Evann Soltys-Gilbert
2010-11 Outbound to the Czech Republic

Hometown: Palm Harbor, Florida
School: St. Petersburg Collegiate High School
Sponsor: East Lake Sunrise Rotary Club, District 6950, Florida
Host: Pisek Rotary Club, District 2240, Czech Republic

Evann's Bio

I have always believed that knowledge is gained from experience. Good or bad, something is learned about oneself, others, and the world around them. Just having the opportunity to be a part of the Rotary Youth Exchange has taught me a little about myself. For example, I have realized the consequences of procrastination. Not only does it irritate others when I submit forms just before the due date, but when it involves something that is extremely important to myself it causes a lot of stress. If I have already learned how bad my procrastination habits have become just by applying, I can’t even imagine what I am going to learn in the next year.

As the year abroad approaches, my emotions have blown me up inside of me like helium in a balloon on the verge of popping. I am exuberant, nervous, worrisome, giddy, grateful, slightly delirious due to excessive happiness, and well . . . a tad overwhelmed. To tell the truth I have never done anything this (for lack of better word) big before. I am not a risk taker on an average day, instead I am a rather cautious person who rarely does anything without knowing the final outcome, and yet, there is nothing else that feels more right to begin at this time in my life. I couldn’t be more comfortable, maybe even dangerously so, with embarking on this adventure. Who knows what this year will bring? I might be homesick every few days or I might have the opportunity to become who I am meant to be.

As of right now though, I am Evann Soltys-Gilbert, a sixteen year old girl from the hot and humid Palm Harbor, Florida. I live with the best parents a gal could ask for, two quirky sisters, and two beautiful chocolate Labradors. Every one of us (dogs included) has a distinct personality different from anyone else’s. There are a few things we do have in common though, we are all stubborn as can be, opinionated yet open to others, and free thinkers (yes, I do see the irony between free thinking and opinionated, but what we believe changes everyday). I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything, they have prepared me for life through their harsh criticism and they love me no matter what.

As you can probably tell I spend a good deal of time with my family. I don’t depend on my parents, but I do enjoy their company. I love to discuss philosophy, religion, and societal opinions, and so does my mother especially.

When I am not with my family, I am often with friends out to dinner, at the movies, hiking, or biking. I love to cook, and often prepare dinners or baked goods in a group. I venture to parties whenever they come up, but prefer to relax at a bonfire with a close group of friends.

While I love to learn and therefore don’t mind school, and have participated in a wide variety of sports (my favorites are soccer and swimming), I have always been attracted to the arts. As a young child, I was good at school and therefore believed I couldn’t be good at both the visual and performing arts while enjoying school, so I kept my passion for painting, writing, and acting hidden. Recently (in the past four or five months) I have found how important these hobbies are to me, and have begun to pursue them seriously when I can. Painting and writing have kept me sane even in small doses.

I am an average girl. I have a loving family, wonderful friends, I love to discuss and explore, painting and writing remind me of who I am, I enjoy cooking, and I am shy in new places but quickly warm up to new people after short period of time. I love to learn about new cultures, especially languages.

As I embark on this journey to a new country to live with people I barely know, and speak a language I don’t know a word of, two words come to mind . . . Yikes! and Yippee! Thank you Rotary for this amazing experience.

Evann's Journals

September 1

I sat down a week ago in a living room over 7000 km away attempting to unleash in a comprehensible way the thoughts and feelings I had about events that occurred over a time period of six months. Understandably with an adventure of a life time looming in the near future I was unable to complete a single thought. Now, with a little extra time on my hands and four days into my new life, I can please myself by documenting my thoughts and feelings about my experiences thus far, and please my parents by explaining what has occurred after many emails asking that I do so. So here it goes:

Moments before I commenced my adventure in foreign lands I began my goodbyes to my family. Tears slid down my cheeks as I anxiously hoped my planes wouldn’t crash, I would like my host family, I would slide into my new life easily, and that this challenging year would be successful. As I embraced each one of my family members for the last time, taking a deep breath of Polo as I folded myself into my father and awkwardly wrapping my arms around my sisters neck who touched me as if I had rabies, I realized I would not be in the company of these people for a year. I don’t think I was shocked by this epiphany, but instead I saw a challenge. I love how close my family is, but this experience will be a great way for me to learn to make decisions on my own and learn to trust people outside of blood-relation.

