Outbounds 2004-2005

Morgan Boecher
2004-05 Outbound to Japan
Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Eastside High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Kawaguchi Chuoh Rotary Club, District 2770, Saitama, Japan

Morgan - Japan

August 27 Journal
Konnichiwa, minna!
Well, it’s been a bit over a week since I arrived in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” I always thought that title made Japan sound like a fantasy land one could know of only from legends. Japan actually was rather like that for me because I had only experienced it through books and traveler’s tales. Now I’m here and I’ll be able to know this mysterious place for myself once and for all. No book could have ever enabled me to know Japan like my own epic journey could.

After my flight, which wasn’t as horrible as everyone told me it would be, arriving in Tokyo’s Narita Airport I found my host sister, Terumi, and niece, Yuri, along with three other Rotarians. They greeted me with smiles and a colorful sign reading “Welcome! Morgan Boecher.” We chose a dinner spot in the airport where, I, the guest of honor, had the privilege of choosing any meal on the menu. After making my selection and receiving my food I realized that a strange phenomenon had occurred. Everyone had ordered the exact same dish! About halfway through the meal I had to ask why, to which the response was given: “It’s easier this way… In Japan we do things as a group.” I had heard of the group-oriented Japanese, but I wouldn’t have expected to this extent!

I was excited to get to ride a train home to Kawaguchi, as well as when I learned that I would be riding a train to school everyday. Train, bus and foot, actually. When we arrived at my new home I was quite tired and in need of a shower. When I was shown the bathroom and found a large tub, a stool, and a shower head beside it lower than my waist I almost thought I would be too tired for what seemed to be an immensely different system. The sit-down shower really wasn’t much of a problem at all, and I was soon able to fall asleep in my new, comfy bed with a funny shaped pillow. I slept well.

Every meal here seems like a delicious feast. With each meal several different plates and bowls offer interesting new flavors for me. I love tasting Japanese food. To my great delight I discovered that the markets featured in large department stores have free samples at every counter from vegetables to desserts. Another amusing food encounter happened last night at a restaurant that featured a stove on every table top. All the food was served raw and one was expected to cook it themselves! Luckily Terumi is a good cook^_^. I’m glad I can enjoy frequent walks and bike rides around the city with Yuri to counter the calories.

The fact that outside in two countries could be so different is astounding. Especially coming from America, where everything is big and wide, to the small and compact country of Japan. I was so amazed the first time I realized the cute, little cars traveling on the narrow one-way, two-lane streets. Even buildings are smaller and more tightly packed. Some of the doorways I’ve seen would not work with the taller stature of the U.S. Japan is built for a different shape of people, different bodies, and different mindsets. I’m glad I fit.

Ja mata, ne!

-Morgan

September 18 Journal
Exactly one month has now passed since I’ve last had a poppy seed muffin from my Bageland in Florida. But what am I doing thinking about American food here in Japan??? They have spreadable milk and corn flavored gum. I most certainly came to the right country.
Life in Japan is beginning to feel more normal, but no less interesting. I’m really enjoying school, which also stands as most of my social life at the moment since midterm exams are next week. I made friends on my second day and I’m still meeting more and more affable people. I joined art club which meets after school everyday, but because it’s rather casual, many people don’t go all the time. I wake up around 6:30 and take a 30 minute bus ride to the train station, from which I take the train to Warabi (the smallest “city” in Japan where my high school is located) then I walk 25 minutes to school. I thoroughly enjoy every leg of the journey, though. I love being outside and exploring. And with the train system travel is so easy! Everyday I can explore a new city that’s only minutes away from Kawaguchi (my hometown)! Tokyo is only 13 stops away, but I haven’t been yet. My friends promise to take me after exams!

School has been nothing but busy busy busy since I arrived. First there was Bunkasai (school culture festival) to which there is no equivalent in the States. The entire school was transformed into an amusement park! They built a stage out of desks and covered it with a beautifully hand painted banner! There were performances, food stands, games, horror houses, all constructed by students. Everything was covered with color and thoroughly decorated. Needless to say, the two day festival was a blast.

The next week I obtained my class schedule. I love the Japanese school system! Everyday I have different classes and all at different times. Some days P.E., some days Calligraphy, some days Math… My favorite is English class, though. The teachers use me for pronunciation practice. In classes like Japanese history or Biology I still take notes from the board in Japanese, but most of the time I can’t read the teachers’ messy kanji. Also, students usually study alone, so I foresee a rough time for me in school. Actually, there’s this ten page paper due in January that everyone is going to be working on after exams. I’m kind of looking forward to writing it. It would be wonderfully rewarding writing a coherent report written in Japanese. As well as researching in Japanese… oh well, it’s a challenge!

I’m already used to writing tons of speeches in Japanese… my club meets every week and they expect a Japanese speech from me every time. Even at my ‘welcome to Japan party’ (which was so much fun… I sang and danced karaoke to the Beatles “Back in the USSR” with the Rotary president’s son) they threw me up there with a microphone and expected a speech in Japanese right there on the spot! Luckily I survived alright… I’m so glad to have studied Japanese so much before coming. Everyone thinks I’m so smart! Speaking the language enables me to express more of my own character, I think. I can be more polite and charming because I’m not just sitting like a silent block of tofu.

I should also admit that I experienced some culture shock a few days ago. My host family, who seem to have the more traditionally Japanese mindsets, told me that sightseeing was bad and that I should just be studying. Yeah, they’re a bit strict. My first curfew was 5pm. I spoke with my Rotary counselor a bit because I was a little worried that they wouldn’t give me the full experience I’ve dreamed about for so long. They wouldn’t let me go to a party with all of my classmates because it was too late, lasting from 7-9 pm. I was upset because I’ve heard that seeing my friends outside of school will be a rare occurrence. I’ve still never been able to hang out with any of my Japanese friends yet. The party would have been a perfect opportunity.

However, now I realize how much my family cares about my happiness. Even though they worry when I’m out or taking walks on the narrow streets with fast, tiny cars and no sidewalks, they let me do so. A lot of the times they say no first, but then later decide to let me go. I’m gaining more freedom! Today I went to Akabane, the city next to Kawaguchi all by myself! I spent the whole afternoon there and had a wonderful time exploring.

I wanted to know what it is to be a Japanese high school girl, and that is what my family is allowing me to do. I wanted to be shocked and I wanted the opposite environment of America, and that’s what I got. I’m living my dream, through the good and the bad. I’m so lucky to be able to wake up in Japan every day.

Morgan

October 15 Journal
Woo! After this weekend I’m at the two month mark! And it won’t take long to get there since I have lots to keep me busy until then. Tomorrow I’m going to see a traditional Japanese play featuring slow dancing and actors speaking old Japanese (which even the natives find difficult to understand). Also on Sunday I’m going with my host father (Otoosan) to see a classical music concert, and my second ‘Undokai,’ which is like a bigger, more formal version of a school field day. Kids run and race and play funny games where large logs are transported around spacious fields. I can’t wait until my high school’s undokai in May! There are even more plans in the future… Kabuki theater, Tokyo’s art museum in Ueno, picture taking excursions in Harajuku, Ski trips, Hiroshima and Kyoto Rotary trips!!!
School and food also make every day something to look forward to. I’ve made friends from art club and my homeroom class and I learn so much Japanese every day! I’m getting to the point where I can understand my Japanese notes and the teacher’s lectures, to an extent, if I strain and am quick enough with my electric dictionary. Cell phones and Japanese video games have become my favorite mediums of study, though. Everyday I e-mail my friends via cell phone, typing on the tiny keypads in Japanese. Sometimes they like to practice their English on me too! Also, I borrowed a Gameboy Advance from a friend and purchased the Harvest Moon game. I play it at my desk at home where I can look up any kanji or grammar I don’t understand. I’m satisfied with my language capabilities. I can feel myself growing closer to my family now that I can communicate comfortably and even joke with them! I’m happy to be learning this fascinating language as well. Speaking and writing Japanese stretches your mind in wonderful new directions, because you have to think backward from English to communicate. And then put that in a different character system. I can’t wait to see how far I can go with the language before the end of my year.

As well as having great things to look forward to, I have already make great memories. I went winter clothes shopping in Harajuku, Tokyo with my host sister and niece. Basically, if you belong to any subculture… goth, prep, punk, freak… you’ll find clothes of your taste in Harajuku. That Tokyo district is quite popular with the youth, and I’m always hearing about fellow classmates visiting on the weekends. I love Tokyo so dearly. And I love the fact that I’m 20 minutes away by train!! Trains are absolutely wonderful. Thanks to them, I’ve been able to see about 8 different cities already! By the way, my area (including Tokyo) is actually one HUGE city! Between ‘cities’ there is no forestry or rice paddies or nothingness… all city! So if I want to think of it that way, I’m living in a part of Tokyo!

Fortunately, I’ve also had the privilege of experiencing the country area as well. I went way out to the mountains once to visit distant (host) family and gather chestnuts. Also, last weekend I took a trip with my whole family (for the first time) to Nigata-ken where I visited my first Japanese shrine. The gigantic series of blazing red-orange buildings was a beautiful and unique scene before the green mountains. We entered the shrine and took off our shoes (not unusual when entering a building in Japan) and paid our respects before a golden staircase decorated with radiant ornaments and statuary. I was a little curious as to what we were going to do in a Jinja (shrine) all day, since the plan was indeed to spend the day. I soon learned that after paying over $200 you sit in a room and write on big red candles. Lots and lots of big, red candles. I think we filled about 6 boxes or so. Actually, I only got to write on 2… I spent the rest of the time exploring the Jinja ^_^. The custom is to write your wishes, or prayers, in kanji on the candles, and in November the hundreds of candles are taken up to a mountain by the priests or shrine maidens for Kami-sama (God).

Another very, very Japanese encounter was when a Rotarian took me to see a Noh play, which is a traditional drama featuring crazy costumes, crazy talking, crazy music and slow dancing. After the play everyone enjoyed a splendid dinner that must have consisted of over 8 courses of small, exquisite portions. There, I was also invited to learn the art of Tea Ceremony, but not until next year. (Don’t worry, I made sure to thank the Rotarian with a nice, long, thank you note in Japanese, of course ^_~)

What a rich and wonderful culture this country has. There’s a way to do EVERYTHING, even though nowadays not everyone still practices the traditional customs. Heh… luck for me my host father never forgot any of the mannerisms of the past… During our delicious home cooked dinners by my host mother (Okaasan), Otoosan is usually drilling me about the proper way to speak or eat my food or present a business card. The first time he explained to me how I should only try to learn keigo (the polite form of Japanese speech used for speaking humbly to those older than you or higher up on the social ladder) and not casual Japanese (used for speaking with friends and people you’re close to) I was a little bewildered. I told him that I wanted to learn both so that I could enjoy as many aspects of the language (and culture) as I could. If some people can know several languages, I should be able to handle two forms of Japanese. He disagreed, though. I’ve learned not to argue with older people in Japan… it won’t get you anywhere at all. After our light hearted dispute he stood me up and instructed me for about the 5th time how to introduce myself with my business card. He wasn’t mean about it… just so serious and headright. Afterward I felt a little overwhelmed and cried a bit in my room. Certainly a culture shock episode. I hear my father’s very strict even by Japanese standards. The next day I was feeling a little overwhelmed again, but I remember always being told that sharing your feelings instead of sulking alone in your room was much better. I remember hearing from my first Japanese Rotary orientation that although Japanese parents can be strict, they are also capable of showing great warmth if you let them. I went downstairs and asked if I could talk with everyone, my eyes running and red. They paid full attention when I explained about the culture shock I was experiencing… how strange it was to go from such a liberal family to a strict one… but I made it clear to them that they were doing nothing wrong, and that I expected myself to be the one to adapt. They understood. To make me feel better, Okaasan and my sister took me to a supermarket, one of my favorite places in Japan, where I bought my cartoned coffee drinks and taste-tested all the fantastic foods reliably waiting on their little toothpicks. I love that… I can sample a small bit of every kind of interesting Japanese food from sashimi to melon bread… for free too! I take advantage of free samples every time I visit a food market.

It was a relief for me to know that my family had that Japanese warmth. Living with my family is feeling more comfortable. Tonight I perceived Otoosan’s lecture on ‘how to push the food that you didn’t eat from dinner into a neat little pile as a positive experience in learning a different culture. He still has that air of strictness about him, but I’m getting used to it.

Oooo! And I love the cool fall weather that’s coming around! Feels like Christmas is on its way… even though it’s Oshogatsu (New years holiday) instead! There’s still a Christmas, but everyone still works and goes to school! I have school Christmas eve, actually, because Christmas is the first day of winter break. Another queer fact is that there is more hype about Halloween around here, but no Halloween! I’m looking forward to doing the holiday season in Japanese.

I think now I’m going to try again to figure out how to take a shower properly and then enjoy a nice, warm, Japanese bath. Oyasumi nasai!

November 27 Journal
Konnichiwa, minna! Genki desu ka?
Sorry I’ve been unable to update in a while. I’ve actually been having some problems with my host family and I had to change, so I’ve been a little preoccupied. I was supposed to spend the whole year with my first family, but they’ve been more than a little neglectful, I could say… Luckily my host Rotary Club is eager to understand and help me. Now I couldn’t be happier with my situation, thanks to them. I’m living with a fantastic family who always converse with me and take me out every day. I’ve been learning so quickly, dragging my electric dictionary around and looking up every word I’m not familiar with. It’s like a constant communication game. I also have two brothers, age 15 and 17, who take a sincere interest in me. Usually I hear that Japanese brothers and sisters aren’t very close… girls and boys in Japan tend to separate themselves from each other… but my host brothers don’t mind long conversations or spending time with me. Not to mention this family is rather well off ^_^. I know there are much better aspects, but I have to admit the elevator in our four story house is pretty nice… I already feel so close to this family. A feeling I never developed with my last. On my second day in this household I helped with the preparations of my welcome party. Okaasan (mom) gave me a beautiful Japanese apron and we cooked and cleaned and talked… after the feast she offered me her bed to rest in. Second day and I’m already invited into her bedroom! With my last family I never even saw every room in the house.

In other news, school is going well. My teachers are all nice and they do what they can to help me understand and include me in the lessons, but most of my attention is focused on learning Japanese. In December I’m going on a school trip with my class to Okinawa! I’ve been trying to learn what I can about Okinawa’s history and culture, and I’ve come to find some rather interesting information. Okinawa wasn’t always a part of Japan so it has its own unique culture that I’m eager to see. I wonder if I’ll be able to understand the Japanese spoken there. Also, a week ago we had our school marathon. 21 kilometers around a lake!!! Running for 3 hours straight!!! But I actually wasn’t allowed to participate. The teachers though I hadn’t had enough practice since most of my PE classes were substituted for Japanese. I still enjoyed a leisurely walk around the lake and ate bread with all my classmates afterward.

The colder season is approaching (even though the climate here is warmer than Gainesville’s right now, probably) and I’m afraid of catching a cold. Japanese people really make a big deal out of it! A month ago, I woke up one morning with a bit of a sore throat and my host family made me go immediately to the doctor’s after school. There I received five prescription medications that I took twice a day for about a week. For a little sore throat!!! I asked some of my Japanese friends and teachers if this was normal, and they said that usually in Japan parents take sick kids right to the doctor if they feel anything less than healthy. How are they supposed to develop any antibodies if they’re taking medicine all the time?? Also you never ever see so much as one yen lying in public spaces. I’ve seen more buttons on the ground than coins.

Japan can be the most heartwarming place at times. I went to a middle school yesterday and answered questions about America and played games with the curious students and at the end of it all they gave me presents. A bag full of origami that they made themselves and an adorable note thanking me for coming. They were all so cute! Also, one of my friend’s mom bought me an unusual present that just melted all my innards. Pants!! She had never met me, but she bought me pants. And the creepiest thing is that they fit perfectly and they’re the same color as a pair I brought from America. (0_0).

I’ve been getting used to life here, but the adventure is far from over. Not a day has been a waste here. Since I changed host families I feel more relaxed and free to enjoy Japan. I’m exactly where I hoped I would be when I was dreaming in America.

December 27 Journal
 This month could quite likely be my best in Japan so far; and I have a lot to owe to my host family and Rotary Club.
Life is perfectly comfortable with the Itou family. They’ve given me an environment in which I can enjoy personal space when I need it, or lively company. I still don’t know how many host families I’ll end up with this year, but I wouldn’t mind staying here if it came to it. Okaasan (Mom) is always taking me about shopping, or to the temple where we do calligraphy, or borrowing picture books from the library for me. Last week I had some good bonding time with my Otoosan (Dad) and brothers at a Matsuri (Festival) where beautifully intricate New Years decorations hung for sale around the steaming food stands and gaming booths. Dinner is a warm experience every night. Okaasan teaches me how to cook the Japanese dishes that differ every night. Nabe is one of my favorites. A large, simmering pot is set on the stove upon the dining table and everyone constantly adds or eats veggies and meats that are put into the pot. Eating from the same pot while talking and laughing creates a great sense of togetherness.

Aside from finding my niche, I’ve been doing some adventuring as well. I went on a Rotary trip with the other exchangers to Hiroshima, Himeji, Nara, and Kyoto in three days 0_o. Yes, we were busy, but I had some great experiences. We took a plane to Hiroshima first, where we visited the memorial park and museum dedicated to the U.S. bombings of World War II. The museum was a pretty intense place. The most striking thing I remember is seeing some bits of burnt skin from a little boy’s fingers on display. The caption underneath retold a story of how he was so thirsty while burning that he sucked the puss from his fingers. There are some incredible pains the human race has made itself endure…

After that heavy eye-opener we traveled to Himeji and explored a beautiful, seven floored, white castle before heading to our hotel around 6pm. We had some time out after dinner, but curfew was 9:30. That’s Japanese Rotary for ya ^_^.

In Nara and Kyoto we visited a number of breathtaking temples and stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel called a ‘Ryokan.’ The Japanese feast was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. The elongated tables were so full of plates and bowls containing delicious varieties of foods that we had trouble keeping everything on the surface. We even had Matsutake tea, consisting of Matsutake mushrooms that can go for $30 a piece. I must say, Rotary really treated us well.

Even the return home was a treat. We got to ride the famous Shinkansen (bullet train). On the train I was looking forward to dispersing my many souvenirs that I bought for my friends and family (a must-do if you want to fit in in Japan).

*Whew* now for the long part… my school trip to Okinawa (a Japanese island between Taiwan and Japan). The $1000 worth of it was graciously paid for by my Rotary Club. Doumo Arigatou Gozaimashita!!!

The four days spent with my classmates speaking Japanese the entire time greatly helped me reach a deeper understanding of the country I’m living in. We took a two and a half hour plane flight (during which I saw Mt. Fuji) to Okinawa’s largest city, Naha. Our first stop was a rather touristy place with a cave Okinawa’s famous for. I was with my group of friends with whom I usually eat lunch and go to art club with, but I had never seen them outside of school before. I thought that this trip would really bring us together.

The second day we were guided by an Okinawan University student to a series of locations to learn about Okinawa’s rather tragic history. Our first stop was a cave which was used as a hospital under the battlefield. 200 high school girls, of my age and younger, were dispersed by the Japanese government to various caves to provide medical service to wounded soldiers.

The cave I stood in housed about 1000 patients who were taken care of by 5 girls, and was about the size of a large room. There, amid horrid conditions from disease, lack of appropriate waste facilities and means of proper instrument sterilization, men were going mad, being eaten by maggots, and getting amputated by candle light. And the 5 girls were so overwhelmed with work that they didn’t even have time to sleep. I was standing in a place that used to be hell on earth.

Later we went to a museum dedicated to the 200 girls who served as nurses. I read translated diaries that the girls wrote. Their stories made me feel rather emotional. I can’t imagine having to go through what they did. I felt a burning anger at one point. No innocent, living thing should have to experience what those girls did. I read a comment by a Japanese general who stated that he didn’t feel any obligation to mourn the dead or thank the survivors because they had fulfilled the minimum of what was required of them – to give their lives up for Japan if it meant harming the enemy. War is disgusting.

Later that day we arrived at our beach side ryokan and had another extensive picture taking fest. The next day we spent in the countryside, learning how to farm sugar cane, beniimo (tasty, purple potato-like things) and ride horses. One of the ladies working on the farm happened to be American, and seemed enthusiastic to meet me, another of her breed. She indeed had that familiar American spirit, despite having lived in Okinawa for 13 years.

Talking with her was quite refreshing, as she seemed to have experienced similar culture shock to mine. During the trip I had gotten a bit homesick because I didn’t feel I was bonding with my Japanese friends so nicely. I still carry my outspoken, direct American nature, so when trying to adapt I find myself acting. I’m an American pretending to be Japanese when I’m with my friends. Never have I said ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ to such excess. On the trip my friends treated me as though they were responsible for me, reprimanding me when I went somewhere like the bathroom without telling them first. I like to explore and absorb as much as I can, but the Japanese way of sticking with the group clashes with those wishes. I don’t cause trouble and I follow along, but I’m suppressing the real me inside; which, in itself, is a very Japanese thing to do. While friends have been the cause for a little disappointment, I realize I can accept it, because this is the Japanese culture that I came here to learn. The American lady too had some hard times trying to keep her mouth shut.

The last day we spent gift shopping in a large tourist area called International Boulevard, and flew home. I let out a gasp when we flew over Tokyo, sparkling like hundreds of jewels in the night. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed. Up until landing I couldn’t unglue my eyes from the window. The runway was lined with bright blue and green lights, and while Tokyo shone off on the horizon, rectangular, yellow signs with black arrows and numbers were scattered around the space. Nothing but the lights and signs could be seen. It felt as though if math were a place it would be here.

Even more spectacular, however, was taking the monorail afterward through Tokyo. I was flying above and between buildings that dazzled with signs and Christmas lights. Over the bay I flew. In the distance I saw the magnificent Tokyo Tower all lit up. So much effort by so many people was put into creating these spectacular colors and shapes before my eyes. This is truly an amazing world, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been drawn closer to its wonders through being able to live in Japan.

January 14 Journal
 So, wanna know what a Japanese Christmas is like? Just about the same as every other day in Japan! Except for Oshogatsu (New Years). That’s the big, special holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Throughout December I felt as though I was misled, because the department stores and even some of the houses were just about as decked out as an American town that time of year. Christmas trees, colored lights, advertisements and gifts… I actually put more effort in gift shopping than I was expected to, but I had fun all the same. On Christmas day there was actually a little extra celebrating. Japanese barbeque, karaoke, dinner with friends, and two fancy Christmas cakes! I enjoyed the easygoing atmosphere and didn’t really suffer from homesickness. I did get a little nostalgic, thinking of Christmas with my family, but that feeling was more enjoyable than depressing.

This New Years I wasn’t watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV. I didn’t countdown to ten or set off fireworks. Instead of banging pots and pans I was banging a gong beside a bonfire at a temple. The morning of Oshogatsu I awoke to a feast of osechiryouri (special oshogatsu food). Everything was delightfully sweet and delicious. The osechiryouri was made to last for the first three days of the new year, where everyone enjoys not having to do anything. My host mother then led me into her kimono closet and picked from her extensive collection a casual, winter kimono for me to sport around town. Despite the fact that the kimono I wore was a more simple sort, putting the whole thing on took over an hour. The whole family (including our Chiwawa (japanese spelling!!… cuz I don’t know the English…) named Shun-chan) piled into the mini-van and went to a number of shrines and temples to request a happy year.

This year I may have missed out on a mountain of Christmas presents, but I had the privilege of experiencing the otoshidama. Otoshidama is money received from relatives in a pretty little envelope. Usually kids can get hundreds of dollars, but I was satisfied with my humble $50. Nengajou was also another foreign treat for me. Every new years everyone sends (usually hundreds) of postcards to friends and family, wishing them a happy new year. I had fun sending and receiving cards to and from friends and Rotarians.

Another significant event for a Floridian who had never seen snow before: Ski trip with my host family!!! We drove 4 hours to a nice resort where I spent two days learning how to ski and relaxing in the outdoor hot springs (despite the snow flurry occurring at the time). I can’t say I’m pro quite yet, since I spent about as much time rolling down hills as I did skiing down them, but now I have a little experience before my ski trip with Rotary in February.

Needless to say, winter break was quite successful and I’m also happy to be back at school… to an extent. It’s still freaking cold walking 25 minutes to and from school everyday!! And those stupid, short school uniform skirts don’t help much… Lucky I didn’t get sent to the northern island Hokkaido. School uniforms are rather a bother, I don’t mind saying. In the summer the boys have to endure the heat in their long pants, and in the winter the girls’ exposed legs freeze. Our first day back there was an assembly in the cold, cold gym where the whole school had to stand for an hour wearing only their school uniforms (no winter coats) while we listened to long speeches. Sometimes in Japan the importance of doing what’s ‘proper’ surpasses the importance of being comfortable. One major difference from the States, I’ve found.

I’m happy to say that I’m enjoying life in Japan as much as I enjoy life in America. There are bits missing here (the people and muffins that I like the most), but there are also bits of Japan that will be hard to live without when I return to the US. Too bad there isn’t a Morgan country where all the nice bits of the world are condensed in one spot.

Mata ne! (^o^)/

February 16 Journal
 As the mid-year mark looms above me I find my life in Japan becoming more full, happy and exciting. At the end of January I switched host families again and am now living happily with Miwa Shinoda’s family. Miwa is the Japanese inbound living in Daytona Beach, Florida this year. So yes, I’m back in main Kawaguchi, one station away from my favorite place in the world, Tokyo.
The biggest excursion thus far for the month of February would have to be the Rotary ski trip to Nagano Prefecture. I did my best to make up for all the years I’ve lived without snow by sledding, eating, skiing, climbing, rolling, falling, and playing in the stuff. On this ski trip I believe I actually learned a thing or two about how to ski, so I had a rather good time making my way down the slopes. I also managed to become better friends with the other exchange students and Rotex members, who I rarely had a chance to speak with before. Perhaps one of the most notable occurrences on that trip, though, was my first whack at wasabi ice cream. It was spicy, disgusting, and completely worth almost missing the bus home for. An experience I shall fondly think back to as I remove the wasabi from every bit of sushi I eat in the future.

The next most memorable event in the past 14 days would be my day trip to Roppongi, Tokyo with a good friend of mine named Kazune from Warabi High School and her dad. I love Kazune and her family so much! I had Christmas dinner at their home (the second tallest apartment complex in Japan) and I had a wonderful time laughing and talking and being myself with those people. Anyway, so Sunday we went by car (which took 30 minutes) to the heart of Tokyo and visited Roppongi Hills, which is meant to be a shopping mall, museum, and an observatory, but the actual series of buildings looks more like a work of modern art. We ascended to the 53rd floor and admired the spectacle of Tokyo stretching on forever. I also enjoyed the modern art museum, featuring an exhibit on inflatable and detachable cities. After window shopping throughout the maze-like structures we went to a famous, fancy chocolatier (it being the day before Valentine’s Day and all). There we drank the most delicious, creamiest hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. The chocolaty mixture seemed to contain the goodness of six mugs of normal cocoa compressed into an espresso cup. Afterward I went chocolate shopping on my own in less extravagant areas in preparation for February 14th.

In theory, on the Japanese Valentine’s Day girls are supposed to buy chocolate for boys that they like, and when White Day (March 14) rolls around, the guys return the favor with white chocolate. In actuality, girls are really the only active participants in the holiday as they exchange home made goods among each other. I must say the chocolate surplus in all the stores was a bit misleading for me, because I hardly received any chocolate at all. I was bombarded with cookies, cakes, and brownies which I (fortunately) was able to counter with a bag of chocolate I brought to school. I think I was the only girl who gave chocolate to a few boys I considered friends… but, whatever! Everyone seemed happy ^_^. I swear, during Valentine’s season I couldn’t be happier to be living near Tokyo. They take fancy chocolate seriously this time of year. My favorites were the chocolate chunks shaped like tools (light bulbs, wrenches, chains…) And even better was taste testing it all for free in the ritzy department stores!

During the drive home from Roppongi on the highways that ran in mid-air among tall buildings and flashy advertisements I felt such pure contentment. There was nowhere else in the world I would have wanted to be at that serene moment. Being this happy feels like it shouldn’t be allowed, but it has to be healthy. No outside influences with dangerous consequences induce this amazing elation. How many people know a feeling like that? I love where I live and I love what this year is doing for me. I can’t wait to see the rest of the world! Thank you, everyone.

Morgan

March 19 Journal
 While I’ve been traveling and adventuring to as many corners of Japan within my reach, I have also begun to feel like I understand the Japanese mind, which seems to contrast almost completely to the 13 characteristics that make Americans American. Except for punctuality. We both like being on time for the most part. (These characteristics were taught to us exchange students at a Rotary orientation before our year abroad).
1. Individuality – Individuality tends to be rather important to Americans, but in Japan people value group consciousness (shuudan ishiki) and spend a lot of effort to ensure the comfort of others. They do this by maintaining a polite or humble stature among other people. ‘Deru kui wa utareru’ or ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ is an idea I’ve seen in practice many times. Staying quiet and following the ‘senpai’ (leader) is rather encouraged. While American teachers encourage students to be critical, ask questions and think for themselves, Japanese students who stay quiet in class and mimic the teacher are appreciated.

2. Control of environment – Well, Americans like to control their individual environments to suit themselves, but the Japanese tend to accept nature and live with it harmoniously. In Japan I’ve certainly had more exposure to the elements, having to walk at least twenty minutes to and from school a day. In America there are cars, central heating systems and air conditioners to keep our environment comfy. The Japanese have a very strong sense for the seasons, as shops change their decorations, different foods become available, and certain rituals are performed for fall, winter, spring and summer. I can say that Japan prefers its social environment more controlled than its natural one.

3. Change is good – That’s what I’ve always believed! However, I’ve met a fair number of Japanese who see their country changing for the worse. Despite the fact that I see Tokyo more safe than Gainesville in many ways, many people I’ve met believe that Japan is becoming a very ‘abunai tokoro’ (dangerous place), what with the rapid influx of foreigners and their influence and all. There’s no doubt Japan isn’t what it was a few decades ago. Right now is a fascinating time to be an exchange student in this country.

4. Time is money – My philosophy of life includes being productive at all times (even indulgences are productive if they’re taken in the right ratio of quantity to happiness… as long as you come out mentally and physically healthy in the end…). With me being an adventurer and all, I certainly value my time and take special care to plan my actions tactfully so as to gain the most from this experience. About what the Japanese think on the subject… well, I don’t think I’ve learned enough to make any vague conclusions, but they seem to think time is pretty important. I heard somewhere that if faced with a deadline almost impossible to make, taking time beyond the deadline would be preferable to doing a shoddy job.

5. Equality and Egalitarianism – Now, dealing with a lower quantity of this stuff took (and is taking) quite a bit of adjusting. ‘senpai’ and ‘kohai’ (superior and inferior) roles play an active part in everyday Japanese life. At school (Teacher—student, 3rd year—2nd year students), at home (Parent—child), in public and in groups (Older people, men—younger people, women)… These relationships are defined by actions and language (Keigo has three forms: polite, humble, and honorary, which are used when speaking to people of outside groups… (or inside groups of a certain kind that aren’t made up of close friends or relatives)… Man, this place is complex, ne? In truth, I like the idea of just being equal. It’s a lot easier and you don’t have to learn three other languages so as not to offend superiors… But I have to say I am grateful to be able to learn first hand such workings of this amazing culture.

6. Self-reliance and self-help – Nothing instills more confidence in me than when I say I can do it myself. And yet traditional Japanese philosophy professes that ‘amae’ or the dependence on others is a great virtue. Because I lack this amae mindset I’ve come across many instances where I felt as though I were being treated like a child. Also, when hosted by someone you are usually dependent on that person’s ability to sense what you need. Otherwise it’s rude to ask for extra tea or a different kind of snack. In America I would mostly take care of my own meals by myself, but in Japan breakfast, lunch and dinner is provided (deliciously) by my host mother.

7. Competition and free enterprise – Yeah, I guess Japan and America do have some things in common. Business, business, business…

8. Short-term future orientation – Well, you see, before World War II Japan was a very constant country apparently. There was a right way to live, and people lived that way depending on each other and taking care to uphold relationships (social obligation is called ‘giri’) in order to get through nature’s seasons year after year. I suppose that way must have worked all right because Japan has been a country for over 2000 years. In these past decades Japan has changed more rapidly than it ever has in those 2000 years. America doesn’t seem to hesitate to turn the resources into cash quick, and it’s hard to tell Japan’s future since it’s westernizing so fast…

9. Action/work – Nothing I’m afraid of… apparently not Japan either, that is, if you emphasize the WORK part. My interpretation of being productive seems to differ greatly from that of Japan’s. Basically, if you’re not working you’re not being productive. My classmates spend a good amount of their free time at school or studying. My host father works overtime nearly every night. The Japanese don’t have an equivalent to ‘good luck’… instead they say ‘ganbatte’ which means ‘try your best.’ At times I’ve felt this to be a little insensitive, say, if one has a headache from studying too much and a friend says ‘try your best!’ instead of ‘take it easy’ or ‘don’t work too hard, now.’ In truth, ‘ganbatte’ is actually one of the nicest things you could say in such a situation in Japan.

10. Informality – This I tend to miss rather often. The Rotary meetings contrast greatly with that of the American ones I’ve attended. Keigo really does emphasize the level of formality present, putting everyone in their proper place on the social steps. That’s not to say the Japanese can’t be friendly with each other. Showing respect is just an extremely important part of living harmoniously with other Japanese, especially those of outside groups. However, even with my host families I haven’t yet been fully permitted to act completely informal. I wonder if it’s because I’m a foreigner… A foreigner can’t really be Japanese no matter how well they speak the language. Maybe it’s my host family… I’m switching families today, so I’ll be able to learn more about different workings of Japanese households again. I have been able to feel my ‘American’ informality come out with friends and even their family members, though.

11. Directness, Honesty – In Japan there are terms called ‘Honne’ and ‘Tatemae’ which translate as private and public stances/feelings/thoughts. Honne is used mostly with close inside groups while Tatemae is used to hide one’s true feelings in order to ‘keep the peace’ with the group. Directness is often considered as pushy or rude, so the Japanese have many expressions and words that convey ambiguity. Other Japanese are used to communicating with such ambiguity and guessing the true feelings hidden behind the polite mask of their companions, but for foreigners Honne and Tatemae can be quite confusing.

12. Practicality and efficiency – One fascinating difference between Japan and America is the amount of ritual in Japan, formed by the build-up of 2000 years of history. There are so many ceremonies and festivals and events that involve special behavior or actions. For example, Ohina Matsuri is a day to celebrate daughters, and gigantic red stairs of dolls are purchased for thousands of dollars to decorate the household. My host family’s living room was small already, but after we set all of the dolls up, we could barely walk around for 3 weeks! These beautiful monstrosities are certainly expensive and impractical for common Japanese households, but they help make Japanese culture as rich as it is. Without those inefficient, impractical rituals I would have had a much less interesting time here.

13. Materialism – Long ago Japan was a country that enjoyed simplicity, taking what one needed to live comfortably. Today materialism is rapidly becoming more commonplace. I’ve heard that some are displeased as to how sacred ceremonies like flower arranging and serving tea is becoming ritualized practices of the rich. The meditation and meaning is seeping away from Japanese culture as the modern age emphasizes the importance of materialism. There’s no doubt that Japan is westernizing, but there is still so much to this country that makes it so unique from anywhere else in the world. I’m so delighted that I can live in such an age in such a place.

Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t elaborate more on these subjects (I probably could have gone on a few hundred more pages or so) but here is basically a bit of what I’ve learned so far. That’s not to say that this is what I will think about Japan before I head home on that plane. Really, there is just too much to learn in one meager year. But this meager year has sparked so much enthusiasm in me to explore the world. There’s so much that I’ve learned about my own culture as well, looking at it from across the world. The quest for knowledge is so much fun ^_^.

April 25 Journal
 Konnichiwa, minna-san!
During the first week of this month my dad visited me in Japan and let me lead him rather aimlessly around three of Japan’s largest and most famous cities- Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. I had been planning this week-long excursion for months.  Practically on my own, I made all of the necessary reservations for hotels (we stayed at a different place…and kind of place… every night) and transportation (night buses to Osaka and Tokyo) for our travels. Since, of the two of us, I spoke the most Japanese, I was also designated to conduct our fate. Hah, by the end we both well learned what it means to put fate in my hands…

After meeting at Japan’s International Airport on April 1st, we headed to our accommodations in Asakusa, Tokyo — the infamous Japanese capsule hotel. We bought our room tickets ($30 apiece) at a vending machine and headed to our individual capsule bedrooms after a nice bath and sauna. The room was actually spacious enough to be quite comfortable, and each capsule was equipped with its own TV set and radio.

The next day we headed to my host family’s house in Kawaguchi to unload unneeded luggage, played in Shibuya, Tokyo, and went to Shinjuku (still Tokyo) to catch our charter bus to Osaka. We arrived at Shinjuku Station around 7:00 pm (the departure time was 9:30 pm) and made sure we found the right bus spot before enjoying some authentic sea urchin, fish egg and fermented soybean sushi. We returned to the bus spot at 9 pm and asked several official people if we were in the right place. 9:25 rolled around and suspiciously, there was still no bus. At the last moment I asked a police man and he told me that the location I wanted was a 10-minute walk away. At that point a few gallons of adrenaline flooded through my body and I ran with all my might back to where my dad was apprehensively waiting. “Can you run???” I shouted toward him. We’re not going to make it, I thought. I shouted “Wait! We need a taxi!” then jumped in the nearest cab and frenetically instructed the driver as to where he needed to go. Poor dad was at the mercy of a teenage girl moving quickly and frantically speaking Japanese. We made it to the bus terminal where I yelled at a departing bus to stop, then asked the driver `You going to Osaka??`… No, wrong bus. But there were still buses in the terminal! It was a few minutes after 9:30. The cab driver came at me with change and told me to give him a 10 dollar bill to pay him. My mind was on other matters so my body obliged. I ran into the terminal asking “Did the Osaka bus leave already??” The other buses destined for other places had all departed except for one. The bus staff tapped on the last bus before it pulled out and made arrangements for dad and I to meet our Osaka bus in Tokyo Disneyland after riding the last one. All our chances but one had run out, but we made it. We were so gracious.

Around 7:00 am we had arrived in Osaka on April 3rd, my birthday. Until hotel check in time at 3:00 we were weary, homeless vagabonds. We found refuge in a karaoke bar where we belted out nostalgic songs. There my dad found a new love – karaoke. We spent the rest of the day exploring, sleeping, and celebrating my newly acquired adulthood at an okonomiyaki restaurant.

After a couple days in Osaka we took a train on over to Kyoto and checked into a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. We were hoping to find some of the well renowned Japanese cherry blossoms, of which there are 3000 kinds. To our dismay, we had arrived a bit early. The temples and gardens we visited would have been twice as breathtaking as they were had the blossoms been out. However, we still fully enjoyed our time in Kyoto, going to a geisha dance performance, a tea ceremony and unique shops.

When we arrived back in Tokyo we spent our time visiting many of the city’s distinct districts. At Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, we sampled some squid ink ice cream as well as other interesting varieties of sea life. We found the Ginza district boasting some of the world’s most expensive land (I heard if you folded up a $100 bill as small as you could make it, it wouldn’t be able to buy the space of Ginza land it took up). We were also lucky to experience a cherry blossom viewing festival in Ueno Park, one of the best spots in the country to see cherry blossoms at their best.

Another remarkable episode was the dinner party that my Rotary club had in honor of my dad. We had a fantastic feast at a Chinese restaurant then went with my counselor to the ritziest karaoke bar I’d ever been to! I could tell it was one of the best nights of my dad’s life. He was so appreciative of everyone in my club and most of the people who encountered and helped us on our journey. I feel so lucky to have been able to share part of this precious experience with someone who understands how precious an experience Japan is.

Til next time, sayonara!

Morgan

May 29 Journal
 Well, I suppose everything’s winding down, eh. The last day of my exchange is June 13. Unfortunately, I had to cut my year a bit short on account of my trip to Australia from June 17 to July 13. However, I’ve had such a full, exciting year that I won’t be leaving this country less than completely satisfied. In truth, I’m looking forward to that day at the airport. With all of the characters from my exchange crying and hugging me. At moments like those it’s so easy to feel love; Love for Japan and love from everyone else. My heart will be tearing apart in that terminal but my predominant emotion will be happiness. Being so happy you’re sad, and so sad you’re happy. It’s what makes humans the life of the universe, emotion. I couldn’t imagine a better way for my year to end.
I remember experiencing another exchange student’s last day at the airport. Karen, my good friend from Australia who went to the same high school as me. I could see vivid torment through her tears before she glanced back at all of her friends for the last time. But I was so happy for her. She was perfect for Japan and she had a perfect year. I thought she had a perfect departure day too. Man, one really sighs a lot the last two weeks before the end of such an adventure…

Kira Chichersky
2004-05 Outbound to Brazil
Hometown: Flagler Beach, Florida
School: Home Schooled
Sponsor: Flagler Beach Rotary Club
Host: São Paulo-Saúde Rotary Club, District 4420, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Kira - Brazil

Kira Chichersky

August 10 Journal

I absolutely LOVE Brazil….it is soo amazing…..Ok ok let me start from the beginning..

I arrived in São Paulo around 8:20 their time…..before I stepped off the plane I knew everything about me and my life, and from the moment I set foot into Brazil my views changed. I stepped into a world where I had absolutely no clue at all…….the signs were all in a language I did not understand, people having conversations around me but the words were unrecognizable to my American ears. The first thing I thought was I have to find my host family. So I followed the crowd of other disoriented exchange students. That led to a very large sign that said welcome to São Paulo which basically meant welcome to customs. We all waited in a very long line together, all nervous and anxious. It seemed like an eternity knowing that just behind the doors in front me awaited my new family and a year of unimaginable treasures to be found.

I walked out those doors with two very large suitcases and there was my first and second host parents and of course my first host sister…they were all there with a sign to welcome me…..I dropped my suitcases right in the middle of the floor and hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed (lots of hugging and kissing). We took many pictures …… which I later found out this would not be the last of them (my first host dad is obsessed with taking pictures), but it’s ok because I love to take pictures and I like being in them too – you know me, I always like to be in the spotlight.

My host sister (which I love to death I can’t imagine not having her in my next family) wasted no time in showing me around town. We went shopping the first day, my mother found that out the hard way (credit card bill). It was worth it.

OH and the food here is to die for OMG. Nanci our cook is the best cook ever….oh yea we have a cook and a maid OMG I was so happy when found out I didn’t have to make my bed.. hehehe

Well I have already started school. It’s not too terrible…..I love the people and I already have lots of friends. The only down side is the getting up early thing (not really a fan that), oh and the fact I have no idea what the teachers are saying but like my daddy told me take it one step at a time, and that’s what I am going to do. That’s all I can do, learn one word at a time and soon I’ll be able to form sentences and then have a full conversation.

Well I have to go become Brazilian

September 18 

OIIII everybody,

WOW…its difficult to explain sooo many feelings in just a few paragraphs……I never imagined you could feel so many different things over such a short period of time…..I have only been here a month and a half and at times it seems like like its been a life time and other times it seems as if I just stepped off the plane……….everybody in Rotary explains your feelings as a exchange student as an emotional roller coaster….but to me it’s more like one minute you’re on one of those rides where you spin and spin and spin and when you get off everything around you is blurry….at those moments I just want my mommy to hold me until the confusion and dizziness stops…..then other moments I’m on top of the ferris wheel, I have a clear view of everything going on…..no one can bring me down.

I have done soo much over these last few weeks…and there is still so much more to come..

My host sister had her 15th birthday party.. and here the 15th birthday for girls is a HUGE thing even bigger that sweet sixteen in the states.. The invitations are even amazing …… my sister’s was a hot pink envelope and when you opened it there was a poster of her inside …..I have never seen an invitation like this before but to them it was completely normal……well, the party was awesome……there were around 200 people!!!!! they closed down a restaurant just for the party…A DJ played and people danced until they could not dance anymore…. Candles were everywhere the eye could see…. it was truly a party fit for a princess.

A couple weeks later we all piled into a car and headed for RIO DE JANEIRO!!!!!!! oh and we piled.. hehehe.. now I know how sardines feel……hehehe….. before we arrived in RIO we made a stop at the Basilica de Aparecida do Norte ….it’s a basilica that’s famous for healing…people come from all over the world just to pray to Nossa Sehora de Aparecida (Mary) and they promise different things if they are healed or their prayer is answered …so there are cases and cases full of statues people made or trophies that were won, all of the walls and the ceiling of this room is covered in pictures of the people that have received a miracle.

Then we headed off to RIO…it was soooo amazing……..mountains and beaches all in the same place….absolutely Amazing!!!!!!!! Rio is home to all of the most beautiful beaches and as my host mother informed me the most beautiful butts as well……lol….yes we spent half the time envying the beautiful butts at Ipanema beach…. lol…. apparently butts are very important here…….I even bought my first Brazilian bathing suit…I was freaking out in the store….there are nothing to them….I could just buy some postage stamps and some dental floss and it would be about the same……hehehehehe

well I have learned a few very important things here in Brazil……these things are very crucial soo pay attention.. hehe

1. Wear your seat belt at all times!!!!!!!!……the driving here is INSANE traffic lights, blinkers, and lanes are all optional…….people here just create lanes… at times I think they all coat there cars in Vaseline just so they can get by one another…..I don’t think there are any traffic laws…..(but I have gotten used to it ..I’ve stopped praying on the way to school)

2. Don’t even both attempting to defend your political viewpoints…..just don’t even try…YOU CAN NOT WIN…….

3. Don’t try to say anything about any American sport other than soccer….no matter how much you explain they still think baseball is that stupid game where us crazy Americans hit a ball with a stick and run around………. hehehe…..

November 16 Journal and Pictures

OMG well I have been through a lot since my last journal.

First off…I have to say I have learned soo much in the past month…I have not only learned new things about myself and conquered things I never thought were possible but I have also come to a new appreciation for my mom and dad. I didn’t know how much I really learned from them. Every right decision I make I make because of them. Because of the morals they have bestowed upon me morals that I have learned not too many people have. They are the reason I am strong enough so I can do anything and that is what goes through my head each and every time I struggle with Portuguese or every time I feel lost or scared I just remember that I can do anything I can do anything because of them. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank them.

Ok Back to the updates….. sorry about the mushey stuff……hehehehe

Anyway, This month my host mom and dad took me to the Broadway play Chicago….It was amazing!!!!!! The entire play was in Portuguese….I was soo happy that I could actually understand what was going on….WHAOOO

Shortly after my encounter with the play Chicago, my family took a vacation to Ilhabela a beautiful island with tons of things to do …….well of course the first two days I was just happy to see a beach and to get some sun …..The city takes a toll on your tan…lol. Well after I regained some color my host dad and I went sailing….yes sailing….can you picture me sailing. I couldn’t until I did it ……he even let me let me steer ….of course I almost tipped the boat over and smacked my host dad in the head.. but I did it…..hehehe. The town reminded me soo much of Flagler Beach, everyone was soo laid back it was a major beach town…..but I think I have been in São Paulo too long because the first few days it was driving me CRAZY……everything was sooo slow. I have gotten so used to the fast paced life of São Paulo but after a few days you really start to appreciate the fact that you aren’t being woken up by planes every 30 min..lol…

***School*** Ok school is still boring but at least now I can understand a little bit more, and the English teachers are letting me help them out with some projects…that’s definitely a plus…..my butt was starting to become permanently attached to that desk…lol…

***Birthdays*** I know one thing I don’t want to be here for my birthday…..here when you have a birthday at school they crack eggs over your head…and some people even pour a bag of flour on you…I think they missed the concept of baking a cake for the birthday kid not turning them into the cake….hahahah

***USA*** Something I have found out here is that a lot of people have very strong opinions about America and our President….I have been asked every question you can possibly think of …even to the extent of being asked if I like Bin laden!!!!!! People have told me they want to kill Americans and puke on my flag….they even wear shirts that advertise there opinions……These comments are coming from people who have NEVER been to the states and are just going by hearsay….as much as theses comments hurt me …..and make me incredibly sad….I have learned to keep my mouth shut and keep my head up…..that was a very big breakthrough for me….. But on the other hand everyone here loves to wear American clothes, eat American food, watch American TV, and speak our ….hehehe

** Rotary Trip** I just had the best week ever…I just got back from my first Rotary trip….It was a blast …..140 exchange students all in one town. if you get that many exchange students together a trip Wal-mart is exciting…lol. We all headed to Pantanal and Bonito….it was amazing they had activities planned for us everyday. We went to a park with 14 waterfalls…it was truly a sight out one of those natural geographic magazines….there was even a waterfall where you can jump 18 meters off a platform straight into the water below the falls….standing on top of the platform staring down is one of those contemplating moments …. all I could think was you only live once go for it!!!! and I did!!! Just one quick little tip, don’t jump from that high up in a bikini.. it doesn’t end well….lol….

From there we went snorkeling and rafting…the water there was crystal clear…it was perfect… It was like looking into another world.

The group had a couple of optional activities that they could take part in …..and one of them was rappelling 70 meters into a cave and then snorkeling down in the formation filled waters. well only three girls seized that opportunity…and I was one of them…all I have to say is that was one of the most amazing and fulfilling things I have ever done, it was definitely one of those things I will never forget (and I took enough pictures to be sure of that..heheh)….

Well me and two other girls headed off to complete our adventurous task…On your way down to the cave the first things you notice is this little wheat thin with ants floating in the water …as you get closer you realize that the wheat thin is the platform we are supposed to land on and the ants are the people …lol… After rappelling down to the wheat thin…hehehe… the other girls and I attempted to get into our wet suits…key word attempted …omg…it was like a comedy routine…well after we accomplished that rather difficult task…lol…we hopped into the freezing cold water (18° c….you convert that to F ….you expect me to do it? I haven’t done math in 3 months..lol) and swam around the stalagmites for a couple hours…that is an experience I will never forget, being that close. After we swam around in awe for 3 hours it was time to conquer our next challenge Rappelling back up the cave…hehehe….easier said than done…hehehe…after arriving at the surface tired and a little bruised where the harness had been…lol…I looked down at this huge crevice in the earth and was like WOW I just climbed up that….I accomplished something I never thought in a million years I could do.

So far this is what my exchange has been – conquering things I never thought I could do.

Words of wisdom for upcoming exchange students: Learn anything anyone is willing to teach you, and try everything… you only live once!!!

December 26 Journal 

Hey everybody!!!!!!!!!!!

Nov 27th, it was time too switch families. It was time to pack up all the junk I had accumulated over the past 4 months (let’s just say I’m going to need 2 more suitcases before the year is over) and head out to my next adventure. No matter how horrible or wonderful this family was I was still leaving the only way of life I knew here in Brazil. I was diving head first into a dark hole not knowing what was at the bottom or who was going to be there to catch me, if anyone at all.

Well my new family not only caught me but carried me into their home and embraced me into their hearts. They are more than I ever could have asked for. They have truly accepted me into their family. I LOVE my brother and sister. I have never had a brother before so this was a whole new experience. My brother Victor (14) is the sweetest kid ever and my sister Laima (17) is like my best friend.

Just last week I went to visit my American friend for a week in a city 2 hours from here. When I arrived back at my host house I had the same feeling you get when your away from your home for awhile. I was so happy to see my host mom and my bed and my house. It was the sensation that I was home. That was when I realized I am really starting to fit in here.

~CHRISTMAS~ I had an awesome Christmas! My entire family got together and had Christmas eve dinner at my grandma’s house with a bunch of relatives. We had a very diverse crowd that night. My host dad is Polish, my host mom is Lithuanian, plus another exchange student from France and me representing the U.S.A. Within one table we represented half the globe. Let’s just say there were a quite a few languages going around the table that night … hehehe

They say Christmas is a tough time for all of us and this is when we will start to get really homesick….and they were right….I am not going to lie I cried A LOT…… being away from my family for Christmas was really really difficult…. but I wouldn’t trade Christmas in Brazil with people I have grown to love for anything.

FELIZ NATAL (MERRY CHRISTMAS)

February 14 Journal 

Wow this month has gone by soooo fast (as have the last 6 months). OMG I can not believe I have been gone for 6 months!! I can still remember leaving my family at the airport and watching them through the clear glass window as they got farther and farther away and then getting on that plane and heading off to my year of adventures. It’s like it was just yesterday. Every single person in Rotary told us that in the blink of an eye we would be home, but I didn’t really believe them. I mean come on!!! An entire year is a long time, right??? Wrong, when you are an exchange student it’s not. Rotary takes the clock that we run our lives by and they throw it out the window!!!!!!! I am sooo jealous of the new exchange students. They have no idea how lucky they are to be starting their adventures now, and they won’t understand until they have been here for 6 months and are updating their journals. I guess that’s just the way it works.

Ok, well I guess I’ll start from the beginning. New Year’s in Brazil!!!! It was quite a different experience. My family and I drove down to their beach house, which is always thrilling (the beach does wonders for the “whiteness”). When we arrived at our destination (3 days before New Year’s) I expected to relax for a few days before the festivities began. What was I thinking??? That would be what would happen in the states, but this is Brazil. Therefore the party had already started. I felt like I was in the middle a war zone due to the immense amount of fireworks going off overhead. Day in and day out all you heard were fireworks and of course the sound of the dogs going absolutely INSANE.

Then at last the night I had been anticipating had arrived. New Year’s Eve was upon us. Everyone dresses in white (for purity) and at midnight we all walk down to the beach. The sand is aglow with thousands of people, each one holding a candle, waiting for the new year to arrive. After the countdown almost everyone walks down to the water and jumps seven small waves for luck. It was a wonderful way to welcome in 2005.

~BIG TRIP~

Jan 3rd I headed off to my big trip with Rotary for 31 days. It was sooo amazing. This trip was a tour of the entire northeast of Brazil which is famous for its amazing beaches. On the way to paradise we stopped off at the capitol, Brasilia. This is probably the most interesting city I have ever been to (architecturally speaking). All of the buildings look as if they are from another planet. They are all shaped to look like discs and spheres (it was very “sci fi”). Aside from the architecture, the highlight of this part of the adventure was getting to have a political debate with our tour guide (and in Portuguese no less….heheheh…).

Our next stop was Lengois. A quaint little town with a lot of character and many treasures waiting to be discovered. Our first priority was to visit the natural wonders this town had to offer, but to get to our destination required A LOT of hiking ……..more hiking then I have done in my entire life!!!!!! My legs were quite mad at me for some time (they miss Florida and the lack of hills). The pain was well worth it. We saw the most beautiful waterfalls, natural swimming pools and caves in the world. One of the waterfalls was not like any waterfall I have ever seen. It was more like a thin layer of water running down this huge, flat, slanted rock. We were all allowed to slide down the waterfall on our butts!!! NATURE’S WATER SLIDE. It was a blast!!

After our day of sight seeing we had some free time WHAOO!! We were all very happy when we had free time. So what do you think we did???? shopping !!!! of course …. as exchange students our job is to buy as much junk to remember our stay as possible…lol. After cleaning the stores out, a few exchange students and I sat down to enjoy the scenery and listen for the sound of foreigners (there were a lot in that town). When suddenly we see half the group of exchange students running down the street.. of course we didn’t think anything of it ….I mean we’re exchange students, we randomly do strange things. It turns out Orlando Bloom was staying in a hotel nearby….crazy huh?? He even came by and took a look at our hotel and talked with some of the some of the exchange students. Needless to say, all of us girls were on cloud nine for a couple of days.

Finally the beach!!!!!!

We arrived at our first beach of the trip. It was amazing. My best friend and I were able to go horseback riding down the beach. Imagine, watching waves crash on the shore…. washing up sand dollars while you gallop down the coast. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, huh??

One of the best parts of the entire trip was probably the times we got to spend with each other on the buses. We lived in those buses for almost a month. We were bound to get close and have some good times. Between the great talks with friends, movies, arguing over the music and the volume at which it was played, only brought us closer.

We all left that trip with a new knowledge of Brazil and friendships that will last forever. Oh and you can’t forget, a few back aches as well….lol…hey, try sleeping on that bus. We tried everything. My friend and I even attempted sleeping in the overhead compartment …hehehe.. what can I say, we are exchange students.

June 18 Journal 

Wow… this journal has taken me a long time to write!!! I guess it’s because I know it’s going to be my last……. I hope everyone has enjoyed them, and trust me, when I get home there will be many more tales to tell.

So here it is, the end of the chapter, and the beginning of a new book.

March 5th… it was time to switch families again! Switching families is by far the most dreaded part of the exchange. Not knowing what to expect and thinking about what you are leaving behind, and of course there is the packing issue (never fun… and for some reason my suitcases seem to shrink as the year goes on….). Well I arrived at my new host family’s home. It took an adjustment period of about two seconds before I was completely part of the family. I have a wonderful mom named Thais who loves to shop (good for me … bad for my credit card), a brother Guilerme (14), who takes great pleasure in annoying me whenever he possibly can, and a maid named Edna (22) who to me is more like a sister. She is sooo sweet! We have a lot of fun together. I really love my new family (I know I’ve said that before but this time I really feel connected to them). They really are my family!

Speaking of family, my very own American family came to visit in March! I stood in the airport clutching the cold metal rails as I stared anxiously at the double doors in front of me (the very same doors I had passed through into my new life 7 months before). It was the strangest feeling, because for the longest time I had two separate lives. My life, my family here in Brazil, and my life and family back home. Now one life was going to merge with the other. I was not sure what was going to happen or how I was going to feel, but I wanted to find out. The next thing I knew I was in my family’s arms! I didn’t know how much I missed them and how much I had been fighting to be strong until I was in their arms again. All of the stress and all of the fears and doubts just went away. I was with them and that was all that mattered. We had a great 10 days! I showed them around the entire city of São Paulo (and it is a big city…hehehe). They got to have a glimpse into my Brazilian life. They met my friends, saw my house and school and some random things that are a part of my daily life. It was wonderful that they came, but it was even worse when they had to leave. Having to say goodbye all over again was hard, but it was worth it.

Rotary meetings are usually not the highlight of the year, but I knew that this particular meeting was going to be special because my parents were in town (but I never would have imagined how special). It was the night of my presentation (you know… the presentation every exchange student dreads… speaking about your life in another language). Finally the presentation was over! All the attention was off of me…or so I thought. But my daddy had a presentation of his own! He stood up and sang a song that he had written for me. It was called “On Santa’s Knee” and it was all about watching me grow up every year at Christmas. Definitely a “tear jerker”. Then about 5 minutes and a box of tissues later the president of my club called my name and had me and my family stand up next to the podium. They presented me with a Paul Harris!! One of the highest awards in Rotary that you can receive. They donate $1000 in your name to the Rotary Foundation. Of course I was, to say the least, shocked! Shocked and extremely happy.. soo of course the first thing I did was call AL….hehehe!

PS. I also figured out what our Rotary blazers are for…they are to keep us occupied during Rotary meetings…heheh

~Soccer~

Ok, well it is basically impossible to leave Brazil without getting obsessed with soccer. It is everywhere you look. Fans of opposing teams wearing their team’s t-shirts with pride in class. Friends that are as close as friends could be still looking at each other like “I love you, but that shirt”. The question “What team are you” goes along with what’s your name and age… I went to my first soccer game back in May and I was hooked from then on. There were massive amounts of people!! Everybody was screaming and chanting and they never sat down. It was great! Oh and this is for Bruno…SPFC é o melhor time do mundo 😛

It seems like I have been here only a few weeks! It has gone by that fast! But at the same time, when I look back to that first day (or even the first 3 months) it’s as if I’m looking through an album of old baby pictures. That person seems so young and naive to me. Never in a million years would I have imagined when I first arrived that I would be where I am today. If someone would have told me when I got of the plane that in 10 months I would be speaking Portuguese without even thinking about it I would have looked at them like they were insane!!!!! But they would have been right, go figure!!

I never thought that my last month would be this hard. It is the most horrible feeling to think that you’re not going to see your friends and your family (the people that have taken you into their lives and have been there through all the smiles and all the tears). It is a weird feeling that you are not going to see them everyday. I am a part of Brazil and Brazil is a part of me! And no matter how long I am gone or how many other places I visit, Brazil will always be in my heart. My advice is: go out and make your mark on the world… but on the way let them make their marks on you too.

Tchau

Michael Criswell
2004-05 Outbound to Poland
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club,
Host: Łódź Rotary Club, District 2230, Poland

Michael - Poland

September 15 Journal

Czesc!
When I first got out of the airport and saw Warsaw and Poland I had to ask myself what the hell was I doing here! Poland is not the place you see in the pictures, at least the ones I was looking at! Here it’s a beautiful mess, you have to either love it or hate it and so far I love it! You can still see the effects of WWII and things here are not kept up.

I feel like I am at home until I hear someone speak Polish or when we drive down the road at 140 km an hour on horribly paved roads and going the wrong way to pass a car, while another is coming your way and you barely miss it thanks to speed! No, it’s not that bad, but it does give you an adrenaline rush! I will never complain about U.S. drivers again!

I really can’t say that I fit in yet or am picking up things because I have been traveling Poland for the last 3 weeks. The 1st week I was in my parents’ country house and the other two were in Lublin and in Toruq. I do however have some vocabulary in my head but it comes and goes as it pleases.

On another note I don’t think it’s ever possible to escape walking down an aisle dedicated to 20 different types of mayo and mowing the lawn!

Okay, back to the country house, it was wonderful! Everyday I could walk down the dirt road and go swimming in the lake, it was cold, but I could do it. Everything we ate was great and fresh, like: eggs, cream, cheese, and cottage cheese, wait one more…eel! Most of the stuff we could get down the road is from “our farmers”, as my host mom calls them. My 3rd day in Poland my host mom let me wonder Plock for 2 hours BY MYSELF! At that time all I could say was tak and nie (yes and no).

My 1st day of school was yesterday September 13th. School went well, but when it was time to go I had to take the tramvi (tram) back home. I was dropped off by car that morning and the worst thing is I had to take two tramvis to get home. So I got on #12 and I went until I hit downtown. I hopped off because the traffic was really bad and I could walk the rest of the way to the next tramvi. So I hopped onto #11 and kept riding and riding and riding it….. where am I. I’m in the next town… I know at some point that it will turn around and go back, so I keep on going and going and going…. I’m in another town! I know it will turn around sometime and it finally does. I find myself back in Lodz, I’m SO lost! I saw two police officers going by on the tramvi so I get off and ask them if they could help me. They escort me to where some taxis are and I took one home. The journey home should have cost me $0.25, but the whole journey was around $5.00. My lil’ adventure was about 4 HOURS LONG! No one was happy with me that night …….after they came back from looking for me.

Well on a good note I think my body finally adjusted to the Polish food, I just have to watch out for the cabbage! Lol

Other random things…. toilets are different here, you have to walk around the house in slippers, some people don’t use deodorant, lunch (dinner) is around 2-2:30. My school is one of the best in Lodz and it does not have a lunchroom so you eat in the halls. There is one other exchange student in Lodz who lives across town. Lodz is the 2nd largest city in Poland, their are about 50-60 exchange students total in Poland. Another thing is strange, you can leave milk out on the counter for a long time. I think I lost some weight, the scales are European, so don’t get too excited (I know this from experience). I also had to buy a new camera already because the one I brought with me broke. I have not been able to find Fuji film 400 anywhere, just Kodak 200. If you want nice pictures I need Fuji film 400 and higher.

Anyways…..I just wanted to shout to all of my friends I left behind in the states and to tell my folks that I love them.

Czesc,

Michael

November 1 Journal

CzeϾ

Okay it’s been awhile since I have entered a journal entry. So, after my 1st week in Plock at my parent’s country house, I came back to Łódź for about 2 days, then I left for Lublin for a week and a half, for a language camp. Yeah, it was a blast, during the day we would tour Lublin or nearby towns. We even went to a spa. I also got to see a death camp, near Lublin, called Maidanek that was a really sad part of the trip. After that we would all head back to our dorms and eat lunch then we would walk to our lessons, they were about 3 hours everyday. It was hard to understand because she didn’t speak English, this was just an eye opener for later. At night we could roam “Old Town” which is the older part of Lublin. We could go there and go to a pub, sit and talk, ya know the normal stuff. Throughout our stay we had a guide/mom to take care of us during the day, and sometimes at night. Justyna (guide) even went with us on the train to Toruq for our Rotary meeting, but she didn’t stay and left on the next train back to Lublin.

The meeting was for another 3 days, and it was right after the language camp. At the Rotary meeting we all met the other exchange students within Poland. There are 60 of us in Poland (some were missing). We all went home on the train, some of us in different directions, but on the train you meet a lot of different people. You remember the ones that drool in their sleep and wake up to drool still dangling from their lip, after this moment laughing was the hardest thing to keep from doing. When I got home I tried to have a normal routine, but proved impossible.

My class went to London for a week, but I didn’t go because they had already planned it and it was a little short notice for me and them. The class has one crazy teacher, too bad, he is a History teacher. I even fell asleep in his class and everyone knew, they tell me that he doesn’t like me. But who cares, he’s crazy! There has been a lot of boring days at school, but I still manage.

On one weekend I helped my host-mom take care of the graves of her grandfather, mother and father. The first one was stone so I had scrubbed it and I also went and fetched water. Now her father’s grave was set up like a flower bed, but….there were no flowers in it!! There were weeds to my waist with concert soil, so I ended up pulling all of them while she went off to buy flowers. This was an experience no matter good or bad!

I was even invited to a Polish b-day party by someone I didn’t even know, but he knew me. When you turn 18 in Poland it’s like turning 21 in the US. Just use your imagination. The next day I came down with a stomach virus, I was out all day with it. Before this I had a cough and the whole family swore I had the flu so I had to stay home for two days. I wasn’t sick, I just had a cough and the runny nose.

What is really good, every day after school I come home to eat dinner (lunch). You don’t eat dinner at school it is more like a snack. Everything here is so healthy, I even lost weight when Rotary said I would gain some.

AHH now is the time I left for Berlin! Okay on the 13th I got on the train to Warsaw about 2 hours away to meet Abby and some others…..Warsaw has like 3 stops so on the ticket it tells me the very last one, I thought Warsaw was supposed to look nice. Wrong, I was to get off in Central station which I didn’t see the sign. So, I got off on the rundown station on the other side of town. So luckily I got on the train to Berlin and meet up with Abby, Laura, Felipe and some of the kids from Mexico. This was a 7-hour train ride and while we were on the train they decided to tell me that we didn’t have reservations for us (Abby and I), but no one had them for the first night either (good planning). We went to the Hostel and they didn’t have any rooms left so they reserved a room for us on other side of Berlin. The kids from Mexico decided to leave us and get another hotel instead. The four of us that were left headed off on the S-Bahn (tram) to the other side of Berlin to get to our hostel. We all get off the tram and we all have our luggage. I see a bum’s cart and threw all our luggage into it. I decided to take it for a spin. It was fun!!!! WOOT! We pulled up in our pimp cart with people outside staring at our ride. I paid for the hostel and we pulled up to our stairs and parked the cart. Oh, by the way a hostel is different than a hotel; a hostel is where you have bunk-beds and you can choose the option to be with strangers. This is when I found out what a hostel was! This was our private room with 4 bunks, we didn’t have a bathroom, so we have to use a public one. It was really nice… we’re in BERLIN!! Felipe brought all his food b/c it’s really expensive in Berlin. He had a can of pork and we opened it and God was it nasty!!!! So I opened the window and threw the pork out the window and left the can on the ledge. We got up around 10:00am and got online to see what we wanted to do for the day. Ohh the bum took back his cart that night.

At the other hostel that we were to stay at, there was a sex museum right next to it. So we went to that for about 2 hours, then around 2:00pm we went on a free tour of Berlin for about 3 hours. We got to see a lot of things… and our guide was really good… we went back to the hostel right next to the sex shops in the middle of Berlin, it was a very nice area, but as soon as you step out off the stairs to the hostel you see “Bar 69″and a sign “WORLD OF SEX”. That’s the best place to put a hostel. Anyways, after all that we did, we waited for the other group that was to arrive on day (14th). On the 15th the four of us went on a bike tour that was cool, we did see the same things plus more b/c it was about 17euro plus a guide and we were on bikes. That night we all went on this Club tour, for 10 euro they take you to 4 clubs/pubs. Let’s just say I had a really good time! On the day of the 16th I went out by myself to explore parts of Berlin that I didn’t see before. I even found a book seller on the side of the road where I bought a gift for my god parents. This was the day I found out that I didn’t have any money when I tried to withdraw some from my account. Thank god I bought food for the week. After about 4 hours around Berlin by foot I came back on the S-Bahn and found that Julie (a girl from Australia) was now in our room; for 2 nights it was just 3 of us in a 10 person bedroom. Julie is hard of hearing which is cool b/c because my 2nd language is ASL, but I knew that Aussie sign was different. So that night her and I talked about sign and she even taught me some Australian sign while I taught her more of ASL. Everyone decided to go to the club so I stayed behind, I didn’t have any money.

I recommended the tours we went on, so the next day (17th), I went with her on the free tour to help translate. The guide was bouncing around to much she couldn’t see his lips and I couldn’t hear him very well too, so I translated for her what I learned two days before. She paid for a couple of things for me because of what I was doing for her and of course like me, I said “thank you” like a 100 times for something really inexpensive. I even showed her things that the tour didn’t go on. Monday I was to go home, but I told my host parents I was to be home on Sunday, oops! Plus, my phone was dead and had some stupid code lock on it and I had no money! So Monday we were to start heading home on the train at 6:31am, but….. I was misdirected so many times that I missed the train!! I was so mad, I had to force a smile on my face to the lady that I bought my ticket from! I returned to the hostel and sat in the lobby. I had to wait until 12:00pm so I was going to wait for Julie to get up so I could eat with her. To my surprise I was not the only one that missed the train, Laura and Felipe missed it too! So I had company. I ate with Julie and we said our goodbyes and she left to tour more of Berlin. Laura, Felipe and I got on the train but we had to split up, but I got to see them two times afterwards. I got home around 9:00pm and was yelled at for an hour, then I took a shower and stayed up some and went to bed. The next day they let me sleep in and skip school.

Ahh, but the best thing is… I got a haircut!! It’s been about two months and I needed one before I left, yeah it was a big mop on my head. Now I look like every other Polish boy, I have a military cut.

