Hello, my name is Heath Smith, and I am currently 17 years old and a junior at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida.
I moved to Florida about 6 years ago from a relatively small town near Kansas City, Missouri. While all of my extended family still lives in the Midwest, I have made Florida my home with my mom and step-dad (and my brother when he comes home from college).
My interests include art, music, technology, and science (or wherever they may coincide). I am involved in National Art Honors Society at my school, which hosts art shows, and has painted murals around the campus.
My travel has been limited thus far so I am very excited to begin my opportunity as a Rotary exchange student!
August 20 Journal
Well, I have now been here for about three weeks now, and tomorrow is my first real day of school so... time to reflect on my summer here before I forget (and to get Karen, and Nancy off my back :D).
Minus the 7 hour lay over in lovely Memphis International, the traveling was pretty uneventful until Schipol-Amsterdam. After finally finding my gate in the jungle of duty free shops, and Customs, I spoke with the women at the check-in counter about the "seat assigned at gate" text on my boarding pass. They had no clue what it meant and said they would deal with it come boarding time. At final boarding call when I was pretty sure I would not be making it to Copenhagen, and quite nervous. They found that there was in fact an empty seat for me so I was able to board and return my heart to a normal rate.
Copenhagen was my final destination, and I was very relieved to pick up my luggage and head out of the airport to meet my family. My Host Parents and twins brothers, Olle and Johan (who just left on exchange to Oregon), were waiting for me outside baggage claim with a big "Välkommen Heath!" sign, written in pink highlighter. After all the hugs, handshakes, and high-fives we went to the car and drove over the Oresund into Sweden. The drive to Lund, where I am staying was very quiet but surprisingly not awkward. My host parents Lasse and Maria are as kind and welcoming as I could have hoped for and made me feel right at home (they're also both amazing cooks). They have also been a great help with explaining things, and my Swedish. My brothers are both also very helpful and cool, but quite different from one another. Our home is the top two stories of a three story flat, just outside of downtown Lund. Lund is a charming college town, and the University here is the largest in Scandinavia.
After getting everything unpacked and eating dinner, I went with my brothers in town to get coffee and meet some of their friends. Having siblings my age has been a tremendous help with meeting people, and finding my way around. I got home entirely too late for being as jet lagged as I was, passed out as soon as I laid down, and slept until about noon.
The next day Johan decided that we should take the train into Copenhagen to go shopping, and so I could see the city which was pretty cool. The stores and clothes here are so much better than in the states. Soon after we got back in Lund, we left for the vacation cottage 2 hours north near Varburg. The house is very near the sea, and we spent the next six days there. I went sailing with my host mom and Johan, swam, and ate mostly. It was very relaxing. Olle had to stay home because of his soccer schedule, so Johan and I became pretty good friends, and hung out the whole time.
One day he and I took the train south from Varburg to Laholm, where a friend of his was having a party at his family's vacation house. It was a really good time, and I met a lot of kids I'll be going to school with. And learned a lot about Swedish youth. All of them love American TV, and about the only things they said that I understood were: "facebook", "Family Guy", and "Gossip Girls". They also want me to have someone "Send red cups like the American parties in the American Pie films". They sure love those red cups. They also pirate every season of every show on HBO, and know the name of each episode.
On the 6th Lasse drove me back to Lund so I could make the train to my language camp in Åhus (thats where they make all the Absolut vodka in the world!). The next six days were spent in a hostel with the 19 exchange students staying in Skåne (my province, and the best one). We ate tons of ice cream (the only thing other than Absolut that Åhus is famous for), toured the Absolut factory, and learned some of the more important parts of the Swedish language (such as what curse words you yell when you stub your toe versus when your team is losing in soccer). It was really cool to meet the other exchange students, and we all got along pretty well. I was very glad to get back to Lund however, and see Johan some before he left for Oregon. I was sad to see him leave, but knew exactly what he was going through. I think that may have been part of why we got along so well. It will be cool to share our experiences over the course of this year.
The past week has been spent trying to get better acquainted with Lund, getting to know Olle better, and watching an unhealthy amount of Gossip Girls with his friends. Today was orientation at my school, Katedralskolen, which was founded in like 1085. I'll be in the third and final year of Swedish secondary school, and was lucky enough to be put in a class with three kids I had been hanging out with. Hadn't I known anyone beforehand I'm pretty sure I'd still be trying to find my locker. After Orientation I went with my Host-cousins into Malmö for Malmöfestivalen, which is a huge free music festival all over the city. We saw a few pretty good bands, most notably being a Norwegian group whose organ player wore a gas mask, and would periodically jump up and bang on oil drums with a large club or crowbar....
