Leah, outbound to Poland

Before I start, I would like to say that Poland is one of the most underrated countries in the world and two, Poland is not for every exchange student. Poland is not a destination wedding; Poland is not the averge study abroad location. Poland is not flashy or shiny or new. Poland is a home and it’s my home.

I don’t understand the system of matching kids with their counties, that process is Rotary top secret, but Poland is humble and subtly beautiful and honest and satisfied with themselves as a country. Traits that I value and understand myself. I never really fit in with America’s traits of flash and new and “The Best”, but I feel like I understand Poland. I feel a sense of home here that I never really felt in the USA.

Poland wasn’t my first choice; Poland is not many peoples first choice due to misconceptions and preconceived notions. Poland is like stumbling into a puzzle that you didn’t realize you fit perfectly in. I didn’t know what I wanted. I mean I had an idea but I’m big on “gut feelings” and Gut feelings aren’t exactly reliable. I wanted The Netherlands, I wanted a big city, and I wanted more English speakers. I didn’t get one of those things and I thank God everyday that I didn’t.

It astonishes me how easily this place feels like a home to me. I’ve been here less than a month, 26 days, and I feel so at peace and so happy. When I’m at school I think,” I want to go home..” and I mean my home 20 minutes way, a bus ride away, my Polish home. I don’t mean the United States. I’m not nervous around my host family, there’s no nervous laughter or pained conversations there’s only warm smiles and tight hugs and honest laughs, my host dad can make me burst out laughing even though he only knows four English words.

I make Polish meals with my host mom and she leaves me breakfast before school. My host dad smiles so huge when I speak minimal Polish. My grandma hugged me when I finally understood what she was saying to me. My aunt comments on all my Facebook posts and her sons play Wii bowling with me. I go for walks in the woods with my parents and dog (Fido). Blood has so little to do with family, I realized that here. I realized that the second day I was here.

I learned how little some things matter. Homecoming, volleyball tryouts, Garden Clubs meetings, all these things that are happening in my home town that just don’t interest me anymore, I have so many plans, so much to do. How can I care about who’s running for homecoming court when I have a complete new life here? I’ve traveled in my life but there was always something about being a tourist that I hated. Hated only seeing one layer of a country. Not the truth, the tourist traps and smoke screens that block what the country really is. What I cherish about exchange is that while I get to enjoy the touristy souvenir shops and ice cream parlors but I can also go back to my 800-person village and actually feel like a real Pole. Do things that a native born pole does. Walk to the bus stop, explore the woods behind my house, go to school, and bike to the market. I love walking into a store and they think I’m Polish. How easily I blend in, well until I open my mouth. It's crazy how little I miss my old life, its crazy how instantly comfortable I am, It's crazy how much I care about my host family, Its crazy that I’ve only known some of my friends for a few weeks but I can’t imagine life without them. Exchange is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.

I live in a small village in southern Poland, Gadka. Under 1,000 people. Every building looks vaguely haunted (so cool) and thrift shopping is a big hobby here. It’s farmland and cows and bread factories making the air smell vaguely like cooking bread. When I got off the plane I immediately had my host mother, father, and sister greet me with more warmth than I could have dared hoped for. My host mom, who wears blue eyeliner and star earrings, hugged me along with the rest of the family and while they don’t speak much English, they seemed so happy and loving and accepting.

I was sick to my stomach the first four days I was in Poland, couldn’t eat a single thing without feeling like discharging everything in my stomach. This was extremely disappointing, considering I wanted I eat all the perogies in the world but could barely stomach hot tea. My second (or first? Third?) Night there, my host mom hosted a bonfire for all the local teens to meet me. That night I met my host sister’s four best friends who have completely adopted me into their close knit circle of friends and them doing that for me is the kindest thing that they’ve could have done for me.

The way these four girls welcomed me into there lives without a thought, I don’t know If I could ever be as kind as they are to me. Anyway, I met them that night along with so other neighborhood kids which was just as awkward and scary as it sounds but I also was able to meet my counselor and second host family and the other exchange student in my city (village) Jess. Jess and I have turned into very close friends in the month that we’ve known each other. Her host family is going to be my second host family so we spend a lot of time together during school, taking trips together. We’re exchange sisters in the closest sense.

The next day, I left for a two-week language course in Bydgoszcz with Jess and my wonderful host sister, Kamila, left for the USA . The night before she left I spent with my second host family so that my first host family could have the night to themselves. And my second host family drove Jess and I to Bydgoszcz. My second host family (Jess’s first) is a wonderful wonderful family. Gorgeous generous mother and sweet father with two daughters, one on exchange in Mexico right now. Luiza, the younger sister, is the sweetest girl I’ve ever met; every time I see her I can’t help but smile. Jess, Luiza, and I are adorable group of girls, we play Uno and go on road trips and have sleepovers and we have a certain sisterly bond even though we’ve known each other one month, even though we’re all from different countries. I feel connected to these girls.

Now lets talk about language camp. Those two weeks were the most fun and most exciting and comforting thing that’s happened on exchange so far. I was able to meet so many life long friends that I doubt I could ever forget. As I ’m typing this I’m thinking of all my friends I miss from camp and the text messages I need to send to them, the plans we need to make. Exchange friends are the easiest friends you could ever meet. It takes a three sentences conversation and it’s an immediate connection. Speaking with them about your problems is such a comfort because they perfectly understand what you’re going through and having someone who understands something you can’t even explain to yourself is such a weight of your shoulders. When I want to call my mom I call my friends first.