Well again I left town on the 26th of Oct. my host mom and I left for Krynica Zdrsi she was to stay in a private spa and I was to stay in a hotel by myself. But during the day she was to leave to go to the next town in Nowycz at the High Business School (college), one of, or the best in Poland. She gives lectures to her students. Well for me there isn’t much in Krynica. I think I saw everything in 4 hours, that also included hiking and getting lost. But this town is famous for its spring water. They have a place where you can try about 4 different types of spring water. UWAGA!!! All water tastes really bad, some taste like sulphur and one like salt water. So I guess this was my time to relax and do nothing and that’s what I did. But on the way back (29th)the trip should have taken 4 hours but we hit all kinds of traffic. but when there are 30 cars on the road its called a jam here, I can only laugh if they came to Jacksonville during traffic hour, lol.

Oct. 30th we went for our grocery shopping, but when it was time to leave I was carrying the bags with a smoked eel head sticking out of the bag looking back at me. This is when I knew I really wasn’t home. But I have really come accustomed to being here, it feels really normal and I also feel like part of the family. But I have to leave in December. 🙁

Today on Oct. 31, my family went to the cemetery to celebrate “Saints Day” a day early, we put flowers and candles on all the graves of their ancestors. Then afterwards more family came to the house to eat dinner but they all ended up staying till supper. To me it felt more like Thanksgiving on Halloween, because it took us 6 hours to eat. During this we talked about memories of the past, we also ate everything off silver plates, dishes and silverware. It was really fancy, this would be the first I had a great meal on Halloween.

Well I really want to say THANK YOU Rotary! So far I’m having a really good time, I’m really happy that Al came to our school and then me taking the inspired whim to give the contact info to go through with the program. THANKS again! You too Al! I even had someone tell me that I have grown up more already [you know how you are 😉 ]. Ohh, Al, Anna (my host-mom) sends her best Greetings!

CzeϾ

Micha

P.S. I think I have had more fish here than I have ever had in FL….? :ponders:

January 9 Journal

Czesc!

From the last entry I have witnessed my town erupt into a riot! I believe every policeman in the town was there with riot gear on. Do you want to know why this happened? There was a soccer match between two teams in Lodz. I was in the downtown area when this happened, I could hear the teams chanting their songs in Polish over the sirens and the traffic jam. After I witnessed several policemen running in a perfect march I made sure that my friend Marta got on her bus safely and I left myself.

As some history, there have been many deaths at these games between the two teams, thank God no one died during this game.

Well I wasn’t to move to my next host family until December 1st, but I was to visit them for a couple of days in Nov. Wednesday of that week I went out that night with my host sister, we went to “Club Cube”. The next day for the first time I got to ride a horse, I rode English style. It was fun! Ohh … ouch! After the horseback riding it took me an hour to get out of bed. Let’s see Saturday, I went to downtown area of Lodz, the day started out good but as time went by I wasn’t feeling so hot, so I called up one of my host sisters and asked if she could take me home. I almost didn’t make it home, like I said before Polish roads aren’t very good. I slept for about 3 hours and the rest of the time I was puking my guts up until 3 in the morning. The next day I was still not feeling so keen, but I got up to move around a bit and the dog attacked me! Yeah you heard right, the housekeeper is my witness. The dog chopped right down on my hand, I pulled up quickly and she followed. So now I’m at the point with my hand raised with a dog attached to it. This is no small dog either! On its back legs it’s taller than me, I’m 5’11 so just use your imagination. So the housekeeper had to beat the dog off me. Puma, the dog only ripped the top layer of skin but a few weeks later I still feel where she bit me. Thank God I was wearing my new coat when Puma bit me – she had to bite though my coat and to my hand, she tore a little hole in it, but better the coat than my hand. The next day the housekeeper had a chance to get a whack at me! I was lying on the conch and reading a book. By psychic ability I got up right before the vacuum, from the second story, landed right where I was lying. During this time I stayed longer than I was expected, and all I could think that this family was out to get me!

Mom sent me a package containing peanut butter, vest, coat, 2 boxes of corn bread mix, can of pumpkin pie, 1 can of evaporated milk (for pumpkin pie), 3 books, socks, a pair of jeans, two pairs of sun glasses (which I don’t need now, I haven’t seen the sun in a month) Later when everyone was home, (1st host family) a couple of days later past Thanksgiving I cooked Thanksgiving for 6 people. Well… It was a lot harder; maybe the thought of it was harder than it sounds. Well Poland has nothing really, like the states so I had to make everything from scratch except pumpkin pie and corn bread! Well I had one thing missing, we didn’t have a turkey! So we had chicken instead, I know this killer recipe that will never dry out your turkey/ chicken. But in the end, it turned out great, everyone was stuffed and I was happy. A few days later I left to my second host family.

While I was still living with my 1st host parents they left me home alone for two weeks, well the housekeeper came every other day to check up on me and to see if I had food or not. During this time I saw a couple of movies at the “Silver screen”.

I forgot to tell but this new family lives outside of Lodz in the village of Biala. Just about everything is grown in their garden out back. Umm… I have 3 host sisters, Zuzia 16, Ann 19, and Ewa 26. Ewa’s flat is being redone. My host parents (Mamo and Tato), own one of the two Ford Dealerships in Lodz. Both Grandmas visit often. I feel sorry for my host dad – he’s the only male in the house, even all the pets are female. Tato and I both have one thing in common so far, we both like to take pictures! He has a really nice digital (Sony) camera that could make you cry.

One day I skipped school, I know it was wrong but I left my tooth brush at my last host parents so I had to go get it, but on the way back to school I’ve been wanting to stop for months at the market and look around. The smell of fresh vegetables and smelly old people really made me happy, I don’t know why. But what I do know is that I was in another country and it was sunny which is rare in Lodz and the total atmosphere was great. So I left, I was in a better mood when I arrived back to school.

Poland isn’t as cold as everyone said it would be, but it stays around 0-5C or higher around the Lodz area. The only thing that kills me is the wind!

Like I said I went to the movies a couple of times, most of them are American. But while I was watching “Sky Captain” I heard some people talking in English, after the movie I introduced myself and I found out they were from Kentucky! So we hung out for an hour at the mall. They were there because of a church group but they travel around a lot.

A funny thing happened, maybe you had to be there, but my Mamo told Zuzia and I to bring in some pots from the car, Zuzia told me later “I almost dropped it, I saw a Spiderman” I nearly dropped dead from laughter. But then I knew how much western culture is influencing the East.

Okay back to more traveling Dec. 15-17 I went with my host parents to Zackopane. This is a mountainous area of Poland, not the rolling type mountains that most of Poland has but ones that look very sharp and jagged. Before we got there we stopped to have a late dinner early supper at a restaurant. Mamo didn’t know what to get me so she got me four soups, a potato pancake type thing, plus some beef and then she stuffed me with pierogi. I didn’t eat anything until 12:00pm the next day. Ohh Zackopane is the best place I have been in Poland, it was so pretty! I had a tour guide, guide me around Zackopane all day on the 16th. He took me up a trail in the Mt. And then we saw some ski jumps then up one of the oldest cable cars in Europe. I was about 2km above sea level. I took many pictures and they turned out great. We had dinner and then saw a couple of museums and more of Zackopane. I had my own hotel again; my host parents had a meeting with all the Ford dealerships in Poland. As a gift Mamo bought me a traditional pin of this region to put on my Rotary Blazer. It was very nice gift, I thanked her many times.

Saturday the 11th I went with my host parents to a concert, classical music that is… but it ended up really good. The songs with the choir were the best. But during this one of the singers fell down/ sat down. I kinda got worried but she seemed okay, but that Monday a girl from my class introduced herself to me. She said she saw me at the concert and if I wanted I could get cheaper tickets if I wanted. But to finish her mother was the one that sat down, her mom did a concert the day before and was tired from practicing too.

Well my host sister goes to school number 4 and I go to 26. So I decided to try out this school, OMG it is ten times better than the school I was at. So now I go to school number 4. But the bad thing is I’m going to miss the friends I made at 26, but I’ll have contact with them, it’s just two trams away from school to school.

Well Rotary had another meeting for all the exchange students. Most of us came. We stayed in Wroclaw, south Poland. We were all to arrive at the hotel on Friday. The next day they took us around Wroclaw. The group of us were taken to the Panorama Raclawicka, which is a round painting but it has a 3-D detail with it and it’s kinda trippy to watch one spot and then walk away from it, don’t do this too much it could make you sick! They took us to the Mathematical Tower; it has a really nice view of Wroclaw. We were to make things for kids in hospitals but we never got to give them there gifts, plus not everyone knew about bringing the gifts. We made ribbon things with international greetings on them to hang on x-mas trees in the Market Place, then after dinner we were to hang them, then sing x-mas carols. But we only hung the ribbons, but later that night we found them all over the Market Place, so it was a waste of time plus a big mess for someone else. Ohh and we didn’t sing, thank God! But as exchange students we know how to turn anything fun. Really the only thing I have to complain about is the lack of food! I was starving the whole time. But it was ten times better than the Torun meeting. Another thing Rotary even gave us warm wine to drink during the meeting. A lot of people didn’t drink it, but I thought it really good. Lets see the next day I left and Tato picked me up from the train station.

Well we had to go and pick up Ann from a “Main street” but we found her at the pub and she really liked this guy. Her father comes in says hi and sits down with them, let’s just say that Tato got an ear full later in the car about how he embarrassed her. I had a part in the embarrassment too, but that’s way too boring. But when we got home Zuzia told us she had something better than that. Her father came into the club and walked over to the DJ and got him to announce, “Zuzia Mieszek, please go to the exit, your daddy is waiting.” Yeah I know I would be the same way. But later Zuzia shows us 3 video clips of her dancing, Ann and I almost or did die from laughter.

Christmas came around and that was completely different! On Christmas Eve you have a 12-course meal with many family members. Then you have 3 days of Christmas. During this time all you do is eat and eat and eat some more! Also I think I gained back all my weight that I lost during my stay in Poland, just in a few days. We also had many pictures taken during this time and some short videos. Tato didn’t know that Ewa was recording, but he was just in his boxers and then he started to act like a monkey then to acting like he was showing off his muscles. Then Ewa says that she was recording, his face went white and closed the bathroom door.

New Years! On the 30th I went to Poznan to see a few exchange friends. They’re all from different countries: India, Canada and the US. That Thursday it was raining so I didn’t get to see Poznan, but we went to the center for New Years. They had a live concert playing but right at 10 min. the power went out. So we still had a count down anyways. We had a bottle of champagne with us so we shook it everywhere and on everyone. Then we each had a sip, that’s how much was left. At the end bottles were everywhere smashed and people left by the dozens to the buses. So we went on an over crowded bus, we got off and had a party at a friend’s house. The next day, well by the time everyone got ready we left around 2:00pm and it starts to get dark around 4:00pm now. So I saw Poznan’s lake (it had no water) in the dark, plus everything was closed too. The next day it just didn’t happen so I still didn’t get to see Poznan and everything was still closed. But there is always next time!

While I was in Poznan I saw that the exchange students there can speak better Polish than I can, well they have great host families plus they have class each week which Rotary pays for. Well I don’t have any lessons here. I can see why I’m having trouble here with the language. Even basic lessons could help me. So I talked with my host dad (Rotary President) to see what he could do, he said he’s going to ask.

Lately I have also picked up yoga, actually I had my doubts about yoga, but it’s really good for you and I’m still attending the classes. Ohh my host sister Ewa got me into it. She takes the lessons too.

Well this is the latest so far, but it seemed that there was confusion with my last entry plus some rumors here. If you didn’t know most Europeans are very comfortable with sexual oriented things. But where our Hostel was, was in the nicest part of Berlin! We had to pay more for it…etc. But some people thought that my journal entry made a lot of people mad, plus there was confusion with the rumors. I can see maybe why I made some people mad, using names in the entry, not completely getting all the plans straight, but isn’t that part of being an exchange student? People have to learn from their mistakes, most of us can’t be told that something is bad, we have to do it ourselves so we never do it again, or plan better so things like this don’t happen again. So from what I was told by my first host family is that, Rotary got word that Berlin police had trouble with Rotary students from Poland. But I can only speak for myself is that I never had contact with the police in Berlin.

Anyways if you read this whole thing all the way though you must be really bored by now. Just a tad bit more, I really enjoy this new family, well my host parents don’t speak English and so I’m forced to really use Polish to communicate with them plus I have siblings to talk with. I have stuff to do now, plus I can bug my siblings if I’m bored…lol and I’m making friends faster at this new school than my last one. I guess it’s confidence as well, plus this school is not so into their schoolwork, it makes it a little easier. Well thanks again Rotary I can’t have all this if it weren’t for ya’ll! Man I miss my southern accent; I’m picking up a British accent.

Czesc!

MICHAEL CRISWELL

April 28 Journal

A couple of months have passed by… but I’m still alive! I decided that I should update my journal entry since it’s been about 4 months…I did the journal once but I had so much to say that it would bore you to death! So I now have the shorter version.

16th of January – I went to Krakow!!! I arrived four hours earlier than everyone else! So I decide to go and get a heads up on parts of Krakow. So I went and saw the Square. It had to have been the size of two football fields or bigger! There was a church on the square and it has to be the prettiest church I have ever seen in Poland! But it started to get darker so I went back to the hostel and I ended up watching a movie with the lady that watches over the hostel. Later I went and picked up the others from the train station.

17th of January – We saw the Gestapo Prison in Krakow. Then we went back to the square to look around and in the shops…afterwards my memory got all mixed up in my journal since I wrote it a week later! The group of us also went to the Concentration Camp Of Auschwitz. Also to the Wawel Royal Castle and the Cathedral there. Also the Muzuem of Farmacji (Pharmacy). It was the history of medicine. We also got to see a few things not a lot of people get to see. Their were cabinets in one room and we asked to see inside, the guide was stunned b/c no one not even herself saw what was inside…nothing special, just some extra medicines that was shown off in other places in the Muzuem.

26th of January – After six months of being here I finally start Polish lessons!

5th of February – That day was not so good for me! I got really depressed was not really in the mood for anything. This is my 1st time that I really got depressed with my exchange. That night I went to Lodz, I almost cried in the car, I had to get things off my mind so I went to a movie. After the movie I bought a “Times” magazine, the whole thing was about Happiness, I really needed it! When I was picked up I was in a better mood!

12th-19th of February – So I went to Slovakia for a ski trip! Yeah 6 days of skiing, I about died when I got back home, but I couldn’t! It was Ann’s B-day! So a few family members came over as well, but the change in food was nice instead of snicker bars and cafeteria food!

26th of February – Ann the other host sister, started to leave and move into her new flat.

5th of March – I can’t remember when all the stuff was happening to the Pope, but I wrote something in my Journal about him and how all these weird things are happening in the world…

6th of March – I went to Nieborow and the Museum of Ludowe. Nieborow is this really big house about a 1 1/2 hours drive from Biala. The Museum of Ludowe is a private museum that had a lot of Polish Folk art.

8th of March – I hung out with Ella (other exchange student) and her friend from the University… later that night we all went to an 18th b-day party of five people from my class. Woman’s Day as well!

10th of March – My Friend from Poznan came into town… BAM!!! We hit someone on our way back home… it was cold and the Police are very slow! So after an hour we decided to take the car to the police station and settle it there. While Ewa was settling things I showed my friend around Central.

11th of March – During this time it wasn’t nice to show someone around Lodz because it snowed all weekend! We went to Poznanski’s palace in Lodz and that was my 1st time to step foot in it. I pass it about twice a day! We even got to play on the piano. The piano belonged to Artur Rubenstien, a famous pianist and citizen of Poland, the US, France, and Israel. The best thing was the guide let us bang on it a couple of times!

12th of March – Ewa took myself and my friend to two other Museums in Lodz, because it was snowing so bad!

13th of March – My friend’s host sister studies in Lodz and was having her final exam, so I was invited to go and see the performance. I didn’t understand a lot of the words; they spoke too fast:, but it was really funny! It was a comedy. Also I finished one Journal book and now I’m starting another.

20th of March – Palm Sunday! – I went to church with my host parents, but the church was so crowded that I had to stand, plus I was upstairs on a platform and I still couldn’t see!

23rd of March – Zuzia’s B-day! In the morning I was awoken to sing Zuzia a happy b-day in Polish! After that I got ready and Ewa told me to clean my room because of Spring cleaning so I went along with it. Later we went out to Logos, but found it boring because it is new and we went somewhere else. Ewa picked us up at 11:00pm and we went home.

26th of March – I went with my host parents to the church to bless the basket. It is a Polish tradition to take a basket of food, containing meat, salt and pepper to church. I decided to go to church in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. I had the whole family laughing at me, they were saying “it’s going to be cold” and things like “people are going to laugh at you”. Well no one laughed and Tato had a theory… It was an artistic church so everyone thought I was eccentric! Later it was actually still warm enough to sit outside and catch some rays! I think I only got a little color!

27th of March – EASTER! Both Bobcias (grandmas) were over so we had a big breakfast! Around 2:00pm I started to call people back home. This would be the first time that I spoke with them since December. I spoke with my mom, my father and ex-step-grandparents. Well I found out that my ex-stepbrother is in Iraq, fighting the War.

28th of March – “WET MONDAY” This tradition is to make people wet while in their bed, but you can do it during the day! So the night before I was trying to be evil, but evilness went away when I found I had no tape! I rigged a book from the shelf so it would fall off and then I would know that someone was coming in. Mamo set the alarm off. I still got wet, but I was too tired to get up! An hour later Bobcia comes in dumps water on my head, she turns around and walks away rambling about something in Polish. At the same time I yelled back at her; I have a big room and she’s hard of hearing: “Thanks Bobcia”

31st of March – (Thursday Night) I was told that I was moving to a new family. Guess when I was moving, Saturday 12:00pm! I was shocked and happy all at the same time! I was to move families awhile ago, but I gave up on that and thought I was staying with this family for the rest of the time.

1st of April – In the morning Ewa took me close to Nieborow a garden/ park next to it. It was really nice to see the castle also a very, very small church and three other buildings, all in ruins. Afterwards I went to the city to find everyone a gift, because I was leaving the next day and my going away dinner was that night!

2nd of April – I got up and got ready and only had 2 hours to pack! 12:00pm rolls around and no parents to pick me up, finally at 1:00pm Mamo comes to pick me up and take me to my new host parents house. Tato met us later. My host parents names are Bozena and Andrzej Siekierski. I have two host siblings, Gosia and Piotr. Later that day we went to a Polish Wedding, it was at the largest Cathedral in Lodz. The people were gathered around a statue of the Pope to pray for him. After the wedding the Bride and Groom gave respect so the memorial and went on their way. When we got home we had dinner and talked, later on TV we found out that the Pope passed away. This time is very hard on Polish people. I was talking with friends and family they said they don’t know how to react because John Paul II has been Pope for as long as they can remember. Also Poland was looked on a little better because John Paul II was Pope. Later that night the President of Poland announced that from then on till Monday Poland will be in mourning. All around people are all gloomy and saddened by the Pope’s passing.

3rd of April -Gosia (host sister), her boyfriend and I went on this free culture tour of Lodz. They took us to Poznanski’s palace and then to the 2nd largest Jewish cemetery in the world, but there we also saw the largest Jewish tomb in the world. Later after the tour we headed for the Cathedral in Lodz. Many people were there and the candles grew! Also later that night we went to the church again to put our own candles, a good 20 feet was covered in glass covered candles, candles and flowers in every direction of the statue of the Pope.

4th of April – I went to school, but found out that most of the school went to the church near our school, but they ended up coming back. My host mom picked me up from school to show me around their sweater factory. The main pieces are done on computer. Well by the time we got home they already started the showing of the Pope. The priests were walking down to the plaza. We watched and waited when the men carrying the Pope left, there was the moment of silence I don’t think anything moved or breathed just the tick-tock, tick-tock of our lives passing by. Later that night we went again to this church, but this was a special service. Everyone holding candles and the mass of people everywhere, the concrete covered in wax and everyone coming together. Not a lot of people were looking up at the Cathedral but at the same time the Pope died (two days before) a bird was flying around the top of the Cathedral. It was a stunning site!

6th of April – I went to Warsaw with my host mom and her friend. They are going to the US in September. After that we went around old town to sightsee like a normal tourist. One of the most interesting things happened there. I walked into a church and right before I was about to leave, a mob of young priests entered. I always thought priests were old and there were a few young ones, but this was over 50 or more. Then we ate at a really good restaurant and left.

11th -12th of April – I went to my 1st school because they had British days at school, they had a lot of stuff about Britain!

13th of April – Rotary had a concert at the new concert hall, private only for Rotary. Some kids played some famous Polish classical music. It was great! I was dozing off in the 1st half, but the second was a little more upbeat! And I was not nodding off!

22nd of April – Early morning: I called my friend for his B-day! Later I went to Warsaw yet again to go see a new exhibition of Salvador Dali’s works. There was also a performance before the show!

Other random things… I visited a botanical garden near my house…I watched my host brother race… I went to a car tuning show, racing, looking at cars and tire burning! One guy burnt his tire all the way! SPRING IS HERE!

THANKS for going all through that!

Mike (Zyrandol)

P.S. I’m leaving here July 15th.

 

Daniel Davis
2004-05 Outbound to Mexico
Hometown: Fernandina Beach, Florida
School: Fernandina Beach High School
Sponsor: Fernandina Beach Rotary Club
Host: Cozumel Rotary Club, District 4200, Mexico School

Daniel - Mexico

August 18 Journal

Coming into this adventure, you think you know what to expect. But in reality…. you have no idea.

So it’s been about two weeks since I’ve arrived in Cozumel. There’s only one way to describe how I feel….. I love it!!!!! There’s so many different things that I’ve come to love in my two weeks on this Island, and so many things I’ve already done. I’ll try to explain the best I can.

My flight was not eventful. Before I left, my family and three friends came to see me off. I didn’t cry. I flew from J’ville to Miami and from Miami to Cancún. Nothing exciting. The woman sitting next to me was a real witch. She called me “Rotary Boy”, disdainfully, which made me smile. At least she recognized Rotary!!! OH!!! How could I’ve forgotten. Waiting to get my tickets, I was approached by a woman in Jax. She said, “Hi, I’m (I’ve forgotten her name!!), and I’m a Rotarian. Where are you going?” And of course I replied, “Mexico”, and she said good luck, and was just so impressed with what Rotary is doing here with the international exchange. Back to my flight!!! I get so off track sometimes. So I sat in Cancún for about 2 hours. They had cancelled our flight without telling us, and we were to go on the next flight. None of us new that, but we found our plane easy enough. As soon as we were in the air, my face pressed up against the window. It was gorgeous! The cerulean water was so clear. I could even see the coral as we approached the airport at Cozumel. I was in awe.

I got off the plane, and walked into the airport. There waiting with a sign that read, “¡Bienvenido Daniel!” was my host family. I went up to them, and they gave me hugs, and said welcome, in Spanish of course!!!! And then we went looking for my bags. They were still in Miami, to make a long story short, we drove to the house, I was still in awe, and my bags arrived two days later.

My host family is really cool. Esperanza (which means Hope in spanish) is my mamá. Javier is my dad. They are really cool. Javier owns a Jewelry shop and Esperanza works in a beach club. Horacio is my little brother, he’s 15. Jimena is my younger sister and she’s 12. I have met some cousins and uncles, and they all treat me like family. It’s really nice. And I have a dog!!!!! A boxer. His name is Froy. But he’s really cool. Sometimes, when I’m really not feeling good, I talk to him. It helps a lot!

We go out a lot. My host brother, Horacio, has been really helpful. He speaks English, and helps learn new words. I already have a group of friends. Some will be leaving to go on their own Rotary adventures, but most will stay. I even went snorkeling last weekend. We saw fish, rays, and even a baby sea snake. It was SO COOL!!!! There are 2 other exchange students here. Jill, from Houston, and Giovana from Brazil. We speak in Portuñolés. It’s like spanglish, but with a lot of Portuguese. I love them!!! They’re a lot of fun!!! We’re expecting 3 more students. 1 from Belgium, Germany, and another from Brazil. I can’t wait to meet them. Oh, and last night, I had my first Rotary meeting. It’s so different! They all smoke and drink during the meetings. You leave and smell like you just spent 6 hours in a smokey bar. But it’s nice to talk with them! Our Counselors are called Padrinos, or Godfathers!!!! It’s like the mafia……just kidding!!

Yesterday was a hard day. I cried a lot. Thinking about my mom, and my dogs (y’all know me), and my friends back home. But I got over it quick. I remind myself that I only have a year here. So, I went and turned on the TV. They love the Warner Channel. But I decided to watch a Novela. It is really funny, because they tend to over act. and it’s mostly two people going back and forth…..”Miguel”, “Rosa”, “Miguel”, “Rrrrrrrosa”, and so on. It’s really fun!!!

I started school on Monday. It’s really different. I had a rough first day. I cried while we met with the secretary. I hadn’t slept the night before, and I was thinking about home a lot. But my second day was a lot better. But there is no AC in the classroom. It gets really hot, and we have to wear pants. So my friends Said, Isabel and I go to the library where there is Air Conditioning!!! Oh, sometimes the teachers don’t show up, so we usually only have 3 out of 7 classes a day. It’s a lot different than the US!!!

All in all, I love it here. The Cozumeleños are such sweet people. Very polite, and very religious. They cook….. A LOT! I thought I was going to hate the food, but I love it!!!! And the drinks!!!!! Piña juice, and Mango juice, and my favorite, Piña Colada (of course virgin). They’re sold in little corner stores, and are made fresh about every hour. But whenever I am downtown, all the vendors try to get me to buy things. They call me Gringo, which is a term of endearment (or so I am told). So now I look at them and say “Alemán”, or “Français”, and they leave me alone. Here, you have to hide your American-ness. I was reading the journals of Megan and Jacob. Megan is lucky because she blends right in. Jacob…..I can sympathize. But they’ve all been very welcoming. And our housekeeper makes the best latkas!!!! There not really latkas, more like fried potato pancakes. So, yeah, Mexilatkas. I love them!!!!! But for some reason, she puts my things in really weird places and I can’t find anything, but Horacio always knows where my things are!!

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll be writing more as time progresses. Probably 2 a month, since I want y’all to know what’s happening!!!! I just want to send a quick shout out to my family, I love you guys!!! And to my friends, Jennifer, Wesley, LaRay Ray (Peaches Loves you), JeezObeel, And to my Rotary gang!!!!! I hope y’all are enjoying life in all those other countries!!!! LOL!!! I love you all, and can’t wait to see you in a year!!!! To keep our tradition alive……Beijos!!!!!! Or here, we say “Besos”.

OH…..Makena, Kira, and Elizabeth; learn Beijo em la boca by Axé Bahía. We’ll have a sing-a-long when we get back. CON MUCHO AMOR…..

Hasta la proxima vez

Daní

September 15 Journal

As time goes by, you tend to forget a little more. The sound of your best friends voice. The smell of your kitchen. And then you start to try to remember… and it’s depressing.

Acclimation is hard to do, but I’m trying. At times I feel very alone and scared. Especially now with hurricane season. I can only hope that everyone in the US is ok. I don’t think any of us exchange students realized how rocky the road is. And that’s exactly what this exchange is. A long winding road of emotions. Happiness, sadness, depression, and everything in between.

When I first arrived here in México, I barely slept. But now, as I settle into my routine, I find myself sleeping a lot. Not to mention when you have a bad day, sleep is your best friend. Dreams are so vivid here. I can remember all of them. I don’t know if it’s the heat, or the boredom I feel when I’m alone. But on the bright side, my social life has improved. I have many friends in school. They don’t look at me as if I am the devil any more. I think that second head on my shoulders is getting smaller and smaller everyday. Us exchange students are really close. We just met Ana Paula from Brasil, and Medhi (I think that’s how it’s spelled) from Belgium. They’re really cool people. Ana and Gi are in the process of teaching me Samba. I tried it the other night, and cut my toe pretty badly. It still hurts like no one’s business, but I think I’ll live.

I had my first Rotary conference. There are 6 Americans all together in my district. I’m in contact with a few of them. It’s nice to be able to relate to compatriots once and a while. It helps to talk to other exchange students from other countries, but at times, we don’t always understand each other. The conference was in Villahermosa, a large, busy metropolis. I prefer the more tranquil Cozumel to the hectic ways of Villahermosa. There are about 15 Brasileños in my district. They are so much fun! I’ve made about 6 Brazilian friends in the past few weeks. Oh! It was really funny. For some reason, there are a ton of transvestites here in Mexico. We were on the bus and this petite little creature stood in front of us at the stop and began dancing. Obviously she wanted money. She was very amusing!!! And then on the bus, the driver started talking…”Isn’t she pretty. And what a good dancer…….it’s a man.” I couldn’t help but chuckle at that. And then !in the station on the way home, another one walked past me and Giovana. And in her best attempt to speak English she said, “It man”. I nearly gave myself a hernia. I laughed for about 20 minutes. As did she.

The other exchange students are some of my best friends. Gi is always making me smile. She always attempts to speak English. The phrases she knows are……”What is this? “Where are you going?” and “Are you OK?” And imagine, in a cute little Brazilian accent. And it’s not an accent I’m used to. She pronounces her “R’s” very strongly. Instead of using her throat or tongue, it’s somewhat an English way to pronounce the “R”. She tells us it is because she is from the InteRioR of Sao Paulo. She’s so funny. Kathrin is from Germany. very sweet, but very assertive. She and I talk a lot and are very good friends. Jill is my best ally here in Mexico. We mesh so well. We totally understand when one of us is down, and help each other rise again. Ana is very amicable. Very Pretty. I’ve only known her a short time but I can tell we will be close. Midhi is quiet. But that’s normal. He speaks very little Spanish, so it’s hard !to communicate. But I really like them a lot.

School is getting better. There’s no AC, as I’ve stated before, but my friends make school worth going. We get in trouble a lot for talking in class. But it’s no big deal. No detention or anything. But it saddens me because they don’t do yearbooks at this school. The public schools don’t have a ton of money, so they spend very little on extra things like that. But it’s fine. I have a camera.

Well, I’m not going to lie. These past few weeks have been the hardest of my life. But I am growing so much. I’m learning to catch myself when I fall, instead of relying on others to catch me. I am learning that you can’t trust everyone you meet. Some will be nice to your face, and stab you in the back 3 seconds later. I’m developing my own persona. Trying to mold myself into a better Mexican. Mimicking everything, from the accent to the body language. Oh! One quick note…I was recently asked if I was from Spain. I told the man, “No I’m from the US.” He said he thought I was Spanish because I speak so well and fluidly, but I don’t look like I’d be from Mexico, Central or South America. That made me feel proud. By the way, the language thing is improving very well. : )

Chao for now.

Que tengan un BUEN BUEN año sin mí. Jeje!!! Quiero Uds. mucho y no puedo esperar para ver uds. ¡Adiós!

Daní

October 5 Journal

I have officially been in México now for 2 months. There are many aspects I love about México, or as some write, Méjico, but there are also things that I don’t like too much.

Adapting to another culture is one of the hardest things you can do. And some of the customs have been harder to adapt to than others. For example, motorists NEVER yield to pedestrians. It’s crazy!!!! Una locura!!!!! The people just drive by and come within inches of me if I am not far enough over on the street, seeing as how sidewalks are virtually non-existent here. This ties into another point of Mexican living that I find hard to accept. Many of the people are incredibly rude. Not everyone, mind you, but most. I was in a local supermarket and an old lady ran over my foot with her shopping cart. She just gave me a dirty look and kept going. Now I was raised to have manners, so I think I look like a fool every time I walk in front of anyone and say excuse me. They tend to raise their eyebrows at me. One thing, however, which amuses me to the extreme, is how short the people are here. Since there is a large Mayan influence on the population, many people are far below eye! level. I’m 5’11”. There was a woman, she was not a dwarf, nor was she ill, but she only reached my waist!!!!!!!!! I was amazed. I couldn’t believe how short she was!!!!!

One thing I’d like to discuss is my host family. my host Mom and Dad work a lot. so I don’t see them very often. My host siblings are complete opposites. My sister, although only 12, is very mature, but she also laughs at silly little things. She is very nice to me, and we get along well. My host brother is very different. He tends to treat me like a child, even though I’m 2 years his senior. But I’m coping as best I can…….

I have found somewhat of a second family. The family of my friends Ivan, who is currently in Germany, and his cousin Iram, who is studying in Brazil. The Gonzales family has welcomed me into their arms. They have been hosting students for about 8 years, and they treat me like I am part of the family. This is the Host family of my friends Giovana and Kathrin. They are just such a wonderful family. Juanita hugs me everyday, and Miguel always asks me how I am doing. I watch TV with their daughter Junio, who is a riot. Their elder daughter Michele, who is studying in Puebla, very close to México, D.F., and I have gone roller skating when she was on break. They are a wonderful family. And they make me feel incredibly welcomed. I refer to them as “Mis Tíos” and they refer to me as their “Sobrino”……..Uncle, aunt, nephew…….sorry, I forgot that not everyone speaks Spanish.

My Spanish is vastly improving. It’s surprising how much you can remember when you are immersed in a language. My vocabulary is so much greater than it was before I came. I’d say it has doubled, and I’d been studying Spanish for 2 years prior to arrival. We have been enrolled in a Spanish class at a local primary school. It’s fun to see the little kids stare at us and say, “The white people are here to learn Spanish!!!! Are they stupid???”. They know we live here, but they’re amazed that we don’t speak Spanish. And they all want to know about our homelands. It’s very fun. We play scrabble in Spanish, which can be tricky. The Brazilians always win. Half the time they use a Portuguese word, and it just happens to be the same in Spanish.

My friends and I are always doing something together. We love the beach. Now, coming from Boston originally, I thought the water in Florida was warm!! HAHA!!!!! Yeah, OK! The water here is like bath water. And it’s so clear. We love to snorkel. It’s just like the National Geographic Magazine. The reefs here are second in popularity and diversity, only to The Great Barrier Reef of Australia!!!!! Oh, by the way, I found Nemo the other day!!!!!!!

We don’t much like school. The teachers really don’t help us. We had one assignment to help us with our Spanish. The other teachers just don’t pay attention to us. One day, Jill was asking me a question, and the math teacher nearly threw us out of class for talking (he’s a jerk anyway). And we weren’t allowed to take the exams…..which you have to pay for. We have to pay for books, paperwork, etc. It gets annoying, because by the time lunch comes you’ve already spent your money on homework!!!! And also, a lot of people pay their teachers for passing grades. I really don’t like the public school system in México. I’ve even started to miss my school in the states!!!!!

I have to talk about the animals in my life. There’s Froy……my family’s dog. He’s a Boxer. He is such a fun dog. He’s 7, but still has that puppy energy that I think they never lose. When I’m feeling bad, I go outside and sit with him. And I just talk…..because I know he won’t tell anyone!!!! And then there’s Lukas…..pinche Lukas!!! He’s the Gonzales’ dog. He’s an eight-month-old MinPin. He bites everyone……except me. I think because I take the time to play with him. He’s really fun, but he always rolls in his own business and smells like he just emerged from the sewers. But I love them so much. Whenever I miss my girls (Molly J, Cocoa, and DiDi whom I love more than anything!!) I play with these guys and I feel better.

Other than this, nothing new has happened lately. I have a tan, I lost 11 lbs., and I got my hair cut the other day………by a transvestite. It was so funny. Kathrin happened to have her camera, and casually took photos, which I will send very shortly. She/He got the job done though!!!! I really like my hair now.

OK!!! That’s it!!!! Until next time!!!!

