Hello! I'm Gail Fish and a senior at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida. I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and moved to Ocala, Florida when I was one year old. I have lived in Gainesville, Florida since I was ten with my sister, mother, four cats, and a dog. My father lives in Ocala, Florida and I see him quite frequently as well.
One of my main interests is learning languages. Having studied Spanish, German, and Chinese during my high school career, I am very excited that I have the opportunity to become fully immersed in another language and culture. In regards to language, I have participated in the Florida State Spanish Conference since my freshmen year of high school. It is a statewide competition where students from all around the state give speeches, recite poems, and act in plays in Spanish. Some of my other hobbies and interests include reading, biking, spending time with friends, politics, and history.
I have looked at the Rotary Youth Exchange program for the past two-and-a-half years. Even after reading the exchange journals religiously, talking with other exchange students, and considering this for so long, it still feels like a dream. I don't think it will hit me what I am getting into until the moment I step off the plane in my host country. Even so, I am extremely excited and grateful to be given such an amazing opportunity.
August 27 Journal
How to describe my first three weeks in Austria? A formidable task indeed. But I will do my best. Someone wise once said the best place to begin is at the beginning. But even that is a little tricky to pin down. Rotary was right when they said this was a three year program. But talking about the past year would probably make this journal a bit too long…
My last two nights in the United States were not at home in Gainesville- but rather a hotel with both my parents and my sister in Jacksonville. The Welcome Home Dinner was two days before my flight and my flight was quite early in the morning, so we just stayed there. Needless to say, the cramped quarters made me that much more excited to leave.
Early on August 4th, we arrived at the Jacksonville Airport. There was a slight scare when they said that they originally couldn't find my ticket and then that it was cancelled for non payment. But about 30 minutes later, the situation worked itself out and I was on my way. Aside from that, the flights went fairly smoothly. A major jolt of excitement for me was on the long flight from Chicago to München (Munich). It was about 5am in Europe and I had a window seat. I could see the city lights, for the first time, of Europe. I was actually going to be here. Here for a whole year and I could not wait! I landed in Linz (as the only American on a small plane full of scouts from Hong Kong touring Europe plus a few Germans and Austrians) a bit earlier than expected. So when my host mom and sister came, complete with the 'Welcome in Austria' banner, I was able to respond and ask a few questions in understandable German and not be frozen, mouth hanging open, and completely lost.
My first week here I mostly spent time with my host sister, Yvonne. She is sixteen and started her exchange in Washington State on the 19th of August. My city here is Pinsdorf and we live right near Gmunden on the Traunsee (this really pretty lake) so I went there a few times- and even got slightly sunburned. I met some of her friends and my future classmates as well. So now I feel less nervous about school starting and feel like I can make friends here fairly quickly. One of the days, my host brother Andre- who is 28 and lives in another town- took Yvonne and me to this 'Abenteuerpark' in Gröbming in Styria. It's a little bit tough to explain. At this park there's all these ziplines and obstacle course type things attached to the ziplines and trees. We wore harnesses and got to climb some of these. After doing a few of the easier courses, we tried for the hardest one they offered. Near the end it was too difficult to do the course the correct way, so I basically dragged myself along, being held up only by the harness and climbing clip. While I was up there, I thought about how I was putting so much trust in these little safety devices (made in Europe). However, I was not scared. In fact I was having a great time- even at the tough part of the course. Later, I thought about how it mirrored my exchange. I was putting so much trust in my Austrian host family, Rotary, and the Austrian way of life- but having a wonderful time along the way- wanting to go back for more.
After this first eventful week, I spent two weeks at language camp. That was in Altmünster so only about fifteen minutes away from my host family's house. There were over 50 other new exchange students at the camp from all over the world. Although, ironically enough, I spoke so much not-German at the German language camp than I did my first week. I had taken Spanish in school, so I was able to talk a lot with the Spanish-speakers as well as the English speakers. At language camp I was in the most advanced class. It was very grammar intensive. All the teachers are very nice and many were exchange students, so they could relate to what we were going through. And they're very fun and like to joke with us too. On Saturday, our classes went until noon and we got to see the rebounds- Austrians who just got back from their exchanges all around the world. Then on Sunday, the camp went to Hallstatt for the day! For those of you who don't know Hallstatt, it was a major salt mining village… and it's the village that's on nearly every picture one sees of Austria. We toured the salt mines there and got to walk around town. There were mostly tourists in Hallstatt and not much salt mining anymore. But it did not have an overcrowded, and 'fake' feel to it at all. I definitely want to go back really badly. During the two weeks we also walked all around Altmünster, getting to know the city and the people. We always stopped at the gas station (which was much cleaner and smaller than most in the United States) to get our chocolate fix. We passed by a bicycle store called 'Armadillos Bikes and Muffins' whenever we could (yes, it sometimes did sell muffins- but no armadillos), and we definitely bonded as a group of exchange students.
