I woke up a little earlier than normal today, to decide what I was going to wear and how I was doing my hair for senior pictures. Each passing minute I got more stressed out, more frustrated, and had my phone in hand to call and just reschedule. I took a break and sat down, thinking about all the mornings where I woke up for picture day with my outfit laying at the end of my bed, and my order form in my backpack. I wondered if I got just as mad, having to work with my hair and doubting the outfit I was so excited to put on, and if I started complaining to my mom as if it was somehow her fault. I thought about each year and the poses I was convinced were going to look just as awkward as they felt and dreaded when they were developed and in an envelope with my name on them at school weeks later. But I remember opening the envelope and seeing the girl staring back at me, it was the same girl I saw in the mirror that morning. I remember running off the bus and showing them to my mom with a big smile on my face, and forgetting about all the worries I had that morning. I stood back up, fought with my hair for a little while longer and finished getting ready for my senior year school pictures. Year after year, picture day felt the same until now. My eyes almost started watering as I zipped up my gown, turned my tassel to the left side and held the styrofoam molding that read “2012” for my final school picture.
I walked out of the studio not caring about my foggy glasses, the rain, or the mosquitos nipping at my legs. I looked around me, at the school I’ve attended for three years. I thought about how different life turned out and all the times I thought of being a senior when I was a little girl. I used to ask my parents over and over why we had to move, but I’ve realized that if I never moved from New Jersey, this wouldn’t be happening. I’d be dreaming the same dreams, instead of living those dreams and making new ones. I wouldn’t have learned what I’ve learned, met the people I have, and gone through everything that’s made me who I am right now. A swarm of teachers came into my mind, which have guided me towards the right direction, and have been all ears for me. The familiarity of previous teachers, hallways, lunches, staff, friends, lockers, classes, everything, are all behind me. I took one final look around campus and realized I’m not that little girl, thinking about high school, and dreaming. I’ve grown up, and put myself in a school I won’t even understand the first day. I am no longer dreaming dreams, I am living them. I never thought I’d be sitting where I am today, embarking on this adventure, alone, in just a short 29 days, but I am. Rotary teaches you a lot about goals, dreams, strength, friends, family, but most importantly, yourself. This journey is the most exciting, happiest, stressful, nerve-wracking, hardest, and unreal experience I could have ever imagined. But I’ve heard it said “There are people who make the impossible, possible.” To me, that quote was made, for Rotary International Youth Exchange.
Tears slid down my face as I took off for my last flight from Newark, New Jersey to Munich, Germany. All I could think about was why I was left my three sisters and Mom at the airport turning my back to them while they promised to never turn their back to me. Everything on the other side of the window become a blur faster each second. I was leaving behind absolutely everything that had the most valuable meaning to me, and although there was nothing I could do to stop it, it was my decision for it to happen and I had no idea as to why I signed up for something like this.
As I flew overseas, I was filled with many emotions and I had many thoughts racing through my head. I didn't feel like myself sitting on that plane. I didn't feel like myself getting up the morning before, or getting ready, saying goodbye to friends, driving to the airport, saying goodbye to my family, or getting on the plane. I didn't feel like myself one bit and it didn't feel real. But it was real, it's all real. When I walked out of the baggage claim in Vienna, it was a thousand pounds off my shoulders, and two thousand more put on. I saw my host family with their two dogs and a sign that said ''Welcome Emily'' and for that moment, I couldn't help but smile. I said my hellos, took some pictures and called my mom to let her know I was here. The second I heard her voice I wanted this whole thing to be a dream. I wanted nothing more than to cry my eyes out and turn around and go home. Tears formed in my eyes as I told my mom I loved her and said goodbye. When I got off the phone, the first thing my host dad said was, ''It's very hard, we know'' and from right then, I knew my host family was going to be very supportive and a very important part of my exchange. The days after the first got a little better, but I couldn't speak of my family without being in tears and that was the hardest part. No matter where I was or what I was doing, the second my family came to mine, tears were automatically strolling down my cheeks. Even now, almost a month later and speaking to my mom puts tears in my eyes. Something I've come to realize being here is how supportive my mom is, and everything she did to get me here. I try to make the best of everything because of how proud she is of me. I never realized how deep my mom had to dig to agree to let me do this, and that this isn't only an adjustment for me, but her also.
