Halie Mosher
2010-11 Outbound to Estonia

Hometown: Saint Johns, Florida
School: Bartram Trail HS
Sponsor: Mandarin Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Haapsalu Rotary Club, District 1420, Estonia

Halie's Bio

Hi! My name is Halie Mosher and this coming year I will be an outbound exchange student to Estonia. I never expected to be sent to Estonia, but I’m very excited to go there and have this amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m so very grateful that I’ve been chosen to be an exchange student through RYE and that my long journey is now really coming to life.

Currently, I am a senior at Bartram Trail High school in Jacksonville, Florida. I live with my parents and older brother as well as my two dogs and cat. I have been a figure skater for almost eleven years and love everything about it. I also enjoy playing other sports (despite the fact that I’m really terrible at most of them) and any activity that puts me outdoors. I like sewing, traveling, music, playing cards, and pretty much trying anything new and exciting. I love a challenge and just living my life, having fun as I go.

Like it has for so many others, RYE has been coming to my high school every year, inspiring select students to go global. Since my freshman year, I have been appealing to my parents to travel abroad, but (for valid reasons) I was always denied. It took years of convincing and maturing to get my parents on board with my overseas idea, but now they couldn’t be happier for me. They have helped me every step of the way and I don’t know what I would do without them.

I would also like to acknowledge my best friend who ultimately gave me the push I needed to become an exchange student. Without her, my foreign hopes would probably remain a dream, unlike the reality they soon will be.

From day one, this has been a challenging process, and it appears that it won’t get easy anytime soon. I have come to understand that there will be language barriers, new faces, and cultural differences that I might have difficulties adjusting to. Who knows what the future holds, but honestly that’s one thing I found so appealing. Thank you so much RYE and everyone involved in making this longtime dream of mine come true. I have no idea what to expect, but whatever it is I know it’s going to be a life-changing experience.

leavin

leavin

My-best-school-friends

My-best-school-friends

Lapland-Tour

Lapland-Tour

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leaving-and-beginning-of-Estonia

On-the-ferry-boat-from-Finland-to-Estonia

On-the-ferry-boat-from-Finland-to-Estonia

New-Year's-concert

New-Year's-concert

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leaving-and-beginning-of-Estonia

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

Ball

Ball

Beautiful-Tallinn

Beautiful-Tallinn

Birthday-Surprise

Birthday-Surprise

Christmas-full-market

Christmas-full-market

Estonia

Estonia

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Estonia-fall

Estonia-fall

Estonia-fall

First-Snow

First-Snow

IB-Camp-in-Finland-with-fellow-Estonian-(and-American)-exchange-student,-Marina!

IB-Camp-in-Finland-with-fellow-Estonian-(and-American)-exchange-student,-Marina!

I-found-my-new-favorite-hat-on-the-ferry-boat-to-Finland

I-found-my-new-favorite-hat-on-the-ferry-boat-to-Finland

Halie's Journals

September 4

So, here it goes, my first journal abroad. It seems almost surreal that future students might be able to go to the RYE website, click on my name, read my journals and perhaps be a little inspired. Maybe someone will bring up my name somewhere… like… “yeah, that Halie seems like she’s having a wild time in Estonia…” I won’t hold my breath for the inspired part (or the “wild time,” as my Haapsalu is adorably quaint and quiet), but maybe I can entertain someone with a few interesting stories from my year. I won’t bore you with every detail of my day, but I can try to write the highlights I experience. I really hope that you enjoy what I have to say because I honestly enjoy every minute of every experience I have. Okeydokey, let the journals begin…

I began my exchange journey the same way everyone does; I said goodbye to my family, stepped on a plane…, then had a layover for seven hours, stepped on another plane…, and then did the same thing once more. I arrived at the airport almost three hours early and spent almost three hours of it waiting at the airport Starbucks with my family. We took pictures, reminisced, and played cards for a while. It was a good ol’ time. I won a few hands of gin rummy (I’m pretty sure they let me win just for the memories) and before I knew I was getting dangerously close to missing my flight.

