Heather Lear
2007-08 Outbound to Italy

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: St. Johns Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Cremona Po Rotary Club
         District 2050, Italy

Heather's Bio

Ciao! My name is Heather. I'm 17 years old and I am from Jacksonville, Florida. I live with my mom, dad and younger brother. I am a senior at Bartram Trail High School.

I am really interested in cooking and being in the kitchen. I really like cooking without recipes and seeing what crazy dishes I can create. Another thing I am really interested in is photography, which I use as a way to express myself and as a way to relax.

I am going to Italy and I am super excited!!!! I can't wait to take on this chance of a lifetime. I would like to thank Rotary for making this possible, not just for me, but for all of the exchange students around the world.

October 25 Journal

 For two long months I watched patiently as the twenty-four other outbounds departed for their host countries. Finally, on September 2 it was my turn to say goodbye to everything I have ever known and take the long walk from my family, through security and onto a plane that would take me half-way across the world. I arrived in Detroit and decided that I would have a cheeseburger and fries as my last American meal for a year. As I stepped onto my flight to Amsterdam all I could think about was that I had never left the United States before and now here I am getting on a plane to live in another country for a year. I was ready for my next year and the adventures that it would hold. Little did I know the plane ride would be an adventure in itself. I had a window seat next to an older lady from Athens, Greece. She was a very nice lady, but she spoke no English and, well, I speak no Greek. Somehow I ended up becoming a translator for her. I am not exactly sure how I managed to translate between English and Greek, but apparently I did an alright job at it. My attempt to be helpful to this lady resulted in not getting any sleep on the flight. I was woken up several times to translate with the flight attendants and to change movies because five minutes into them she would decide she didn’t like them because they were in English. I think that sitting next to a lady that didn’t speak the same language as me helped put my anxieties about the language at ease.

As we landed in Amsterdam, my stomach began to twist in knots. Soon I would be in Italy. I slept the entire flight to Milan in hopes of making up for the loss of sleep on the last flight. I woke up just as we began to descend through the clouds and I saw my new country for the first time. As the wheels touched town my stomach was in my throat, it was time to meet my host family. I got off the plane and followed all of the other people and caught a glimpse of a sign that said baggage claim. This was it. I was about to walk through these doors and see my new family. Well, I didn’t see them anywhere. I waited for my bags to come out and after a while both of my 50 pound bags (after the removal of two pounds each at the Jacksonville Airport) appeared and I decided to just follow all of the other people because I didn’t see my host family anywhere. So it turns out, in Italy, you get your bags and then go out to meet the people who are picking you up. I recognized my host family instantly from the picture they had sent me just two nights before. They were holding a sign that said my name and I was whisked away out of the airport, stopped for a few photos, and then to the car for the two hour drive to Cremona.

We got to Cremona around two and I called home to let everyone know all of my flights went well and that I was safe. I unpacked, took a nap, ate dinner and went back to bed around eight and woke up around noon the next day. I got to walk around the city with their daughter’s best friend. Cremona is a beautiful city and it has so much amazing history, art, music, and food. Cremona was part of the Roman Empire and there are ruins that have been found around the city. In the basement of the elementary school across from my house they have found part of a Roman house. I didn’t know what to expect when I got here, but it is more amazing than I could have imagined.

In my first week I took a tour of the high school I would be attending, went to a fashion show in the piazza, saw the Po River, went to an outdoor jazz concert at a farm, visited the Cathedral and its crypt, had Italian gelato (yum!!), met the four other Americans staying in Cremona and ate an entire pizza! That is right, an entire pizza. The families of the exchange students went out for pizza the night after we had all arrived. I was rather confused when there was not an option on the menu for by the slice or an entire pizza. Well, my confusion just increased when the waiter began to bring out full pizzas for everyone at the table. I stared at my host mom in confusion and asked her if we are supposed to eat the entire pizza ourselves and of course we are! To my amazement I ate the entire pizza. It was amazing! The pizzas here are very thin and lighter than the ones at home, so eating an entire pizza isn’t as much food as you would think.