I've only been back at my host family's house a few days. On one of the days I went into Gmunden and walked down the Traun River. Years and years before, a poet wrote something along the very same river, that poem was posted on a sign for everyone who passes to sit and read. The poem talked about how the river always flows forward and keeps moving. It says that looking into it can help one through being without a loved one or loved ones, and dealing with being without something or someone. I have not felt much homesickness yet, but if or when I do, I'd love to come back to this spot. I find it quite interesting that someone, 160 years before, looking at the same spot on the river, stood where I will stand, thinking the same thoughts about moving onward. Something like that can really make one empathize with others in the world- whether from their home town, a world away, or someone they will never meet.
Perhaps that's what exchange is all about, being able to empathize with people and communicate across continents. Maybe, in the beginning, the communication is awkward and with lots of acting and pointing. It's possible that your best 'friends' at first are the five and thirteen-year-old neighbors who are eager for a new playmate in a game of tag (translated as 'catch' in German). But either way, one always moves forward, eager for whatever comes next. Thank you Rotary for 'making dreams real'!
September 21 Journal
It's hard to believe I've been here for almost two months. Sometimes, with the weather like a Florida November, it seems like longer. Other times, it seems like just yesterday I fumbled with the windows my second day here, wondering just how to work them.
It is also difficult to tell which 'stage' I am at in exchange. Am I still enjoying a happy honeymoon? Perhaps I am getting used to everything. Maybe those moments of nostalgia and craving food I hardly ate in Florida, and curiosity of what I'd be doing back home or in another country, are signs of homesickness.
I'm still wide eyed and in wonder of some things around Austria - as if I'm experiencing it all for the first time. I still discreetly 'skate' and spin across the school floor in slippers since we don't wear normal shoes inside despite being there for two weeks. I never get tired of the idle babblings of the stream next to my house. Perhaps it's meant to be peaceful, but instead I grin rather stupidly and lean in closer to hear it better. The aromas of the fresh soups my host mom makes after school are still inviting and welcoming. With so many different soups, most of the time it's the first time trying the day's specific recipe. On the street corner one can buy newspapers. Yet unlike in the United States, they are not in a large metal box that won't open unless one puts in money. Instead, one takes newspapers out of a little flimsy plastic folder, and there's a little box where one can put in money. I love this feeling of trust here.
Other times, I still feel like such an outsider. I see the strange looks of curiosity and disgust on my classmates' faces when I describe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When I felt a strong urge to run and look out the window to see the snow that was on the top of the Traunstein (the big mountain near me) the others barely turned their heads. Sometimes I cannot help but almost laugh when I catch the physics teacher say, in a strong Upper Austrian accent, 'Did everyone understand that?' and point to a long equation on the board I mindlessly copied down. I know people speak to me in 'Hochdeutsch' or High German instead of dialect/ Mundart that they normally use, because I don't understand enough yet.
Some things hardly seemed to change at all from Florida. Everyday, I hear a stampede of four cats running through the house, chasing each other and real or imaginary creatures. I see the same rude words in English written on the back of a bus seat. I hear classmates grumble about homework. A bottle of Tabasco sauce still sits on the kitchen table at meal times.
Still at other times, I feel like I truly belong, like I am becoming Austrian myself. After hearing my host mom say how the cloudy, dreary weather makes her feel unmotivated to do anything, I start blaming my own mild laziness at times on that same weather. I send text messages back and forth all in German. I understand the 'Fakt des Tages' (fact of the day) that students write on the board in our classroom in the morning without consulting my dictionary. My host parents ask me to type up and print something on the computer or feed the cats or do other chores around the house, treating me no longer like a 'guest'. When I am out on weekends, I see my classmates and remember their names and recognize other people too. I know that on the weekends, we are probably going to my host brother's and his girlfriend's house way out in the country where we will chat, drink coffee, wear house shoes, and pass huge cornfields on the way there. Perhaps we'll see his girlfriend's parents who live right next door, but most likely not. It is a welcome routine that I'm already so used to.
