I have only been in Denmark for a few weeks but I feel like I've been here for months. My trip began with me saying goodbye to my parents at the airport. It continued on to Chicago where I made some last minute goodbye phone calls. The next piece of my adventure was in the Frankfurt airport, where Nova (another exchange student) and I got quite lost and confused... I thought I lost my passport! I realized it was on the plane in my old seat because I had switched spots. The hostess were very nice and helped me find my passport before the plane was closed. When I went back into the airport only Nova was there with my bags. All the other students we had met up with in Chicago were gone. We were left to make the trek through the airport by ourselves. Finally, we reached to proper line to get our tickets for our next flights. There were problems with our reservations however; something about the tickets being reserved for the day before. We showed the attendants our itineraries and assured them that were were on all the proper flights all the way to Frankfurt. After a long while the attendants gave us our tickets and we were on our way.
The airport was very different for anything we had been in before. The hall to security for our gate was long and white and littered with shops on both sides. Shops that we wouldn't expect to see in an airport. There were expensive stores and widely recognized brands everywhere. It was more of a mall than an airport. Once we got to security we paid close attention to what everyone else was doing. Nobody removed their shoes or their liquids baggie. And you put your things on the belt one by one, rather than the massive mob that swarms around the metal tables in the US airports. It was so organized! It was rather amazing. Nova unfortunately had some trouble here and there because she had dislocated her arm a few days before but, none the less, we got through security quite speedily. We also found this really net dispenser in the bathroom! It looked like a gumball machine and it gave out mini finger tip toothbrushes!! It was quite exciting. Eventually, we got to our gate and in a few minutes we were joined by the rest of our group. How we beat them exactly, we are not sure but we boarded the airplane and were sad to see that one of our friends got left behind. Luckily he was paid for his wait (about 300 euros) and received a voucher for a new flight later in the day. So off we went to Copenhagen!
We landed on time and were amazed to see that this airport was very similar to the Frankfurt one in that all the halls were white and covered in shops! After going to the transfer station we hiked out to our gate. I say hiked because we had to have gone down the longest terminal hallway in all of creation. It took us an hour to reach our gate! I was so tired that I fell asleep before the plane to Aalborg was fully boarded.
When I woke up we were in Aalborg! FINALLY! I was expecting lines of people at a customs stop, mass confusion, even a few stern voiced security guards but what I saw was probably the most shocking thing I had witnessed all day. It was my families (well at least two of them) and my counselor gathered to come greet me. I received hugs and handshakes and exchanged many hello's and how are you's. It hadn't hit me that this would be my family but I did feel something: the absolute NEED for sleep! We put my stuff in the car and talked about things that every Dane converses about: the weather, how the trip was, and more weather. I told them about what I was feeling and all my reactions made them laugh. They were shocked when I thought their house was small because, for Denmark, their home is quite large. We spent the afternoon touring the house, eating, and talking. I finally got to take a long need shower. The best part of my shower is that I got time to think about everything. Everything that had happen in the past two days didn't seem real. As I scrubbed my hair and skin to remove the layers of public airplane gunk, it was as though I was also scrubbing away the dream state I had been stuck in for hours. It helped make everything feel more real at least long enough for me to comprehend that I had finally made it to Denmark.
After my shower I had dinner with my family but I honestly couldn't tell you what we talked about or ate because I was so tired I can't even really picture it. I remember that my new little host brother, Oskar, didn't speak any English. I also know that I didn't speak Danish. My mind just couldn't wrap itself around the words I had worked so hard to prepare. As soon as dinner was done I excused myself and went to my room. The white walls and plain, uncluttered tables were soothing and for the first time in days I closed my eyes and immediately felt that deep pull of sleep engulf me entirely. And everything that had happened just slipped away into black...
The next morning I woke up suddenly! I looked outside my window and who was there but my host mother! She told me that it was 6 in the morning. Even at six in the morning my host mother looks adorable. She has the most beautiful eyes and the sweetest smile. She reminds me a lot of my mom. Both of them are tiny and sweet. The only difference is that my mother would never be up at six in the morning doing laundry. NEVER! I didn't want to wake up anyone else so I decided to quietly unpack my room. I figured that if I didn't do it soon I would never feel like part of the family because I would be living out of a suitcase (well... suitcases). After struggling with the closet for some time I finally figured out how it opens! It has two sliding doors, in case you were wondering. The first was not the problem. It was figuring out the second that gave me some issues. But rest assured! I got everything all put away in the closet and in these little locking cabinets (they look similar to little metal lockers that are short and wide, set on wheels). After unpacking I found myself tired once again so back off to sleep I went.
When I woke up I ate breakfast with my host sisters Ida and Mia, my host sister's boyfriend, Morten, and my little host brother, Oskar. After breakfast Oskar showed us his unicycling videos. It turns out that Oskar is actually a unicycling champion! He has tons of medals and can do all these amazing tricks! He tells me I will have to learn to ride while I'm here. Personally, I'm excited too but I'm just afraid of the injury I know will result because of my attempts to balance on one wheel. It will be fun though, and any resulting bloodshed will make for a great blog.
After breakfast we cleaned up and decided to go back to bed for a little while. Unfortunately, Ida tried to wake me up multiple times and I had no idea. Eventually, I did wake up and we left the house and went to my second host family's/ Ida's best friends house. Signe is the name of my second host sister. She lives in the city of Aalborg which is right across the bridge from Norresundby (the city I'm living in). When you walk into her house all you see is stairs! There are LOTS AND LOTS of stairs in her home. I then realized what my family ment when they said they had a big house for Denmark. Although there were lots of stairs in Signe's house, the rooms were pretty small. Her kitchen was the size of my bedroom here in Denmark. I was very tired though so I really wasn't thinking about anything. The only thing I had enough energy to worry about was what we were about to eat. Mia told me we were headed to the market to buy stuff for lunch. On the way I talked with Mia's boyfriend. It turns out he has excellent English and he told me lots about the city. When we got to the store I was amazed to see that it lacked all the random unimportant stuff our grocery stores are filled with! It was all food. Well, food and wine. It was very interesting. We bought some of what we needed then we walked to what would be equal to a Walmart in the US to buy some fresh (and I'm probably not spelling it right) Levepastie. It's essentially meat paste. We got home and loaded the porch table with food and sat down to eat. I tried Levepastia on rye bread (a Danish favorite). Although it looks and smells similar to canned dog food it actually isn't that bad! I actually kind of enjoyed it! The boiled eggs on rye bread were gross though. But hey, I at least found one Danish food I liked. Once I was pretty sure I would not starve here in Denmark we cleaned up and headed to the car.