The following Monday was the first day of school. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already, the exchange students were coming in an hour late with the first year students. I was told that on the first day of school the older students throw water balloons at the first years and we had the pleasure of arriving at the same time as they did. I live in the center of the city and I can walk almost anywhere I need to go, including school. I walked with my host mom, and with Andrew (from Idaho) and his host mom to school. As we approached the building I spotted the kids who were throwing the water balloons, but our host moms didn’t seem to be fazed by the water balloons that were coming from every direction. They walked up to the kids and told them that we were Americans, not first years and that there was no need for them to throw water balloons at us. Of course that made them want to throw water balloons at us even more. I was hit right in the side of the head with one, but thankfully it only bounced off and didn’t break on me. We walked into the school and all the Americans were taken into a side room and given our room assignments. I would be in 3C with Rachel (also from Idaho). We were the first to be taken to our class and of course we entered in the middle of a lesson and everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at us as we were introduced and showed where our desks were. We took our seats in the front row. We sat quietly in our desks the entire day, because in Italian schools the teachers change classes, not the students. School went like this for the rest of the week. Our second week of school, we were given personalized schedules, because we leave the class for Italian lessons and we are also put in several different classes in different grade levels, so that we can meet more people and experience what the different classes are like.

At the end of the first week of school our classmates threw a welcome party for the exchange students. Actually there were two parties. Everyone was very excited to have us in their class and went out of their way to make the party really fun. There were big welcome signs, streamers around the room, many types of food and drink and music. Some of our teachers and even the principal came to the party!! Rachel, Andrew and I made brownies to take to the party and everyone loved them!

Over the next few weeks I went to two Stradivari violin concerts, birthday parties, climbed the Torrazzo (the tallest bell tower in Europe), explored the city, acquired a bike, rode that bike to a beautiful park that is on the Po River, gone shopping in Milan, learned to make espresso, saw a cat on a leash, I now make a mean risotto, bought the coolest pair of shoes ever, toured a cheese factory, went to an outdoor market that they have every Wednesday and Saturday, ate dinner in a few palaces, and had the most amazing time ever!

I can’t believe I have already been here for a month and a half, but at the same time I can’t believe it has only been a month and a half. I am beginning to feel at home and to get a grasp on the language. I see my Italian improve every single day and I know it will only be a short time until it becomes a second nature. I am excited to see what crazy adventures I will have in the next year and I will treasure every moment of it.

I wanted to share a recipe of a dessert that I learned to make last week. It is very easy and I suggest everyone make it!

Chocolate Salami

300 grams biscotti, crushed

100 grams butter

250 grams sugar

2 eggs

100 grams of cocoa powder

2 spoonfuls sweet liqueur, amaretto is good

Melt butter. Mix sugar, cocoa powder, butter and eggs. Mix in the biscotti and liqueur. After everything is mixed well form into the shape of salami (log shape) with tin foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.


December 12 Journal

 It has been three months already. I can not believe how fast time has gone by. It feels like just yesterday that my stomach was in my throat as I walked from baggage claim to meet strangers that have now become family. A lot has happened since my last journal. I left you last just before Halloween, which is not really celebrated here.

It was rather weird to know that it was Halloween, yet no one seemed to really notice. My school normally has a dance at a local disco on Halloween night, because it is the first night of fall vacation. Sadly this year we had to wait until the next night, because the discos were all booked Halloween night. Dances here are very different. They don’t call them dances either. They are parties that are thrown by the student body representatives and are held at the disco. It is not really different from going to the disco, except for the fact that it is only kids from your school (and in this case also another school). Very crowded, lots of techno music. A good time was had by all.

The next morning all of the exchange students got up bright and early and went to Venice with some of our host families and friends. We had an awesome time. Venice is a city that can not be compared to any other city in the world. It is very unique, beautiful and it has a certain charm about it that can not be duplicated. I did expect there to be less areas to walk around and more canals, but it was very nice because that means there were more shops. Let me tell you there were A LOT of them! I loved it. Around 5 everyone left to catch their train back to Cremona, but my host family and I stayed. We walked around and saw some amazing churches and architecture. It is unfathomable to think people built these by hand. They are gigantic and the detail is so intricate. After seeing all these amazing places, my host family took me to an amazing restaurant and I had a typical Venetian meal. While we were eating, a lady at the table next to us leaned over and asked me something about what I was eating and it turned out that it was an American lady was having a dinner with a lady from Italy that she had hosted 25 years earlier. I hope that in 25 years I will be doing the same thing with my host family. After dinner we drove to a villa right outside of Venice and stayed the night there. In the morning we drove back to Venice, saw more sights and returned home.

