My name is Michelle McCoy and thanks to Rotary, I will be spending nearly a year in Sweden. I am 18 years old, a senior in high school, and have lived in Gainesville, Florida my entire life. This upcoming year will be the first year of my life without awful humidity, Gator football madness, and my amazing friends and family. Here, I live with my mom, dad, 14 year old sister, Taylor, and our two dogs, Licorice and Pepper.
School keeps me very busy, but I also find time to volunteer at a hospital, take voice lessons, and work as an after school counselor with preschoolers and kindergarteners. When I’m not busy with all of the above, I love to read, be with my friends, play with my dogs, go to the gym, listen to music, and as of lately, practice my Svenska.
I’m going to miss all of my friends and family while I am away, but I promise to keep in touch and I know I’ll be back before they even realize I’m gone. I also want to send my best wishes to all of the other 07-08 outbounds who are undoubtedly going to have the most amazing, most unforgettable year of their lives!
Sweden, I have heard nothing but positive things about you and absolutely cannot wait to meet all of the freezing cold adventure you have waiting for me ;)
August 28 Journal
Months ago, I would've told you that I couldn't wait to write journal entries about my exchange year for everyone to read. However, right now, I find myself completely unsure of how to sum up the past four weeks of my life. Laura, Noah, Bristol, all of the other outbounds have made it seem so simple. I hope mine will do my experiences justice.
Tonight, I'm writing my first entry in my Rotary journal from Sweden and couldn't be happier about it. After 6 months of planning, I'm here. I'm experiencing a completely new culture first hand. I'm having to adapt to different foods, a different language, and completely different weather for the first time in my life. My mind is constantly stimulated and I can hardly believe that Sunday was my one month anniversary with Sverige.
On July 25, I gave a teary goodbye to everyone and everything around me and headed for the Jacksonville airport. It was there I gave my final hugs and kisses and assured my mother that I would survive the year and that it wasn't nessecary for her to completely cry her eyes out in public. I boarded my flight alone, but quickly found myself surrounded by a talkative family of 14. I had about a million thoughts running through my brain and wasn't exactly in the right state to appreciate what 12 kids did for extracurricular activities, but I put on my RPS and took it all in ;) I arrived in Detroit and found Caitlin and 6 other exchange students who were wasting no time boarding the plane. We realized that our seats were scattered all over the plane, but in no time we were redistributing ourselves towards the back. Caitlin's journal was correct when she mentioned flying for 7 hours by herself, but she forgot one tiny detail: After take off, I went to tell her there were more empty seats in the back, only to find her completley unconcious, face down on the tray in front of her (If you ask me, the 7 of us in the back with severe insomnia were having a much harder time). We talked nearly the entire flight, and we all agreed that we were in complete denial of actually being on a plane heading overseas for an entire year. 22 hours after I left Jacksonville, I landed at the Gothenburg airport, my final destination. There were only 2 other exhausted, anxious, still-completely-in-denial exchange students with me at this point, but we donned our Rotary blazers and stepped off of the airplane together. We got our luggage and headed for the crowd of smiling faces waiting at the arrival gate. I quickly scanned each person, searching for the people I'd seen in only two photographs. After what seemed like the longest 30 seconds of my life, I found them. I instantly ran into the arms of Hettan and Tomas, my host parents for the first half of my exchange. They greeted me with flags and smiles and (thank God) a luggage cart. We exited the airport and I felt my first gust of Swedish wind. It felt perfect on my warm, extremely nervous skin and was just the convincing factor I needed to assure myself that I was indeed beginning my very own exchange year.
Two days after I arrived in Sweden I met my host brother, Philip. We hit it off right away, instantly forming a brother-sister connection. He was preparing for his own exchange year to Idaho, yet he still found the time to show me the town, introduce me to friends, and translate for me. He never complained about my tagging along and was always patient when I didn't understand something. One Sunday afternoon, he walked me to a statue where I'd planned to meet some of the other local exchange students. He jokingly asked if I needed him to stay and hold my hand throughout the day; naturally, I shook my head and laughed it off, but I really did find myself wishing that Philip was staying and that he could walk me through my exchange year step by step. After I gave him a hug goodbye and came face to face with the group of 10 girls from all over the world, I knew that I had to put on my bravest face, and I knew that no one was going to go through this year step by step but me. Luckily, the girls were nothing but relief, as they were riding on the same emotional rollercoaster I was. We'd come from the USA, Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and Brazil, each girl with a completely different background than the one sitting next to her, yet we found a comforting connection in each other at that table in Göteborg and spent hours together that I'll never forget.