The cars here are tiny by the way. Much smaller than my families big red suburban. The car my family has seats five and they only have one. Mia, Morten, Ida, Signe, and I then drove to a place called Blokhus. It is a beach on the west coast of Denmark. We stopped and had ice cream from this little shop. It was magnificent! I had chocolate and coconut with this strange pink marshmallow type cream. Needless to say, I loved it!
We walked along the beach and I was surprised to find that this beach was nothing like I had ever seen before. I have been to the west coast, all along the east coast, the gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, St. Kitts, and never had I seen a beach quite like this. The sand itself continued from the water back to the dunes in a perfectly flat slate. The dunes were far away from the water too. Cars were able to pull right up onto the beach. It was sunny and beautiful but the wind wiped all the heat from the air and your body so that you wished you had a sweatshirt. The waves were constant and gorgeous. It was impressive to see! And the water was soo cold. I only placed a hand in it but that was enough.
We drove to the summer house and dropped off Ida and Signe and began the journey home. Mia, Morten, and I talked about lots of things on the way back. We talked about music, people, Danish speaking, English sayings; lots of stuff. It was hard to explain but I felt so comfortable with these two. It felt like I had known them from much longer than a day. When we got to the house we had tacos for dinner. I helped cut vegetables and Mia and Marianne (my host mom) spoke danish. After dinner I saw my first movie with Danish subtitles. It was an altogether wonderful day. After the movie I laid down in my bed once again and didn't feel longing to be home or even the smallest twang of homesickness but instead contentment. I was confident in my ability to live here as a Dane and to adjust to the way of life here. I feel asleep that night and dreamed of nothing except unicycles.
The next big step for me was meeting my host Rotary club. Honestly, I was extremely nervous. My host sister Ida is their outbound student this year. It made me so happy that I wouldn't have to go alone. Ida got ready in jeans and a nice shirt and I figured that I wouldn't look out of place if we matched. I was wrong. Although, jeans and a nice shirt would have defiantly blend in at my sponsor club they didn't at my host club. I guess I should have taken a hint from where they meet that they are a much more fancy Rotary club. They meet on Monday afternoons at the Hotel Hvid Hus (which means white house). They are a dinner club and so the men come right from work still dressed in their suits. It was very interesting to see that many of them had tie clips and little rotary symbols on their business attire. They were all very sweet to me even if we couldn't understand each other entirely. The meeting was so official and orderly. It was as though they had done it a hundred times: greet everyone, sit down, eat, make small talk, sing danish songs, listen to announcements, listen to guest speakers (Ida and I), then continue to the meeting. Everyone knew what was supposed to happen when, except me. I couldn't understand the small talk, I didn't get to greet everyone in the room, I kept forgetting to use my fork in my left and my knife in my right, and I was all together very awkward and out of place. But I imagine even if I knew what was going on I would have still felt strange because I don't know these men quite yet. I know my sponsor club and I love going to their meetings and hearing them joke with each other. I can't wait to get to know these men however, because I know that I will really enjoy going to meetings once I do. I have already been invited to my next meeting and I am eager to go.
The biggest event that has happened to me since I have been here just took place last Wednesday. It was bigger than being lost in Frankfurt, meeting my family, and going to my Rotary meeting all put together. It was my first day of school! My host family was dropping my sister Ida off at the airport so I had to go to stay with my second host family. I was very thankful for that though because Signe goes to my school and I got to know here very well. She went to Chile last year on exchange so she was incredibly helpful and was able to soothe many of my nerves about the first day of school. I asked her to pick out my outfit for my first day of school because I didn't want to stand out to much. As we walked to school the next morning I felt a little strange in a skirt and leggings but they were both things I had bought myself so I was glad to finally have a reason to wear them. But I felt really stupid when I got to the school and saw what all the other first class students were wearing. Jeans, T-shirts, Converse, distressed knees, neon bracelets, funky unmatching socks. I had walked into a sea of Erin Harty type people and I was the only one who didn't quite fit. WAY TO GO! For day kids I had met had responded to me telling them that I was going to the Katedral Skole with remarks about it being the "hippie school". I saw why they said it. I wouldn't call the kids hippies though. Free spirited is a much better word to describe them. They were artists, musicians, and down right strange teens and I was so happy to see that I would fit in. Even if I was the only one in a floral skirt! The first day was a shortened day so that all the first classers could leave by eleven before the older kids could come to school and harass us for not being as old as them. I supposed even in Denmark there is such a thing as the freshmen hunt. It was good for me though because two hours of non-stop danish was enough to make my head spin. One of the tutors in the class served as an interpreter to me so that I didn't miss anything important. I felt like I missed everything! I've never felt so totally helpless before. Every time we had to do anything I had to be specifically instructed like some kind of child. It wasn't embarrassing exactly, it was just, well, defeating. I felt like it would be forever before I could do anything without being told. There were a few things I did notice about the school that is very different than school in the United States. Kids raise their pointer finger instead of their hand. You call the teachers by their first names. It is okay for teachers to come in with un-ironed shirts and pants, and sandals. Your homeroom is where you spend most of your classes. Not only do you room from room to room but your teachers do too. Classes can get canceled, like at college. You can leave campus to get food. You can smoke on school property. Kids rush outside to smoke a cigarette at every break of every class. And last but not least, teachers are not very good at danish, so don't ask them where the restroom is because not only will you be confused, they will be confused and when you walk away you will still have to pee.
All in all Denmark has been wonderful. The weather is an adventure in itself and every place I have been in Denmark is different and unique. The city is beautiful and even though I ride my bike 7 Kilometers to school in the morning I secretly enjoy it even if I don't tell my host mom that. I'm eager to see what else Denmark has in store for me.
Thank you again Rotary for this wonderful opportunity. It is one I will always treasure.
