Brandy "Renee" Viscardi
2008-09 Outbound to Belgium
Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Fleming Island High School, Orange Park, Florida
Sponsor: Orange Park Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Virton Rotary Club, District 1630, Belgium

Renee's Bio

 My name is Brandy Renee but everyone just calls me Renee. I am a sophomore at Fleming Island High School and I absolutely love it. I am completely stoked about going overseas - this is an opportunity of a lifetime and I have been dreaming of nothing else since I was a little girl. When everyone else wanted to be a princess, I wanted to be an exchange student. I cannot thank Rotary enough for everything they are doing for me and everyone else in this program!

I have been studying French for 4 years and it is amazing. I have come to realize through taking a foreign language that I am fascinated by different cultures and languages. I want to go into public relations after High School and maybe do something on an international level. I haven’t really decided, yet. I view life through a realistic yet slightly optimistic perspective. I am a very lucky girl who has been blessed with far more than she could possibly ever deserve and I am so thankful for that.

At first glance you see: a bubbly, energetic, brown-eyed brunette with a huge smile and a tendency to break into random, yet constant song. I’m more than that. I’m a best friend who is on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I am a passionate performer and I’m a girl who laughs a lot and loves deeply. I am also the only child of two amazing people that I like to call Mom and Dad. I am emotional and I wear my mind and my feelings on my sleeve. I tend to take more pictures than I should but memories are the greatest thing a person can have. I also like to scrapbook with all of my photos and I never know which ones I’m going to use so I figure - take a lot and you can pick whichever one you think is perfect! I like to dance even though I am by no stretch of the imagination graceful. I have very solid opinions about life and who I am; but I know that all of that is about to change and I couldn’t be more excited! I live by 3 philosophies in life: “Without faith, hope and love, you have nothing.” “The love in your heart will conquer all.” And “If you take everything one day at a time and one moment at a time, nothing will conquer you.” I am constantly changing and learning something new. I have a realization about life and its mysterious wonder almost daily and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I cannot possibly tell you who I am in just a couple paragraphs and I wouldn’t even begin to try. No human is as simple as an essay, we are all very complex and different but that’s what makes this world beautiful.

August 10 Journal

 Everything until today has been unreal to me. To a degree, it’s still unreal to me. I feel like I’m on the show punk’d and I’m just waiting for someone to jump out of the bushes and go NOT! you were right, it’s a dream.

The last day at my job, O2b Kids, I had to face the music and do one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do so far during this whole experience: say good-bye to my best friends and my kids at work. That’s one thing that they don’t teach you in school: how to say good-bye. As I walked into the building, I was happy and thinking I was going to make it out without crying - I was still in my delusional state of mind, my alternate-reality so to speak (the same one I’ve been in since January 11th when I found out I was going to Belgium). I ended up bawling my eyes out before I left the building and as I was walking out of my work - it hit me. I’m going. I’m REALLY going. In a little over a week, I’m going to be in Belgium living with a wonderful family that I’ve been talking to since the beginning of the summer and eating waffles all the time.

Over these past months, I’ve been looking for something to make this whole exchange real to me and today I found it: saying good-bye. Nothing is going to be real to you until you have to say good-bye to people who are a part of your daily life. You can tell yourself all day long and you can tell as many people as you want that you are going to be an exchange student but until you look the people in the eye that you care about most and tell them that you love them, you’ll miss them and you’ll see them in a year, nothing is going to really process or make sense.

As someone who is absolutely terrible with good-byes, this was by far one of the most challenging days of my life. It was more challenging than that December 1st interview and definitely more challenging than waiting for my country assignment but every single one of the pep talks that I received made my good-byes a little bit easier. I know that I’m going to look back on them over the course of my year and smile. I was shown by more than one person today that I am surrounded by people who believe in me. They have faith in me in ways that I didn’t understand.

I guess that’s the funny thing about good-byes. You never fully comprehend the immense love that people have for you until you are going to be gone and then all of a sudden it surfaces. It really is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Thank you SO MUCH to Rotary, My Family and everyone who has believed in me this whole way — without you, none of this would have ever been possible!