SHOUTOUTS: All my friends at FBHS, My Rotary gang, especially those in Latin America……Jenn y Jackie, si quieren escribirme en español, PORFAVOR, escribanme en nuestro idioma…OK??? Monika, Wie ghets dir, Sam you too. Brasileras….Tudo bem???? And everyone else, I hope you are living it up in all those other countries. Write ME!!!!!!! And of course, Rotary. This has so far been the most difficult, yet rewarding period of my life. I can’t begin to thank you for this opportunity. OH!!! By the way, I have lost 10 lbs. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know!!! But I’m sure the weight will come with time!!!!!!! And how can I forget…my family, who supports me so very much. MUMM, I love you more than anyone (except the dogs……Just kidding!!), Dad, Sue, Mark, Cindy, Judie, Susie, George, Carolann, Donnie, Moe, Mike, Cio Cia, John, Jackie, Mikey, Brendan, Conor!!!!!! I LOVE YOU ALL!!!!!

And a special shout out to Bri and Katie; I know we fight a lot, but being here has made me realize how much I love you guys and that I wouldn’t trade you for any other brother or sister in the world…….even though we’ve told each other that many times!!!!!!!! I love you guys and can’t wait to see you!!!!!!

Adiós!!!!!! Que disfuten todo de la vida……AL MAXIMO!!!!!

Daní

November 13 Journal

Hola Mi Gente! Que Onda?? Estoy super bien aqui en Mexico. Voy a explicar todo, pero creo que es mejor si escribo en ingles, no??? Ok, so it’s been over 3 months since I got on that plane, and crossed……the Caribbean…..to begin my journey here in Mexico. Much has happened since my last entry, I’m not sure where to begin.

I made a new friend. Her name is Sarah and she’s from New York STATE, not the city (she gets pissed if you say NYC). She lives in Playa del Carmen which is a hop, skip and a 30 minute ferry ride away. We hang out occasionally, and it’s nice for us to be able to speak English together. Keep in mind, the Spanish is rapidly progressing, but it’s always nice to be able to fall back into English……every so often. She was here a few weekends ago, and actually will be returning soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

We made a Rotaract trip to a place called Xel-Ha’. That was amazing. It’s this beautiful national park here in Mexico. We went tubing in the crystal clear water, and baked in the sun as well. If ya’ll can believe it, I’M TANNING!!! It started as a series of sunburns, which gradually darkened, and now I’m the tannest I’ve been in my life, which is still pretty white. But back to Xel-Ha’: One thing that was probably one of the craziest things I’ve ever done in my life (besides this exchange JaJa) was jumping off a small, two-story cliff. It was a total adrenaline rush. I plan on setting my sights “higher” next time, if you get the gist.

We also celebrated the day of the dead. This is right around Halloween, and it’s a holiday to commemorate those who have passed away. They make altars with special foods, drinks, and presents. We helped build una ofrenda in a local primary school, and some of the contents surprised me. A bottle of tequila and a pack of cigarettes. Right in the middle of the playground. It was a little strange. But that’s how things are here. A little strange, scary, exciting, and all around amazing.

I just want to add that the other American exchange student is leaving tomorrow. So now, I’m “the only” American here. Which is, of course, not true. But in the world of Rotary, I am the last American. But back to the Fun Stuff.

A note to Jackie; I have watched the Simpsons in Spanish, and it is hilarious. The voices are actually very close, if not exact Spanish clones of the originals. It’s very funny. I also started watching Novelas. I usually don’t understand what’s going on, because it’s a lot of crying, eyebrow raising, and love triangles times ten. But I think I have a few figured out.

We’re going to go on a 3 day trip to Merida in the state of Yucatan. We have a district conference where I will meet the 4 other Americans from the district, and the 30 some odd Brazilians!!!!! But from Merida, we will be traveling to Chichen-Itza, one of the most well preserved Mayan ruin sites in Mexico. I’ve seen Pictures and it’s enormous!!!!!! I can’t wait.

I’m still working on the pictures. You’ll see some soon. This computer has me enloquecido, in other words, I have no idea what I’m doing!!! HOW COULD I HAVE FORGOTTEN? The biggest event in the last month and a half was my move. Things didn’t work out with certain members of my first host family, so Rotary decided it would be best if I moved. I lived with my first new Papa’ for a week……..ON THE BEACH! And then, since my evil step mother came back from Switzerland (that’s just a joke we have), I had to move again, because the house had no doors….just on the bathroom. It was like a 3 story apartment, very cool. But it was all open. So, with reason, I moved to this new apartment with the club president. He’s awesome, and my Host Brother Ben, is really cool too. He gave me a cell phone, because it’s really the only form of communication on the island, and I just buy the credit. It’s really nice living here.

So, I’m off. I broke my glasses last night and now I’m going to get them fixed. I’ll write again as soon as I get a chance!!!!! See ya’ll later!! Lots of love…….

Danny

December 6 Journal

Que onda???? Saludos a todo mi gente!!!!!

I hope everyone is enjoying their exchange as much as I am. Mexico is really amazing. Everything is happening so fast that I don’t know where to begin!!!!!!

I guess it would be good to start where I left off last time. I went to Chichén-Itzá on a Rotary trip to Mérida. This is a wonderfully preserved park, filled with Mayan ruins. We climbed a step pyramid, and played the “clapping game”. OK. Let me explain the clapping game. Way back when the Mayans inhabited this part of Mexico, they used to hold tournaments. 2 teams of captives would have to face each other in a game. This game consisted of a ball, and stone hoops, maybe 25 feet off the ground. The first team who got the ball through the hoop won. The losing team was…..well…..sacrificed to the gods. The way the teams would communicate with each other, from one end of the football field and a quarter sized field, was with claps. In different areas of the field, you can clap, and it will echo on the other side. In different areas, it echoes a different number of times. In one spot, one clap echoes 14 times. It was so cool. We had so much fun with that!!! I was with two other Americans, an Australian, a Canadian, and a few Brazilians (Spanglish was spoken I must admit), and all the tourists were like, “what is up with these stupid kids”. We really got into it!!!! And Mérida was a lot of fun too. It’s a really nice, colonial town with a lot of history, and historical sites.

Then last weekend we went to Cancún. Now, none of us were really excited to go, isn’t that strange. High school students not excited about Cancún. We’re just so used to it. Cancún is full of restaurants, hotels, and night clubs. It’s an amazing city, but my friend Kevin from Canada said it the best…”the US should just make Cancún a US state”. I think he’s right, because I think there are more Americans than Mexicans at any given time. And English is the predominant language. Well, in Cancún we met a bunch of other exchanges from another district here in México. They were all really nice, but didn’t speak Spanish that well. They all speak in English, from what they told me. WHY?????? Even when I meet the other English speakers, we speak Spanglish!!!!!!!!! Their Spanish skills were not that great. And they were all very snooty. I don’t know why, but they appeared to think they were better than us. That might not be the case, but it sure seemed like that. OH! And one girl from France I think it was, went up to my friend Tundé (that’s the phonetic spelling) from Hungary, and started speaking English. Tundé was like…..QUE????????? NO HABLO INGLËS, because she doesn’t. So that just shows you what a disadvantage some Americans\English speakers sometimes have learning another language. The other country kids usually speak English, and they always want to practice with us!!!!!! That’s bad. But no worries……..The Cozumeleño kids are speakin’ the Spanish everyday……ONLY SPANISH!!!!!! Te lo juro AL!!!!! (that means, I swear Al!)

Also, the last happenings I’d like to talk about are the changes I’ve been experiencing. I moved yet again. That makes 4 families in 4 months. I sometimes feel that I am causing inconveniences, but until January I am just a temporary house guest. Then in January, I switch families for the fifth time. Then in April for the sixth and final time. And also in January we are being transferred to a private school. Rotary is very upset with our school because the teachers nor administration attempt to help us. It really is bad. We presented exams and the teachers didn’t even put our grades up with the other students’ grades. But we heard that this next school isn’t any better. But we will be given the chance to take classes in the university, So I am thinking about taking some language classes. I already have classes for Spanish, with the other exchanges, but I would like to take Portuguese classes if available. If not, Ana Paula is teaching me anyway. I will take German or French classes if Portuguese is unavailable.

Well that’s all for now. OK! I know I’ve been promising pictures for months now…..But with all my moving it’s hard. They will come within the next few weeks. I will send as many as I can!!!!! My next host family has a very fast computer, with an easy photo download system. OK!!!!!!!!! Que se cuiden mucho, y los quiero muchisimo!!!!!

Chao Chao

December 18 Journal

Hey everyone!!!! How are all my people?

Well, everything is great here!!!!! TODO ESTA BIEN!!! Well, many things have happened since my last journal. My life is changing before my eyes. I am speaking Spanish 99% of the time now, and learning a bit more each day. It really helped me to have a good grasp on the language before I arrived here. My vocabulary has grown, and I can speak almost as fast as the natives do!!!!! JaJa!!! And I’m on vacation right now, so I am being somewhat lazy…. But let me tell YA,LL (that’s right Dad!!) about what I’ve been doing.

Last weekend I went to Playa Del Carmen….PDC on the streets….to visit Sarah. We had a good time. Whenever we’re together, we always have a fun time and go crazy. (In a good kid way AL!) We walk around through downtown PDC all the while being harassed by the sellers (is there a better word for this?). I have a shirt with the word “Vaquero” which means Cow Boy, so every one calls me “Cow boy” when we walk by. One guy came up to us and said, “Hey Nice shirt……wanna get high?” Sarah and I were laughing so hard because that was just so random. “Hello! Nice to meet you! Would you like to get high?” Seriously, who says that? So we kept walking. “Hey HONEE MOONERS!! Now its my turn!” We keep walking. Then I hear….”Piggy Back!!!!!” And Sarah jumps on my back. And in the middle of hundreds of tourists….we fell. Right on our pompas. I think Sarah almost peed herself laughing. As did I (almost). So that was our Downtown PDC Adventure. Oh….then the next night I was walking with my Brasil Shirt that Giovana made for me for Secret Santa. A woman approached me and said IN PORTUGUESE.. (excuse the spelling) “Voce e brasilero?” Which means Are you Brazilian. I said “Nao, soh americano e entendo um portugues mais eu nao possou falar bem”. Which means No, I’m American and I understand Portuguese but I can’t speak it well”. (Maquena, Kira, and Elizabeth are probably laughing at my pathetic Portuguese spelling) So Now I’ve been asked if I’m from Spain and Brasil. Que Chido! (cool)

On Saturday we went with Sarah’s classmates to a small pueblito (village…well literally translated, “small town” but you get the gist) near Cancun. I got off the bus and I could feel tears welling up. Have you ever seen those commercials for The Save The Children Fund, or however it’s called. That’s what this was like. This people were Dirt Poor. But Bless their hearts, the were so welcoming and so cheerful. We brought candy and Piñatas for the kids. Which was fun. But all of Sarah’s classmates were trying to take the candy. I got so pissed! I said…calmly…”You know, you guys can buy candy any day, but these kids can’t. Leave it for them”. Some gave me dirty looks and others looked ashamed. But I hope they realized, as I did, that these children can’t just go to the one store in town everyday and buy food. It’s such a treat for them if they even get a cookie. So anyway, after that, we were invited to eat in their homes. Mind you, they were little shacks made of wood, stone, and palm, but you could see they all felt at home. This experience made me realize how well I live in the US. And how lucky I am to be American. My fellow exchange students can’t even imagine the poverty that I have seen…..with the exception of those in South America and Asia. Imagine, no shoes, no clean clothes, no snickers bars, cable TV, running water, toilets, TOILET PAPER, I mean….WOW. I was so, just, WOW!!! It was incredible. OH! And the interesting thing about these people was that their first language is not Spanish, it’s Maya. Now the children are taught Spanish at the same time, but the old folks still speak Maya. One old lady wanted a lollypop from Sarah, and asked for it in Maya. Sarah had no idea what she said, but figured it out with the body language. By the way, the school there is smaller than a standard 2 car garage. But it’s in ruins. When we left, the kids asked us for bikes and dolls when we come back. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back. But I hope to God I get the opportunity to give these children the dolls, and toy trucks they asked for….excuse me, I am crying!

OK! Happy Stuff!!! We had a Posada on Thursday night. This is a Christmas Party Traditional of the Latin countries. They reenact Joseph and Mary coming to the Inn and asking for a room. There is a Song, and 2 groups of people sing … I sang the Joseph and Mary part. It was easy once you get used to the Castellano “Os” and “Vosotros”… pinche castellano!!! Just Kidding!!! And then after I did Karaoke. I sang … well who do you think … SHAKIRA! Estoy Aqui, or I am Here. They said I did pretty good. So the Posada was excellent. We talked, had some cheap sparkling wine stuff that tasted like, I don’t know what but it was gross, sang, and danced! VIVA MEXICO!

I am really happy in my new house. My parents are great and bought me a present. My host mom told me that one day my dad had a bit too much to drink, and said, “I’m going to buy Danny a … bird”. So they bought me a Quetzalcoatl. Those birds with the really long pretty tails. I haven’t named it yet, I’m thinking about just calling it “Bird”. But it’s so pretty, yellow, green, and blue (Brasil). And this week we are all going to start teaching each other a little bit of our own languages. I already know a little Portuguese, and Kat is teaching me German… Monika, Sam and Jeremy have to learn 99 Luftballons. I am. And it’s great… We’ll have an international sing along, along with Beijo na boca.

OK! Well that’s about it! I wish everyone a Merry, Merry Navidad, and a Happy and Prosperous Nuevo Año!!! I love all my friends an Family and I will be thinking about all of you on Christmas. Especially the Rotary Gang. Because they are in the same boat as I am. I love you guys!!!! OK!!!!! CUIDENSE!!!!!!!!! Take Care!!!!!

Danny

January 5 Journal

Feliz Año Nuevo!!!!! I can’t believe that the New Year is already here!!!!! The holiday season has been very exciting for me. I’ve been kept busy and have had little time to think about home. Let’s start with Christmas……

Christmas 2004: Here in México Christmas is celebrated on the 24th rather than the 25th. La Noche Buena or Christmas Eve is a big event here. Everyone goes to church around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. Then everyone returns to their homes for dinner. At Midnight, The Baby Jesus is put in the manger, which is a vital accessory for every household in México. My family exchanged presents after the meal. I received two pins for my blazer from my mom and $300 pesos to spend however I wanted. $300 pesos is almost equivalent to $30 US. My dad bought me a perfume from one of the many perfume shops here in Cozumel. I also received a Tommy Hilfiger shirt from my PRIMO, or, cousin. Then, Giovana, Kathrin, and Ana Paula came over. We exchanged small gifts among each other. Then after they left at about 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning, my family and I set out on what seemed to be an endless meet and greet of family members around the island. I was out until about 5:30 or 6 with my family, but my parents returned home at 10:00 that morning!!!!! I was a bit shocked at this custom of staying out until all hours!!!!! But I have to say I really enjoyed myself. At this moment I realized how happy I am to be here right now. My Host family is so cool! And I am always talking with them, I have found that my vocabulary and grammar skills are improving even more than before!!!

Trip to Mérida: A few days after Christmas, my family and I took a road trip to Mérida in the state of Yucatan. This was really fun, except my little brother started to get on my nerves after 5 hours in the car together. We stayed at a nice hotel where I slept the best I have since arriving. The beds were incredibly comfortable. One thing I noticed was that this hotel did not have a copy of The Bible like hotels in the States. That struck me as odd seeing as how México is a predominantly Catholic nation. I also had the chance to visit Trevor from Pennsylvania and Kevin from Canada, or as we like to say, America Junior. We tease him so much, because all the Mexicans think that he is an American. We walked around the Historic city of Mérida for a few hours, which was lots of fun. We were only there for 2 days, but I enjoyed myself.

New Years 2005: This was probably the most fun day of the holidays. I ate with my family at 11. At 12 we all ate 12 uvas, or grapes, and had to make 12 wishes. Then at 2ish I went to Kathrin and Ana Paula´s house (they are now sisters). We sat and conversed a bit with her family. Her Mom, Betty, a very sweet woman, talks FAST! But I understand every word. Then at around 3:30 we went to the beach, and observed a typical Brazilian tradition. We jumped over 12 waves for good luck in the New Year. We looked to our left and there was a man swimming……naked. It was pretty gross. But before we went to the beach, we went to the beach of one of my Rotarian fathers, Isaac. He served us champagne as a toast. I don’t like champagne too much. Maybe it was just cheap. My pallet is too refined for cheap champagne, I need the $900 US bottles! Just Kidding! Chinga! No way would I pay that much for champagne. I got home to the house at about 7 in the morning. But I had permission to be out that late. It was great!!!!!

There are a few other points that I’d like to cover. I don’t know if I’ll be in this house until later this month or until April. Nor do we have any idea if we will be transferring schools. I hope so, because this school we are in is terrible. ALSO!!!!! We have a new exchange student, her name is Alev. She is from Turkey. She’s a sweet girl. She transferred from the state of Tabasco to Cozumel. But she is part of the club of Cancún. It’s a long complicated story, so all I’m saying is that we have a new exchange student!!!! But she was here for 2 weeks before we got to see here. That’s one thing I don’t care for is that we are kept in the dark about a lot of things. And, that we don’t travel. I’m halfway through my year and I haven’t been to half the places I’d like to go. But that will change fairly soon! I hope. One quick note, Bird passed away on the 23rd. It was a shame. I hate when animals die. I don’t think he was ever meant to be caged. But he’s in Birdy Heaven now!

With the new year approaching, and my time here growing shorter and shorter, I just want to take the chance to wish everyone a wonderful new year. Many thanks to my Family and friends who support me….I’ll be home in 5 months!!!! To Rotary, District 6970, as well as 4200 here in México. A special thanks to Ken Weiss, your email really made me feel good. And to my friends at FBHS c/o 2005, GOOD LUCK!!!!! And ya’ll better not forget about me!!!! Feliz Año Nuevo a todos!!!!!!!!

Chao,

Danny

January 25 Journal

Hey ya’ll!!! I’ve been here for 5 and a half months now, and I have come to love México and all IT has to offer. The Second of February marks my 6 month anniversary here in México. I have to say, that Rotary hit the nail on the head saying that this would be an “emotional rollercoaster”.

I haven’t been up to much. I went to Cancún again a few weeks ago. It was ok. We are expecting 2 new exchanges in February in the state. A boy from Australia who will live in Cancún, and a girl from Argentina who will live in Playa Del Carmen. We have a conference planned for the 12th of Feb. Every District in the Republic will be in Cancún for this conference. We, as the exchange students of Quintana Roo (pronounced Row), have to make a short presentation for the others. That should be fun!!!!!! A bit nerve wracking, but fun. Other than that, nothing much has been going on.

I have to say that I am a bit disappointed in my host district. We have not traveled as much as they had promised in the beginning, and it gets kind of boring! I have been reading the journals of the other exchange students, and I have to say I am somewhat jealous of all the traveling opportunities that the others have. I am very happy here, don’t get me wrong, just disappointed. But I don’t think I am disappointed in my exchange. At times, yes. I sometimes wish México had not been chosen for me. But then I realize, that I am the only one here in México….and the first long term student from our district to come. Also, that I have learned so much and I also feel as though I have changed.

I have learned much about myself and my personality has modified quite a bit. I’ve learned to hold my tongue in certain situations. (Although at the beginning I didn’t have the vocabulary to always speak my mind.) I also have learned that you can’t always expect help from everyone, and you have to get out there and do things for yourself. My Spanish has improved, of course. I have come to appreciate what I have in the States. I took so many things for granted before that now I crave. I look at my family differently now. I will be on my own in a few years, and I am STARTING to accept the fact that I can’t expect my mom to be there to hold my hand all the time……but I’ll always be a mama’s boy!!! Honestly, I miss the US so much. But I want to finish my year here. No doubt about that, but I would never live here long term again.

I have had a great half year here. But it has not been the best year of my life! This exchange has been more of a challenge, and my own personal journey to discover myself. I hope that the prospective outbounds read these journals because I have some advice. For some of you, your exchange year will be the best year of your life!!!! For others not the best. And yet for some, the fastest, most winding, dizzying, disorientating, “emotional roller coaster ride” that you will ever take!!!!! Take it from me! It’s not a stroll through America!!!!!! It will be difficult. For some more than others. Don’t ever doubt yourself, always say, “I can”, or “Sí se puede”. Don’t ever have regrets and always go for your goals. That’s what I did. I wanted this so bad! Al knows! I wouldn’t change much (just some of the ways my host district functions). But other than that, nothing. I have met some of the greatest people I know here! It’s been amazing.

I leave ya’ll now, hoping I didn’t scare anyone off!!!!! OK! I love all ya’ll in the states!!!!!! take care, and until next time!!!

Nos Vemos!!!!!!

Paz para mi, Paz para tí, paz para todo lo que estamos aquí!

Danny

February 18 Journal

It has been a while since the last time I wrote. I hope everyone is well. Things are going great here!!!!!! I am really loving it!!!! There are still the times where I am bored out of my mind. But I have started enjoying my boredom. Whether I am watching Animal Planet en Español, or just going for walks around my colony. It’s great.

We had our first conference on a national level last weekend in Cancún. It was really fun. On Friday we went to a place called Xcaret (ish-karèt). It’s this big park with animals, shows, and just a lot of culture. I actually saw my first manatee ever here. Every one was like, “you live in Florida and you have never seen a manatee before?????” And the truth is, no. So that was pretty cool for me!!!! Then at the end of everything, we went to a show. It was a history of Mexico. It started with the Mayas, then the Spanish conquest, and then all the way through each era and region of Mexico. At the end, they sang “Mèxico en la Piel” which is one of the most gorgeous, and patriotic songs about Mexico by Luìs Miguel. They brought out flags from almost every country in the world while they were singing. It was very special for us exchange students, and I even started to cry. It was by far one of the best things I have done here in Mexico.

The next day, we went to a local university with all the exchange students from Mexico, minus 2 districts from Veracruz (whom we have already met) and Chihuahua. There weren’t that many Americans like I had expected! But that’s all good!!!!!!! We had fun any way. I am the only Floridian here in Mexico that we know of. So that’s pretty cool! And the Aussies have just arrived. We have 2 new Brazilians, 3 Aussies, and an Argentinian. There is a really funny story about me and Sarah Lines from Australia that I just have to tell ya’ll!!!!!

Sarah had a friend that was looking for information about Rotary exchanges in Mexico about 6 months ago. And her friend happened to find my journal on this website. So, Sarah knew me even before I knew her. And apparently a toast was made to me before she left at her going away party. Isn’t that awesome!!!! I am a celebrity in Australia!!!!!!! How cool is that!!!! I would like to take this opportunity to say hi to Sarah Lines and her mom, who wanted to email me, but was unable to!!!! HI!!!!

OK! So after the day in the conference, we went to a water park in Cancún, which was fun!!!!! I got the crap burnt out of my skin!!!!! It was horrible!!!!! But I had fun!!!!!!!! Then we went to COCOBONGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We had rented this night club for 3 hours, and had so much fun!!!!! We danced on the bar, the tables, all over the place, all under the watchful eye of Rotary! They even presented a few shows that night. Spiderman vs. The Green Goblin, Shania Twain, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears! It was great!!!!

OK!!!!! I HAVE GOTTEN BETTER WITH THE WHOLE PICTURE THING, THE ONLY PROBLEM IS THAT I DON’T HAVE A PHOTO SHOP PROGRAM AVAILABLE TO ME. SO AS SOON AS I FIND ONE, PICS WILL COME!!!!! MANY!!!!

After we got back, I found myself tired out of my mind. We didn’t have school Monday or Tuesday, because CARNAVAL was in town!!! Sunday and Tuesday nights we had “pasayos” or parades! Kat danced again. And we had BRASILEIROS!!!!! I got my Picture taken with 3 dancers, scantily clad, and it was so fun!!!! (Pics of this will DEFINITIVELY be sent!!!) That was amazing.

On Thursday I think I did the best deed of my life. We went to a Royal Caribbean sponsored mission for the Starkey Hearing Foundation as translators for the doctors. We helped explain how to use the hearing aids to the locals, and they were all so grateful. Some of the children who came were hearing for the first time in their lives. I will always remember this one boy, Gustavo Angel, he was about 2 or 3 years old. When they turned the hearing aids, his eyes watered, and he started getting dizzy, but he had the biggest smile on his face. His mother was crying, the doctors were crying, I was crying. He was trying to mimic the words with his mouth but he made no sound. Someone had told me if you put their hand on your neck so they can feel the vibration, that that will work. So I did that and said mamá, he repeated me. It was amazing and so much fun. I will never forget that day. I will have pictures of that too. Thank you Starkey Hearing Foundation for a wonderful day and an eye opening experience. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Well, I have to go. I will search for a computer with the photo shop program so that I can send a bunch!!!!!!

Los dejo aqui.

Hasta la proxicma vez,

Daní

March 24 Journal

As the time has flown by, I can hardly believe that I have less than 3 months left in Mexico… THREE!!!!! I still remember the first day, when I stepped on that plane, and arrived to the unknown. Spanish has invaded my brain. I find it difficult to speak English lately. But I manage!

OK Sue!!!! Here’s your “honorable mention”! My Aunt and Uncle just left last Saturday, after being here in Cozumel for a week. I loved having visitors, although it was a bit strange sharing my new way of life with people who really don’t know me here in Mexico. I don’t know if I have changed, you’d have to ask Sue or Mark! We did lots of cool things; we went to playa to visit Sarah and shop, we visited the ruins on Cozumel, and we were just lazy at the resort as well. We bought a day pass, but it ended up “being good” for the week. No one ever questioned me. At the hotel, I got to ride a jet ski, which was really fun!!!!! We went to Chankanaab State Park as well, which was so cool because there seemed to be more fish than ever before. The day they had to leave I felt like crap. It was so sad for me! But I will be home soon, and we will be on the phone twice a week like always (they live in the great state of Rhode Island). So I have spent the past few days pigging out on the food they brought me!!!!! Spaghettios, Peanut Butter, Marshmallow Fluff, and Goldfish Crackers!!! I’ve been in heaven!!!!!! I miss that now.

Kat and Ana, my two best friends, have left on a Mission with the Church. Neither one of them is religious, but they decided to go and see what it is like. So I am here with out my support group, and it has been very depressing, but I am coping. I met a Romanian woman, named Olivia, who works with teenagers here in Cozumel. She has lived in the states previously so she speaks English, as well as Romanian, Italian, Spanish, and a handful of other languages. She works also at Chankanaab with the SNUBA program. This is basically a high-breed mix of scuba and snorkel. You have the mask, weights, and a regulator, but you are hooked up to a flotation device containing the air tank. It was so cool! I saw so many different things at the bottom of the sea that I have never seen from the top. Crazy looking fish were swimming all around me, and I even almost collided with a flounder. It was so much fun!

We had a trip planned to view the equinox at Chichen Itza last Saturday, but it got cancelled the day before!!! These things happen to us all the time. There was even talk about us not having the Rotary end of the year tour. If that were to happen, they would have to deal with about 65 unhappy foreign teenagers…..not fun!!!! But rumor has it that the trip will happen. But you never know about things. Things can change at the drop of a dime!! Te lo juro (that means “I swear”!!!!) They told us that they had trouble organizing the trip to Chichen. It’s just not fair to build us up, and then let us down. But anywho, after the big trip, I only have a month left here; scary but exciting at the same time.

Unfortunately, I am losing a good friend and ally here in Mexico, Sarah. She has been very depressed lately and just decided that it is time to go home. She won’t go on the Big Trip with us, because she would rather spend the money on college, which is totally reasonable. But when does she go home???? MY BIRTHDAY!!!!! April 18th!!!! I am so sad!! But we can always visit each other in the states!!!!!!

To all the future exchangers, as I have totally forgotten to mention, FELICIDADES!!!!! If any of you would like any information at all, please email me, especially those of you going to Spanish speaking countries. Although, Jackie and Jen can give you two better info about the countries themselves, you can feel free to practice your Spanish with me. I FEEL LEFT OUT!!! Mike, it’s not fair, we don’t get to “tutor” anyone about Mexico and Poland!!!!! To any Future exchangers (after this next year), COME TO MEXICO AND GO TO POLAND! They are great countries and they rock!

That’s about it for now. I will keep you all updated on any further developments in the Big Trip.

Until Next time!!!!!!

Danny

May 10 Journal

Wow! I can’t believe that it is all coming to an end. In one week I will be back in the Florida. Back to the normal routine, back to my family and friends; I guess, back to reality.

I just arrived from the end of the year trip to central México. It was great. Although all the tours we had were not all that interesting, it was marvelous to be with all the other exchangers! We really did bond in the 3 weeks we had together! I got to know each of the 64 other exchange students by name and also a bit about each one! But let me tell you guys a bit about the tour.

We left Cancún for Villahermosa on the 18th of April (my birthday). On the way there, everyone surprised me with cake. We ate about 3. One of which was a brigadeiro cake made by minha menina do Brasil Ana Paula. I had so many wishes to vomit by the end of the trip. From Villahermosa we set off to Veracruz. The city smelt horrible and it was not very pretty. From there, we went to Puebla (gorgeous), Mexico, and The Federal District. We were actually allowed to leave the hotel at night in Mexico city! It was crazy! We were all scared of muggers and such, but we all did alright. Then it was off to Querétaro, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Morelia, and many other cities I can’t remember the names of. Honestly, Mexico is beautiful!!! Although the bus broke down twice (once in the middle of nowhere!), it was all good! Although, the bus drivers were weren’t the smartest people in the world!!! They took us up north then down through Mexico City and Puebla to get top the Rotary Conference in Puerto Escondido instead of going the costal route, which would have cut the 25 hour ride in half!!!! Then we arrived to the conference!!!

The conference was held in Puerto Escondido, a wonderful Pacific side beach town of about 15 thousand inhabitants! SMALL!!!! It was my first time ever in the pacific, and it kicked my but. I still have sand in the underwear I wore that night! I think I’ll through them away! Or I could just put them on my blazer and write “My first time in the Pacific!” Just kidding!!! I left Puerto on the 8th at 3:30 am. I got to Cozumel the following day at 7:00 am and passed right out. But the hardest thing about the conference was saying goodbye! It hit me that night that I wouldn’t be seeing many of these people again in my life! I had made some good friends, and as I said goodbye, the tears flowed down my face as though I was experiencing a monsoon. I made close friendships with people from Australia, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Hungary, The States and Canada. My favourite would have to be Chart Chai from Thailand. He insisted on speaking English with me and was a good friend. When I left that morning at 3:30 he balled his eyes out and almost passed out! He told me in his adorable broken English, “Yu my best friend Danny, I love you so much, don’t go now. I take you to Thailand in suitcase!!!” They literally had to sit him down and hold him back from chasing the bus when I left. It was so bittersweet. A special shout out to Chart Chai who will always be in my heart. You so awesome Chart Chai!!!! “Rosemary”….His favorite song Evil, by who knows who. He can dance like the puppet!!!

All in all, looking back on my exchange I don’t think I would change much! I have learned Spanish…… Mastered the tenses and there are few words that leave me dumbfound; Made incredible friendships, and given a piece of me to so many people from all over the world. I am ready to come home. But I don’t want to!!!!! I have been told that many exchangers find the most difficult part of their year is returning home! And I know that this will be the case with me! To all my exchange friends who were with me in this district…….. “gracias x ser mis amigos, y los llevaré en mi corazón para siempre. No los voy a olvidar! Uds. Me han dado risa, sus corazones, y mucho mas. Uds. Son mi vida. Que nunca me olviden, porque nunca los olvidare! Muchos besos y abrazos para uds. Y si algún día están en EUA, avísame y vamos a festejar!!!!! Sale?? Besos!”

Cozumel will always be in my heart. Everyone I have encountered along this journey will be there as well. I will never forget the faces nor the words of everyone I have met. It is strange knowing someone in another language. But I know all my friends perfectly…in Spanish!

So I leave you now. My time is almost over! So much is running through my head that it makes me sick….literally! (osh) I will write my final journal in the states. To my Rotary gang, enjoy the time you have, because it will leave you behind if you allow it! And all the future exchangers, live your life in whichever country to the fullest. The time Flies!!!!!!!! I have changed so much and learned even more. It just doesn’t seem real that it is ending!

Mucho amor, besos y abrazos; Latino en corazón,

Daní

Jacob Dobbs
2004-05 Outbound to Thailand
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Paxon School for Advanced Studies
Sponsor: West Jacksonville Rotary Club
Host: Tongkah Rotary Club, Phuket Island, District 3330, Thailand

Jacob - Thailand

August 9 Journal

For everyone back in the states, and those students that are out witnessing the adventure of a lifetime, I just want you to know that all is well in my first week in Thailand. Guess I will cover all my bases and start from the beginning…although it might only brush upon the surface of my experiences.

The flight was the same as any 24 hour flight… you know how it is, sleep… dinner… read… sleep… breakfast… mid-flight snack… movie… sleep… and no matter how much I tried to prepare myself with the tourist books that my friends/family had bought me, I didn’t realize how different everything would be until I actually arrived in Bangkok. Not only did I find myself alone at the airport, but I had also become the main attraction of various tour guides and taxi drivers. I worked things out with the Rotary director, however, and ended up living like a king at the Ameri-Airport hotel that night. The next day I left at 11am for Phuket.

Thailand has its own unique kind of beauty. Aside from the hundreds and hundreds of stray dogs you see wandering the streets, the mountains and beaches are very different from home, very authentic and beautiful….except for the European men in Speedos.. They have a saying here, it’s sabai sabai (take it easy). This phrase pretty much sums up the attitudes of Thai people, they’re very relaxed and polite. I guess they forget “sabai sabai” when you put them behind a steering wheel haha, because it’s very crazy on the streets. Khun mae (my host mom) always has her thumb ready on the horn, and I laugh whenever she cuts off someone or pushes them into the gutter… it’s like the road lines mean nothing here haha. Khun mae and Khun Phaw are very caring people nonetheless, and they’re always going out of their way to teach me new things about the Thai culture or language.

Not only have I experienced culture shock in this “Land of Smiles”, but I have also experienced a type of independence shock… if there ever was such a thing. My adventures at the airport, finding my way through the streets of Rawai using the little Thai that I knew, and meeting many interesting people along the way have all shaped a more outgoing Jacob Dobbs. Oh, that and my first 2 days of school at Phuket Wittalayai. Believe me, you’ll never feel so important in your life until you have over 3000 students staring at you wherever you go. After all, I AM the token farang (white person) at this school, so I guess I shouldn’t have expected any less. My classmates are great, and though I have yet to completely understand what the teacher is teaching about, they have taught me so much.

And with that, I bid you farewell until my next post. I can only hope that the upcoming year will be as exciting as my first week has been.

August 16 Journal

Sorry to everyone that have been anxiously awaiting news from Phuket..  it was pretty difficult trying to use the internet when the internet uses both the home phone and business lines. I think that it will be much easier to post you all on what’s going on since I now have a Computer class on Tuesdays. Whoo!

I can’t believe it’s already been 2-3 weeks into my stay in Thailand.  Not only have I learned a lot of the language, find a love of tra-kaw  (famous Thai game, kind of like hacky sack), realize that Linkin Park in Thai (Ling gin pak) means monkey eats vegetable, and make many good friends in the process. As my last post showed the scenery of Phuket, this post will show some of my new friends and classmates.

August 12th was the queen’s birthday, and therefore mother’s day. We  wai’ed khun yaa with a ring of jasmine around our hands, and I wrote a  little article about Khun mae (my host mother) in Thai. My host family also had a “welcome home” party for me and Jip, which was really fun. It was awesome, we had SO many family/friends come over, and about 6-7 different  local bands to play for us. Food, dancing, singing, raffles, we had it all.  A bunch of our friends decided to stay up all night, so we hung out until about 6 in the morning, woke up at 7, and had breakfast. Oh, to be a  teenager.