So today my school guardian (guardian angel is definitely more fitting) ask me to submit a few lines to her about why I am here. When I sat down at the computer I had no idea what I was gonna say. As soon as I started typing it took me all of five seconds to figure out what I had to say. I was shocked by the answer but only because it took me just now to realize that this is why I wanted to be here.
So here it is, here is what I wrote to her. The reason I am here:
I am here because being an exchange student is the trip of a lifetime. How many chances do you get to go and experience a whole new way of life? How many people can say they had the strength to live among strangers and adapt to a new situation? It's an experience that allows me to be myself and find out who I really am. It's a chance for me to challenge myself to do amazing and difficult things. I knew it would be hard. I know it will get harder. I also know that in the end it will be worth it. I will know a knew language. I will have met so many wonderful people. I will have thousands of new stories. And I will have three new families and houses to call home. Being an exchange student never sounded scary to me. It still doesn't. All my friends tell me how brave I am to go through with this. I don't think of being an exchange student as a test of bravery or strength. I think of it as a test of your mind and confidence. You have to be head strong and confident enough in yourself to look like a total fool trying to do everything the Danish way but still love doing it. Most of all, I am here because I know that one day, I will be faced with some sort of challenge, it will be something that will be absolutely terrifying but I will have the courage to face that challenge. Because if I can make it through this year and survive as an honorary Dane then I can succeed at just about anything.
My brother came to visit me. It was so weird to have him in my host house but it was so nice to see him!! It was amazing. I told him about everything I had done and he told me about everything I had missed. He said mom tried to make pancakes the way I do and it didn't really work. He also said my paintings were still sitting unfinished in my room but the hallway never smelled like paint anymore. He said he was unicycling a lot and missed helping me learn. He told me about school and his troubles with English and Math.
The whole time we had tea and just hung out. Then we watched a movie. I was so sad to see him leave. And the whole time this was happening not once had it occurred to me this was my host brother from my first house, not my real brother. At twelve years old, he has already seen so much of the world and knows who he truly is. He has so much figured out just because he does what he wants and doesn't let anyone get in his way. He is my best friend here and I miss him, even though we live 13 kilometers from each other. He knows my favorite movies and I know his favorite songs. We wrestle, fight, and hug daily and I can't help feel as though he is family.
What amazes me more is that I know if Oskar hadn't been my first host brother I wouldn't be the exchange student or even person that I am now. Every time I wanted to stay home he would tell me to get out of the house. He pushed me to learn to unicycle and to try new things. He wasn't afraid to speak Danish with me. And he always knows when I need a hug. In a way, leaving my first host house felt so much like leaving my actual home. Oskar and I didn't want to say "goodbye" because we will see each other again but, at the same time we knew it wouldn't be the same, just like me and my real brother did three months ago.
As he left that day I really understood how real these relationships we are having are. These aren't just people you stay with, or just friends in passing like at summer camp. These people are going to leave a mark forever. How much of a mark will all depend on how close we let them get.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. Well, it's almost Christmas Day now, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that I have been living in this house for 42 days. In these 42 days I have done more than I ever could have imagined I could accomplished in such a short time. I can't even begin to tell you everything I've done. I won't even try! It would take far to long and I honestly, don't have the patience to tell all of it, because I know that nobody will ever appreciate the experiences the way I do. But, I will tell you about how, in these short 42 days, I have celebrated multiple holidays, BIG HOLIDAYS! I've celebrated Thanksgiving, my 17th birthday, and, just a few hours ago, Christmas.
As you all can guess, Thanksgiving is only celebrated in America. That doesn't take a genius to figure out. But, until this year, I never truly appreciated Thanksgiving the way I should have. The whole idea to celebrate it actually was my friend Natasha's. She is another Rotary Exchange Student in my city from California. One day she walked into Danish class and told me that we should make Thanksgiving dinner. We took up the entire class listing the foods we wanted, who would come, where it would be, all the little details. I can assure you my Danish teacher was not happy when we were sitting in the back of the class talking about sweet potatoes and turkey while he was trying to teach us something about numbers, which we had already learned. Still, we decided to get together again and finalize recipes and shop. So, the shopping date was set for the next Thursday.
On Thursday, we quickly made a list of ingredients. Thank God for Allrecipes.com! Then we were off to the store. Until this year I had never seen cranberry sauce that did not come out of a can, nor had I ever seen the filling for a pumpkin pie that was not pre-made and AGAIN canned. We had to make everything from scratch. EVERYTHING!
The entire trip went like this: Natasha and I "We need____." Natasha's mom:"Oh, here it is! (picks up some sort of fruit or vegetable)" Natasha and I: "Uhh... doesn't it come in a can?!?" Natasha's mom: *looks at us like we are absolutely crazy and disgusting for wanting canned food*
Once the shopping trip was over I took on the task of making two apple pies and one pumpkin from scratch so they would be ready the next day. This took a long time, and I ended up sitting on my kitchen floor till about 2 just playing solitare alone. But, I learned a very very very important lesson that night so all future outbounds to Denmark listen up! DO NOT! REPEAT! DO NOT EAT ANYTHING WITH RAW EGG EVER! The eggs here are not safe raw! Exchange students have some real horror stories about the raw eggs here. So be very very careful! My host sister freaked out when I tasted batter with raw egg in it. I was fine! Don't worry, but I was lucky. SO, PAS PÅ!
So finally it was Friday (yes, we celebrated late, we know), it was time almost time to eat. After I got lost walking to Natasha's, in the snow, with no gloves, carrying 3 really really heavy pies, I found myself standing in the worlds MESSIEST kitchen. I'm talking, bread crumbs all over the counter, dishes everywhere, a pot of some brown bubbling goo that tasted amazing and smelled like Terryake (Natasha's attempt at gravy), and random spices covering the table. Sweet little Natasha was giving her best attempt at making Thanksgiving dinner alone. It took us a while but we finally got everything done or cooking. When all my friends arrived we felt kind of silly though. In Denmark, when people come over you are supposed to be ready to eat but I have never been to a Thanksgiving where the food was DONE when I got there. It's just how it is. So after explaining, we waited. After about an hour everyone was there and the food was ready. Our Danish friends looked a little worried about the food but in the end they LOVED it all.