Perhaps I am just as confused as ever about what 'stage' I am at on exchange. Maybe I will never know exactly how I feel about home, here, my ability to speak German, or anything else. I do know one thing though, despite curiosity about what I'd be doing elsewhere, doing exchange is one of the best decisions I ever made. I am guessing that RYE-Florida is talking to schools around the state now - or will very soon. So to all you curious students who may have stumbled across this page, don't be afraid to go to an informational meeting or secretly stalk more of these journals. You won't regret it!
November 25 Journal
I've been here over a quarter year already- almost a third of a year. I guess I'll have to play 'catch up' in this journal. A fair warning to the readers: there will almost certainly be a grammatical error or two- or at least strangely constructed sentences.
At the end of September, my host family took a day trip up to the Czech Republic- a two hour drive. We did not stay very long and we were right on the Austrian border. I love how everything seems so close here! My host parents don't know any Czech and spoke German the whole time- and me too. I never speak in English aloud here, except in English class three times a week. Speaking German in another country just seems much more natural to me now.
In the Czech Republic we were greeted with perhaps the most international sight I could imagine. There were people from Vietnam, speaking in German to Austrians trying to sell clothing (cheaper than in Austria). The clothing was made in China and had words like 'Los Angeles' across the front.
In school, the teachers are pretty lenient on me for doing schoolwork since I already graduated in the States. Therefore, most of the school work I do is more translating and picking out words to learn than some of the actual assignments. However, I do help out a lot in English and sometimes I help out in other English classes, pretending that I know absolutely no German. In the last speech I gave about the American School System, I kept almost saying the wrong English word. I wanted to say 'students become letter grades' because the German word 'bekommen' means 'to get'!
One of my favorite things about the school week is Friday afternoons. Our classes get out an hour early, and then we have two hours free before gym class. Every Friday, my classmates and I walk over to the mall right near our school and buy nice, healthy, and fairly cheap food right in the supermarket there (yes, supermarkets are often in malls). Then we all get to chat together for much longer than the short breaks between classes.
I was in a dance course here as well on Thursday evenings for ten weeks. Most of the students are in the class below me- except for two rebounds in my class that were in America last year, and my Australian 'oldie' who came here in January. I get to learn the Waltz, cha-cha, and lots of other dances. Sometimes we four wear silly costumes or other outfits to the course. It's pretty fun.
In mid October we had a Rotary weekend in Vienna with over 80 exchange students in Austria AND the exchange students in Croatia- including Emily! Vienna was a bit different than I imagined, but wonderful nonetheless. Some parts just seemed so surreal. When walking through the palace it was so hard to imagine that just a few feet away from me, it was HERE where Franz Josef began his work day, right over there where important people from a bygone era listened to Mozart's latest and greatest compositions or danced to Strauss's waltzes. In early December we're going back to Vienna to meet the president of Rotary- and then later in December we have a Salzburg weekend. I can't wait!
I thought I would miss Halloween a lot this year- I did not know if people really celebrated it in Austria or where I lived. But, lo and behold, on Halloween so many kids were sporting costumes of all kinds. One of my classmates had a Halloween party as well- and invited the whole class. I really like that concept; I think it makes people feel less left out if everyone in the class goes. However, not a lot of older people dress up for Halloween. There were maybe five or six of us in costumes there. Nevertheless, it was great.
As I sit here writing these last few paragraphs, I'm hit with a different kind of homesickness. Something I call 'Soest'sick. For ten days I visited a friend in Soest, Germany. She was an exchange student for a semester last year in Florida. I stayed with her family that seems to fit me perfectly and even went to school with my friend- sometimes in her classes, sometimes in her exchange sister's (from the Faroe Islands) classes. With her family we visited the cities of Paderborn and Münster. It was so amazing seeing all the medieval (and medieval style) buildings- most of the buildings in Austria are more baroque or baroque style. I got to meet so many more great people- many who were former exchange students themselves. I felt re-inspired to REALLY, REALLY learn German by more than just speaking it all the time. I'm proud to say that I finished two German books there that were over 100 pages long each. I don't deny that I shed a few tears at the train station at having to leave them. (Luckily I met a nice Brazilian expat on the train and she gave me a hug.)
