Susan "Liz" Kane
2009-10 Outbound to the Czech Republic

Hometown: St. Johns, Florida
School: Bartram Trail HS
Sponsor: Mandarin Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: České Budějovice Rotary Club, District 2240, Czech Republic

Liz's Bio

Dobry den! My name is Liz Kane and am currently a junior/senior at Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, FL. I am working on graduating a year early to make my exchange a reality. Ever since I started high school, I knew that I loved to travel. Experiencing the world in my eyes is like being the kid in a candy store. I never wanted to read about places from a text book ... I just wanted to be there. I guess you could say that this is the exact reason I fell in love with the idea of being a Rotary Youth Exchange student.

So here I am, about to take the greatest step in my life.

Sure, Mom and Dad were slightly hesitant when I brought up the idea... but after lots of hard work on my part (and lots of support on their end) I have finally been given the opportunity to experience another culture first hand.

Do you want to know the most exciting part?? I am spending my senior year in the Czech Republic!!

Besides my resounding happiness, I am quite normal. I have 4 dogs, a cat, a hamster, and an older brother. I enjoy playing soccer, snowboarding, and spending time with my friends. I also have a place in my heart for fashion and art. I love making my own clothes and experimenting with creativity. When I go to college, fashion and international business is what I want to study. Who knows.... Maybe after this experience my life will take a completely different path. I am so blessed to have family and friends who stand behind me in everything that I do. Without them, I would not have the chance to do something this amazing. I also need to thank Rotary for choosing me to participate in Youth Exchange. You have no idea how grateful I really am!

To say the least, I could not be happier.

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Liz's Journals

August 10 Pre-Departure Journal

This is it. In less than 2 weeks I will be stepping off the plane in Prague and meeting my first host family. It is hard to imagine this sight after thinking about my arrival in the Czech Republic for so long. For the past few months I have been preparing for what is quite possibly the greatest adventure of my life. I went to orientation, attended Rotary meetings, and even tried to study what seems like the most impossible language in the world.

Today I signed up for a skype account and posted the message on Facebook reading "less than 2 weeks until departure, I am so excited." It is this excitement that led me to put my thoughts into a pre-departure journal for all to read. Right now I feel as if my date is never going to get here. I read about all my other friends who are already abroad in envy that they are already experiencing life in a new way. Then I stop to think... gee Liz, that's going to be you. Someone will open this page, read your journal, and feel this same envy... only you will be the one in the other country. Time is funny that way. You sit and play the waiting game only for it to sneak up and surprise you in a way you never felt possible.

Take the past 11 months or so. It started with a thought of being an exchange student. This led to an initial waiting of mom and dad's approval. After I received said approval, it continued on to many late nights of application filling, letter writing, picture perfecting, and yes more waiting. I continued this state of waiting anxiousness up until I received a letter with my interview time and date. I talked at school with other exchangers to be like Jaime and Sarah, who happened to be just as nervous as me about interviewing. So the day came and went.... and I left my interview with a smile, unlike most I talked to. I felt I had made the perfect first impression and I had nothing to fear.

Soon came a random phone call from Daphne about the change I had made in country choices, and a new letter in the mail stating that my sponsor club is the Rotary Club of Mandarin. These little bits of information every so often kept me in the spirit of being an exchange student. This next wait was the worst of all. In the club sponsor letter it had said, "your country assignment will be coming shortly." With this I gasp and run circles around the kitchen. That also happened to be the reaction when Jody called in the middle of December with "Liz, would you like to know where you are going to spend your exchange?" (well duh!). I could not forget the reaction of the two girls I was babysitting: "What's a Czech Republic?"

Then came the January orientation, followed by waiting on news from my host district. This news came in bits and pieces throughout the following months including: host club, city, school, and best of all Family. I have not even made it into the Czech Republic yet, and I am in love with my host family. My host brother Ondrej and I have become very close, and even though we will only meet for 3 days (he is going on exchange to Minnesota), I have already made a Czech friend.

Now is the time. I have watched an inbound arrive (Yuri), I am picking up my host brother Laurenz on Thursday, and my last trip to the airport will be all about me. I am still nervous about some aspects of this new life I will become a part of, but I think the excitement has overcome all the bad emotions. I have 2 more Rotary meetings, 13 more days in Florida, and the next year to make my mark on the rest of the world.

Na shledanou!

Liz

August 28 Journal

All I can say is wow. What a roller coaster these first few days have been. There have been ups and downs and all kinds or crazy twists and turns. Where to begin...

On my way to the Czech Republic I had some minor mishaps. My flight from Jacksonville to Detroit went quite smooth, as I coincidently sat right next to my best friend's dad. The 2 hours or so didn't seem quite as long with a familiar face to talk to. He asked me all kinds of questions about youth exchange and my new family. All of which I was eager to answer. When we landed in Detroit I said goodbye in the tram that took me to the area of my next gate, to Amsterdam. (This my friends is where the trip starts to go crazy.)

The flight to Amsterdam was set to leave on time, until we were taxing toward the runway... and had to turn around. There was one broken toilet (granted there were 6 on the plane) and we had to go back to the gate to get it fixed. This is another one of those examples from cultural boot camp where any normal being would simply place an out of order sign on the door, but as Americans, we are required to ask maintenance to fix the problem. So, one hour later.... we are off the ground and on our way.

That being said, we landed in Amsterdam at around 6:45. In any normal airport, making a 7:05 flight from this would be do-able. But let me tell you, Amsterdam is no ordinary airport, it is the New York Stock Exchange of Airports. There are people running all over to catch missing flights, there is a mob standing in front of each line of the passport check, and they even have a special area called transfer (big yellow sign) for all the flights they usually move due to crazy delays and their own bad line management. I was in this special area. That's right everyone... you know when you were late during orientation (which I wasn't ) and Al or Daphne said "You just missed your flight," well that was me. Missing my flight to Prague.

Unfortunately, my host family drove two hours from Ceske Budejovice to meet me at the airport, which I did not arrive at until about 6 hours later than expected. They picked me up and we headed home from there. Just me. No luggage, for that was still sitting in Amsterdam. I was pretty excited when I got there, until we got in the car.... about an hour into our journey I had my host dad pull over so I could throw up. This was mostly due to me being so tired from my flights and all the chaos my journey had ensued. Needless to say, I got home and slept all afternoon and all night.

Two days later, my oldest host brother left for his exchange in the United States. I miss him being around because while he was here he was the best translator I could ask for. He showed be around Budweis and where I would be going to school.

Now comes the worst part. I hate to be negative but I think it is only right that I share my feelings with all my journal readers and future RYE students. I have faced the most terrible home sickness that anyone could imagine. My first few days have been rough and there are many contributing factors. My luggage got lost, my host family speaks little English, my wall adapter for all my electronics is broken, I have nobody my age around, school has not started, I feel like I am wasting my time, and I miss my family very much. Two nights ago I even called my mom and said this is it, I have had it, bring me home right now.

I am hoping and praying that this feeling of sadness goes away soon, because I did not expect this at all. But RYE is all about the surprises and running into things that you never thought you would face. So I told my family I will give it a few more days and try to deal with what is in the present. I have turned off the distractions, and am trying a new approach. I am keeping a daily journal to make sure that I am trying hard enough for myself. After all, this whole thing is about me.

On a happier note, I would like to share some observations that I have here in Ceske Budejovice, CZ.

-The weather is currently perfect.

-I can now properly pronounce Ceske Budejovice

-I like watching Harry Potter movies in Czech with English subtitles

-As long as I take bus 2 or 15 I will make it home eventually.

Ahoy!

-Liz

September 11 Journal

I am doing really well here. It was hard at first, but now I could not be happier. Since writing my first journal I have started school here and attended orientation in Strecno, Slovakia. I am slowly but surely adjusting to my new life here in the Czech Republic, and keep falling deeper in love with my new home everyday. So let me share with you some new experiences I have had.

School is very different. I am with the same group of students all day long. Sometimes we move to a different classroom, but for the most part we are in the same seats all day. I have found that there are some tiny cultural differences that will take some time for me to get used to. One of these differences being socks with sandals in school. You are expected to change out of the shoes you came in and put on slippers or sandals. Oh, and did I mention the crocs? I thought I would be able to run away from them, but alas... just as popular in the Czech Republic. I do, however, greatly enjoy that once a class is over and the bell rings everyone pulls out food. My host mom always packs me a sandwich, candy bar, and drink everyday. In school my classes are: Economics, Sociology, History, Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English, Czech, German, and on occasion Physical Education (I say on occasion because it's only one time a week). I am pretty sure that is it, but if I remember any others I will be sure to add an aside later on.

I think school is taken much more seriously here than in the United States. Everyone has a notebook for each subject and during lessons all they do is copy notes. I however sit in wonderment either staring out the window or asking the rebound in my class what the teacher is talking about. The teachers do not expect much out of me until I get to English class. This is when I get frequent questions on pronunciation or how to say certain phrases. On Fridays, I take optional English with a teacher who is British. This is nicer, because the class is a little harder and me and the other exchange student are asked more things. It was funny though, because halfway through class the teacher said it was time for a break, and we took like 20 minutes off. Me, the other exchange student from New York, and the English teacher walked next door to the pub for a coffee break. It was quite strange, but I thought it was nice at the same time.

Orientation in Slovakia was fun. There are roughly 40 inbounds in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia combined, which is one district. It took us 9 hours by train to get to Strecno from Ceske Budejovice. I was so tired. We ended up getting lost when we arrived in Strecno because it is a very small village. It was fun though because we went to a pizza shop and had Kofola until we received a call with directions from some Rotary people. Kofola, if you do not know, is like the Czech or Slovak version of Coca Cola with much more caffeine. During the time of communism they could not import Coke so they created their own version. It tastes nothing like normal Coke at all. I think it is pretty good, but my host family does not drink it. At orientation, I got to go rafting and see a castle with the other inbounds. I made some new friends, and realized how much language I need to study.

Two days ago, I went to go see the Prague Symphony Orchestra in my city. I went with my Rotary club and the two other exchange students hosted by my club. I will say that this kind of music is not necessary my favorite, but I really enjoyed the concert. I kept telling myself that I don't have to like everything that I do here, but it's part of the culture and it's good to try it all.