We started waiting through security and it seemed every time I got in one line the other one would move faster (I’m pretty sure everyone knows that feeling). The rest of my family was watching me through the glass as I was watching the clock. I was really starting to freak out, and my inner thoughts were getting violent (Oh, come on! Seriously, sir? Can you not get those slip-off shoes OFF?!)(Ohhhhh, now you decide to take the laptop out of your bag?!?! )(Help your child with her jacket, can’t you see she needs help?). I was strong though, my inner angry thoughts stayed my inner angry thoughts.

I finally got through airport security and started jogging down towards my gate (at which time my mom decided she needed to use the restroom). I could just see it now… I’d have to call up Al (oh, geez) and break the news. “Yeah, Al, ya know that filght I was supposed to get on… mhm, the one to Estonia… yeah, ok, I’m kinda not on it now.” I can just imagine his reaction to that. Then it would be on to Daphne… I’ll skip that thought… and finally my travel agent. But, I’m not in a body bag, so as you can guess, I made it! I cut it close though. I ran up to the flight terminal and everyone was already on the plane and seated for take-off. My goodbye with my mother was short and sweet (and left the shoulder to my rotary jacket wet with tears).

I started out alone, but on every flight I had I met up with more exchange students. I never seemed to sit near any of them on my flights, but I randomly sat next to a very nice woman on my longest flight (we’re actually friends on Facebook now!), which made it much more bearable.

I never thought I would be glad for a long layover in an airport, but I was in Munich. It took almost an hour just to get our passport checked after getting off the plane (it didn’t help that all the people were pushy line-cutters). After that, six exchange students started wandering around the Munich airport trying to find the Lufthansa ticket counter. Having been on United flights thus far we all had to change airlines to get on the next flight (sounds simple, right? I laugh at your assumption… haha). Our carryon luggage was starting to get heavy for everyone too, so two groups of three got luggage carts and loaded them up. We got them stuck on the moving walkways (we wound up having to pick the whole thing up to get it off) and ran them into everything (they’re really hard to steer), but at least we had them.

After searching, asking various airport workers where to find Lufthansa, and splitting up to “divide and conquer” the problem we found an automated ticket counter. An airport worker tried to help us, but for some reason the machine wasn’t working. We were directed to another counter somewhere else, but the counter worker there told us to go to the automated machine (yes, the one we had already gone to). We went back to the machine, but (imagine that) it still wasn’t working. Finally, another student and I found a baggage counter, where we got our tickets. Fortunately, everyone managed (one way or another) to get a ticket from somewhere, so it was off to the terminal.

The security line for the terminals was very short (thank God). I was lucky enough to have my travel pillow tested for foreign diseases. After waiting a few minutes the test came back negative and I was thrilled to be disease free (can you imagine what kind of story I’d have if the test came back positive?!). Overall, the group got through security quickly and we made it to our gate with plenty of time to spare.

After about 30 hours of plane traveling, I was in the Helsinki airport with eight other exchange students. We all picked up our luggage and headed outside to get on a bus that would take us to Karkku for language camp. Unfortunately, we soon realized that not everything and everyone was going to fit on the bus, there simply wasn’t enough room.

We waited for an hour, in the surprising Finnish heat, as the bus driver looked at the luggage at every different angle he could. He would tilt his head to the right, step a few feet over, and then ponder for a while. Then continue the process by moving to the left a few inches and so on. After a while, he finally accepted what everyone already had: not all the junk was getting on the bus. Out of the twenty or so bags that didn’t fit onto the bus you can probably guess two randomly selected suitcases that were left behind. Yep, mine. The Rotary people there assured me that my luggage would be fine, but I think I was understandably nervous to leave my metaphorical “life-in-a-suitcase” behind. But, what could I do? Nothing. But where could I sit? That was another matter completely.

There wasn’t a single seat left, so one other lucky traveler (a fellow American from New York) and I were lucky enough to sit in the emergency seats. They might have been on the stairs of the bus, and they might have been slightly uncomfortable, but they gave the best view out of any “real” seat we could have been in. I didn’t care that much anyway, I was so tired that I slept the whole way there.

