Leah, outbound to Poland

Sometimes you don’t realize how happy you are. You have to remind yourself to take a step back and look at the whole picture. And the whole picture is nothing less than a blessing. I have a family whom I love. A family in another country. One I met only months ago. And, I love my family, every aspect of them and the household we’ve created. I have a host mom who took me in, knowing I didn’t speak Polish and she spoke only some English and she has made me a daughter. I have a host dad, who makes me laugh effortlessly and treats me with such kindness and he seems to do so effortlessly. And I have a host Grandma who loves me like a granddaughter. I don’t even know her name because I’ve called her “grandmother” since day one. I have a sister, who is on exchange right now but even a county away, has made me feel so loved and so cared for. I have a host brother who is hilarious and everything a brother shoul d be. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I hit the jackpot when it comes to host families.

I have friends that give me nicknames and smile at me in the halls and lend me their shoes for school dances. They are kind and generous and even though they miss my host sister they make sure to make me feel not only welcomed, but their friend too.

I have a class at school that feels like such a family, asking to be moved up into their grade was one of the best decision I have made so far. They have come to understand Jess and I and learn our personalities without having to speak fluently in either English or Polish. I have lost the ability to be nervous or uncomfortable or embarrassed around them. I tend to be clumsy and they have learned that about me, so when I drop all my bus change on the floor or trip on the stairs or drop my phone they are always there to help me back on my feet. I don’t feel like a guest in the classroom, I feel like a classmate. It’s selfish, but I hope next year, when Jess and I are gone, the class feels as if it’s missing a person or two. These 20 odd group of Polish teenagers are some of the funniest, kindest, and most overwhelming group of people I have ever met.

People often say they pity me. My teachers, my friends, and any person passing by that wants to share their input. For being in Poland, being put in the city that I am, the cards I was dealt. I don’t pity me. Maybe for a second or two but, absoultly not. I have too much to lose if I wasn’t placed here. My family? My friends? My class? What would be the point of pitying myself when I am so happy where I am? It’s not the ideal location, I won’t lie to you and say it is but that’s not the point of exchange, my friend. The goal is to be happy no matter the circumstances, the difficulties, or the undeniable problems. I know exchangers with, on the outside, a perfect exchange. Perfect location, perfect view, perfect situation but they are scared, overwhelmed, and on a flight home. I know kids who have come home from that perfect looking exchange. It has so so little to do with your exchange and your personal happiness, stop looking at things for face value.

Yes I miss my family, yes I miss my school, yes I miss my town, and YES I miss my dog but that’s not important right now. I will be back in a matter of months, but I will never have this again. Never again will I have a November 25th in Poland. My first and last. Now how the hell and I supposed to mourn my old life when I will never see this one again. Easy days don’t exsit. Fun days do, good days, easy moments, good months. But everyday is hard. I think that’s what I will tell future exchanger when they come begging for advice at Lake Yale, same as I did when I was there.

It gives you thicker skin, more resilient, confidant. I find myself doing things I never would have done before, with zero thought. I think its because you’re so uncomfortable/nervous/excited 100% of the time that you become almost immune to the sensation. If everything scares you, then nothing does. I find myself thinking that I ‘ve lived through everything that’s happe ned so far, I most likely survive this too. School is still a mystery to me, I miss it when I am not there but I’m frustrated when I am because I understand so little. I’ve picked up the habit of going to a local elementary school and sitting in on the second graders lessons. Considering I have the vocabulary of a Polish toddler, this is a good fit for me. I understand more and the children are so fearless. It is so much easier to befriend a six year old rather a sixteen year old. The school sees so much potential with me, I feel the longer I am there the more interactive I will become within the school. They say having a native speaker is an opportunity for them but it works both ways, having someone willing and excited to talk to me makes life a lot more fun for me.

My host family and I celebrated Thanksgiving together and it might have been the best Thanksgiving yet. There were no traditions to uphold and no awkward mentions of Christopher Columbus. It was the opposite of tradition, which is why I think I liked it so much. We ate at random times and the meals spread out over hours. It was relaxed and calm, effortlessly happy. I cannot cook for the life of me; I am a firm believer that if I can’t get it delivered to my door, than I don’t want it. But we did try.