I am learning new words and phrases everyday. My host family is very understanding that my language skills are terrible at best. My Rotary here is arranging for the inbounds in my city to take a language course soon, which I am hoping will help me out a little bit.  

In the meantime I will continue to sit in school and pretend like I know what they are talking about. I have learned when they say Americhanka or Anglitsky that they are talking about me, and hopefully soon I will be able to understand them.

I am going tonight to the Cinema with my host family, and tomorrow we are going on a bike ride down by the Vltava river. Chao for now!

September 23 Journal

I have two words for you all: Hladový vokno.

This may lead to the question... What on Earth is Hladový vokno? My friends, Hladový vokno is the Hungry Window. It is one of my favorite places. It is not clear to me what kind of magic is placed on the items that come out of this window... but I know there is something special going on. So if I go down the road of the Rotary 10 or 15 (I do not know the specific average), you can most likely blame it on the Hladový vokno. There are two locations known to me in České Budějovice, and both are fantastic. I always order a Slaninová II. It has bacon, onions, this strange cheese sauce that blows my mind, and maybe a few other things. I did not really read all the things on this sandwich. I think it was just one of the only ones I could figure out how to pronounce without sounding like a foreigner. I have found, however, that people here are very forgiving about my language skills. Even strangers are happy when I try, and the conversation usually will end with "Czech language is one of the hardest to learn, good luck with that," in some variation of broken English.

Other then the sandwiches I am learning new things everyday. My host family told me how to take the bus to the zoo, so I went with one of my friends (yes, friends) this weekend. It is nothing like the Jacksonville Zoo. I had to find out how to waste 3 hours because that was when the next bus came back to that stop. The most exciting animal there was Medvěd hnědý or for those English speaking folks Grizzly bear. He was a cutie. I also made friends with some Klokan rudokrký (which are baby kangaroos). The day at the zoo was very fun, but the aspect of the trip I was most proud of was traveling to and fro without any problems. It was a good day.

Another thing I would like to share with you all that is cool is that me and the other exchange students are teaching a conversational English class for three weeks while the normal teacher is at home with a family emergency. Under any normal circumstance I would have said no way to teaching English. I have no experience and I feel like people my own age would not want to listen to me gripe and give them assignments. But, since school is not necessarily that exciting, and I really had no choice (the headmaster looked so desperate for our help)... I said yes. I teach English 3 days a week for two class periods. I do not think that teaching English is the best way to absorb Czech, but the kids that we teach are very nice about it. We teach them items such as American holidays and customs and in return we get our own lesson about how the Czechs participate in such things. I think the best lesson we had so far was an hour and a half with about 15 students comparing the United States education system and the educational system in the Czech Republic. It was neat to see how eager they were to learn about the life that we were coming from and how much they wanted to share opinions on the advantages and disadvantages. I have two more weeks of teaching English before I go back to having a normal class schedule.

Other then these things, life seems to be pretty normal for me here. I wake up, eat some food, catch the bus, walk to school, sit in school all day, explore the city, catch the bus home, eat dinner with my host family, do some random family activity (watch TV, or movie), take a shower, go to sleep, and then repeat. I like how comfortable I have become living with my host family, and love how they have adopted me into their family as their new daughter. When I meet new people with my host family, my host mom always introduces me as her daughter. It makes me smile that they think of me as a real part of their family.

Lastly, happy one month to me! YAY! It feels like it has been so much longer.... (I know in a few months I will be saying what the heck... where did all the time go).

Ahoj.

October 2 Journal

AHHHH!!!! I finally visited Praha! It was amazing.

My host family took me last weekend to see some of the touristy things that people usually come to the Czech Republic to see. It was really nice. We also participated in many of the touristy things that people always do in Prague. The funniest part about the whole thing is that I did not feel like a tourist. I felt like I was watching people come to my home and take lots of silly pictures and speak too much English when that is not what we speak here. It was strange how that affected me, but I thought it was really cool at the same time. It was very crowded in Prague when we visited. This was most likely because it was the day that the Pope was in the city visiting the "Baby Jesus of Praha," which is a centuries old baby Jesus statue in one of the old churches.

The most interesting fact about this is that many people travel to Prague just to see this statue, that is everyone except the Czechs. Not many people here believe in organized religion so the people we saw in the church around the statue visiting were from other parts of Europe and some from South America. Also, the Pope never comes to the Czech Republic. This is his first visit in about 15 years. So that being said, people were crowded around the barriers of the Prague castle waiting to catch a glimpse at the Pope-Mobile....(and yes I was one of them).

The other highlights of the trip included a trip through the Baroque gardens, a trip on a boat down the Vltava to see the sights, walking across the famous Charles bridge, eating lunch off the old town square, and of course finding Starbucks (Al is probably reading this thinking.. how American is that?!?!?!). It was really funny however because I had to explain to my host family that Starbucks to me back in Florida was a very frequent occasion, and there are only two in the entire country here. Starbucks to them is much too expensive, because a coffee at a cafe is only 20 crown (about a dollar). That is why the only Starbucks in Czech Republic are in Prague, because people can afford it here. So when I saw that sign, my face lit up like Christmas. They made mention that we may have to go to Praha more often just so they can see me smile the way I did when we walked into Starbucks. My host brother even managed to tactfully acquire a bag of Starbucks coffee to bring back home (oh how I love my host family).

The next adventure I would like to tell you about has to do with package hunting. My dad sent me a really big package with some Florida shirts, a hoodie, some Halloween goodies to share with the family, and other random items. He wanted to gauge how long it would take so he would know in the future what type of mail would be the most economical in combination with receiving time on my end. This being said, when I checked my email I was able to see where my package was also. Well, once I saw they had tried to deliver it 2 times without leaving any sort of note, I became slightly confused. So being the motivated individual I was, I took the tracking number up to the main post office and managed to find out it was not there. But I did get a phone number and location of my package. This made the hunt go on. I called the number, listened to a murmur of Czech... and then got hung up on. Which meant in my book... " Liz, good luck ever seeing that package." Well since I was already looking forward to the Reese’s cups and had already explained how good they were to my host parents, I felt this obligation to find my package so I could share them with my family. I took a bus around the city too a post office that I thought was the one I needed, but was not and then was not able to look for longer that day because I had a Czech lesson in the afternoon.

I felt like the search was never going to end. Until at school the next day, in the English class I'm temporarily teaching, one of the students asked if I wanted him to help me at the post office. So he came with me and helped sort it all out. Long story short(er), I got my package the next day. My one friend who helped me said he was so happy to do so because he thought it would be a nice way to show his appreciation for all the help he has gotten in English. It made me feel really special. This adventure also gave me a great real world opportunity experience to practice my Czech skills. I learned every Czech word having to do with post office and sending and receiving packages. Should be a breeze when I start sending or packages.

Tak (so), I feel like I have written a lot for you all to read for now, but I promise the next journal will be more exciting because my family and I are going to Italy! So until then, na shledanou!

October 12 Journal

I thought the drivers in the Czech Republic were crazy, but they are most certainly not as wild as the ones in Italy. I think that this is a nice way to start what might possibly be a very long description of vacation hilarity and wonderment. As you may have read (or not) in my last journal, my host family took me to Italy for the weekend. This was amazing not only because I got to see Italy but it also gave me an opportunity to get to know my host family even better than before. We planned on leaving the house at 7 am.... so at 8:30 we were on our way. Here's a cultural aspect for those thinking of visiting or coming here on exchange: the Czechs like being on time, enjoy being on time, but if they are not on time... it's not the end of the world (You will see this later in the journal on the ride home also).

We made the 7 hour journey to Verona, our first stop in Italy, by way of Austria and Germany. It was so beautiful. The small villages that lined the roadway were picturesque and I felt like I had a postcard taped to the inside of the car window. My host dad also embraced the road trip as a way to give me more of the interesting history tidbits I pick up while living here. We drove through a small city in Germany by the Austrian boarder where my host dad went on a Hitler history tangent, throughout which he was very reassuring that he was by no means a supporter of his regime. They just love history. As the car ride wore on, I continued to sleep. It's the easiest and fastest way to make it safely to your destination. At one point during my slumber I got a very gentle poke on the leg, "wake up, we are almost in Italy." At this I was so excited, mostly because Italy is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, It was even very high up on my list of countries I wanted to go to on exchange.

When we finally arrived in Verona and it took us a solid 30 minutes to find the hotel, which was not bad at all. The streets are a confusing labyrinth of don't turn this way and I don't think so if your vehicle is bigger than a Vespa. When we reached the hotel, we discovered they had a guest parking area, to which my host family was most certainly relieved. We took an hour to unpack and refresh before going out to explore the city. My host family has been to Verona 5 or 6 times before, so they know what places are nice to see. If you are reading this thinking..."why does Verona sounds so familiar?," it is because it has been way too long since you have thought about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This is the setting for the play. Even though the play is fiction, there is a family Capulet and they did live in Verona. Anyway, enough about Shakespeare. The town is so pretty. The ruins of the Roman empire are all around, and you feel as if you have stepped into a time machine while walking the streets. There were multiple occasions when I had to stop and pinch myself because I really did think that I was dreaming. We visited the Julieta house, the Verona Castle, the Roman theatre, and ate dinner in the town square (and yes I did have pizza).

I had to laugh at how small the espresso was. I think that is what keeps people going in Italy late at night. During the day there are less people, then all of a sudden.... bam! Let's eat dinner for 3 hours. It's culture and even with this I found myself thinking and relating more with the Czech lifestyle. I had conversations in Czech with my host family about different things. They explained to me one of the benefits of speaking Czech is that not a lot of people can. If you say something bad in English about food or the hotel you are in, then more people are likely to understand you. But if you say it in Czech, nobody around you knows what you are talking about. I love this! I feel like the new language I am learning is a secret one. My host family and I agree that Czech is one of the best languages to speak while traveling.

