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

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,