I started school last week and so far, things are going wonderfully. I'm taking classes that I'm interested in (or should I say, will be interested in once I can understand what's going on) and everyone is extremely friendly and helpful. I even got an invite to the city for coffee yesterday :) I have to remind my classmates to speak to me in Swedish, but they either continue to speak in English anyway, or I have no clue what they're saying, so it's sort of a lose-lose situation. I'm the only exchange student in the school, so (it seems) teachers and students are always very excited to "finally" meet me. I've become quite the celebrity, if I do say so myself.
One thing Caitlin was right about, was that this really is like becoming a child again. In America, I had my own car and could drive hours away from Gainesville all by myself, but here, I need someone to show me how to take the bus 15 minutes from my house. I need someone to sit and read childrens' books with me and correct my pronunciation. There are books all over my house that I'm dying to read and I often wonder when I'll be able to. I know with lots of time and hard work the language will come to me, I only wish it would come sooner! I had my first dream in Swedish the other night though, and that has to be a step in the right direction, ja?
I'm so proud of the other outbounds, as I now know how unbelievably hard being an exchange student can be. I can't wait to keep up with everyone's journals and read about their brand new, super exciting lives. It's stressful, it's challenging, but each time I can order food without the cashier speaking in English, I'm rewarded with a feeling I could never feel in Florida. My life has already changed in so many ways after only one month, and I can't wait to see what memories the next 11 months of school, traveling, new friends, possible visitors, parties, and language learning will create.
Until the next entry,
October 15 Journal
I’m close to being a quarter of the way through my exchange year, yet I still find myself needing the occasional reminder that I’m not in Gainesville, that I’m actually miles away and 6 hours ahead. I check the website regularly to check up on the journals, and I’m so proud of everyone… I’m completely amazed by the inbound and outbound entries I’ve read so far. Rev took the words right out of my mouth when he said he missed Southern hospitality, Michelle’s deeply philosophical entries continue to intrigue me, and hearing that Taylor made “100 friends right off the bat” on his first day of school doesn’t surprise me at all.
My birthday was one month ago, and in true Swedish fashion I was awoken by my host parents entering my room, singing and carrying trays of breakfast foods and presents. During the weeks leading up to my birthday I was nervous that none of my Swedish friends would care to celebrate with me, but shortly after my birthday dinner, I was elated to find almost twenty of my Swedish schoolmates gathering outside my door, preparing to greet me in song. They surprised me with tickets to a concert I’d been dying to find a way to, and while I didn’t want to overreact --especially with 40 eyes on me-- I honestly could have cried. We wasted no time devouring the delicious cakes prepared by my family and sat around the table laughing our heads off for hours. My Rotary counselor stopped by as well, presenting me with my very own Swedish cookbook. While I know kitchens near and far trembled with fear as I flipped through the pages, I am now determined to master the art of cooking at least one delicious Swedish meal for my friends and family in Florida.
My Swedish is improving everyday and my host parents deserve all of the thanks in the world for it. They’re the ones who sit with me for hour long dinners and remind me what words go where, the many ways to pluralize nouns, and that making someone en kort (a card) and making someone en kött (a meat) are two completely different activities. I’m just now beginning my Swedish language course and I’m so excited to continue learning about this language, only now with some structure. I can’t help but stare in amazement at how Swedish words smoothly pour out of everyone’s mouths, while mine get stuck behind my heavy tongue that can’t seem to make the right sounds. I’m working at it, I know I’m getting it, but I worry that by the time I finally get it down every exchange student’s fear will be coming true… I’ll be going home. I keep trying to think positively though, looking at how far I’ve come since I first got here, how if I keep working hard, keep minimizing my use of English (which is probably becoming more and more apparent as I continue to write entries), I will become fluent. Swedish will be checked off of my list of languages to master.
Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, and I know I’ll be missing my family more than usual as the holiday approaches. Each year we take turns saying what we’re thankful for, and it’s unfortunate that this year, the year I’m thankful for my encouraging, supportive, loving, wonderful family more than ever, I won’t be able to say it at the dinner table.
My fall break is coming up, but unlike my friends going to Paris and Copenhagen, I shall remain here. My host parents will be in South Africa (I’ve given up hoping for my surprise extra ticket), and how I’ll be able to restrict myself from breaking all 4 D’s has yet to be determined. We’ll just have to wait until the next entry to find out, won’t we?
Thanks for stopping by ;)
January 17 Journal
After Christmas, my host family took me on my very first ski trip, 6 hours north of Gothenburg. I spent most of my first day bottom-up on the kiddie slope, but by the end of the second day I was gliding downhill with the big boys. For those of you who have pictures of me being lowered from the ropes course at Camp Montgomery, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I HATED the chair lift. I went on it once and only once, and then remained on the anchor lift for the remainder of our stay.
