Madeline "Maddie" Sortino
2009-10 Outbound to Switzerland

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Buchholz HS
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Zug-Zugersee Rotary Club, District 1980, Switzerland

Maddie's Bio

Grüezi! I am Maddie Sortino. I am 16 and go to Buchholz High School for German 2, and dual enroll at Santa Fe College for the rest of my classes. I enjoy the dual enrollment program because it gives me more freedom and I don't have to attend the same class every day. Not only that, but I am able to get ahead on my college credits. I live with my mom, dad, older brother, and my adorable dog. My oldest brother is in the Navy. I was born in Gainesville and lived here 7 years, then moved to Richmond, Virginia for 5 years, and came back. In my free time I like to hang out with friends, explore the outdoors, learn new things, volunteer at the Humane Society, go to shows, and play/listen to music. I'm fairly outgoing and enjoy meeting new people.

I have been wanting to do foreign exchange for the past year when I first heard about it from a friend who did it. I went on the website and began learning everything I could, and reading all the journals. My parents were a bit skeptical at first, and didn't want me to leave so soon. After my mom went around asking people about it, and everyone told her she should definitely let me, she let me. Immediately after turning 16 I went and got a job to start raising money towards it. I was so excited and would not stop talking about it to all of my friends. They think that what I am doing is either insane or amazing.

One night I was hanging out with former exchange students Brad, who went to Germany, and Liam, who went to Switzerland. I got a call from Jody Davis saying that I was going to Switzerland! It was the absolute happiest I had been in so long. The timing was perfect too. I could barely talk except to yell to them, "I'M GOING TO SWITZERLAND!!!" Switzerland was tied for my number one choice, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to go there. It will definitely be the most enlightening, tough, and fun year of my life. I cannot think of a better way to spend my senior year. Thank you so much Rotary for making this possible.



Maddie's Journals

November 1 Journal

So I can’t believe it. I’ve been living in Switzerland for almost 3 months now. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here forever, and at the same time, it seems like only a week has gone by.

When I woke up on August 7th, I immediately was a basket case of emotions. It was a mixture of panic, depression, and utter excitement. I couldn’t believe the day had actually come. Talking about doing the exchange year was so much easier than when it really came down to doing it. When I walked into the airport, I could not stop shaking. All that was going through my head at the moment was, “What in the world am I doing? Am I crazy?” Well the answer to the first question is – I’m having the most enlightening/amazing/tough year of my life.

On the plane ride to Zurich, I did not sleep at all. One of the enjoyable things I did was watch “Taken” on an international flight to Europe. Quite comical they’d have that as a choice to watch. After I finished watching it, the Dutch guy sitting next to me assured me that, “It is really not like that in Europa.” Then again, Switzerland is about the least scary country. Although it seems to be the least scary country, every Swiss home is required to have a bomb shelter, or have a place reserved in one close by. I find it funny that the neutral country is so prepared for war.

After claiming my baggage, I stumbled out, attempting to manage my suitcases, trying to recognize my host family from pictures, while mildly delirious. I hear, “Maddie?” and they try to hug me, yet I had no open hands to hug back. Then for my first bit of culture shock, they all went to kiss me. I didn’t even do it right, because I pulled away after two kisses, even though it’s three. I immediately felt welcomed after meeting them. I never really went through a very awkward time with my host family. My host mom and dad are both really nice and I like them a lot. I also have two host sisters. One is 14 and lives at home, and the other is 15, but is doing an exchange year in Canada right now. I am fortunate enough to live with the beautiful lake of Zug right in my backyard! It is amazing. This country itself is truly amazing.

For the first few weeks, I would wake up in the morning hearing another language, wondering where in the world I was. I always woke up so confused. It was such a strange feeling. I would usually wake up around 12, and here they eat their warm meal during lunchtime. So I’d have to wake up and eat dinner… that was a little odd getting used to. Everyone always eats at the table together, even if there are only two people at home.

I would also like to point out how ridiculous it is that I am trying to learn a language that everyone here hates to speak. I spend my time learning German, although everyone speaks Swiss German. Where I live it really is not similar at all. The people here would also rather speak English very poorly with you than speak High German (except for my host family). It makes it so much harder to learn, and the fact that I have to attempt to learn to understand two languages-- one of which is impossible to study. Viel spass!! (much fun). But hey, not many people say they got to learn two languages on exchange.

Some things I did in my few months in Switzerland include: Going to Germany, taking ships around beautiful lakes, hiking in the amazing Alps, getting a terrible sunburn on only the left side of my body, actually developing a mild tan on only the left side of my body (let it be known, I have never developed any sort of a tan in Florida), seeing my favorite Swiss German rap band, going to a rock music festival, visiting cities all over Switzerland, and being ridiculously confused. I also went sailing for the first time in the French section of Switzerland with some of the strongest winds ever. I feared for my life the entire time, and was still soaked under about 20 pounds of gear. Nonetheless, it was an awesome experience I won’t forget. One of my favorite things to do here is get with a group of friends and go exploring in the forests in the mountains for hours.

