Mackenzie LaPorte
2009-10 Outbound to Lithuania

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra HS
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Klaipeda Maris Rotary Club, District 1460, Lithuania

Mackenzie's Bio

Hello and Labas! My name is Mackenzie LaPorte and I am absolutely ecstatic to say that next year I will be living in the beautiful country of Lithuania! I am a happy-go-lucky fifteen-year-old with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Some of my hobbies include: walking around the house singing some of my favorite show tunes, theater, spending time with my pals, eating food, skipping instead of walking, drawing, reading, and enjoying life! I have an incredible amount of energy that helps me live my life with passion and vigor! When I think about all the things there are out there to experience, all the people to meet, the places to see, I get so excited all over again about this opportunity that Rotary has given me! Above all I am extremely thankful to Rotary for making this happen for me, and for my parents supporting me that day I came home from school with a Rotary Foreign Exchange flier and the question, “How do you feel about me living abroad for a year?”

I am currently a freshman at Ponte Vedra High School and I live with my parents, brother, and dog. I have a very sunny outlook on life, and my friends will agree that it is virtually impossible for me to be in a bad mood. I love all of my friends to pieces, but have never been afraid to try something on my own. On the weekends we like to hang out, see movies, go out to eat, and most of all to laugh.

I look at next year as the greatest adventure of my life. I am setting out on my own personal odyssey; a great adventure that will take me in many directions. I will endure inevitable hardships, but my sails are strong. I know that when the storms pass and the waters calm, the sun will break through and I will remember why I embarked on my journey in the first place. So let’s set sail and see what we find! Lithuania, here I come!

Mackenzie's Journals

August 22 Pre-departure Journal

“Man I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.” -The Wallflowers

So this is it. This is the beginning of my exchange! Tomorrow is what my last ten months have been centered around. Tomorrow is it. The funny thing is, though today was my last day it felt like any other. I went through the motions of every day, I woke up and ate a bagel, I checked my Facebook, I petted my dogs. Yes, of course there was something in the back of my mind saying, “Hey! You are going to live in Lithuania soon!” But you know, that voice has been with me for a lonnng time. And now it is saying, “You are going to Lithuania tomorrow… in 12 hours, in 1 hour.”

WHOA! When did this happen??? I AM going to Lithuania! Yes, yes, yes! This is happening, not in two weeks or in two months. It is happening now! Wowza. Tomorrow I will willingly leave everything I know; everything that I have built up over the last 15 years. Wooo! What a rush, huh? I am scared though. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, if I said I was not terrified. But I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t excited beyond belief. Isn’t this what life is about? You have to do the things that scare you! This is one of the things that give you that terribly wonderful feeling in your stomach that remind you you’re living, like a super crazy roller coaster. That is what I am feeling right now, and I will probably feel this for the next, ehh two weeks?

My bags are packed (mostly) and I have said goodbye to my friends. I have spoken to my other exchange friends who are already in their countries. When I talk to them I feel a mixture of envy and awe. That is going to be ME! I would have never believed it last year, but here I am now! Here I am on my last night in the USA writing my first journal. Here I am sitting among my suitcases and wonderful assortment of magazines for my flights. Here I am about to take the journey of my life! So, here I go! Thank you Rotary for allowing me to do the things that scare me, and for giving me the tools to make this exchange a successful one. Well I’m off! Until next time. J

September 20 Journal

I am sitting in my Lithuanian living room with my host sister Jadvyga who likes to be called “Bate” which means “shoe” in Lithuanian watching a Russian talk show that I just asked if was Russian in Lithuanian to which she subconsciously replied in Russian to which I understood which isn’t that impressive after all because she only said “Da.”

Phew! If you understood that, I congratulate you because it probably took some work. However, this has become my life now: A confusing and wonderful crossing of cultures and customs and foods and languages and people. I would never have it any other way now.

I’ve been in Lithuania for almost a month now, and I have been an undeniable slacker in the journal area. I know it, and I am guilty. Every time I logged on my computer, the “Word” icon on my desktop eyed me suspiciously, and I gave some excuse for why I couldn’t write a journal right then. But all those excuses aside the real reason I have not been able to write a journal was pinpointed perfectly to me by Grant in Japan, there is just too much to say.

Of course it is a daunting task trying to sum up everything that is happening! How do I pick what I should write about? How do I sift through the piles of new thoughts that have accumulated in my head since my departure and explain them in a way others can begin to understand? I can only try.

