Mary Cate Duff
2011-12 Outbound to Switzerland

Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Bishop Snyder High School
Sponsor: Orange Park Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Rotary Club of Bulle, District 1990, Switzerland

Mary Cate's Bio

Hallo! Bonjour! Ciao! Allegra! Grüezi!

My name is Mary Cate Duff. I am currently 15 years old and a sophomore at Bishop Snyder High School. However next year, I will be attending school in Switzerland! I first heard about the Rotary Youth Exchange when the Rotarians came to speak at my school. The more wonderful things I heard about the program, the more excited I have become! I am so very thankful for this wonderful opportunity offered to me and for all the amazing people of Rotary who have helped me!

I currently live in Orange Park, Florida. My oldest brother Timothy is a freshman at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. My younger brother Ben is 6 years old. Both my parents are in the military, so I am used to moving around, a lot. I run track and cross country, although I love all sports. In my house, we are big soccer fans, so there was a lot of excitement over last year’s World Cup, and both my brother and my dad have pointed out my future proximity to world-famous soccer clubs.

I wouldn’t consider myself particularly frank; however I do believe compassion and thoughtfulness are the best attributes a person can possess. My family sponsors an impoverished child in Guatemala. Although we often write to each other, I feel I cannot understand his daily life, due to my limited knowledge of the world outside suburban America. I sincerely hope this exchange will enlighten me in ways not possible in the confines of a classroom. With the experiences I wish to gain through the Rotary Youth Exchange, I hope to become a better person, more understanding of international issues, and thus able to make a positive impact in the world.

When my parents told me stories of their travels abroad, I was always fascinated, and now I cannot wait to my own journey! I have always loved learning about places all around the world and have been fascinated by different cultures and peoples. I enjoy challenging myself to improve in every way possible, and I would consider myself rather studious. Although I know this exchange program will be demanding, I intend to dedicate myself fully to the tasks presented to me. I am so very extremely grateful for this opportunity offered to me. My parents have been so supportive, as well as my friends, and for that I am extremely grateful. I honestly have no idea what to expect, however the Rotary Club and all the people involved have offered me such an amazing opportunity, and I feel there is no way I could express my gratitude.

Mary Cate's Journals

September 16

So now I have been in Switzerland for about a month now…. Even I can hardly believe that!  There’s still so much I haven’t learned yet and don’t understand that I think I could spend the rest of my life here and still learn something every day.  But on the other hand, I’ve already learned so much! It’s the most amazing blend of emotions being here!  I couldn’t think of a more perfect first month!

To start, I arrived here in the middle of August.  It was definitely a little shock for me.  Looking back, I’m not sure what I was expecting.  For me, the size of the town was quite….I don’t want to say underwhelming because of the negative connotation but quite different than what I had expected, only about 2,000 people.  There are a lot of little shops, a little church, a tower (the reason the town is called La Tour-de-Trême – the Tower of the Trême, which is a little river which runs through the town) and no supermarkets.  On Sundays everything is closed, and nothing is ever open all night.  My host parents have showed me the town, and together, we have visited several other nearby towns.  My favorite was Gruyères.  It’s actually the most visited village in Switzerland –it is the most picturesque little town I have ever seen in my life.  It’s nestled in the Pre-Alps and offers visitors a panoramic view of the mountains.  The town is full of little shops, and it even has a castle!  It was quite funny though.  My host parents had told me in the morning that we would be going to the fromagerie that afternoon.  Since we get our milk from a farm about 5 minutes up the road by foot and our bread in town from another little shop, I figured we would just be walking to a cheese shop in town.  They told me we were taking bikes, but I still thought it would be less than a 5 minute trip. The 5 minute trip I had envisioned turned into a 25 minute ride with lots of hills – my favorite.  We made it to the fromagerie, saw a lot of cheese, and then continued on to Gruyères.  Quite an experience :)

