Abbie Bernet
2011-12 Outbound to Spain

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Pamplona Rotary Club, District 2202, Spain

Abbie's Bio

─░Hola! My name is Abbie Bernet, I am 16 years old and I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida with my family. My family consists of my dad, mom, younger brother and sister, and my three cats. I am a junior at Ponte Vedra High School, but that is soon to change because I will be spending my senior year in… Spain!

At first I was hesitant to apply to Rotary. Then I read a Mark Twain quote in a classroom which made me realize that I wanted to jump at the chance to become an exchange student. Twain said: "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 gave me a nudge to apply, and I am so glad I did.

Although many people don’t understand why I would want to leave my family, I am so excited to have an additional family in Spain! I am ready to embrace this new year and see what not only Spain has to offer me, but what I have to offer Spain.

I am passionate about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. One of my best friends who I have known since I was seven has autism. He inspired me to want to become a Special Education Teacher, and an advocate for these remarkable individuals. I have been active in Best Buddies in high school which has allowed me to reach out not only to kids with special needs, but also to my peers, by teaching them about Best Buddies and these individuals.

I am so thankful to Rotary and can't wait to start my life-changing adventure. THANK YOU!

Abbie's Journals

September 15th- 2 weeks in Spain

After 18 very long hours of traveling, I arrived in Pamplona, Spain on September 1st, and was greeted by my wonderful host family. It was hard saying goodbye to my family and friends but I was excited to start my journey.

Many exchange students say how quickly the time passes by, for me it’s the complete opposite. It’s not that I’m not having fun, or not enjoying my stay; I love Spain. I love the people, the food, the life style, the shops, the views, I love everything, it’s just that my brain seems to calculate ‘days’ much differently. If I go out, that counts as one day, eating lunch counts as another day, and watching the news counts as another day as well, it’s weird.

My host family is always saying how I don’t eat enough and that my parents in Florida will be mad because I will be too skinny, but the truth is I eat more here than I would in Florida but that doesn’t seem to matter. I brought American food with me to give to my host family and my host grandmother is fascinated by it, especially the goldfish and slim jims which she says are so rich. I told my mom to mail me goldfish and slim jims and my host grandmother is so excited, I didn’t realize that crummy American food could make someone so happy, but then again my face lights up anytime I see a baguette which isn’t exciting for anyone else in Spain.

When I speak Spanish I sound like a 4 year old who also knows a bizarre form of sign language. Usually I just speak in the present tense and use my hands by pointing to my left to represent the past and to the right to represent the future. Whenever I don’t know a word I try to act it out which usually doesn’t work, and then whoever I am talking to just tells me to say it in English. Then if they don’t know the word in English they apologize because they don’t know much English which is even more embarrassing because I know they speak more English than I do Spanish. I should be the one apologizing because I’m in their country and I don’t know their language!

The first day of school was full of surprises. I expected that my teachers would sound like Charlie Brown’s, and they did. All I heard was “Wah wahh waaa wahh waa”. But I didn’t think that they would not realize that I was an exchange student, I didn’t think that they would assume my Spanish was nearly perfect, or that they would assume that I could listen and take notes, and I wasn’t expect my teachers to be confused if my name was Abbie, Abigail, or Elizabeth (my middle name). I also didn’t expect to freak out over not knowing how to flush the toilet, to see kids lined up by the school’s door smoking, or to call my teachers by their first names. The only weird questions I gotten at school have been “Do you really have cooking classes in the U.S.?” and “Do Americans really eat hamburgers every day for breakfast?” and “Have you been to L.A.? Why not?”

Here is a list of things I have noticed in Spain:

-You cannot be considered a Spanish teenage girl if you do not own a pair of ballet flats, the only problem is that they are the most uncomfortable shoes and multiple band aids must be worn on your heels at all times.

-Bread is served with every meal and the bread is wonderful. It could be considered dessert, it’s that good.

-Going to the grocery store almost every day is not uncommon because you buy food for what you will eat that day.

-The milk doesn’t have to be refrigerated until it’s opened. I still don’t understand how this works.

-To say okay in Spanish you say “vale” but not just once, usually people say it 3-4 times so that you can clearly understand that they understand.

-The paper is longer here, literally a piece of paper has like an extra inch.

-You can walk to anywhere you need to go, which is awesome.

