inside to show my host mother my war scars (red watery eyes), then my host pop called me into the living room where he was watching the Riot on TV (big tough Italian huh). From the news I learned that earlier the same day some of the Bresciano fans put a small pipe bomb under the Cremonese stadium, and tried to blow it to smithereens. Not only were they unsuccessful, but they turned half of the stadium black. Also I learned that nobody was severely injured during the riot and the soccer match went on soon after as scheduled. Oh yeah!! we lost.

School for me is going just fine. I now am able to understand about half of what my teacher is saying, and even still I am making more friends. My Italian lessons are going at a pretty brisk pace but still I am able to keep up. I now naturally respond to all of my friends in Italian, rather than very slow English. Sometimes I speak correctly, but when I don’t, my friends laugh and then correct me. My school here is one of the ten hardest schools in Italy, so most of my friends are studying, from 4 to 6 hours a day, so it is often hard to hang out with them after school. Also school is in session on Saturdays for the full day so it is hard to have a decent social life. But it is definitely capable, but you must find some sort of activity to do after school. Just as I mentioned in journals past, I have joined the local gym. But when I do get with my friends, usually on Saturday and Sunday nights we make the best of it by either going to disco, or festa (party), or sometimes we just stay in the main square and chat, or go to an arcade and play video games. Also another favorite pastime here is Karaoke. Us singing is indeed considered a health hazard to the ears, but from a distance with a responding Fire Truck, and a crying baby, if not two, we don’t sound half that bad.

About one week ago the students in my school led a protest by marching through the streets of Cremona, other schools close to us that were also going to be negatively affected by the new head dean of School Administration, were also marching with us. I just tagged along and snapped some pictures to show you guys back home.

Last week my host parents took me on a small vacation with them. We were going to visit my Host mother’s sister in Naples. The 8 hour train ride was definitely worth it . I saw the most beautiful country land I’ve ever seen in Tuscany. Then we passed the bustling city of Florence, then Rome and finally Naples. Naples can never be truly described using words. One must visit to know what I mean. But I’ll give it a shot. South Italy, Naples in particular is nothing like North Italy. The people are more friendly, and are not at all shy with grabbing your arm and asking where I was from because I don’t look African. Even people I have never even met. The southern Italians are more loud and they sound always excited when they speak. They are also very family oriented, loving and friendly. But the absolute best aspect of Southern Italy, is Southern Italian cooking. Wow…………mama mia………..wow . Pizza in Napoli is nothing like you have ever tasted. The very best pizza in America would be considered Skifo (disgusting) compared to the worst pizza in Napoli. Trust me when I tell you, it is good. I also went through Pompeii to Sorrento from Napoli. Sorrento was a sight to behold. Gorgeous. Little town on a cliff over looking the ocean, use your imagination. The people in Sorrento were very friendly, also the animals in Sorrento were cool too. One week had passed and before you knew it, time for another 8 hours back to Cremona, It was very interesting on the train, I was quite amused, first you would see the Volcanoes of Napoli, then you would see mountains, after you would see the ocean, then the cliff like edges of islands coming out of the oceans, then you would see a city or two, then you would see green pastures with livestock or crop, then there would be a tunnel for about 10 minutes, and after exiting the tunnel it would be a blizzard like snowstorm, Snow… first time in a long time that I’d seen the stuff. After experiencing it once again I have come to the conclusion that Florida weather rocks. Later until next month.

January 22 Journal

Ciao Tutti, back again for yet another journal entry. I know you all missed one from me last month, sorry.. but no worries, not dead yet.

Everything went swell in my Christmas holidays in Europe. But I didn’t feel much shock and homesickness as I expected. Well I guess I felt some shock, shock in which I did not feel homesick, maybe because I felt as if I was at home… I wonder… deja vu (to all my French speakin’ buddies, sooo sorry if I slaughtered that phrase), I really did feel like I was home. I felt as if these new, different people were actually my family back home, but in disguise. I felt as if this were just another Christmas holiday, with all the family bunched together again at grandma’s house, except these people were the wrong color, and spoke a little funny, but other than that, I was home sweet home. Although we have different traditions, styles, customs, and cultures, there is still one important thing that never changes, I’m pretty sure you guys can guess what that is… I guess we are not all that different after all……

Today I am changing host families. I know it’s gonna be rough having to leave these crazy Italian folk, but it is part of the experience. Last night we had a little, what I like to call a “get the heck out of my house party” but formally a Farewell party. We all sat and reminisced about the good ol’ times. It is funny to me, even though my second host family lives approximately three blocks away, I feel as if I’ll never see these people again. And I think they feel the same way because host mom keeps cryin’, host dad ready to cry, and me, laughing in it up. I’M THREE BLOCKS AWAY!!!!! If you wanna see how your big black son is doin’, yell out the window, I’ll hear ya, promise. But I understand where they’re coming from. Good times with this family.