I am not sure how I felt as I made my way through Terminal E, security, and to Gate 75. I remember smiling at one point because I have envisioned doing something like this for years (since the seventh grade I think) and for it to become a reality is pretty neat. I remember giggling and telling myself “this should be interesting” as I walked on to the plane; interesting meaning I had no idea how I was going to handle myself for the next ten months of my life, but I would figure it out.

A chemically enhanced meal, trouble with pay phones in Munich, three planes, and 16 hours later I arrived in Prague. It felt good to be somewhere that I knew I could stay put at least for a while. I was greeted warmly by a hug from my host sister Jitka, a snap of the camera by my host mom, and a very Czech handshake and nod from my host brother Vojta. The four of us, my over weighted luggage, and my poor Czech skills made it out to the car; me uttering a few words here and there that I knew. The car ride back to Pisek was long due to the fact that we were stuck in traffic for about an hour, it may have been longer, but I fell asleep somewhere along the way. We also made as stop for lunch at nice little restaurace that I can’t remember the name of. I enjoyed fried brambory (potatoes) smothered with cheese, ham, and peaches. I tried this drink, dibbed Czech coca-cola here, but formally called Kofola. It’s an herbal soda that tastes extremely better than coke; Czech food is going to spoil me rotten.

After another 30 minutes in the car, my host family stopped at my host mother’s aunt’s host. The little town was truly picture-esc and what I always envisioned as European. The car wound its way down a small road from the main highway passing countryside on all sides and mountains in the distance. We approached a small incline of a driveway that led to a shining white wall with a wooden gate that opened up onto a courtyard. On one’s left was a small hill that housed a garden at the top which boasted an immense amount of tomatoes. The yard was speckled with trees, bushes, and flowers as well. On the right hidden from the sun by a vine covered trellis was a picnic table that offered the best apple turnover I have ever had, coffee, and some delicious soup. We only stayed for a bit, but through the conversation I learned that coincidentally my host mother’s aunt visits Florida ever few years and recently she was in St. Petersburg.

When we finally made it to Pisek I got to enjoy a wonderfully cleansing shower, another great Czech meal, a tour through my host mother’s garden, and The Awakenings with my host brother Vojta and his friends. The movie itself was in English, but the Czech subtitles helped so much with the spelling of words I had heard all day plus I picked up some new vocabulary.

After all this being said about my journey to the Czech Republic, I know get to say that I enjoy it here very much. I feel comfortable. There aren’t skyscrapers anywhere, the towns are small and historic filled with art galleries and music, the food is similar to the meals I used to eat at my grandmother’s house, and I can walk or bike anywhere I want to in the city except a small corner reserved for the gypsies. Yes, gypsies, but before you go picturing some hearty artsy people, they have mugged my youngest host brother Jirka three times stealing what valuables he had. While I am sure all my lovely friends who use the word gypsy to define themselves and would attempt to justify the gypsies here, you can’t. They live differently and have the right to, but when my host brother says “I don’t think they have killed anyone yet during a mugging . . . except . . . maybe that one guy last year . . . I don’t remember what happened to him afterwards” I feel less inclined to support their lifestyle.

I have spent the last few days traveling to cities near Pisek, and I can’t take in enough of the landscape. Mountains, forests, cattle, sheep, and farmland are all around. The towns boast their own little treasures with a exceptional brewery here, a twelfth century church there, the house of the Saint that became the first Saint to enter the United States in another, a delectable little cukrarna (sweet shop) hidden in the walls of yet another, and a jazz festival in an art gallery that used to be part of the underground culture during communism.

I have so many adventures to write about, but for now, this is enough. Thank you Rotary for this amazing opportunity!