One week after returning from our trip, I packed my bags and relocated to my second host family. Leaving the Hedbergs was no easy task. Like I’ve said before, coming here meant becoming a child again, and it was them who re-raised me. I truly owe them ett tusen tackar… But I suppose one is never done growing up, and I’m excited to be taught, to teach, and to create new, exciting memories with the Handans.
The Handans moved here from Bosnia 14 years ago, so I’m sort of getting a 2-for-1 culture deal over here. They continue to cook Bosnian food, and occasionally I’ll catch them speaking Bosniska on the phone. The whole family loves to exercise -- My host dad, Fikret, is a handball coach, and my host sister, Enna, is a very devoted basketball player (she’s actually looking into playing on a college team in the US or Canada next year). My host mom, Jasmina, has asked me about going to a few aerobics classes with her, so with that on top of my own exercise routine, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble keeping the ‘Foreign Exchange 15’ off. Fikiret loves giving high fives, but I don’t think he realizes how strong he is, because I’m nearly thrown backwards every time he gives me one. Unlike my host mom and host sister, he only speaks a few words of English, which can make things complicated when I don’t know how to express myself in Swedish. A lot of our conversations end in laughter, and as amusing as they can be, I’m longing for that lengthy conversation where we understand each other completely, without the use of props or body language.
As hard as it can get, I’m so proud of how much Swedish I’ve learned since I first got here, and I’m sure a lot of the other outbounds feel the same way. I can understand so much of what is said to me, sometimes without even thinking about it. I can read and translate into English easily, but explaining the grammar and why certain words go where is an area that needs improvement. When speaking, my American English accent is terribly obvious, but as long as I get my point across, I’m happy. Jasmina is sitting next to me right now and insisting that I tell you all , “Jag pratar bara svenska nu. Jag glömde engelska,” or in other words, “I speak only Swedish now. I’ve forgotten English.” And while that may not be completely true, she has no idea how much the encouragement from others motivates me to continue learning and trying with the confidence that I can achieve fluency by the end of my year.
I’m celebrating my 6 month anniversary with Sweden very soon, and I can’t believe it’s already here. I have so much more planned for the spring than I did in the fall, and I know that in the blink of an eye I’ll be heading home. I’m looking forward to my life back in Florida, but for now I’m content with being in Sweden, sitting next to Jasmina, sipping on a warm cup of tea.
Thanks for taking the time to check on my year – Do stop by again J
April 2 Journal
Spring is finally here, and this time, I hope it's for real. We had a few weeks of sunny weather, blue skies, and little flowers blooming in the grass, but then, overnight, my area was drenched in more snow than I'd seen here all year. After two weeks the majority has melted away, and as gorgeous as it was, I'm hoping that was the last of it.
I have only three weeks until my class trip and could not be more excited. After the worst winter experience of my life, I am beyond ready to cram myself onto a bus with my schoolmates, and head to Berlin, Split, and Prague. I've only seen the beaches of Croatia online, but from what I've seen and heard from people who have been there, it is one of the most beautiful places on this here planet Earth. Be expecting lots of pictures, people. It's looking like it'll be the trip of a lifetime.
Over påsklovet (Easter break), I traveled across the country to Stockholm, the capital, and was hosted by the ever-so-wonderful, Caitlin Wills. She showed me the sights, like the Royal Castle and the National Museum, and also introduced me to some of the exchange students in her district. It was awesome to be around someone who completely understood where I was from in terms of culture and climate; I was a little sad to leave her. Now I'm just waiting for Caitlin and the rest of her district to head down here for a visit.
When I boarded the train back to Gothenburg, I realized that it had been overbooked, and found a place to stand towards the back with a few other unlucky passengers. The man next to me quietly asked if I could read his ticket and see if there was a seat number on it; although I was confused as to why a grown man was asking me to read his ticket to him, I did, and assured him that he, like the rest of us, had no assigned seat. He went on to explain that while he could speak Swedish (it was then I picked up on his accent), he was unable to read or write. We made small talk for a few minutes, gave a brief description of ourselves, until I excused myself to head towards the train's restaurant.