Another thing that is quite different here is the cuisine.  All the people I’ve talked to seem to have a garden, however it’s not like the gardens in America with pretty flowers and maybe an herb or two, but only for show.  Here people use their gardens for actual food.  Instead of buying lettuce at the grocery store, my host mom and I will go out to the garden and cut the lettuce from the plant itself.  Then we wash it and have it with dinner!  One thing I have learned is that it’s best to just always be honest with your host family when it comes to food.  There is a plum tree in the backyard, and my host family left the plums on the tree so now it’s a prune tree.  Now I tend to be a little picky when it comes to food, but I had vowed to be more willing to try because after all, I’m only here for one year.  And so, one night, my host mom offered me some prunes.  I ate them, and she asked me what I thought.  I, not wanting to be difficult, told her I liked them.  Now these prunes were nothing special, and I didn’t particularly like them.  However, I have since learned that there are perhaps hundreds of ways to prepare prunes.  I’ve had prunes over oatmeal, prune cake, prune jelly, prune juice - really and truly a lot of prunes.  I even had prune parfait with “nature” flavored yogurt – which just means that it has no sugar – never again.  Luckily, the prunes are all finished now, but still I think I could go my whole life and never want another prune.  Ever.

One thing that has been difficult for me is the language.  I really believe no amount of practice could have prepared me for the speed at which people talk.  My first few days here were … certainly not the best of my exchange so far because I was literally lost in the conversations I was hearing.    It was quite difficult.  I had a solid grammatical foundation, but with conversational skills…rien!  However, slowly but surely,  with a lot of patience from my host family, I have improved.  I was actually able to relate a story to my host mom in one try and without either of us getting frustrated by the language barrier!

Other things I have learned about Switzerland.

1.    When walking down the road, you will greet almost everyone with a Bonjour or Bonsoir depending on the time of day.  However, if you say this with a smile, people think you are a tourist.

2.    Many Swiss consider it a responsibility NOT to drive a car.  For immediate needs, everything is within walking distance.

3.    There is a way to ride a bike like a tourist.

4.    Being environmentally conscious is a way of life.  My host mom hand washes all the dishes to save energy.  We have four different trashcans depending on the type of waste material.

5.    Geneva is incredible!! I’ve been 3 or 4 times now at it’s just an amazing city! I’ve also been to Berne, Zurich, Fribourg, and lots of other little villages around my town.

6.    Public transportation in Switzerland = amazing!  It’s always timely, clean, modern, accessible, just wonderful!

School starts soon, and I’m sure that will be … certainly eye opening.  I can’t wait! :) I am so thankful for Rotary for sponsoring me and preparing me so well for this experience! I go to bed every night excited for a new day here in Switzerland!

January 17, 2012

The last 4 months of my life here in Switzerland have been…. Everywhere to absolutely amazing to extremely difficult! Every day I find myself facing new challenges and reaching new milestones.

I started school in September. To start, school here is run very differently. I am in the college – which is highest level of education offered, so everyone takes their studies seriously. My first day of school started out much like any other. My host mom woke me up, we ate the standard Swiss breakfast of bread and jam, and I took the bus to school with my host sister. It turns out that my class is actually one of the classes considered bilingual, so half of the courses are in German and the other half are in French, little did I know. So when the teacher started speaking to me very quickly in German, I was more than a little lost. Luckily I was in class with one of my friends from the local track club that I have joined, and he was able to explain to the teacher that I hadn’t understood anything she had said. Things are all worked out now, I don’t have classes in German anymore (not going to lie taking Wirtschaft did sound interesting.)

But, as I said before, all the students here are very serious about school. I have tried explaining to my classmates that it would be much easier if they didn’t stress as much, but some of them still are convinced that they need to have learned the material by heart at least 2 weeks before each and every examen. Other than that, I love my school. I am taking 13 classes I think, and there are days when it is a little overwhelming. I got very lucky with my class however, and everyone is always wiling to help me understand.