November 15

I have been dreading writing this journal for about a month now mostly because I haven’t a clue as to how I can explain everything I have done thus far, allotting enough time and detail to each happening as it deserves.  It is difficult to explain to those who aren’t living my life beside me how much each passing day means to me.  As it is normal, many things I find amusing, surprising, and rewarding can’t be explained to those who aren’t in a similar situation or have the same look on life as I do.

So I have come to the conclusion that rather than write about each curious passing that has caused my heart to race; my face to blush; my hands to clam up; my lungs to lose a breath; I would rather write about how this adventure is leaving its mark on me mentally, emotionally, and physically.

When I walked in on my first Rotary Orientation meeting in Leesburg, Florida rooms were a-buzz with discussions of change: Rotarians explain that as exchange students my friends and I would  develop new views of the world, some that may be drastically different than those we left Florida with; Rotex describing how they no longer have the same interests they used to; and of course, the-ever-so-eager new outbounds excitingly chatting about all the things they wanted to accomplish while they were away.  Everyone agreed that when the new batch of outbound students returned to their “homes” in a little over a year they would have a new view of their hometowns, parents, friends, and maybe resulting in feeling out of place.  We were going to encounter new adventures that would test our knowledge, confidence, beliefs, and emotions, in some cases like they have never been tested before.  

Due to all this talk about change, I had come to believe that maybe in some way or another I would transform into this magnificent replica of one of the people I had admired for years.  All the dreams I had of who I wanted to be would suddenly become real.  Of course, as I often as I heard the phrase “you will change in ways you can’t imagine”, my parents heard it too . . . and I have come to realize that maybe they are hoping for me to return a certain way.  All parents hope that one day there child will grow and up, and realize what they have done wrong or become responsible for their actions; and for this reason, I hope their expectations aren’t too high.  So for one reason or another I left Florida with a strong belief that a slew of transformations were in the near future.

There are many ways in which my expectations were right and were wrong.  I am not at all disappointed with what I have discovered, but in a way more satisfied.  I am essentially the exact same person I left Florida as; my personality has the same basis, my beliefs still surround similar ideas, and I do hold some of the same habits I left Florida with.  However, in the midst of realizing all the similarities with who I was in Florida, I have noticed that a more confident and definable Evann Clare Soltys-Gilbert as emerged.  As time goes by during our exchange year our speculations about our beliefs fall away as we cling to those things that mean the most to us in order to get by daily in a land where we don’t always understand what we see.  Hints of each person who has helped raise us fall away as we learn to live on our own doing what we think is best, and in some cases learning the hard way from the consequences.  I have also learned what interests of mine will always get me threw the hard times, even if it means letting go of hobbies that I used to see as essential to how people saw me . . . giving up things that gave me recognition and taking a hold of those enhance who I am for my own mental health.  I can imagine that in some cases, individuals don’t agree with what I have said.  They feel as though they have changed rather than developed as the same individual, which is understandable since everyone finds their year abroad different.  What I know for sure is that from my experience thus far, I haven’t changed in the ways I had imagined, but in ways that have made me a person better than I had hoped.  

I hope the reader doesn’t get the idea that I have an overbearing amount of pride as if I believe that I have no faults, because old habits die hard and I still find time to stalk more previous acquaintances on Facebook then enlighten myself about current events.  However, when I moved drastically far away from the things I knew, I wanted to leave some things behind.  Thus little habits have disappeared and large ones have faltered. Whether it is due to an intentionally established mindset or the fact that I did what I had to do to become emotionally, physically, and mentally stable here; the outcome has made me grow up.  

To begin there is this incredibly difficult part of common sense that I just haven’t been able to accomplish; one that I am learning to deal with here, and that is to watch what I say.  I have heard time and time again that maybe the hardest thing about being on exchange is that we have to translate in our heads everything we want to say before we can say it.  Honestly, I think this was a gift from the universe to me.  I am a natural talker, if you haven’t guessed by this point, and as a kid adults found it cute and friends found it annoying.  As I have gone through my teenage years it has backfired in uncountable ways.  Of course, I have some funny stories and friends who love me because of it, but there have times when I wished I had just let the anger pass or listened rather than spoke.  Seeing as I can’t think fluently in Czech yet, I often have to wait to speak until I know for sure what I want to say.  Sometimes I realize how embarrassing what I could have said would have been, or that maybe it wasn’t the appropriate forum, and thank the language barrier.  Now I have a more of a say-what-I-mean sort of mindset, and utter only what I want to be known for.  I know that when I return my sisters and parents will be happy that I have a little less to say at the dinner table, allowing others to get to words in otherwise.