School is going very well also. I’ve been trying my best to catch on to whatever the teacher is teaching, even though sometimes my efforts seem very fruitless. I am still the token “farang” (westerner), but I heard that some other exchange students have just arrived in Thailand. Fresh meat! To answer many of your questions, YES we do have a maid. But all she really does is clean the house and wash clothes. Unfortunately, my bungalow is separate to the house, so all the cleaning that takes place there is done by me. I don’t really have to make my bed, because I hardly ever use  the sheets at night….. its so hot! Sometimes our maid cooks, but I really  prefer khun yaa (grandma’s) cooking. Isn’t it just funny how grandmothers always know best, regardless of what country you’re in?

Well I guess I should get back to preparing a presentation for Rotary.  Talk to you guys later!

September 8 Journal

I suppose my absence from writing is a result of being a “good exchange student”, or just the fact that our computer has yet to be fixed. My first month in Thailand was nothing short of amazing; an experience filled with many different emotions. As I tried my best not to let time pass me by, I soon realized my efforts were thwarted once a few blinks brought me 37 days into my stay in the Land of Smiles… But that is not to say I haven’t tried to make the most of my time here.

Yes, I’ll admit that this culture requires adjustment and change from many of the customs I had grown up with in America; but that just makes every day more of an adventure. Thailand’s eating habits are just like its climate: a meal isn’t delicious unless you’re practically melting on the floor begging for water… and I love it! Drinks aren’t very necessary in meals, however, since I’ve discovered that they only fill you up. And if rice isn’t included in the meal (which almost never happens), I find myself hungry again a few minutes after eating. As a matter of fact, I completely forgot the feeling of hunger, because I constantly eat to “greng jai” the people that offer me food. Greng jai doesn’t really have an English alternate, but it’s kind of like doing something against your own will just to be polite. Funny…
my mentality is turning Thai, but my skin still begs to differ.

School. It is just that, but without the worries. I have been learning English, Thai, Calculus, Biology, Gardening (don’t ask…), Baking, History, Art, Geography, Computers, Muay Thai (thai kickboxing), Judo, Basketball, Buddhism, and French… and every class is in Thai. Keep in mind that I cannot speak any French whatsoever, except for the everyday bonjour/croissant. This doesn’t stop the students or teachers from going out of their way to help me out, which I really appreciate. Students don’t stare at me anymore, they come to talk to me instead… that is if they have time to get away from the hustle and bustle of studying for next week’s entrance exams. The exams mark the end of the semester, so after this week, there’s a six week vacation! Just in case you’re wondering, the first semester started in May.

Rumors have it that I’ll have a total of 4 host families, which is kind of depressing considering how close I’ve gotten to my first one. They’ve taught me so much: painting batik, the joy of bike riding at sunset, how to play the guitar, and how to relax. Sabai sabaiii.. My host father is so wise, he’s my own personal Buddha, and my host mother is so fun to be with. Although she can speak English, she refuses to do so, which has helped me a lot.

I am also very thankful for the pressure Rotary put on its outbounds to learn their target languages. I’ve only formally met one exchange student that came from Brazil, who knows little to no Thai at all. WHERE ARE ALL THE EXCHANGE STUDENTS? My speech for Rotary went very well, and I even created the impression that I had been taking Thai classes before I came!

I hope all is well and everyone is safe from the hurricane back at home.

Thuk khon sawasdee ja.
Jedsadaporn / Jay
Jacob

October 5 Journal

I know how much my adoring fans are eagerly awaiting news from Thailand; sitting on the edge of their seats each time they log onto RYEFlorida’s website. I must say that I am very flattered, and all your anticipation has finally paid off.

This past month has been filled with many ups and downs, all of which have made my stay here more enjoyable. Since school vacation had started, I began to find myself staying home, loathing culture shock, and counting sheep while all my friends studied rigorously for the upcoming entrance exam. It was horrible. Biggest culture shock? Not being able to drive… it finally makes sense to me why Rotary prefers to select its students at such an age: because the majority of the students have yet to feel the glory of being able to drive themselves wherever they want to go. Me? I’m the exception, along with a few others I’m sure.

To tell the truth, I think this homesickness is good for me; it seems like all part of “Rotary’s Master Plan” to make a new and improved Jacob, and now I see why. Days like that made me try to compromise my situation by doing things on my own, such as taking a bus to town or the beach just to recognize what lies beyond the tourist areas. Without the bad days, I wouldn’t truly appreciate those really good days as much as I do now. Days like this past week, where my host father decided to get away from it all and backpack to other cities/islands. Yes, our bus got in an accident with a motorcycle, and yes, I had been swarmed by a pack of ladyboys when I arrived (both of which probably had something to do with a bad luck fortune that I got from a Chinese temple the previous day), but these things only added to the adventure that I had experienced. You have no idea how beautiful some of the landscape is until you see it for yourself. My host father, being an artist, suggested that I take up sketching as a hobby to do in my free time… and although I’m nowhere near half as good as he is, I realize that this method makes remembering every detail of a place so much easier than merely taking a picture with a camera. Who is this young ambassador, and what did he do with Jacob, you ask? Don’t worry, I’m still Jacob, I just eat, sleep, and breathe Thai at the moment.

Speaking of Thai, I believe my Thai has been coming along very well lately. Even though I have yet to understand the daily ramblings my family makes at the dinner table, I practice by taking out target words that I understand and trying to form sentences… sometimes mistaking the sentence “The news said that there is another very bad hurricane in Florida” with “Your knee is talking again. Bad knee, go back to Florida.” Oh well, at least I try.

So what’s the plan for October? Rotary Orientation, Phuket’s famous “Vegetarian festival” in which people pierce their bodies with poles/walk on hot coals/climb a ladder of knives after claiming that they were possessed by spirits…. This month will be an interesting one, I’ll give you that much.

October 24 Journal

As I had predicted, the second half of October left no room for boredom. Rotary orientation, Gin je (Vegetarian festival), Phuket Fantasea, canoe trips across Phang nga bay, “English camp” counselor; it might be a little difficult to get back in the routine of school next week. But then again, I have barely been able to see all my friends in these past 5 weeks, and therefore my Thai hasn’t been improving as rapidly as it had in the first couple of months. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been improving! I actually had a very interesting experience while watching the movie “Walking Tall” with my host sister the other day. The movie was in English with Thai subtitles, but since I hadn’t heard English spoken so fast in months, trying to follow it gave me a big headache. The result? Surprisingly, I found myself reading the Thai script from time to time to understand what a person was saying.

The Rotary orientation was very exciting as well. True, I arrived about 30 minutes late due to being stuck behind a bike rally half way to Phang nga, but I soon realized that I didn’t miss much when the counselor began teaching the exchange students how to say “Hello” and “I’m hungry” in Thai. I couldn’t believe my eyes. All along I had been anticipating 4-5 minute speeches in Thai, and some students still don’t know how to say “Hello”?!

…Excellent…
Just like the orientations back in Florida (well not JUST like, this one didn’t have an accessible kitchen, haha you guys know I’m talking about), it seemed very easy for the exchange students to bond, and even get a few pins to fill up their jackets in the process. We roamed the town like kings that night, basically spending our time waiting for a tuk tuk (small taxi) that was willing to carry about 15 people. Although “tuk tuk” means “very cheap” in English, I’d suggest never taking one in the tourist areas of Phuket… which is pretty much everywhere in Phuket… therefore never consider taking one! It was OK traveling by tuk tuk in Surat Thani with everyone else, but I’ve discovered that Phuket is the most expensive city in Thailand (even though it is still very cheap compared to America). I fear that my return to America will bring about a new type of culture shock: adjusting to its prices once again. However, I’ve observed that workers in Thailand would jump at the chance to have a job of about 5 dollars a day (from dawn to dusk), so the economy pretty much balances out.

The canoe trip to Phang nga bay was one of many that the SEA tours company provides to tourists, and I got in free as a tour guide! I had a great time exploring caves and the beautiful landscape of “Unseen Thailand”, while the tourists were astonished that a young foreigner could speak Thai, in their words: “a language that people normally don’t care to study around the world”. Well, guess that means that I’m not normal.

My friend’s mother was the host of an “English camp” for about a week. Funny thing was, the camp pretty much had nothing to do with English at all. Elementary school students were taught how to play certain games like Goh and monkey in the middle, how natural disasters are formed, how an airplane works, and much more. Some of the students actually introduced me to their parents, who then gave me discounts on various businesses that they own. I am very thankful to be part of the “Gold mine” named Rotary. By meeting new people, I am introduced to new people; and before I know it, I will have contacts all over Thailand.

And now, the moment you all have been waiting for… news from the Vegetarian festival. In the Gin Je festival, I endured 9 days of NO
1. Meat/eggs/milk
2. Gambling
3. Alcohol
4. Sex
5. Drugs

You guys have no idea how hard it is to be a vegetarian in Thailand, the food is so delicious! Sometimes I think that that’s exactly the reason why this festival puts people to the test, because there’s so many temptations wherever you go. But actually, the festival was introduced by China, and focuses on cleansing the body of impurities and evil. Some of the Thai people believe that the spirits of gods enter their bodies and force them to perform Ma Song (basically self mortification). People can be seen climbing a ladder of knives, walking on hot coals, piercing their mouths with various objects (as seen in the pictures below). The majority of Phuket’s population and I, however, just settle with wearing all white for 9 days. I mean… wouldn’t you?

Next month I leave for my next host family. Ahh, I’m going to miss calling my host sister fat… I’m going to miss those late night conversations with my host dad… and most of all, I’m going to miss the Patonko (like Chinese donuts) shop in front of my house. It will be homesickness all over again, but all for the better I suppose.

Thuk khon laa kawn na krup. Sanyaa wa phom ja khian iik deuan naa.
-Jed (pronounced jade -> J.D.)

December 7 Journal

Another month, and I have returned from yet another adventure that will assuredly change my outlook on life. For starters, Rotary decided to give its students a break from all their rigorous studying in an 11 day northern tour of Thailand (November 23rd-December 4th). On this tour, we visited many interesting temples and monuments in cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pha Yao, Khao Yai, Sukothai, Lopburi, etc. I was even fortunate enough to see the Golden Triangle of Myanmar/Laos/Thailand, which was bordered by the Mae Khong and Ruak Rivers! I also got to ride elephants in two different hill tribe villages; even though I’m pretty sure my first elephant was intent on making it my last ride. In response to the frequent questions, YES, I did get to see elephants play soccer/basketball. And no, there was no cheating involved…. just good clean (not literally) elephant fun.

I didn’t realize that living thousands of miles from the ones I love would allow me to learn so much. Sure, learning the language and culture is a must, but even the little things that catch me from day to day are bonuses that I am very thankful for. Speaking of gratitude, Thanksgiving Day was a very interesting change from what I had grown to know and love back in the states. Holiday Homesickness (HH), a common disease that normally attacks YE’s for about a day or two, was now affecting me. Quite understandably though; I mean, who wouldn’t miss a meal composed of a plump turkey, stuffing, various types of pie, grandma’s famous casserole, cranberry sauce, and all the other joys that are fit to keep a young boy satisfied until Christmas?! The Americans did their best to relive and demonstrate the Thanksgiving dinner to the other students by throwing together an old box of pumpkin pie mix, however. We replaced the turkey with a fish, stuffing with Thai chili, and grandma’s famous casserole with a dish that nobody could describe. Lo and behold, I have survived this lethal condition called HH and now move on to the rest of our trip.

If any of you ever said that Thailand never gets cold, I would have instinctively agreed with you a few weeks ago. But times change, my friends, and much to my surprise, so does the weather in this great oven. I had first made this realization while in the mountains of Khao Yai, unfortunately after disregarding the tour guide’s suggestion to bring a warm jacket/sweater. After all, the tour guide WAS Thai, and the Thai definition of ‘cold’ is completely different from that of America… right? …Hah… The problem with this type of thinking lied in the fact that I am from Florida, a state that hasn’t seen snow for nearly 14 years. I learned my lesson though, and bought a jacket for about $3… Argh, do I really have to sacrifice my health for 130 baht?! I could buy 6 cd’s or pay for a large family dinner with that much!

As you may or may not have noticed, my attitude towards money has also been spoiled by the Thai economy. Ironically enough, this attitude is coming from someone who lives in Phuket, the most expensive city in the Thailand. Bargaining is another addiction that I have seemed to add to my daily routine… because no matter how cheap something is, I always feel like I’m being ripped off in one way or another. The key to good bargaining is to always refer to how cheap the same item is at another shop, and if that doesn’t work, act uninterested and walk in another direction. This way, guys can actually enjoy shopping; much like a game of wits, the goal is to see how much you can make the opponent sweat.

I would have never expected my 4 years of high school Spanish to be put to test in a place like Thailand. Our district has nearly as many Brazilians as Americans, and since Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, the Mexicans decided that they would speak their native tongue throughout the trip. Crazy Mexican kids…. I can only imagine how a whole country of them is treating Danny, but I’m sure he’s fitting in just fine. Speaking of crazy Mexicans, I had an experience the other day that is totally irrelevant to Mexico. As I gave a speech to an all-girls’ school with 3 of my YE friends, I realized that every country that I requested in my Rotary application was being represented there with me. The three were from Brazil, Japan, and Germany; all situated in Thailand. It was more like a message than mere coincidence, because it truly helped me appreciate where I ended up. Every culture that I wanted to experience had been with me all along; I just needed to open my eyes the way Rotary encouraged me to do. Unlike the other exchange students, my return to Phuket brought no frost that glistened on the window sill and no crisp autumn leaves that begged for freedom from the branch. It was strange, because I didn’t know whether to feel happy or depressed. True, I had returned to my oven, but I couldn’t be happier to sleep in my own room once again. The fact that I’m getting another 6 day holiday from school is just another bonus… no bargaining required.

On that note, I leave you all with another few weeks of eager anticipation.

Sawasdee jaa~

December 29 Journal

(Note: Living in Phuket, one of the areas hit hardest by the Asian tsunami, Jacob is safe. In a front-page story in the Florida Times-Union, Jacob reported that he was fortunate to sleep through the earthquake shock and to be on higher ground when the tsunami hit the beaches.)

I assure you, my fellow readers, that this report was definitely intended to get you off those ‘pins and needles’. As many of you might have heard (hopefully), Southeast Asia was recently hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, and the result has been nothing short of devastating… and I have been fortunate enough to participate in the relief effort of this situation. First of all, I will try my best to clear up some of the ambiguous details in the newspaper article about my experiences:

My mother’s name is Deborah, not Janet. I don’t even think I’m related to anyone named Janet…and if I am, I apologize.

I also feel bad that I won’t be including any of the other interesting experiences that I had this month, but at this point I’m sure it can wait. The story all begins with a 1-month plan by the exchange students (District 3330) to spend Christmas together in the south of Thailand. We went through a few votes of places that would be nice to spend our religious holiday together, and after deciding between the top-two tourist destinations at that time of year (Phuket and Koh Samui), we decided that Phuket would probably be our best choice. Quite understandable though, since Phuket is one of the most desired tourist destinations in all of Asia… although now I guess I’ll have to get used to telling others that it used to be one the most desired tourist destinations in all of Asia.

When we presented this idea to Rotary, however, they said that they weren’t going to allow us to get together. I knew that Christmas wasn’t a celebrated holiday in Thailand, but the fact that Rotary didn’t want us to spend time together at such an event frustrated the students very much. School had been busy for testing, and none of our host families had plans for that weekend; it seemed like a perfect way to be able to see each other! The reasoning behind Rotary’s decision was not only the fact that they didn’t want to be responsible for such a large group of people, but also because they thought they could provide us with all the same enjoyment of being together in our “Southern Tour” that would take place this February. As rebellious exchange students, we tried to crawl through every loophole we could find to avoid getting Rotary sued if something bad did happen. We retrieved official statements from our schools acknowledging this little trip, made a full schedule of events that didn’t involve our host families in the weekend, and we even got our real parents to sign permission slips. Since we couldn’t involve our host families, we had tents donated and arranged to spend our few nights camping on Naiharn beach. We were one determined group of YE’s. A few days before Christmas, Rotary finally beat us at our game and convinced the host families not to allow their students to get involved with the trip at all. Christmas night was the night that we planned to sleep there, and the next morning a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit at about 7. Every shop and resort on Naiharn beach is now in pieces.

The story behind sleeping through my alarm clock came from a plan that I had on surprising my first host family with a few Christmas gifts after my host mom had returned from her aerobics class. The clock was set at 7:45am, but I guess I just couldn’t bring myself to get up that early on a weekend. Now, as I write this report, the death toll climbs to about 70,000. I have been trying my best to take advantage of the situation that I was put in, especially since so many families and local people were not as lucky as I had been in those “coincidences”. Yesterday I spent the entire day at City Hall, where over 30 representatives of Embassies from around the world tried to help the victims fix their passport/money problems and send them straight to Bangkok. The area was filled with boards of fliers with the faces of missing loved ones, and a large hospital board posted pictures of people that were too mangled to recognize. I was an English – Spanish – Thai translator for the tourists, basically escorting people through the whole process of getting enough paperwork done to get sent back to their countries. The biggest problem we have at this point is transporting the dead bodies out of Phuket, since it has started to become such a big sanitation problem… I would have never imagined being haunted by this tragedy 24/7, because even when I go to bed I have to woo myself to sleep with the sound of nearby factories making plywood coffins for all the victims. Is this what Rotary meant when they said that this will be a year that I’ll never forget? Either way, this is reality. I visited Patong beach today in shock of how such a bustling tourist spot, always lined with shops and lit with bright lights, could be left in ruins. I am happy to announce that Phuket is doing pretty well for itself at this point in time, since they have been receiving so many volunteers and donations. Tomorrow I will travel outside of Phuket to see if they need volunteers in Phang nga.

P.S. Somehow I doubt that there will be a “Southern Tour” this year.

Please keep the victims, as well as their families, in your thoughts/prayers. Korp koon mahk krup

January 7 Journal

On a report dated January 6, 2005, CNN has confirmed that the undersea earthquake off Sumatra and the giant waves it triggered killed 155,872 people, and that number is expected to rise.

It’s unbelievable how the death toll has continued to rise so quickly in the past few weeks, but another major concern in the area is actually identifying the bodies of lost/loved ones. The fliers that line the boards of city hall only continue to grow… and sadly, about 30% of these fliers are searching for lost children. My job as a translator only lasted about half a week, since Phuket had a pretty straightforward way of sending the tourists to the Bangkok airport to go home. I visited Phang nga and Khao Luk to help transport donations, cringing at the site of hundreds of coffins that lined nearby temples. The smell literally burned in our throats as we passed the temples and hospitals; a burn that not even our masks could restrain. As I handed out bags of rice, my body also burned as some of the poor tsunami victims smelled my arms and hugged me enthusiastically. It wasn’t a painful burn, just a strong warmth inside. I was even startled to find that people were rubbing my hands on their arms for good luck. I didn’t know how exactly to react, but I just carried on happy that I was actually making a difference in these peoples’ lives.

Phuket’s recovery has been amazing; not only because of all the volunteers that are coming to help, but also because of the large amount of donations. We brought up the idea of receiving donations from the club in Florida, and the members of District 3330 heartily agreed by setting up an account that you guys can deposit money into (will give account information soon). They also thought it would be better to invest the money in a long-term project like providing shelters for orphaned children… but they’re still not exactly sure yet.

I would just like to thank you guys for all your concern and prayers, because they have definitely helped. Although we didn’t celebrate New Year’s, I really appreciated being able to hear from all the exchange students back in Jacksonville. It REALLY made my day!

That’s all for now – Jacob

January 25 Journal

I have finally returned from another long quest to help with the tsunami relief effort in Khao Luk. After leaving Phuket with my friend’s family, we ended up at a Nature Resort that lied a few hundred meters from the destruction of 12/26’s path. What made this resort unique was not only the fact that it was still standing, but also the fact that the manager had contributed his entire resort as a site for volunteer relief efforts. We spent a few days on the computer, updating our website and translating autopsy reports on Microsoft Excel. Some reports were vague, and some were very disturbing; I found that my most productive method was to work fast enough so that I could avoid thinking about what I was actually describing. True, I could no longer smell the bodies from the temple, but the stench of death seemed to find its way into our computers that day.

Other than translating the reports, I was also given the job of painting the resort to make a “presentable” relief center. Day by day, our building began to look like an official center for support. We had computers lined at desks, lodging, organized meetings, a website, and donated meals. One of our meetings even settled on creating a museum to commemorate those who died on the day after Christmas of 2004.

There have been many extraordinary stories of survivals and rescues, but I’d have to say that the most amazing is seeing what everyone here has come together to do. These stories start to become reality as foreigners fly themselves from other sides of the world just to lend a hand, and as survivors risk death once again just to collect the bodies of injured victims. My story isn’t so extraordinary: I was just fortunate enough to be in a certain place at a certain time, and I have tried my best not take it for granted. It also goes without saying that I would have never been here in the first place if it weren’t for Rotary’s decision to send me into a culture and life that I once knew nothing about. Going into such an unknown has made me grow in ways that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of 5-6 months ago.

As for events at home, life in Phuket is finally starting to become “normal” once again. Our basketball team is doing pretty good, and we even have a big tournament coming up this week. Lately I also seem to be getting excited whenever the teacher gives us homework, which isn’t too “normal” if you ask me… but I’m sure that will fade once I get more activities in my schedule.

I hope everyone is well, and be sure to tell me how crazy things are in Jacksonville during the Superbowl next month! Pii nii gaw koh hai tuuk khon mii kwaam suk mahk na krup.

-Jacob

(Editor’s note: In early February, Rotary International published a feature story on Jacob and his efforts to help in the recovery.)

March 1 Journal

I really must apologize from my absence on the “New posts” list, but it just seems like life in Thailand hasn’t been very predictable lately. But alas, I still do my best to adapt to new situations and make the most out of what this exchange year throws at me. Speaking of which, I have already crossed the halfway point of my exchange, and it’s only a matter of how long the clock will taunt me between now and the time I actually arrive back in the states. It’s true that I believe time has once again slipped by unnoticed, but I also believe that much of my time here has been well spent. I’ve learned a new way of thinking, met a group of wonderful friends who share the same experiences that I have, I even picked up a language that I never even dreamed of learning before I began this exchange. But here I am, 4 months away from stepping into foreign territory once again.

Since a large portion of the Thai population is of Chinese decent, the Chinese New Year on the 8th of February was a very important event. (Notice that I involuntarily rhyme when I don’t use English for an extended amount of time.) The President of my host club invited me to spend the week in Bangkok with his family, and also told me that I would be staying at his sister’s/Canadian brother-in-law’s house. Bangkok… a city that I had been dying to visit… And being the independence-craving teenager that I am, I happily accepted the invitation and looked forward to leaving my daily routine in Phuket. But there’s always the catch. I soon realized that moments of extreme joy are also priced with moments of reflection; and as I looked down on Phuket’s mountains from the plane, I understood that I would be seeing much of the same rolling hills and wonderful islands on my way home in June. I twiddled my fingers for a few minutes and glanced at the papers that the guy next to me was reading to distract myself. Funny, the papers were autopsy reports… made on Excel.

Bangkok is an amazing city. True, it IS just as large and hectic as the books say, but it felt much more different when coming from a life that had been spent in another province for so long. My glance of Bangkok from July 28th 2004 suddenly became nothing, since everything about Thailand had been new to me at the time. In my new encounter with “The City of Angels”… I couldn’t help but get the impression that I was in another world altogether. It felt like I was in New York City or Tokyo, not that I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling to either. Instead of seeing the red-necked tourists and Thai shopkeepers that attempted flattery with broken English, I met businessmen from all around the world and Thai students that spoke almost flawless English. It was incredible; I was sharing the same awe that a young Thai boy from the countryside would feel (even though Phuket is nowhere near being part of the countryside, you’d get the impression that it is once you step foot in Bangkok). People back in Phuket would try to discourage me by criticizing the traffic, congestion, and pollution in the city… but I didn’t care, and my short time in BKK grew on me very quickly. What teenager wouldn’t enjoy riding sky trains and visiting dozens of unique shopping malls? I had only hoped that I went with a few friends, because it seemed nearly impossible to enter and exit through the same doors of these enormous buildings.

The family that I stayed with was very interesting and kind. Their daughter had been going to a Thai school her entire life, and she was currently enrolled in an international program at the top university of Thailand. It was very strange for me to be able to have a normal conversation with a Thai person in English, as she mentioned that it was strange to speak Thai to a foreigner. I suppose she got a lot of her experience from her step father, who was from Canada and had lived in Thailand for nearly 10 years. I also felt very awkward eating an all-American dinner of pork chops, mixed vegetables, and mashed potatoes with a fork and knife… as opposed to Thai’s spoon and fork. Don’t worry, hopefully I can get the whole fork and knife thing down before I return home. Before leaving for Phuket, I took a tour of the Grand Palace and saw the Emerald Buddha, which was very beautiful. We also had a small road trip to Ayuthaya; Thailand’s original capital.

Valentine’s Day was filled with just as many roses and candy as you’d see at school in the U.S. Unfortunately, the chocolate wouldn’t be able to last more than 20 minutes in Phuket’s heat, so I decided that I would buy a few roses for my friends. Knowing that all the other girls in my class would probably be angry with me if I left them out, I dug into my wallet and bought about 20 roses. 20 roses… 20 girls… 8 ladyboys. Never forget the ladyboys.

Seeing that I will be leaving for my third family next week, I wanted to treat my family to an American feast; cooked by yours truly. It was pretty difficult finding exactly what I wanted to make, but I finally came out making a steak/salad/baked potato/bread roll/ brownie dinner. Not only did the family survive my cooking, but they actually enjoyed it very much! Hopefully I can learn to cook as much Thai food as I can before I go back to Florida, but I’m not promising the same satisfaction… or survival.

I hope all the exchange students are doing well and getting something from their year! Will try to get more pictures posted after I fix a format error on my camera…

Wasdee ja ~ Jacob

May 17 Journal

One month. In one month, I will be forcing myself to do what I had been preparing for in the month of July, 2004. I have run the episode in my mind more than a thousand times; the feeling of anxiety mixed with a hope that the life I left back in the states didn’t change too much. Hah, too much. In this culture, I’ve learned to keep the Thai translation of “too much” unsaid. After all, it doesn’t do much good when people think you are restraining just to be considerate to their wallets. Sometimes you need to learn to just smile and say “Yes, I’d like another spoonful of rice”. You all remember the term ‘Greng Jai’ that I’ve mentioned before, right? Funny how I’ve come to understand such a concept that had been so foreign to me when I first arrived in Thailand. Greng Jai becomes so complicated to the foreign mind that books have even been made to help others understand what Greng Jai truly means… because a one word-translation is definitely not enough. To clear up my previous interpretation of “Greng Jai”, I’ve also seen that it becomes a constant struggle to show others that you are doing your best to be considerate to their feelings… even if it’s not something you necessarily want to do. If you want to borrow someone else’s car for a trip, for instance, they are bound by Greng Jai to give it to you. Sounds pretty easy to take advantage of, eh? Unfortunately, such an action is not so easily accomplished, because in knowing that the owner is bound to lend his car to you, you must respect his feelings by not asking at all. So how can you go on that trip that you’ve been looking forward to for so long? It is up to the owner to sense that you need a car (without questions asked, mind you), and then unwillingly offer to lend you the car for the weekend. Of course, that’s not always the case, because most people are happy to help if they can. Just know that you are once again bound by Greng Jai to turn down his offer until he goes insane and throws his keys at you. Confused? Good. Now read on to see what’s been going on on my side of the world.

In the beginning of last month I was gratefully accepted into my third and final host family’s home. The family is very kind, and has introduced me to the change of having 3 younger host brothers. Needless to say, I have definitely been getting the whole “warm family feeling” from this home, and being looked up on by these crazy guys has ironically matured me very much (it’s funny because I must lower my maturity whenever we’re together). I have been getting very fit as well, because not only do I spend some time at the gym, but my new family also takes me to a nearby pool every night to help their sons lose weight. I have been doing my best to prepare for my trip back to America, but it seems so hard when there’s such a long list of things to do and people to satisfy. I’m very excited to see my family and friends, don’t get me wrong, but going back to America also means being pushed into the routine of “life” once again. I suppose I should just take the advice that I gave to the Thai outbounds at a recent orientation: “You’ll never be completely prepared for this, that’s what makes it such an adventure”… just need to close my eyes and jump into this thing called “life” headfirst.

The Thai Songkran Festival, or Thai Traditional New Year, is a 3-day celebration that lasts for 3 days (April 13-April 15). The new year was situated at this time because it also represents the period that the sun changes its position on the zodiac, as the word Songkran means “to change place”. To wash off bad luck and start anew, people from all over come join the celebration and throw water on each other, using things ranging from squirt guns to large ice-cold buckets of water. Yes, it’s just one big water fight… I did mention that every experience in Thailand has made me mature very much, didn’t I? If so, forget what I said. I spent this wonderful holiday on the streets of Bangkok, where it’s nearly impossible to take two steps without being soaked and having white clay all over your face. And to tell the truth, I don’t think I could be happier to be completely soaked with ice-cold buckets of water after enduring the hottest and driest month of the year. If there’s one thing that I will have the hardest time getting over in America, this would be it. And the food. And the friends. And the prices. And the culture. And the Greng Jai.

Another great highlight of last month was my Japanese host family’s visit to Phuket. I couldn’t believe that its been 4 years since I was an exchange student to Oosaka (haha that one’s for Chandler), which inspired the need to spend hours on end to try to make their trip perfect. Unfortunately for me, my host mother couldn’t speak any English and I also had to find time to revive what I slowly lost in these past 4 years… good thing my host sister could still speak English reasonably well. After 3 days of shopping, beach, Phuket Fantasea, shopping, elephant riding, Sea canoeing at Phang Nga cape, shopping, temples, and sunset views at Laem Promthep, I was pretty sure that I could spend the next week buried in my pillows. Women and their shopping… always the same no matter what culture you’re in. On the third day, though, I had to send them off. If you think it’s hard saying goodbye to your families the first time, try doing it twice. I just hope that we will be able to spend more time together next time fate brings me to Asia.

Even though I know you really want to read more, and should feel bound to being considerate to such a desire, I’m going to have to let go of you guys this time. After all, I WILL be going back to America, so I need to practice on my past approach to such a feeling.

IT’S JUST TOO MUCH. And remember, if you are absolutely sure that you can’t take anymore, roll on the floor while gripping your stomach and gasping for air… that should get their attention.

Laew jer gun mai na.

June 20 Journal

The last two weeks of my exchange year were quite different than I had imagined; a series of episodes that will most likely drive me insane while serving as a good source for an adventure novel. Then again, my entire year as an exchange student was filled with experiences that no single book could contain. So how does one finish a report of such unexpected and life-changing experiences?

A long anticipated guest also arrived in the last two weeks of my exchange, giving me the realization that life in Phuket would always be synonymous with the role as a tour guide. This guest needed special attention, however, because not only was he my brother, but it also seemed like his trip to Japan made him very… thrifty. Thai people would call this a case of nak tawng tiaw thii kii niaw mahk mahk lery, or the “extremely cheap tourist syndrome”. Being the evil person that I was, I also looked forward to my older brother visiting “my territory” and having to succumb to my every demand… that, and the fact I just missed him so darn much. Unfortunately, the rainy season killed a lot of our opportunities for fun, but we tried to make the best of our time together before I had to make my long journey home and he had to make his back to Japan. This included elephant riding, ox-cart riding, Thai kickboxing, Thai cooking, elephant/monkey shows, canoe trips, and my personal favorite: “beach bumming”. I even got to brush up on my unbroken English-speaking skills! My brother’s visit had also brought about the realization that I had become so familiar with Thai that listening to people talk to me was as involuntary as with English. In a sense, it came to me as English, because I had never reached such a comfort level with another language in my life. So when my brother didn’t understand what my family or friends were saying to him, I felt confused and had to bring myself back to the young exchange student that I was a year ago: viewing Thai as just one of those crazy-sounding tonal languages that seem impossible to learn, like Chinese. The truth is, languages sound much more different when you begin to understand what a person is saying. You might think that this type of feeling is obvious, but even listening to the flow of the Thai language seems more different than it had a year ago.

My brother’s leave marked the point of preparing for my own leave, which meant saying goodbye to all the friends and family that I had come to know and love. I gathered my things, handed out a few souvenirs that I had saved from the states, enjoyed eating my last ice cream with my friend Shoko (the other exchange student from Phuket), and left for the airport with my third host father. I just couldn’t let myself accept the fact that I was leaving until I actually arrived in the Tokyo/Detroit airports. I saw the cultures gradually change back to my own as I passed through terminals, from tourist agencies swarming you in Bangkok to metal detector staff politely asking “May I have permission to please search you?” in Tokyo to the high-security hustle and bustle of Detroit. It was culture shock all over again, and I felt so foreign to my old home.

I wish I could give a more detailed account of my re-entry into the states, but I’m afraid that the stories would take just as long for you to read as it did for me to experience. All in all, my near 24 hour flight back to Jacksonville was welcomed by groups of family and friends dying to take me to ‘Dennys’ and torture me with their high-speed English conversations. Of course change was obvious since Jacksonville has been the center for change in the past year, but it makes living everyday more of an adventure.

I can never thank Rotary enough for everything they’ve given me in this year abroad, but I will try my best by using what I’ve learned and continuing to provide service to the communities around me. This exchange year has truly been a defining stage of my life, and none of it would have been possible without a Rotary club like West Jacksonville and District 6970. You guys didn’t help me find myself or unleash hidden potential, because I already knew who I was before I left for Thailand (although I wasn’t too sure of what I’d become). You did, however, give me an opportunity to define a new outlook on life and to have deeper insight into my future… and for that, I will always be grateful.

As for my readers, thank you for all the support and patience you’ve given while I was in Thailand. But if you REALLY want to hear more…

Puak khun ja tawng ahn nung seu… doy farang khon nii.

Makena Doherty
2004-05 outbound to Brazil

Hometown: Gainsville, FLorida
School: Buchholz High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Rotary Club da Bahia, District 4550, Bahia, Brazil

Makena - Brazil

August 5 Journal

Wow. has it been a month all ready? all of my friends are just departing…and I’m all ready 32 days in…I feel so accustomed to life here…it is very strange to think that my friends are just beginning to settle… I love it here. I feel so at home. But, just as I was the first to depart, I will be the first carried home…and then I will be soo jealous of all of my friends who have a month left…..

So…traveling…This was my first ever airplane/airport experience. I loved flying. It is such an exhilarating feeling to look out the window of the airplane while you’re thousands of feet in the air. You can see everything. Its wonderful and relaxing. I think the reason some people may be afraid of flying is because of the airport itself. It is a very strange place, full of confusion, which I had plenty of…I even ended up on the wrong company’s airplane on the way to Salvador, but I didn’t care because I knew it would take me to the right place…and the airport is also full of waiting. Waiting in this line, waiting for this flight, waiting in baggage claim…hoping for good luck. And waiting leads to thinking. I thought about everything on my 18 hour flight…what I thought my city and home would look like. What my school was like. How I would like my family. Curiosity has always gotten the better of me….

