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

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...