Leah, outbound to Poland

Exchange is about growing up. Making decisions and sacrifices that age you well beyond your years. You can’t afford to be a child anymore, to think and act like you don’t know yourself. Before I left, I tended to act older than my age but now when I tell people I’m sixteen, they do a double take or don’t believe me. I’ve stopped telling people my age because I don’t feel my age. You aren’t a teenager anymore because you make the choice to be happy now, to dive into new experiences and a new life with a smile. You don’t wait around anymore; you make the active choice to make this exchange your own instead of letting life’s surprises dictate that for you.

You matured the second you landed, no, you matured the second you really left your family at the airport. Really got on that plane. Yes, you knew that’s what you’d do when you signed up, but you never really thought you’d go through with it. But you did, and every day since you become more middle aged and less of the nervous teenager that you were. I don’t remember much of my flight; most of it was a blur of panic, hunger, and stomach illness. I remember small things, like watching “Brave” and crying because I already missed my mom, and the man next to me dropping his water on everyone in my row and carrying around my carry-on full of my favorite books because I couldn’t bare live without them (was that choice unrealistic? Yes. Do I regret it? No.)

People say, “It’s only one year” to sooth themselves about the fact that you are leaving. That “it's not that long of a time”, and they’re right. One year is one year. But it’s not the time I mourn, it’s the fact that I’m already a different person. I like who I’ve become but it’s not the person who said goodbye to my family at the airport, or someone my 1st period geometry class would recognize. So yes, it’s only a year, but it’s also a lifetime.

I can’t begin to break down all that has happened in this last month. But without a doubt the most important thing about exchange, the thing I will remember in 50 years, the most important thing that I never saw coming are the friendships. My native Polish friends, my exchange friends, Jess. These relationships are so complete and absolute. These people mean the world to me and I can’t begin to explain how much of my heart belongs to them. I know that I won’t leave Poland without leaving an impression on these peoples lives.

Now that the two month marker has hit, the initial spark and excited of exchange has worn of. And yes, I was prepared for this moment. But in a way, I’m relived that exchange is showing some of its flaws. That not every thing is shiny and perfect. A life is not perfect, even on exchange. I’m no longing living in anticipation of the slope of exchange.

Real talk, homesickness is a real thing. No matter how strong you think you are, how independent, how confident in your ability to be away from home. It’s going to happen one way or another. God, If I could go back in time, I’d tell one year ago me to stop being so damned arrogate and really listen when they talk about homesickness.

Homesickness is sneaky, it come in small packages. Your mom’s perfume, a dish similar to what your dad makes, a purse you’d know your sister would like, your friends favorite song, When the dog does something bad so you scold him using your real dogs name by accident. All these things alone don’t hurt too much, small pains. But one day you’ll just get hit. Sometimes with forewarning, sometimes it’s a semi truck you didn’t see coming. One day, something will happen and you’ll just snap. All the small wounds are inflicted in one punch, all the tears you refused to cry at the airport, all the times you turned to make an inside joke and you realized the only person who understands it is across the globe. The meals you craved but couldn’t eat, the words you regret not saying before you left, the conversations to thought were best to save for another day. It all just rains on you, leaving you breathless and sobbing and empty. These days don’t happen often, it takes time for these feelings to build up. But it’s important to know that these are going to happen to you on exchange, that’s for YOU to remember. I need to remember that this is going to happen again and it won't be easier the second time around, but you have to look up, get up in the morning even if you still feel sad, smile like you didn’t just cry on your host mom shoulder, and face the day with optimism and faith that you did this for a reason.

For every high, there has to be a low. And there are a lot of amazing days so by default, you can’t expect to never have a bad. But we were told about these days during orientation, we were prepared. So I know I’m not a bad exchange student, I know that I am not failing or doing anything wrong because this was foreseen. This is just to be expected. So you call over your friends, you call other exchangers, you watch old movies and eat chocolate, and you do what you need to, to feel better. That’s why you never judge another’s exchange, you have no idea what they went through, what they dealt with, what expectations they couldn’t meet. You don’t know.

Exchange is so complex; there are so many parts to it and layers. Exchange is important for a developing person, forget “fun” and “exciting” exchange is so important for your development. You learn about yourself, you learn about your old life. You romanticize your old life, appreciate more. You become an adult in all the ways that matter. Your pride and selfishness is shoved aside so that you can survive and thrive into this new environment.
There’s no secret to Exchange, no foolproof way to make it amazing, each person has to find his or her own way. I understand why it was so hard for the Rotects back home to explain it. It’s more of a “you just have to go” thing. The overwhelming adjustments, and difficulties that have such satisfying solutions. Exchange is neither good nor bad, it’s a lifetime. Some people expect a whirlwind of adventures 24/7, and some days it is like that. But they forget about the small adventures. The trips to the grocery store, the late night TV, the bus ride to school, the boredom of class. These things are just as much if not more important during exchange. They are what develop a life and not a vacation.

Polish is not easy. It’s not a language you can pick up in a week or two. It takes hard studying, listening to the bus driver speak, lessons and lessons and lessons. It takes frustrated tears and a will to learn this language. I don’t blame year ago me for not trying harder. Some things you really need to learn from experience and not one hour lessons twice a week. I know so much more than I did before, I can follow basic conversations and reply well enough sometimes. That doesn’t sound like much but I’m very proud of it. The nice part is that Poles are aware that parseltongue is easier to grasp than Polish so when you do speak or show minimal effort, they are proud of you. They smile because you are trying to adapt to them and not the other way around. The not so nice part is that living in the rural area that I do, fluent English is not easy to come by. Semi fluent is hard to come by. While challenging right now, in the end I’m going to be so proud when I can carry a conversation with the people I wish I could approach right now.

School is better than a month ago, people know Jess and I and those who know us take us under their Polish wing. They laugh when we can all sing “Single Ladies” because there isn’t a teenage soul in this world who doesn’t know that song. Our teachers are kind and forgiving. Try to incorporate us when they can but teach without distraction. Our head teacher, who has the most impressive outfits I’ve ever seen, assigned a presentation for Jess and I to do about us. It was terrifying but they all were so interested by my project, it made my heart warm that they even bothered to pay attention or laugh at my lame jokes. But right after I felt so comfortable and happy I proceeded to fall down the stairs in front of them all.

Like I said, with every up there is a down. We had class pictures recently and it was the cutest thing I ever witnessed. In my school in the U.S., we had individual photos and that’s it, silly of me to expect that’s how it would work in Poland too. No, we all gathered in neat rows and one person held up a sign stating our class name “2D” (I think that’s my class but I’m still not sure) and we all smiled together for the flash. Never had I felt so a part of that class until then.

While I live in a small area, with some limitations. I do love my family, my friends, and Jess. But I’m ready and waiting for the next adventure. So whether you are contemplating exchange, or are about to go on your exchange, or you finished your exchange years ago and are just reading these for kicks. Exchange is crazy, and dramatic, heartfelt, sincere, hopeful, eye opening, but it’s also what makes you a certain type of person. A better person than you were before.

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