SO. Time has been doing strange things… very strange things. It’s slipping and crawling by simultaneously. I look back a week and it seems a year, then again I have lost all control of what to look for in the future, so maybe my inability to write a journal isn’t such a big deal in comparison. It’s a little disconcerting how my life has gone from having the assurance of the same people, the same places, the same routine, to just going along for the ride and seeing where life takes me. Oh but it is fabulous. Everything is fabulous! Lithuania is so wonderful. A friend asked me if it has been scary being all alone in a new country where I don’t speak the language and am in most respects helpless. This idea itself is scary, sure, but I haven’t yet felt any fear. This entire time I have been surrounded by the most helpful and kind people I have ever met. I have been crazy busy, and almost never alone. This environment filled with laughter, action, and wonder is not the best breeding ground for loneliness. I can honestly say I have not had any homesickness so far. (Is that supposed to happen?) I haven’t cried at all – other than a weak moment yesterday during Jack’s death scene in Titanic, but we won’t speak of that – Everything has been so smooth. Everyone has been so kind. I thought by this time I would have been reduced somewhat to a quivering heap, that I would have had regrets about my decision to be an exchange student … not at all.

Though there was one traumatizing experience that I have had, oh yes. If I had my way this incident would be pushed back to the far recesses of my brain and stored there for all eternity. Unfortunately, I must face what happened, and get it out in the open. Here goes people… I fainted in front of my class. Okay, maybe not the cataclysmic scenario you might have imagined, but to me it was horrible. I’ve always been a little queasy with piercings, even my own earrings made my stomach churn. So it was extremely stupid of me to ask a classmate about her ear piercings while we were waiting in the hall for class to begin, especially on a rather warm day where I hadn’t eaten since 7:15 am and was wearing way too many clothes. But I went ahead and inquired anyway. While she was talking a strange feeling came over me. My breath grew shallower, my stomach tied itself in knots, and I sprouted a cold sweat from my forehead. I leaned back against the wall to try to regain my stability. She detected the far-away look in my face and asked if I was okay. I then knew it was go time, my mission: reach the bathroom in as little time as possible or risk permanent humiliation by fainting in front of the class. Unfortunately, while my brain snapped into action, the rest of my body decided to disobey orders. Lights were dimming and voices were far away. I managed to mumble, “I need the bathroom.” At this point I started into what was supposed to be a calm and collected fast-walk to the nearest toilet. What happened was a frantic lurch towards said toilet. It was when I started to stagger that things went horribly wrong.

As my vision dimmed and my mind succumbed to the wonderful black of unconsciousness … I fell. My knee hit the floor and the rest of me started to sway in that direction. Thank GOODNESS Monika (friend) was there to drag me into the bathroom. Destination reached. Unfortunately it was the boys bathroom, that being the only one on that floor. As my head was still spinning the rest of the girls in my class came pouring into the bathroom. They all looked so worried and were asking what was wrong. Someone grabbed me some water on a napkin and I began to come back to reality again. Maybe it would have been better to go back to sleep. I realized the whole class had seen my little episode and probably thought I was a freak. Oh man. Of course that was not the case at all. Everyone was just wondering if I was okay. Looking at all of the girls in my class who were so concerned with my well being, I felt a rush of happiness. I realized these people cared about me, even though I had known them for so little time. At that point, life couldn’t have been better.

Of course another thing that makes an exchange exciting is just the little everyday differences such as these:

You don’t look into a broken mirror or you will get bad luck

Techno and House music is big here

Milk comes in bags

All the food is fresh “without chemicals” - I get teased by my older host sister’s boyfriend about the “chemicals” in peanut butter

Basketball is huge

There are beautiful women everywhere

We have different classes every day, but the same classmates

People may have more than one cell phone

There is no defined lunchtime at school

On TV there are lots of Russian channels

They learn British English in school

When someone is talking, you do not have to be quiet

If you faint in the hall your classmates rush to you in concern

Lots of people have piercings, not good for the weak-stomached among us

Girls don’t carry backpacks, they put their books in big purses

Mushrooms are eaten more than once a week

Don’t drink water, drink tea

If you order what you think is a waffle cone for ice cream, you will get an ice cream cone, and a separate actual waffle

They cannot pronounce the word “van”

Not everything is perfect, but it’s beautiful.

Thank you so much to Rotary in the US and Lithuania for letting me live out my dream. It’s better than I ever imagined.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention I’m going to LATVIA on Friday. Life is pretty darn cool. 

November 22 Journal

Labas! Eik tu sau, labai atsiprasau kad as buvo labai blogai su mano leidinys! That was mistake ridden Lithuanian for “Hello! Oh my gosh, I am so sorry that I have been so bad with my journals!” But the wonderful thing is, despite the fact that my Lithuanian IS full of errors, I SPEAK LITHUANIAN. I can now join in my host family’s conversation at dinner, “Very tasty! Can I more food please?” I can talk about cute boys with my host sister, “I like boy! He very beautiful!” I can even ask the teacher for a book in class, “Teacher, can I to have book?” Though I may not be very articulate in my new language, and though I may get laughed at for my terrible Lithuanian grammar, I am able to communicate again, and it feels GOOD. The way I have been progressing in not only the language, but also in adapting to the life of this foreign country amazes me. Tomorrow is the beginning of my third month here, and I am yet again shocked that time has gone by so fast.