-Cars appear out of nowhere and drive in the middle of plazas, and on roads that don’t look like roads at all, but walkers have the right of way.

-We don’t eat dinner until about 9-9:30 and lunch is usually at 2:30-3.

Muchas gracias to Rotary and to all of the people who helped me prepare for this amazing opportunity, especially to my family in Florida who I love and miss very much!

Monday, November 07, 2011

 ¡Hola! I can’t believe I’ve been in España for 2 months already; time is really starting to fly by!

I’ll start out by staying that I started a beginner’s Flamenco dance class for an hour and a half each week! My class is pretty small; there are 2 other teenage girls and about 5-6 middle-aged women. The class is very relaxed and it’s a lot of fun, I’m really glad I joined because it was a way for me to continue dancing and I look forward to going each week. I’m also very proud that I have been able to master most of the dance steps, whereas most of the other women are still getting their left and right mixed up, even though they speak the language that the class is being taught in!

I have realized that staying active during your exchange helps you in so many ways, it gives you something to do, you can meet new people, and it’s a great distractor, especially if you’re homesick. In addition to flamenco classes I will start reading books in English to little kids at a local bilingual school once a week. For Halloween, another exchange student from Canada and I also helped out with a Halloween party for an elementary school, we dressed up like witches and used Halloween words and activities to play charades and guessing games, the kids really enjoyed it, except for the preschoolers who were crying and terrified of us because we were wearing green face paint!

I attend a Catholic High School called Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart) which I can walk to in about 5 minutes. It is a private school for preschoolers to grade 12, but there are 2 buildings to divide us, my building is the 7th graders up to the 12th graders. My classes are pretty difficult and they range from gym, computer class, religion, science, and English to Spanish literature, philosophy, Latin, Greek, and World History. Some of my teachers tell me that they don’t care what I do in class, as long as I’m happy, they’re happy. Other teachers like my Latin teacher expect me to understand, answer questions in class, and take the exams. In class I usually try to translate whatever we are working on and when we have exams in class I try to translate my Spanish Harry Potter book, which has really been helping me learn both useful and really bizarre words!

Of all the differences I have noticed in school, the teachers are the most different from my teachers in the U.S. Teachers here don’t check if you did your homework, they hardly ever collect any work, they don’t ever give quizzes, and teachers expect you to understand everything by yourself, there’s no extra help before school or anything like that. Of all my teachers, my gym teacher is the most different. While using a microphone she screams what our next crazy activity will be, such as playing tag while holding hands with a partner, doing lunges up a hill next to a busy road, or taking turns running around a circle hoping over our classmates’ backs hoping we don’t accidentally step on them. I tried explaining to my classmates that these types of activities would never happen in the U.S. but it’s so normal here they couldn’t see why it was so different from what I’m used to. Many students here study a lot, and if they have tests the next week they don’t go out on the weekends at all. But on the other hand a lot of the students are happy when they get a 5 (out of 10) which is technically failing so I don’t see why they would be pleased with that.

In October, one of the host families in my town brought me and the 4 other exchange students in my town to visit Zaragoza, Spain where the Fiesta of Pilar is celebrated. The fiesta is in honor of the patron saint of the city, the Virgen del Pilar (Virgin Mary of the Pilar). People from all over the world come to represent their country and bring flowers for a massive flower monument which by the end of the day had more than 5 million flowers! So many people wore traditional outfits, there were so many beautiful churches to visit, and there was also lots of music and dancing! A few weeks later, the same family also brought us to visit San Sebastián, a gorgeous beach in Northern Spain and Saint Jean de Luz in Southern France.

I’ve realized that no one can be fully prepared for their exchange, it’s just not possible. There is no way to explain what it’s like to have so many emotions at one time. Sometime it’s bad feelings when you think “Why am I here? I don’t want to be here anymore.” (Which happens to everyone- no one loves being an exchange student 24/7). But at the same time you can have so many positive emotions, bursts of energy where you think “I am in another country! I just spoke in another language! I am so proud of myself! ” You also can’t be prepared for the feelings towards you host family and new friends. My one month mark in Spain my host mom told me “We love you so much Abbie, we love you so much!” and I just sat there crying while the entire restaurant had stopped eating and talking to stare at me. Or hearing my host dad say to me “you are my champion daughter” because I biked 25 kilometers with him. I’m already dreading the fact that I will have to leave this family in early December to move to my next family, and I had no idea that I would feel this attached to a family, they are no longer a ‘host’ family, they are my family, no matter what.