The most amazing part though, wasn't the food, or the fact that they liked our weird American sweet potatoes with marshmellows and butter. It was when we went around the table one by one and said what we were thankful for and my friend Sasha actually began to cry. She said how thankful she was that we were here, and that we would do all this for them, and that we could all be together. She understood everything that Thanksgiving was about from one meal, one. She understood it without football, or her family, without struggling in the kitchen, without seeing it year after year after year. She embraced our tradition so fully and instantly. It was the most touching experience I have ever had and it didn't even matter that I had burned the marshmellows, that the gravy had lumps, and that half the food was cold.
A week after Thanksgiving was my 17th birthday. My family at home doesn't do anything big for birthdays. Of course, when we were little we always had these big themed birthdays but now that we are all older we normally just sing and have a dinner that the birthday person chooses and we watch them open gifts. So, we do celebrate, just not in a big way. Birthday's are big in Denmark. They are huge family and friend events. And it literally begins the moment you wake up. My host family came into my room and woke me up singing and gave me a present to open. Then we all went upstairs for breakfast and I had even more gifts. I got a scarf, hat, and mittens. All things I REALLY REALLY needed. Then in school, we sang to me and everyone gave me hugs and told me "Tillykke!!" Which is congratulations, kinda... its odd but I love it. After school some of my best friends came to my house for cocoa and cake. It was so amazing when we got home to see that my host mom had cleaned and decorated the kitchen. There were Danish flags EVERYWHERE! I love that they celebrate with their flag. My guests all arrived which included to Danes (my best friends), two AFS exchange students (who attend my school), and one Rotary Exchange student from California (she lives right near me and we are super close). They gave me the sweetest gifts, and I loved each of them so much because they got me such meaningful things! My two Danish friends are gonna paint me a picture to take home with me. Natasha (from California) gave me handmade earrings. Angie and Isabela got me an elephant stuffed animal and a picture frame full of pictures of all the people I really love here in Denmark. I was so happy to see how much they cared and how much they knew about me. Once all my friends left we cleaned the kitchen again and MORE guests came over. This time it was my first host family and my counselor, Irene. We had dinner, which was amazing because my host mom Helle is a beast in the kitchen. Then we had birthday cake!
Personally, I think the birthday cake is the best tradition of all. Their birthday cake is kinda flat and tastes like a cinnamon roll. Its covered in candy and has a big piece of marcipan across it with your name on it. The cake is shaped like a boy or girl depending on what the birthday person is. The best part, by far, is when the birthday person cuts they cake, they cut its head off first and everybody SCREAMS! When I first witnessed this it was my host sisters birthday and I freaked out! I had no idea what had happened. I thought my host sister had cut herself or something! I was so pumped to cut the head off my cake this year, yes I know that sounds weird. It was a little odd to see all my brothers and sisters and parents in the same room. It was especially weird to think about how I still have more brothers, sisters, and parents in Denmark. I was so happy to see everyone especially Irene. She's probably the sweetest woman ever and she is so helpful as a counselor and it ment a lot to me that she was there. It just made me feel like Rotary was truly interested in my experience.
The funniest part of the whole day was that it wasn't actually my birthday! We were celebrating early because we didn't know if I was gonna be in town on my birthday! On my real birthday I was at a Rotary event for all the exchange students in our district. It was a Hygge weekend where we all just got together to talk and do, well, nothing. It was the best birthday I've ever had. I spent the entire day running around with my friends and talking about everything with them. It brought us a lot closer. When dinner came around I stood on a chair and heard happy birthday songs in 4 different languages. I also got to pick my desert first, exciting, I know. But honestly, it was just the most Hyggeligt birthday I've ever had. When we found a cake in the middle of the night we turned it into birthday cake and everyone sang AGAIN. Over and over I just kept thinking about how amazing my birthday had been just because I spent it with all these amazing exchangers who I didn't know super well but still was close to them because we share this experience.
After my birthday came a rush of shopping, wrapping, and preparing for Christmas. I had a little trouble with what to buy my family at first, but it all came together eventually. Leading up to Christmas I had lots of mixed feelings. I would be shopping and suddenly remember how when we were little and my parents would give us a list and we would run around Target for an hour buying presents for each other and avoiding the others so they wouldn't know. I also felt kinda sad every time I would realize that I didn't have any presents to wrap on Christmas Eve, that's when I used to wrap all my Dad's last minute gifts. But at the same time I was so excited to spend Christmas in Denmark. I was so glad that it snowed all the way up till Christmas. I was ecstatic when we put up the Christmas tree.
Constantly leading up to Christmas people would ask me about my Christmas traditions. In the US, my family does a different thing for Christmas almost every year. Our family is far away and most years we go see them and visit but some years we don't. Every year changes just a bit, but the things that don't are that we always sign this table clothe that my grandma has then she stitches over the words so they dont wash out and my mom ALWAYS marks my and my brothers gifts with ornaments that represent us. We get new ones every year. This year, for some reason, I realized how important that tradition is to me. Sure it's silly but it's true, I love that tradition because it shows who we were every year of our lives.
So on the morning of the 24th, everyone was excited. In Denmark, you celebrate Christmas on the 24th. The best part that night after we ate dinner, we all got together and went around the tree and held hands and began circling the tree and singing. I felt like I was in Whoville or something. It was so silly to just stand around the tree and sing about how pretty it looked. Then it got sillier. We broke the circle in one place and my little host brother ran us around the house into EVERY room. We just kept singing and running and laughing all through the house. My host mom said it was so that we could bring Christmas to every room. I felt just like a little kid in a way, because I was so excited and everything seemed to important and magical. The whole afternoon of opening presents was fun and cozy and I was so happy. I did think about my family that day but not a lot. I guess it was because I was with my family, it just wasn't my blood relatives. I was positive I wasn't gonna cry, that was until I opened a gift from my host mom. It was an ornament, a danish design. It's a single silver star. I didn't even speak at first. It was so unexpected. My real mom had sent me an elephant one from home and that meant so much to me but then, when I saw that my host mom had realized how important that the ornaments my mother gave me were, I just, I was in shock. Even now I can't help but tear up a bit, I can't believe how much this ornament means to me because I know my host mom bought it just so I could feel at home. I do, I really do.