I also took another shopping trip into Milan with my host mom. She likes shopping even more than I do, so we always have a good time when we go shopping. We spent the first half of the morning wondering through Armani, Louis Vuitton, Prada and other shops that we would never be able to afford anything from. When we went into Gucci my host mom found a purse that she absolutely loved. Problem was that the purse cost 26,000 Euro. I knew that designer handbags were expensive, but I never realized how much some of them can cost. We spent the second half of the day in this 8-story department store on steroids. I have really bonded with my host mom a lot in the past month, now that I am actually able to communicate. and these times we have together are really special.

I have also been to Parma, eaten dinner in a couple palaces (thank you Rotary meetings), eaten dinner in a castle that was built in 1000 A.D. , been to a couple American movies in Italian (hilarious),became addicted to risotto, spent more money on clothes than I should have, cooked a Thanksgiving dinner with the American exchange students (and one German) for our host families and been to a giant festival for the candy of my city.

The festival is appropriately named Festa del Torrone, because the candy is called Torrone. It is difficult to explain, but basically it is a kind of nougat with almonds mixed in. Very delicious. It was created for the wedding of a prominent couple of Cremona, because the bride wanted a new candy created for her wedding. It is named Torrone after the Torrazzo, which is the name of the bell tower in the main piazza. I think the estimated number of people at the festival was 100,000. Considering Cremona has a population of about 70,000 people, you could say the city was rather crowded. There were street performers and booths selling everything from Torrone to salami and cheese to weird little statues made of spare tools. People were dressed in period clothing, some of them leading horses (and a donkey). I think my favorite part of was the presentation they made the last night. They revealed a 12 foot model of the cathedral made of Torrone. While I was still staring in amazement at the detail in the model, a wall of water came down at the front of the stage and one of the coolest light and music shows I have ever seen was projected across the entire piazza.

Now, I am sure that all of you are curious as to how my Italian is coming. Well, I can understand almost everything when a person speaks at a normal pace, which I am pretty proud of considering people like to throw in a little dialect sometimes. I have noticed that Italian has a lot less slang than English does. In a way this makes it a lot easier to understand people, but at the same time I am not able to translate English words that I use often into Italian and them have the same effect or meaning. The Italian grammar is a lot harder though. I can only hope that I am gaining as much Italian grammar as I am losing English grammar (college essays have been really fun).

I would say that I adapting well to the Italian culture and way of life. I really enjoy coming home at lunch and eating a home cooked meal as opposed to cafeteria food. Being able to walk everywhere is also very different and very convenient since I can’t drive here. Being able to walk through the piazza every night before dinner and see people I know and speak to them in Italian is really satisfying because a couple months ago I couldn’t do that, but now it is an every activity. On occasion I will be walking down the street or doing a normal daily activity and then realize I am in Italy. It is moments like these that show Italy has become a second home and how some of the customs are starting to become second nature.

January 10 Journal

 In the last month I think I have had some of the best and hardest times of exchange so far. Everything is finally starting to click, especially since we returned to school. Now every one talks to me and I can hold an interesting conversation about almost anything I want to. Before I would try to talk to everyone and there would be an initial interest and they would be amazed by the fact that I was from Florida and more than likely ask me if I live in the O.C. The conversation didn’t make it much further than me explaining that the O.C. is in fact in California, which no, is not the same as Florida and is on opposite side of the country, which indeed does take more than one day to drive across.

I never realized how much of our culture affects other countries too. They watch our shows with unfamiliar Italian voices, follow the election as closely as I do, read translated versions of our books, and even use mayo more than we do. Oh, another misconception about Americans is that we eat ketchup on everything….everything. For the first two weeks my host mom put ketchup on the table every meal and didn’t believe me when I told her I didn’t want any. The differences between our cultures have been the most fun for me, because we always do something that we can laugh about later and learn something new at the same time.