The second stop on our Italy trip was Milano. I was in awe with the dramatic change from small romantic Verona, to fashionably large Milan. We spent 3 hours in Milano just driving around (yes, looking for the hotel). I felt like there was this connection to one of the National Lampoon movies instead of "hey look kids there's Big Ben... hey look kids there's Big Ben again...," it was "hey look Liz there's the Duomo... hey look Liz there's the Duomo again." I like the Duomo. The gothic style just draws me in. It is amazing how something this spectacular has lasted so long. Here's a fun fact: Did you know that the Duomo in Milan is the 3rd largest Cathedral in the world? Well, if you didn't, now you do. We also visited the Santa Maria delle Grazie, that housed Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" until they moved it to the museum next door. I did not get the opportunity to see the painting itself, because it is necessary to make reservations at least 3 weeks in advance. I did however see my fair share of churches and monasteries while in Milan. I would name them all, but there were way too many! I also enjoyed going through the fashion district. I could not afford anything by Gucci, Prada, Valentino, or Armani but it was sure nice to look.

After a nice night's rest, I packed my bag and was ready to hit the road for an exciting ride home. My host parents thought it would be nice to drive up to Lake Como in Northern Italy and then go back the Czech Republic by driving through the Alps. Just think... (it took 7 hours to get here by highway), when we left "ake Como at around 2 pm I was ready for a nice mountain ride. At around 8 pm, we were still in Italy. We stop at a light on the road where they were doing construction work. My host dad turns around and asks "So Liz, you like adventure right?" Of course I say yes. Because that was what we were on, the adventure of following the mountain road. We had a road map of Europe and my host mom turns and points..."tade" she says. I'm going to be completely honest, we were nowhere near where we needed or even wanted to be. That being said... when we found the one sign that said Autostrada, we followed it. It took us 100 km to even reach the highway. And when we did, we were probably 2 hours away from where we had started. It sure was an adventure, and I loved ever second of it. I learned more about how my host parents function and can now recognize many Czech words having to do with travel. I also found that my host parents sort of function like the Jetsons. Do you remember that cartoon? We would stop at a rest area to use the restroom and fill the auto with gas and my host mom would stick out her hand for the money to go inside and get some food. It was adorable. It reminded me of the Jetsons how George Jetson would work and make the money only to have Jane spend it all. That was all I could think of. Our trip continued into the wee hours of the morning as I slept. We arrived back at the house at 4 am. That's right... 7 hours to get there 14 to get back. I love it.

So today is a day of resting and fasting. The resting is because of the long trip, the fasting is because I ate way too much while I was in Italy. I was gone for 2 and a half days. In that time I ate 3 pizzas, a calzone, 2 plates of pasta, continental breakfast at the hotel on both mornings, gelato, tiramisu, and I'm sure much more that I can't think of. Needless to say, I do not need to be doing any more eating today. If I do, it should only be fruit, yogurt, and water. Until next time....

Čau.

P.S. This has nothing to do with my trip to Italy. But I thought I would let the members of the Mandarin Rotary Club know how openly my host club has accepted Fluffy as a member of the club. They are fascinated with him. He even has his own chair at the end of the table. I cannot explain how or why, but Fluffy is a hit! More info and pictures coming soon!

October 20 Journal

Ahoj! It is very heavily debated as to which languages are the most difficult to learn and I do not think there will ever be a definitive list without one language fighting to be known as more difficult. So short of Chinese I would like to put in my vote for Czech being the 2nd hardest language. Nobody thinks of it being a hard language because they never think of the Czech Republic. If they do, it is probably assumed they do not have their own language. It is only spoken by about 12 million people worldwide, 11 of which live in the country. So, it is a rare occurrence abroad to find someone else who speaks Czech unless you are in the country itself. I think that is the best part, because once I have learning the language under my belt I can have side conversations in Czech so nobody understands (except the person who I find to speak with in Czech). Alright, so this means it is time for a brief Czech language lesson.

-The way it is spelled is the way it is pronounced. Very simple if you can actually get your mouth to make the sound of whatever letter you want to say. This goes well for me until I get to the letter Ř. It does not matter how you slice it, this letter is my least favorite letter in the alphabet... and surprise it only exists in Czech! Apparently it is to sound like: "rž" or like 'rg' in bourgois. It is so awkward. My classmates love trying to get me to say words that have that letter (which seems like all of them). Příští zastávka means bus stop, and I can't even say the first part. It sounds like I tried to vomit way too many sounds at once.

-The accents are nice and not so nice at the same time. It helps with recognizing the sounds, but then when I try to type something on my English computer keyboard it takes me 20 minutes to write a Czech sentence. I bookmarked a Czech Alphabet link on my computer so I can copy and paste the letters. It works for now.

-The Czech language itself can be traced back to the 11th century. Pretty impressive if I do say so. It's a synthetic language, which means a lot of word changing, but not as much word adding. It is perfectly okay to make a one word sentence. I will give an example: you go - jdeš or you will go - půjdeš. Another fun but bummer is that j is y, y exists but sounds like I or ee, and I is still alive too, and sounds just like I or ee also. So in the end, the only letter that got his sound stolen was J. Jan is a very common name here, but it pronounced like Yan or Honza. Or, if Jan is introduced to me he says you can just call me John (with hard J sounds). What?? you just say your name was Honza. Come on people. This whole concept throws me off.

-I am a fan of names here. Some of my friends are: Alžběta (bětka), Magdalena (Magda), Petra, Veronika, Kateřina (Katka), Ondřej (Pozzy), Flantišek and Eduard (Eda). I will use Eda as an example. When I talk about Eda to someone else it's Eda. If I am calling him from across the room or trying to get his attention I say Edo. It works the same with everyone else. This leads to a constant situational ending letter change that makes my head hurt sometimes. The system of conjugation is really complex.

-My current favorite way to learn new Czech words is to go on walks with my Czech friends and have them point things out in the environment and tell me the Czech word. Then, about 2 hours later they will ask me what the words are. It's a fun way to get to know the people and the language at the same time.

So that's a good overview language for the moment. When I start drowning in grammar I might bore you all again with another language lesson. I have lessons 2 days a week with a teacher who has taught exchange students in the past. They are going well. Also, is it possible to decline in your native language? It often takes me a very long time to think of words that were once so easy to come by. Just a thought.

Until next time (soon I am sure, I like writing too much!). Čau.

November 1 Journal

I wish I could freeze time. I know that a little over two months is barely a dent in my exchange experience, but I already know that it is going to be over before I know it. It is November... last year at this time I was awaiting my interview and acceptance into the RYE family. Now, I am living my dream. What was once a thought, turned into an action, led me to being in this very seat, on this computer, writing my journal for everyone to read (well I like to think there are a lot of you).

Time is fascinating. Moments come and go. Feelings range from happy to sad, people that were once a very integral part of your life slowly disappear into the shadow that time has created. But the best part is that all that once was gets replaced with something new. The actions seem more kinetic, the people seem more relatable, the world is literally at your fingertips. I wish I could really put into a properly stated sentence how much I love all of these feelings. I am learning how to react on my own, there is no need to look behind me, for the future is what I make it. The Czech Republic is peculiar. Not in a bad way, but just... well peculiar. If I asked anyone back home something about this place they may say Prague, or that's where you are on exchange. They would not be able to tell you that the people I have shared my time with so far in this place are amazing. They may seem to be quiet or shy at first, just like myself. But when the candle is lit, you can feel the warmth of the souls around you.

Since my last entry I have cooked an entire meal for my host family (which they called "American Day"), and I have shared and experienced Halloween. On "American day" I made pancakes, mac and cheese, hot dogs, cornbread, bbq pork, and brownies. Even though I do not think myself a distinguished cook, they seemed to think that I was the best one ever. The great feeling that I got out of that day, however, had nothing to do with food. It is the realization that there really are more cultural differences than you notice. When I sat down with my host family and they asked me what they were eating it was strange, because all of these foods seem so normal to me. It is like when we have brambory at almost every meal. I mean, I like potatoes, but I did not know I had to be prepared to love them.

Halloween was a very family oriented day. They treated it like an "All Souls day" where we went to 3 different towns and villages to visit the graves of deceased relatives. We lit candles at each gravesite and signed small crosses over the graves. All of the graves had been previously adorned with a multitude of flowers, still some families brought more. It was strange to see some of these graves, because many of the people who had died were war victims or soldiers. Which always leads me back to the line "If we could make every high school student in the world an exchange student, there would be no more war." I feel that this is true. I have been accepted into a family and new life that I have created for myself. I feel like everyone who thinks of the United States that I come into contact with will think of me. Just as I have done in the past with other exchange students. It's a great feeling knowing that you can change the world with small actions.

If you were wondering (I bet not), I am still not fluent in Czech. I fear I will not be for quite some time. But, all I can do is keep working on my language skills and they will come. I often get frustrated because I want to know what people are saying when they speak fast or slow! In school I want to learn everything that my class is doing. I want to be able to think and feel just as they all do. I want to be able to close my eyes and read the back of my eyelids in some sort of gibberish that only a small percentage of the world may understand. I want that to be me.

Lastly, I want to applaud all of the future exchange students out there. I have no idea how many of you read or even follow my journal, but I do not think any of you are fully aware of what a truly great experience this is. I wish I could tell you everything I knew about youth exchange, the emotions, the friendships, and the sense of self that you gain slowly over this year. But honestly, I would be lying if I told you anything. Because it is different for all of us, but we are all learning to become ourselves.

November 18 Journal

"What you think you create, What you feel you attract, What you Imagine you become."- Adele Basheer

This quote is on the front of the journal my best friend gave me as a going away present. I did not think I was going to have to use it this soon. I have already filled up my first journal with pages and pages of stories and notes. When I grabbed this journal off my shelf, it was honestly the first time I had thought about the quote on the cover. I wonder how long it took Halie to find this journal in the bookstore... because this quote is so relevant to how I am feeling now. It symbolizes all the change that is happening and will happen in the months to come. My brain is always on the move. I don't crave the old things that I once loved and could not be without. I do not miss the old life I had, as I did when I first arrived in this country. I have been here for about three months. I am at a level of happiness with people and surroundings that I once wanted to castrate (yes, I said castrate). Now, a blink feels like a wasted moment, until I realize my eyes are actually opening into a big adventure. When my mouth opens, my brain automatically responds with this gibberish that has become so warming. I almost fail to recognize myself, but I know this is only the start of a new me. I am becoming me.