Christmas morning I woke up at nine, and got on my computer. My family from the states called. They had just got back from church. We have a tradition of opening one present before bed every year. So, after they got back from Midnight mass, we opened our gifts, all of us, together. I even had one. Yeah, it was a little weird looking at my family all together doing something so familiar on a computer screen. It was even weirder to think that they were just talking to me through speakers and still pretended it was as if I was there.
Later on Christmas I watched my brother open up these boxes that have the peom "Twas the Night Before Christmas" on them. It tied everything up. Every holiday I have celebrated is about tradition. Every holiday was different here than it is in the states. Every holiday was a mixture of emotions. And every holiday turned out more perfect than I could imagine. As I counted down the New Years, standing on a couch holding hands with Danish friends I couldn't help but feel completely at home. Denmark has truly become my home, I don't feel like an exchange student anymore. I just feel like, I'm a girl with lots of families, living my life here in Denmark. So, as the last seconds ticked by, our hands squeezed tighter and tighter, then the bell rang in Copenhagn and we all jumped into the New Year, a year I'm sure I will never forget.
Never judge a book by it's cover.
On the corner of Vestebro and Hassiresgade there's a cemetery on both sides. If you walk past it, toward the train tracks, tucked away behind other buildings you will find the Katedral School.
At first glance, the area doesn't look too nice. It's back behind buildings, there are old cars scattering the street, and there's graffiti on all the surrounding surfaces. The school is old an brick, and resembles a hospital from a horror movie. But, if you go inside, you will be amazed.
When you walk into Katten you see color and creativity everywhere. Every wall is covered in students' art. Every surface has been used for self expression. It's big, old and makes you feel like you are in a mansion. The library is filled to the brim with books both, ancient and new and you can find just about anything in there.
The best part of the school is found on the second floor of the main building. If you manage to find your way up there you will notice room 201. That's mine. This room isn't especially different from the rest. White walls, cream floors, a few tables, some chairs; nothing fancy. The thing that makes this room amazing is the people. On an average day there will be at least two students on World of Warcraft, at least four on Facebook, a bunch drawing, and at least two sneaking food. You will see all types of clothes, some of these outfits are things you could never even imagine. Neon, black, fashionable, t-shirts, heels, and Doc Martens all mixed together. Each person is original, each is unique, and they are all joined by this one love that we share: art.
If you look to the back row, you'll see four girls. One with long blonde hair and green headphones most likely laughing away at something. She's got a loud laugh, big smile, and is the funniest person I've ever known, this is Katrine. Another girl has red dreads, cheek piercings, and gauges. If she isn't leaning back in her chair staring off into space she's got her paint pens out and is drawing out her latest piece. If you ever get a chance to talk to her, you'll never forget it. She has the sweetest voice and is truly the nicest person I have ever met, this is Nanna. The next girl is more intimidating. High cheek bones, strong chin, dark red hair pulled into a high teased ponytail, and jet black stilettos set her apart. She looks like a model that would beat you up for saying bad things about her. If you look past it, you will soon see that's not true. She's gorgeous but not scary. She cries the most in our class and has the biggest heart. She loves everyone, especially me. She's not afraid to say what's on her mind but she feels just as bad as everyone else if people reject her, this is Sasha. The last girl you will see looks similar to the rest, dark hair, pale skin, pierced ears, leggings, and Doc Martens. Often you will see her writing, drawing, or sleeping. She always wears a smile, always manages to make people laugh. She is almost always hugging someone and the class says she the sweetest person they have ever met. I can only find two differences between her and the rest of the class, she has extremely dark brown eyes and has English as her first language. The last girl is me.
My class is special. They except me as one of them, they don't think of me as the awkward exchange student. Sure, they sometimes call me a stupid American, but it's true, I am. They never for a second let that stand in the way of us being close. I have heard about other exchange students' challenges with school and their classes. I have heard that some classes don't even talk to the exchange students. My heart breaks for these students. My Danish friends are some of the best I have ever had, here and in the United States. I don't think I'll ever be able to fully express how glad I am that in that first week when Sasha asked me if I wanted to go to the city with them after school that I said yes. Even though she intimidated me, A LOT, she is now one of my absolute best friends.
Like I said before, don't judge a book by it's cover, you never know what person is underneath the make-up and combat boots.
When you are on exchange your miss the most random things. You come to realize a bunch of the silly little things you would do at home. Things that just felt natural and right. For example, when my friends used to come over we would always end up in the kitchen. We would bake, talk, eat, and just sit around in there for hours. I remember tons of times when a group of my friends had been invited over and we spent the night sitting on the floor laughing and listening to music. It never seemed to matter what time it was. We would just spend time there. In Denmark, that doesn't really happen. You hang out with your friends in their room. Other exchange students and I have actually noticed this more and more, and we have come to miss our kitchen hang outs.
One day, I was at another exchange students house and we ended up in the kitchen, just sitting around with her host sister for hours. It was amazing! We just talked, drank saft (which is like liquid koolaid mix and you just add water to it) and took pictures. It was by far one of the best nights I've spent with another exchange student. It was so comfortable and it was so nice to be taken back to an old "tradition" but in a new language. It was just kind of a reminder how people are not so different after all.
Sure, everyone reading this may think I'm absurd. Yes, it is a little silly to think that spending a couple hours talking in a kitchen meant so much to me, but it's only because you learn to appreciate the everything. You finally see how all the little things add up to make a truly amazing time. You stop taking things for granted. You especially learn to cherish each moment, especially those spent with people you love.
So, thank you to my friend Esther from Nebraska and her sister Isabella, for an absolutely memorable evening. It's one I will surely remember.
This whole year has been full of adventures! Whether it was school things, rotary events, shopping days, bike rides, visiting friends, or traveling to various cities and countries, I had a great time. There are four really amazing adventures I have just taken recently that I know I will cherish for a long time.