Well, to begin the adventure…after a 1 day delay on my flight out of Gainesville, I was off….soaring through the sky to a strange, new land. When I arrived there, I was greeted by a few exchange students who had all ready been here for 6 months (they were from Australia and New Zealand), by my host district and host club counselors, by my 1st host family and by my 2 host sisters for my 2nd family. It was very exciting driving to a restaurant, Bella Napoli, looking out the window of the car, amazed by how different and beautiful my new city is, chatting about the sites, and my flight and things about me and my family…as soon as we finished our wonderful Italian meal we drove to my new home…the 12th floor of an apartment very close to the beach…My first thoughts: “the view is amazing, my family is great (my host dad, Emerson, my host mom, Deta, and my host sister, Natalia (15)…Karine, my other “sister” is in Jacksonville), the food is wonderful, and the city seems fun. This is exactly what I hoped and prayed for.”

During my first week here, my host sister showed me around, took me shopping, we went out to dinner, i met a few of her friends, we went to the movies….when we weren’t out, we were home watching TV…I watched too much American TV that first week…and luckily, a Rotarian opened my eyes to the reality of where I am, and how little time I have here….now I watch novelas…like “Senhora Do Destino”, and MTV Brazil, but I still can’t resist “Friends”…and I read more than I watch TV…plus…I started school only 5 days after arriving, so that keeps me busy.

School is from 1:30pm until 7:00pm…we have a break from 4:50 until 5:20 where we can go outside and buy food and candy from the street venders and little shops across from school. My school has an amazing view of the ocean. But, then again, it’s right across the street….the grading is much different…I’m in 2nd year out of 3 years of high school…The students are graded on a 10 point scale for each class…they get a certain amount of points for tests, essays, and activities (projects)…Most of my teachers do not check if you’ve done your homework, but most people do it anyway… My school has Capoeira class, so I joined…Capoeira is a very popular sport in Brasil… It is a sort of fight-dancing sport…hard to describe….It is very good exercise and its fun!

Anyways, I have lots of friends in school…we have done things outside of school too….go out on weekends, etc…They help me so much….they always try to help me understand what is going on in class. They explain how to do the chemistry and physics homework, and help me study for tests…They are the best.

I have done a lot since I arrived…not much touring around the city, but I’ve gone out…I’ve been to 2 little kid birthday parties….they are HUGE…the decorations are so elaborate…they each have a big theme, like spider man or under the sea, and the food is the best!!! Sweets, snacks and everything….so good…But they don’t usually eat the cake. They give it away (to an orphanage). I have also been to a few birthday celebrations at restaurants, one for my 2nd host sister, who’s born July 4th, and one for my host sister’s friend at his parents’ restaurant…I also went to a surprise party foe a classmate…that was very fun, and even though it was raining, people were still playing soccer in the basketball court, and others were swimming….crazy Brazilians…

The people here are awesome…they are warm and inviting…my whole class is like one big family. They are all open and flirty with each other…They play jokes on each other, and no one really takes offense. People buy a lot of candy from the street vendors and give it all away to classmates. If someone brings in a guitar, the teacher will probably ask to play it and everyone will sing along. The students all clap when the teacher says something funny or witty. It is never boring…even in school. I love Brazilians.

The food here…one word: fresh…everything is fresh…they make their own juice… orange juice is SO good here. Pineapple and lemon juices aren’t bad, either. For breakfast I usually have cheese and turkey on bread, and bread with butter and strawberry jelly. For lunch, there is always beans and rice, and meat….and dinner is the same as breakfast, unless you go out to eat. The main meal is lunch, which is at about noon and my host parents come home from work for lunch. The sweets here are delicious! I am addicted to a few things, Bis (this white chocolate wafer), Frumelo (a raspberry flavored fruit chew) and these little cookies. No wonder they say you gain “the rotary 15.” I haven’t weighed myself, but who knows, I’ve probably gained a little weight…

The weather here is awesome!!! I love warm weather, so this is the place for me…It is winter here…About 10 days ago, we experienced a record low for the past 50 years…it was 18°C (64.4°F)…Isn’t that crazy? I thought Florida was hot…

Speaking of Florida…I love my home, but the homesickness hasn’t really gotten to me yet…I thought it would hit me right off, but it didn’t… I’m worried it will be like the chicken pox (getting worse with time)… but, hopefully it will be ok. I have e-mailed and mailed letters to the homeland (America), but I have yet to call anyone. I’m planning on doing that in the next few weeks….

Well, that’s all folks….I’ll get a new entry in next month….

Thank you mom, dad, and of course….Rotary! This has all ready opened my eyes to a new world…I have a newfound appreciation for everything I have…and I’m so grateful. You guys are the ones who have made this possible for me. and I have to shout out to all my rotary peeps…u kno who u r…I luv u guys!!!

Beijos,
Makena

Sept 12 Journal

Well, I’ve been here about 10 weeks so far and it seems more like 3 or 4….the time has passed so quickly….I am learning now that I should savor each moment and jump at each opportunity because this year will seem like a few months. With this in mind, I will fill my short year with excitement and wonder.

In the past 6 weeks, I have been involved in various activities…. Some of which were parties…I have been to two “15 parties,” both of which were bigger than any other birthday party I have ever been invited to in the US. These parties are incredible. When a girl turns 15, they may choose to go on a trip somewhere around the world, just do something with their family, or have a party. There is a dance floor, a DJ, glowing jewelry, free sweets, dinner, and appetizers, and tons of people! (200 to 400) It is absolutely insane. I wish I was 14 sometimes because I want to have a party like this! It is like prom except with 15 and 16 year olds. All the guys wear dress shirts, slacks and loafers while the girls wear pretty dresses and high heels. It is very cool. I will definitely try to make these popular back in the states.

I have continued doing is Capoeira. It is a kind of martial art…(well, it is much more than that, but that’s the best description I can give). I only have it twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays (for an hour), but that sure is enough…Capoeira is very fun, and also very intense, so after that hour I am ready to get home and rest.

I have been doing my share of shopping, as well…of course. I love the exchange rate here. It is about $3.00 Brazilian money (“Reais”) for every $1.00 US so I like to go buy things and then calculate the amount of US money I spent. It always ends up being very cheap, which is always good.

On September 4th and 5th, we had a “Rotary weekend.” On Saturday, the 4th, we went to a meeting that lasted until the better part of the evening (discussing the rules, culture shock, the language, Carnaval, and tour options). Bonni, a girl from Australia lived a few blocks from where the meeting was held so she invited all of us to walk to her house for a Bar.B.Q her family and friends were having. There was singing, dancing, chatting and, of course, plenty of food! I love the Bar.B.Q’s here. They are much different from the ones in the US, but they are just as good, if not better.

The next day we woke up early to take part in a boating out in the bay. All of us “gringos” lapped on our sunscreen, grabbed our cameras and set off for a wonderful day in the sun. I was the only exchange student (of the girls) to have bought a Brazilian bikini and I brought up my courage and wore it with pride. We couldn’t have gone out on a better day. The sun was out, there weren’t too many clouds and everyone was ready for a dip in the calm, translucent water. It was really a perfect day.

All of us exchange students bonded that weekend, maybe not as much as us outbounds did, but there was something there. We all got along very well and I think we’ll have some more good times in the future. I guess it is just an exchange student thing because I have never bonded so well with people I barely even know.

Of course, I must talk about school. I am here as a foreign exchange student. ISBA, my school, is going fine, well, as fine as expected. The subjects I am taking are as follows: Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Portuguese Literature, Redação (writing essays and stuff…I’m not quite sure what it would be in English), Spanish, English, History, Geography, Sociology, religion, art (kind of), and others I don’t exactly know how to say (in English or Portuguese)….and these are all the 2nd level. It is very difficult because I am not only learning these new subjects that everyone else learned last year, but I’m also just learning the language in which these subjects are taught. But my friends are always assisting me in my quest for knowledge, so it isn’t that bad. Plus, I have a lot of fun in class because my friends are all crazy fun and everything here is much more laid back.

Well, I can’t spend all my time writing journal entries…I have to get out there and see Brazil. So that’s all for now, folks. I hope to write again soon, maybe one day when I’m not very busy, if there ever is a day…

Shout outs (gotta have them): to my Rotary clan…you know who you are….I love you all and I hope things are going as well for you as they are for me!!! I can’t wait until we reunite in the summer of ’05…Mom, Dad, and Kylie: you guys are awesome and I hope you can come visit me sometime! And to everyone from Rotary who has made this possible for me and all the other exchange students: thanks soooo much! You really are great people! I love you all! And, to everyone who read this: thanks, you must have a great interest in me to read thought this whole thing.

Lots of love to the USA.

Abraços e Beijos,

~Maquena~

(they don’t have k’s in Portuguese)

November 15 Journal

Oi Galera! Beleza? hahaha…

I know, I know, its been a long while. I have done so much since I last wrote, so I will get started in summing everything up….

I left off in mid-September. It has now been about 8 weeks since then. Wow. That’s a long time. It has gone by so fast. I have been extremely busy lately. I’m in the last unit in school before summer (which officially begins on December 7th) I’m so excited! I’m not, however, looking forward to the 10 days of exams coming up. This will be a time of extreme confusion for me, because, although I am on the right level for having a casual, friendly conversation, I am not even near the right level for writing essays or even completing short answer questions in school.  Written Portuguese is more formal than spoken Portuguese, and the spelling is difficult, as well.  But, I will study make an attempt at my finals. Wish me luck.

I changed host families about one month ago. On October 16th. I am to have 3 families this year, so I will change again in mid-February.  I absolutely adore my new family, which consists of two families, actually. There is my host dad, Ari, and his 2nd wife, Carol, and my little bro, Pepeu, who has one year. Then there is also my host dad’s “1st family.” His ex-wife, who he is still friends with, and their two daughters (my super fun half-sisters), Andrea (20) and Natalia (17). Both of my new families are so wonderful to me. I would not survive without them. I am so glad I get along with them so well and that things worked out, because I had some problems with my 1st family. I did not feel quite at home in their house, despite the fact that they were nice, generous and welcoming.  I thought I would adjust after a while, but I never seemed to feel any more comfortable. I guess we just didn’t “mesh well.”  Next time I will know better to open my mouth and talk about my problems, whether big or small. It is always better to let things be known, because there is so much that others can do to help. I have had so much support these past few months. Rotary, particularly on the Florida end, has been so great. Al and Rob have given me great advice and helped me get through the hard time I went through in October. Friends from school and former exchange students have taught me so much Portuguese. It seems like I am improving my communication skills by the hour. Literally. And even when I speak in English, which is not so often anymore, I learn something new about the grammar, or I learn a new word that is commonly used in Portuguese, but I have never heard of in English. I have forgotten many words in English, too. Just last night, I was speaking with an American friend of mine and I tried to tell her she needed to laminate something, but I could only think of the Portuguese word, “plastificação.” It was good that she new Portuguese and understood what I was talking about, but she could not think of the word either. It took us at least 10 minutes of laughing and making foolish attempts for my friend to remember.  It is times like these that I know the Portuguese is becoming more clear with every day that goes by.

There are many new places I have visited in my city (and on the outskirts) in the past few months. I have been to the beach, of course, but still have not obtained a decent tan. I am still the whitest person in all of Salvador. No, really, I am. But summer is coming, like I said, so watch out. I have also been to the theater, to see a percussion show. It was absolutely fabulous! It taught me a lot about the music in Bahia (my state).  I love the Brazilian music, and although I am a terrible dancer, I try to dance reggae, forró, samba (and the other pagode dances) when there are not too many people watching me, of course. I am planning on rocking out at all the awesome concerts they will have this summer (Ivete Sangalo, Chiclete com Banana, Pagodart, JotaQuest, Los Hermanos…the list goes on). I have been to a show or two all ready, one was just local bands, they were really great. And the other was a Los Hermanos show (they are kind of a Brazilian ska/rock band) which everyone and their brother went to. There were at least 400 people. It was so crowded, but I loved it! So, anyway, I expect the concerts at Wet ‘n Wild to be super fun! (The 1st ever Wet ‘n Wild was in Salvador, but it is old and closed down a while back. Now they use it for concerts.)

I have also been hanging out with friends a lot. Going to movies, shopping!, having Fanson meetings, etc. Fanson is a group of girls in my city who are Hanson fans. Yes, Hanson, the Mmm Bop people. They are still performing and are a great indie band. I have quite a few friends who I get together with every so often to listen to Hanson, watch their videos and interviews, and just hang out. It is very fun and the group is growing. There is a rumor that Hanson will come to Salvador in March, so it would be interesting to see an American band playing in Brazil.

What else have I been up to? Eating, as usual (even though I still haven’t gained weight). I have experimented many new things. Seafood (shellfish, octopus), indigenous, African, Indian (not the country India) and Arabian foods. I am not too partial for the Arabian cuisine, but I LOVE the African, Indian and indigenous foods.

I almost forgot, my most recent activity: outbound interviews! Boy, was that interesting. Saturday (Nov. 13th) I arrived at our location at 8:00am and was interviewing all day until about 9:00pm. We (the current exchange students and ex-exchange students) interviewed each candidate for 20 minutes, spending 10 minutes speaking in Portuguese and the other 10 in English. I was proud of myself because I understood absolutely everything that was said in Portuguese. Go me! I’m learning! We interviewed quite a few great people. I am interested to see who will be chosen. But all through the day I was thinking back on my interview and how terribly I think I presented myself. I came off as nervous and quiet and almost unsure, which is not me at all at the present time. This made me realize how much I have matured since then. I am so much more confident and self assured. Rotary really is awesome!

Beside everything that is happening, I am still deciding on my plans for Carnaval, which is in February. I will either go on a bloco (read Tierney’s journal, I will try to explain later) or I will travel (do one of those Rotary tours)…I guess it all depends on how much money I have by then…And thanksgiving, I will either go to a dinner here in Salvador that they have every year, or I will go to a reggae show with my friends. I’m torn between both…I will let you know what I do (because I know you are all so interested ?) So, I will leave you now to live life. I must say that I love all of you Rotarians and exchange students from FL! You guys are the reason I love my life! Mom, Dad, Liam, Conor, Kylie, Granny, Gram, Juju…and all of my other family members: Happy Thanksgiving! Wish I could be there, kind of…

I will write again soon!

xau xau!

beijos,

~Makena~

PS: Pictures will follow…

January 17 Journal

e ai galera??? tudo bom? (What’s up everyone??? everything good?)

Well…I don’t quite know where to begin…I have changed a great deal over the past 2 months. I am really settling in here and I feel so at home with my 2nd host family. They are teaching me so much about Portuguese and English, Brazil, the USA and the world. My host dad loves conversing with me about the behavior of people in general (What everyone has in common, comparisons between the people of different countries, characteristics that help people gain success everywhere, etc.)

I have also learned many things about English grammar: verb tenses, etc. English class has actually been fairly productive and enlightening (even though I am on summer break). But on the other hand, I am losing vocabulary. There are many words that I forget in English. Good luck having an intelligent conversation with me when I arrive home. lol. And my spelling is terrible. When I do use English here it is either by speaking or talking on AIM, which is completely informal and I do not need to spell things correctly.

I will have a lot of learning to do when I get home. But, let me tell you, so far, it has been completely worth it. Every bit. I am having the time of my life and learning and experiencing things that I never would have in Florida (no offense, I do love Florida, but it’s true). I have met so many people and eaten so many wonderful foods and gone to the most beautiful places. I really took the ball and ran with it, and I haven’t looked back. (if that doesn’t make sense….think of football) Of course, I have had my “days,” but I would have those days in Florida, too. And even though I may be behind in school when I return, I have so many options. And I will be much more knowledgeable, having been to Brazil for a year. I am learning things here that many people will never know in their entire lives. This opportunity has opened my eyes to a whole new life, one that I will always be a part of, even when I leave.

One particular feeling that is funny to me…I am missing everyone…but not everyone from FL (I miss you guys, but I’ll see you soon enough)…I actually miss everyone from school. How strange….Does that mean that I miss school??? I have only been on break for about 3 weeks and I am all ready looking forward to getting back to class to see everyone again. That is definitely a first for me…I usually dread going back to school after the summer break. But this summer is a strange one…. maybe it’s because of the timing: December, January and February…but maybe I just really love my classmates. I think it’s both. And, somehow, I’m okay with being “homesick” from school. (translation: “I don’t mind being a school nerd.”)

So, you are probably wondering about my Christmas….I have to tell you, I thought it would be bad. I thought I would cry and not have fun. I have heard many stories from former exchange students letting me know how horrible Christmas will be for me…Well, what a myth…I got all worried for nothing. It was rather enjoyable! Although, Christmas Eve was much more Christmas-like than the actual day. But who cares, it was close enough. I didn’t cry at all! I’m very proud. New Year’s was definitely more sentimental for me. (But I didn’t cry then either.) I don’t really know why. I guess it was because I felt so at home at this beach house that I’ve never been to in my life. My whole evening (the 31st) felt perfect. So much so, that I fought my sleepiness until 4am. And, this is off-topic, but I have to say, I haven’t gained any weight either. I think I encounter all the minor problems, and none of the stereo-typical ones. I have not even a clue as to why…but that’s okay.

So, I will let you get back to your new year….I hope it’s begun well! I love you all in Gainesville and hope you are well. Thank you Rotary from the bottom of my heart for this wonderful year!!! Thanks also for your great New Year e-mails!!!

Beijos e Abraços,

~Mak~ (my nickname here-along with Dolly. hehe.)

I’ll write again soon (after Carnaval, which is Feb. 3rd until Feb. 8th)

April 8 Journal

I have been writing my journal for about 3 months now….I had about 4 pages typed up the last time I came to add stuff….Then, thinking about, I realized that 4 pages would probably bore people to death. I know I’m too impatient for that sort of thing (unless I was talking about hang-gliding or a trip to the Amazon, which, unfortunately, I’m not.) So, I decided to revise it and cut out the semi-unimportant things (I say semi-unimportant because I believe that nothing I do here is completely unimportant.)

It has been an extremely busy few months. The last time I wrote was before Carnaval! In JANUARY! That was sooo long ago! I am just really bad at this journal thing, aren’t I? Well… Here you go:

CARNAVAL was the biggest party of my life! It is inexplicable! Huge semi-trucks (“trio-electricos” or “blocos”) decked out with gigantic speakers and bands playing on the hood, which has been made into a stage, while 1 to 5 thousand sweating, excited, tired and insane people dance around the truck for 3 to 6 hours while the rain pours down or sun shines brightly. Oh, and did I mention that the trucks are moving? Well, they are. And the people in the crowd walking, or dancing, while the trucks keep moving for 3 to 6 miles, depending on which route they are taking. Carnaval in Bahia, my state, is like nothing else in the world. It is the most popular party on the planet. Literally. And for good reason: the best bands are playing, the most famous people are watching and the drinks and lança perfume (a popular drug here in Brazil) are everywhere. I met people inside my “Bloco” from Australia and England, we saw Mexicans and Germans and Italians and Americans. For one week, there are about 2 million people dancing on the streets of my city, Salvador, alone. 1 million people come in from out of town. Can you imagine this in the USA? Jacksonville was building and repairing the city for 5 years just to accommodate their several thousands of guests for the Super Bowl. People book hotels up to a year in advance because once January comes, there is almost no way to get a place, unless you’re famous. Well, February 3rd, 4th and 5th, I went out in a bloco called “Eu Vou,” which featured Ara Ketu, Babado Novo e Jammil (popular bands here). Then I rested for a few days and went back out on the last day (February 8th) with my sisters.

Then, February 14th, which is not a holiday here in Brazil, it was BACK TO SCHOOL. I am in the last year of high school…Let me tell you, it is SO much more difficult than school in the USA. I will feel so lucky to be studying there next year. It is free and the classes are not impossible to pass. Here, to get a good education, a child must study at a private school, which is very expensive….on average, US$5,000 a year. And the education at these schools is on a very high level. It is much more in depth than in the USA. The math is much more complex, and the physics, chemistry and biology are as difficult as AP courses in the USA. I sure will be ready for school next year!

I have also done a little traveling this past month (March). I went to Rio de Janeiro for a week and stayed with one of my best friends (who lived in Salvador, but moved to Rio a few months ago). I stayed for a week and LOVED it so much that I just might want to go back someday soon (if I have the opportunity). I also traveled to Itacaré, a city about 6 hours south of my city (by car). I went with my NEW HOST FAMILY (I changed families – for the last time – on March 6th and am loving this new family. The Sande’s are a very fun family and I have learned a lot and experienced a lot since I arrived in their house last month. I have a sister, Dani, who is 20 years old, a brother who is studying in Indiana this year through Rotary, and another brother, Bernardo, who is 11.) We spent Easter at a little beach-side resort that a friend of my host dad owns. There were two other families there and we all went out on four-wheelers, went on a ropes course and took out our friend’s speed boat. What a vacation! I had soo much fun there and I got to know my host family better, too! I definitely need to travel some more before I leave Brazil in 2 short months (that is 9 weeks. I am definitely not ready.)

That brings me to my last words…I must say that this has been the best year of my life! I am so at home here and so in love with everything in my life right now. How will I ever have the courage to step on that plane without looking back, or even running back, to it all? After creating a whole life for myself here, one that I myself am impressed with, I will be forced to walk away. Of course I will be dying to see my family and friends in FL, but I am just settling in and beginning to enjoy this wonderful new life. Just as my parents said, it will be BITTERSWEET. A completely happy moment mixed with a profound sadness. But I wouldn’t take it back for anything. The pain will just let me know how great my year was and how much I adapted to life in Brazil. I will forever remember this experience and will never lose contact with my new family and friends in Salvador, Brasil and the world.

Until next time,

My thanks and love goes out to Rotary 6970 and 4550, my family (here and there) and My Rotary gang. You are my life.

Peace*Love*Happiness

Makena

PS: Good luck to all the outbounds! You’re in for a bumpy ride, but it the end, it will be worth it! You’re gunna love it!!! You “Brazilians” need to get in touch with me!

Caitlin Edwards
2004-05 Outbound to France

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Downtown Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Bethune-Brunehaut Rotary Club, District 1520, France

Caitlin - France

September 13 Journal

The trip to France was easy enough, I left Jacksonville saying goodbye to my parents (they handled the situations heroically, no tears or grabbing on to me) and headed to Washington D.C. where I met up with all 65 of the other kids going to Paris from the eastern side of the states. The plane ride was long and cramped, but adrenaline was flowing so forcefully that I swear it went by in 15 minutes.

After arriving in Paris I waited for about 30 minutes for my maman d’acceuil (host mom) to find me. Because she doesn’t have a car a Rotarian had to take us home, but before he did he took me on a very short but undeniably sweet tour of Paris. The city is incredible. It is everything the books and movies make it out to be, but it’s real! The Rotarians keep saying how impressed they are with my French, but I don’t think it’s my French, I think it’s just the fact that I put forth an effort to communicate. Speaking and understanding is still difficult at this point, and exhausting… but I think well worth it in the end.

My family consists of my mom and my two brothers, myself, and of course the dog (Lisa). We all live in a tiny little house in a tiny little town named Verquin. It’s incredible how much alike my brothers here (Nicolas,18 and Julien, 11) to my brothers at home. Verquin is basically just a neighborhood… although I’m not complaining, it has made it very easy to make friends with all the locals. I’ve found at school and at home all the kids are extremely warm and nice to me. Friends have kind of found me here, the people are great! Only outdone by the food…it’s amazing. Too good, I can already feel myself stretching out a bit. Too much cheese and bread I think.

They also have this chocolate fondue stuff… that is cold and ready to eat, on anything called Nutella that I swear will be the death of my figure…ha.

It’s dinner time here, so I should go, but I promise to be better about updating my journal as time passes and things start to pick up here. A beintot!

October 12 Journal

I’m starting to feel more at home here. My house is no longer like a hotel, I do the dishes every other day, I mop the floor, I clean rooms… I do laundry, I act like a member of the family. And if I neglect to do one of these chores I get the same scolding my brothers would receive. But honestly I wouldnt have it any other way. The same can be said at school with the kids and teachers alike. I’ve gotten past the point of marvel for my classmates. They don’t stare at me when I walk in the room anymore, or fall out of their seats trying to help me if I drop my pen (this actually happened once), they say good morning to me in the same fashion as all the others… with 2 sloppy, sleepy kisses on the cheeks and a quite, unconcerned “ça-va?” But I think what they don’t realize that they are doing for me is making me feel like a kid in their class, not like a strangely dressed American girl, but like a motivated French student… or as motivated as I can be oblivious to what’s going on around me. My teachers all have unique ways of dealing with me that vary greatly from really rather nastily harsh to almost warm and motherly. I still can’t understand about 80% of what the profs are talking about during class, but strangely enough I don’t seem to have the same problem with the students. A strange phenomenon.

My host Rotary Club in Béthune is really amazing. There are roughly 40 members of the club and only two exchanges, myself and Eileen (a great girl from New Zealand) so we get treated like little princesses. Every Thursday we go to this 14th century castle turned restaurant for the weekly Rotary meeting. The meeting itself is rarely a time of great interest for Eileen and myself. We have to give a quick 5 minute speech at the beginning of each meeting but after that we can concentrate on the 7 course meal being served to us on silver platters (real silver platters, not the expression).

Apart from every Thursday my Rotary councileur, Gérard, takes us to Paris as often as he can find an excuse to. Last weekend it was to watch the biggest horse race in the world, the Grand Prix de l’Arc de Triumph. I also spend a lot of time in Lille, bowling or shopping…really one doesn’t need an excuse to go to Lille other than it’s an amazing city. The city is always doing something different. Last year they renovated every building and made the entire HUGE city look like ancient China. This year they turned centre Lille into an enormous jungle. Complete with animal and rain noises when you enter any store and canopies of live trees. I’ve also been to Belgium for a kayaking expedition (25 km’s!) and this school break I hope to go visit Germany. It still shocks me how easy it is to travel in Europe. Every country is just a train ride away and passports are almost always not needed.

I haven’t felt much of any home sickness my first 5 weeks here. I miss the Florida sun, its really unreasonably cold here…there has to be someone I can talk to about the temperature because 4°C is just crazy for October. Although I know I can’t really be complaining with Meryn already getting to play with snow and Matt trekking to school every day in his ice boots, but all the same…way too cold for this Floridian. I miss being able to make jokes, funny jokes that is. The humor here is extremely different. Sarcasm doesn’t exist… at least not in the ways I’ve been trying to use it. And believe me I’ve tried, but all of my attempts bomb miserably. When my host mom asked me if I was cold, I told her as blatantly sarcastically as I could muster “ah non, il fait chaud!” so she turned off all the heating in the house and I woke up in the morning able to see my breath. I haven’t attempted sarcasm since. I miss being able to be the leader in class or with my friends. And I miss being able to help people out when they have a problem or comfort someone when they really need it. My friend’s dad died yesterday in a car accident. And what do I say to him? “ça-va” would be an insult. “Je suis désolé” just doesn’t seem to cut it. I don’t yet have the vocabulary to be anything other than a pitiful attempt for him, and that’s harder for me than anything else here has been so far. I think living without those little advantages I took for granted surrounded by people who spoke the same language as me will just make me try harder to help out the disadvantaged when I get home.

November 8 Journal

Hey yall!

Wow, I miss being able to say that…the last time I tried I was with 2 Aussies, a Kiwi (the name for people from New Zealand), 2 Mexicans, and a Colombian and they made fun of me. I guess the dignified culture of southern United States is a refined taste. They don’t know what they’re missing…ha.

So, it’s been more than 2 months since I’ve arrived here! crazy huh? I’ve been reading the other exchanges journals and we all seem to be saying the same thing, that time passes you by without the courtesy of letting you know…so it must be true. I’ve been doing my best to make the most out of my days here, I promised myself at the beginning of my exchange that I wouldn’t sit too idly for a long period of time and I think I’ve been fairly successful so far. The most recent exciting news I can provide is that for the last school vacation I took a trip to Switzerland!

We went to Paris in the morning and spent the day there doing things that one can do in Paris. Before that day I had blindly loved Paris in the way that most tourists love Paris. I would marvel at the buildings and get all excited and revved up with my camera and my tennis shoes to see the sights. But a couple weeks ago I was rather violently forced to see the other side of Paris. The real side of Paris as one might say. Eileen and I were on the métro going back to meet up with our friends in the youth hostel when we noticed two guys hunched over another rather intimidated looking kid of about 19 or 20 from what it looked like. Eileen and I both guessed right away, correctly, that we were watching this poor kid get mugged on the métro only 5 or so feet away. We were completely helpless to do something.

Frankly, two teenage girls alone in Paris cant really afford to get mixed up in that situation. But what bothered me more was that no one else on the train made any effort to help, and it was obvious that everyone noticed as we had. Once the métro was slowing to the next stop the guy who was so obviously being mugged stood up and punched one of his attackers in the face. A fight broke out then and Eileen just kinda stood there watching…shocked out of moving. I pushed her through the door and we, along with all the other passengers in our car ran out of the train and into the Paris street. We looked back just long enough to see that the 3 men had remained on the train and that the young man was clearly fighting a losing battle outnumbered and left on his own on the métro. I felt horrible about it, and I still do…but what could I have rationally done?

Walking out of the métro that night I seemed to noticed more than I had ever before the amount of starving and sick people on the streets. All the kids, and women, and men begging for a little scrap to eat or some money. That day in Paris was spent more productively than the day that I spent 4 hours in the Louvre, or the day I walked up the l’Arc de Triumph or the Eiffel Tower. The real world seeped through my golden image of the “city of love” that day…and although it scared me it also helped me realize that I’m not a tourist here, that I don’t have a tour guide or parents to usher me along or hold my hand.

It’s all part of the process I think, but thanks to that rather traumatic experience on the train I actually have an exact moment this year that I realized that I’m taking care of myself here, and that I need to do a good job.

On a much lighter note…the trip to Switzerland was amazing! It was so freeing organizing and traveling all by our lonesomes. The first day we were in Switzerland we took the 4 hour train ride to Winterthur, where Sybelle, an exchange student in Eileen’s house last year, lives. Her family was so unbelievably welcoming to us. We walked in to our room to find Swiss chocolats on our bed and upstairs to find a classically Swiss meal, that also happens to be a specialty of northern France, called “roclette.” which is basically just fancy talk for melted cheese over potatoes…yummmyyy…In the morning we went to see a really awesome castle that was originally built for the Hapsburg dynasty. Fascinating huh? I got to exercise that wonderful little Rotary smile and exclamation of amazement for you Al, I know you would’ve been proud. We then spent the day in Zurich buying lots and lots of chocolat and eating most of it. Monica can tell you all that Eileen and I ate more chocolat than could rightly fit in our stomachs. She laughed at us, but on the inside I knew she was just jealous at all the weight I was gaining. (Don’t worry Monica, when you come to France…which you are doing you have no choice…we will stuff coffee, bagette, cheese, and nutella down your throat)

The next morning we woke up ungodly early and drove with Sybelle and her dad to Mt. Titlus to climb the coolest mountain in the Swiss Alps. It was super duper extraordinarily cold on the mountain. Eileen and I had kinda assumed that we were going to be doing some tame, but heart pumping TRAIL hiking…oh how wrong we were. When we got the the base of Mt. Titlus we stood looking up, marveling at its height when Sybelles dad came up and handed me a rope to put around my waist. I thought it was a bit over kill that we’d be tied together just walking up the trail until we proceeded to actually CLIMB the mountain. As, in with spikes on our shoes and polls and Katie falling down about 6 times, and Sybelles dad finding it all quite amusing while telling me I needed to go on a diet which is probably true…

After we descended from 10,450 feet in the air we climbed in the car and headed out to meet Monica! It was so good to see that girl again, I had no idea how much I really missed that laughing purple face. I spent 3 good relaxing days with Monica meeting her Swiss friends, eating with her Swiss family, taking Swiss trains to Swiss cities…well, you get the point. And whatever you do don’t let her tell you she’s not integrating enough or learning the language fast enough because she is really doing an amazing job with the, at times, difficult situations she’s been given. It was really interesting to see how one of my friends are doing their exchange. Everyone has different ways of going about doing the same basic things, different goals for their exchange, different motivations. I realized that you can’t really compare two exchanges with each other because each student takes something different away from this year, everyone is looking to learn something different and everyone, even the ones who come home early, end up learning more than they realize at the time.

P.S. Sam, watch out! cause I’m coming to Germany next!

December 15 Journal

I’ve been meaning to write this journal for quite some time now, I’ve started 4 times…but just thinking about everything that has happened in the last month and a half is a bit overwhelming, let alone the prospect of having to sit in front of the computer for so long. But the longer I wait the longer this little entry gets…and none of us want that I don’t think, so here goes:

In the middle of November I went with my Kiwi friend, Eileen, her host bro from New Zealand Fréderic, and a couple Aussies to the France-All Blacks rugby game. For those of you who follow this brutal sport, or even know how it’s played you can well imagine the intensity and excitement in the Stade de France. I was feeling a bit nostalgic surrounded by 50,000 screaming, body painted, half drunken, absolutely insane men, felt just like home in the good ol’ swamp. The game was interesting not because 3 men got carried off the field on stretchers but rather because the game is so contrary to the natural behavior of the French. Badminton is more their sport, something quiet and respectable. But the French tried with all their strength, and still ended up coming out of the game 39 points behind the All Blacks. Fred, Ei, and I were sitting in a sea of French men, wearing their navy blue berets, waving our kiwi flag and being generally as obnoxious as we could be…all in the good spirit of the game, of course…During the game a man sitting beside us asked us if we could hold up a huge sign he had made asking his girlfriend to marry him, which eventually got us on French national television with it…and he got engaged.

The day after the big match in Paris I changed families, and cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I use the word “cook” to make myself feel better about how little I actually did. What I really did was reheat an already cooked turkey, some stuffing, sweet potatoes, greens, gravy, and put the cranberry sauce and the pecan and pumpkin pies on the table. But I didn’t burn anything…and that, for me, is saying quite a lot. So all 3 of my families piled into my new home, making 19 of us…and we all ate as much as we could. I tried to explain some of the traditions, such as saying one thing you are grateful for before starting to eat, but they were hungry and started eating anyway, or the fact that one must eat 2 or 3 plates full of food…but everyone seemed to be full after their first…but I continued in my regular fashion figuring its an American holiday, I can eat like an American for this one day. They mistook the gravy for a soup and started eating with their spoons…and I had to convince them all that the sweet potatoes were not abnormally large carrots and that the pumpkin pie was supposed to be that color.

Changing families was an experience. it almost feels like starting your exchange all over again, new people to meet, new rules to get used to, new types of food to eat, an entirely different city to get lost in. My new family, the Detombs, are made up of three, yes three teenage boys, a little 4 year old girl, and my host parents. Everyone in the family moves at an incredible pace, balancing school and work with badminton, volleyball, and piano lessons for my host dad; piano, kick boxing, and swimming lessons for my host mom; theater for all of the kids; piano, horseback riding, karate, and voice lessons for my little sis; drum, xylophone, soccer, tennis, and debate team for my 16 year old host bro; and trumpet and handball for my 14 year old host bro. The house is always moving, there is always music playing, people joking and eating, girlfriends giggling, and people talking. I’ve already felt my French starting to improve just in the 4 weeks of being here. We talk about everything, they travel and have the same passion as I do for art. As I’m writing this my host mom is playing the piano, Louis is upstairs playing the drums, Victor is in the kitchen cooking, and my little host sister just asked if she could write something to you all. So now she’s sitting on my lap with something to say, I’ll translate after:

je suis la petite soeur de catline ! vous saver ce que c’ est que cache-cache? vous voulais savoir ce que c’ est bon on cen fou on pace à otrochause.