I have seen new sights and sounds in addition to knowing my own home like the back of my hand (yes, I call my town home now). In the past feel weeks I have been to Prague (again :D) to see the musical Carmen, Jindřichův Hradec for an inbound weekend, and Bad Schallerbach in Austria. In Austria I went to Aquapulco, which is this amazingly fun indoor water park. Good news was that the sun was shining... so like any good Floridian exchange student that has been deprived of mass amounts of sunshine, I spent 2 hours of my stay in Aquapulco sunbathing. My body was very happy.

The only thing that is going downhill is the lack of warmth and sunshine. I had to go out and buy an even warmer jacket, because the walk to the bus stop every morning keeps getting colder and colder. Also, no wonder I am sure when January rolls around I will be frozen into an icicle. Generally, I find nothing else to complain about other than weather. If anything else, it is probably only how I have to wake up, go to school everyday, sit while they learn and look vacantly out the window at hopes that something a little more interesting will happen. NOOO WAIT!! What I meant to say was... I love going to school. We learn the most interesting things. I understand fully and comprehend all things that go on through the day and it brings me to tears the moment class is over for the day. * I really miss Sarcasm... it does not exist in this country.*

Other than this... I am not losing anything except the English language. I make the stupidest vocabulary errors, and I can't even think about grammar. My friends in school will ask me questions about things that are so particular that I have no idea what to tell them. I almost always refer them to the other American exchange student and admit to myself that I have been defeated by the lack of English stimulation. I have just let that go though. I think it is such a fun experience to be so consumed in the new life you have created that you forget basic things. Today I mixed up the words savage and salvage. I have no clue what context it was in... but I was oh so wrong. I find the best solution to anything you do wrong: Laugh. It really is the best medicine.

So that's about it. I am at a loss... I have found so much normality in my life that everything I could write would sound so mundane. You don't want to hear about how happy I am riding the bus when I would have rather drowned than ride the bus in America. Or, how I clean my room and do my own laundry. Heck, I even offer to wash the dishes. Al, when this gets posted make sure you have EMS on stand-by... I don't think my parents can read this sort of information without having heart attacks. :)

Zatím na shledanou.

November 29 Journal

Wait... what is it... did you say that there is a Christmas Tree in the Square?!?!?!? Does that mean it's the official start of mass chaotic shopping and eating way too much food?!?!? Not only that, but it means that I am over 3 months into my exchange (holy $#!%), time really is going way too fast.

Until I start blabbering on about holiday traditions here and so on, I should tell you about my experience with Thanksgiving in a foreign country. Everyone was extremely interested in this American holiday. In fact, I happened to eat three separate Thanksgiving type meals! That's more than at home, but I suppose in Florida it is made up for with days of turkey related leftovers. I had a meal with the Rotex at our inbound weekend, I had one with some friends from school, and another with my host family. Overall, I am very pleased with how well it went. I made some monkey bread for my friends and family and helped my babička (Czech for Grandma) with the turkey.

I love my babička. The only words she knows in English are "yes, no, and cabbage," which in my opinion, is perfect. I wish that those were the only things people could say to me in English. Every time I go to visit her for lunch or baking cakes, I leave her flat with the biggest smile. She forces me to use my language skills and it makes me feel so good to finally understand almost everything that she says. While we were eating our "Thanksgiving" we were talking about dance lessons. She asked my host dad to help translate so I would understand. Here's the best part: before he said anything to me in English, I translated it to him. He looked at my babička and then back at me and said "See, you don't need me to tell you anymore, you understand fine."(This is when you imagine that moment of running into the bathroom, locking the door and doing the happy dance while screaming in excitement.) It was one of the best moments I have ever had. All of the little moments like this one make me grow even closer to the family that Rotary has given me in the Czech Republic. I cannot imagine how I am going to leave them in January, but I know my next family will take care of me too J.

Now, it is time for the scoop on Czech holiday shenanigans. It's true, Christmas is coming way sooner than I expected. This realization did not come until I had my babička strapped to my arm, while sipping punč and waiting for the city's tree to be colorfully lit for the start of the Christmas season. The temperature was way too cold (5 degrees Celsius with a steady breeze is enough to make me want to hibernate for the winter). I stood next to my family in the square and listened to some Czech carols sung by a children's choir. I looked all around the square... an ice skating rink had appeared, as well as a plethora of lights and decorations. It's beginning to look and feel very much like Christmas. There are a few things that I am going to have to get used to. For example: Did you know that here presents will be delivered by Baby Jesus (in Czech Ježíšek ) ? Or, on the 5th of December we have Mikuláše (St. Nicholas day) when St. Nicholas comes to visit the children of the Czech Republic with an angel and devil by his side. The good children (if they promise to be good) receive a small gift or some candy while the naughty ones get coal or (typical) a potato. This all tends to be very confusing to me because 60% of this country is non-religious.

So when the tree was lit and my host brother said, "Advent. do you have in U.S.?" I looked and said yes, but then thought to myself they celebrate Advent? The answer is yes indeed. Advent is one of the most important seasons here. They do it just like textbook Catholics. They light the candles on the table (one for each week), small children keep Advent calendars, and they set out Nativity scenes. But, I was assured that even the people who aren't religious can celebrate Advent. They just use it as the 4 weeks before Christmas to anticipate opening presents, which sounds legit to me. Personally, I am going to use Advent to get a better understanding of holiday traditions, which means saying yes to anything having to do with holiday things that are typically Czech. I have already promised babička one of my Saturday's to bake cakes and candies and I am oh so excited to beat down Christmas dinner (I'll explain in a future journal).

For now, I'm trying to stay busy and not let the holiday season be a low point. Everyone always says it's one of the hardest parts of exchange and the homesickness will most likely be unbearable. Me, I am going to smile and embrace everything new and different for the next few weeks. I never know if I will get an opportunity like this ever again, so I am going to make the best of every moment no matter how embarrassing, disgusting, or strange I may find it to be. Tak čau.

December 9 Journal

This is called Půjdem spolu do Betléma (Let's go to Bethlehem together):

Pů-jdem spo-lu do Be-tlé-ma duj- daj, duj- daj, duj- daj, dá! Je-žíš-ku, pa-náč-ku, já tě bu-du ko-lí-bat.

Zač-ni, Ku-bo, na ty du-dy: duj- daj, duj- daj, duj- daj, dá! Je-žíš-ku, pa-náč-ku, já tě bu-du ko-lí-bat.

A ty, Jan-ku, na píšť-alku: dud-li, tud-li, dud-li, dá! Je-žíš-ku, pa-náč-ku, já tě bu-du ko-lí-bat.

A ty, Mik-ši, na hous-ličky: hud-li, tyd-li, hud-li, dá! Je-žíš-ku, pa-náč-ku, já tě bu-du ko-lí-bat.

A ty, Váv-ro, na tu basu: rum-rum, rum-rum, ruma, dá! Je-žíš-ku, pa-náč-ku, já tě bu-du ko-lí-bat.

I am still learning it, but it is by far my favorite Czech carol...

Roughly translated: It is a story of going to Bethlehem to meet the Baby Jesus. It is calling on different people to play music for him. The first is Jim who plays the pipe, the second is Jack who plays the flute, the third is Mickey who plays a small violin, and lastly Lawrence who plays the bass. The sound in the middle of each verse represents the sound of the instrument being played (pretty creative, huh?). I just like it because it's fun to sing... and watching my host mom and brother sing it on Mikuláš when the Czech Devil showed up at my host grandma's flat was priceless.

Speaking of.. I think this is the coolest holiday ever. Mikuláš is epic. The square had thousands of people gathered to watch the small angel rappel from the Black Tower to the other side of the square. Then, after that was over, there was a huge angel who was paraded around the whole square. Then most people go out to the pubs or go to their home to wait for Mikuláš or čert (the devil) to show up at their house. Unfortunately for me, I was a terrible person this year... which meant my house was visited by the devil. So without any interruptions, screaming and chaos entered my host grandma's flat and I got a pitchfork stuck in my face. I was prodded until I started singing a song (I chose Jingle bells because it was the first thing I could think of), and then the devil was pleased. Since I did not fail his test, he left me alone.

My host brother on the other hand was not so lucky.... when asked to sing he just sat there. Violence ensued and like any other child who gets visited by the devil, he was dragged to hell (in this case meaning across the living room with fierce resistance). I, of course, like any big sister would do in the situation....started laughing and pointing and taking lots of pictures. Did I mention how much I love this? My host grandma must have a way with holiday figures though because Mikuláš did us the honor of stopping by grandma's with presents earlier in the day. Isn't he sweet?!?! (Okay more like host dad and mom went shopping so Liz would eat her own weight in chocolate and gain all the weight she's been trying to avoid since she stepped foot in this country.)

Since it is winter now and there is only really cold weather and rain, which in my opinion is much worse than snow. My host family told me that the weather this year is quite odd. It snowed for two days in October and now when people are looking for a white Christmas, their hope is dwindling. I am looking forward to everything that's happening in the future (snow or not). My host family is taking me to the Christmas market in Vienna and we are also going to the Alps in Austria for a ski trip over winter holiday. So, whether or not there is snow in Czech does not matter, because I am still going to have a great time. Now, I am enjoying the winter nights with my friends ice skating on the square. It is not so expensive and it gives me a chance to do something that I don't normally do in Florida (which is ice skate). My second host dad even invited me to play ice hockey with them if I want. I'm not so sure about that one....

I hope that everyone has a fantastic vánoční svátky (Christmas holiday)!

And because Sarah May did it in her journal, I must add a Rotary Blazer picture.... and those of you who know my creative persona will understand exactly how my blazer came to be this chaotic before I even hit 4 months.

 December 24 Journal

This, my friends, is the heart wrenching tale of my long lost friend. His name was Emil. And this is his story….