Three more hours of driving and we had arrived to our camp, but (cue dramatic music) the camp didn’t have power. It was just like a horror film. There had been an unexpected hailstorm the night before and some wires had been damaged. I tried to look at it on a positive side… it was slightly romantic eating by candlelight with all of these strangers.

The daylight was gone, so it was time for all of the students to get their rooms. We were staying at a school, so we all stood in line for our dorm room assignments. I was a handed a funny-looking key (which we were later advised to keep safe. If anyone lost it, they’d have to pay the school 300 Euro to replace it). One of the Finnish Rotex students offered to drive kids to their rooms, since those who had luggage would have to carry it. I had no luggage, but I accepted the ride anyway.

I finally got to my room, which was dark, and I met my roommate. A perky Nebraskan who I met in the Chicago Airport let me use her shampoo, so I at least got a shower, but still no clean clothes. I slept like a rock that night and still woke up exhausted.

My bags had supposedly arrived to the main building, so while everyone was getting ready I walked down the gravel road towards clean clothes. I couldn’t get anyone to drive me to my room, so it looked like I would be dragging them back out to my building. I saw my new German friend (she began flying with us from Munich) and asked if she would help me. She agreed and we were off and away.

Each of us pulled a wheeled bag down the paved driveway and up the road, and we pulled, and we pulled… until we came to the largest hill this Florida girl has seen in years. I looked up the hill in horror. I still swear that it wasn’t there before. I guess when I was being driven up the hill and walking down the hill I didn’t realize how steep it was. I assumed I had an ex German friend at this point.

It was only getting worse. The huge paved hill was quickly turning into a huge dirt hill with rocks all over it. I expected the wheels of my bag to just fly off or the handle to snap (then I could watch in terror as the bags slid back down this mountain). I’m sure it was by divine intervention that the bags made it intact. Luckily, I didn’t have a stroke in the heat, but by the end we were definitely panting and out of breath. All I could do was laugh.

The rest of the week doesn’t provide any amazing stories, but I met a lot of great people from all over the world. There were Finnish seminars (where I learned the “Finnish way”), Estonian language classes, good eating, and fun activities for hours every day. I learned some crucial phrases, my numbers, my colors, foods (essential knowledge), and more in Estonian. I felt like I was two again, but I was still proud to know more language than I did before.

By the last day of camp, I was ready to start the next leg of my journey. I watched as all the Finnish inbounds were picked up by their host-families and taken home. It was just like watching puppies being picked from a litter. The six Estonian inbounds still had hours to go before we would see our host-families, so we loaded our stuff into a van for the ride back to Helsinki.

The van was a manual, so each gear shift jerked us everywhere. The air-conditioning wasn’t working well and the windows were supposed to stay shut (I’m still not sure exactly why, but that’s what we were told). After the three hours in the van, we were all looking a little green. The car was driven up onto the ferryboat for a two hour ride to Tallinn (and all the students scrambled out of the van for fresh air).

The ferryboat wasn’t a quaint little craft you imagine, it was a huge ship. There were multiple restaurants, shops, and even a grocery store to occupy the time. The two hours flew by, and before I knew it, the boat was docked.

After we drove off the boat and parked host-families started picking up the students. I watched again as puppies were being taken home, wagging their little tails the whole way. One by one they were picked, until it was just me. The lone wolf (a lone puppy just sounds too sad, so I changed it into a wolf), my tail wasn’t wagging anymore. Finally, after about twenty minutes, the Estonian coordinator who was with me got a call. My host-sisters was with a member of my rotary club, and they had been there the whole time (just in the wrong spot). I was a happy puppy once again.

I felt so much better when my sister stepped out of the car and gave me a big “welcome” hug. The drive to Haapsalu takes a little over an hour (I swear we made it in half that time with the Rotary guy) and it wasn’t long at all before I was home. My mom and older host-sister greeted me at the house with big hugs too. I couldn’t help but sigh in relief. The week had been fun but very hectic, I was so happy to just be in a stable environment (with minimal surprises).