I've found myself thinking a lot about my orientations. Everything I was told did not prepare me at all, and to be honest I don't think there is a way to be prepared for an experience like this. So all the feelings I had, hit harder than expected. Four days after arriving, I packed up again to go to my two week language camp in a town named Altmünster with all the other Austria inbounds. The town is about two hours from where I live and I experienced a lot of different feelings here. I was everything except nervous, all the other exchange students said that Rotary weekends were always the best, so I was ready for the two weeks to start. I instantly became close with two of my four roommates, Finnella from New York and Tiana from Arizona. At the end of the first day, it was hard to believe we were strangers when we woke up that morning. Altmünster was amazing, but while I was there my senior year and youth group started back home and I started realizing what Rotarians meant by ''people and life continue on''. I knew it was going to happen, but it didn't feel good when it did. It's easier feeling different emotions around the other exchange students because they're the only people who know exactly what each other is going through. It was hard to leave at the end of the two weeks, we were easily a family by the third night.
While at language camp, we went on a ''little walk'' on Saturday and on an excursion to Hallstatt on Sunday. I say ''little walk'' because the teachers thought a hike up a mountain was a ''little walk'', no joke. Coming from Florida, I was not prepared, I felt like I was on an episode of The Biggest Loser. I started as one of the first people walking and got to the top dead last. The view from the top was beautiful. The next day we went to a salt mine in Hallstatt, we took slides down to it, it was a lot of fun. After hiking back down, we walked around the town for a little bit. I couldn't be more fortunate to be in such a beautiful country.
Austria is so different from the States. Grocery stores, people, restaurants, clothing, carnivals, school, literally everything. Houses in villages are so different and colorful. You wouldn't see a bright yellow house in the States without thinking it was tacky, or a peach house with purple windowsills, but here you could pick any two colors for a house and Austria finds a way of making it beautiful.
I still don't know where I got the courage and strength to do this, I feel like someone is living this for me, but maybe, just maybe, I've had it in me all along.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Tears were falling down my face as I saw my mom running towards me. Big smile, new hair, eyes of tears, and arms wide open. This moment is one I've played in my head every day. The gap between us was closed within seconds and just as I went to grab ahold of my beautiful mother, nothing was there. I couldn't see her anymore, and nothing was surrounding me. I was confused and sad, all I wanted was to be with my mom like I was a few seconds before, so where was she? A knock on my door woke me up, my face was wet, my shirt was wet, and my pillow also. I was confused as I turned on the light looking around my room, burgundy and yellow walls, two suitcases, and clothes everywhere, but yet I was still crying. I don't know if it was because I wanted my dream to be real or because I didn't want it to be. But if there's anything I should know by now, an exchange student, well this one at least, is never sure of her feelings.
Day 57 here in Austria and I'm beginning to somewhat feel settled. School feels normal, the people I see there has become normal, not understanding much of what's going on around me feels normal, saying sentences in half German half English, waiting for buses, having a wallet full of train tickets, my walk to school from the train station, missing my family, making new friends, and being an exchange student and United States ambassador, is starting to feel normal. Weird feeling? More than one can imagine.
I've learned so much here, not only the language and about the country, but myself. I'm not the girl I was that stepped on the most life changing plane ride on August 9th. I can't explain who I've become, or when it happened because it's not something easy to explain. It's the same thing when people say "Hey, hows Austria!?" You want to know? Here it is. It's different, no matter what it is, absolutely everything is different. It's beautiful, beauty that seems unreal to live in. It's eye opening. It's life changing, but yet something that's been calling my name for longer than I could hear. Above all, it's easily the most amazing, hardest, emotional, scariest, and best experience I could've ever wished for. Well one things for sure, wishes do indeed come true.