She said in her interpretation of the French language: “I am Caitlin’s little sister! Do you all know what hide and seek is? Do you want to know what it is? Ok, no one cares…on to other things.” She’s a surprisingly smart little girl. My first day here she asked me how to say je t’aime in English and I told her “I love you.” A week later she had remembered and said “Caitlin, I love you”…It’s nice having a little sister, a bit like babysitting 24 hours a day but she insures that there is never a dull moment. Right now she’s attacking me with with a toothpick which is not really a toothpick but rather a sword, and she’s not really my little host sister, but rather a ninja.

My first weekend with my family I went to Lille to see the Mexico Europe exposition. There I got to stare at one of Picasso’s most famous statues and a few of his amazing paintings. My family had to tear me away from the museum. A couple weeks later I went with some friends to the Musée des Beaux Arts also in Lille where is saw a real live Monet. And not just any Monet, the Monet. His “view of London by the water”, which also happened to be my favorite puzzle when I was younger. Monet was just one of many, there were paintings by Degas, Sisley, Renoir, Manet, Matisse…It’s amazing to me how these painting still have so much power, there is such a feeling standing in front of one of these works of art. These paintings hang on their little designated spaces of wall, so unassuming, no special lighting, no body guards, no elaborate frames…just beauty that will never grow old, or tiring to look at. Next week I’m planning to stay in paris for the week with Eileen and we’ve decided to spend a day in the Louvre and in the Musée d’Orsey…I’ve become such a dork for art, but I figured no better place to do it than in France.

A couple weekends ago I went to Germany for the weekend with some friends and a Rotarian to see the Marché de Nöel in Aachen. We just drove past the Belgium border, undisturbed…no customs, no passport checks, not even a man in an orange vest to quickly wave us through. Just the subtle change in scenery. Belgium is really beautiful, a bit like Switzerland I find. Speckled with green forests and laced with rivers, opposed to the coal mines and smoking stacks of the factories that northern France is famous for. We passed into Germany in the same fashion, as simply as crossing the street. The market was sweet, a very large version of the market in the center of my city. I didn’t buy much besides ginger bread and a cup of hot wine, an Aachen specialty, but I had a nice time walking around the cobble stone streets and looking at all the hand crafted Christmas decorations. We all decided to head over to the old church where Charlemagne was crowned the Roman Emperor and afterwards to the corresponding museum. I have to admit I was a bit creeped out by the artifacts in the museum. The display was made up of Catholic relics, the forearm and thigh bone of Charlemagne, old popes and saints teeth, hair, and anything else conservable and desired by the people of their time. Also on display, in an extravagant all gold statue was a thorn from the crown of Jesus, a nail from his cross, and the cloth used to whip his forehead after he was taken off the cross. Walking around the museum Eileen and I stumbled across a small fresco that I recognized immediately, but couldn’t quite remember where. After a few minutes of staring at it I realized the painting was a document in my AP European History test last year, this continent is like a huge text book…just a bit more interesting.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been traveling around, spending quality time with my friends from the southern hemisphere that are getting ready to go home. Next week I’ll be heading to Amsterdam with the girls and Liz’s mom who came from Australia to take her on a quick trip around Europe.. after that we will be living in Paris for the week. *sigh* the rough life of being an exchange student.

January 31 Journal

Things are still spinning, just at that right pace between out of control and stomach churning. I’ve been waiting for things to slow down, for me to get control over the days that pass by here… but I now doubt that day with ever actually reach me. And I might be happier that way. In a way, this year has given me more freedom than I’ve ever had in my life, and in another it’s taken away all the simple freedoms I took for granted back home, like being able to say “I’ll do it later” with the knowledge that I’ll be there to do it.

Christmas came and went, the holidays were supposed to be the time period where I felt the most homesick, but I think it might have been the happiest I’ve been since stepping off the plane. I don’t have any wonderful traditional stories to tell you, we didn’t put shoes outside our door, or jump over waves and make wishes. I didn’t wake up and see a pile of presents under the tree with my name on them, or eat an extravagant meal on silver plates. I was, however with my family… or my “host family” as they would be called in a perfectly P.C. world. the term doesn’t seem to fit anymore though, they aren’t hosting me, they are living with me, teaching me, talking to me, laughing with me (and occasionally at me)… they get frustrated with me, and are proud of me. Logically we all know I’m leaving in 2 months, but nobody seems to accept the fact, at least not out loud.

During the holidays I went with Eileen for a week in Paris, where we stayed with her family and played our dorky little roles as tourists. There are some fine differences between us and the average tourist stumbling around Paris, however. We know how the métros work, we don’t speak to each other while in the métro station (if we spoke English we are assumed as tourists… thus vulnerable, and if we speak French our accents are noted… and we are marked as foreigners as well) so we don’t speak, and have avoided countless stares and uncomfortable situations in the process. We know how to hold our bags, how to keep the cell phone on the body and not in a purse, how to look and not look people in the eyes, but one thing I haven’t yet mastered that the Parisians do effortlessly is pass by a starving child sitting on the street without their heart pace doubling and not as much as a glance. I’m sure this “talent” would be adopted with time…although I’m not sure if I ever really want it to be. We were there for New Years Eve, as well as the rest of the world it felt like. We went to the Centre Pompidou in the afternoon, got lost in some Picassos, Matisses, Warhols, just to name a few. Then heading to the Champs Elysée and became one of the miniscule dots of black lining the sidewalk on the most famous street in Paris. For the countdown to 2005 we hopped on the métro and headed over to the Eiffel Tower, where we watched the fireworks and the festivities, as people from all over the world stumbled around…elated at the idea of one more year down.. and a whole future of years to come. It became apparent, at around 1 o’clock, why we were only non-Parisians under the Eiffel tower… the locals knew better. All 70,000 or so of us attempted to hop back on the métro to get back to center Paris at the same time. if you do the math, you’ll see that this little problem was completely impossible. But that didn’t stop us from ignoring the rules of physics and stuff all of us in this tiny building at once. Ei and I ended up waiting in line for 3 and a half hours before finally getting back to where our beds were patiently awaiting our arrival.

Last month I was inducted into the Verquin City Hall Wall of Fame, after their annual “ceremonie des voeux” (ceremony of wishes)… as a citizen of honor. The whole ordeal has become somewhat of a joke between my host fam and myself, they call me the queen of Verquin (the city I lived my first 4 months of exchange). Every year in the small city of Verquin, the men gather together and nominate 1 woman to be the citizen of honor for the year, this year… mysteriously, it was me. I got a call from the mayor informing me about it, and telling me I would be making a speech in front of a small gathering of Verquinois (citizens of Verquin… they just add “ois” to the end of the cities to signify that), which ended up being 2,000 citizens, all staring at me in wonder. It became apparent as the night went on that it was my jacket, and not me personally that attracted attention. I’ve decided just to sport the Rotary jacket everywhere I go now… people just assume I’m important… ha, if only I didn’t leave a trail of pins in my wake.

Its getting steadily colder here, although I’m finding the weather quite bearable now. The first few months of exchange I was ALWAYS cold… and it was just 16°C here, which really isn’t that cold. But now that its -2°C… I’m doing fine, I think I’m going to melt when I get back home. It started snowing the other day while I was in History, I asked my teacher if I could go outside just to see it first hand, and she decided to take us all outside to play in the snow. It’s an interesting thing, living with snow…especially for the nervous habit people who need to always be messing with something, throwing a ball, or doodling (example: me) ..its like you’re surrounded by playdough that never stains the floor, and won’t turn your hands strange colors.

It’s been getting harder and harder to express myself in English, my personal thoughts now don’t sound like my own, but like a tiny French radio telling me exactly what I’m thinking. I’m dreaming, eating, breathing in French… so you all will have to excuse me when I get back for my 2 syllable words and complete lack of comprehension.

I’ll leave you all with a few pictures I’ve collected over the months.

 March 23 Journal

I know I know, I haven’t written in forever, and I feel bad about it…really, I do. But I have a good excuse, as good as any at least, I’ve been really, unbelievably, more than ever before…busy. Everything changes from day to day here and I find it so hard to sit down and concentrate long enough to update you all on what’s been going on.

I guess I’ll start with the 2 week vacation we had in February. It couldn’t have come at a better time, I was starting to feel the stress of school for the first time all year, God forbid…so 2 weeks of traveling is just what the doctor ordered. I spent the first week acting as tour guide for my friend Deborah who came to visit me for a short 7 days of hardcore French sightseeing. She told me she wanted to do all of France in a week. I didn’t think it was possible, but I soon learned anything is possible when you’re motivated enough. We did just about every overtly touristy thing we could do in Paris during our 4 day stay in the city. Our youth hostel, the same one I use every time I’m in Paris and in need of a bed (they know my name there now) is located 2 minutes walking distance from the Sacré Coeur, the most amazingly beautiful church I’ve ever seen in my life. The walk up the seemingly endless flight of stairs up the hill to the white cathedral had to be the highlight of Deb’s trip for me. We did our own little tour of the church, walking around staring at the stained glass windows with the sound of the 100 person choir in the background, as we did at Notre Dame as well, but I was struck each time with an uneasy, guilty feeling. I’m not an overly religious person, I know the Bible, I’ve been to church a good number of times in my life, but I’m not what one would consider a “good Christian” or a good Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, or any other of the numerous religions to grace our society, but there is something undeniably unethical about selling post cards and “prayer candles” inside a place of worship like that. I might be the only one out there, but I just don’t think it’s right that a man is on his knees having a very personal and heartfelt connection with his god while a tourist in an orange jogging suit, tennis shoes, and fanny pack is paying too much for a penny with the stamped impression of the church 3 feet away.

I spent the second week of the February vacations in England with Mollie, the only other exchange student in Béthune. We stayed in London for 5 days, succumbing to the colorful call of the red double-decker tourist bus, stopping once to take a 3 hour Beatles walking tour, which was AWESOME…I never thought I’d hear so much about the Beatles in such a short time, and to venture inside both the Tate Modern and the National Gallery museums. We also got the opportunity to branch out of the city a bit when Mollie’s cousins from Australia who were living and working in England at the time offered to take us on a small 2 day road trip. After Bathe, where we marveled for a day at the ancient Roman baths decorating the city, we headed over to Stonehenge where we made the circle around the mysterious gathering of stones; the inexplicable rock formation hadn’t lost its effect for me even the second time seeing it.

I got a third week of vacation earlier this month when my Rotary chairman invited me to go skiing with him and his wife in the French Alps for a week. We were a 15 minute drive to Geneva, the mountains were indescribably beautiful, the weather was impeccable, the people were nice, life was good. I was sick for the first 3 days, however, more sick than I had felt in a very long time. With a fever and complete lack of appetite I felt absolutely miserable, but refused to let that stop me from enjoying my days of skiing.

The first 2 days we went cross country skiing, which I found unusually difficult…I don’t know what it was about the sport but I found it impossible to stay vertical. I’m blaming it on my weakness and the nauseated feeling I was blessed with while doing the 15 km treks, but I am possibly the worst cross country skier to ever buckle on a pair of skis. The third day Bernard and Anne Marie were nice enough to buy me a lesson with a ski instructor to learn how to down-hill ski. The technique (is that the English or French spelling? it’s all the same to me now…) seemed 100 times more natural to me and within the hour I was feeling ready to take on the black diamond slopes, or at least the green circles…The next day while the adults set off to go cross country skiing I pushed the play button on my CD player and found myself free and in a state of nirvana as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I swayed on rocking chair lifts and glided half gracefully down the enormous slopes.

Which brings us all to last weekend when I was just one in the crowd of 350 exchange students in France to participate in the first ever annual exchange student gathering in Paris. It was my 27th trip to Paris this year, so the sightseeing tour had lost a bit of its novelty, yet I couldn’t help smashing my face, along with every other kid on the bus, up against the window as we rolled down the Champs Elysée, past the Louvre, along the Seine, and right up to the youth hostel where we were ALL staying, cramped in together for the 3 days of organized chaos. Exchange students, if I may generalize for a moment, are unbelievably talkative, interested, and lively people…so you can imagine the mayhem that erupted as hundreds of us from all over the world were trapped inside a building together for a weekend, armed only with our blazers, Rotary cards, and the implanted desire to socialize. The poor, poor Rotarians who accompanied us – I felt bad for them, I really did, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the situation, along with all the others, as I attempted to meet each exchange student boarding in the hostel. The most memorable afternoon of the weekend was the visit to the French Senate, a forum usually closed off to the public but who opened their doors to us all for an afternoon as we took the tour of the castle turned government building and got the opportunity to speak a bit with a few selected senators. An hour before we were scheduled to arrive the senators had called a mandatory and emergency meeting to discuss the education system in France at the moment, which, in my opinion, is facing a crisis. The session lasted until 4 o’clock in the morning but no official word has been released on what they all have decided. Hopefully something dramatic, because for the past 3 months here the time I’ve actually spent doing productive school work has been cut in half due to the incessant manifestations and strikes of students and teachers alike, all fighting for something that no one has been able to explain to me yet.

So, in a nut shell…that’s what’s been going on. Life as usual here…nothing too out of the ordinary…the fact that I’m even capable of saying that makes me realize how jaded this experience has made me. A friend and I were talking the other day about how shameful it is that we can take a trip to Paris and not ever consider it worthy of mentioning to our parents, or how it just “slips our minds” to tell everyone that we spent a week in the south of France. Shameful, I know. But even if I don’t take the time to express it I really don’t take for granted any minute that I spend in this amazing country with these amazing people.

Katie

P.S. Today marks 7 months for me here in France, Happy 7 month anniversary Michele! It feels like so long ago we were sitting in those stiff airplane seats watching Jacksonville as it got smaller and smaller out of the miniature plexiglass window. Congratulations next year’s outbound class! Good luck with everything. Anyone coming to France, feel free to email me. Those not going to France, feel free to email me as well. Good luck you all!

Matt Hagler
2004-05 Outbound to Russia

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor: San Jose Rotary Club
Host: Yakutsk Rotary Club, District 5010, Russia

Matt - Russia

October 2 Journal

I’m in Yakutsk now. So far Russia is incredible. My host family has a dacha, which is like a summer house, and they have a green house there so we spent a day picking tomatoes and peppers. Also, there is no plumbing in the dacha, so of course they have a spectacular outhouse. I think there must be some rule about having wide holes in the outhouse because it is enormous. It could easily swallow me whole.

I also spent two days in Vladivostok because I had a layover. It’s a much more interesting city than Jacksonville. But the mood was somber because of the separatists that seized the school. During the long plane flight I finished reading a book called The Unquiet Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It’s about the era of Stalin. One of the more interesting points that the book makes is that people miss Stalin, of which I was unaware. But, from what I’ve found out it is true that many people, generally older, miss Stalin because he “kept order” and “won the war.” The younger generations though do not miss Stalin.

So far, my most western experience was a trip to the Yakutsk bowling alley. I was really surprised to see that this bustling city of 200,000 people was home to a two story bowling alley. The bottom story is for regular bowling and the top story is for cosmic bowling. When I got my bowling shoes I think I was a size 44. But, the best part about the bowling was the food. There was a large ornate menu of gourmet food. I had tomatoes stuffed with different spices and fish. My friends had ice cream and a couple of them ordered beer form the full bar that was loaded with many different kinds of liquor. I was extremely surprised that a waiter came to our lane to take our order. After bowling the five us went to the billiard room and played pool for an hour. There was a table next us where two couples were playing, but I think they didn’t know the rules since they weren’t even using the white ball. And my friends agreed.

I’ve been a visitor at three different English classes now and they generally ask the same questions, “How do you like Yakutsk?”, “What do you think of Putin?”, “What do you think of the war?”, “Do you like Russian girls?” That last one really was a question.

It has just started snowing here but the weather isn’t too cold. I am enjoying it so far. Although the walk to school is difficult on ice. One experience I had while walking home was quite interesting as I always pass a little cafe just before Lenin Square. It is sort of upscale and there are always many people sitting outside chewing bread and sipping tea or beer. Lately though there have been fewer people as the temperatures are getting close to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. But as I was walking past this day I was surprised to see a larger crowd than usual. I was even more surprised to see that there was a group of people dancing where they had pushed some tables aside to clear room for a dance floor. Then, I heard a familiar eighties beat faintly in the background and then “can’t touch this.” I had to at least pause a few moments to take in this scene of Russians dancing to MC Hammer. Russia has indeed held a few surprises with musical taste. I was at a Rotary meeting with about eight older people and we were eating dinner and they were discussing some business in Russian, thus I was completely oblivious. But, I certainly recognized the sounds of “this will be the day that I die. This will be the day that I die. Bye bye Miss American pie…” The song was completely wrong for the occasion but did make it all pretty amusing.

I’m getting used to the language. It is much harder than English and everyone I’ve met agrees with me. But there is still a lot of pointing and gesturing to get some points across. I’m not even sure that I can describe the food. It is all delicious. There are many kinds of soups and breads and a ton of tea, which Russia is of course known for having. In addition to this there is a plentiful amount of fruit, and one of the best dishes I’ve had is Russian pizza. It’s beyond me to describe it, except that I could eat it constantly. I was also happy to see that my family grows their own spices at their Dacha. Even their dog, a German Shepard, stops and munches on the peppermint leaves.

I have one pretty strange story that I’ve yet to comprehend. I flew from America to Korea and then to Vladivostok where I had a layover for two days. I suppose there aren’t many flights to Yakutsk. So, for these two days I stayed in a flat with a short, stout woman named Zina, pronounced like Xena, the Warrior Princess. She was a newly retired school teacher and helped me a lot with my Russian. The entire time I stayed with her she was very hospitable and always cooked large, scrumptious meals. I was never able to finish any one meal in its entirety. And, my opinion of Zina is still of a high standard but this story is just strange.

I had stayed my two nights and it was finally time for me to take my last flight to Yakutsk. I packed my bags and was standing at the door when ZIna came behind me and began turning various knobs on different locks. Zina’s door had quite an intricate pattern of locks that I couldn’t begin to understand and so I let her at her work. For some reason when she tried to push the door open it refused and stood its ground. She went back to turning knobs but to no avail. Then, what I thought was a rather quick decision, she left and returned with a hammer and two pieces of flat metal.

She picked one of the bolted locks and began pounding away with all the force her small stature could manage. I was astounded. I didn’t know what to do. My means of communication were still not well off and I didn’t know how to offer to help, and besides that I didn’t want to be responsible for breaking anything. Then she left again after the hammer failed and returned with a metal pipe. She took one of the wedges of steel and put it in the crevice of the door and started hammering away. This didn’t work either.

By this time the people who were supposed to take me to the airport had arrived and were standing outside of the door. I have no idea what they must have thought was happening inside. Zina turned and handed me the tools and left. So, I went to work with the door. I started to think that I really might not get out, since we were on the tenth floor there was no window option. After ten to fifteen minutes of our abusing the door it certainly had the look as if someone were trying to break out from the inside as it was chipped and indented with imprints from the hammer. Then, Zina pulled out a key and messed with a couple of locks and the door opened.

I still am not sure if all of our pounding had anything to do with it or if she simply neglected to unlock one of the many bolts. Either way, I was finally out.

November 6 Journal

Last month I and a few other university students saw Romeo and Juliet in this regions native Yakutian language. Unfortunately that didn’t make it much more exciting. But the directors “interpretation” of the play provided some variation as there was a lot of skating, pop music, and a fumigation scene in which a character used a fog machine as a pesticide. When the play ended the audience applauded in rhythm. I think it is sad that this Siberian town of 200,000 people has six theatres and more culture than Jacksonville.

After the play ended our group of five went to a nearby café. We were constantly being watched since we also represented five different countries. After all, one foreigner in Yakutsk is unreal enough but five means we must have been banished here. We ate wraps of beef and drank juice. Then we saw a big group of Russians getting drunk and one of them yelled that if you don’t look everyone in the eye when you toast then you have seven years of bad sex. I’m not yet sure if this is a Russian axiom or not. Before we left I played air hockey against a Polish student. The handles or paddles, however they’re termed, were made of wood and about five times the size of our puny plastic American ones. It really was a barbaric game of air-hockey but I was victorious.

Let me tell you about a day that was by far the most disgusting day I’ve had in Yakutsk. I was taken from my home by a group of three Russians that will be my next host family to visit their friends’ Dacha. When we were there the father made me do a lot of pointless chores so he could take my picture in different poses. Then, the ultimate chore came. In the shed there were six sides of horse sealed in plastic bags. They carried out the meat and started axing away at the bones to release the meat. Then the father wanted me to take a few swings for a good picture. But the ax was futile so they brought out a chainsaw and finished the job that way. There wasn’t any blood though because it was all frozen. The friend did eat some of the horse meat raw which is apparently a normal eating habit to prevent tuberculosis. Then the father gave me a bag with chucks of horse as a present.

I’m afraid I might have to shave my moustache because when I’m outside my hot breath causes water to condense and freeze on the hair.

It was last Friday when I began my usual walk to school down the bustling street of Prospect Lenin. As always I was inhaling a lot of disgusting car fumes and most Russians were pulling their loads by sled, including children. I rounded one of the last corners of my mile long route and was creaking along a narrow path of wooden boards covered in ice. When I reached the end and was able to see my school I noticed a rather large gathering of police and many people running into the school or into their cars. I felt a little apprehensive because of the Bislan massacre earlier this year; although I was fairly sure no terrorists would invade Siberia.

This left me to wonder what caused this state of trepidation. I continued forward since I didn’t want anyone else to think of my character as pusillanimous. However, the closer I got I realized that my decision wasn’t very prudent. One of the many cop cars quickly shifted positions and I saw a gigantic bear that had wandered out of the taiga and into the city sometime during the night. Unfortunately, I missed the really exciting part as they had already shot a sedative into the massive creature and he was nothing more than a languid mass. He really didn’t look too aggressive. I was later told that this was a very rare occurrence and that I shouldn’t be too worried about it. As far as I was concerned it was the most exciting day I’ve had in Yakutsk.

I finally made it to the Russian cinema where I saw “The Chronicles of Riddick”. I swear, in Russian it is a life changing movie. The audience was practically crying. Before the movie started though my Russian friends and I had three hours because the movie we were supposed to see sold out since this cinema only has two screens. So, we went to the Yakutsk “fast food” restaurant. It’s actually more of a small café that serves salads and dough wraps filled with meat and cheese and of course ice-cream. It’s amazing that people still buy ice-cream from the street vendors even when it’s snowing outside. The food wasn’t great, though it was superior to American fast food. Someone should ridicule Calder for feasting at McDonalds while in Russia. There is too much delicious food for such behavior. Eventually we made it back to the theater which, inside, isn’t any different from American theaters.

During one of my visits to an English class I met a short, somewhat eccentric teacher who has taken it upon herself to arrange classes for me aside from the ones I have already. So, I had my first “extra” class a few days ago with some sort of scientist who has dedicated his entire professional career to the different kinds of mosses. And that does mean the gray stuff in the trees. He had at least one thousand samples of mosses from all over the world. He laid a few sheets of wax paper in front of me which had these samples and he explained that moss grows out of the fecal matter of animals. That’s when I realized that each sample also had attached feces. That was just awkward. But then we went to the institute’s greenhouse. It was humid and tropical and I could hardly breathe from the humidity. Just like Florida.

Another touching story is the traditional Russian dinner I had last night.

My “mama” and I had been preparing for the event by arranging and re-arranging tables and chairs to accommodate the nine guests plus the three members of our family. There wasn’t any food preparation though because the dinner was being catered by a local restaurant. All of the guests arrived on time except for two that arrived over an hour late. In Yakutsk though you don’t dine without all of the guests. So, this left time for a lot of discussion amongst the punctual guests and I was involuntarily brought into two a few discussions which I prefer to be left out of because my Russian is still not good.

After all the guests arrived, we sat down at the table where many plates of food were awaiting us. One dish was a salad comprised of corn, Russian mayonnaise, chicken, onion, some green spices, grapes, and pickles on the bottom. I know it sounds disgusting but it was delicious. There was also a plate of grilled meat which I think was beef but I’m not positive as horse and elk are also common delicacies. However, the only absolutely disgusting portion of food was the plate of cow tongue, stomach, and blood. Well, I know the tongue was from a cow but my mama wasn’t sure about the stomach and blood. The stomach looks like small rings of white flesh with some yellow matter in the middle and the blood was just like small round pieces of pudding, like blood pudding. I did try one of everything and now I know three things I’ll never eat again.

Also, on the table were a variety of drinks; wine, Baileys, Martini, and juice. I confined myself to the latter of the choices. This was a good decision since the reason for the celebration was the 25 year anniversary of my host parents. This meant that throughout dinner each guest would stand up and give a toast and everyone would take a shot of something or swallow a glass of wine. I would have been incoherent within the first half hour of dinner.
After each guest had given at least two toasts and everyone ceased to eat anymore we all stood up and started walking around the flat. I was relieved everyone would finally be leaving after the two hours of eating and talking.
I also noticed a lot of food still in the kitchen that hadn’t even been unwrapped yet. I assumed my mama was simply a safe person and kept it in case food ran low. Then, suddenly, everybody sat back down and somehow I felt ambushed. The food from the kitchen was brought out to the table for us to resume eating. It was a large plate of local fish which was cut into twenty squares and each piece had a slice of lemon on top covered in caviar.
The head of the fish remained on the plate with its eyes gouged out and replaced by two grapes. We ate the fish and at least three rounds of more toasts were made. My papa was continually filling glasses and brining out more wine and martini bottles.

This continued for another two hours before everyone rose again and walked around the apartment. Then we resettled at the table and more food followed. This time it was a plate of tiny pieces of local fish which was raw and frozen and covered in spices. It was a lot like sushi which I miss a lot. The toasts also continued and this time presents were given to my host parents. Since most of the conversation didn’t include me due to a lack of understanding the language I was left to just eating. During this last course there was a plate of vegetables brought out also but beneath the vegetables were small strips of fried potato. It was the closest food I’ve had to a French fry since arriving in Russia. I indulged myself in these Russian French fries for a couple hours until the procession of people finally got up and actually left the apartment.

More and more snow is piling up everyday. And today while walking to the university I saw a father pulling his infant child on a small sled type contraption behind him. I can’t help but feel cheated.

April 29 Journal

The raw horse didn’t taste so strange anymore. It wasn’t much different than reaching into a bag of potato chips or popcorn, doubts only arose in me after seeing the occasional purple vein emerging from a chunk of the frozen meat. It had become difficult to contort my mouth in the proper chewing motions without feeling in my cheeks, my expressions were infantile as if I were retraining my muscle how to eat solid food again. My fingers were crooked and stiff in the wool gloves and it was impossible to untangle them as they had lost feeling long ago.

Looking out towards the field of snow I saw where dozens of boats had found themselves lodged for a long winter. There were small commuter boats, fishing vessels, and even a cruise ship. She was five stories high and had a blue hull which jutted out from the ice like a small whale. Icicles hung in rows from her iron mast and red railings, occasionally breaking off and shattering on the deck below. The windows etched in long rows in her sides reflected individual scenes of the white graveyard surrounding her, a sort of broken collage where I noticed pieces of myself and the dock in three different squares of glass, severed but somehow correct in context. It was as if she were gazing around trying to make sense of her crippled companions but had found herself just as useless, just as immobile. They were a flock captured in flight, stuck in motion, longing to continue homeward where they knew better land existed.

It wasn’t an uplifting site but in this small Siberian town it was one of the last victorious sites. Only in the cold slumber of Yakutsk, where man has struggled to live for centuries, can I find a triumph of the fading Mother Earth. One of her last havens is in the ice packs and glaciers of Siberia. Here she overcomes one of the most important achievements of man, a vessel that has long sailed across her seas and up her rivers, here she defeats progressive civilization and lauds herself by ripping open every gray cloud to spill itself and freeze on the land below. It is a last harsh breath before a final collapse.

If this had been my first time viewing the frozen land I would have wondered how all of these once free boats had found themselves in this short stretch of tundra. Is it possible that all of these captains became disoriented and lost their way, or maybe all of those empty vodka bottles near the helms of the ships tell the stories. It is Russia, after all. Of course, none of these theories would be plausible given the lack of water and impossibility of passage into this white desert. After all speculation is concluded, my best answer would be that they fell from above. There was a bizarre Siberian tornado and it picked up this group of sailing ships and dropped them all right here.

This encounter, however, was not my first. I had made the short journey to this spot seven months ago to the day. When I wore only sneakers, one layer of clothing, sunrays warmed me and I actually sweated. It was my first viewing of Yakutia’s port where boats floated in the deep river and they were tied to thick steel pilings. A naval ship also arrived that day with its crew of bulky Russian sailors and their crisp white uniforms. They dispersed in small white groups to explore the port while a few sailors were left behind to stow away the large barrels of artillery near the ships guns.

On that day I walked close to the water passing by a small shop where two sailors were buying beer and onto the narrow pier. The black wobbling pupils of the white birds stared at me as I neared the final planks. I dipped my hands into the dark river and rinsed my face. A pike rose to the surface and I glimpsed its whiskers and jagged teeth before it quickly retreated downwards and again I rinsed myself with the cool water. Some of the decorated sailors began clambering onto the pier behind me, almost shaking me into the water. They spoke about victories from past training missions and how other ships quickly succumbed to their might. Each one spoke in turn giving his account of how the events occurred and each raised his voice when it came to the part of the story where he himself had made the final decision which led to the victory. So, in the end each sailor had assumed himself responsible for the solitary triumph and drank to his own valor.

Each sailor also had his own tale of winter in Siberia, of entire crews of men that had become trapped in fields of ice and perished together. Or, of sailors watching their crewmates die beneath the icy surface trying to break through to the other side. They all knew of Captain Vlad, he was a small legend among the sailors in this cold region of Russia. Captain Vlad had found himself trapped on a small tug boat with only enough provisions to last a couple of weeks. After two months his lost ship was seen by a helicopter and when a rescue team arrived they found Captain Vlad missing an arm from his elbow down and both of his legs from the knees down. He had eaten them to stay alive. Listening intently to their embellished narratives I learned that they were only staying one night before heading to more open water the next day in order to avoid the oncoming winter.

Remembering that September day when I trekked to the port and wiped sweat from my forehead, brought back a forgotten detail of the universe. In Yakutsk, something known only subconsciously and not acknowledged in the winter, like a child who wanders through the first years of life attaching itself to whatever may come, oblivious to the center of its being, what actually materializes existence, a center that usually goes unnoticed until it has disappeared beyond a horizon from which it can’t be retrieved or remembered as it really was. It is one of those memories where the feeling can be recalled but actual events and facts are misplaced, shuffled, and there is no recognition of what once existed, only a small feeling lingering inside. During these winter months, that is how I recalled the center, the sun, the star holding a universe together, it had become imperceptible. I may as well have declared that the world is round while staring at the ground below.

Halfway through the bag of raw horse I thought of the “Pole of Cold,” the coldest spot on Earth. It was a twenty hour drive from Yakutsk on an icy road which exists only in winter. It is called the “road built on bones” because it was constructed by prisoners from the gulags once lodged into this area of lifeless earth. Thousands died in the process. The roads final destination is a site known as Kolima. During the era of Stalin this name carried with it a sharp feeling of barren emptiness, hopelessness; much like the terrain surrounding the small camp, an endless tundra. It was the prison without bars. This is where the “enemy combatants” were sent and where they were certain to be buried.

I rode there with my Russian mother, two Germans, their translator and a boy who lived there and spoke French. The Germans were Hanz and Christian. My final destination was the small wooden village of Tom-Tor. It was a town of two thousand people who had found themselves in the valley of a mountain range. It seemed that God had accidentally spilled a few people from his carafe when he was populating the Earth and so their fate was to dwell here, where the temperature had once reached negative ninety degrees and in the winter it is routinely around negative 75 degrees. During the twenty hour drive my two German friends and I, who had also come to see the festival, concluded that this town of natives would probably be a disgruntled peoples. What other mood could possibly exist in such a place?

So, it was relieving when my Russian mother and I met our temporary family and a spread of food was already waiting on the table. A plate of cow stomach, finely chopped pieces of frozen horse, beet soup, salad, and small elk steaks. The family consisted of a mother, father, daughter, son, grandma and grandpa. The daughter was fourteen and the son almost two. I liked the grandma the most. In Yakutsk grandmothers are strong entities. They always have final authority and their judgments can be equally as harsh as light. The Yakut grandmother always has a wealth of fine wrinkles folding around the edges of her tan face. Despite the age of her fingers and bones she is relentless in her duties of the house and she is an authentic chef with her native dishes. But, she is not so different from the grandmothers of the world. All she lives for is to see the growth of her family and what she has helped to create. At night, after dinner, she sits at the table drinking her tea waiting for company. It is this bit of human contact that propels her through these final, lingering years of life. After living in the village she is amazed by the site of an American boy from Florida.

My mother and I started our tour the next day by driving to the nearby town of Oymikon. On the way we saw a restored home of a famous Polish man that once lived between these villages. He was evicted to the region and quickly adapted by learning to speak Yakutian and was the first to write down the Yakut alphabet. His one room home was made of sticks and mud. In the center there was an oven which constantly burned for heat and emitted smoke through the ceiling. Etched into the sides of the enclosure were flat pieces of wood; these were beds. I laid on the plank of wood and stared into the dark ceiling where smoke crawled. My head landed in the crack of two uneven pieces of wood, I turned sideways but my gut hung over the edge and my shoulder pressed shoulder into the wood. I turned onto my stomach and pushed my nose through the crack where my head had been. The fingers on my dangling arm turned numb and a headache formed at the front of my forehead where it rested against the wood. Turning myself over a few more times, allowing my gut to hang and fingers to lose consciousness, I decided that I never wanted to be Polish or evicted to Siberia.

We continued on to Oymikon and passed by a small gathering of Yakut natives and other foreigners who had journeyed here to see the festival also. On display was a tee-pee, an authentic one. It was much different from the usual brown papery cartoon models. It stood eight feet high and was constructed from the skins of many animals. The fur side faced inwards while the bloody part of the animal faced outwards. A small opening crouched at the bottom of the tee-pee where little kids were crawling in and out. The Yakut were also serving stragonina, a local fish which is thinly sliced in long pieces and served raw. All of the foreigners were enjoying it along with the customary vodka always accompanying the dish.

About a mile later my mother and I arrived at the village of Oymikon. It was nothing more than a vast field sparsely populated with wooden houses and one school. We rode to the “pole of cold” memorial in the middle of the town. It was a giant iron thermometer with the record breaking temperature of -71.2 degrees Celsius engraved on its side, a working thermometer attached to its Frankenstein counterpart read –13 degrees C. My mom and I were taking pictures of the memorial when a jeep arrived and out came their German friends. We took group pictures and then headed to the house of a relative of the German’s translator.

We arrived at a small wooden house where a group of old Yakut men were chopping wood and drinking vodka. They dropped their axes and pried the bottles from their lips upon seeing the strange family of foreigners. They spoke among themselves in Rakutian, each word containing its own harsh, vulgar sound. My mother answered their curiosity by responding in Yakutian and their steel faces softened as they offered their vodka to the strangers and showed them inside.

We entered the house through the kitchen and then walked into the living room to wait for lunch and all had to stoop down in order to avoid the low ceiling. I noticed that in general everything was a little lower in this region of the Earth to better accommodate the “short peoples of the north,” as they are called. It was only a problem at night when I needed to take the short walk to the outhouse through the snow and couldn’t discern where the frame was and inevitably would hit my head if he I didn’t remember to duck. In this house I spotted a wind chime hanging from the ceiling where the kitchen and living room joined and asked why it was inside. I found that it was in accordance with Fung-Shui to create a more harmonious balance.