Since I can remember my mother has always remarked about how I have a guarded personality.  I didn’t let many people know who I really was, and I’d only let certain people see various characteristics.  When I come to think of it, many people may have noticed that I in Florida I had a face for each crowd;   a personality that was part of me, but sometimes different Evanns had come contradict each other.   In some ways I was lying about who I was to some people by creating false impressions.  I had a face for my parents, my sisters, my friends in school, my coworkers, my friends outside of school, and my teachers.  Some people might say this is normal; we don’t act the same way around everyone, but the extent to which I let things go was different.  I would say one thing to one group and another to the other group; lying more than I would like to believe.  Here though, I have seemed to have reached a medium.  I hope to keep it that way too.  It may be because I have time to just be myself; breath, think, and meditate.  Maybe it is a part of growing up; acting as you mean too and taking the consequences if they exist for those actions.  

In any case I can easily be defined now by everyone as the studious one, who draws in her free time or watches Friends, Gilmore Girls, or documentaries in Czech.  I have become an obnoxious photographer, elaborate writer, a mountain hiker, and a helping hand.  If you pose an opportunity, I will most likely join.  I have gotten over fears of being the one to talk first or say something wrong.  I enjoy talking to random people in a language I know maybe just under 1000 words of.  I take chances I never thought as a child I would . . . do things I never thought I could.  For example, two weeks ago I decided I wanted to go to Terezin with a group of students from another school.  I knew one person in the whole group and he told the teacher I would be there.   I woke up early in the morning, left when it was dark alone, found a school I had never been to before, hoped on a bust with 30 people I didn’t know, and spent the day listening to lectures about the Holocaust in Czech.  I returned way after dark and made my way back home.  If I was 10 years old and somebody told me that in less than a decade I would day live in a town speaking a language that only 10 million people in the world speak, and would decide one day to join a group of people I had never met before on a trip 3 hours away and get myself there and back on my own just because I felt like it.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  I was a child who did what was safest and created happy thoughts; I would have never chosen to join a group of strangers to learn about one of the most horrid occurrences in history.  Today though, if something sounds slightly crazy, rather challenging, and an opportunity to learn something about oneself or others; that is where I will be there.  I guess this is how I found myself agreeing to go bungee jumping, and I hate heights.

I wonder sometimes why I feel the way I do – at peace with the world around me when I can’t understand correctly exactly what is happening all the time.  I am getting over the phase of everything I see, touch, smell being new, and am in the process of adapting.  Frequently, I don’t feel as if I am a foreigner, and rather like I am learning Czech just to live life; I forget more than will be emotionally healthy in the future that my deadline to return to Florida is slowly creeping  forward.  I want to know the language, the culture, and the people.  I no longer feel as though I am a guest in the family, but rather I am thankful and respectful like a true daughter or sister for everything my family has done for me.  My sestra and I have referred to each other as sisters for some time now, my mami recently came back from my back-to-school night saying she was proud of me and what I have accomplished thus far as if she was my real mom, and when I told my tati that I would have to be moving to another family he said he wished I could stay the whole year.  I have come to respect them for the people they really are and not just as the home of individuals I am invading.  At school it is hard to imagine that I won’t see these people again after I leave.  In a setting where the same class takes all the subjects together, one gets to know some people pretty well.  Imagining that I won’t maturovat with these students is a little less than heart-breaking.  Now don’t get me wrong; with all the good and comfort I have discovered, there are things I have found I don’t like in the Czech Republic and have formed opinions about the country itself.  If it was my home I would feel free to express them, but seeing that I have been here just under three months, I feel as though I don’t have a right to pass judgment just yet.