Life here is wonderful. How can I describe the kindness the Lithuanian people have shown me? My host family is amazing! I feel like I am part of the family, I am comfortable, it has really become my home. Just today my host father said something that I will not forget. He pointed to my host sister Jadvyga and said “Here is my Lithuanian daughter,” then he pointed to me and said, “and here is my American daughter!” How can I describe all the little things here I love? I love learning bad words from Vitalijus, I love whining about my little problems to Vita, I love watching movies and dancing around with Jadvyga. When I am feeling especially dramatic and playful, I love to scream “FINE! I will go back to America now! You all will miss me! GOODBYE.” I grab my fake belongings and march out the door. This is never a good idea, because Jadvyga is always quick to lock the door after me. I think I have learned my lesson with that little joke: Jadvyga always wins and I always end up outside yelling for her to let me in.

I had my 16th birthday here, and it was amazing. The weekend before my birthday I went to my host family’s cottage in the country where my other two host families joined us. We cooked, walked, and ate WAY too much. The whole time I was so happy… I was surrounded by amazing people who cared about me, we were communicating in a mixture of Lithuanian and English, and we were all having a great time. My cake was beautiful, the food was delicious as always, and my stomach ache was… painful. In a good way of course. 

Then came the day of my actual birthday, at school I was hoping just a few kids would remember. I would have been content with a few good wishes, or a few happy smiles. That morning the kids in my class barely said hello to me. I walked through the halls fighting back tears and feeling EXTREMELY pitiful. It was my 16th birthday and nobody knew or cared. During my Lithuanian lesson, I was interrupted by my friend who asked if I wanted to go to the cafeteria for some tea. I thought her timing was a little strange, but I agreed. We walked through the school and when we reached the cafeteria, I noticed the doors were closed… a rare occurrence. We opened the doors and there was my whole class, standing with balloons, Šakotis (a traditional Lithuanian cake) and a book. They burst into the Lithuanian birthday song “Su Gimimo Diena!” and I stood there with a huge smile on my face. This time when I battled the tears, it was not because I was sad. It turned out to be a wonderful birthday, one that I will never forget.

This next little piece I want you to read was written about a month ago. I was feeling particularly thoughtful one night and I decided to take a whack at being philosophical. I suppose it shows how feelings can change so strongly and rapidly, so take a look.

“It’s funny being an exchange student. Once you enter your host country, you leave behind everything you have ever known. We plop ourselves down into this strange land, stripped of all the comforts of home: friends, family, our own warm safe beds. All of this is gone, and that is an awful and also really cool feeling. We are left with just ourselves to rely on for comfort, alone in the world with a thousand new things barraging us every day. How can we not feel alone and helpless? How can we not feel frustrated, thrust into a foreign country without a clue what’s going on most of the time? The waves of emotion come and go irregularly, and being overwhelmed becomes an everyday routine… at first. But slowly we build friendships. Slowly we become part of the family. Slowly the house that we are staying in becomes a welcome sight at the end of a long day. We make friends, and we start to have a social life. Slowly things start to right themselves again in this world that once seemed so confusing. (It is also common to write a little dramatically when you are an exchange student, but hey, can you blame us?) I think for me I am starting to find new comforts. The old ones are safely stashed at home where I hope to find them when I return. And so now it has become up to me to acquire new ones. I have realized that I need to live where I am, to mold myself into a way I fit in with my new surroundings, yet still retain my values and sense of who I am. It is up to me to be adaptable and to work hard to keep up my Rotary Smile at the end of a hard day. I really can’t say it has all been cake, because it has not. That’s the reality of exchange. I can say though that I have yet to experience homesickness (Is that supposed to happen?!?!?!!) and I love every day here. There have been awkward situations, there have been frustrated tears, there have been silences formed by language barriers and there have been jokes that completely failed. But I have found myself laughing from my heart and smiling as wide as possible. After a long day I feel as though I am very slowly making steps to becoming bicultural. I feel an impatience to be completely assimilated into this country but I know that I will just have to hold my horses. I love Lithuania and I love the people. Unfortunately I love the food as well. Every day here is such a gift and I have to again thank Rotary. I am now a skinny jeans wearing, tea drinking, cepelinai eating, Lithuanian speaking, Rotary Youth Exchange student. I have double takes every day. I am in awkward situations every day.”

