August 29, 2012
I know these streets by heart; they are like lines on the palm of my hand. I know every twist in the road, every tree and blade of grass. This year, I am leaving it behind; which has always been the plan. For years, living here has felt like purgatory. I’ve been revving up, longing for my fantastic lift off to somewhere. However, I never anticipated that my magnificent somewhere would be Germany.
So much of Rotary Youth Exchange is putting together a puzzle. You’re accepted. You have a country, a district, a town, a host family and finally a departure date. With every piece of information you develop an expectation of what is to come. However, every Rotex will tell you “Don’t have any expectations.”
The first time I spoke to my host sister she sent me a picture of the home I will soon live in. I joked with my friends that it looked like the American Dream; big, beautiful and complete with a golden retriever bounding in the front. Nearly two months later, she sent me a link to her house on Google Maps. In place of the neighborhood I had imagined there were fields of farmland as far as I could scroll for 7 kilometers. For a moment, my mind was scattered as it readjusted to the reality of a place that existed beyond the expectations of my imagination. People will tell you not to have any expectations but whether you realize it or not you already have them.
Growing up in Winter Park has given me expectations of what the rest of the world is like. When your host sister tells you about her “neighbors,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they live ten feet over. However, half the fun is realizing those expectations exist and the comfort of the familiar as it is knocked out from under you and then as total chaos descends, you readjust to a life you never expected. Isn’t that the beauty of exchange?
When I met with Scott to go over my application he asked, “What makes you the most nervous about going on exchange?” My mind was blank. Home sickness? Please, I’ve been stuck here 18 years! Being apart from family? 18 years! Culture shock? ADVENTURE! The only answer that felt honest was, “getting accepted.” I could conquer anything as long as I was accepted.
Now that my great adventure draws nearer exchange has become more real to me. What if my host family hates me? What if I offend someone and don’t even know it? What if I break a rule I didn’t know existed? What if I burn the house down, kill the family dog, get kicked out of school and banned from an entire continent?! Has that happened?!
The truth is, at some point I will probably offend someone. I will do something completely humiliating, miss a train, not understand and feel like an Ignorant American. It is easy to accept this fate in the comfort of a place I have known my whole life, where I understand what people say and the culture is just the way things are. However in the wise words of Hagrid, “What’s coming will come and I’ll meet it when it does.”
I have prepared myself. I have written an 18 page research paper, conjugated, translated, and recited. I have learned that Germans eat shnitzel, drink beer and can be standoffish when you first meet them. However, not all Floridians ride roller coasters all day then return to their beach houses and guzzle orange juice. So I shouldn’t expect that my German friends will talk about BMW's all day eating pretzels in their lederhosen and dirndls. Alas, these facts and words of mouth are much of what I have to go on. But who knows? Maybe I’ll meet a German who doesn’t like beer, who is messy or has something against mustard.
These last weeks at home I have tried to soak up as much of the Florida experience as possible. My friends and I went on a day trip through Florida where we visited the ever cheesy Presidents Hall of Fame where I actually touched Lincoln's beard!! Took about a hundred wrong turns, visited Samford and raced Michael Phelps style across Alexander Springs. (totally kicked Emily's butt ) I went to my last Knotty Knitters and Book Club at the Winter Park Public Library, last Taco Tuesday and hung out at my last Open Mike Night at Austin's Coffee Shop. I hugged my best friend goodbye at the airport as she set off for her grand adventure in Japan knowing that we would both be very different people when we are together again.
What will I see when I come home? Will everything I believe in now seem ignorant? What will I learn? Who will I be? What will the people who matter to me now mean to me then? As more of my friends leave and more of my room is packed away I am finally beginning to understand what it means to leave everything behind. Winter Park is my roots; I am sewn up in the soil just like the trees. It will always be where I am from and I love it for that. Now that I am leaving, I finally appreciate the importance of where I am from and how it has shaped me.