From the statement made above, I think the most important thing this year is giving me, as Rotary had intended, is a respect for all people whether or not we agree with their daily habits, opinions, and ideas.  It ranges from a finally found respect for my family I have been living with in Florida since birth to the Czech country as a whole.   I see the importance in developing relationships with people as my mother has been trying to explain for years.  There are so many people I have come to lean on in one way or another, I can’t thank them enough.  I just hope that as the years go on I can keep in touch using my quickly developing Czech skills.  As I give thanks everyday to the universe for those I have encountered in the past few months, I also am thankful for those who have made acquaintances within my lifetime.  When I return to Florida I can think of a few friends, teachers, advisers, and family members I would like to thank for being there for me when I needed help; sticking with me when I was having an ever-so-teenager like moment.

So with this I leave my blog for now, and hopefully I will have some fabulous stories to tell in the future before the next month approaches. Thank you Rotary once again for this “life-changing” opportunity.

December 18

Four months on Friday. Four wonderful months in a small European town surrounded by history, music, visual arts, performance, friends, family, and language. I used to dream of such happiness and luck . . . always having it, but never being grateful. I took life for granted, the people in it, the experiences, the privileges. I never said thank you once for the basic things in my life. Now, I am grateful for each breath, for each touch, for each sound, taste, smell. I wouldn't be me without the people who have come, are in, and have left my life. I thank those I write to as well.

Displacing myself has been the best thing for myself. I think clearer, have learned to laugh, live the way I want to, be the person I am truly, and discard the opinions of those who don't approve of me. For those who know me in Florida I am quite different from the person I ever showed you. I have the free spirit of my little sister, one who I always envied, but in the end she has taught me well just to be myself. Here I am Evann. I run through snow covered streets late at night when no one else wants to be outside. I go in the forest taking chances, walking on the edge just to get a good picture. I start absurd conversations. I try just about anything that I find interesting and take pride in my differences. I stay up late writing stories and experiences or painting pictures. I have disregarded time. And yet no matter how much I do for me I hope that one day it will all lead to help the world. One that is quite beautiful in all its sadness. I think though that before one can help others, they have to be sure of themselves no matter how there experiences change them. One day I might believe one thing and the next the contrary, but as long as I am confident that is what matters.

I cant possibly explain how thankful I am for the fact that I am 17 and my life is beginning. I used to envy the characters in American movies because they would live their lives with the excitement of music playing in the background creating emotions that fit the situation. The music telling what is coming next. When something fabulous happened the music was intense and accompanied by bright lights. Now I have my own music . . . I no longer wear head phones to block out the world. My music comes from the sound of my feet beating the pavements, the wind in the trees, the snow falling to the ground, the whisk hitting the sides of the bowl in the kitchen, the heat penetrating the surfaces of food in the oven, the bodies swaying to music, slick rum sliding down throats, clanks of beer glasses, smoke twirling its way through the atmosphere, the smell of sweat, the touch of good friends, and laughter from the result of stress, sadness, happiness, and love. It plays everyday . . . no matter what state my emotions are in. The world and I collaborate to make music. It isn't just mine, it belongs to everyone. I will do anything to keep the music going. It motivates me to keep living. It will keep me moving toward a successful life. It wont stop. When I cant hear the music anymore, I wont be Evann. In Florida, the music will continue, even if I have to return to a life I once thought boring. I will take what I have learned here. It is embedded in my soul.

I thank Rotary for this amazing opportunity and the opportunity to make the life I have now. I work with incredible people daily. Rotary truly is the best exchange service out there. The world is already quite small, but they help bring the people closer together in daily life.

March 13

Skies impeccably blue, not a speck of white cloud to be seen, stretched overhead as my skis clumsily cut through snow. The sun beat down on our helmets; light reflecting in every which direction. Fresh air whipped my face creating a healthy blush on my cheeks with the combination of sun. I followed Klara’s pink jacket down the slope winding to the left, right, left, right . . . . I rushed pashed a island of trees, children learning to stand on slick blades, and the blazing metal lift. I joined a group of classmates at the gates to flying black seats, we slipped our thin passes through the entrance, and emerged on the revolving base to the lift ready to go again.