As my family showed me around my new house, I couldn’t help but say the word “cool” a million times. But everything was cool, and new, and exciting. I had a goofy smile on my face the whole time (and I’m pretty sure they thought I was psychotic), and then my sister took me out to meet all of her friends. I switched from being a puppy to something like a new purse (I don’t mean to be smug, but I really felt like a designer purse at this point). Everyone ooo-ed and aww-ed over me (I’m not going to lie, I feel pretty special). By the end of the night, I was really (really, really, really, really) exhausted, so I slept amazingly in my new bed.

I have a beautiful room, a beautiful family, and a beautiful life right now. I haven’t had too much homesickness yet (relative to the fact I’m over 6,000 miles away), but that doesn’t mean it’s all been cake either. There have been short times when I’m frustrated, exhausted, cold (luckily, as in temperature, not attitude), sad, and lonely. But every time I even begin to feel down some little thing cheers me right back up. Every day is a rollercoaster of emotions, but I just try to be myself at all times. I’ve never once wanted to give up, which is the best encouragement I have right now, and I think that’s pretty darn good.

And now I leave you with a quote (because I always love when people leave really thoughtful quotes that make you think… hmmm):

“Large streams from little fountains flow,

Tall oaks from little acorns grow.”

- David Everett

(plus, the poem rhymes, which makes it even more awesome… hmmm)

PS- stay tuned for journal #2 about my week in Tallinn, it should be a real doozie!

(spoiler alert: I get lost in Tallinn A LOT)

November 24

Not much has changed in the last three months, yet sometimes it feels like everything is different. I’ve settled into a normal daily schedule, in fact there are some days when it feels like I’ve been in Estonia doing this all my life. Most things didn’t take too long to adjust to, but the quickly changing weather was definitely a big shock.

The first snow of the year came on October 22! I'll always remember that day, but I'll mostly remember it because it's my mom's birthday, not because of the snow (you probably didn't want to know that...). The day before it was like any other fall day, slightly breezy but overall very nice. BAM!!!! I looked out my window to see a thick blanket of snow covering everything. I didn’t even have a winter coat or boots yet, so I was quite cold and terrified of slipping on the ice (I have a hard enough time not tripping over my own feet on a normal day). Estonians wear high heels all year round, they could care less if there’s ice on the ground and heaps of snow to step through, however I’m not nearly as talented. I wore my rain boots through the snow and managed to only fall once. I was pretty proud of myself.

The next day my host-mom took me shopping to get my winter essentials. There was nothing to be had in my tiny town of Haapsalu, so a few days later she drove me over an hour away to the next biggest town.  I don’t think she realizes how much that day meant to me. We walked around, laughed, and just talked. Afterwards, when I thanked her for the wonderful day, she just smiled and said “you’re my daughter, I couldn’t let you freeze!” That made the day even better.

At school I’m definitely at the stage in my exchange where I’m “normal.” Occasionally I’ll meet someone new and they’ll ask me a bunch of questions, but I think people are generally used to seeing me around. My friends all have busy schedules, mainly filled with studying, so I decided to fill up my schedule too.

I take Estonian cooking classes, three different Estonian handicraft classes, and aerobics classes with my host-mom. Besides learning Estonian, I wanted to learn German, so I have German lessons twice a week. Then, I decided I wasn’t learning Estonian very well on my own, so I just started after school Estonian tutoring. I’m not the best at sports, but I do love singing, so I joined the school choir (which will sing at a National festival in July). Friday and Saturday nights are the only time my studious friends don’t have loads of homework, so you can find me out and about with them.  

Making myself busy has prevented any intense homesickness. When I don’t have time to think about the things I’m missing in America I can focus on getting the most out of my time in Estonia.