It was early, on that cold December morning, the 23rd I suppose. Emil was canoodling with the others waiting to be picked up by his new, loving family. His friends were coming and going as he stood quietly amongst the wake. Finally, the hand reached in from above, and plucked him from his slumber. He was confused, alone, and very scared. Once he arrived in his new home, a mere 10 minutes later, he was welcomed by a plethora of water and new smiling faces. It didn’t take long for Emil to make new friends and refresh after his journey. Of course, you know how outgoing those Rotary exchange students are ;). Emil and I were instant friends. We took pictures together and discussed our holiday plans. Little did he know, my family had something else in mind. A plan, in which, he became the victim. My poor, poor friend Emil…..

As the story continues, Emil and I parted ways, but only for an hour or two. I even received word that he was still doing just fine, and I needn’t worry about him at all. As it turns out, I was duped. When I went to visit Emil in the evening I was greeted with what looked like a vicious crime. I was assured, however, that this was not what it looked like. Emil was in no harm at all, especially in the comfort of what appeared to be a plastic bag. I held him as we rode in the car on our way to some sort of rendezvous. As I exited the vehicle, I held on to Emil with all my strength. I handed him over at the door to a man who appeared to be a caretaker. He was wearing an apron and I was greeted with a smile. (If you have a weak stomach please skip the next paragraph).

To my dismay, my young friend was taken from me under false pretenses. It wasn’t until I heard the muffled banging sounds that I became worried about Emil and his safety. Shockingly enough, by the time that I had thought to go check on him… It was too late. The man who greeted me previously had filleted my new friend. Emil was handed back to me in pieces, and I was on the verge of tears. I couldn’t help but think… this is not the happy ending I thought our friendship would have. As I took him home, in what was now a cooking pot, that I had started referring to as an Urn, I questioned the morals of my family.

But oh was he tasty!!! And I can’t help thinking that Carp on Christmas is the coolest tradition in the world.

What you have just read is indeed, quite true. It is what I have found to be one of the most interesting holiday traditions here in the Czech Republic. At first the idea seemed rather barbaric, but after being a part of the whole process and experiencing it for myself, I couldn’t help but smile at the differences. If you think about it, it can be compared to how most Americans always have turkey on Thanksgiving. Only here, you get to live with you dinner before you eat it.

I am going to try and keep this journal short because that story said it all. I just wanted to thank Rotary and my family again for letting me experience this. You have no idea what it means to me. So to everyone in the United States, Czech Republic, and all my other exchange friends in the world have a Hezký vánoce a štastný nový rok!! I love you all!

January 10 Journal

One day Lift ticket for Sternstein: € 22,00

Wiener Schnitzel mit pommes: € 9,50

Car ride back to Czech Republic: 64.4 km + gas

Visit to Hospital after said day in Sternstein: Nothing except the pain in my wrist and an excruciatingly long wait for various doctors to look at my x-rays because my host mom is a doctor so she has taken extra care to make sure her baby isn’t dying and hasn’t broken anything.

Finding out that my wrist isn’t broken and I can still enjoy my week long Snowboard trip to the Alps in Austria: PRICELESS!!!!

Thankfully, it was only a sprain. Regardless, it was still (and still is) painful, but I was so excited when they told me I could still snowboard with my new nifty wrist brace. Two thumbs up if you ask me. Basically… the story is, we went to the Czech/Austrian Boarder (on the Austrian side) so I could try out snowboarding before our week in the Alps. Because I am a goober, I fell and put all my weight on my arm. Then, of course, it hurt really bad. We got back home, and I asked my host mom to look at it. She told me it wasn’t broken (to which I didn’t believe her) and wrapped it up. I think I slept for a total of two hours that night and woke up still with gross amounts of pain in my wrist. Host dad calls host mom, who then arranges for x-rays and to have every doctor in the region examine my results. Turns out there’s a small crack in one bone in my arm not big enough to cast and some torn innards. No big deal says the 5 doctors who examined it and all tried to overanalyze it because I was the doctor’s daughter. They arranged for me to get this sweet brace for my wrist that allows me to feel like I’m Iron Woman. I can do virtually anything with this thing on and not cause any more damage to my wrist! This meant that I could still enjoy my vacation!

Speaking of vacations… I WAS IN THE ALPS!!!! THE ALPS! THE ALPS! THE ALPS! THE ALPS! (Okay sorry). It was amazing to say the least. When you live in Florida and the most you get is a freeze warning that declares a state of emergency by the Governor due to the citrus crop (thank you CNN on Austrian television that I don’t get in CR) you tend to get very excited when you see things this magnificent. The air was cool, the snow was….. well, snowy and the food, holy cow! Forget hungry window causing my weight gain, what I really meant to say was “I gained all this weight on my one week trip to Austria.” The ski/snowboard philosophy here from what I have experienced is much different. In the United States, when I go snowboarding, it’s an all day event. I start at 9 am and finish as soon as the lifts close with a small break for some sort of food. This food is shoveled down so fast that I don’t even have time to socialize and it’s back to the slope. In Austria… the story is so different. We start around the same time, perhaps a little later but, we stop for lunch. I mean STOP. About an hour later we get back on the slope (around 2 or so) and take a few more runs. Then around 3:30 (slopes close at 4:30) we stop for coffee, tea, or for the hardcore people some sort of Austrian bar concoction. Then we slowly make our way all the way back down the mountain to the lodge or the car. This is followed by a short break at our mountain flat which leads into more eating for dinner. After dinner I played Carcassone with my family and then stayed up to watch CNN, because I was so excited that there was a channel in English. My TV at home here only has Czech channels. It’s cool for learning, but when you are looking to inform yourself on the latest stories of the world, it’s nice to see the news. Downside: when there is very limited newsworthy coverage, you see the same headlines over and over (Thank you, CNN). Besides all the food and multiple bruises from falling so much, I had the best week ever! We stayed at a Bed and Breakfast type place run by Brun Hilda. No, I’m serious… That’s really her name. She made me breakfast every morning complete with eggs that had hats. They were the cutest thing ever and I regret not taking any pictures of them. She only talked to me in German, which was an experience… because I had no idea what she was saying. But, I put on that “Rotary Smile” said Guten Morgan, Auf Wiedersehen and good. For one week, I’m pretty pleased with my German language knowledge.

The way home was bittersweet. I knew that the best week I ever had with my host family was ending. Packing up all my belongings, I made my way to my next host family. It’s one of the best/worst moments in Youth Exchange that I have experienced thus far. I have become so attached to my 1st host family that when I was getting ready to leave they were trying to find excuses for me to stay. For example: “I think there is too much snow on the street to drive the car,” “I think it will be better if you have more time to pack,” “So… maybe you should move next week or the week after.” All of these made me realize just how lucky I was to have the time that I did with this family. I know that they will forever be a part of my life and I am so grateful to have been a part of theirs.

Moving is all part of the experience and as much as I am going to miss my last host family, I am going to move forward and give my current family the best of my time. I want everyone in my new life here to be able to share the same kind of relationship that I have conceived with my first host family. Step back world. I have a new family for 2 ½ months. It may only be the first day, but I promise to make this time of my exchange even better than the last.

January 22 Journal

Ahoj World.

Let's see, what can I tell you that's new? Well, you already know that I changed host families. You already know I'm gaining lots of weight. But, perhaps I can find something new to talk about. How about this: I started dance lessons! Not ballet or jazz, but traditional ballroom dancing. Many families send their children to dance lessons between the ages of 15 to 19 so they're children can become "more refined" and "more cultured". Since doing new things is one of those awesome little traits of being an exchange student, my host grandma, whom I love so much, seized the opportunity to buy me dance lessons as one of my Christmas presents. Lucky for me, the lessons are taught only in Czech.

This leads to the very interesting side topic of last Monday (about a week or so ago). Oh last Monday, how you made me very confused. The first week I moved into my new family, it was only my host parents because my brother was on a ski trip with his class in France. Seeing as my host parents do not speak very much English, this led to mass Czech language learning on my part because without that my answers would have been quite repetitive of yes's, I understand's, no, I'm not hungry, I really am hungry, and I'm going to sleep. I say this simply because those are usually my most important phrases of the day. But, since I was thwarted into this new environment, there is no time like the present to start studying much more than I was before.

Ok, so back to Monday. I had gone to school like any other normal Monday and was home around 2:30. I decided that I would have a snack and just relax before my dance lessons. This led to talking to my host mom briefly, watching some TV, eating a small dinner, and then taking a shower and getting ready to go. I was at my dance lesson from 5:30 to 8. I returned to the house, with my feet sore as could be, talked to my host parents, did not pass go and did not collect 200 dollars. I was so tired. So naturally, I went to bed early (wow, that never happens). Turns out by the time I wake up for school at 6:45 am, I was in so much mass confusion that I had to sit there and regroup for a few minutes. And why is this? Because I had my first 100% totally complete dream in Czech. I have had ones before that had only some phrases that were random and some words that I had used on repeat for any particular day. But never have I woken up and my first thought been "What the HE*L did I just dream about." because to be honest, I really have no idea what my first dream in Czech was about. I think I was so surprised when I woke up that I completely forgot. I went to eat breakfast and was, well, wow. It was awesome. But at the same time, I am looking forward to the point where I can dream in Czech and be able to completely understand it.

Hmm. so after that interesting life story, I do not have much else to follow it with. Last night I stayed up way too late (meaning early morning) making food and dancing around my kitchen with my host brother. We made some noodles, played really loud music and shared in general hilarity. I think maybe one of my favorites was fighting over which CD's to play. The creative strategy of "well, we should listen to my music, I'm being a good host sister and sharing my culture with you." And about 10 minutes later it would be "Well, Liz, now that I know I don't like that CD, I'm going to put in my music." This is A.K.A "sharing our cultures". I, in fact, always tend to lose at this. I don't mind though. Czech music is usually pretty good, and my host brother also has an extensive collection of older English CD's that I am also a fan of like The Beatles. My two favorite Czech bands here are Vpsaná fixa and Mandrage. Good stuff.

In the past week I've also attended the Rotary Ples for Cesky Krumlov with the exchange students there. It was a lot of fun. I think I met more people interested in me being an exchange student than I ever have in one sitting. I met Rotarians from Denmark, Austria, Turkey, Slovakia, and, of course, Czech Republic. Maybe, by the time Ples (fancy ball) season is over (now until late March) I will be an amazing dancer. I sure hope so.