As the rather small, but enjoyable slope passed beneath us the words from the notably catchy and yet rather dimly written Hello played in my head; I hummed along. Our classmates below meandered sideways to the bottom on snowboards or carved their bodies into the mountain side on skies. The boy sitting next to me who was just a classmate on Tuesday, but now a good friend, laughed as I whispered the words of the song to myself. The fact that the song is catchy, and yet some how contradictory to the clips presentation of the songs motifs I found it keeping my spirits soaring as high as my hair in the mountain wind, I didn't stop muttering a few lines here and there throughout the memorable day. Now my name is being murmured all over social-networking sites for my complete enjoyment of one particular song, and my rather poor singing pipes.

The blue skies, blazing sun, glowing green trees, and melting snow lasted for five days as my classmates and I spent four hours every morning racing down slopes. At the top of the lift was a nice little Czech Snack Shop where we enjoyed traditional Czech foods – sausage and bread, warm mushroom shop, an incredibly tasty but awfully smelly garlic dish, and, of course, hot dogs. Zadov looked out over what was left of a white Czech winter, I unfortunately didn't have a camera with me, and thus just have the pictures in my head. The small mountains that line the south west of the Czech Republic don't even come close to making the jagged marks in the sky that the Alps leave, which can be seen from the Šumava's highest point. They roll like small waves in the ocean. Small schools of houses swim their way through the crevasses between the rising and falling of land. Snow, now barely visible, like littel white caps, lies in the shadows of the trees that cluster everywhere. They are peaceful; not a big running highway to be seen, just simply country life, and skiing. During the afternoons on our daily walks we would take a bus to a high point within the national forest that unfolds along the mountain range. We trotted our way down the mountains' sides to small town. We pass old ruined factory buildings, fields of cows, big old trees with knobbly branches that wind up to the skies, gray in color to match the scheme of the dark green forest, wintered yellow grass, and brown houses the dot the landscape. We come upon a rather large town, meaning 20 houses or so, and spot a good restaurant to gulp a Kofola – the Czech Republic’s version of coke.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that in the Czech Republic when you go out to dinner, or spend a week in a small hut that barely fits 45 students run by one single family of six, you still leave feeling as though you have eaten a home-made meal. They serve the traditional dishes of dumplings, sauce, sauerkraut, baked duck, broiled meat, fried chicken, stewed cheese, and potatoes. The food always is accompanied by a soup, each hotel having a different speciality. The food may be greaser than how we cook at home, and heavier than my sisters have ever eaten, but when you leave you know the food was fresh. The Czechs, and maybe even the Europeans but I wouldn't know because I have only ever been to the borders of Germany and Austria, have a different way of treating food that was peculiar at first, but now I find my digestion being better than ever so have come to respect it. Foods are not over packaged, but rather left out. Diners have servers run to the local bakery with a wiped clean box to get more bread which they carry through the streets uncovered. Friends and families leave fresh meat such as morning-caught fish the size of my leg in front of the house, or bring in two large tubs a skinned baby dear. My mothers and brothers work together to slice the newly obtained meat into edible and storable pieces, and as usual one of my host mothers leans over and asks if I want to play with the faun's spinal cord. Once the meat has been stored, frozen, and we need something for dinner, meat is laid out almost always on the steps in the hall where temperatures are not controlled. In a traditional Czech home, pots line the steps to the front door containing various forms of stews, potatoes, and meats that have been eaten over the week. As students arrive from Prague, Plzen, České Budějovice, and Brno for their weekends in their hometowns the pots slowly disappear. Food is fresh because there doesn't seem to be a cheaper way to get it. Every Czech home has a garden to obtain two or three different forms of vegetables or fruits. Seeing as this is the way that people live, restaurant life is just the same. Meats are obtained in the same fashion; within a five minute drive the restaurant has its own land or friends who provide meat, potatoes, vegetables, and fruits. Everything is prepared that morning or on the spot, and not only does it make one feel better than what we eat back in the U.S., but one has the piece of mind that the amount of chemicals you eat in a three days is a single meal in the U.S. . Fresh, whole, fatty Czech food.

