Haley, outbound to Poland

Have you ever been happily walking downtown with friends, or perhaps sitting on the bus, or just quietly eating you lunch when your brain hits you with a thought along the lines of “Wow. I am literally so lucky. I might be the luckiest person in the world.”?

Yeah. Me too.

In fact, it can get a little troubling trying to lead my day to day life when every time I stop to think I get hit by waves of gratitude, followed quickly by disbelief that this is really happening, and often accompanied by shock that, yes, I am living in a country thousands and thousands of miles from where I was born and not only am I getting happier each day, I’m thriving here (if I do say so myself).

Then I usually remember with horror that I only have six months left here, not even, and that at some point I’m going to have to go home. But what even makes a place your home?

Family? I’ve got family here. My host family is my family. They are my mom and my brothers and sisters, because I have moms and brothers and sisters now, plural. I have a mom here who calls me her daughter and who tells me jokes and talks non-stop when we share meals, I have a sister who knows what I’m going through because she’s done the exact same thing in Brazil and brothers who protect me and look at my photo albums and tell me which dishes I should do my very best to avoid on Christmas eve dinner. I have more family then I’d ever had before.

Friends? Don’t get me started. I’ve never had so many friends in my life. You know what I think is the best measure of if you’re close to your friends? Gossip. My Polish friends talk to me about their boyfriends, about how that one girl got a cold sore from kissing a gay guy, they tell me what’s happening in their houses and how their little sister has chicken pox and they trust me with their secrets. They’re sweet and lovely and sarcastic and they never stop complaining, because this is Poland, and if you don’t complain you probably haven’t been here very long.

Community? Because that’s the best way I can think of to describe the exchange students here. We are all friends, yes, we are each other’s family, but there’s a painful simplicity in saying that. We are connected through a bond that I know will last far beyond our remaining months here (we are also connected quite closely through WhatsApp, Facebook, and snapchat. Sorry rotary, but I never followed your advice to take a social media hiatus). These people, these amazing, funny, brilliant, talented people, understand exactly what my biggest struggles here are, without me having to say a word. I could write an essay about each and every one of them. These people, I will sob when I have to leave them.

Just before Christmas, there was a meeting in Wroclaw (which is, side note, beautiful and you should all visit it. I think I’ve said this before but everyone needs to visit Poland at least once in their lifetime. The old town is huge and colorful and the lights shine and there’s history in every cobblestone. ), where because of either a booking error, a timing error, something, the exchange students were split into two groups and put in different hostels. This was a big deal. For most of us, it was the first time we had seen each other in months, and it was the first time we were all together since the very beginning of exchange back in Bydgoszcz. Nobody was happy about it (we might have tried to stage a protest on Facebook. Didn’t work).

Anyway, we saw a really interesting World War 2 memorial/museum, the old town, a castle, and even a greenhouse – nobody really explained to us why we were at the greenhouse, but it was super cool nonetheless. Fast forward to the last night, where we went to a Rotary Christmas event – some of the exchange students put on short skits, there was traditional dancing, a lot of speeches in Polish, some music – a lot of performance is the best way to describe it. The last act was one of the American exchange students, Emma, singing ‘Hallelujah’, a fantastic song best known for its appearance in ‘Shrek’. All of the exchange students joined in the singing, unplanned by anyone, and we swayed to the rhythm with our arms around each other. The Rotarians joined in, and the room was filled with the coming together of people from twelve different countries, to listen to the beauty of Emma’s voice while we stood with her.
Afterward, when I went to congratulate Emma on her performance, she told me ‘no, it wasn’t me. It was the moment, and it was all of us, it was everybody’.

Later that night, we danced and cheered for while a student from Taiwan, Kevin did the most incredible beatbox I’ve ever heard in my life. We sang together and crowded into a tight ball, though there was plenty of space in the ballroom, and we stayed in that formation while the Rotarians called to us to end it, to go to dinner, the food would be cold if we waited this long.

They didn’t understand that simply being together would always be the trump card. Because Emma was right, the magic is in all of us, hearts beating as one with our stolen moments of solidarity.

So what I think I’m trying to say is that yeah, my home is in Florida, but it’s also in Poland. How those two things can coexist, I have no idea. I’m still trying to work it out. And no, I don’t want to go ‘home’, because I already am. I don’t want to go back to Florida, not at all. Sorry, mom.

Exchange has taken my heart, and beaten it raw, stretched it a whole lot bigger, opened it more than I thought possible, and then stomped on it about a thousand times in a row. And it’ll do more, and I’ll take it, without question.

In fact, I can’t wait to see what the next six months will bring.

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