For very long, I remember hearing people say how good and bad will always outweigh each other, becoming equal. I see that now. I've cried just as many tears as cheek aches I've had from laughs and smiles. I used to wonder where I got the strength to do this, and if I've honestly had it in me all along. And now, I know I have. I've been hurt, gone through things I wouldn't wish upon anyone, and began to loose faith in amounts I shouldn't have, but I've also been blessed with an amazing mother and two sisters, a family at a church who've put my faith at a level I didn't know I could reach, supportive friends and an amazing once in a lifetime experience, which I almost gave up in fear of anything bad that's come from drastic changes in my life. But this experience isn't given to just anyone, so I held on just to know why it was given to me.
When you limit yourself to one place, you find yourself thinking about where you're supposed to go in life, what you're supposed to do, the doors that are opened for you, and whose out there that you're supposed to know. But if you never take a step away from what you know, how will you ever figure out the answer. Since being here, I've gained more than just an understanding of what the world holds, and how big and scary this place really is. I've gained independence, intelligence, I know where I want to go in life and what I want to do, I know the opportunities that have my name on them, and I've met people I can't imagine life without anymore. I've realized that this exchange isn't only about learning about Austria, but learning about and sharing an experience with the rest of the world. I thought I was leaving life in America to start a life in Austria, but a part of me will also be in Sweden, Finland, Brasil, Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Belgium, Japan, Bosnia, Canada, Taiwan, Ecuador, and to other parts of the United States because this experience I get to live wouldn't be the same without my family here, from all those countries.
People are always in a rush, or trying to live their life like their favorite TV show, buying the latest fashion and cell phone, when they have perfectly good ones at home. The "stuff" becomes much more important than what life is about. I remember hearing people complain about my town in the states, Vero Beach, never was anything good said even though it's beautiful. I would be so confused when people asked me why I would want to leave and if I was crazy. I've realized that people are willing to talk but not willing to act. Leaving has made me appreciate everything so much more. So no, I'm not crazy, I wanted to see the world, so I got up and left for it. I may not be able to hug my family for a year, I may have to learn a new language and instead of packing a years worth of stuff when I come home, I have to learn to pack memories, love, and friendships and a life I didn't know existed. I used to be one of those people in a rush, I wanted the latest fashion and always complained about what phone I had, I used to complain about living in Vero Beach, I used to be one of every negative person listed in this, but I'm not anymore.
So for those of you who wanted to know how Austria is, I hope this answered it. It's not an easy year off or a vacation in Europe. It's life outside the four walls of what I'm used to. It's amazing what a new room can do to a person.
October 19, 2011
I was sinking. Down past the few memories I made, past the few people I knew, the hard work, and the places and experiences I hadn't yet reached. Each day I was sinking deeper into the cold dark sea. My mind was set on giving up, I was done, finished. My mom came to mind, all the hard work, wishes and prayers, my support system of family and friends, how much I was giving up and the friends I've made and the places I've seen because of this opportunity. I looked up and kicked my feet, reaching for the top. Above all my fears and negative feelings, that's where I was going. I knew I could do it, I wasn't going to give up so fast, so I didn't. I reached the top, took a long deep breath and started swimming. I swam away from the fears and the "I can'ts" and towards the support of my family and friends and the reminders of how hard I worked to be here in the very spot I was so willing to give up.
I was so sick of hearing people tell me, "You're going to have to make hard decisions all your life, start now, get it out of the way." Let me tell you, there is no getting it out of the way. They come harder and more often after the first one. Saying yes to youth exchange included the thousands of other decisions I was going to have to make this year without even knowing it. Deciding this wasn't like saying yes to a talent show or having to talk about something personal to a group of people. It wasn't just saying yes to senior year in Europe, it was so much more than what everyone said, and much more than I allowed myself to believe.