I would say December was pretty eventful. Originally, we were supposed to change on the 7th, but the boy who is coming to my family next and I wanted to spend Christmas with the people that have become like family to us. We asked nicely if we could wait until after Christmas and it ended up working out nicely because a girl in the country wanted to move into the city for Christmas, so she was told she could go to the family I was supposed to until we make our change in January. The Christmas season was extremely fun, but also a little sad for me. I am really close with my family at home, so it was a little odd not being with them. All 5 of the Americans in Cremona came over to my house and baked Christmas cookies one day. Then I also made them with one of my Italian friends another day.

On the 22nd my host family took me to Chamonix – Mont Blanc, France to go skiing. I have been snowboarding once before, so everything worked out pretty well. I had an amazing time, but it didn’t feel much like Christmas. Snowboarding in the Alps is something that I will never forget. I also got to snowboard down the run that they use for the World Cup. I did go down with a heel stop most of the time, but I only fell one time. Mont Blanc is also the tallest mountain in Europe, but you can’t actually ski on it. There is a viewing platform on the mountain next to it though, so we decided to ascend the 3842 m to the top. It took two of those big lifts and an elevator that went through the middle of the mountain to reach the top. Standing at the highest point possible in Europe (without being a skilled mountain climber) was one of the most amazing feelings I think I have ever had. I don’t think I can put into words how beautiful it was.

We also ate some really good food on the trip. It was really nice to eat something other than Italian food, even though I love the Italian cuisine. We had fondue bourguignon, a half of a cheese wheel that is put into a contraption that melts the top and you scrape the warm cheese onto your plate called la raclette and a hot stone that is sprinkled with salt and brought to your table with small pieces of meat that you cook yourself. These were my favorite dishes that we ate in France.

We returned to Cremona on the 29th. Oh and to get to and from Chamonix we had to go through a tunnel that was 12 km long! For New Years Eve I went to a concert in the piazza with some of my friends and we had an amazing time. It was really cool to count down the New Year in Italian. A little after midnight I realized that the ice-skating rink in the park was open and convinced my friends to go ice-skating. It was one of the best nights I have had here so far.

Now it is already January. I can not believe I have been here 4 months, but at the same time I feel like I have lived here forever. I can’t imagine what it will be like to go back to life in Florida because this is my life now, but at the same time I miss everything about Florida. I definitely have a second home now, which I am about to change from in about a week. The problem is that as of yesterday I am no longer sure which family I am going to. It turns out the girl that went to my next host family really likes them and has asked Rotary if she can stay. They haven’t decided yet because I was really excited about my new family because the mom loves cooking, but the other girl also likes them too because they are in the city. I guess I will just have to wait and see what happens, but I am sure where ever I am it will work out well.

Buon Anno a tutti!  


March 5 Journal

 5 months. How am I half way through my exchange already? Do I really only have 120 days left here? The scariest part is that the second half of the year is supposed to pass by even quicker than the first.

Well, I have been with my new host family for about a month now. I really am getting along with them well. I have been really fortunate to have two amazing host families this year. Even though they are completely different, I have fit in really well with both families. My first host family was a lot like my family at home. I even had a host brother that is only a few months older than my real brother. I am now an only child in my new host family. Changing was a lot like when I arrived except I am only a 5 minute walk away from my last family and there is no awkward language barrier. Well, that is not completely true….my new host mom speaks at mock speed, so I had some trouble understanding her for about the first week, but my language skills have improved a lot. I can understand the teachers better when they speak quickly and I have also noticed that I can speak quicker without thinking.

My second weekend with my new family, we went to a city in central Italy called Ascoli Piceno for Carnival. My host parents have a house in Ascoli because it is where my host mom’s parents are from. We spent the weekend with my host mom’s friends that live there. This was a little challenging for me. I heard that accents change drastically from region to region here, but I underestimated just how much they change. In addition to accents, every region has dialects. The combination resulted in a similar effect as my first days in Italy. By the end of the weekend I was able to understand fairly well though. The interesting part of Carnival in Ascoli is that EVERYONE in the city participates and throws a big party for the entire week of Carnival. The ground was covered in few centimeters of confetti and the costume of choice for men was dressing as old ladies. The costumes were extravagant and home made. One man built a movable ship and dressed as a sailor, another set of men were dolls in their boxes, a pair of men were an airplane and helicopter battling, there was a giant tooth brush and toilet paper duo and SO MANY others. It is a lot like Halloween except with a very colorful and cheerful atmosphere.