February 17 Journal

Ciao Tutti, back yet another journal. Five more to go and then I’m done…. This year just zipped by. It feels as if for me only 1 month has passed since I met Pop at the airport and not 4. But as I look at what I have accomplished, and most importantly what I have gained, I know for sure this was one year well spent. But before I begin, I want to congratulate all of the new 2006-07 Outbounds, you are all in for one hell of a ride. Just take it all in stride and you will be just fine, Good luck with your following orientations and beyond, keep our legacy going…. See ya soon.

This month will go down in history for the weather of Cremona. When I first arrived people were already telling me that I had forgotten to bring the Florida sun with me, because it seemed as if Cremona was cooler to say the least. And then Winter came, and then people were sure, this weather was not normal. Sure, Cremona has its off and on, light snow, but never anything like this, at least not in 20 years. Finally January rolled around, and it began to warm up a bit, everybody thought, maybe Spring was thinking of coming to Cremona a little early. What happened next, I would say, had very similar characteristics to Florida weather. Sunny and nice one day, Hurricane the next. But instead it was more like, Sunny and nice one day, Blizzard the next for Cremona. The snow came, and boy did it come, three days non-stop, record breaking snowfall for Cremona, 16 inches, most snow these people have seen in 20 years.

I used to be jealous of the Northern States, and their “Snow Days” but now that I have finally experienced one, I now envy my beautiful Florida weather. Shoveling snow is not particularly fun, especially if you have 16 inches before you. And just because the sidewalk may look clean, doesn’t mean there isn’t a diabolically placed, almost invisible sheet of ice covering it. It is quite impossible to stay dry, and also healthy, in this type of weather. You wouldn’t want to know how many tissue boxes I went through this season only. But not all snow days are irritating, It tends to bring out the camaraderie in the locals, especially when you have to get out of your own car and help “push”. I admired how the wheels of small and large vehicles alike spun without actually moving, and how buses would come down small hills…sideways and oh yeah, the most intriguing of all, when cars smash into one another, one by one like Dominoes. Good times. On a positive note, I very much am intrigued by how a snow day helps bring the community together, whether it be the infamous Snowball Fight which I am now a big fan of, the creation of a snow family, or better yet a snow kingdom, or just the sight of a dog drawn sled. You must have at least some admiration for a Snow Day.

Giorno Sulla Neve is what the Italians call it. Ski trip is what we would call it. February 10th, 7:45AM, almost the whole school crammed into about 8 coaches, shortly after we were on our way to the Italian Alps. On the way I saw some of the most beautiful Italian mountain range there is to offer, snow capped peaks, sheer drop cliffs, mountain water rapids… the works. As we gained altitude into the Trentino, Adige, section of Italy, I noticed the signs on the roads changing from Italian to German. As we gained even more altitude, I noticed restaurants and hotels and even some gas stations, with their signs written in German. Well, this isn’t Italy anymore, was what I first thought before one of the teachers explained to me that this is the German speaking section of Italy. Figures. Knowing how Switzerland was about 30 minutes to the left, and Austria was approximately 30 minutes to the right. Such Diversity!!

I have gained a new found passion for the snow. Snowboarding. It is by far one of the most exciting things I have ever done. At first I was a bit skeptical about trying it out after I witnessed a Wicked Wipeout, but after I convinced all of my friends, on the way to the Alps, that I was fearless, I was placed in between a rock and a very hard place. But then my natural thrill seeking hormones kicked in, with a little help from my friend telling me how insanely awesome going about 45 miles per hour down a mountain slope on a modified surfboard was… I just had to give it a shot. After I picked up the basics I was not as bad as I thought I would have been. I actually got compliments. People even asked me to accompany them to the “Big Hill” but I just wasn’t ready for that level of a wipeout, not just yet anyways. Well…who can all say they snowboarded the Alps?? I can. Well.. the Bunny Alps anyways, but still let’s all stick to what’s important. I snowboarded the Italian Alps.