Everyone puts up walls when they reach a certain limit of someone or something. These past two months have tried each of those limits and continues to everyday. Your greatest fears are ones you live through everyday. You only have yourself to count on while you're out, stuck, in the middle of the ocean. Everything here has made me realize how capable and strong of a person I really am. There's nothing I would've done differently so far, all that has happened was meant to and had made my exchange all that it is at the moment.
For a very long time, I thought I was on my own. I had the best friends who continually let me down, the struggles no one understood, and only my family to count on. But the friends who have become my family here, made me realize that I've never been alone, I was just swimming out to the people who are also out there, thinking they are swimming and sinking alone. I know I'm not on my own anymore and I have friends to pull me up when I begin to sink. Whenever I would lose someone close to me my mom would tell me, "There's plenty of fish in the sea Emilina, go find them," and being here with the people who're going through the same thing I am, has made me realize that there really are other fish out there, 91 of them to keep me swimming. Never have I ever been so fortunate to be apart of such an amazing family, bound together because of this exchange. A friendship stronger and greater than the rest because of the ocean we're swimming across together.
I know I'll look back and be proud of myself, more than I already am. I know I'll think about all the times I began to sink and give up and I might be a little disappointed, but I also know I'll look back to the person I was before I started this entire experience and feel even more grateful than I am, for the people I met in Florida and Austria, the places I've seen and the knowledge I've gained of the world, but above all else, I'll forever be changed by this exchange, with no doubt in my mind.
In the beginning of my exchange, I wanted nothing more than to go home and I was upset with everyone who encouraged me to do this, but now, I'd fight if someone tried taking me away from this place or these people. I respect all the people who have encouraged me and pushed me towards the airplane when I wanted to walk away. Some days I can swim without stopping and other days I sink down further than last time, but when I get back to the top, I swim my hardest because I know I can make it to the end, I've learned to swim. When a storm crosses your path, just remember you're two options, you can sink or you can swim. What will you do?
-November 2, 2011
“You can go through the whole year to come home as the same person or go to your country and find out who you really are.” I can remember hearing these words at my last orientation like it was just yesterday when I was there. I had no idea what they meant at the time, but two months and twenty three days into my exchange and I know exactly what they mean. Change is what all your friends are afraid, something your family hopes to happen, and something you feel inside you every day. I’m nowhere near the same person I was the first day I got here. It isn’t something I can tell you about and hope you understand, it isn’t something you’ll see in the clothes I wear or the way I talk, it’s something you have to see within me, and hopefully feel it within you too. On my last day with my first host family I took a walk with my first host dad. We went to the first place I went to when I got to Austria. As soon as I got there, every day I’ ve spent here started playing in my head. The smiles, the tears I’ve shed, the laughs I shared, the memories I made, the friends who have become my family, the strangers who have become my classmates, the place I’ve visited, the things I’ve learned, and everything I know because of this exchange, played through my mind one by one, falling like leaves. I looked around me and remember what everything looked like when I first stood in that spot. Everything was green, flowers were at their most colorful and families were walking in the streets enjoying the weather. The place had a nice view over the village that had become so familiar to me, it was hard to believe that my stay here had already come to an end, almost three months later and nothing had been the way it once was. I was no longer in shorts and flip flops looking at everything green under the sun. I was wearing boots, jeans, a scarf, and a jacket looking at the village that consisted of reds, purples , oranges, and yellows. Leaves were falling and smoke was coming out of chimneys as families were inside enjoying the fire and the presence of each other and laughing together. I had felt like such an outsider when I first stood in that spot. I had no family, no friends, and a house that wasn’t mine, but as I stood there the second time, I realized that the week before that walk, I was playing card games and watching movies next to the fire with my family in my house, I become another piece to life as a puzzle in Langenlois.