The other day in one of my classes we got information about a trip our grade would be taking to Paris. I was so excited that I was going to have this opportunity to see Paris and spend time with my classmates. My teacher came over to talk to me and I said “We’re going to Paris! When?” but she said “Yes, Abbie! We’re going to Paris! But… you’re not. The trip isn’t until next year and you’ll be back in Florida.” This answer sunk my heart because it was the first I really realized that my time here in Spain is limited. One day I will not live here anymore, and I won’t be an exchange student any more. And one day I will be sitting in Florida while my classmates are on their field trip to Paris, and I won’t be with them, and there is nothing I can do about it. That means that I can’t take anything for granted, whether it’s being able to walk around a beautiful city, eat delicious bread, or especially spending time with my new friends and family here.

The other day in class my English teacher asked me how I decided to become an exchange student, and I really was blown away thinking about how it had actually happened. It was after hearing a Rotary presentation at my school. I had never heard of Rotary, or even becoming an exchange student, but in those 45 minutes my life was changed. I can’t help but think what if I was sick and missed that day of school? I would have missed the meeting, I never would have applied and I would never have come to Spain or met the amazing people I have. I would never have had the chance to learn Spanish as well, my family would never have hosted Belen from Ecuador, and overall my life would be very different and very boring. Future outbounds, you will never ever get this opportunity again in life, so I urge you to apply, be unique and go through high school a little differently, it will be the hardest year of your life, but it will be a year of discovering yourself, another culture, and a chance to build lifelong friendships and stories to tell for the rest of your life.

So thank you to Paula Roderick for coming to my school that day, it was the first of many days that you have impacted my life, and I’m so glad that I have you for all your help and support! Thank you to Rotary Florida, and Rotary Spain, I don’t know how I can ever thank you for all you have done for me and for simply giving me this opportunity!

January 15

January 15, 4 ½ months in Spain

¡Hola! I can’t believe it’s already January and that in about 2 weeks I will be half way through my exchange! Although I hate to think about my time being limited here, it helps to have a deadline because once July rolls around I will be out of time to become fluent, make meaningful friendships, and live like a Spaniard. There are some days I panic that I will never become fluent, or that I will my classmates won’t care when I leave, or that I’ll never understand this culture, but there are other days where I can see how far I have come since my first days in Spain. I can now communicate what I want to say, I am starting to really understand Spanish grammar, and I can understand almost everything when people speak to me. My classmates are patient with me, they want to hear what I have to say, I know that if I ever had a problem I could ask for help and they would drop everything and help me. As far as culture in Spain, I am truly living as any Sp anish teenager does, and just knowing that I easily lead an American or Spanish lifestyle makes me so happy.

Differences

Everyone is always asking me if Spain is different from Florida and how so. So here are a couple of examples:

1. The grocery store:

- At the grocery store you can walk to the soda aisle and grab 1 can of coke for 50 cents. You just take as many as you want out of the pack. It may not seem like a big deal, but you can’t do that in the U.S.

- To unlock a cart you have to put in 1 euro, but you get the money back once you lock it to another cart. Apparently this stops people from stealing the carts because if they don’t return the cart they won’t get their money back.

- Things like Barbie dolls and gum are in security boxes in some grocery stores.

2. School

- As I will always be amazed by our activities in gym class, I’ll fill you in on what we’ve been doing. Our last units involved juggling (with balls we made out of rice and balloons), merengue dancing, twirling ribbons, and now we are starting batons (but with 3 sticks instead of 1).

- Also the liberty that is given to students at school is very different from what I’m used to. The other day, my entire grade (which is about 90 people) went to the movie theatre, to watch a movie our school had picked out. In the public school system in the U.S. going to the movies would mean buses and permission slips but here, our teachers said, “We’ll meet you at the theatre across town in 30 minutes.” So we all walked while eating our lunch, it’s neat that they trust us to actually walk instead of skipping or the fact that we could even get there by walking.