Alright, well I've managed to spend enough time avoiding to walk to the bus stop to get to Czech lessons on time. so I should probably leave now. I'll write more later, promise .

February 2 Journal

Does anyone recall that line in the Outbound student handbook in bold print where it says "Be Prepared to Adapt"? For the most part, this really has not been too challenging for me. Making friends wasn't so hard, and the most complicated barrier in even the hardest of times has been my language skills. And I am by no means complaining in any way, shape, or form. I am just letting you all know what I am experiencing now is a little bit more challenging than what I have faced so far.

Do you recall in my last journal or 2 mentioning that I moved? Well, at first I was just out of place mentally because I am so close with my first host family. I give them a lot of credit and without them, I probably would have been on my way back to Florida much earlier than anyone would have liked. But now, I have been living in my new home for exactly 23 days. This has been the hardest part of my exchange. Adaptation is a skill that I thought was easy.. No sir. Not at all. I literally changed lifestyles overnight. The Kubešovi family is my new family. My host mom is Marie, who I call Marie. Host dad is Honza, who I call Honza. My host brother. well he's also Honza because 1 out of every 6 males in Czech Republic are named that. And yeah, I call him Honza too. I also have a host sister, Jana, who studies in Germany and another older host sister Maruška who lives down the street with her husband and daughter, Marketa (age 2). I have my own room upstairs, and it's quiet and peaceful.

On Sunday nights after dinner, I sit down with my host family and I write out my schedule for the week. This is so the whole family knows what each other is doing. All my plans are thoroughly checked prior to engagement. My host mom has a copy of my school classes so she knows what time I will be home from school every day. I have dance lessons on Monday, Rotary meetings on Wednesday, and every other day of the week I normally have nothing exciting planned. In my new home, much more is expected of me. If I have no plans after school, I am home within 30 minutes of my school being finished for the day. If I do have plans, I am home at whatever time they agreed to. When I come home, I am to say "Ahoj," so they know that I am there before I go up to my room. And. cool for me. best part.. Ready... Set.. No more English!! The only time something gets close to English is if I am so lost in understanding something that they will help me out. Other than that, plans are discussed and made in Czech, dinner conversations are in Czech, and misunderstandings are dealt with in Czech.. which for me means I am usually on the short end of the stick.

If you were wondering why it hasn't really sounded like I've had any issues so far with everything it's because I haven't mentioned having problems. The only problem I have had is that it is taking me much longer than I had hoped to adjust to my new life in my new house. Every day I am learning something new about my host family and how they function. Examples: How plans need to be made a week in advance, flattening out clothes before folding is essential, you take-you clean up, even if we offer- you can get it yourself, mom is always right, I don't eat soup with my left hand so why did you put the spoon on the left, umiš český, we discussed it 5 days ago in Czech.. why can't you remember?, and we made plans and you're going. None of these things are problems. They are all things that I have to adjust to. One of the experiences of being an exchange student is having the chance to move and experience a new family life. I just happened to move extremes from fluid to strict. Hence: I am the one who has to adapt. A word to others who may one day be in my shoes: don't be shocked if you switch families and you think that your life is going to end. It won't end. It will just take some more time to get used to everything that they do differently. My host family now has hosted multiple exchange students before from Mexico, Brazil, Australia, and Ecuador. I am their first American. I really don't want to ruin their vision of America by being unreasonable. So as difficult as I have a feeling these next 2 months are going to be.. I will overcome it. Because I am an exchange student, and exchange students can do anything they put their minds to. (Yes, I am still wearing my Rotary Smile).

I also want to share with you the awesome time I had at Pec Pod Sněžkou at my inbound weekend for Czech Republic. It took 6 hours of cross country travel by train with some of my closest friends for a day of snowboarding and of course, the infamous Czech Language test. For without this language test, it really wouldn't be a Czech Rotary weekend. I spent all day on that Saturday snowboarding in a small group (7 people) who actually knew what they were doing. The only part I didn't enjoy was having to use T-lifts all day long. You know... the old school bars that skiers can use but snowboarders just look dumb because they have to put it between their legs?!?! Okay, well they always designated someone to go after me in the lift line because 9 times out of 10 I would fall within 4 seconds of trying to get on the lift. Regardless it was a really fun weekend. It made me realize how little time I really have left with some of my inbound friends, because the next Rotary function we have together isn't until the end of May. After my day of snowboarding on Saturday, I said goodbyes and made the 6 hour journey from Trutnov back to Ceske Budejovice. *Side note* I love how easy it is to travel within the country, kudos to Europe for awesome modes of public transportation.

A big Děkuji to Rotary both in Florida and Czech Republic. I can't thank you enough for everything you have given me. Ahoj! J

February 27 Journal

I started writing my journal awhile back, but found I had nothing interesting to say and/or that I was having one of those days that nobody really wants to hear about. But, now I have much more interesting things to talk about. This week was a school holiday and I had the opportunity to visit München, Germany (Munich). My current host sister is at University there and she offered to take me for the week and show me around the city. It was a nice break from the everyday, and I enjoyed every second of it.

I walked around Olympia park, the site of the 1972 Olympic games. The grounds were quiet, spare all the construction going on to make the park even nicer. I circled the complex and even had a look at the Olympic swimming pool, which was huge. After walking around and taking far too many pictures, we left and got on the underground to go eat lunch. I must say, I am fascinated with public transport in big cities here. I love it. It’s so practical and it makes me feel like I would never need a car. But, that all changed when we went to the BMW showroom.

This place is awesome. I know I can’t drive until I am back in the states anyways, but really… I loved sitting in the driver’s seat of all the cars that I will not be able to afford until I save up in my retirement fund (which is a long time). Me and my friend Rachael, who came with me to Munich, took dozens of photos because neither one of us had sat behind the wheel of a car in 6 months. We were a bit excited. I drove a car on the Daytona Speedway, via playstation and was pretty satisfied that this was the only amount of driving I could do in Europe. I watched an eager couple pick up their brand new BMW and take pictures with it as it rotated immaculately around the showroom floor. It was a fun time.

On a more serious note, I also had the chance to visit Dachau, the first established concentration camp. This was the camp that served as a model for all the other camps set up throughout Hitler’s reign. It was also the training place of the SS and became known as the “school of violence.” Spending a few hours here made me very thankful that I have the life that I do. I walked around the grounds and had a lot of time to reflect. I saw a short documentary film about the camp and what happened to the people who lived in it. I was surprised at how much that I didn’t know about the Holocaust, and how much I learned after I left. It was also interesting for me because I became interested in what happened to the Czech people who were imprisoned here. I started associating myself with Czechs and reading all about what happened to them throughout this time. Turns out, not many of them were actually imprisoned, because the Czech nation was being used to make weaponry for the war effort. So nobody wanted to mess with the people making the guns. Some were still taken, but it was not nearly as much as the other races or nationalities. It was amazing to me how it just started with one or two “imperfect” races and began to spread to other social groups. I feel like they began making excuses to just throw people into camps. It really shocked me. This was one of the most important days I spent in Munich because it opened my eyes to a past that I knew about, but really had not experienced.

On my last day in Munich, I visited the Deutches Museum, which is a technical museum. It was fun to run around the 6 stories of halls related to all sorts of different things. They have history of ships, planes, boats, physics, astronomy, photography, textiles, toys, pottery, glassmaking, and all sorts of other things. I even got a great view of the city from the Sundial garden on the 5th floor. There were more cars there… but I couldn’t sit in them L. I did however get to pretend I was the captain of a ship, make energy from hydrogen, and see a piano that was older than the United States. I usually like going to museums like this one where the exhibits are a bit more interactive. It was enjoyable, and thanks to it I have so many pictures that I have no idea what I am going to do with.

I think the most interesting thing was when I was leaving Germany. I was actually smiling. Because I had a great vacation, but I was thinking to myself I’m ready to go home. But now, home isn’t Florida, but rather Ceske Budejovice. I got back and told my host family all about my trip, ate dinner, took a shower and went to bed. Sounds exactly how it should be at home, and that’s how I felt. Granted I don’t always agree with mom and dad, but that doesn’t always happen in Florida either. Some things are getting shorter here, like my time left in the Czech Republic. I never thought that it would feel like there is nothing left.

Last night, I went out and just sat in the town square. I thought about everything and realized that I really don’t have that much time left here. I looked up and saw the tourists, smiled and said I’m glad that’s not me. I just reflected on the things I’ve accomplished since arriving, and the things I wish to accomplish before I leave. In the next 3 weeks or so, I become so busy that I don’t even know when I am going to have time to breathe. But, I guess that’s how it always goes for the exchangers. Everything seems to be going so slow, then comes New Years, you blink, and 2 months have already gone by. I can’t wait to share the rest of my adventures here with all of you, and I’m sure there will be more soon. Ahoj J

April 5 Journal

WOW! I have not written in so long. CO? I can’t believe it. I have been so religious about writing every once in a while to let the world know what was happening in my corner of the globe, then I became.... the slacker. I guess I should fill you all in on what has been happening with me.

As much as I want to sit here and say my month of March was amazing and super and spectacular, it is hard to do so. I look back now after starting and restarting this journal multiple times and made the decision to just tell it how it is. Because sugarcoating rarely helps anyone. I had a rough time at beginning of the month just due to general blah, I had to go to the hospital to get my leg cut open (uber fun), and I swear my booty has become the size of a wide load tracker trailer. Despite my personal series of unfortunate events, I have managed to keep striding on to enjoy everything that my life has thrown at me. I have decided that I will never enjoy cross country skiing and that no matter how hard I try not to, I will continue to eat everything on my plate to the point of tummy explosion. The food is just too good. I swear that everything that has happened to me, like being sick for almost 3 weeks solid now, has helped me to realize the good and bad that everyone gets when putting themselves through the exchange experience. You can’t always have a great day. Even the most optimistic people can have moments where they want to give up and just go to something new. If March has taught me anything, it is to just go with whatever life throws at you and learn from experience. Don’t let the little things bother you, pick up your baggage and just keep trucking. Without moments that are dull, you can never stand back up to something ten times better.