I was feeling rather pensive the night I wrote that. I still try to analyze my feelings here. I try to understand how I am changing, but sometimes I find that I need to just relax and go along for the ride. I find I am happiest when I am not sitting on Facebook looking at pictures of my friends at home or in other countries. I am happiest when I am in the city with my friends here, when I am storming out of my host house in all my dramatic glory. I am happiest when I am talking to friends at school, when I am having conversations entirely in Lithuanian. (I CAN DO THAT NOW!) I am happiest dancing while I wash the dishes with my iPod blaring, only to turn around to see my host family has been watching me and recording my sweet moves. I have ultimately found that I am happiest when I am just living here as a normal Lithuanian would. It’s pretty awesome.

These three months I have also managed to escape any real homesickness. Is there something wrong with me? I think I have had some mini breakdowns, but nothing of any consequence. I am all too aware that my time here is slipping by, and what I really dread is the day when I leave all that I have come to love in Lithuania. All I can say again is a HUGE thanks to Rotary in Florida and Lithuania for giving me all of the things I have here. I thank my host families, and all the people who have shown me so much kindness. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I will try to write again soon!!!

January 3 Journal

So I will just jump in! Everything is great here. Everything has gone better than I ever imagined. Lithuania is currently my everything. It’s such a great feeling to know that I have my own life here. Can you believe it?!?! I would have never thought that I would have this life… a life where I catch a bus with my friends and walk the city. Where Kafe3 is a normal hangout, where Cili Kaimas is my favorite restaurant, where the fancy mall that was once so exciting is just as boring to me as to the natives. I never thought I would come to know the ways of a whole city, let alone a foreign one! I never feel alone. I always have people I love here: my host family that I’m not afraid to sing annoyingly too, my friends who I can text when I’m bored, the people that built this life for me! And I can proudly say, all these people are Lithuanians.

Rotary in Lithuania is tiny. While some countries have hundreds of inbounds, we have a grand total of three. At first this was my biggest worry, and what I thought I would miss the most. RYE Florida has an amazing exchange program with kids from all over the world, and it is magic when all these different cultures collide to realize we are all the same deep down. Not only do these kids become best friends, but they become each others’ support system. I knew from that beginning that my exchange would be lacking that aspect, and it scared me. How could I compensate? Would I have to rely on myself for support? These questions bounced around in my head a lot before I left. When I met Dana and Ruth in August (the two other inbounds here) the Rotary magic did not fail. The three of us instantly became close, and the fact that our experience is so unique cemented our friendship even more. We are the only three teenagers living in Lithuania through Rotary... and it’s pretty awesome. Later this week Ruth and I will both travel to the Vilnius, the capital, to visit Dana and have what is sure to be an awesome time. I forgot to mention the three of us are spread across the country. It’s a little difficult, but when we get to hang out it is even more special.

Of course, since my American friends in Lithuania are hundreds of kilometers away, my support system consists of Lithuanians. My host family has become like my real family, when I hang out with my friends here, I feel as if I am with friends I have had my whole life. I have made friends with whom I talk to about more than simply biographical details. At the beginning of my exchange, one of the hardest things was not being able to completely express myself. I had limited language skills and I couldn’t say everything I wanted. But now I am starting to come into my own again. I am myself, but a newer more mature me. I have changed, but of course for the better. Another thing about Lithuania is, everybody knows everyone. When we walk down the streets in the city, we will always meet someone we know. I think it is cool how everyone is connected. And because it is rare for me to be with my exchange friends, that means I lose the ability to see Lithuania from an outsider’s perspective. It means I am that much closer to complete Lithuanian assimilation. Isn’t that cool?

Sadly, this assimilation has also resulted in the deterioration of my ENGLISH. I swear, I get worse and worse every day. I once was asked the English word for keramika (ceramics, so hard right?) and I could not for the life of me think about the English version of this word! My brain was only thinking in Lithuanian. It was such a weird feeling, one that has only reoccurred many times. I find myself thinking out sentences in Lithuanian, and sometimes, thinking in incorrect English. Due to my newfound incompetence, I have been reading rather voraciously, hoping to pick up some smart words like incompetence and voracious.  But in my defense, those words really are in my apparently shrinking vocabulary.

So! I should also cover Thanksgiving, Christmas in this journal! My Thanksgiving was a little unusual. A few days before, I was telling my host mom about our traditions. And on Thanksgiving, she and my host grandma prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for me! It wasn’t the same as at home, but it was enough to bring me to tears. When I beheld the dinner, I started blubbering “Ohhh this is sooo niceeee!” I think they were a little alarmed at my crying, and I was too. Though being an exchange student is undoubtedly difficult, crying has not been a common activity for me. Neither have long episodes of sadness. This is because I have my life here, and that is what I am busy thinking of.