The first is my class trip to Aros. Aros is an art museum in Århus. They recently brought in this new exhibit that was said to be absolutely mind-blowing. Since we are the art class at my school our teacher was eager to take us. We met nice and early on a Thursday morning and gathered onto buses and prepared for the drive. I grabbed a seat next to my friend Katrine and quickly fell asleep. When we woke up we were parked outside the museum and kids were all rushing out of the bus, through the snow, and up to the giant glass doors. After hanging our coats and bags we were ushered downstairs to their featured exhibit room and there they were: a dozen or so perfectly made marble sculptures. They were beautiful and inspiring. They were crazy, controversial, and so gorgeous that I still can’t get them out of my head. For hours I just walked around and stared in silence at the marble. The rest of the exhibits seemed almost bland in comparison. At the end of the day we all loaded back on the bus and either fell asleep or took pictures until we arrived back at the school and head home.
In the last year I have become very close with this one group of girls in particular. They are Katrine, Sasha, and Nanna. We all started out in the same class but by Christmas it was just me and Katrine. Sasha and Nanna have both dropped out and now I don’t get to see them as often, but every once in a while we all meet up at Katrine and Sasha’s art studio and spend the afternoon drinking tea and listening to music. The only way to describe the experience is with a very special Danish word, hyggeligt. It’s more than cozy, its perfect, even if it is only an hour or two sitting with my best friends drinking amazing tea and just laughing is priceless to me.
I got an amazing opportunity last month to go on a trip of a lifetime: a ski vacation in Norway! Nanna’s family invited me to spend ten days with them skiing and snowboarding at a place called Gaustatoppen. It is beautiful and well work all the work of getting permission. I must have spent hours writing and talking with my parents, my host parents, Nanna’s dad, Nanna, my counselors, and multiple Rotary district members. It was handfuls of emails, calls, and texts but in the end, I was given the the privilege of leaving the country with my friends family, something our district has denied multiple times this year to many exchange students. Maybe I was just lucky, maybe I just said the right thing, maybe it was the fact that every email, text, and call I made was in Danish. No matter what the reason they agreed was, on March 11th I arrived in Norway with one of my best friends. The week was spectacular! I stayed in a house with about 20 members of Nanna’s family. There were 8 kids, three teenagers, and many adults. We were stocked up on boxes full of food and enough movies to keep us in the house for weeks. Every morning we woke up and ate breakfast, packed lunches, and hit the slopes. If you ever went snowboarding in the states you know how the slopes are just crawling with snowboarders, well on average, I only saw about 5 each day. It was weird and I felt bad when my strapping in and out slowed down the group. They never seemed to care. The best part was that everyone was a great skier so we could just go one run after another and go almost anywhere we wanted on the mountain. Nanna’s family really took to me and I fell in love with them. There were sometimes her Norwegian aunts and cousins were hard to understand but, for the most part, I understood everything, even when her aunt would call me EARR INNN instead of Erin. Overall, it was the most unforgettable ski vacation I have ever taken!
The last adventure I have to share wasn’t with a Dane but rather, another exchange student, Natasha, from California. Natasha lives maybe three minutes by bike from my house. She is also here with Rotary. Even though she doesn’t go to my school we have still become exceptionally close friends. One Saturday, I went to Natasha’s house, woke her up, and made her get ready. She isn’t much of a morning person but we had plans to go shopping. We got ready and got on our bikes, we started heading towards town when we realized I had forgotten stuff at my house. In the three minutes between my house and hers we decided that instead of the city, we wanted to bike to the Ikea near us. We looked up the address and filled a post-it with various lefts, rights, and strange city and street names. We made it to the shopping center that we knew was near Ikea, and decided to get the things we were going to go to town for first. As we walked in we encountered some non-Danes. We followed them inside trying to figure out where they were from, we decided Sweden, because they sang when they talked. The shopping center we went to is very American. I know that may be weird for you guys to understand but there are lots of Danes that find indoor, huge shopping centers, with food places, a Wal-Mart style store, and bunches of clothing stores, all in the center of one big parking lot, scary and uncomfortable. It’s not ‘’cozy’’ to go to. For us, it was like home, even more so when we saw that it was American Week and there were red, white, and blue flags covering everything. We made some purchases then set out to find Ikea. After a misread in directions, a missed turn, and a short trip out into the countryside of the Jutland Peninsula, we got our butts turned around and to the Ikea. It was a legendary moment for the both of us. Neither of us had been to Ikea before! We started off with food, marveling at how cheap the lunches were, and then we went downstairs to go through the store. We couldn’t help but laugh when we realized that between all of our host families we owned pretty much the entire Ikea. It was fun to be in a store that sold things at a large scale again, we hadn’t been since we left the states. We biked back to Natasha’s house where we spent the next hour laughing on her bathroom floor and eating vegetarian lasagna with her host parents. When I look back, most of my most memorable days here in Denmark have included Natasha. The things we do many not seem all that special, but it’s the company that matters, and Natasha has proven to be the perfect person to adventure with.
You know that feeling when spring starts and all you think about is finishing school and having the summer to kick it with your friends? You know that feeling when you are so tired and all you want to do is go home and curl up in your bed? You know how when something upsetting happens and all you want to do is hug your sister and hear her say it’s alright? How about that moment when you walk into a room and immediately your best friend knows something is wrong? Now think about all those people, the ones you just put into those scenarios. How long have you known these people? Your siblings, your friends; you’ve probably known them for years, maybe even your whole life. Now, listen up, and listen good, every person I just thought of, I’ve known for less than 8 months. That’s right, my sister, my best friend, my class, my families; I have only known them for 8 months. When, I think about my friends, it isn’t like they are people I just met or casual acquaintances, these people know me, truly know me. I almost can’t believe that Katrine and I only met the 1st week of this school year. Every time I think of going home, I soon panic. I’m dreading ‘’goodbye’’ most of all.
I’ve learned so much about myself and about the world. My views on my country and my lifestyle have changed. I have made changes and acquired habits that I refuse to lose when I return home. I have found a stronger more confident me that I’m proud to be. I’ve truly found my strengths and admitted my weaknesses.
At 17, I’ve experienced more of life and more of the world than most people. I’ve seen things some will only see on the Discovery and Travel channels. I’ve met so many people, each has shared something with me, whether it’s a story, a joke, a good time, or unquestionably great advice, I’ve grown from them. Every moment, word, person, and place, has added to my life, to my story. They have shaped my development, my character, and my actions.
So, you know that feeling when a movie ends, in a way you are happy because everything ended well but the whole rest of the week you can’t stop talking about it and the only thing you want to do is see it again?