On my last Friday there, I saw snow for the second time in my life. I was sitting in the exchange sister's history class (discussing the beginning of the ''Cold'' War) when there was this bright white stuff floating elegantly, and slightly sideways to the ground below. I honestly could not stay sitting down in the class- I was like a six-year-old all over again. 'Schneee!!' I kept saying to myself, and eventually whispering to my new friend. Even though in Austria there's WAY more snow than there was in Germany, that first moment stands out to me the most.
Things are going to change soon here in Austria (perhaps the half a foot or more of snow is a sign of that) and I'm ready for whatever comes my way. Thank you so much, Rotary, for giving me this opportunity!
December 30 Journal
Servus Liebe Leute!!
I meant to sit down and write this journal a week or two ago (so soon after my last journal) but time kept slipping away- so now I'm right on schedule with the journal writings (hopefully). I must say, so much has changed for me in the last month, I can hardly believe it.
Family: As I sit here writing this in the living room, I see the snow covered Traunstein mountain and lovely lake right outside the window- I'm with another family right now. There were some complications with the last host family; but I hope to have a good relationship with them. So right now I am living with a temporary host family. It's just one person; she did a lot of work with us at the language camp and Rotary weekends in pervious years. It's just temporary that I stay here, but I'm getting to know lots of great people here; my nine year old neighbor is like another little sister or cousin to me. I've also gotten a chance to do more outdoorsy stuff and see more little places while I'm here. Even though I'm super excited about a future Europe tour, I've realized there's so much more left to explore, even 5 months after my arrival, right in my own (Austrian) backyard.
Rotary Weekends in Vienna and Salzburg: This month as been unusually full of Rotary weekends. Normally there is a Salzburg weekend in December and that's our only get-together. However, the Rotary President's Conference was held in Vienna this year from the 5th to the 7th of December. All the exchange students prepared a presentation for the Rotary president and Rotary members all over the world. We sang a Christmasy song in Mundart (Dialect), and a very silly one in English with hand movements, and then a waltz to the Blue Danube from Strauss. The Rotarians were really impressed with us and it was an interesting evening.
The next Rotary weekend was just two weeks later in Salzburg. It was such a beautiful weekend and we saw soo many sights- the fortress, a cemetery, lots of old buildings, Mozart's birth house. This weekend was our last weekend with our 'oldies'- those that came in January; so the reunion at Salzburg was definitely a bittersweet one.
School: Well, things are a little different in school now. For English I'm giving lots of presentations about Florida and other topics to the younger classes. It's a great way to meet new people... and notice how strange my English is becoming. I also am in a German class with 12 and 13 year olds and I absolutely love it. I'm spending more time in school trying to socialize with lots of different students in any class. (Well, actually, I notice I chat WAY more with random people on the bus etc than I ever did in Florida.) I've definitely clicked pretty well with my parallel class. When school starts back again, I might actually switch there instead of staying in my current class.
Holidays: Well, holidays in Austria are a bit different from those back in Florida. There's much more done with the Advent Season in December and the Advent Markets are wonderful here. As December kept creeping closer to its end, it never really felt like Christmas was just around the corner. It was absolutely wonderful but just not Christmas. Most of the Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas day. So on Christmas Eve I went into my room here and waited eagerly for the 'Christkind'. My host mom rung a bell, and there in the living room were all the candles on the tree lit and presents underneath. And on the 25th we drove about 15 minutes from here to see lots of snow - an actual white Christmas!!
2008: Well, this has certainly been an interesting and unforgettable year. I remember at the beginning of it being so optimistic and excited about what was to come - and so clueless about everything. From which country I would be in, how much I would appreciate coffee sent in the mail, the friendships I would make, crazy interesting people I would meet - if only on the bus or train for 5 minutes, the moments where German just 'clicks', amusement on how my English is deteriorating, and just so many other things.
Thank-you Rotary, thank you family, thank you Austria, for making this a possibility for me! To the new outbounds: You will have a crazy year ahead of you; I wish you all the best of luck for 2009!!