For example… I just came back from a week of snowboarding in Slovakia with a group of exchange students. Before this week, I was sick. During the week, well, I was still sick. And now, I’m still a bit sick. My second host family told me that if I didn’t get better before ski week I wasn’t going. Turns out that I wasn’t better, but I told them I thought a week away from my normal home environment would be good. I swear that the second I got to Slovakia and saw all the exchange students that I had not seen in 6 months, I was healed (not really, but I felt a whole lot better). My week will all my friends, old and new, made me feel 1000% better than I did when I arrived, and I would have to say it was the best (or one of the best) weeks of my exchange year. I got to share all my thoughts with other students living in a similar (yet MUCH different) culture, and learned that I wasn’t the only person on exchange hitting multiple speed bumps in a row. I felt like everyone wanted to make me feel better and show me a good time in their country (because there were only 3 of us from CR). It was so much fun. I got to go snowboarding every day, I got to climb up hills because it was too windy, and I even managed to start going on jumps.

I spend hours laughing with my friends, and even got some of the Slovak exchangers to play Carrcassonne (which I am pretty sure is the best game since Monopoly). Except none of them wanted to actually call it Carrcassonne, so we just referred to it as “Build-A-World.” I stayed up late every night and woke up to start each morning just as happy as I was the night before. At the end of the week, I did not want to leave. I was fighting with my suitcases at the door because they wanted to go out the door and I wanted nothing more than to stay a few more days. Leaving all of my friends at the train station to go back to Czech Republic was extremely hard. I won’t see most of them until the Greece/Italy tour in May. But lucky for me, some of them are coming to visit our city in a few days J.

The 10 hour train ride from Liptovský Mikolaš to České Budějovice was long, but so worth it. I arrived back in my city at around 9 pm, packed until 3 am, slept at 4 am, woke up at 8:45 to move to my new host family. I moved from super awesome convenient, city bus riding, within walking distance, waking up 1 hour before school starts to à Milíkovice. Now, every exchanger in Budejovice (minus our Aussie) has had the privilege of gracing the settlement of Milíkovice with our presence. You could possibly say that this is the most international settlement of our region. And, I say settlement because there aren’t enough people or houses to call it a village. I am the 28th resident of our little area, and I couldn’t have a more optimistic opinion. When I moved in I was asked, “About what is population in Jacksonville?” To which I answer around one million. Giggles ensued, and I had just realized I was in the “real” country. Welcome to the Czech Republic. *Side note* you know it’s tiny when there isn’t even a pub within walking distance. So in translation … Milíkovice = amazingly beautiful landscape with whatever natural beauty you could ever ask for, with the drawback of leaving for school an hour before you want to wake up. I can’t complain, my new host family is bigger, 2 brothers and 1 sister, grandparents, animals galore, and never a loss for company.

Now, I have a break from the ordinary because my dad is currently visiting from Florida. I have never been able to feel so good about myself ever. I have been forced to use my language even more than before as I show my dad the culture that I have now adopted as my own. I can speak to all my friends in Czech, order our meals, make sure the transport is taken care of, and yes... impress my family. I think my dad almost wet his pants when we were traveling from Prague back to Ceske Budejovice. We had just unknowingly sat down on the train in the first class cabin (with 2nd class tickets), and the ticket collector had said to me in Czech that it was bad and we should move. Well, we had lots of suitcases and my dad was tired from his flight, so I ran down the small corridor of the train and proceeded to ask how much it would cost to stay there. The attendant was so surprised that I spoke Czech (because he heard us speaking in English) that he told us to just sit and stay. About 30 minutes later he came back and we had a Czech conversation about where I was from and how well I was speaking Czech for a foreigner. He told me he couldn't speak English, but he thought it sounded really nice. I told him that I thought Czech was such a pretty language and that I had felt such a good connection with the culture after only seven months. About 5 or so minutes later he told me that he had to leave to go do his rounds on the train, to which I said goodbye to him, and the door to our cabin shut. My dad looked like a deer in the headlights... or more like what just happened. As I explained the whole conversation in English he was just so surprised. I’m sure that neither of us thought that I would ever progress this far. Czech was always so hard for me, and until now, I didn’t think I was any good at it. Having the confidence boost from random people that ask me for directions now or who are interested in why I love the Czech language so much is the greatest feeling.

I know that this visit from my family will go by so fast and the rest of my exchange will seem to melt away. The last thing I want to do is leave my home. Because that is what the Czech Republic is now, my home. I can’t imagine leaving all of these things that mean so much to me. As I took my dad these last few days to visit my host families and meet the people who have shaped my life in this country, I have been able to reflect on just how lucky I am. I cannot thank Rotary enough for giving me the chance to be in the Czech Republic. As I walk the streets like a local and share with my dad the life I have been living, it becomes apparent to me that I am multi-cultural. I even enjoyed Easter a bit.... which is quite possibly the most violent Slavic holiday. I was hit with homemade sticks (or switches) by my host brothers and wow... it was abnormal to say the least. The switch that my first host family made was bigger than me! So, I was very far from excited when they pulled it out to hit me. It is said that being hit by these sticks is for good health and luck throughout the year. I was so scared. All day walking around the city I was watching carefully around every corner making sure that i wasn't going to get smacked across the butt again.

Everything that was once foreign to me is normal, and I have to smile as my Dad watches all my quirks. I eat with both hands, wear new fashions, use strange expressions, and have made many mental notes about the the American culture after living here. It’s amazing how much I can say I have changed over these past few months. Nothing will ever be the same, and I am proud of what I have become. There is so much left to discover and so little time left before I have to go back to Florida. Here’s to making the best of the rest of my exchange year. You were all right.... it goes by so much faster than you would imagine. Thank you again to Rotary, my family, my friends, and Czech Republic. I Love you all.

May 15 Journal

Don’t you just love Volcanoes?

I think that they can sum up the last month, in more ways than one. I’m not sure how many of you this affected but this silly Icelandic volcano made me re-organize much of my family’s visit. Nonetheless, everything managed to work out nicely and I enjoyed every moment with both of my parents. My dad had the chance to see Prague for a whole extra week! And my mom, our single week was enough to make me happier than a clam. I had a chance to visit some cities I would never have gotten an opportunity to see on my own here, and spending time with my parents after so long was a breath of fresh air. But of course, both of them would tell you that seeing all the places wasn’t as cool as coming to visit me. With my dad we did a mini central/eastern European tour, and my mom was fortunate enough to see my Ceskoslovensko playground. They both met my host families and got to see where I have been living. They got thrown into Czech culture and both had the same “Everything is so cool” reaction (which made me proud of my little unknown country here in Europe). Overall, my April spent with my family was super nice. I feel like they have already realized that the little girl they sent over here is no longer the same person. I hope that makes it a bit easier when I return… 

The next most exciting thing that I have been doing is a tour of Greece and Italy with the other exchange students in my district 2240, from Czech Republic and Slovakia. I spent two weeks with some of the coolest people in the entire world, and got to see the birthplace of the ancient world. I swam in the Aegean sea (which is no Atlantic in terms of temperature), went to Delphi, and failed to get into Athens because of bombs and political riots. My first week was a bit confusing because we had to keep changing the itinerary because of the Athens riots. Overall though, Greece was very beautiful. And the food, OOHHHPAHH! It was great too. Looking at all the buildings, I felt like I had gone back in time. All the letters on buildings were reminiscent of my childhood remembrance of watching Hercules, and I wanted nothing more than to find some random person wearing a toga. But, sadly no togas. In Thessaloniki I got to walk along the coast and see a large body of water for the first time since being on exchange. As a Floridian, this is kind of a big deal. I also saw palm trees, which made all of the students from the northern US scream in delight. That was also fun to experience. I got to show off my uni-tard (which is another story I must share later on) to all the world. Greece wasn’t too keen on it, but when we got to Venice in Italy… oh man did we make some friends. From Greece to Italy we took an overnight ferry. It was one of the best days of my trip. I stayed up late playing cards with all my friends and watched the sunrise before we entered the port in Italy. As I said goodbye to Greece and realized half my tour was already over, I couldn’t have been more excited to see Italy.

Italy was just as amazing as I had thought it would be, the people, the atmosphere, and of course… the food. It Italy I visited: Naples, Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, The Vatican City, Rome, Sienna, Lide di Jesolo, and Venice. I started to type what I enjoyed most on this trip and then had to erase my sentence because I realized that I just listed everything over again. I climbed Mount Vesuvius (active volcano…see volcano reference). I saw the Sistine Chapel. I was inside the Ancient Roman Coliseum. I ate the best gelato of my life in Sienna. And Venice, I think it held the best 2 days of my entire life. I walked around Venice with my closest friends all day, checking in every 2 hours with our group, and at the end of the day… I sat along the water with them. We all realized that exchange is almost over, but at the same time, our lives are just getting started. These are really the best days of our lives. Regardless of all the time spent on the bus that I could have lived with being much shorter, I had unreal amounts of fun. I had a 2 week vacation with amazing people and in beautiful places. I took some good pictures to remember it all by.

It has finally gotten to the point where I am fighting to realize it’s all going to be over. My exchange is getting closer to the end every day. I am finally back in my little Milikovice home, with my 28 other residents and my fields that extend to the horizon. This includes, once again, the 30 minute walk to the bus and the love/hate of being in the middle of nowhere. The time I just spent traveling went by so quickly… and in the same amount of time this go around, I will be boarding a plane back to my beloved Jacksonville. Everything is pretty set when I get back. I’m starting university, I’m leaving my home again, and I’ve grown up. I’m definitely not the same person who left. I don’t know who that girl is anymore. I’ve been happier in this past stretch of time than I have ever been in my entire life. I am so happy with who I am and I realize that I can do anything that I set my mind to. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I have been lucky enough to be a part of or experience everything that I have ever dreamed of. Nowadays, I feel like I wake up and I’m still dreaming. The people I spend my time with over here and the experiences I have shared with them are irreplaceable for the rest of my life. I could not be more thankful or blessed to have this experience.

I never truly understood the millions of thank-you messages at the end of all these journals before I left. But now, after living the dreams I’ve had, I fully realize why thanking Rotary is the least I could do. Dekuju moc, Rotary. You really have helped me into becoming an amazing individual.