After a month filled with getting to know new people, Snowboarding, Ice Skating, Sledding, Cross Country Trudging, Watching cars go down like Dominoes, Snowball Fights, Snowmen, watching buses coming towards me…sideways, getting a new family, building life long friendships, taking my first major test in school and passing it, and most of all pride, love and respect for a country other than my own, of course followed by all the experiences I have experienced or have yet to experience, there comes a time when every exchange student must accept that they are halfway to going home. I must learn to accept that I have indeed, completed half of my Exchange year. Already!! I am very proud of what I have accomplished, and how I have handled this portion of my life. But soon it will be all over, well, not necessarily over, I have gained friends for a lifetime that I am positive I will see again. I have learned new habits, and found different ways to live and succeed in life, and once again I must thank the Rotary and all of the people that have helped me get this far… Now I have a new feeling in my soul, I am not sure if I know exactly what that is. It’s a strange feeling, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. One day I will wake up and it will be July 14th, the day I come home. And then I have to say goodbye to it all, My families, My new friends, My new life, I don’t wanna go home… if you ask me, I feel as if I am already home….

April 19 Journal

Ciao a Tutti!! Once again, time yet for another journal, three more to go….

For once I have felt homesick, but not quite as you might think. For 10 days, I along with my fellow exchangers and a class from school had gone to Denmark for an intercultural exchange. I had quite a nice time; not only did I bond well with a class that I was not yet familiar with but, I also met new faces and saw different places in Denmark. Sierra Greaves is right!!! She mentioned in a much earlier journal what Danish to her sounded like. Take a mouthful of mashed potatoes, speak, and ya got Danish. For once I finally felt relieved to speak in the language that I can finally comprehend, and no… it ain’t English.

Denmark reminded me a lot of America. I found some quite striking similarities – the stores, the restaurants – one time for a split second when I was in a Danish superstore, if the name of the place wasn’t “Hashkashkalla”, I probably wouldn’t have felt more at home in Wal-Mart. After my 10 day venture through Denmark I couldn’t have felt more homesick. Homesick… no, not I, could it be…. yep, I wanted to get back to my sweet Italian Villa with the view of the ever beautiful Duomo, after 10 days, I was definitely feelin’ it. I missed my pasta, pizza, mama, papa. Non vorrei piu andare via.

Once again I have changed families, changed setting, changed lifestyle. I am now a Cowboy!! YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWW!!!!! if you haven’t guessed it quite yet, I now live on a farm.

I’m home, home on the Range, where the Cows, and more Cows graze. No Chickens to be heard, cause it’s a farm, which produces Curd, And the smell will keep ya up till its day…OHHHHH…..I think you guys know the rest to that song….

I’m lovin’ every bit of my new cowboy lifestyle. I now have quite a different agenda for my daily chores. I no longer see my friends on a daily basis, and I have a new smell. No No… not a particularly bad smell, just different, just like everything else here in Italy. I now have a new respect for Farmhands, which happens to be new title here. Every morning, I wake up, have a good ol’ farmy type breakfast, put on my clothes that haven’t been washed in about a week and head out. My first day on the farm, my host dad asked me jokingly, if I would like to help out a bit. Despite the brash warning given from my new host brother, I voluntarily agreed. C’mon how hard could it be… how wrong could I have ever been…. Milkin’ cows, haulin’ hay, breakin’ in wild horses… haha just playin’ Al, the horse part isn’t true, but I have ridden ol’ Tamey Tame Tame quite a few times. Believe it or not I think I am enjoying myself more on this farm then I ever have in the city. Maybe it’s the smell screwin’ with my thinkin’ juice, or maybe I’m just havin’ the time of my life.

May 29 Journal

A cala aca là ca la à a cala ca là. Translation: look at that cow, in which is going to that house. (Dialect of Northern Indigenous Italians of the Mountains. Bergamo Italy)

Ciao a tutti. Wow!!! has it really been almost 9 months… well, I guess so.. time sure flies when you’re having fun, but to tell you the truth, my exchange year wasn’t all fun, games, and girls like I had wished. Before there was a time in which I was.. dare I say it… unsociable, shy, scared. I could not understand a word.. I never knew if somebody was talking about me, or to me. I had very few friends, in fact at the time my only friends were my other American exchange buddies, I was quickly fed up with it all… But I knew that I was chosen as an exchange student for a reason.. And I was determined not to let my people back home down.. So I stuck it up, I made the best out of my time by being myself. I made a vow to study more and try to speak only Italian with my friends (ohh soo hard it was), I went out and made friends the same way I did back home. Heck, I even turned out a teacher one of my favorite teachers. (she is a definite homie now).