August 23 Journal

 Let me start off by saying everything I ever thought about Europe and its inhabitants was wrong. Everything that Hollywood tells you about Europe ultimately is false. EXCEPT that they drive like maniacs. That is true but I think of it like a rollercoaster. Yes, they shower every day and use deodorant. No, they don’t have small breakfasts. Every hotel you’ve ever been to has either lied to you or has seriously never been to the south of Belgium. My breakfasts are massive.

I have been shocked by quite a few discoveries. For example, I didn’t realize there were so many different ways you could flush a toilet until I arrived in Belgium. I guess I didn’t really think about it. Every bathroom is a new puzzle for me to figure out. Keeps things interesting, I guess. I also didn’t realize that chocolate could be SO good. Chocolate and I have a very special and intimate relationship in the United States but now that I’ve arrived in Belgium, I don’t even know what I was eating for the last 16 years but it wasn’t chocolate.

I live in the country side of Belgium which is SOO different from Jacksonville it's unreal. There aren’t a lot of cars, it isn’t hot or sticky and we have a garden that we grow a lot of different vegetables in! We also line dry our clothes and iron them later if we need to. The streets are really small and squished. I can walk from one end of my city to the other in about 15 minutes—that’s how SMALL it is! J I really am in love with everything in Belgium. The feeling is mutual - my host family is in love with everything American. They want to visit the United States and every single state within its borders. They always ask me if I have something that they have in the United States or if we do the same thing in the US. Also, they don’t speak very much English so when I’m talking in French they’ll ask me: “How do you say that in English?” They like hearing me speak and sing in English. They think my American accent is “so cute”.

I went to the Battle of the Bulge memorial on Thursday and it is absolutely gorgeous. It has all of the states carved into it and it’s in the shape of a star. I like it a lot! As an American, I felt very proud of my country and very thankful for our brave American troops! It’s a different feeling of patriotism when you go to a different country and they have a monument dedicated to your country. It’s really neat! I’m the first American exchange student in my city and the first American that most of these people have ever met. It’s really neat to be the first impression of America and Florida to all of these people. I don’t carry the responsibility lightly, at all.

As far as my French is concerned, it has improved very much since I arrived but my pocket dictionary and charades are still my best friends. I don’t really have to look too much up because normally what I’m talking about is right next to me or I’m talking about something I know all of the random vocabulary for. I’m still having some difficulty conjugating verbs in my head and keeping the tenses straight. Around my second day of living my life in French rather than English, I found that journaling in my personal journal was hard because my instinct was to journal in French. After all, the life I was documenting WAS in French. Also, when I arrived I was quickly reminded of my French teacher, Miss Fitchette because during my freshman year we’d study random vocabulary lists that I’d always say we would never need and I have been thinking back to those vocabulary lists on a daily basis. Every ounce of preparation I did has helped me but I regret not studying more than I did.

Now for stories about getting to Belgium and my arrival here: so I said bye to my dad, step-mom, Veronica, Veronica’s Mommy, Ralph, and Mr. Bill and started walking through security feeling really strong and proud of myself because I didn’t cry in front of my family and friends. I handed the woman my boarding pass and she tells me to step aside because I’ve just been selected for extra screening. Right, I look like a terrorist with my khaki pants, red shirt, rotary blazer and a ribbon in my hair. WRONG. I look like a four year old who is about to go to Toys R Us. Yes, I’m glowing that much. So alright, I take off my Rotary blazer, shoes and my belt and walk through this machine that blows a bunch of air in my face I guess I passed THAT test. Then the woman takes apart my carry on—like takes everything out and makes sure I’m not taking anything that I shouldn’t be taking on the airplane. This is the point where I almost started crying because my carry on took me like 2 hours to pack and this woman ripped it apart in a matter of seconds. She saw the distraught look on my face and reassured me that she was going to pack everything in my bag for me. During all of this, I have my goofy family and their faces pressed against the security glass watching my every move. So I finally get my 36 pound carryon back in one piece and I’m ready to board the plane—I scream my final good-byes through the security hall way thing and I’m off to my terminal.