The school here is crazy. Most every day I begin at 7:35am and don’t get out until 4pm. I take around 13 classes or so, maybe even more, and don’t understand any of them, except for English. I find myself getting lost in my own mind all the time. The school is also enormous. There are 9 buildings, some of which are up to 5 stories high. I get a workout every day just going to class, so I don’t really see why sport class here is mandatory!

In my town, Zug, there is an international school and also about 20 exchange students just in my school. So being a foreigner is really nothing special. That is kind of a shame, but some of the exchange students are some of the best people I have met. I love being able to say I have friends from all over the world. For my last Rotex weekend, we went to the oldest city in Switzerland and slept in a military bomb shelter. It was so much fun being together with all the exchange students doing crazy things. We had to go up to random Swiss people (typically pretty reserved people…) and ask them to draw a picture for us and teach us a Swiss song.

Things keep progressively getting better for me. All of the good times definitely make up for the bad. I think that is really important for someone to know when they are on exchange. If you want it to, it will get better. Oh and another thing to note-- unless you are really lucky, you are going to gain weight! Especially if you go to a country with the most delicious chocolate, bread, cheeses, and everything fatty and delicious.

Thank you so much Rotary, my family, and everyone for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.

Bis später! Maddie

February 21 Journal

So a lot has happened between my last journal and now… obviously. I ended up switching schools for numerous reasons. Now I attend school about a 20-minute bus ride away in the mountains where there is plenty of snow. This means waking up even earlier and getting home even later… I have gone to Zermatt, learned to ski, visited French and Italian Switzerland, celebrated Christmas and New Years, had my three best friends leave me, switched host families, went to Austria for a week, and celebrated Fasnacht.

All of the exchange students had a Rotary weekend together in Zermatt and it was really great. Most every Swiss person I’ve asked from my town hasn’t even gotten the chance to go there. It’s about 4 hours away and there are no cars in the town. It is small and absolutely beautiful, and you could see the famous Matterhorn mountain perfectly from the hostel. The first day we got to explore the town, were set off to do some crazy tasks that made complete strangers think we were crazy, went to a museum, ate fondue, and went dancing. The next day we were supposed to take a train up to the Small Matterhorn but there was such strong wind and snow that we had to go to a lower mountain, but it was still pretty cool.

Learning to ski has probably been one of the coolest things I have been able to do my exchange year. It’s something I have no chance of doing in Florida, and something that I really love doing. I was lucky enough to get everything given to me for free because my Rotary officer knew the head of a popular sports company. So of course I took advantage of this and have been skiing any chance that I can. It is absolutely beautiful to go skiing in Switzerland… the views are unreal. I’m pretty happy to say that at least now I can ski down a slope without falling every second or managing to take a wrong turn and become completely lost.

During Christmas break I went skiing and took a trip to Bellinzona in Italian Switzerland. It’s a small town with three big castles that you can explore. It was so weird to be in the same country yet not be able to communicate in the language you’ve been learning. We tried asking about four people directions, most of which were no help because we could not speak Italian. To start my break two of my best friends went home…Misha from South Africa and Rodrigo from Mexico. It was a weird feeling because I had spent so much of my time with them. The good thing is I know I will be seeing them again.

Christmas in Switzerland was nice. About a week before, I went to Bern, the capital, with my host sister to bake traditional Swiss Christmas cookies with a family friend. They were delicious. We celebrated Christmas on the 24th with family, friends, and a big dinner. It was kind of hard being away from my family, but it wasn’t my first Christmas away from home. There was a little bit of chaos though because in the middle of the evening they realized that there were ashes in the bathroom and then in their bedroom. Afterwards we noticed that the couches, furniture, walls, everything was covered in a light black ash. My host mom began freaking out, and everyone was vacuuming and trying to clean the furniture. We later realized that one of the candles had been burning a piece of the Christmas tree. This is why I prefer the rainbow electric lights we use on our tree at home! Oh, and for Christmas I accumulated a total of three kilograms of chocolate for presents. Keep the weight gain going! For New Years I ended up going to Zurich for fireworks and a big celebration on the street with my friend Johannes from Norway and a bunch of his AFS friends that I had never met. It ended up being a really awesome New Years.

Since then I have visited Geneva with some friends. I have also gone sledding a few times, and even night sledding with lights on your head… that was really funny. I switched host families in the middle of January. I had mixed feelings about it since I had it really well at my first host family. So far it has been a good experience and my new host family is also really nice but very different. A week after the switch my best friend here, Zach, from Australia went home. So now my three favorite people have all gone home and I switched families. It was definitely a big hit for everything to suddenly change like that.

Last week in the beginning of February I went to Bregenz, Austria to visit Zach Clauss for a week. That was really nice. It was interesting comparing the differences between the German and how the people/culture differentiates. I ended up meeting some cool people and we also visited two towns in Germany. When I got back to Switzerland, Fasnacht was being celebrated. This is like Carnival where everyone dresses up, there are parades, parties, etc. and it lasts for a week. I went to one of the parades in Luzern, and I also dressed up as an Indian and went out with some friends one night. It’s pretty funny to walk around the city and everyone is dressed in crazy costumes having a good time.

My German is continuously getting better. I can understand almost anything in normal conversations, and I’m slowly beginning to understand a bit more Swiss German. Now I get to look forward to my parents coming in April and Eurotour in June!

Thanks again for everything! Danke!