I remember Al telling us back home that, he really wasn’t interested in sending kids that were “trying to grow up” on an exchange, if it were for that reason, then Al, you seriously sent the wrong guy.

(Webmaster’s response: Well, that’s not exactly what I said, but nonetheless, Mike, there is no doubt in my mind that the student we sent to Italy was the absolute right guy! Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished and become this year.)

Epilogue – Mike’s Speech at the District Conference, April 2007

It’s been almost a year since Mike Williams completed his exchange year in Italy. At the Rotary District 6970 Conference, held in Gainesville on April 27, 2007, Mike spoke about the impact of his exchange experience. As you read his words below, we know that all Rotarians will share our pride in Mike, for what he has accomplished as a Rotary exchange student, and for what he will accomplish in his life.

I never knew that an event that would change the perception of what people thought of me, and what I had thought of different people, would in any form mean more to me than getting arrested…again…

There was once a time in my life that I got along too well with the police.. I mean. it’s true, I got along quite well with the police.. I never resisted arrest once I was caught. Well, I’ve always been a fair person, I mean, once you’re caught, you’re caught.. There really wasn’t much resisting, the police were always pretty good at catching me when I least expected it. And we always had pleasant conversations on the way to Juvi.. (that’s Juvenile Hall to all you model citizens out there..) Years ago, I would have would have been considered a good-for-nothing, miscreant, punk with issues.. well, not any more, I have been through some major improvements..

Just the other day, I turned myself into Juvenile Hall, unescorted. I asked for my old probation officer, and when I got into his office, he ominously looked at me and said…Well, what did you do now…so I confessed.. I stole the hearts of some very special people, and in return, I got away with a whole life’s worth of experience and understanding of differences. All they did was give me an opportunity and a airplane ticket to Italy.. Officer Dundy gave me one of those confused, you pulled off the heist of the century type looks and said, “Mike, did you steal those plane tickets?” Close!!! Got a heck of a deal for them though..

When I told him about Rotary and how they had given me an opportunity to start over, clear the slate, and become anybody I wanted to be for a whole year in another country.. his mouth opened with awe. Then I told him that all I had to do was seize each day and make the best of it, his bushy eyebrows dropped in utter disbelief. Then I told him that I actually accomplished a whole year without getting arrested or getting into trouble even once…The old man’s jaw hit the floor. He asked, How I was able to fight the temptation.. I looked for a couple of seconds, thinking to myself, to myself, How did I do that??..I guess, finally someone felt that it was my turn to place a positive impact on a small portion of the world, and for the world to place a huge positive impact on me, and for the first time in a long time, I made a promise to myself not to screw this one up, and believe it or not I kept my personal promise. I saw that Rotary was giving me an opportunity to become someone else… myself… but yet someone else…so I grabbed the opportunity and ran with it…(no pun intended)..

Well, did you learn the language?… Did I !!!..I began to ramble on about how much I had loathed him and his beloved community service hours…in Italian of course…Did ya get along with the people.. well, now I have a reason to go back, and it isn’t to fight anybody… I made new friends, new family, new memories. I became involved with my community and its people while breaking down stereotypes against me and my people (Americans) which was a big reality check for me.. The majority of the Italians that I had spoken to had some quite incriminating Ideas about American people, especially black people, since most Italians had only seen African Americans in movies and on TV, which definitely gave wrong impressions, but then I realized that I was once part of that impression. I guess I had some stereotypes that needed to broken down as well…but everybody knows that a good Italian movie is a Mafia movie…or so I thought..

I get it…I understand what this program is all about…understanding…An exchange never ends, it continues forever because the only thing guaranteed in life is change…. the only thing to satisfy change is understanding, and the only way to truly achieve understanding is adaptation. Rotary gives you an opportunity to WITNESS change in understanding through adaptation, first hand. And that is truly a miracle, that is how and why world peace can be achieved…It begins with an outgoing person, a shy person, a misunderstood person, to link the world together.. We are all soo different but yet soo alike, that it is actually possible to change the world, one person at a time, one year at a time.. So…who’s turn is it next?? Don’t let change happen without you…Keep that as a promise to yourself, and you will have the time of your life…