The rest of my trip was very easy. My baggage arrived in Belgium in once piece and I didn’t lose anything in the melee of all the excitement. I was one of the first off the plane and through security and my bags were the first ones on the line. I grabbed a luggage cart and my luggage and I was off through customs to start my life as a foreign exchange student. I walked through the door and there are SO many people holding signs, anxiously awaiting their exchange students. These people were glowing way more than I was and I was the exchange student. It was then that it hit me how much exchange students DO impact people’s lives and how much love there really is within the Rotary network. So I wandered around like an orphan for a few minutes because I didn’t know exactly where my family was but I finally found them and we said our hellos and introduced ourselves. Even though I hadn’t had a very good sleep in the last week, I was energized and ready to go see Belgium and that’s exactly what we’ve done since the moment I arrived.

I cannot say thank you enough to Rotary, my family, and my friends. You all have helped me through this and helped me arrive here in one piece fully prepared [as much as I can be] and ready for my life as an exchange student. This experience has brought nothing but happiness and insight to me since the day I mailed in my application to Mr. Kalter. Thank you SO much for everything!

October 5 Journal

 Okay so I am finally sitting down and writing this Rotary journal that has been on my mind for the last month, I swear it. I always think of something witty or deeply insightful and want to put it in my Rotary journal but because I am an exchange student who is always on the go, it’s hard to find the time to just sit down at the computer and let everything out into my little word processor. Okay enough of the justifying why I haven’t posted anything in a little over a month. In the last 5 weeks (yes, 5!—it’s pretty crazy to think about) I have experienced bone chilling cold (okay, that’s a tiny exaggeration). BUT! I have not been warm, nor worn short sleeves since my first week in Belgium. Because there is a lot to talk about, I am going to break it down into subjects.

So my first day of school was one of the hardest days I have had so far. I got funny looks and glances. I was introduced to my class much like you would introduce someone in Alcoholics Anonymous. “Hi, this is Renee. She is our new American exchange student. She will be studying with us for the year.” I quickly realized that I need a ruler to fit in and that everyone loved neat, colorful notes. Some boys can write better than I can and the girls seem to be absolutely perfect, here. It’s intimidating to say the least. We get to go out to lunch every Friday, which is super cool. As far as my classes go, they are ridiculously hard. I am in a science class of nothing but boys and it’s hard because apparently girls still have cooties at 16 and 17 years old. Some of my teachers expect me to keep up with the speed of their class but others are understanding and just let me sit with my little dictionary and decode the random worksheets they hand out. My math teacher, however, gives me tests and throws notes at me just like she does with everyone else. I am not even going to pretend that I am anywhere near passing math right now because I am so lost I don’t see me ever finding my way out of that mess. As far as my French goes: I am improving daily and I am becoming more and more confident with conversations. I still have occasional moments where I think I know what the person is talking about and the conversation will be flowing well and then I will realize we are on two separate pages. Yeah, that’s embarrassing. I got yelled at during study hall because I sat next to my host sister and apparently you aren’t supposed to sit next to anyone. The spectator decided that I was downright disobeying her so she yelled at me for like five minutes and I just stood there because I didn’t know what she was saying. The rest of my week was a lot easier than my first day. Every lunch I have had so far I have been swarmed by people who ask me questions. The boys here are much like a lot of the boys at my school-- obnoxious, loud and they enjoy being immature. They scream random things that they THINK are English words [but they aren’t] at me and the Canadian exchange student, Erin. It used to bother us but now we just laugh at it-- it's all you can do.