I sat myself at a table across from a man, feverishly working on his laptop, only stopping to slightly chuckle at the stack of postcards I was scribbling on. At one point, he asked me what was being said over the intercom. He smiled as he told me he wasn't Swedish and his Swedish wasn't very good, so I leaned over and told him it was alright because I wasn't Swedish either. He completely lit up at my response, and by the way he relaxed his posture, I could tell he was more comfortable talking to me. He excitedly asked where I was from, and after I told him and asked the same question, he told me he was from Iraq. We laughed at the irony of us sharing a table together, recognizing that whatever political turmoil was occurring outside of the train windows, it didn't change the fact that we were both new in Sweden, adjusting to the weather, cultural customs, and the language. He explained to me he had to leave his job as a music teacher in Baghdad as politely and respectfully as he could, without creating any awkward tension. Throughout our moments of silence, I began to think about how this man, or the man who couldn't read, or even my host family -refugees from former Yugoslavia- think of me. I ran down the mental list of everything I've ever complained about here (homesickness, the food, the weather)... And then the truth hit me: I don't have the slightest clue about hardship. I'm someone whose parents paid for an amazing year in Europe, who learned Swedish just for the hell of it, who is going home to a healthy family, wonderful friends, and an education. I'm not someone who had no other choice. I'm not someone who has to learn Swedish as a means of survival, who has no clue when they'll be able to see their family again. I'm not someone who hopes that they'll be able to find a job half as good as the one they left in their home country. And then, like Plato was whispering it into my ear, all I could think was, 'Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.' It was like it was on repeat. I couldn't help but say it over and over in my head while talking to that man.
So today, I challenge all of you - exchange students, parents, Rotarians - to take the extra step into being especially nice to someone. It just might make their day, or yours.
I'll leave you with another quote I like:
''Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness.” - Mother Teresa (Note: 'God' = whatever/whomever you believe :) )
With three and a half months left,
June 9 Journal
'Promise me you'll never forget me, because if I thought you would, I'd never leave.'
Last month I took my first ever trip around mainland Europe with my school. We traveled to Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, and Czech. Bosnia was my favorite, particularly because of the personal ties I had with the country, given my second host family's past. It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. The city of Mostar sits in a valley, with creeks and streams flowing everywhere you turn. I couldn't imagine how, in 1993, anyone could've been less than loving in a place so breathtaking. I began the trip satisfied with my group of five friends, but quickly grew to know almost all 60 kids on the trip. By the end, I felt like I could talk to anyone. We could hang out on the beach, go out for a drink, sit on the bus together...
Rotary recently planned a 'food and bath weekend' for my district at a pool house in Skene. We'd all heard the stories from former exchange students: that it was 'the naked weekend', the weekend where you were expected to bare all as a final test of just how much you'd adapted to the Swedish culture. The pool house was ours for the whole night, so we didn't have to worry about strangers seeing us (aside from the few who were working the place), and candle light kept the room dimly lit, which I think helped those less confident ones in the beginning. In the sauna, we were given a salt scrub, a honey wash, and ice to rub all over ourselves, and in between, we rinsed in the pool. At one point, they brought out body paints, and while some went crazy painting themselves as hobos and clowns, others spent the hour painting some of the most intricate, lovely designs on another's naked body. To be that close, that comfortable and intimate with someone, really showed the amount of trust and love we have for one another as a district, as a family... I tried to think of what Al's reaction would be, had he entered a room and found 16 naked teenagers body painting, and no matter how I replayed the scenario, no one got out alive ;)
I had my second high school graduation last week, and it was without a doubt, the best day of my year. Everything I left Florida hoping to find was upon me - my families, exchange student friends, Swedish friends, Swedish... We had a champagne breakfast, watched our teachers sing songs and make fools of themselves, ran out into a screaming crowd like rock stars, rode around the city on a float for hours, splashed around in Gothenburg's biggest fountain, then partied all night long. It was the first time all year I didn't feel like 'the exchange student.' I was me, Michelle, just another kid in the class, another friend in the group, totally normal, for the first time in months.
I have no idea when this life of mine came together over here -- How a country went from being so... foreign, to being my home, how a group of complete strangers became my family, or how Swedish became my second language, which I now read in, think in, and dream in.
Just like I was never completely ready to leave Florida, I don't think I'll ever be completely ready to leave Sweden. I'll always be wishing for the one extra day, the one extra hour to be with the people and language I love. I applaud those who have done it, because God only knows how I'll be able to.
I have two and a half weeks in Sweden, then two and a half weeks of EuroTour (no, I will NOT contain my excitement!!!), followed by two days of packing and lots of crying before heading back to Florida. My host mom just came in and saw what I was writing, noticed the box of stuff I'm sending home on the floor, and gave me a huge hug, letting me cry into her arms for a minute, just like my mom would've done... How I could ever thank these people, and let them know just everything they've done for me, is unfathomable. I can only hope, that somewhere in their hearts, they know that I haven't taken for granted one second of the love they've given me.
This is the end. And it's scary and it's real and it's here. I'm trying to remain optimistic, psyching myself up for new adventures like college and moving out, but something tells me my life won't ever feel completely right again.
I have so much to do, so many people to see... I can't spend another minute on this computer.
You'll have me soon, Florida. I look forward to seeing you.