That’s what it is like to go home, that’s what is coming for me. Although it has to end, I won’t fight it. The best part of the movie is always the climax and the only way to know it was a great movie is if it leaves you craving for more.
''Adapt yourself to the life you have been given; and truly love the people with whom destiny has surrounded you.'' -Marcus Auretius
With only a few months left until all of this comes to an end, I realize how important what I have learned this year is.
When I arrived here I looked at everything as though it was coated in gold. Every meal, ever house, ever person, everything new, was exciting. I took pictures of everything and anything. I saved ever slip of paper, ever scrap of evidence. When I first got here I was obsessed with figuring out all the nitty gritty bits of being ''the perfect Dane''. To put it simply, when I first arrived here, I was an exchange student.
Now some of you will probably laugh, some of you will make faces, but I guarantee ever outbound and inbound understands exactly what I am talking about. They went through the same thing. There is nothing Rotary can do to prepare you for this year. There is nothing you can do to make you 100% ready to face this year. It's impossible. You can learn your language and talk to yourr families, this will make it so much easier, but at the end of the day you won't be prepared.
This information may scare some of you. Don't let it. Of course you won't be prepared, no two exchanges are the same. Even if a student comes from my club, goes to my school, has my families, they still won't have the same experience. They won't have my friends, my classes, or my teachers. Most importantly, they won't be me. I am a unique individual. I´m artist, a singer, a writer, a dancer, a cyclist, a Dane, an American. I love dogs and sunny days. I sing and give hugs to all my friends. I doodle through Spanish and eat more than any teenage boy. All of these things make me who I am. They make me different and the same.
Before I arrived I could have never imagined my life here. I'm sure I have said this before, but it's true. Everything I have learned and gained here is because of me. I took the opportunities. I set the wheels in motion. I am responsible for how great my experience has been. I am the reason I have three amazing and loving families. I am the reason I have learned to unicycle, speak Danish, and write. I choose to be myself and find the friends that fell in love with me, just because I am me.
So, to all of you that are about to leave on your exchange, all of you who are studying your flashcards and reading these journals, to all of you who are texting your friends asking if they believe in you and your ability to handle the upcoming you; I have one thing to say. You can do it. You can, and you will. Believe in yourself. Find that sense of adventure that encouraged you to sign up and hold on to it. Don't let it go. This year will be more challenging than any survival hand book can even begin to explain, but that's what makes it worth it.
Yes, you will have to change, but not into something you are not. You will evolve into a more true you. You will become the person you have had deep inside you all along. You will find a strong confident side that you never knew existed.
Trust me, it will all be worth it. After all that will happen you will reach the day when you are walking along with your friends and you are talking about how weird it is to go ''home'', and all they will have to say is ''I can't believe it, you aren't American, you're Danish''.
Be smart. Be safe. Be open-minded. Be happy.
It's amazing the smallest comments can change your whole outlook on things.
Over week 8 (the winter vacation), I went back with my first family. It was an amazing week, it was weird to be there again. To them, it felt like nothing had changed. To me, everything was different. They have a new couch, new TV, my room was full of my sister's clothes again, both my sisters were in the United States, the bathrooms were all finished, and the part that weirded me out the most, they moved all the furniture around. Nothing was how I left it. It was a slightly rude awakening, but soon things were back to normal; Oskar and I would wrestle, talk, watch movies, and eat far to much cake. One day, we decided that we really wanted to go unicycling. So, we called around looking for rides. When every single person turn us down, we decided to shove the unicycles in trash bags and try the bus, praying the would let us on. We grabbed some money and started walking to the closest bus stop. Oskar was acting very worried and I really didn't understand until he said something that made me laugh. "I don't know how to take the bus, I've taken it maybe ten times, and never alone." I take the bus a handful of times a week, they are all over the city. It was so funny to me that I got to teach HIM how to take the bus. The whole time he kept asking if I was sure about the bus, which only made me laugh more. For once, I felt like the older sibling. And I realized, I am. When I got here I didn't know anything about the city so I leaned on Oskar, but now that I know my city, HE leans on ME.
As we got closer towards the city center, I saw some girls from my school walking by the bus. I mentioned casually to Oskar that I knew them, I didn't think anything of it. We reached our stop and started to walk to the warehouse that the unicycle club owns. In the matter of feet between the stop and the warehouse who should I see but one of my really great friends Kaymi. She's and exchange student from Venezuela and she just happened to be in the city waiting for a ride. We both exchanged excited hellos and rushed through a quick conversation before parting ways. After we were out of ear shot Oskar turned to me and said "I can't believe it, I've lived here all my life, 12 years, and YOU are the one who knows all these people in town!!" I can't even explain how overjoyed I was. Months ago, I literally knew nobody in the city, not a soul. And now, I walk around and see familiar faces daily. I three great brothers, five amazing sisters, six loving parents, tons of exchange student friends, and even more danish friends.
I spent the rest of the day treasuring the fact that this is my city. Aalborg is my city. My home, my friends, my families, my life is here. Of course, yes I have a life back in Florida and Philadelphia too, but they aren't my home, not now. I can walk this city alone and know exactly where I am going. I can give directions, navigate buses, work the train by my self. I can talk with shop keepers without them trying to switch to English. I can order food, get haircuts, and return clothes without the help of somebody else, like my mom, which if you know me, is a big deal! It could be that I'm growing up, or that I'm just comfortable here, maybe it's a bit of both.
For all of you getting ready to go, don't stress. Don't lose sleep about what to pack, about perfecting your language, about making friends, about host family gifts. After a few months, it won't matter, it will all be a silly memory. After a few months, it's real, all of it. After a few months, you will know your city, your friends, you families. After a few months, you will have a whole new life, one that you love, and your only regret will by similar to mine: bringing so many pairs of shoes.
Every year since I was in fifth grade, I’ve read "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret". Every year I find that this book has helped me. (Now, please, nobody get offended. I don’t want anyone to write off what I’m saying because of the title. I respect all religious and I respect those who choose not to practice any. I promise this is not a religious entry.) For those of you that have never read this book it’s about a pre-teen girl who moves from New York City to New Jersey, and goes through the challenge of figuring out who she is, where she fits in, and throughout her school year she finds herself pressured by herself and everyone around her to make a choice for herself. It’s a Judy Blume book so, it is a bit silly, but this book means a lot to me. In many ways, it mirrors my life. I have moved around a lot in my life, I’ve been faced with the same problems and similar choices.