I have had a lot of experiences and moments of epiphany. Starting with—I ate frog… not frog legs. A whole frog- in garlic sauce with a side of mushroom gravy. Bizarre- I know but I am going to say what any American would say- it tasted like chicken. I went to the Fete de Wallonie and saw a bunch of really neat looking people who looked like they came from all over the world to take part in this party. I have been given an unofficial tour of Liege [I love this city]. I have been to several parties and I have slowly opened my heart to techno music. I am having the time of my life dancing with all of my friends and just acting carefree until the early hours of the morning. I have been to Brussels to see the Grand Palace and I went to Liege to the Blegny Mines-- I felt like one of Snow White’s 7 Dwarfs except they don’t have one named after being constantly confused. I managed to jump into our tour guides arms because he turned on the pressurized air without me knowing and it scared the daylights out of me. I’m not sure you know what awkward is until you jump into a stranger's arms and then don’t know the words to explain why you just did that. Moving on, I have changed host families and I have two younger twin sisters and a sister who is a year younger than me. My twin sisters’ favorite past time is screaming at the top of their lungs at each other, I think. It’s what they always seem to be doing.

My emotions are on this AWESOME roller coaster to insanity, I swear. I will start out my day completely happy and ready to translate French all day and I will end my day really homesick but the next day will be amazing and I won’t even think about my home. I’m not going to tell you that everything is rainbows and sunshine because its not. It’s hard and you work your butt off 24/7. No one understands what you are living and everyone expects a lot from you but if you make it as far as I have, you realize that Rotary believes in you and knows you are strong enough to handle this year. You miss your home so much that you randomly start crying and you can’t stop but you learn to just cry until you can’t because once you hit rock bottom, the only place you can go from there is up. No one said it would be easy, they just promised that it would be worth it, and I am living proof that everything you learn and experience is worth every ounce of paperwork and every minute of studying your target language, I swear. There are days where I question myself and where I feel like telling everyone who said I was crazy that they were right but then something happens-- like I get a package from home or I get an email and I realize that I am here for a reason and that I am meant to live here and experience this-- if I wasn’t, someone else would be here. I have learned quite a few things about myself and life in the month and a half that I have been living in Belgium. I have learned that all of those orientations and all of the speeches we sat through, they actually give you advice that you NEED for a successful year abroad. I find myself thinking to myself “I think Mr. Kalter talked to me about this…” all the time! I will be the first person to admit that I thought Rotary was just telling us the same information over and over for kicks and giggles but it's not—I promise. I have also come to realize that I can, in fact, live out of two suitcases and a carry on bag [even if I did curse the airlines up and down and around again for their dumb weight restrictions]. I have also been shown that with a pocket dictionary, smile and an open mind, you can conquer anything. I swear to God that it’s true.

A lot of people say change isn’t something you see right away and I have to disagree with them on that. I have changed, I KNOW I have changed. I can sit through a European football game and not be bored to tears, I can eat fish without feeling like the world is going to end and I can navigate my way through any train station in Belgium. I know that I don’t know the extent of the change that Belgium has brought into my life but I do know that I have changed and for the better. I look at these changes within myself and smile for I know that this is just the beginning.

I will end my journal with a very big thank you to Rotary, my friends, family and everyone who believes in me. I can’t begin to say thank you enough because words really can’t express the gratitude that I have towards everyone who has helped and is continuing to help me make it through this year. I love you and look forward to seeing you again!

December 10 Journal

 So, an update from the last journal is going to be rather difficult. Especially because so much has happened and I have been on so many emotional roller coasters it’s hard to decide what I want to write about.

I want to start with the fact that a year ago, I was anxiously awaiting interviews. Preparing for my 3 minute speech and practicing my most convincing and confident smile, planning with my whole being to go to France the following year because there was no doubt in my mind that I would nail my interview. I was born to be an exchange student and I knew French, so France was my destiny, or so I thought. Not only did I not end up going to France, I got sent to Belgium. It’s close to France but it’s everything but France. At first I didn’t know how I felt about this surprising new country that I had just thrown on my preferred list because the sound of never ending chocolate sounded nice but the more I learned about it, the more I started to love it and that love has grown exponentially since that day.