I’ll admit, there are some pretty depressing days here, but I’m trying to keep a positive outlook. It’s always cold, which is something very different from Florida, but I’ve handled that pretty well so far. I’m partially used to the cold because I was a figure skater for so long, but I can hardly stand the darkness of Estonia. Unless it’s snowy, it’s dark. However, if it is snowy it’s absolutely beautiful here. The white illuminates the little bit of light and sometimes everything looks like it’s glowing. There are some snowy days that glow so brightly I feel like I’m in a sci-fi film, it’s actually pretty awesome. It’s a true pain to walk through, but I always hope for snow.

To counter when it’s not glowy (just an icky darkness all around), I’ve started dressing in obnoxiously bright colors. My winter coat is hot pink (honestly, a color I wouldn’t wear in Florida), my boots are bright white, my school bag is bright yellow, I have crazy hats and scarves, and my mom even sent me some brightly colored tights to wear around.

I’ve actually been abroad for a little over three and a half months. In the beginning I noticed little things that were different, like the way I hold my knife and fork, the way I tell time, or even the way I say my “ABC’s”, but now I don’t seem to really notice all that much. Every once in a while I’ll be caught off guard by something a bit unusual, but I just shrug it off as “interesting.” Being an American living in Estonia I’m severely outnumbered by Estonians, so it’s best not to call their customs “weird” or twist my face into an odd expression. “Interesting” is good, and it works in pretty wide range of “interesting” occasions. Plus, isn’t “interesting” what being an exchange student is all about?

There have been some hard times already and I’m not even at Christmas, supposedly the hardest time of all. I miss my friends, family, and boyfriend, but it’s also more than that. I hate to be the typical “fat American,” but I miss the food. I miss being able to have any type of food I want at practically any time. Besides the fast-food (geez, I really want some Taco Bell right now!!), I miss the variety of things you can cook in the US as well. I miss cooking in my own kitchen, using utensils and measurements that I’m familiar with. I miss how easy it was to find something at the store and the convenience of one store having anything you would need (I’ve found “one stop shopping” isn’t really the Estonian way). I miss clothes driers, my clothes aren’t nearly as soft when they’re hung dry. I miss feeling like I have a place instead of drifting around in limbo, not an Estonian but unable to be fully American.

I’m unable to be fully American, but in my time here I’ve become even more patriotic (which is saying a lot if you know me very well). I have so much more appreciation for my American life and love for my amazing country. I definitely want to straighten out “American” stereotypes when people ask me questions. I was asked by my English teacher to make a presentation on the US and present it to all of her classes. I did the presentation eight times and every time I gave it I had even more pride to be an American.

There have been a few recent events which I will have memories of for the rest of my life. If I wrote about them now I would go on for pages and pages, so I think they require their very own journal (can you feel the suspense building?). So, for now, I leave you with my thoughtful quote:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

January 14

For this journal, I feel the need to backtrack a few months to describe a very important event in my exchange.

At that point in time, I had been in Estonia about two months. I was really learning a lot about the culture and the life of an Estonian teenager. People started asking me what I liked and didn’t like, what were the differences, and what I missed from home. This really made me reflect on my own life as an average person growing up in America.

I can never express what I have experienced in my life with these wonderful people. While I can never know what it truly means to be Estonian, they’ve opened a window into their world that I cannot reciprocate. I can tell them about my family, my friends, the food I eat, and the ways I waste my spare time, but they still wont know it. I felt selfish, like I was only carrying out part of my exchange; I was learning from my host-country, but I wanted to bring just a little bit of America to them too.

It was October, and I finally saw my opportunity to share some America… Halloween. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, a holiday all about consuming as much sugar as you possibly can, dressing up, and just having fun. As soon as I got the green light from my host-family there was no stopping me.

Thank goodness my best friend, and fellow American exchange student (actually, she’s the only other American RYE student besides myself in Estonia), Marina, agreed to help me. We knew finding Halloween themed items in a country that doesn’t celebrate Halloween would be difficult, but we were up for the challenge.

We covered all the bases:  A few days before the party, my younger host-sister and her friend came over and we carved pumpkins. It was their first time ever doing it, and I have to tell you, they were darn good! Then, my host-sister and I spent hours decorating the house, I was so thankful she helped. By the end, there were spider webs everywhere, caution tape covering most of the doorways, skeletons on the cabinets, and a plastic mural on the front door. It was brilliant!