All day you speak to people that only understand 35% of what you’re saying and then you understand about 5% of what’s actually going on and you voice these concerns to another exchanger and they just nod along like “I know, I know and I understand. This is what I did to fix it…” And to think I would have never met these people if one factor was different. If I didn't get to go to Poland, if I asked for a different country, didn’t apply at all. I wound have never meet Low from Brazil, or Roselle from France, Maggie from Michigan, Sydney from North Caroline, Alex from California, Alfonzo from Mexico, Jenny from Canada. All these people I would never have met without exchange and they enrich my life so much. They leave me with memories that I’ll always treasure. They are my allies and closest friends in Poland and It’s strange to feel such a bond with these people and I own sweaters longer than the time of our relationship.

I miss our nightly walks to the local store “Lidy” were I bought sweaters and chocolate until my roommates had to cut me off because I “had enough” and “spending all my money on black leggings”. The food that we complained about everyday and the bees that attacked whenever you went outside. Our crowded rooms where I spent two weeks with my three other roommates Jess, Haley, and Sara. The nights we spent laughing and talking out the window to the other exchangers and candy we’d eat for breakfast. Once we took our Polish test and passed we moved on to Tourn, Poland and toured around for two days.

I won’t break down every aspect of those two days, because I doubt you care but I will tell you what comes to mind when I think of that amazing weekend. When I think of those two days I think of Gingerbread, frogs, light shows, club dancing in the kitchen, pizza every night, amazing tomato soup, banana cherry ice-cream. FO Fions group, noise complaints, talent shows, boat rides, “Ona to jest”, singing, pins, pins and more pins, teary goodbyes, and promises to keep in touch. Language camp brought us together to make a Rotary family.

Once we returned from camp it was about time to start school. Now, school is school. Being in Poland doesn’t make it glamorous, school isn’t magically fun but I’m grateful that I have it. School brings a nice routine to life. The first day, my friends drove me and everyone looked very nice and I looked very underdressed but hey, I’m the exchange student no one really cares about my mistakes. I say that a lot these days, being an exchange student allows a certain freedom because it’s impossible to NOT make mistakes, so might as well have fun. Being confused 100% of the time has its advantages.

The principal stood in front of the whole student body, made Jess and I stand in front of the whole student body and introduced us to everyone at once. It was so awkward but it was a necessary evil. Jess and I were put into separate classes, which was sad and hard on me for a few days. The class they put me into was much younger than I am and they were very scared of me and didn’t speak much English. I spoke to Jess and we mutually decided that it would be easier on the teachers, the students, and us if we were placed together. So that following week I was placed in the same class as Jess and it has completely change school for me. I’m slowly making friends and the class is feeling much more comfortable around Jess and I.

I found sharing snap chat and instagram usernames are a wonderful icebreaker. (BTW for future exchange students, Polish boys are super cute) I enjoy classes, I do. It was difficult at first because the classes change every single day so I was (am) lost every second of every day and I’m late to most (all) classes because I insist on wandering around the three story building until I find someone looking vaguely familiar and I follow them into a random classroom. It’s easier since I joined Jess because being lost is more fun when you’re lost with someone.

I’m confused in class all of the time, but I mange to occupy my time with journaling or writing notes or conjugating Polish verbs or (when its deemed socially appropriate) reading a book. I find things to do because staring blankly at a wall is just not my cup of tea. But I excel in English class! The most frustrating class is math because I feel so close to understanding but I still don’t. I know that if it was taught in English I’d understand perfectly but that’s not how exchange works. You bear with it until life starts to make sense.

My favorite part is the bus ride to and from school. There is nothing more relaxing than that 20 minute ride though the countryside of Poland vaguely listening to the Polish grandmothers gossiping. There is no “ yellow school bus” there’s a city bus (more like van) that transports all types of people to and from the closest city. All my friends live within a block of each other, two minute walk. I help them with their English homework and we have sleepovers and bike rides. I love the friends I’ve made but I worry about being more trouble than I’m worth. But that is for me to ponder another day.

These past few days I’ve found my favorite spot in all of Poland and it’s a path through the woods behind my family’s house. My host mom says it’s magic and I believe her. I take the dog around sunset and go for my walk, no matter how cold or windy the weather is, the trail is always short sleeve weather. You walk beside the wheat crops and the dog, Fido, always scares the deer away before I can come within reaching distance. I walk until I come across the pond where Fido scares the ducks away before I can come within reaching distance, and there’s a swing and wooden deck next to the family’s little lake house by the pond where I can relax and read a book and behind the house there’s a fire pit and a swing above some flowers. The deeper in you go, the woodsier it becomes. More wildlife and tall plants if you turn left there’s harvest ground for some crops and if you turn right… I’m not sure yet. I’ll find out tomorrow.

It’s gorgeous and breathtaking and almost spiritual. Exchange is neither good nor bad. Exchange is a lifetime where you feel every emotion every single day. You feel both younger and older than you did before you left. You understand how important it is to be humble and tolerant because you need people to be patient with you at all times. You’re a child reborn in a different country, its exhausting, scary, amazing, life changing, extraordinary, saddening, but most importantly, it’s worth it. I promise.

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