So after stops to grab a drink, ice cream, or fried cheese, our teachers always had the bright plan that our treks back to our group cabin would be longer than our journeys through the valleys to these rest stops. The poorly paved single lane roads wind their way back up the mountains, this time through the forest itself. Wooden signs and painted marks on trees tell us where the next town of 50, 30, 15, 10 houses lies. These afternoon hikes are the times when I got to know my classmates the best. In school we don't have as much time to talk seeing as they are taking notes, and I am rummaging through various Czech Language textbooks that I have obtained. My intensive studying everyday numbering up to four hours has led my teachers to realize that not only do I understand what they are saying, but they can test me on the information too. The borders between my classmates and I being the foreign student have fallen incredibly since I arrived. In Mathematics, Statistics, and English I get in as much trouble as my friends for talking or studying something other than the taught subject as my friends, and often hear the remark "Evann if you are gong to talk, why can’t you at least speak English with the students, we all know you can speak Czech.“ In the end though, almost nobody in my class cares enough to study language, and thus, communication is based on my knowledge of Czech. So as our feet pounded the unpaved ice roads, and we chucked snowballs at each other, I was pleased to understand everything that my classmates were saying. I could offer an opinion, make a snide remark, join in on the laughter, and start a conversation. Just two months ago, after switching host families and leaving my new friends on the other side of town, I was feeling pretty lonely. Not at all homesick, but frustrated that I could understand what was being said, but unable to offer a grammatically correct thought. This week I have one of the fullest hearts I have ever felt; talking to my classmates wasn't nearly as much work as usual. I barely asked what does something meant, and instead, gathered an entirely new vocabulary from the boys. After a glorious week in the mountains, spending long days on skis, talking everyday a language that I was not born into, joking, bickering, conversing, and goofing off with my classmates who have become my closest group of friends, I feel as though there is no possible way I will be able to leave at the end of the year, at least without a broken heart.

April 1

I am not sure how to describe the life of an exchange student or explain the extent to which I have been enjoying my year in the Czech Republic. Over the weekend, I realized I only have four more months here in Písek, the small town of 30,000 where I live in the southern part of the Republic. I began to think about when I return, and how I will answer questions such as: So what was your exchange year like? What did you see? What did you learn? How do you feel now that a year as a foreigner is behind you? How can I possibly come up with a sentence to describe everything I have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and done within a year? If I were to say it were simply wonderful, and like a dream-come-true adventure, I would be ripping everyone of a description of what it is like to actually live in another country. In one year we go from students who are tourists, marvels to their small towns, who speak with heavy accents and in broken sentences, gaze upon new landforms with aw, and a source of entertainment when questioned by our acquaintances due to our accents or perspectives, to just another French, German, Indian, Taiwanese, Brazilian, or Czech student who the natives look at as another of their own, a norm to the classroom, a speaker with a trace of accent showing what they once were, accustomed to the historical towns, mountains and fields, and who has to find a source of entertainment for their native friends on the weekend just as if they were in their homeland.

In the Czech Republic, I have come to find myself with exceptional memories of warm-hearted people, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Some of these memories include my host family who excepted me as one of their own from the moment I arrived, the wonderful class I joined led by an extraordinary class teacher who has helped me not only learn Czech, but some German as well (even though she doesn't speak a word of English), learning how to snowboard, skiing with my entire class in the mountains for a week, attending Swan Lake in the National Theater in Prague, spending afternoons after school and over the weekends on walks through the lush green forest covering the hills behind Písek, cross-country skiing along frozen snow covered rivers flowing down hills until they crash as the bottom and roar back up and around the bend of another hill or cliff, or biking along lakes through medieval towns with friends.

I came here with what I think was a little bit of something to prove to myself. As I left Florida I knew I wasn't truthfully I a shy, over-achieving, terribly cautious teenage girl from Florida, but that I could use my brain in other ways then just to get the best grade on the test, lead a group of people, and be myself without worrying about what others think of me. I haven't learned everything I need to learn in life in one year or become sure of myself in every aspect, but I have shown myself that I can use my brain to learn a language only 10 million people in the world speak, and that I can leave that cautiousness behind in order to be open enough to adapt to Czech lifestyle in seven months. As far as cautious goes, I used to never do anything on my own, wait for the invitation, and wait to be spoken too; now, I am not obnoxiously outgoing, but I am one of the first to offer the idea to hop on a train next weekend and see a film festival in Prague, I can plan the trips for myself and friends, and offer ideas in a language I still haven't quite mastered yet.