Christmas was another cool experience! Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve my host sister and I both woke up sick, but it was still great. Instead of opening our presents on Christmas morning, we waited until midnight and then we opened them! My host grandma dressed up like Santa and gave out presents. Also, the day of Christmas Eve we couldn’t eat meat, only fish and other food. So at midnight we also got to enjoy our turkey feast. On Christmas day my host family had about 20 people over. Friends, family, everyone was in our house. My Christmas celebrations at home have always been small, so this was a really awesome new way to celebrate for me! My host dad even toasted me. I had the opportunity to talk to one boy that knew English very well. He told me a little about politics, school, and his free time. Who still fascinate me are the people here who speak English as fluently as I do. That was the case with this boy, and I asked him how he knew English so well. He replied, “Video and computer games.” So I guess they do come in handy!

A few days after Christmas, my host family left for Moscow. So now I am staying with another host family who lives in the city center. This is the family I came into for my first week in Lithuania, and it has been fun sharing with them how much I have learned and how much more I know about this country. They are such kind people, and they make me feel right at home. It has been different living downtown, I step outside my apartment building and there are people and life everywhere! My city is so perfect for me. When I tell people how much I love Klaipeda, they say “Oh but it is so small!” I am sure if you compared it to the major world cities, it is tiny. But to me, bus rides and city streets make me feel so urban. It is the perfect size. My favorite things to do with friends is just to walk around the city, we always see people we know. There are cafes to go into, shops to peruse. I love it!

What else can I say? It is so hard to write these journals, it is so hard to put my feelings into words. This experience is so much bigger than anything I can write. This is the first time in my life where I have truly stepped outside of my comfort zone. That said, I am so excited for the new outbounds!!! You guys are in for the ride of your lives. I am proud of everyone who has been brave enough to want to take something new out of life. And I have respect for you all, because this is a scary thing. No doubt, last year I was scared out of my mind. But also I want you to take this year before your exchange as an opportunity to grow and prepare yourself. Yes, prepare yourself language wise, and yes you need to pack the right things… but what is most important for survival is having an open mind. Through Rotary you will meet people you wouldn’t have before. You will see things in a new light, have different perspectives. And it is certain that you will be uncomfortable at times. But all these things will give you so much more insight into the world, so much more insight into your own country. All the things I once took for granted I am seeing from a new angle. How can I not have changed with all this? This year you guys will meet dozens of other likeminded teenagers, whether they are also future outbounds or the current inbounds. These people are your support system; they also share this unique experience. You are also lucky because RYE Florida is one of the best programs in the world. So embrace your fears! And don’t let discomfort scare you, let it motivate you to have an open mind. I am so proud of you all.

I can’t believe I have been here four months, and am going on five. Time has flown, and when I think about the day I leave here, I know it will be one of the saddest in my life. My time here is so special, something that doesn’t happen often... it’s Rotary Magic for sure. I am bilingual and bicultural. There are so many people I love and care about, and I know I will continue returning to Lithuania for the rest of my life. Thank you SO much Rotary. Happy New Year everybody!

March 20 Journal

How do I even begin to write this?

The feelings that have come in these past three months have alternated between floods of emotion and gradual understandings. Every day I find myself drifting off into my thoughts, thinking about how far I've come, putting my failures and triumphs in perspective, and most importantly trying to come to terms with how I've changed.

I like the person I'm becoming, and as every day passes I feel that person growing. I am somehow more sure of myself, more sure of what I want. But in other ways I am just as lost as anyone else, and I question everything I do. I guess that transformation will never be complete, how could it be? Since I've seen a little more of the world, I have realized that with each new person I meet I gain new perspectives, and each new place I see I can always find wonder. I am developing a thirst for new experiences, and I am not the scared little girl who arrived in Lithuania seven months ago. I am no longer intimidated by what I don't understand. I have found such a good place inside myself, that I don't need to be afraid. I am now aware that I am the only person in charge of how I feel is myself. And I am constantly surprised by just how good things really are.

I have learned an entire new language, picked up on the ways of a new culture, been isolated not only from my friends and family, but also from my natural values and ways of thinking, I have had to force myself to ADOPT new values and think from other points of view, I have seen poverty and lived outside the safety of Ponte Vedra, I have at times been utterly alone and found my confidence in myself as my support, I have sculpted my personality to be charming when I need to, sometimes adopting a care-free façade when inside I'm falling apart, I have learned to be more perceptive as to how my actions are affecting others. Perhaps the hardest thing that I finally realized is that this will never truly be my country, and that I will never completely understand the culture or people. No matter how hard I try I will still be perplexed when what I say is taken wrong, or when I don't know why people are acting in certain ways.