Once Marina arrived from Rapla (a town about an hour away),we cooked for three days straight, making “mud brownies,” “morgue bean dip,” “mini mummy pizzas,” “nasty nachos,” “mummies in a blanket (like pigs in a blanket),” “brain spaghetti,” and (most importantly) PB&J sandwiches in the shape of ghosts. There were countless other cookies, cakes, cupcakes, candycorn, popcorn balls, roasted pumpkin seeds, homemade rice crispy treats, and Halloween candy. It was truly a Smörgåsbord (AKA “rootsi laud” in Estonian). On top of that, Marina and I made this delicious punch, made with cool-aid and ice cream. Yum!

Since Estonians don’t celebrate the holiday, I figured finding a Halloween costume to wear would be nearly impossible. Marina and I went on a quest around town for a get-up and wound up truly victorious!! With just a few added accessories, we were a cowboy and Indian… classic!

In the invitation, I made it very clear that anyone who came had to wear a costume, but they weren’t supposed to spend money on anything. It was a real whoot to see how creative they were. There were classic zombies, witches, ghosts, angels, and devils. One boy dressed as Dracula and made a real coffin to go with him (an accessory that took up most of the hall space) and my host-sister dressed as black mail (wearing all black and a postage stamp on her shirt). There was also Santa and Mrs. Clause, Mario and Luigi, Minnie Mouse, Edward Cullen, Dr. House, a mime, a ninja, and countless others. All-in-all, over forty people came, and they were all dressed up!

We ate, played games, sang karaoke, and had a really great time. It was a special moment for me when they all yelled “thank you,” and I felt like I really had given them something to remember. Estonians are sharing their wonderful culture with me, now I finally felt like I was giving back in some minute way. I hope that somehow they continue the tradition and celebrate every October 31st.

Now, I feel the need to make a few “shout-outs” to some special people. Thank you to Marina for helping me cook, clean, shop, and laugh nonstop. To my host-family, for being open-minded and understanding to my strange enthusiasm for this odd holiday. To my friends, for participating wholeheartedly in the celebrations. And, last but definitely not least, to my mom, who sent me decorations, fun-sized candy, Halloween cookie cutters, candycorn, and countless other knickknacks that gave the party true character. I will remember my 2009 Halloween for the rest of my life, and it wasn’t possible without all of you!

So, now I leave you with my “quote of the journal”:

“You will look back on the times you laughed and you will cry. You will look back on the times you cried, and you will laugh. You will always remember close friends, and you will always keep memories of them in your heart. Life is hard, it’s tough, and it’s unfair, but everyone gets over the hurt and the pain, eventually. You always end up with a smile on your face, if you give it a chance.”

May 9

Right now it’s a wonderful 50 degrees in Estonia. After over 6 months of freezing, I can finally walk outside without my snow boots, which kind of look like I’ve just cut a car tire to pieces and stuck it on the bottom of my feet. I can fashion a light jacket and maybe even (cue angelic music) a cute pair of shoes. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and my clothes are now hanging outside on a clothesline to dry. Yes, my friends, spring has finally shown it’s shy face in Estonia.

But, what I find even more remarkable than the actual weather, is my reaction to it. If I were in Florida, at this temperature, I’d be pulling out my parka and every bit of winter apparel I own. However, right now I find this weather divine. Can I make a life lesson from this… you bet your butt I can!

Throughout my year in Estonia, I’ve had experiences, some great, some being rather down. When I emerge from the other side of the tunnel, I can finally see what I was stumbling over in the darkness to reach the end.

It took the freezing cold for me to appreciate the tepid.

It took weeks of gray days and darkness to appreciate the light of the sun.

It took living a year without certain luxuries and customs to appreciate what I have.

Personally, I don’t think I’ve grown as a person in my year abroad, I’m the same girl, good or bad, hate me or love me. However, I have learned to appreciate every single thing I have. Whether it be drinking sweet tea, having a big Thanksgiving dinner, getting ice cubes in my drinks, or the convenience of 24 hour stores, I appreciate them all. It’s funny how the simple things can stick out to you. But, if it weren’t for the bitter, you wouldn’t be able to taste the sweet (how existential is that, right?).