I was sort of disappointed that I wasn’t there for interviews to see the faces of the interviewees after each room. There is so much I wish I could say to them. I wish I could tell them that all the skeptical looks the Rotarians give them is just because they are evaluating if they can handle you as their future child or not and that Jody doesn’t REALLY care if you know all the states from Florida to New York and that it's not crucial for you to know 67 X 3 in order for you to be a wonderful exchange student. I’m living proof, honest! I wish I could tell them that Rotary won’t disappoint them with their country assignment. If they didn’t get their first choice, it’s because Rotary sees greater potential growth in another country and that no matter where they go, they will have the time of their life. I want them to know that it’s okay to get discouraged and have five million different emotions and outlooks on their future adventure. I would tell them to make sure they paid attention during all of the “make a square” games because it’ll come back to help them in their exchange more than once. I want them to know how important it is to bond as an outbound class; because those people are going to be their lifeline and will eventually become their best friends. But above everything else, I want them to know that Rotary has their heart and soul into making their exchange a worthwhile one and they wouldn’t send you across the world if they thought you were going to fall on your face.

Okay so I’m done with last year. Let’s get back to the last month of my life. I have seen snow for the first time. I now own my first pair of gloves and I now know what hot chocolate feels like in your stomach when it’s legitimately cold outside. It’s my new favorite sensation. I haven’t had my ‘fluency dream’ yet but my French is still improving everyday, I have started talking in class which is a big deal for me! I no longer stress about complete strangers asking me directions to things and I can say numbers out loud without sitting down and counting on my fingers. I went to Paris, France and had the time of my life. Shopping, of course! My feet hurt really badly at the end of the day but it was completely worth it. I saw everything I wanted to see and more. Taking this trip with my host family built closeness between us that I didn’t have before going to Paris. I felt like a part of the family at the end of the day and not just an exchange student who was taking their daughter’s place. It’s a nice feeling to be where I am with my current host family except that I know I’m moving in a matter of two or three weeks.

In Paris I went into a Sephora that was seriously the size of Wal-Mart, or close to it. I also ate at this really small and intimate Italian restaurant and had the BEST dessert of my life. It was called the equivalent of a sampler and it was a mini version of all of their finest desserts. So we got home at 5 AM on Halloween day from Paris and I slept the whole next day to recover from all the shopping I just did. Needless to say, I didn’t go trick-or-treating or anything like that. I sat at home and knitted a scarf and had Halloween cake. It was just as good as getting 5 kilos of candy, honest.

Then that Monday was back to school, full speed ahead. Since then we have been preparing for exams and Christmas break. Christmas in Belgium is quite different than Christmas in the States. We put a shoe by the fireplace starting the week before St. Nicolas comes, which is December 6th and he puts candy in our shoes every night while we are sleeping! Then on December 25th, it's intimate little gift swapping between family members and is much more family oriented. It’s neat because it’s like two Christmases. I saw snow for the first time which was super cool. My little sister, Lison, ran into my room and jumped on top of my bed and said “RENEE! IT’S SNOWING! LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK!” It was so beautiful, more beautiful than I had expected. I took pictures, drank hot chocolate and sat by the fire for the rest of the day. For the first time in a long time, I felt the spirit of winter and it was nice. I could go for some snow in Florida, I think people would be a little happier and Christmas would feel more like Christmas.

I only have two weeks until my leisurely Christmas break begins and I couldn’t be more excited about it. After the Christmas break, I am getting 3 Australians at my school! I’m the only English speaking exchange student at my school so that means I have three newies. It's going to be weird to be an ‘old inbound’ because I still feel so new. I went to a Rotary Christmas party and met the governor of Rotary Belgium. He’s really nice! I’m moving soon which is going to be sad but very exciting at the same time. Bitter-sweet is the word I guess you could use for this situation but it’s not exactly that. Christmas is quickly approaching and it feels like it was just Thanksgiving. Okay, well it really was just Thanksgiving but in the states it seems like a bit longer than it does this year. Time is flying by too fast and I know I say this every time I go to post something for Rotary but it’s so true. I feel like I’m living at the speed of light and it is sorta scary, it feels like it was just last month that I was stepping off of the airplane to a barrage of cameras and host families and now I’m used to Belgium and I’m past all of my culture shock.