I had so many reasons as to why I wanted to do an exchange, but each time I was asked why or how it is, it becomes harder to answer. But I know now that I’m here to experience life, I’m living just like everyone else, just in a different way. A way that will leave me forever changed
I don’t think I’ll ever forget how unfamiliar everything seemed to be at one point in the beginning, even as everything becomes a little more familiar. I can understand some of the conversations around me, becoming a part of a new family, and starting all over again with a little experience of this place. As I let the worries slip away, I’ve realized how familiar things can be even in a new place. Family is still the most important, kids go to school and parents still work. Teenagers still have crushes, girls still travel in groups to the bathroom and boys, well, are still boys. The big things like the language and school and family may be different and yes it’s hard, but the little things, even an ocean, 13 countries, and 5,074 miles away are still the same. It’s just a new way of seeing the life I’ve always lived. Not only do we see the biggest changes within ourselves, but in the world around us, it makes me wonder, that maybe we're all just leaves, changing colors with the seasons.
-January 6, 2012
There is no way to explain my experiences anymore. I have tried. I had a German test at my last Rotary weekend and the last assignment was to write a page about our first few months in Austria. Right then I realized I would not even be able to explain it in English, so how was I supposed to explain it in German.
Almost five months of my exchange have passed, five. I will never forget my first day of this journey. I do not think any exchange student will. Every time it crosses my mind, I wonder what exactly got me up and ready the morning I left. I remember walking into the airport and asking myself what the hell I was doing. I remember seeing my sisters, mom, and best friend turn to each other as I said my last goodbyes. I remember never turning back around once I left them. I remember feeling alone and suddenly the belongings in my suitcase carried the most value because that was all I had. Here I am, almost five months from that day and I wish I had a clue of where time has gone. I have seen the most breath-taking places, learned about so many countries, met amazing people, and have grown as an individual. Exchange students are sent out as “youth ambassadors” of our country, and I left with no knowledge of the importance of what exactly that meant. But as one person after the other started questions with “Do all Americans..?” I realized that I am the only impression of my country that some of these people have seen and may be the only one they will ever see, and one wrong decision or word around the wrong person could ruin everything. Doing an exchange has not only taught me about other countries but also about my own. I have never been so proud to wear a United States flag, or hold one or see one and say “That’s my country!”. I have never been more offended when a person judges the United States or something that has happened there without ever going there, and I have never been more excited to talk about history and share information with others. I was sent out as a youth ambassador, yes, but this journey is what taught me what that is.
It is hard when a person asks what I have learned and gained so far or asks me to share some experiences. It almost feels like a waste of time to try and explain because being here has made me who I am and my experiences carry so much love, happiness, weakness, tears, laughter, smiles, pain, strength, fear, friendship, and importance and it will never mean as much to the people who ask as it does to me. But I also know that me sharing that gives people a clue of a country that means so much to me, that very few people know about. I used to say I did not know if this will ever become normal, but I see myself doing things the same way any Austrian would because this life has become the normal for the last five months. The traditions, food, churches, outfits, wine, and language have indeed become normal to me. Having to go back home and convert back is going to be even harder than it was coming here and converting to the way of life here. During my first month here, the thought of going home sounded better each day, but now that friendships are becoming stronger, goodbyes are becoming harder, the language is a tad easier, and time is going by much faster, the thought of going home scares me. But I would rather deal with that than not have had this opportunity because I was guaranteed everything I’m experiencing but no one said it was easy. I’m very fortunate for the people I’ve met and everything I’ve done and seen here. Sure, there are some things I would change if I could but because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity I believe everything has happened the way it’s supposed to because my mistakes and what I wish I could change have all taught me something and I still have plenty of time to change everything else.
Going on this exchange is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It has allowed me to expand my imagination and goals for life, learn something new, be somewhere so different, and conquer everything on my own. It has also allowed me to let go of worries and things that changed my life over the past few years which was a main goal. I have gone through everything I was told I would go through and I was also told things that were not necessarily the truth. But I am going to share a secret with you that someone shared with me. We are told that this exchange is about culture, traditions, languages, and seeing the world, but what we are not told, which is the most important, is that this exchange is really about ourselves.