To describe an average day, I get up at about 6:45 every morning to a wonderful breakfast of brown bread and homemade jam. After getting all ready for school, my host sister and I take the city bus across the wonderful little town of Bulle and arrive at school promptly before the first bell, which rings at 8:10. Each day of the week I start with a different class, and I am still walking around with my schedule to remember which room I am in (or just following the people from my class.) My host mom packs me a delicious (usually-when it’s not prunes) Tupperware lunch every day. I usually finish school at 4 o’clock except for Mondays and Fridays. As for my classes, I enjoy most of them. It is funny however, my history teacher usually starts each class with some political remark and gets completely sidetracked from the lesson. Here, there are no lesson plans, so it is up to the teacher to decide what to teach. He assigned an exposition in the beginning of Octo ber, however, because of his lengthy commentaries, to this day, only 7 people of the 24 in the class have presented their projects. In my French class, my teacher enjoys asking me my opinion on the analysis of French literature. Actually, we each had to learn a classic poem by heart. To my luck, the poem I had to learn was riddled with “r’s,” which any native English speaker with knowledge of French knows are very difficult to pronounce. So imagine my gladness when I recited to my class “frous-frous frêles.” Everyone told me it was the best recitation of poetry ever, but I ended up not being able to finish the poem because I was laughing so hard.

The exchange students in Switzerland are very lucky in that the Swiss Rotary buys for each exchange student an Abandonnement General – which allows us to use ALL public transportation in Switzerland for FREE! So, I have been able to do a fair bit of travelling within my country. I cannot even begin to describe how absolutely gorgeous it is here. I have ended up just bringing my camera everywhere because it seems that whenever I don’t have it, Switzerland surprises me with yet another breathtaking view.

I am quite happy to say that I have had multiple dreams in French, and, better yet, I actually understood what I was hearing. I am at the point with le Français where I can understood almost everything I hear (in context,) and I can usually express myself. I am now able to tell my host mom stories at the dinner table about school with minimal grammatical corrections. At school, during our many free hours, my friends have started notebook for me with some of the more practical phrases in French.

My experiences with Swiss culture – My host family has been wonderful about showing me the local cultural events, things you can only experience in Switzerland. For example, we went to 2 Dèsalpes – a Swiss tradition where the cows descend from the mountains, walk through the towns dressed up with flowers and giant cow bells, and are led to the pastures down near the villages, which is accompanied by a little fair. I don’t think anyone could ever understand how many cows I saw. Literally. Two consecutive weekends of cows. Now, there are more and more “Marchés de Noël” – Christmas Markets –which are just adorable. My friends did end up taking me to one, and it was so nice jsut to walk around looking at the little stands and drink hot chocolate in the snow.

Naturally, I have been slowly eating my way through Swiss chocolate, but it is very hard to gain weight when you are eating the healthiest of your life at home. It is amazing to me the lengths at which Swiss people go to make sure that their diets are organic. I am a believer in healthy eating, but I find here that many people lack balance in their diets in their attempts to remain the most ecologically-friendly possible. The idea of being environmentally-friendly transitions into my school life as well, and we often have class with the lights off to save energy. It is amazing to me how conscientious everybody here is.

For the Christmas holidays, my host family took me to Italy with them to the little town called Livemmo where my host mom grew up. It was so different there even from my life in Switzerland, and it was sweet because my host mother wanted to share with me her childhood. She told me all about her favorite places to go, and we went walking around in the Italian Alps. But the little town that I was in, Livemmo, has a population of maybe about 150 people. Almost everyone is cousins or related in some way, and the first night there I got showed around to everyone, where I said “ciao” a whole lot and didn’t understand much else. After that trip, my host family took me for cross country skiing for the first time – epic fail – but it was a lot of fun. My host sister spent a lot of time laughing at me, and I spent a lot of time in the snow… but it was still a great experience. Now I have changed to my second host family, and they have signed me up for real ski lessons for Saturday!

Where I am right now, I can think back to who I was before. I know I’m the same person, but I have just had my eyes opened to so many new ideas and opinions. I cannot believe that I was lucky enough to have received an opportunity like the one I have right now. Thank you Rotary once again for all you have done for me through this amazing exchange!