Don’t get me wrong, when I think about the sunshine at home and how bad I want to see everyone, my stomach drops a little but not nearly as far as it did a few weeks ago. I went to Germany for the Marché de Noël and had a spiced hot wine, that was good but I would have preferred hot chocolate. Other than that, there really isn’t too much else to report on other than every time I write these journals I feel like we’re playing that game with the cards and King Conrad all over again… it's fun. In closing, I would like to thank Rotary for everything they have done and continue to do for everyone on exchange and in the world. You have taught me how to unconditionally care for others and you have given me a family that I call my own and would do anything for. You are the best!

Until next time,

Gros Bisous!

Renee Viscardi

January 18 Journal

 I know, it's been forever. Yes, I’m aware of how ridiculously bad at journals I am. It’s hard, though, I’m not gonna lie. Before I came, I was determined to prove my Rotex friends wrong and write journals religiously. Yeah, let me just say right now that all the things that my Rotex sisters and brothers told me were absolutely true. Things like: time is going to fly by entirely too fast, don’t waste it wishing you were home, and journals will become your nightmare because you are going to do so much and you won’t have enough time to document it. Yeah, it’s so completely true. I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not. I haven’t written in my personal journal in over a month and a half. I have fallen behind on everything besides school it seems like.

Let’s start with “St. Nicolas”; it was the first Saturday in December and it is more geared toward infants but my host family did it for me so I would know what the holiday is all about. My little sister, Lison, woke me up at 8:30 in the morning so we could all go down together. At the table there were four plates with pounds and pounds of candy on them and surrounding the plates, there were gifts for each of us girls. I got perfume and a really pretty shirt and some jewelry from my family and my little sisters got board games and things of that nature. The rest of the day was spent playing the board games and sitting by the fire. It was nice, and it bonded me closer to my host family. The next day, we went to my host grand-father’s house where we got YET ANOTHER plate of food and some little gifts. It was a really fun weekend.

After that weekend, it was 110% back into exams, which sucked, but they were much like the exams in the United States with the exception that some people got so stressed out they got sick right before walking into the exam room. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in the US. After that week ended, we had a normal weekend of eating too much and resting. We had a few days of school left then it was straight into Christmas vacation. 

I did a lot of traveling right as the break started to different places in Belgium and in Germany, which was cool. Before I knew it, it was December 24th, and I had to change host families. I didn’t really think that it would be too hard to change host families, but it was. I cried a lot more than I thought I would and I resisted moving a lot more than I thought I would.

Three days after moving in with my new host family, I had to say bye to my best friend, Erin, she was a semester exchange student and was on her way back to Canada. I know I will see her again but it was still hard to see her go. We went through the hardest months of our exchange together. Then after saying bye to Erin, I went with my host sisters to set up for the New Year’s party. We decorated for hours and it turned out to be a BLAST! After staying out late New Years, I slept until around noon on January 1st. When I woke up, I was greeted by a house full of guests… I guess for a moment I had a lapse of memory and thought I was in the United States where you can go downstairs with reasonable certainty that you won’t have a house full of guests. My parents informed me that we’d be leaving shortly to go add to the number of guests at someone else’s house. So I threw on some clothes and pretended to not be tired. The time flew by with every kiss, drink and chocolate truffle. I looked up at the clock it was 11:30 at night and it certainly didn’t feel like it!