May 28 Journal

Ještě jednou časopis pro vas = Once more a journal for you :)

As I sit here, once again, I'm starting to contemplate going back to Florida. I have my friends asking me if I'm excited to go home. I have mixed feelings about everything going on. But this is it. It's happening. My exchange is slowly coming to an end, just like everyone said it would one day. I was packing today for my last mandatory Rotary trip: Ceský Krumlov, Slovakia, and Poland. It has taken me all day, and I still haven't finished packing. I can't imagine what it is going to be like when I have to fit my life back into those 2 suitcases and put them on a plane with me. Gah, I'm not looking forward to that at all.

The reason it has taken me all day to pack my things is because I've been using my well known habit of creative avoidance (which means my blazer got another makeover for the district conference next weekend). Every time I started to fold something to put it in my suitcase I got this weird feeling like it was already over. My host mom asked me this morning what date I was going back to the USA, and I walked upstairs to see my empty suitcase waiting for clothes and then I just had to sit on my bed and think. I know that there are people already on their way home from various places, and one of my best exchange friends is going home next week. but me... NEVER. I don't want to think about going back. My room, that is not going to feel like my room, or my house, that my family re-modeled while I was gone, or my dogs. Are they even going to recognize me? There are so many things that I am not looking forward to. At the same time, I do have many AMAZING things to look forward to. I get to see my best friend, who I haven't seen in months and rarely talked to at all these past few months. I get to hug my parents again. I get to start university in the fall. I get to come back to Florida with a new set of traits and attributes that I discovered about myself while away. I have so much to look forward to. A new me, a new life.

But also, I have to leave everything that I have grown to love: Babička Syllabová and her amazing apple strudel (which she needs to give me the recipe before I leave), My host families, my crazy long walk to the bus stop. Which means I'm even admitting that I am going to miss living in Milíkovice. I am going to miss the way it rains and looks all blah, all the time. I am going to miss walking through the park on the way to school. I am going to miss everything about česke budějovice. I am going to miss Velbloud, Modrý Dveře, švejk, masný kramě, želežna pána, Singer, and all the other cool places that I meet with my friends and have made memories. I am going to miss going to the Cajovná every Wednesday, as has been our tradition for at least 5 months now. I'm going to miss all my friends. I am going to miss how I MUST wear my slippers in the house and at school. I am going to miss eating. I think more than I am going to miss most other things. My poor body....

These past 2 weeks after my Greece trip I have had the opportunity to independently travel. After the 1st of the year, there is a rule in my district that you can go visit friends in the district with Rotary permissions. My district 2240, is the whole of Czech Republic and Slovakia. It makes for a large range of travel locations. I went to Slovakia to visit a bunch of my friends. And the answer is yes, it was a bit hard to get a hold of Slovak instead of Czech, but they are really similar. With most differences being in random vocabulary, I was still able to communicate with Frank's host family (the family I stayed with in Slovakia). I had the greatest time meeting all kinds of people and learning (mostly comparing) the Czech and Slovak cultures. After my 4 days, I had to get back on the train and say čau. It wasn't easy at all. I did not want to leave, but then again, I find that that is usually how it is on all the trips I've taken this year. Overall, I'm just in this state of wishing time would slow down, at the same time I want it to speed up. There are so many contrasting things going on in my mind. I am so happy with my new lifestyle. I love it here. But Florida. so soon. why?!?!?!?!?! NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. You have such bad timing.

I should stop complaining. I was given a year, a year to make a difference, to discover, to learn, and to grow as an individual. My year was special, and if anyone were to ask me what I regret, or what I would change, I would reply: nothing. This year in the Czech Republic has been spectacular. I learned to speak Czech, which scares me still when I open my mouth. I made friends across many cultures. I grew up, a lot. And guess what? It's not over just yet. I have a little less than a month. I still have time. I'm going to be in cram mode, speaking as much Czech as I can before I go to the states, eating all sorts of awesome foods, and spending time with all the people who have made my year absolutely amazing. I owe it to all the people who have made this exchange happen for me to enjoy my last few weeks as much as possible.

Note to all those special Rotarians (you know who you are): you were right, the whole time.  Thanks for everything along the way.

June 24 Journal

This is it. The goodbyes have started, followed by the unknown waves of varying emotions, and ending with the hugs and kisses of promises you hope to keep. As I have said goodbye the last week or so, I have learned some vital lessons. You never truly realize how much you have impacted someone’s life, until you are forced out of it. Let me explain: I have said goodbye to almost all the exchange students in Czech Republic, and to my first two families. I never want to leave. These people have affected me in ways that I did not comprehend were possible. As I went on the Farewell Canoe/Raft trip weekend, I started to see what was happening. Slowly, one by one, they leave home. Each date creeps closer and closer until it suddenly passes in a haze. The scary part… my date is the next date. June 26th. I am home in 2 days.

As I reflect on my year, I can be nothing but a proud exchange student. I spent my year battling ups and downs in order to transform myself into the amazing individual I believe I have become. I pack my suitcases only to reminisce on the time I have had, and thank everyone who has made this possible for me. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that it is over. Maybe the other exchangers know what I am talking about, but until you have lived it, or experienced exchange in one form or another, you will not understand. This is not a vacation. I do not want to leave my Czech friends, family, or life that I have grown to love. I am not ready to walk away from everything I have taken so long to shape and mold. But as it turns out, anything is possible… which means leaving is not the end of the world.

Leaving the Czech Republic is another opportunity that has presented itself (well forced opportunity, but nonetheless)… I can now reach out to people who are interested in the experience. I can be more motivated to study my international courses at university. I can live the life that I have always dreamed I would have, simply because I have the personal confidence that being on exchange has given me. I wish it were easier, in fact, I wish that all the things associated with this year had come without a challenge. But that’s just it. The challenge is necessary. It built my character. It build my emotional boundaries. And this challenge gave me a new lease on life, one that I appreciate and have come to know as my own point of view.

Thank you to everyone who made this possible, the Rotarians, my family, my friends, and everyone else who supported me throughout my exchange. Without all of you, I would not have been able to be as successful as I feel I have been. So in reflection, I can’t believe I actually did it. After all the emotions I ran though this year, and all the hard work, I realized how worth it exchange really is. You become a new person, a new you, and wow, is it amazing to experience. I wish that everyone, someday, could go through this. It is really the best decision I have made in my entire life.

One day, everyone who ever doubted me for one second will look back in appreciation of what I have accomplished. This is not the end, oh no. Trust me. One day, you will see me changing the world. I will be happy. I will live the life I have always dreamed of living. It starts now. Welcome to reality, and the life you always knew you had, but you could never find until this moment. Congratulations. You did it.

July 8 Epilogue

I have always been one of those stunningly awkward individuals you always see catching their gaze in unusual reflective objects. Car windows, ground puddles, the sunglasses of passers by, or even, yes, every mirror that I walk past. Curiously enough, image has never been something that has been overly important to me. For as long as I can remember now, I have tried to avoid make up as much as possible. The only time I would wear it being special occasions and when those around me ran toward me violently with some absurd shade of god knows what goo and tried to apply it on my face, only to tell me “see don’t you look so much prettier.” Truth is it never did anything but make me want to touch my face and rub it all off…

To me, this is how I always looked at my own image. I was constantly lingering at what it was, but never was interested in changing the way it was intended to look with passing time. So, I guess when I started this exchange looking young, cute, and innocent I never really gave it thought. It just happened. A reflection of the personality of the time, I suppose ;).

I entered a life that was… at first strange, melded into awkward, shaped into livable, re-molded into decent, smashed and build up into life itself, re-worked into surprisingly normal, conglomerated into something common, developed into something with ruts, smashed again to reveal even more ruts… (at this point imagine some indescribable low if you got lost somewhere in this sentence), followed by a smoothing of ground, replacing it with new ground, discovering the ground was a solid surface, locating luck and circumstance, noticing the surface is getting more beautiful every day, yearning for time to go faster so you can see what has become of the world you have watched this whole time and suddenly realizing that you want it to stop almost completely, so you don’t leave what you have taken so long to watch flourish.

This life described above was not a battle of self image physically, but the most tiring mental competition I have entered myself into the few 18 years I have lived. I can recall moments where I thought the world was ending, only to be followed by a lapse of something more beautiful than anything human. I subjected my mind to itself. A mental reflection, if you will. It took months and months of guesswork, cultural investigation, language barriers, and exhaustion to come to terms with the real thoughts I had. My personality is now a mix of old and new. My life as most people know it… is just beginning.

It’s interesting how a single year can change the outcome of so many aspects of a life. If I mapped each small choice I made throughout this last year and linked it to other related choices I have made, I could have easily taken my life in millions of directions. The slightest change would have altered things, not drastically, but enough to where it would be just that bit different. It would have become a shade darker or lighter and thicker or thinner.

As I leave the World with my final thoughts (I say world because I’m unsure how many people read this and where on earth they are physically located), I can be nothing but extremely satisfied. It took me a year, but I did it. I learned a lesson that far too many people in their own lives will never accomplish. I have learned to love and appreciate. No matter how many times it is said by various people, or to what degree, I must repeat it now. For this lesson, is the greatest lesson that I’ve learned. I have a love and appreciation for cultures, races, people, and lives that I never could have comprehended. I am happy. I can now go on with the rest of my life, battling the challenges with a stronger mentality, and loving those who deserve it with every ounce I know I can give.

I may look a bit different now, even some of my relatives failed to recognize me. I may use new weird mannerisms. I slowly am relearning to do things as an American, and re-molding my cultural identity. It will not be easy, but it’s not impossible. I have already started to notice the little things… like how doors lock the opposite way, free refills exist, you don’t have to pay to have ketchup at fast food, nobody gives you weird looks when you don’t finish all your food, I can drive, concrete exists everywhere, and of course, I have also noticed how dissimilar I really have become. It’s a good thing 

Being back in Florida isn’t bad. I do miss the life I had in Czech Republic, but as it turns out, I’ve already lived it. It’s time for me to move on to not bigger and better things, but just the rest of my life. It’s out there, and I’m going to go find it.