There have been “alright” moments during my exchange, like when you get a recipe from your grandma, but you just can’t seem to make it as delicious as she does. I’ve had bitterly disgusting times, like when you accidentally mistake the sugar for the salt. But the times I remember most are with amazing people that I could only meet abroad. People who add foreign ingredients completely new to me, who forget the recipe and add secret elements of their own. They’ve helped me make this one of the most memorable years of my life, and for that I can never thank them enough.

Now, this journal has made me hungry, so I’m going to go have a cookie and big glass of milk (I bet you’re hungry now too, huh?).

I leave you with my “quote of the journal,”

“One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

July 7

“Better late than never.”

That will be the theme of this journal. As usual, I’ve left an important task until the last minute, or days in this case: journaling. I’m looking at my blog space on the RYE website and I’ve done a pretty disgraceful job. My hope is for students to read my journals and be somewhat inspired to go to Estonia, to maybe fill out their exchange student application and write down Estonia as a “top 5” choice. I want people to know how spectacular this country is, but it’s hard for them to do that when I’ve written very little, when my journals barely go past October. Trust me, there’s a bit more that’s happened in the last nine months. I’ve had such an amazing experience, and I’d like to share some of it with anyone willing to read it.

I’m going to pick up where I left off in my last journal, after the Halloween party.

Two weeks after the party was my 19th birthday.

I expected my birthday to be no different from any other day in Estonia… that was until my host-sister pushed me into a dark room.

I was told we were going to a friend’s apartment for a typical Friday night get-together, but as we were walking down the hall of the apartment building, my host-sister suddenly pushed me through a door. The room was black for a few seconds and then the lights flipped on. I was standing on a stage looking at a huge group of people holding a “PALJU ÕNNE” (Happy Birthday) sign. It was as surprise birthday party that my host-sister and friends had organized for me. All of a sudden,  I was handed a microphone, I guess they wanted a beautiful speech, but I was still so shocked the only thing I could say was “thank you.” Then, being the graceful creature that I am, I proceeded to fall down the steps of the stage in front of everyone as I tried to get down. Yep, no matter what country I’m in I will always be a klutz.

One of the coolest things about the party was that they tried to make it very “Estonian” for me. There were all types of typical and traditional foods and games; we even sang Estonian karaoke songs. The cake they made me was amazing, and to top it all off, they gave me a phenomenal picture drawn by one of my friends and everyone signed it.

I felt so special that people I had met just three months before would go through all this trouble for me. It was definitely one of the best moments of my exchange.

Just over a week later was Thanksgiving. Some of the teachers asked me to give a presentation to the class about what exactly Thanksgiving was. I showed them pictures of foods normally eaten, but more importantly, I brought in all sorts of paper and crafts. I showed them how to make a turkey by tracing your hand, how to fold paper to make a pilgrim hat, and how to glue fake feathers to a headband; we now had all the makings of first grade Thanksgiving reenactment.

I also wanted my host-family to experience a little bit of my American holiday. My mom sent me a box from the US with a few canned items that you can’t really find in Estonia, but the box came over a week too late. Thus, I had to make a Thanksgiving meal from scratch. Thank God my host-mom helped me with the turkey, or it would have been burnt to a crisp. But I wound of making greenbean casserole (which means I had to make my own cream of mushroom soup and onion crunchies for the top), pecan pie (yep, I made the crust and filling), stuffing (no boxed stuff), a turkey (with some sort of weird glaze I found from google recipes), and sweet potato pone (that’s actually really easy, no extra effort there). No, it didn’t really taste all that good, but they didn’t have anything to compare it to, so they  truthfully claimed it was the best Thanksgiving dinner they’d ever had!