All that difficult stuff said, I absolutely love this place. While the above reflections are melancholy, they are only a sliver of what I have experienced. I have three months left here and it will truly be the saddest day of my life when I leave. No matter how hard it sometimes is, I do have a LIFE here, and a wonderfully good one at that. I smile every day because I am happy. I laugh until my side aches with my friends. The people I have here... how can I explain how good they have been to me? How did I ever get this lucky? I feel as though I have stumbled upon something so good, and sometimes I can't believe how much I love this place. Three months... what once seemed like an eternity will go by in the blink of an eye. I have resolved not to whine over how short my time is left, but to live every single day to it's fullest. I want to make memories and I want to be remembered. Lithuania has already touched me in a million different ways, and I want to find a million more. What more is there to say? I love Lithuania, I love the people, I love my city, I love my life. THANK YOU Rotary! Words cannot ever express my gratitude.

June 12 Journal

“Well, my time here is up. It seems like just yesterday….” No. That’s not the way I’m going to go about writing my last journal. Actually, I’m still not quite certain how I want to go about writing this. I have started this journal multiple times, and my thoughts seem just to run together. I think I’m still in denial that I’m leaving! I have gone through my last few days pretty normally, meeting with friends, running errands, drinking my morning coffee and evening tea. But there is definitely something in the back of my mind reminding me that these routine activities will not last. There is the idea that I’m leaving, but it hasn’t yet become tangible though the suitcases and clothes strewn all over my floor suggest a very real departure in the near future.

How does one summarize an experience as unique and challenging as an exchange? The answer is that it can never actually be explained or written, only lived. But in an attempt to record this memory it could possibly be separated into two parts: the tiny everyday minutia, and then those really big ideas that I mull over during long car rides through the countryside. Let’s try to tackle those big ideas, shall we? I am sort of struck by the whole “full circle” theme of it all. Perhaps the weather has had some sort of affect on this, for when I came here it was warm, sunny, and perfect. Then came mild Fall, brutal Winter, and late Spring. And now I’m back to where I started again. The smells and sounds remind me of when I first got here, yet my mind is in such a different place. The bridge leading from the city center to the old town is now familiar and walking down the once confusing and foreign streets is easy. These once brand new and intimidating sights now carry memories that are mashed together so it is impossible to distinguish what’s what anymore.

I think of how I am such a different person. How my ways of thinking, opinion, and whole mind has changed. I’m still not exactly sure who that person is just yet. But possibly the most clear aspect I have discovered about myself is that I’m gloriously flawed. I have been tested, and on occasions I have failed miserably. But that’s kind of what exchange is all about. We have to fail to try again, to learn, and to reflect on what we’ve done wrong. There are parts of my exchange that I wish I had done differently, but if I had the chance, I wouldn’t change them. Every decision I’ve made, every turn I have taken, has led to where I am now. And that’s a darn good place. Through all the frustration of being misunderstood and misunderstanding, through the feelings of being utterly alone, through the point of view of an outsider, I’ve made it. I’ve finally made a life for myself! I have friends! Real live Lithuanian friends who I can call up at any time, who I can rely on, who give me a life here! I have three very different, very wonderful families who have showed me different aspects of Lithuanian home-life. And now I have to leave all this? While I went into this program knowing it had to end, I didn’t ever expect it to be this way. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t just be leaving a country behind, but a whole life. But I think it won’t be quite so dramatic. Lithuania has molded and shaped me into someone a little different, and it will be that person who goes back to Florida on Tuesday. The memory of Lithuania will be in everything I do, though the sights will be different.

Aghhh!!! But how do I explain how Lithuania is my everything now?!?! How I crave cepelinai instead of pizza, how I prefer leggings over shorts, how I even speak English with Lithuanian grammar! It’s crazy!!! It’s wonderfully kooky and weird how I am bicultural and bilingual. It’s so unpredictable. Who would have known that Lithuania was so wonderful for me? (Well Rotary did, but then again they are right a lot.) It’s just hitting me how much this place means to me. The love I have not only for my friends and families, but my city itself. I love the vibe, the cars, the sidewalks, I love my favorite bus stop in the middle of all the action. So now we can transition into describing the little things that make up my experience. The best way to write them is just to list those things… I love: picnics in fields on sunny days, slipping on ice and falling on my butt on the way to school, waiting for the bus in the rain, watching snow fall silently out of the window, sitting around in my friend’s backyard eating ice cream, taking millions of pictures in some sort of attempt to be artsy, I love the appreciation for art and beauty here! I love how my view of beauty itself has changed. I love cold beetroot soup on a hot day, I love jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea, I love my host cat keeping me company. I love watching movies with Jadvyga, I love hearing about the history of my host family’s last name, I love long car rides from one side of the country to the other, I love walking in the city center and wondering who I will meet. I love electronic music! I love how potatoes always hit the spot, I love how a cup of tea after a long day makes me feel better. I love understanding new words, I love an unexpected smile from someone I haven’t met, I love going to concerts, I love my painting class on Wednesdays, I love my arts and crafts class on Sundays, I love learning swing dances on Tuesdays and Thursdays! I love my green school jacket! I LOVE LITHUANIA. I will miss it more than anything in the world. I’m pretty sure I will be brought to tears on many occasions when I get home. Whether it’s a scent of something familiar, or the songs I have sung here… whatever brings me back will also bring nostalgia so sharp, that I will certainly stop what I’m doing to reminisce.

It’s time to thank everyone now… This year I have been given so much, and I am forever in these peoples’ debts. Thank you Simanskis family for showing me parts of Lithuania I’ve never seen before and watching the fireworks on New Year’s with me. Thank you Tamkevicius family for playing table tennis with me, showing me how to paint Easter eggs, and teaching me how to boil potatoes. THANK YOU Zavrid family for hosting me for over 8 months, thank you for making me feel like part of the family, for listening to me sing in the shower, for giving me a home. Thank you Jadvyga, for sharing your friends and whole life with me. Thank you Edita and Vytaute for always including me, and for being my friends. Thank you Agne for showing me that friendship is always important. Thank you Donatas for introducing me to the best music ever! Thank you to my class for making school fun! Thank you Ruth and Dana for understanding every frustration I had. Thank you Klaipeda Maris Rotary Club for hosting me! Thank you Mommy and Daddy for letting me take the trip of a lifetime. THANK YOU Rotary Youth Exchange Florida for making all possible, and for opening my eyes to the great big world outside.

I love Lithuania with all my heart. This is my second home, this is another place where I belong. This exchange was better than anything I ever imagined. This was magical, yet so real. Thank you. Aciu. DEKUI! Mano sirdis yra Lietuvoje, amzinai.

 July 29 Journal

Wow. It’s been more than six weeks since I’ve been home from Lithuania, and I’m not sure what to think of that. I’d like to talk a little about my last night and the day I left. On my very last night, I went with my host sister and our friends Dovile and Edita to watch the sun set over the Baltic Sea. It was about 11:30 pm and the sun was just going down. We drove to the sea, and when we got there I couldn’t help but running up the walkway to the shore. For some reason I was full of energy and exhilaration. It was the last time I would see the sun set over my beloved Lithuania, the end of my last day there. It was the end of a long day, and the end of a long ten months. When I ran out onto the sand I danced along the edge of the water, shrieking and laughing from how cold it was. I looked out over the sea and saw the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. The sky was streaked with pink and orange, and the sun was sinking into the waves. The water was sparkling, I kept remarking on how beautiful it was. I just stood there, and my heart swelled with so many emotions. But the one I remember the most was just being blissfully and simply happy… I felt so light and free and wonderful. I didn’t think about how it was the end of my time there or how I had to leave all my friends. I was just caught in that one moment, witnessing something beautiful and pure and simple. There was nothing in the world but me and that sunset, and I couldn’t be anything but happy while standing in front of it. We sat on the sand and talked, laughed, and reminisced.

I think we got home around 2 am. I still had a lot of packing to do, but I was dead tired from a long day of crying, saying goodbyes, and taking in the last sights of my city. I sat alone awhile and listened to music, trying to gather my thoughts, trying to tell myself that tomorrow wasn’t just another day. Sometime around 3 am, my host sister Jadvyga came into my room. She sat on my bed and said “I’m going to miss you so much Big Mack.” I sat next to her and hugged her and the next thing I knew she was sobbing. We sat there for a good ten minutes crying and hugging and saying how we would see each other again. When I think about all that this girl has done for me, I am so grateful. She opened her home with open arms, showed me her city, and taught me a whole language. I remember the first day we met, her barely speaking English, and me speaking no Lithuanian. I remember following her around the city, completely clueless as to where we were. I remember trying to communicate and leafing through my trusty dictionary that was completely abandoned after three months. We had intense dance parties together in the living room on weekend nights when there was nothing better to do. We got gym memberships for a month and vowed to get in shape. She dyed my hair pink (sorry mom!). She spent hours hanging out in my room and talking. She’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sister. And that’s something indescribably valuable to me.