The highlight of my weekend though was Sunday afternoon. There was a tent that was teaching the dialect of Ascoli and we went to see what crazy stuff they were saying. While we were there my host mom volunteered me to go up in front of the crowd of people and learn some dialect. She made sure they knew I was American too. So then I was standing in front of a group of Italians who were probably thinking this girl can’t even understand Italian, how is she going to learn dialect? Well to their surprise I spoke in Italian without any problems. They were impressed. Next came the phrase in dialect, which I pronounced without difficulty. They were amazed. Then (my host mom whispered to me what it meant when no one was looking) I translated it into Italian and then English ( I did that part myself) to prove I knew what it meant. They were in awe. I heard people saying to each other “this American is translating dialect!” One lady even started taking pictures of me! I now have a diploma in the dialect of Ascoli Piceno.

Also a few weekends ago I took a day trip to Florence. I had an amazing time! I went with my current host mom, my first host mom and two of the other American boys that are here. It is a rather strange sensation to see famous artwork or architecture in person after seeing them a million times in pictures, movies and advertisements. I have also realized they are never how you expect them to be. I also got a picture with one of those guys that looks like a marble statue. Those guys always freak me out, but I took a picture with him anyways. My predictions were right, it was kind of creepy. There was also a scientology booth set up in the middle of a piazza and one of the boys took a test to see if he is the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, but the cool part was that he did it in Italian. It is still really weird for me to think I am speaking another language. Now that Italian no longer sounds like gibberish, it is weird to think that a few months ago when I stepped off the plane that I didn’t understand any of it. I am not sure how long it will take for this to stop feeling like a dream.

I would have to say the weirdest moment I have had so far was last week in English class. The 5th year classes here study some of the same literature that we study in English class at home, so I normally read out loud for the class to help them hear how a native speaker would read it. This particular day my Italian was spot on, I was understanding everything and responding without any trouble or pauses. The teacher asked me to read one of the passages from their textbook and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read something in English! I was pronouncing English words as if they were Italian and stumbling over them. The best part was that this particular class was a little intimidated by me, like they felt the need to speak in English with me and after this they realized my English isn’t perfect either and that I prefer speaking to them in Italian. Now they are a lot friendlier to me and actually speak to me in Italian when I speak to them in Italian. We now help each other with the languages instead of speak poorly in the opposite language with each other.

Moments like these, where I realize it is just easier for me to speak in Italian, are moments that make an exchange year what it is. Not only are we learning a new language and culture, but we are learning about ourselves and where we come from. I never would have imagined I would learn so much about America while living in Italy. I view life and the world in a new a way now, not different, just a little modified.

May 21 Journal

 Well the month of April was a blur (a very exciting, time of my life blur) and I am not sure when May snuck up on me, but here I am, a little more than 4 weeks left in my exchange. I don’t know if I want this to end. I keep thinking that my emotions can’t get any more confusing and mixed, but somehow they always do. I am at this crossroads in my life (there happen to be several roads) and I am not sure which road will lead me where I want to be. Part of me wants to be home so badly and to be with my friends and family, but I also know that life won’t be the same when I come home. Part of me is so ready to start college in the fall and take that next huge step in my life. But a big part of me isn’t ready to leave Italy. I can’t imagine not living here anymore, not seeing these people everyday, not eating pasta everyday, not speaking Italian everyday. I don’t feel I have done everything there is to be done, seen everything there is to be seen, not learned everything there is to learn (there are a lot of verb conjugations). A year seems like a really long time, but it feels like the blink of an eye.

My world wind of traveling started April 1 and didn’t end until April 30. My first trip was a week in Prague with two of the 5th year classes from my school. Prague is an amazingly pretty city, very fairytale like. The food, not so good. So it was decided very quickly by my classmates that I was going to be their English translator, funny thing is that no one really understood me when I spoke in English, but they understood the Italians perfectly fine. We devised a system though where I would translate and then they word turn around and say word for word what I just said. I may speak “the language of the world” but I have an accent that no one understands. In that week I also single handedly got about 75% of my classmates addicted to Subway and Starbucks.