As you can see, it isn't quite possible to write how this year has unfolded in one sentence, and if someone were to ask me: How was 10 months in the Czech Republic?, I might say it taught me to be independent, to think a little freer, to trust myself. This is all true because a year without one's parents submerged in another culture teaches one that, but then on another hand, this year has just been another year in my life, and I don't think it has turned out any differently then it was supposed to. I have come to believe that in life maybe there is a higher power who helps guide us to find the right opportunities, and therefore, this year wasn't specifically meant to teach me anything; I was just meant to come here and live. I feel as if I belong here just as much as I do in Florida. I have read some of my companions journals from Rotary Youth Exchange Florida. I gathered information about how they have been to all these places, how they have grown and prospered, and while, as I have, I can write about these things too, I feel almost differently, as if what I have accomplished is nothing more than normal. What I see everyday on my way to school, when shopping with friends, and on trips over the weekend is in no way atypical, what I eat is traditional, the language I speak is a mere way for me to communicate, and what I do for fun and with whom is not something any different than what I have always done in my life. I am not in any way underestimating how much I have seen, or ungrateful for my experiences. I guess in a way, by writing this I have realized that the borders between myself as a foreigner and the country I arrived in have fallen away, and the life I once found new, exciting, and something to marvel at has become all I know. I talked to my mother in Florida just the other day and for the first time in the seven months I was here I didn't feel as if I had to relay any information to her about my safety situation, what I found new, or what new experience I had that I don't have the opportunity to witness in Florida, but it is now normal for me to live thousands of miles a way, and we can just talk. We lead two different lives, on two different continents. I am able to talk about these family members and friends I am accompanied by as if they have been a part of my life for longer than 7 months. I am blessed with three older host siblings who have become some of my best friends as well as great guidance this year simply like any siblings should be, I have a host mother who makes sure I eat the right foods, do my homework, and get enough exercise each day, and a host father who makes sure that my siblings and I have enough exposure to our country's culture and that we behave properly. We are built just like any family, and like my family, my life in the Czech Republic is quite similar. It is different than other lives, but yet I lead it just like anyone would here in the Czech Republic.

I am not sure where this journal was going when I started it. I wanted to just show that thanks to the support I have from my host family, the ambition I had to learn the language, the drive to try new things and put myself out there, the wonderful classmates I have, the guidance from my class teacher, and the generosity and caring Rotary Clubs and members show the students who embark on these adventures, I have become accustomed to living like a Czech. I attempted to make the point about my year seeming nothing less than planned because seeing that I feel as if I belong here, I can not say that the last day I walk on Czech lands will be the day the plane leaves for Florida in four months. I feel as though having established many connections with friends and family it would be a shame never to see these people again. In another way, by describing how smoothly my year has gone, I would still not say that this has been the best year of my life as many exchange students describe the 10 months we are gifted with to live the way we wish. Instead, I would say this year has given me the feeling as if I finally started living the life I was meant to live. It has given me the push I needed to finish high school, volunteer more frequently, learn about history, and pursue more languages, meet and work with new people of all ages and backgrounds, and live without worrying so much about what tomorrow brings. I hope to attend college, and keep up with Czech so that one day I can thank the people who have helped me this year. It seems that one of the most proper ways to do this would be by being as good of a sister, friend, student, pupil, and daughter as they have been brother, friend, teacher, counselor, and parent to me. Czech seems essential to this goal. If the mission for the 2010-2011 Rotary International year is to Build Communities and Bridge Continents, then I feel as though Rotary is doing exactly what it intended to. It has given me a second home to treasure, a second group of friends to laugh with, a second language to express myself, and a second land to discover; bridging the community one Florida girl grew up in with one she became a part of in the Czech Republic.