And my friends…. The morning I left, six of my closest friends woke up bright and early to see me off. I was so rushed and wired that I barely knew what was happening. But it came time to say goodbye. I stood outside of my house surrounded by a group of people I hadn’t known at all ten months earlier. I was surrounded by a group of people who had become my life. They helped make my life. When you’re an exchange student you really can’t do it on your own. You need the people there to help you. I consider myself independent, but I also learned that sometimes I need to trust in others that everything will be okay, viskas bus gerai. We all hugged, one by one. I just couldn’t believe I was really saying goodbye to them. Then I had to get in the car, and for the first 20 miles I just sat in the backseat crying and trying to realize that I was taking that road out of Klaipeda for the last time. On the plane out of Lithuania I was in the aisle seat, but as the plane took off I stretched to look out of the window to see the last of my Lithuania. It will forever be mano Lietuva. Just as when I first arrived there, I tried to take in all that I could see. The difference is that ten months before, I was trying to discern what my new country looked like, but on June 15th I was struggling with saying goodbye and seeing those green fields and blue lakes for the last time. I couldn’t help the tears rolling down my cheeks.

But you all know how it goes, the rest of my flights were long, my delays were long, and after more than 24 hours of traveling it was great to just be home. And oh my gosh how crazy that was! When I stepped out of the airport I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe, the air was so thick and humid! Oh but seeing my friends was wonderful… Understanding everything around me was overwhelming! I re-discovered what eavesdropping was on the mostly American flight from Frankfurt to Washington. And just like that, I was home and I was no longer the foreign exchange student. I was Mackenzie from Ponte Vedra who lives with my mom and dad and dogs, no longer Mackenzie from America living in Lithuania for 10 months. It shocked me just how easy it was to readjust. I thought it would be harder, I thought I would no longer connect with my friends. But I was so happy to find out that my friends were still here, and I was able to pick my life back up again where I left it. When I got on the computer, one of my closest friends, Edita, had written me : “Palemone suzydejo visos geles… will always remind me of you singing like a drunk man (I was told quite often that my accent made me sounds like a drunk man) Ughhh too many things reminding me of you, we spend a lot of time together. It’s strange you came into our lives so unexpected and we fell for you, but I guess the most amazing things happen when you don’t expect them to, right? But all the perfect happy moments end so quickly, that’s how life goes and we have no choice just to adjust to the way life is and be happy with it. You had a wonderful opportunity to visit Lithuania , and so you took something very significant from here – our hearts, but you also left yours and so the memory will stay as long as our hearts beat.” Needless to say, that paragraph made me bawl.

But there is something that I’m uncomfortable with… The longer ago it is that I left Lithuania, the more it feels like a dream. It seems like a far away world, another life, another me. Though sometimes it seems distant, there are moments when sharp memories come back and hit me like a punch in the stomach. They are times when my life there is so clearly tangible, that an actual physical aching for what I miss takes over my heart. It’s weird to think that emotions could have an impact physically, but they can! It’s like my heart feels hollow, as if there’s something missing and there’s no way it can be filled. I don’t know why that is and I don’t understand it. I was talking to Grant who went to Japan, and we were saying how our lives are now split into three different people. There were the pre-exchange kids, who were essentially children. Then there were the during-exchange students… sometimes clueless and confused, sometimes confident. And there’s now. We’re kind of like people of the world. Now that we’re home we know a little bit more about what we want, and what we don’t want. But we’re definitely not at the end of the journey at all. It doesn’t end when you get home, and it doesn’t even end years later… No matter how dream-like it feels, Lithuania still affects everything I do. I have pictures of my memories there everywhere in my room, it’s always on my mind. I still talk to my Lithuanian friends, though I wish it was more often. And I still cry when I think about all the times I walked from my bus stop, or how I felt hanging out with my family, or the magic in the air when we stayed up all night at my class party, or the fun of walking in the city center, or the contentedness of just hanging around at a friend’s house playing basketball or eating ice cream.

Gosh I am changed, but gosh I am still not grown up. I love Lithuania… words can’t describe what that place means to me. But I also love my home here too. It is better than ever before, and I have my exchange experience to thank for that. There are some things I have realized I don’t like, petty little behaviors that maybe I’ve outgrown. But oh I still have got a ton of growing to do. Darn, I’ve still got two years of high school! I’m not super happy about that, but I have to realize that I’m still only 16, though I often feel older. I think the coolest thing I’ve realized is that I’ll never stop changing or growing. With every new place I go and every new person I meet, I will grow a little more. With every new experience it’s a different perspective. And I’ve realized that I never want to stay put for too long. I want to keep growing and I love change. I love the opportunities it brings. And most of all I simply love Lithuania.

 Thank you so much Rotary, thank you so much Lithuania. Thank you to everyone there who helped me grow quite a bit this year.