3. Food

- Spaniards eat 5 times a day: 1) Desayuno, breakfast which is usually something sweet and light (never eggs, pancakes, or bacon). 2) Almuerzo, which is a snack before lunch. I have my almuerzo every day at school, and people usually have a small sandwich. 3) Comida, lunch which is the biggest meal of the day. I usually have lunch between 2:30-3:30. 4) Merendar, a snack after lunch around 6 which almost always includes bread and chocolate (this is my favorite). 5) Cena, dinner which is a lighter meal and starts between 9-10 (and sometimes even later in different parts in Spain).

These little differences seemed so strange at first, but now I don’t think twice about it, it will be weird going back to Florida and having to relearn common rules and norms of society.

New Host Family

On my 100th day of my exchange I switched host families! It was hard to leave my first host family, the city I know inside and out, and to change everything I had finally adjusted to. When I had to say goodbye to my host mom, it was really hard we said that we wouldn't say goodbye, only see you later because that´s the truth, I´m not leaving yet, I still have 7 more months to make memories with my first host family even if I´m not living with them. My new host family is my host parents and an older host sister who will be leaving to live in Germany soon. I won't lie, it was really hard to move, and even after a month it's still hard sometimes. But they are really nice, and always want to make sure that I understand, am happy, and that I’ve had enough to eat. I’m glad that I got to change families, this way I get to see how another family lives in Spain, because just like in the U.S., all families are different.

Holidays

I am so grateful to have spent Thanksgiving, or Accíon de Gracias in Spanish, with 10 other exchange students with all the usual food, even a turkey, which actually took a while to find because they aren’t very common in Spain. It didn´t really feel like Thanksgiving though, because it was so different from the usual traditions I have with my family each year.

Merry Christmas! ¡Feliz Navidad! For the entire month of December, my city, Pamplona had lots of Christmas lights and decorations displayed all around the city. My host family and I had a big dinner, opened presents and went to mass at midnight for Christmas Eve. Christmas was a normal day with all the leftovers from the night before. Although Spaniards put up Christmas trees and talk about Santa, (Papa Noel) the most important day is not December 25th, but January 6th, the day that the 3 wise men came. Also, although my family had a Christmas tree, the most important decoration is the belen, which is Spanish for the nativity. Even the mall near my house a big belen on display, and I went to a museum that showed nativities from all over the world.

¡Feliz Año! Happy New Year! For New Year’s I went to my host family’s pueblo, which is Spanish for village/ small town. Many Spaniards go to a pueblo throughout the year and for special holidays where their grandparents live and other relatives. The pueblo I went to was really pretty with lots of small, old houses and a huge church that has the biggest population of storks in all of Spain. We celebrated New Years with lots and lots of food and at 12 o’clock we watched the ball drop in Madrid, just like in New York. At 12 o’clock we quickly ate a grape when the clock rang each hour on the clock, 12 in all.

The 3 Kings Day or día de Reyes Magos as I mentioned earlier, is very important in Spain. The night before there was a huge parade in Pamplona where the 3 kings made a special appearance; afterwards all the kids went home to go to bed so that the 3 kings could deliver their gifts. On the actual day I had lunch with my first host family and later I returned home to have rosco which is a typical dessert in Spain for this day. Rosco is a dessert made of bread and kind of like a big doughnut with candy fruit on top. Hidden inside each rosco are 2 figures; a little figure of one of the 3 kings and a bean, if you get the bean in your piece of rosco then you have to pay for next year’s rosco.

Even though I was awed by Spain when I first came, I think I am even more amazed by simple things than I was before. In my city I am surrounded by mountains which I just love to sit and stare at. The neat thing about northern Spain is the diversity of land. You can be diving next to lush green forests and green mountains and 2 minutes later you are in the middle of a desert. I also really appreciate the older buildings, castles, and churches that don’t exist in the U.S.

Last weekend with my Rotary club, we got to organize donated clothes to families in need. Especially now, many Spaniards are unemployed and the economic crisis has been affecting many families. I haven’t seen the effects of the economic crisis because for the most part, the South of Spain has been more affected than the North, where I live.

Congrats to the new outbounds, cherish the time before your exchange because in some ways it’s just as important as the exchange itself. This is your time to dream of what your new life will be like (which will end up being completely different), to get a head start on learning your language (don’t slack off- you will regret it), and to anxiously wait for your first email from you host family, your departure date, and to look at your new town on Google earth for the first of many times.

¡Hasta luego!