We all went to my Host Aunt's house (who is the most wonderful women in Poland) and we cooked an adorably small turkey and tried to make Mac and Cheese. It came out a bit more Italian than red-blooded American but maybe that was a blessing in disguise. Nonetheless, it was edible. While the turkey cooked, my host cousins and I made snowmen out of socks, which reminded me of Thanksgiving at home. Mom cooks and after the meal my sister and I decorated for Christmas. It was the exact same feeling in the exact opposite of what I know. It was such a peaceful day full of eating and laughing and such a family atmosphere. My host aunt and Uncle are some of the kindest, warmest people I have ever met. After I got off the plane, we drove directly to them. They are the first people I ever met in this country, besides my family, and I can’t explain how fortunate I am to have people like them. They have three sons and I can’t help but smile every time I see them. I have never had brothers but this is the closest I will ever feel to having baby brothers.

Polish is hard. I almost want to leave it at that. Now I know that when I heard “You’ll pick it up in three months” “Soon, you’ll start dreaming in the language” they were not talking to the ones leaving for Poland. For other counties that is a very true statement, very plausible. But I would never put the word “Poland” and “Plausible” in the same sentence. I will get there, I am sure. But I have a very realistic fear that as soon as I start to grasp it completely, it’ll slip right through my fingers because I’ll be on a plane because my exchange will have came to an end.

I am surprised with how far I’ve come in the language but on the other hand, I’m disappointed that I’m not fluent. I just have to remind myself that Polish is not a one-year kind of language. Do you ever flip the pages of a book really quickly one by one? It makes like a “sh” sound. That is exactly how Polish sounds. What I didn’t see coming was how quickly and completely I have lost my English. Having fluent English conversations is a struggle for me, I get questions wrong in English class. I don’t speak English or Polish, but I can speak a few choice words in Spanish (thanks Jess)

All the challenges and struggles of the last few months were rewarded in Wroclaw. This last four days, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting the other exchange students for our Christmas eve meeting in Wroclaw. And I’m sure that every group says this and all exchange students feel this way but the exchange students in Poland are a family. We are so incredibly close that not being with them feels unbearable. Days before the meeting, we all were counting down the days. On social media, the group chat we have, it was like counting down to Christmas. “Three more days, guys!!” “Almost there” “TODAY EVERYONE” “#wewanttobealltogether” “On the train”.

Being together was something we all needed, a welcomed “pick me up”. The morning of, Jess and I got on a train for the 5-hour ride to Wroclaw. We had problems with our tickets but that gave us an opportunity to practice our Polish, which went surprisingly wel l. Once we arrived I made a beeline to the Starbucks because I don’t have one in my city and I’ve been craving an iced latte since I arrived four months ago. We all meet at the center of the train station and that is where all hell broke loose. There was crying and hugging and falling to the floor with excitement. Tears and laughs and all the promises we made months ago rekindled. I’m looking for the words; it was like seeing both your family and best friends after months of separation. We had all changed and grew but we were still the same.

We had this mental and emotional breakdown in the middle of the train station, which was extremely inconvenient for literally everyone else but amazing for us. Maybe all exchangers feel like this, like family with almost 70 strangers? How am I going to return home without them? Taylor lives in New York, Emma Missouri, Low Brazil, Louise France, Jess Mexico. When are we going to be together again once this year is over? I can’t think of it, I don’t want to. People ask me “How I liked Wroclaw” and I honestly don’t remember anything about the city. I remember drinking coffee and being 20 minutes late. I remember trying to learn Polish Christmas carols and laughing so hard with Taylor that I fell off the couch. I remember eating a whole gingerbread loaf with the girls in my room. I remember doing my make up with all the girls in my hostel which was the definition of girl bonding. I remember dancing until I couldn’t stand but never wanting to stop. But above all, I remember being so at peace and so happy with my exchange family. Wroclaw is beautiful, I’m sure. But my friendship are just a bit more beautiful.

Christmas is around the corner and I don’t fear it at all. This month is prime time for homesickness but I already went through my rough patch. I did my suffering early so this month is nothing but smiles and holiday cheer. My mom hears my happiness in my voice and the thought of going home repels me. I know that the hard parts over which only means that the rest of exchange is going to move much too quickly for my taste. I have skiing in January, then a trip to London, then my mom is visiting, Europe tour, and goodbye meeting, trip to Prague, and then I’m home. That’s it. The end is in sight and I want to turn around. I say home but I have to explain which home, I say family but I have to explain which family, I say life but I have to explain which one.

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