The next day, I had to get up at 5 AM to be in Bruges at 9 AM. I still to this day don’t know who planned that lovely adventure but he/she obviously didn’t factor in recovery time from New Years. In Bruges, I had to say good-bye to my Australian buddies and my Argentinean buddies. It was really sad but they were pumped to go home and hug their friends. I know I will see them soon so saying good-bye wasn’t SO hard but it was still hard. Honestly, being in Belgium and away from my family wasn’t what made Christmas hard - it was saying bye so many times. Also, consuming so much food was hard but it wasn’t something I didn’t want to do… food here is delicious. My bellybutton hurt for a few days after New Years but I didn’t complain. I enjoyed everything I ate thoroughly.

December was a really fast and blurry month for me. I don’t really remember all of the details of it but I know it was a good month. I know that I made memories that I will never forget and I have made bonds with people who will hold a place in my heart for the rest of my life. It is honestly heart warming when I think of the impact that has been made on me and the impact that I have made on people. It makes this year feel like a real exchange of culture and understanding.

Thank you once again to Rotary and everyone who has supported me. I love you guys and can’t wait to hug you again! 

May 7 Journal

 I am two months away from being done with my exchange and I am slowly but surely trying to grab and hold on to all of my remaining days but they keep slipping through my fingers. I wake up one day and it’s Monday and the next time I look up it’s three weeks later and I am looking at the weekend. I feel like I have not done everything that I have wanted to do and I only have a little over two months to fulfill everything that I promised myself I would do. I guess you could say I’m a little freaked out by how fast time has flown by and how hard I foresee it being when it comes time to say good-bye to these amazing people. Let’s start with where I left off.

January- I had two new exchange students join me at my school: Marezaan, from South African and Josh, from Australia. This makes our group of exchange students a group of four from Rotary. They were at our school for two weeks before our class trip to Paris- talk about exciting! Within your first month in Belgium, you already stayed in Paris for three days. 

February- The first week of February was spent preparing and going on our class trip to Paris. It was beyond amazing. We went practically everywhere and I have memories from Paris that I will carry with me for the rest of my life! It was truly a gorgeous experience and it brought me closer to my grade, which was also a wonderful experience. I came home from Paris with best friends that I never knew I’d have. I know that the bonds I’ve made in Europe will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you couldn’t possibly be enough but I will continue to try and pay Rotary back with the wonderful things that they have touched my life with by my completely inadequate Thank You. Around the third week of February it was my birthday and my host mom cooked my favorite meal and the whole family came over. It was nice- we all laughed a lot and ate even more! Then I had a week of vacation which flew by entirely too fast!

March- This month has completely taken me by surprise by how fast it has moved past me. The weeks in school passed so quickly I probably can’t put March into any kind of chronological order… I know that it was a fantastic month for me and that I grow closer to all of my Belgian friends more and more with each passing day but as far as specific details, there are too many to make sense of them.

April- I went to Italy with many other exchange students in Belgium. THIS trip is a trip that I could relive over and over again and honestly not get tired of it. I grew to love people I never thought I would and I formed so many amazing friendships with people that I would have never met had it not been for Italy. I miss it so much—I wish it didn’t end as soon as it did! 

I keep having to pump myself up for coming home and I keep having to remind myself to smile and be happy I am going back to Jacksonville, Florida but every time I start to talk about leaving, I cry. Every time I think about having to hug all of my Belgian friends good-bye and having to hug my family of exchange students—not knowing when I will see them again—I cry and I can’t stop crying once I start. Belgium has a very big piece of my heart that I will never get back. When I leave Belgium, I’ll be leaving that piece with everyone that I have grown to love. It’s so weird to think that all of these people that I love so much now started out as strangers, transformed into friendly faces, grew into friends, and became family to me within the span of a year. To me, that’s what Rotary is. Rotary is more than a service organization. It’s a family organization, it helps you find family you never know you were capable of having. I now have two sisters, one that lives in Brazil and another that lives in South Africa. I also have a brother that lives in Australia. Thank you so much Rotary, Mom, Dad, Mademoiselle Fitchette, Mrs. Flynn, and everyone else that has believed in me. It has made all the difference in the world. I can’t wait to hug you and tell you in detail about my exchange year.