My host-cousin Pontus also insisted that we take advantage of the street food vendors, and put me through a "Swedish right of passage" (Jenny, stop reading here). I may or may not have eaten moose, and reindeer, and it may or may not have been delicious.
So tomorrow I start class, and begin phase two of this whole exchange thing. Which means I need to get to sleep.
September 23 Journal
So by this point I’m quite settled in and the “Holy crap, I’m in Sweden” moments are becoming less and less frequent. School started about a month ago (good god I’ve already been here two months). I’ve found a nice routine, gotten used to yogurt on cereal… I’d say things are going pretty smooth.
The first day of class went well enough I suppose. David and Johan, friends of my brother that are in my class, made sure I knew where to go and introduced me to some people in the class. Speaking of introductions, the teacher of my first lesson thought it would be good if I stood up and told the class a little about myself… which would have been all well and fine hadn’t my voice cracked as soon as I spoke.... There’s something about the whole “Swedish rhythm” that likes to kick your vocal cords back into their pre-pubescent glory. Luckily no one laughed... until they brought it up like two weeks later....
Swedes in general are pretty shy and aren’t ones to just come up and talk to you. This is okay; I understand since I’m also pretty shy, but there lies the problem. It has been a gradual process, but things on both ends are staring to open up. It’s getting a lot easier to meet people, and make friends. At first they would approach me in groups. You can tell when it’s coming because they’ll be standing like 5 meters away, glancing over and arguing amongst themselves over who has the best English (they assume I don’t understand what they are talking about), and will do the talking. Once a leader is chosen and they begin the approach, I brace myself for the bombarding of the same old questions over again. Pretty much everyone I’ve met has asked me: “Do you like Obama or McCain?”, “Do you have a driver’s license?”, “Do you own a gun?”, “Is that near Miami?”, and “Can you have someone send us red cups?” (okay... that one is a little less frequent, but still). They also seem to think that I look like either Seth Cohen or Frodo Baggins.... I suppose I’ll take the latter as Elijah Wood, and a compliment?
Straying away from the social aspects, Swedish school is really relaxed compared to American schools. No bells, no hall passes, they just expect you to have enough brains to know where to be and go to the bathroom without someone holding your hand. You just get up and go; it's great! You also have a different number of classes each day, with no real structure period system or standard break length. It’s more like college really. During my lunch gaps I can go to a cafe to eat if I so choose (No crazy lady in a golf cart blockading the gate!... oh, how I hate you Bartram Trail), or enjoy free lunch at school, courtesy of the welfare state.
For the most part I have all my lessons with my homeroom class. I’m in a social science program so my core courses are on politics and history. All of my compulsory courses like religion, psychology, and Swedish are just with my homeroom. I’m also taking Art, Spanish 3, and Swedish for Foreigners (which is just me and three other exchange students). Trying to translate Swedish to English, then into Spanish and back is brutal. And I’ve come to accept that on Mondays and Wednesdays I will have a skull-splitting headache.
Another thing that has stood out to me as a major difference is the absence of “cliques”. Perhaps it’s the separation of team athletics and school? Whatever the reason, you can walk into the school cafeteria and see all different groups talking together and not worrying about who’s watching. People seem to be a lot less judgmental here. You can do your own thing, and it’s accepted.
During free time, I usually hang out with friends in town, one of my favorite things to do is ‘ficka,’ the Swedish ritual coffee break… it must be the reason there are SIX Espresso Houses in Lund, Lund isn’t that big. My host cousin also lent me a bass and amp recently, so I’ve picked that back up as well.
At home things are excellent. I really love my host family, and often have lengthy discussions with Lasse, my host dad. Most Swedes are very interested... well more concerned with US politics, and especially the upcoming election. So he often asks questions about that, and I ask him about Swedish politics, systems, taxes etc. Both my host dad and mom are very social and often entertain which means the same old questions over dinner from middle-aged Swedish couples, something that’s quite entertaining after their second glass of wine (and they start cracking on the Finns).
I could really get used to being able to get wherever I want by bike and/or train. AND hopping on a train and being in another country in half an hour. Since Denmark is so close, I have gone pretty often with friends or family. More and more I can pick out all the little differences between Swedes and Danes that I never would have noticed before. Needless to say it’s always a great comfort when you get over the Oresund and back home to Sweden. Danish sounds like you are speaking Swedish with food in your mouth.
The past week I have been rather busy with actually being assigned work at school and taking care of college applications (which I never would have gotten through without the help of the wonderful Jennifer Panitch).
Overall things are going well. I’m really starting to love Sweden more and more, even the cold cloudy weather. I was never much for tanning anyway...