March 17 Journal
Wow! It's definitely been a looong time since I last updated my journal entry. Time just keeps flying- even faster than it did at the beginning of exchange. I just got my return date a few days ago- July 14th (Bastille Day by the way). It seems so weird that I'm now counting the dates on how long I'll BE here instead of how long I've already BEEN here.
So much has changed since the last time I wrote my last journal. Back in mid-January I changed host families. Not just host families- but host cities and host schools. Instead of near Gmunden, I am now in a town about 20 minutes outside of Salzburg.
The new host family is a host mom and 13 year old host brother at home. I have an older host sister with a 2 year old son who lives a few minutes away, a host brother in Germany, and another host sister now on exchange. The host mom is really helpful in helping me find things I want to do in the area. I feel really comfortable here and really feel myself. I started doing a lot more cooking at home (the host mom works longer hours), which is fun for me, and the host family really appreciates it. Something interesting about the family- they're really big fans of the United States. Both my host mom and host brother are huge fans of an America skier I never heard of- and even have a US flag inside. My older host sister is completely obsessed with Elvis Presley. It was a little strange at first, but I've gotten used to it.
School was definitely a little bit different than my old one. Little details I thought were 'Austria-wide' in the school system, I've come to learn, vary within each school. Generally in Austria, there is a set 'class' of students that are always together with just a few variations of courses- choosing between Spanish or Latin, for example.
Within each class there's a almost a fixed classroom mentality 'Klassengemeinschaft'. When comparing the other school to this one, this 'Klassengemeinschaft' is a lot more open to new people. There were plenty of nice people in the other class, but everything all together just didn't make it as inviting as here. I finally found my own great little niche in this class and the parallel class and have plenty of people from school to hang out with. It's nice! My Spanish class is also a little bit less advanced than before. Having forgotten so much Spanish while here, it's a great course to refresh everything- and lots more people get to ask me for my help.
Friends: Like I said, I'm definitely finding a group of friends at school. Until Faschings Dienstag (Mardi Gras/ Carnival/ day before Lent), it was 'Ball Season' here, so I ended up going to lots of Balls- which are really fun. Most of the places have 2 parts- one room with older music- often live- for older people/ parents/ whatnot to dance. And then there's another room for more 'normal' dancing for teenagers- who happen to be wearing formal clothing. I've also been sledding, seen movies, and gone into Salzburg on evenings with friends, as well as gone to Salzburg in the evening.
City: I'm currently in Oberalm- a pretty small little village with maybe 8,000 people. It's pretty nice and cozy and not too far from other places. My school is in Hallein with about 25,000 people. More 'medium sized' for Austria and I'm about 20 minutes from Salzburg (about 175,000 people- smaller than most people think!! But still a decent sized city). I'm feeling like I'm getting the best of all worlds in where I'm living, city-wise. It's really great =). I'm picking up on something much more in Salzburg from being here so long.
It's a VERY touristy city- and a fair few people from all over the world living there. I can detect right away a major difference between the tourists there for a week or less, and, say, University students studying abroad and there for some months. One can really detect how people have come, over the course of months, to adapt to a new way of life and culture.
New Activities: I'm getting way more involved in different things in this area. Once a week I have a Capoeira course. This is a Brazilian martial arts/ dance course that's really really interesting. It's really fun, but we're doing is supposedly nowhere near as cool as 'real' Capoeira done by people who've been at it for years. I'm hoping to see that sometime soon. Also while here, I took a 16 hour first aid course. I'm also about to start some babysitting and English tutoring after school. I think it'll be a great way to meet lots of new people- not just Austrian teenagers, but rather more families. I think I'd get to know more of the country better too.
Ski Week: I just finished my Ski Week with all of the exchange students here from the 7th or March until the 14th. It was absolutely amazing! I haven't skied before this week, so I was in the complete beginner class- even so I was noticeably the worst the first few days of lesson. But by the end of the week I finally caught up. This was also our first time for us to meet all of our 'newbies'- the group of exchange students who arrived in January. It was so much fun spending time together, coming up with silly inside jokes, all dancing together after meeting Rotarians at a restaurant, and just being silly. I'm both looking forward and half dreading our next get-together for Eurotour- because it will be our last time together. Hard to fathom, really.
I want to thank EVERYONE and EVERYTHING for this opportunity to spend a year abroad (yes, down to even the pen that wrote down the name of this website some years ago) on youth exchange. I wouldn't give up this chance for anything =).