When I got home from Prague our school was hosting Danish students for a little over a week because my class participated in an exchange to Denmark. After spending a few days with the Danish students (who are awesome by the way) my family arrived in Italy. It was so great to see my family again, but I was really nervous that it might be strange after not seeing them for over 7 months. It wasn’t weird though. Nothing really changed except my brother is now taller than me. We spent 9 days traveling through Italy, seeing all the major cities and tourist attractions. It was really fun to actually be a tacky tourist. I definitely saw the cities in a different light than I did with my host families.

The best part of the month was my trip to Denmark with my class and another class on a week long exchange. This trip was easily one of the best weeks of my life. The trip was really special for me because I got to see my friend Anette. She did a short 3 month exchange in Cremona with another program and she is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Originally I was supposed to stay with her, but some complications arose and I ended up staying with another girl, Sabine, and I am so happy that I did because I connected with her and her family so well in just a week that I feel like not only do I have an American family and two Italian families, but also a Danish family.

Besides meeting awesome people, learning about another new culture and falling in love with Denmark, I had the unique experience of watching 40 or so Italians get thrown into a culture extremely different than their own and see their reactions. (Denmark is surprisingly similar to America.) After spending 8 months here learning about the Italians and their culture, it was really interesting to see how they reacted. A funny thing I noticed was that the exchange student on the trip (three Americans) were able to say ok that will weird out the Italians and then like 2 minutes later “It was so strange that…..” After a couple days they were starting to get used to everything and they would speak to us about the differences and all of them slowly started to realize what we have been going through for the past 8 months. They experienced homesickness (it was the first time away from their parents for a lot of them), a language barrier, new foods, new people and a new culture. All of the things that every exchange student experiences. And in those few days we connected with our classmates in a new deeper way and it finally felt like they really accepted us into their culture and into their lives and finally understood why we are here and what we are doing.

Every day I feel more a part of the culture, more comfortable, more like I belong here and less and less ready to say goodbye to Italy. In 32 days when I step on the plane to Jacksonville I will leave an enormous part of me here, but I will always hold the people I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had in a very special place in my heart.

June 11 Journal

 I have less than two weeks left in Italy and well to be honest I am freaking out a little. I am not sure where the year has gone and when I talk to the new outbounds and see the pictures from their orientations I am extremely jealous because they are embarking on their year and mine is rapidly coming to an end. The fact that I am going home has finally started to hit me this week. Hearing the phrase, “This may be the last time I see you” is beginning to pop up everywhere and I’m not prepared. I think that most of us were the best prepared possible to come over here and start our new lives, but nothing can prepare you for having to say goodbye to it.

The past few weeks I have gotten to travel around Italy and see a few more cities that I still haven’t seen and a few that I have. The new cities were Le Cinque Terre and Tivoli. Two places I highly recommend going. Both are beautiful.

So I know I am writing a journal sooner than I normally do, but I had some inspiration tonight and I wanted to share with you how small the world really is.

Flash to earlier tonight…. I was walking through the piazza with one of the other American exchange students after enjoying some delicious sushi and we notice a youth orchestra (I think that’s what they are), putting away all their equipment. All of a sudden we heard them speaking English and realized they were Americans, so what did we do? Go talk to them of course! I honestly expected them to think we were crazy, but they seemed as excited as we were to see other Americans. As we were talking to all of them I found out they were from Florida! So at this point I was extremely thrilled to see people from my home state and what happens? A guy walked up to us and introduced himself and asked if we were exchange students and we said yes. Then he asked really hopeful if we were with Rotary. It just so happens that I met Kyle and Katie tonight, two of the new outbounds going to Taiwan and Poland. How crazy is that!?!?! I know, I know, I couldn’t contain my excitement either. So of course I talked to them and hung for a few minutes before they had to go back to their hotel and we talked about exchange and how excited they are and what it's like to go live in another country. This was the moment that it really hit me that my year is practically over and I am about to close this chapter of my life forever and leaving is even scarier than when I came, because this time I won’t have the guarantee of a return ticket in my hand to come home.

To all the new outbounds: I am extremely jealous of all of you because I would give anything to be at that point in my exchange again. Don’t take a second of it for granted, because you will blink and all of a sudden it will be time to leave the country that has become your new home and the people that have become your new family.