For those of you about to go on exchange I suggest you read it. It will take a few hours tops. It’s short, simple, and a quick read. Most of you will probably just roll your eyes at this and say, “yeah, right! I just finished that crazy essay about my country AND I’m learning my language AND I’m finishing school. I don’t have time.” I say, shut it. I know you have time. I was you last year. I did everything you did and still had time to sit in my pj’s every Saturday morning and watch Avatar the last airbender while eating pizza rolls.
I think this book would be beneficial to you all of you will be a lot like Margret. You will be in a new place so different from home. You will all have the parents you are living with very different opinions from your parents at home (represented by Margret’s Grandmother). You will all experience confliction and separation from the others but you will also experience true friendship. The thing I want you to pay most attention to, if you do end up reading this book, is her year long school project. It is the question that is in the back of her mind all year long. It is the question that lies under almost every decision she makes in the year. It’s what she strives to figure out. Whether you know it now or not, you all have one of these questions. Some of you may have many. I have three. They will go with you throughout the year. They will be the questions you think about over and over in the dead of night. They will be what you journal about in class. They will be hidden in the topics you choose to discuss with your new friends and families. You will spend you year racking your brain trying to answer these questions. Almost all students have told me at least one of their questions was “Who am I?” These questions can be about anything important to you, sexuality, beliefs, future, what you really want, who you really care about, whether or not you are making good decisions, if the things you are doing are worthwhile. Every person that leaves for exchange goes to learn something. You all have your reasons for traveling. You all have questions that are waiting to be answered; you just don’t know it yet.
So, take my advice. Take the time. Turn off your TV for a few hours, and read the book. You’ll understand why in about 12 months.
This is it, this is the end. I've felt it coming for a long time, but it's finally here. It's the first day of my last week, and my life couldn't be crazier. It's currently 2 in the morning but I have no time for sleep. I have a laundry list of things I need to do before I leave, and somehow I'm finding the time to write this journal. Some would say my priorities are shot. Exchange students would say "You can sleep when you're home!".
Today, I'm writing for all you parents out there that are just like my mother. Every week she would go through, read the journals, and tell me what was going on in the world. She knew exchange students by their first names and countries. Reading these journals was her way of preparing for what was to come. So, today, this journal is dedicated to all you parents that are reading this now, hoping that I give you some good news, some hope, some piece of information to pass on to your child to prepare them.
What I have to say, you may not believe. But I figure you all need to get a proper warning before it creeps up on you.
WARNING: Your child WILL grow up! Your child WILL become an independent adult! Your child WILL NOT need your help! If something goes wrong YOU CAN'T help them! Your child WILL change! Your child WILL NOT be the same person when they get home!
And somehow, that's all part of the beauty of exchange. No, this is not bashing you parents. My parents know I love them very much. But they also have come to realize, they are no longer in my loop. Things happen that they don't know about until long after. When I have a bad day, I don't call my mom. I hug my host mom. When I need advice, I talk to my host dad. Not my real dad. When I need a haircut, I make the appointment, ride my bike there, pay with my rotary credit card, and track how much money is left in my account. I make my appointments. I do my homework. I choose my curfew. I'm a big girl now. I can take care of myself.
All you parents out there, don't expect to get the same person back.
Get excited about the future, because the adult that comes home will be more remarkable than you could ever imagine!
I have watched my friends and myself over the course of the year and I can honestly say, I'm proud of everyone of us. We have all made huge steps in our lives. We have all taken that leap out into the world. Instead of talking about spring break and weekend parties, I discuss religion, politics, college, and what jobs I could go into with my career. When we plan day trips we think about things like the weather, transportation, costs, and our schedule before we think about which rides, movies, or people will be there. Lots of this, I will admit, does have to do with the fact that Danes are probably the most practical people in the world. But in all honesty, exchange students are old souls.
You should also be ready for the unexpected.
The things we discover out here in the world can be quit unexpected and sometimes, quite shocking for those at home. It's unfortunate that you can't watch us through all the stages of our changes, it would probably make things like, changes in religion, sexuality, politics, and personality, so much easier to take. Do your best to be understanding. You have to understand, the things we decided out here aren't peer pressure, brain washing, or insanity. Our water is fine. We aren't crazy. We have had the time to think about this. The decisions we make out here, we make souly for ourselves, and nobody else. We are given the chance to see multiple points of view and choose what we truly believe. To tell us that we are wrong and that we will understand when we are home is close-minded, and foolish of you.
My very best of friends here comes from Nebraska. When she got here, she was extremely religious. She would cry herself to sleep almost every night because according to her religion every single one of her new Danish friends would be going to hell. And it didn't make sense to her. Throughout the course of the year, she has pulled a complete 360. She is a totally new person. She is a proud and out lesbian. She has different religious views. And she is more confident and happier than she has ever been. All these things are good. They are great things. These are all tremendous progresses, but guess who didn't get any warning of these things until AFTER they happened. I'll give you one guess. Her parents.
Parents, what I'm trying to say is, don't think of this as a year you are giving up. Don't think of this as a vacation, a missions trip, or a social experiment. This is not summer camp. This is life. This is the world. This is change in the making. It's time to embrace that. So, get ready to say goodbye to the child who stands before you today. Get ready to say hello to the young adult that has had the chance to find themselves in the world. Get ready to support them. Get ready to love them. And get ready to sacrifice some of your money, your beliefs, and your time with them so that they can find out who they truly are. Do it for them.
It will be worth it.
And if you ever think to yourself, you can't do it, you're not ready, or you're not strong enough, just think of my mom. She has served her time. She watched me grow up via Facebook and these journals. And she couldn't be more proud.
Mor og Far, tusind tusind tak! I er den beste forælder i hele verden! Jeg elsker jer. Og altid jeg skal husk mit år her i Danmark. Nu, jeg er stalt af hvem jeg er. Nu, jeg er klar til gå ud og hav en virklige godt liv. Nu, jeg er glad.
Take a deep breath, cause it's almost time.