The first week of December was the rotary trip to Lapland, Finland. We spent a whole day driving by bus to the very north of Finland, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life, but it was a memorable experience. I went snowshoeing in the forest, riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, followed by a nice dogsled ride pulled by huskies. We had a little snow sculpting competition between the exchange students, where my group made a lovely penguin we named Isosceles. I got to practice my lassoing skills on a fake reindeer (I actually caught it!), and fed some real reindeer by hand. Though I was quite sad when we ate a Lapland traditional meal later in the week… reindeer. It didn’t taste bad, it was just a little depressing to pet a reindeer and later that night eat one, but I figured this would be the only time or chance I would get to try it, so I did.

It was a fun week with all of the exchange students, and now I can officially say that I survived the arctic circle!!

Three weeks later, before school was let out for winter break, there was a winter ball. The Jõuluball was an annual school dance, and this year’s theme was “the Oscars.” There was a red carpet walk with paparazzi, tv interviews, and musical performances throughout that the 11th graders organized. The band they chose was great, and I had the best time dancing the night away with my friends.

Near the end of the dance, the Christmas king and queen were announced, though because of this year’s theme, they were now called “Romeo & Juliet.” You can imagine my shock when my name was called out for Juliet. I felt like the prom queen as they gave me my sash and crown, and then I waltzed with Romeo… well, I guess you can call it waltzing. It was more like me standing in front of everyone and stepping allover Romeo’s feet while music played. But, like I said, Estonia doesn’t change the fact that I’m a klutz. I don’t think I stopped smiling for weeks after that superb night.

Christmas was an odd time. I didn’t really feel excruciating homesickness, it was just weird not being with my family like I was every year before. But I’d like to think I embraced this new Christmas tradition instead of getting depressed. I helped decorate the Christmas tree and put up a bunch of red and green paper chains. I made the house look like an elementary school classroom, but my host-mom thought it was cute anyway.

Europeans actually do all of their Christmas celebrations on Christmas eve night. It’s not really that big of a deal, I just always remember waking up excited on Christmas morning, but here everything is already done by that time.

My host-family took me with them to Rapla, a nearby town where my host-grandparents live. First, I went with them to the cemetery, where everyone goes on Christmas Eve night to put candles on graves of loved ones passed. The candles illuminated the snow, making it surprisingly pretty.

After we came home from the cemetery, the family sat down and exchanged secret-Santa gifts. Everyone was so happy as my host-grandma put on the Santa hat and passed out presents. My host-sister gave me beautiful Estonian jewelry and a candle that looks like the Estonian flag, a candle that will never be burned because it’s so darn pretty.

However, presents aren’t the highlight of Estonian Christmas, food is! There was so much food that I think it could have lasted until next year, and it was all delicious. Yes, I even loved the Estonian national food… blood sausage. Come on, exchange is all about trying new things, so don’t dis it till you try it!!

We spent the night in Rapla and went home the next morning, where I woke up with the worst cold of my life.

You would think that celebrating New Year’s while sick would be awful, wouldn’t you? Well, I have to tell you, my new year in Estonia was the best I’ve ever had!

Of course, I didn’t have a fever or anything when I left, I just had absolutely no voice because my throat was so gross.

On New Year’s Eve afternoon, I took the bus to Tallinn with about five friends. I met up with Marina (my exchange friend living in Rapla) and we hung around the city for a little while. This coming year was a big one for Estonia, not only was the country switching currencies the next day on January 1st (from kroon to Euro), they were also becoming the European Capital of Culture for the year 2011. There was a big ceremony in the city, famous Estonian bands played all night, and there was a huge fireworks display when midnight came around. The celebration seemed to never end! From there, we went to a place called Von Krahl, one of my favorite places in Estonia. It’s a two story building, one floor is where live bands play indie music, the other level is a nightclub with a DJ. I stayed there all night, listening to music and dancing with my friends. I caught the bus back to Haapsalu in the morning utterly exhausted, but it was more than worth it.

Well, since this concludes the 2010 portion of my Exchange year, I think I’m going to end this journal here. My 2010 was busy, exciting, and just the beginning of my wonderful adventures in Estonia, so hopefully you can look forward to reading about the rest soon.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller