I haven’t written in a while, and that’s because in a way, it hurts to write. I truly NEVER understood that last year when I would read these journals, and people would say it’s difficult to write. It hurts to have to sum up a life into a few paragraphs. To try to make sense of it for people. To reduce this life I have, into telling people where I went and what cool countries I’ve been to and how awesome the food is and things like that, that are only 1% of my year.
Exchange is a life in a year. And you can’t experience this; you can’t understand this, until you go on exchange. And it feels uncomfortable, knowing that people I am so close to and who are so dear to me, it feels sort of odd knowing they don’t get it, as much as they might try, or as close as they might imagine.
Before exchange, I thought of all the amazing places I would get to visit. I thought of how I would become bilingual. I thought of how I would get to experience new foods and new climates. I thought of how many different people I would meet, but I did not get it. It’s as simple as that.
I came into this life, not speaking French very well, not really understanding the country or the culture even though I had read a lot and studied. I came in and I was a stranger and a foreigner and I was confused and surprised and amazed and I truly, truly, truly, had no idea what I was in for.
Because what happened next was better than I could have ever imagined. A life came. A normal life. And the travels are cool but they’re not my exchange year. I don’t live in Paris. Eurotour was amazing but the bottom line is, those cool photos and those cool countries are not exchange, and if you’re hoping to go backpacking through Europe, this is not for you. And I hate writing this because my words fail me. I gained a life here, a life far away from my life in Florida, a life with families and the best friends of my life who were at once just names on paper. Strangers.
The best thing I gained in France was friendship. I can honestly say that the best friends of my life live in France with me this year, but they are from all over the world. My best friends, who I can tell anything to, do anything with, talk about brilliant ideas and thoughts and politics and art and also just joke around with, they are from all over the world. Mexico, Colombia, India, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Philippines, Japan, Canada, Ecuador, Bolivia….the list goes on and on. And we are all so different. Sometimes I pause and wonder, would we have even talked to each other back home?
Meeting people from all over the world, sharing my life in France with them, it changed me. I realized people are more complex than we’d like to believe. That there are people raised completely differently from you, who do things in different manners, who have different ways of thinking, who don’t agree with you, who do things you wouldn’t, who speak different languages and dress differently and at the end we’re all the same people. I thought I was open minded before, but this year just blew my mind. My world grew significantly.
What I love about my friends is that it’s never petty gossip. No one is small minded. Not to say we don’t gossip, but it’s never so shallow, so serious, so petty. I’m friends with people of all religions, of all sexualities, of all races, and I love how everyone is so understanding. We’re all in this together. We are the crazy people that moved half a world away on our own for a year for this adventure that became a life, and we became each other’s backbone. The best thing this year has given me is these friendships.
I laugh with my friends and say my heart grew three sizes in France, because it is true. I genuinely love everyone so much. I see their faults, I see human mistakes, human people, and I love them so so much. When you are on exchange, the dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to speak or eat or live in this foreign world, it is impossible to be judgmental.
I gained another language, and that’s opened up my world. For example, one of my best friends, from Argentina does not speak English and I do not speak Spanish, and we’ve become best friends speaking in French. All the friends I’ve made at school, all the French exchange students I’ve been able to become so close to….language connects people, and language brought me, once again, so many new opportunities and so many new people.
And it’s not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. Language comes at different times for everyone. I am bilingual now but I still want to return to France soon and perfect my French even more. I want to visit the world. I want to travel but not to see the touristy sights and take pictures and eat at the restaurants right by historic monuments and buy snow globes of the city. I want to travel and talk to the people and try speaking the language and eat the good local food and wander around and appreciate the sensation that you get when you’re in a place you’ve never been with a backpack and a bottle of water and you’ve got a full day of exploring ahead of you, no agenda, no tourist traps.
I have never appreciated time more, or gazed so much out the window, or said yes to so many things. I do not want my exchange to be over. I know it’s sad, but I don’t want to go back to Florida. I love Florida, I love my family, but to leave France is to leave my best friends. To leave families that took care of me. To leave my school and everything I built on my own in these past few months. I’ll be happy to see my best friends and my family…my dog and my room…but I will be leaving my best friends and my families, my pet and my room back in France as well. And that’s scary. I know I’ll come back but it’s scary. To have to live life with a heart torn between two places so far away from each other. To always be missing somewhere or someone. That’s the price we all paid for another life.
I don’t want to go back and have people ask how my “trip” was. If French guys are hot or if the French people are mean or if France is “pretty” and how was Paris and say “you’ll have to tell me allll about it!” My life here isn’t a trip or a stay, it’s a life. People are people and no nationality can be more physically appealing than another, “the French are mean” is the biggest stereotype and generalization of a people I’ve ever heard, France is a huge country with beautiful things and not so beautiful things, my exchange wasn’t at Paris, and I cannot sum up a life in a year. I can’t “show photos” because what do you do when you show photos? You show the travels you went on. I can’t show a picture of my bedroom or my bus stop or the 88 steps to the top of my school or the fields I lived by or the 7 am bus ride to school. People don’t want to see the simple things that were a part of your life; they want to see your “adventure”.
Outbounds are dying to go to their countries now, and I know they don’t understand. And it’s okay. It’s the cycle of life, in a way! They’re dying for the time to speed up and we’re all begging for another hour, another day. You don’t understand now but you will. I never thought about that very much before my exchange. It’s hard when you have SO much advice to give and so much to tell and it feel s in a way like a secret you’re holding in because you’ve lived through this all before and they have no idea. They are fresh faced and bright eyed. I want to laugh, because I know they don’t “get it” yet, just as I didn’t get it. We all changed.
And that’s another thing! To go on exchange is to change. It has been like that and it always will be. I saw a beautiful drawing on the internet where someone says to this girl “You’ve changed” and she looks confused and says “I’d hope so”. I am not the girl that got on the plane 9 months ago. And I’m glad, because I’ve liked who I’ve become. My mind was expanded, my heart replenished, I’m who I’ve always been and yet I feel so different, so new. Because I do stress and I do get nervous and I do have doubts but I don’t let them stop me, and I know everything is going to be okay, and I don’t let all of that eat me up or affect me. I am a bit shy when you first meet me, maybe, but that doesn’t stop me from talking to people are making friends. I don’t hold back when I have something to say now. Exchange doesn’t make you this superhero person, but it changes you in ways you can't describe. From little things like the way that you eat to the way that you think, you change. We grow up on exchange. We become independent. We learn how to figure things out on our own and solve problems on our own and be happy on our own. The final forming of a person’s character is, as they say it, in their own hands. Who you become is truly up to you.
And so, you guys who are leaving for your countries soon. You’re about to live a life in a year, and it won’t be all the time pretty, but your year will be beautiful. Let it change you. Don’t curse the different culture or say things or easier or make more sense back home—learn to do as the people do and soon it will make sense to you. Don’t spend your time in your room—do your homework on the kitchen table, if you have any (ha). Stay in the kitchen when your host mom is cooking, even if you don’t help out. Don’t speak tooooo much English. Work super hard on the language because it makes all the difference.
Be smart. Because you’ll see a world of people that aren’t like you and you can still be yourself. You have a brain in your head—you can think and act for yourself. Don’t think you’re cool, because you’re not in your new country. Humility goes out the window on exchange. You’re the dumb foreigner; don’t try to be “cool”. It’s okay to be confused and not know what you’re doing. And when you have newbies, remember that you were once a newbie too—confused and helpless. Don’t call them dumb or laugh at their language skills, because you were once the same. Don’t try to act cool for them—be their friend, help them. Compassion and being humble are the best things you can be on exchange, and certainly things you will gain.
It’s a life in a year, and if I could just hold onto this minute, hold onto the good times we’ve shared, I would. I love you all in Florida and I can’t wait to see you again. But as you can imagine, another hello is also another goodbye, and a harder one.
I would not be who I am right in this instant without this experience. Without this chance I was given, without this year. Everything I am now has been shaped or is because of my exchange year. It will be hard to be understood, it will be so hard to leave, I will miss my friends and my second country, but I’ve gone around the world and I know that this next step, while the most difficult, will be necessary, and I will come out with even more lessons learned. I guess I learned that in France too—we’re always growing, always learning, always changing. There’s never a time where we stop, and that’s how it should be.
I of course have to thank the Rotary in Florida for this chance at adventure, for this opportunity to gain a second life, the best friends of my life, families, and grow as a person. I have to thank the Rotary in France for the unbelievable support, the friendships they helped create, the incredible experiences I got to have, and that I continue to have. I have to thank my parents, who encouraged adventure and new things and travel and learning from when I was little, and it’s because of this that I wanted to see more of the world. I have to thank all my French friends who I will all miss terribly next year and who have shared their culture and their world with me, and who I can say with certainty that I love so so so so much. I have to thank my international friends, for the memories, for the best year of my life so far, for the friendship that I will have until we all die…I am so grateful for all of this, and I still have 2 months in France, but that is no time at all to me now. I will be forever grateful, and I feel funny wanting to shout out all this advice but at the same time laughing and just thinking “they’ll all see…!”
So be nice, be compassionate, don’t try to be cool, be understanding, be kind to all people, no matter how different from you they may be, try the weird foods, say yes to everything, don’t complain about the culture, don’t sit in your room, speak as much of the language as you can, learn from your mistakes, laugh at yourself, don’t eat at the touristy restaurants, look at place before you take 131493 photos of it, enjoy the meal, and know that your year won’t be perfect but it will still be amazing. You win some you lose some, you try and you grow, you learn from your mistakes and you move on. You all have no idea what you’re in for, but it’s going to be amazing.
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