Within five minutes we returned to the kitchen where a small round table was filled with food. We gathered chairs and crowded around the table. The usual dishes were all present; raw horse, raw fish, a salad made of chopped beef and mayonnaise, intestines and a certain sausage filled with blood and milk. Patrick had tried it all at some point in the past and found that the raw horse and fish had unique tastes to which he had grown accustom but the intestines and sausage were still too foreign.

May 23 Journal

“Beating my nude host father with eucalyptus leaves.”

 

So, how did I find myself standing over my nude host father beating him with a branch of eucalyptus leaves while he moaned out loud? It wasn’t on a dare or a practical joke and it wasn’t meant to be kinky. Also, the fact that I am in Russia doesn’t make it obligatory that vodka helped to motivate the situation.

It was after a game of basketball with my host father and a few of his former students that I decided to bathe myself. However, I live in the “dacha” for now, which is like a cabin, thus there is no bathtub or normal means of washing. I picked up a towel and started walking towards the lake that borders our yard. I wasn’t looking forward to the experience since it was frozen less than a month ago and hypothermia probably remains as a very real possibility. I was in my shorts and walking through the yard with my towel when my father stopped me and said that he had already started heating the “banya” and we could wash there.

What does it mean “to heat up” the banya? It should be understood that at the dacha we live a very primal life. Every day my father and I chop fire wood together to heat both of the ovens in our dacha and the oven in my aunt’s dacha. This is so that we stay warm at night and so we can cook dinner. We wash our dishes in giant tubs of water that are heated on top of these giant brick stoves, basically the only source of heat is the stove and that is only produced by our physical labor. The banya is no exception. It is basically a sauna but has features to set it apart and make it a purely Russian experience. It is also “oven powered,” a term which could frequently be used in Yakutsk, and my father had already chopped all of the wood and the banya had been heating for two hours.

I had heard a lot about the Russian banya earlier but had never gotten the full experience. My father and I entered the first room together as it is comprised of three separate rooms. In this first room the temperature is low as there is nothing to heat it. We entered the second room and I could see the back of the stove where my father had started the fire. The third room was only a door away and as I hesitated for a second, wondering what to do next, my father began undressing. I assumed we would strip down to our underwear and head to the next room together, but when we reached that pivotal moment I stopped and glanced over to see exactly how far he was going to escalate the situation. He was already naked and smiling. I decided to go all the way and we headed into the third room already sweating.

This room was also wooden with the front of the stove poking through the wall and a large barrel of cold water stood in the corner. The temperature must have been just over a hundred (Celsius) and my father said that we needed to sit on the bench at first to get used to the heat and relax a little. He began telling me about the history of the banya as our naked bodies sat together on the bench in this hundred degree room. Apparently it used to be a tradition to drink “kvas” while in the banya to better cleanse your pores.

Kvas is a non alcoholic Russian drink made from bread. Each bottle has the scent of a loaf of bread and the taste is something I can’t describe. He continued on about the banya by explaining that in the winter people wash themselves in this steaming hot sauna and then immediately run outside and dive into the snow and return back to thaw out. At this point dehydration was setting in and I was pondering the sanity of the average Russian.

We sat for ten minutes basting in our sweat before returning to the first room as a short escape from the heat. I stood in front of the door which was mostly glass and realized that anyone walking by at the moment would get a glimpse that would not soon be forgotten. Our bodies were smoking and the visible white perspiration rose from our bodies slowly latching onto the windows so that we couldn’t even see out. My father was still talking about the banya and had reached the time of the modern banya of Russia. He said that during the break away from the heat Russians often drink large glasses of beer to satisfy their dehydration and then run back into the sauna to drain it all out. I asked about a tradition which I first heard in the Pole of Cold, where people rub vodka on their chests while withering away in the banya. I was told it helps with cleansing the “dysha,” in English it is something like soul or spirit. So, in Russia it is possible to purify yourself physically and spiritually with vodka. This is a concept that probably doesn’t exist in many countries, however my father hadn’t heard of this practice; perhaps it is strictly a Pole of Cold tradition.

After spending a couple minutes cooling off we returned to endure more of the banya. Once inside with the door tightly shut my father leaned over and dipped a small pot into the barrel of cold water. He threw the water onto the hot rocks above the stove so that a rush of steam filled the tiny room and he motioned for me to follow him to the bench. With the steam the temperature easily reached a hundred and ten. We sat holding our heads trying to bear through the worst and after two minutes all was better. When I looked over, my father’s balding head was bright pink and his silver tooth glittered in his large smile.

It wasn’t long before we retreated to cool off again and then returned. Except, this time he grabbed a small branch of eucalyptus leaves which had been soaking in a bowl of hot water. He told me to lie on the bench face down. I slowly lowered my naked self onto this steaming bench, trying not to scald myself, obviously I was a bit worried. After I became somewhat settled he began to lightly beat my back with the branch and down to my feet, the hot water puddled on my body and I clenched my mouth to keep from screaming. At first it was a little painful but I quickly got used to it and it just became a strange feeling. My father started talking about banya facts again and said that in Russia there used to be a popular beer that people drank which was made from honey. It helped to cleanse and strengthen the skin, I didn’t really catch the entire explanation as I couldn’t hear so well through the whipping of the branch.

We switched positions and he laid himself down as I held the stick wondering exactly what to do. I didn’t have any practice at whipping people, S and M hadn’t been a ritual of mine in the past. I was scared of hurting him and so I began lightly brushing the leaves across his back. He told me to beat him harder, obviously he was more accustomed to this than I was. So, I increased my strength but it still didn’t satisfy him. He wasn’t happy until I put all of my muscle into every whip and I knew that I was finally doing it right when the moans started. I whipped the leaves up and down his body trying not to notice what was really going on but I couldn’t help but think that I was naked with another man in a sauna, and I was whipping him with eucalyptus leaves. We continued on for nearly ten minutes, whipping and moaning, until my arms were tired and he was content.

The last process in the Russian banya is the actual cleansing. There were two large bowls of water and soap. We splashed the mixture onto ourselves and then poured the remaining water onto our heads. My father washed with the eucalyptus water so that his pink head, silver tooth, and the green water mixed together to look like some unidentifiable melted candy. Then, the adventure came to end and I dressed myself to walk back to the dacha, but my father thought it was ok to walk back in only a t-shirt.

Maybe nobody saw, hopefully the neighbors were asleep.

June 25 Journal

I arrived today from my four day trip on the Omga River which lies in a small village about six hours from Yakutsk, two of those hours being by ferry. I went with my father and a ninth grade class of Yakutian students, their teacher and a few of their parents. After the long drive and giving a sacrifice to a designated tree for luck we came to the bank of the river and began setting up camp. My father brought out his bright pink tent from 1980 where three of us slept even thought it is made for one. It didn’t even have all of the necessary parts forcing my father to hunt in the forest with his ax for two long branches in order to keep it off the ground. Then we unrolled two long pieces of animal skin and laid them over the hole in the bottom of the tent and placed our sleeping bags on top. Instantly the mosquitoes appeared in swarms and ate us. I feel as if I have a right to complain about this after I was told about the torture that used to be implemented in Yakutsk. All over the world different civilizations invented perverted executions and various painful tortures but in Yakutsk and in the more northern parts it was always easy. They would simply take the convicted person, bind him to a tree in the middle of the Taiga, and strip him or her of all clothing; within a few hours death by mosquito would be complete. I wasn’t exactly naked and bound to a tree but that didn’t make a difference to the flies. To ward them off there is a different Yakutian tradition still in fervent practice today, cow feces. It isn’t as disgusting as it sounds and once you find yourself in the situation there isn’t anything you won’t try. We all built small fires in front of our tents and walked around the site collecting clumps of dried cow feces and used them to smother the fire so that the flame disappeared and only smoke was emitted. At the time I convinced myself that standing in the smoke of flaming cow feces was the only way out and really it didn’t seem so strange as it does now looking back on that moment.

After we had set up all the tents and built a few fires our small spot on the bank looked like a real campsite; It was the first time I had a chance to walk to the water. The river was settled inside of a group of hills where we were stopped for the night and at the crest of our site, just before descending downwards I saw a picturesque Yakutsk, how the river wound through the green landscape lined with fields of yellow and purple flowers, then it continued on edging around a distant village of wooden homes. I picked up a couple of rocks walking towards the water where two of the kids were fly fishing. When I walked up to them and skipped the rocks across the water they were dumbfounded by this talent, it isn’t such a popular pastime. I tried to teach them but it wasn’t working out and it was scaring the fish so we gave up. Soon afterwards I retreated back towards the fires to escape the flies.

That night we ate borscht, salad, drank tea and played different games until three in the morning. The next day we woke to a sunny day and ate more borscht for breakfast. After we began inflating the rafts we learned that one had exploded and so three of us were without a boat. Luckily, my father and I had brought along our own raft in order to carry extra weight along the river and so we rode in there. Unfortunately our boat wasn’t designed for long river trips with its long rounded ends and square flat bottom. We both paddled with all of our strength but by lunch we couldn’t go any farther and so we switched to a regular canoe and carried our own boat behind us with two people in it. This was easier but carrying a couple hundred pounds behind you on a river when you’ve only got paddles is tiring. The entire time on the river we were roasting under the sun and jumping in the water to escape the flies. My one happy moment was when my father found some wild green onion when we stopped on the bank, it was refreshing.

After six hours on the river we finally spotted our bus; it was following us at each stop since there was not enough man power to carry it all by canoe. A huge sigh of pure joy escaped all of us at the sight of the big, beautiful white bus. We paddled as hard as we could to reach the shore and end the day but of course we grew tired before hitting land and rested again and repeated that process a few more times. It was a quick night after we cleaned ourselves and had another meal of borscht and salad. We pitched our tents and burned fecal fires in front of them to get rid of the flies, hung our wet clothes on nearby trees and went to sleep.

The next day I was in dread until I found out that we weren’t going to carry the extra boat and once we got on the water we tied four boats together and made a sail out of a tarp. I was in deep doubt about how well this idea would come off but I was proven wrong when the strong wind picked up and blew us down river, we only paddled to steer. The day was also cloudy so we weren’t sweltering and in the middle of the river there weren’t any flies to eat us. It was pleasant. We sailed along for a couple hours before spotting the bus on a hill.

This was our last night on the river and so we celebrated by eating spaghetti and salad instead of borscht and salad. There was a traditional time of present giving and words from every parent and guest had to be given, including myself. After eating we explored the spot where we had stopped and climbed the small mountain to a house where a famous Russian writer once lived. We explored his preserved house and the three small cabins left there. The view was the best from this spot. Looking down on the river we saw an island that the river curved itself around on all sides and it kept going until nothing was visible. This is where we slept for our last night and the next day we left for the city.

I’ve still got a couple more adventures in Yakutsk within these last couple of weeks before returning to America. I am going to live at a camp for a little while and teach English and after that I’ll be going to an area not far from Yakutsk where the ice never melts and I’ll camp there with my dad and sister. I’ll be talking about all of this at the Welcome Home Dinner since this is probably my last journal. Just to prepare everyone for my entrance to America, I have gained a little weight. The diet here is heavily oriented with meat, much different from my vegetarian diet in America, causing me to put on about an extra forty pounds over the course of ten months. Also, due to the lack of Florida sun I have become white, a really puffed up snowball sort of. I’ll have to start thawing and exercising right when I return to be in shape for the dinner. Who thinks I can lose forty pounds in a week?

Megan Headle
2004-05 Outbound to Denmark

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Brønderslev Rotary Club, District 1440, Denmark

Megan - Denmark

August 10 Journal

I arrived here safe and sound and ready to explore as much as possible ( watch out HERE I come!!)  It feels like I have been here a lot longer than a week and a half. I feel soo accustomed to living and life here it’s hard to explain all my  feelings. I have found out that I can pretend I am Dane, if I am a mute (blonde hair and blue eyes.. I fit in well)!! It’s difficult to sum up what I have been doing in just this week and half alone.. ( I can’t imagine in my journals to come) Well let’s start with the plane ride..

I was terrified of flying let alone flying by myself with no parents but that is one fear I overcame, since I had four connecting flights… I am now a pro at flying!!!! The plane rides were uneventful but it was nice meeting up with other exchange students in Detroit and Amsterdam!!! Once I got to my final destination (Aalborg) I went to get my luggage.. they lost my big bag but everything else was great…

My family is wonderful!! They have included me into everyday life and my host sister and brother are awesome. My sister and I do lots of different things together and she has introduced me to many people already! My host mom and dad are very nice and really easy to talk to which is nice. My host brother reminds me of my own two brothers which is comforting (in a way) haha.

The day I arrived in Brønderslev, Denmark I came home, then I left like an hour later to go to Aalborg where there was the Tall Boat Festival. I have done soo much since I got here it’s hard to put it into words. Sunday I met all my host families over coffee and cake at my counselor’s house then we played a soccer game!!!(the kids won of course) I saw the ships from the festival sail out of the harbor from my host dad’s work and then my family and I traveled to Løkket (a city next to the water). There I swam in the NORTH SEA…. talk about cold water! My counselor took me into town on Aug. 2, to make me a citizen of Brønderslev!!

I started school that same week and it’s very different from school in the states. I thought we had a lot of classes in the states but I am taking 10 different courses. I don’t understand what the teachers lecture about but I have made some friends. Today (Aug. 9) I learned how the Danish folkdance in sports…(reminds me of square dancing a little bit). The Danish are very welcoming, nice people (which is good) and are all helpful.

Around the town… I have checked out all the stores (shopping purposes of course) and have figured out what a great style is here!! I’m going to become fashionable( haha I’ll try..) The language barrier is difficult to accept but I’m learning Danish slowly.. I have picked up key phrases which I am impressed with. I have already learned that I need to be patient with myself because I can’t pick up Danish in a week (however I am trying too).

That is what I have been up to for the past week and half and there is soo much going on around me it’s just a wonderful feeling. I don’t think it has hit me yet that I AM IN DENMARK but maybe some day it will.. Right now I am enjoying life and meeting tons of people!!!! until my next post… vi ses

hej hej

Megan

September 6 Journal

WOW!!! A whole month as gone by and the phrase `time flies when you are having fun` are the perfect words to describe my life right now!!! I can’t believe it has been a month it feels soo natural to be in Danmark now… it’s home!!!! Well my family is wonderful!!! I feel a part of the family now!!! My sister has taught me a lot, since I have been here!!! I have done soo many things here that it would take days to explain everything… I think my honeymoon is over and I am starting a routine of school and other activities but it was nice.. it still hasn’t hit me that I am in Danmark and in a completely different culture and atmosphere…

School is soo different here but its great.. I have met really nice people here and I have gotten a good group of friends to hang out with.. I have learned to use my Danish as much as possible and the Danes always laugh when I speak because I don’t say it perfect (not yet) but some of my friends say they think it’s flattering that I try to speak Danish.. I have met a lot of people on the trains and different places because most people will ask me a simple question in Danish… I’ll understand what they are asking but I will have no clue how to response.. So I just use the ‘famous’ Rotary smile and say the best phrase I know “Jeg tale ikke godt Dansk!” (I can’t speak good Danish). That is how I have met some really good friends here!!! It’s wonderful.. I have learned to be very open about everything and have gotten over my shyness in order to make friends and have a good time here! However class is somewhat hard…. I am soo lost in class and I never have a clue what the teacher is saying but that is what friends are for… they just translate when it’s really important!!! I do like to answer questions in class… in chemistry I rose my hand one day and answered this problem in Danish… everyone in the class was soo amazed!!! School in Danmark is very different… classes stay together all day long.. but it’s nice because my whole class is really close and we do lots of things together.. I went to a class party the second week of school.. it was soo much fun and that is where I got to know a lot of my classmates better!

Rotary here is awesome.. they have had many activities set up for the exchange students! Three weeks after I arrived, Rotary had a get together in Nibe. All the exchange students in Northern Jutland went and it was soo much fun. We all sat around and talked and traded pins (my Rotary jacket is soo pretty)!!! I now know many exchange students that live close to me so sometimes we get together!! The last week of August, I went to Roskilde on the island Zealand for a language/culture camp. I took a train and crossed the WHOLE country in 6½ hours. (It was crazy to see how small the country really is.. you couldn’t even make it to the southern part of Florida in that amount of time!) I met up with 97 exchange from all over the world that were having exchanges in Danmark. I have made soo many good friends. That week was a blast! We had excursions out to see different sites. We went to an old reenactment of a Viking village.. we got to see how they lived and what they wore and even how they made bread! Another day we went to downtown Roskilde and saw the famous church where all the Danish Kings are buried (very impressive). On Wednesday of that week we went to Copenhagen.. Saw the Frederiksborg Castle, the changing of the guards, the little mermaid and we went to Tivoli at night. Thursday night we had a Rotary BBQ and it was so nice because we were the entertainment that night.. we sang all of our national anthems then ended with the Danish national anthem! That week had many unforgettable moments!!

I have gotten to know my town pretty well and I know how to get around without being completely lost. My host sister and I go on bike rides now and see the countryside and ride to nearby towns. The first time I rode my bike, my legs and butt were soo sore the next day because I never used to ride a bike back home. It’s very nice that everything is close by! I have gotten used to taking trains and have come to like taking them actually.. I have always met someone on the train and have talked to many of them since the train ride.. it’s weird because my brother and sister are like, “you talk to people on the train?”… I guess Danes don’t talk a lot with each other if they don’t know each other but I just talk with people and it’s quite interesting to meet different kinds of Danish people and hear about their background and stuff.. I am getting used to riding a bike places also but it is weird to go from driving a car to ride a bike! I have started to find after school activities.. I tried a soccer team in Aalborg but the age group was from 18-26 and there is a closer soccer club to me that I am going to go play for.. I am also looking into playing badminton and handball (Danes won gold medal!!) I am learning the language slowly! It’s difficult with the three extra letters in the language å,ø,æ (and they sound soo funny)!! I went to the library the other day and got baby books with my friend.. it was funny because the books are so simple and when I look at them they are incredibly hard!!! My friend was like ‘Oh I got this book when I was little’ and we just laughed because we really couldn’t believe we were in the little kids section of the library!!! This past Sunday, all of my host families got together at my third host family’s house and we all sat around and talked and ate cake.. My third family’s home has a basement room that was used in WWII….. it’s soo amazing, it was used for taking down English (o no) planes…… I just think of how incredible it is to have such old historical artifacts surrounding you…

Life here is great… I haven’t really been homesick.. I have had a few cases but then I just realize I’m here for only a year and I better not waste my time being homesick!! Just want to say thank you to Rotary and my parents for making this once in a life time opportunity come true!! I am saying goodbye for now… but I will write more….. soon!!!

Hej Hej

Megan

 October 3 Journal

It’s been about 2 months now sense I have arrived and I’m loving every moment!!

I have discovered the best food in the world… Yes there is many different tastes of Danmark but it’s all “good cookin” as I would say… They put the best dressing on sandwiches, pizzas and everything you can think of… yes I will be bringing home a suitcase of this dressing!!! Not only that but you have nutella in the morning (chocolate in the morning.. I know what a great country!) and the dinners I have eaten since I have arrived have been outstanding!!! The rumors are true though, you do eat tons of potatoes….. but I have learned they go with any meal!!!

There is so much to talk about besides food… School.. Well, school is completely different from back home.. You stay with the same class all day long and you change classrooms, as well as the teachers. This is really nice actually because the class becomes very close and that is where I have met some of my really good friends. It depends on the day but some days I get out of school at 1:30… and then you have the rest of the day to do whatever you like.. its really nice! O yeah, I think it’s crazy that teachers just say when a class is cancelled… you don’t have substitute teacher or busy work… YOU ARE FREE!!! School operates completely opposite back home… but that is what makes this exchange soo great! I still don’t understand much of my classes, I guess because the teachers speak REALLY fast Danish.. But I do pick up on some words! In school, students always get up in front of the class and explain paragraphs in the book.. ( I guess to show the teacher they understand.. who knows) but I think its really fun because I will go up and my friend will write sometime on a piece of paper and I will stand tall and proud in front of the class and say my Danish sentence!!! Afterwards, one of my classmates will translate MY Danish into Danish so the rest of the class will understand!!!

I just came back from a weekend trip with my class.. We rented a house in the woods for a whole weekend of fun and “bonding time,” this is done with every first year class. The class stays together for 3 years until they graduate, so friendships have to form and what a better way of doing that by renting a house!! I have noticed a specific trait all Danes carry and I’m proud to say I have witnessed it. Danes watch out for each other, always there in good and bad times. My class watches out for each other, like they are family and it is such a great feeling to know that people care about you and you witness it by your friends’ actions!! ( I know how sappy but it’s truly a great feeling!!) I know I will walk away from this exchange with some amazing, unforgettable friends!!

I have started a sprog (language) school in Aalborg with a group of other students, some are exchange students and others are just international students… I love going there because the city is soo pretty and all the students are a blast to hang out with. Usually after a long, stressful, hard, brain-raking 2 hours of Danish class, we go to relax and enjoy true Danish culture at the local McDonald’s!!! Haha… There is only one in the city so it is a true hot spot!! I wish I was picking up on the language faster than I am.. Many of my friends say I know a lot of Danish but I just get frustrated because I wish I could just speak fluently… I guess this is where I learn to be patient!!!(that will be a tough one to learn : / ….)

I have become involved in sports as well.. I am playing fodbold (soccer) for my local club and we rock… Right now we are the best ranked team and we will win our division!!!( I think it may be because they have an American playing for them!!! Let’s keep that between you and me though) haha I am also playing for the school team.. however the school team is set up differently than back home.. they only practice once a week and you only play one tournament and that is it!!! (Pretty easy) We had our tournament last week and my school did pretty well. We came in 2nd out of 4 teams (I know not very many but I’m still proud). The fodbold matches were fun but it was soo much fun getting to know all the girls better! I am also running but that is for fun (I know running for fun ESPECIALLY while I’m on an exchange) but it’s great bonding time with my host father and sister… It’s great fun to complain and whine about how “I can’t run this far”, “ Wait up you are going to fast” and “How much farther” haha… just kidding but we usually run about 7.1 km!!! O yeah I am trying to keep in shape so the “Rotary 15” doesn’t catch up AS fast!!!!

My town had the Brønderslev market the first weekend of September. This is a huge event you MUST go during the day to look at all the booths and at night for all the rides! (It’s like the Jacksonville Fair but a little smaller) I had a Rotary weekend with my district in Hirtshals on September 10! It was such a great time because we went to the see old World War Two bunkers, the lighthouse, and this REALLY big fishing boat!!! We also had to make a presentation at the District conference and we had to show what exchange students are all about! I have also had a few school parties and Friday Cafes!! My school here does a lot of social functions for the students which is really nice because they are always so much fun and I always end up meeting new people!

My host mother’s mom past away on September 16.. it was a very sad week! I did meet all the family and bonded a lot with the two little cousins! Mette’s (host mom) sister came from China for a week with her husband and two girls…. The girls are soo sweet!! They are very smart as well; they can speak English, Danish and Chinese and they are only 7 and 10!!! I know incredible.. they taught me some Danish though!!! I have really experience all sides of an exchange… sad events as well as happy ones!! My host brother’s birthday was on September 22… He turned 15 so we had a big family party on Friday night!!! They are VERY patriotic for a birthday.. the whole house is decorated in the Danish flag and you eat SOOO much cake (must have gained 2 kilos that night). The birthday cake is of a man and when the person with the birthday cuts the cake, they cut off their head!!! Everyone screams, then cheers with laughter! Then once everyone has eaten the birthday cake another cake comes out, as well as rolls with chocolate in them and then another cake after that!!! While eating cake you drink hot chocolate then coffee and tea after all the cake is eaten!!! This takes about a good 3 hours then you have the hour or so for talking!!! Let’s just say I got to know some of the family really well!!! ; )

My family and I are getting along really well!! I was afraid before I arrived that my family and I wouldn’t be on the greatest terms and it would be a weird situation but that is TOTALLY opposite!! I feel apart of the family and they treat me as such. My host mom, dad and I will sit and talk for hours about different things and it’s soo nice to have such a great relationship with them!! I think it’s going to be VERY difficult to change families but I won’t think about that right now!!! My host brother and I talk a lot as well. I can just go in his room and sit we will talk about school, friends and everything!! It feels as if he is my real brother!!! My host sister and I are soo close!! I have started to refer to my host siblings as just brother and sister!!!

I am always busy, doing different things and sometimes I make days just to relax!!! I am having such a great time here!! I am genuinely happy and I LOVE DANMARK!!!! That is all for now I have a very busy month coming up as well… I have holiday for a week and I think my family and I are travelling to Amsterdam.. I have Rotary weekend during Halloween, as well as school parties for Halloween and I am going on another holiday weekend with my second host family!!! I will definitely fill you in on my travels!!!

Vi ses

Megan

November 2 journal

Wow I just need to take a deep breath…. I can’t believe it’s been 3 months already and it only seems as if I arrived a couple of weeks ago… I have done SO much since I have gotten here that it amazes me… I find myself always thinking this is a dream and soon someone will pinch me and I will wake up! Ever since I stepped foot on Danish soil I have been at a loss for words.. It’s very difficult for me to describe how I feel or what I even think sometimes.. but I have gotten used to it and have accepted it!!! This past month has be packed, full of events and places to go!

Recap of October!

Oct. 1-3 I had a class weekend.. We rented a house and spent the whole weekend talking, hanging out and having fun!! We prepared our own meals and our class bonded… I think it’s GREAT that classes here bond and we all become good friends!

Oct. 8–17 was HOLIDAY!!! It was the best week ever! The first weekend I went to my friends house and learned how to ride a horse! It was incredible and so much fun! I think I have found a new hobby and I was always scared of horses (I guess because they are about 5 times bigger than me) but they are the sweetest animals! Her family was so nice as well!!! Then I hung out with some exchange friends in the town above mine and we had a good time… Eating Canadian Thanksgiving (I know I asked myself the same question.. what is Canadian Thanksgiving..) Well, it’s the same as ours!!!! Then my family and I drove to Amsterdam and we stayed there for 4 days!! We drove and stopped in Hamburg, Germany on the way.. Amsterdam is an amazing city and it has many different faces.. It has gorgeous views (I wish I took more pictures now thinking back on it!) and MANY things to go see and do!! It is definitely a tourist city!!! I went to the Van Gogh museum! It was soo interesting but at the same time a little creepy because they had his paintings in chronological order of his life and you could see his moods! I saw Anne Frank’s house, we went on a canal tour, saw a torture museum (sooo cool!!), red light district (that is a story of its own!) and we walked around the town seeing different sights!! O yeah I ate the best food there as well.. I ate African food with my hands, Argentinean food, Indonesian food and I had German food as well.. I can truly say I HAVE EATEN AROUND THE WORLD!!! (it is starting to show too : / ) haha That trip was amazing and I don’t think I have words to describe everything about the city but I could write about it FOREVER!!!

Oct. 23-24 I had a school party that Friday night.. and it was a THEME party so everyone dressed up in different costumes… Saturday night I went to another party.. it was a joint birthday party! Three people had it together and we had to dress up as well!! It was so much fun and I knew mostly everyone so that made the night even better!

Oct. 29-31 HOLBÆK WEEKEND!!! It was a Rotary weekend where all 170 exchange students got together and had a blast! Yes it was the last time the oldies and the newbees would be together because the oldies leave in January (it was sad at times) but it was a blast! We danced the nights away and celebrated HALLOWEEN on Saturday night… I was a nerd!! Some people had some interesting costumes might I add! O yeah I just have to say that we are like the only country who celebrates Halloween (well Canada too) but not many other countries do.. so it was a first for many exchange students!! I know…. they have missed out on truly a great holiday! Haha

Besides all of that I have been enjoying school where I still don’t understand much but I seem to meet someone new everyday!!! So I can’t complain! I am still going to language school every week and it’s so much fun I love going.. but I’m not really sure how my language is coming along!!?? Oh, I almost forgot…. Danmark had a protest!!! All the students went to the major cities and walked the streets, protesting because each year more money is taken away from schools and their education!! It was very interesting to see and one of my friends told me it happens every year … (soo its a tradition now!!) haha I have made some really close Danish friends which makes school and stuff soo much BETTER! and of course I’m enjoying life (like usual!!) I love it here but I have to say it is getting DARKER here… It gets dark now around 4:30.. Its REALLY hard to get use to but maybe someday I will!! (hopefully) My life here over the pond is WONDERFUL!!! I LOVE IT!

Just wanted to say HI… to all my family and friends back home!! I hope all is well and everyone is enjoying life! Love you!

Hej hej Farvel

Megan

December 17 Journal

Kære Alle,

Sorry it has taken me so long to write! I have just been SO BUSY!!! I have started to become very busy always doing things and running from this place to another but I’m not complaining….. it’s wonderful! Well I have done a lot in the past month and half now so I will just recap really fast

November:

I went to Skallerup Klit Holiday Center with my second host family. That was really fun. We went horseback riding, swimming, met the family, walked along the beach and it was hyggeligt!!!(My favorite Danish word… it can’t really be translated to English closest term would be cozy!) I had family all together which they considered their “Thanksgiving” and we had WONDERFUL food! We ate a lot, and played banko…. It was really fun because it was just one big laugh! Had a Rotary weekend in Hobro where we went to a “gas” museum and saw glass blowing! I know a gas museum you are probably thinking it was a little weird but it was a lot of fun!!! And I also had Thanksgiving! Two other exchange students (my closest exchange friends) Josh and Tegan (yes she is Canadian but who really cares!) cooked food for our families and had a nice dinner… We went around the table saying what we were thankful for (in Danish of course) and ate wonderful food… and I cooked the BEST apple-pie ever tasted!!! I also have started going to spinning classes with my friend Mette… It’s really good exercise and I’m always tired in the end… so hopefully it’s doing some good! Haha I am also going to GLASS CLASS!!! It’s awesome and so much fun! The kids there are all younger but I still enjoy it… I have made candle holders, bowls, picture frames… you can make a lot of different things!!!! I have been out to many parties with friends and just having a good time in Denmark. I have traveled a little bit, going to neighboring towns and just walking around taking in as much Danish as possible! Haha

The hardest part of my exchange yet came at the end of November… I had to move host families! It was hard enough leaving my family who was WONDERFUL!!! I couldn’t have asked for a better host family… they are kind, welcoming, sweet, loving, friendly family and they let me had a first wonderful 4 months here!!! Besides leaving them, I moved out into the country side (yes the country, most of you can’t even imagine it!) onto a pig farm… I think it was a wake up call for me and it took me a good week and half to get happy again. That week and half was definitely the worst part of my exchange yet until I talked to my mom… She gave me some words of advice and I took them to heart and now I am enjoying life and come to think of it, I actually don’t mind living on the farm… I like it here now! Yes it’s a long way from town and I wake up at 6 every morning to get a bus 7 to get to school at 8 but it’s all apart of life now… I have become very good at taking busses (at one point I hated busses because I got lost on one once and was late to my first day of language school by 1½ hours … not very fun!!) Haha I have realized that every family is different in their own ways and that is what makes them special… I am glad I have been placed with two great host families!!

A little about where and who I live with now… I live in Kraghede… a village between Aalborg and my town Brønderslev. I have 3 host siblings: Karl-16, Johan-14, Liselotte-11 and my host parents Hanna and Karl Erik. They are a really nice family, a little quiet but warm hearted humble people! We have many pets on the farm… 3000 pigs, 3 cattle, 2 horses, a cat, a dog and a rabbit! It truly makes it feel like a farm… kinda like a movie if you think about it… I look outside my house and see green farmlands; windmills from the kitchen window, stillness in the air outside and you can hear birds miles away because it is so quiet! I went horse back riding the other weekend and I saw 10 wild deer running, rabbits hopping about and the dog, Lonnie was following us and every once and awhile he would run off to chase a little animal!!! Oh, I almost forgot… SNOW SNOW SNOW!!!! It has snowed here… maybe not a lot but it was white on the ground, cold and wet!!! What else could it be but SNOW!!! The first snow fell on November 17 and it stayed until about Friday morning… I walked to the train station to see street sweepers clearing the sidewalks so people could walk… I saw an old lady shoveling the steps to her front door… It was WONDERFUL!!!! I also went ice skating in Aalborg with a group of exchange students after language school one day!!! I did really good… I DIDN’T FALL ONCE! I’m a pro now… I should say so myself!

December:

I still go to glass class and spinning… Been to many Christmas parties at my gymnasium and with friends! I went one day to Århus to go shopping!! It’s an amazing city… Very big and lots of stores and people! I had a Rotary Christmas dinner as well… It was very nice… with traditional Christmas food and games! I went Christmas shopping with my host family in Aalborg then out to dinner! (It is one of their traditions during the holiday season!)

I can’t believe it’s about a week until Christmas… A few days until my birthday (Dec. 20) and it has hit me that I won’t be home for the holidays… I know it will be okay… I am really excited to experience a Danish Christmas since it is celebrated quiet different then mine back home… I will write about Christmas later!!! I hope everyone has a MERRY CHRISTMAS (God Jul) and a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

**I would just like to say… Thank you to my first host family FOR EVERYTHING!!! Also, Tegan I MISS YOU SO MUCH!!! LOVE YOU FAT TEG!!!**

Hilsen Megan

January 2 Journal

Hello again!!! Well I know I just wrote but I must tell you about my holiday break!

My birthday was on Dec. 20th…. I had school so I baked cookies for my class and brought in some American candy to share!!! They all really liked it so that was nice! That night I had a nice dinner with some friends, my host family, Josh’s host family and host family to come! It was a really fun evening and lots of fun… I got to share with my friends where I lived and they understand a little more about my life now, since I live on the farm! (p.s. I have gotten use to the pig farm but still its hard to get from place to place but I have learned to work with that and now it’s just a part of my life!)

We started holiday break on the 22nd of Dec. We had a Christmas party with my class and another on the 21st and then we had to go to school on the 22nd until lunch. Lets just say it was a rough day! Haha The 23rd was a relaxed day… We decorated the tree, put REAL candles on the tree along with hearts, candies and flags! My host sister and I made floral arrangements to make the house more “Christmas-y” and she even taught me DANISH Christmas songs!

Dec. 24th I woke up to what seemed like a normal morning…. After lunch we started baking many dishes! I put all my Christmas presents to the family underneath the tree and then got ready for church…. We headed to church… Every 15 min. we stood to sing a song! After what seemed like a lifetime listening to the preacher mumble in Danish we left to go back home! My host grandparents came over and then we sat down to eat dinner! We literally ate dinner for about 3 hours… we had bread, boiled potatoes (no surprise), potatoes with cinnamon and sugar (sooo good), red cabbage, duck, this pork with a crunchy top (the best in the world yum! My mouth waters just thinking about it) and potato chips! For dessert we had this rice pudding with almonds in it, with cherry or strawberry juice on top!! Dessert was a game, the one to find a WHOLE almond in their bowl got a present!!! Of course I found one!! YEAH!!!! (The food I just wrote about is very TRADITIONAL!!! Every year they eat this during the holidays only)

After dinner we all gathered around the Christmas tree… We lit the candles (I just thought… what a fire hazard… crazy Danes!) We danced around the Christmas tree and sang songs for about half an hour! Who would have thought I would dance around a tree! Hehe We also sang “Rudolph the Red Nose” to put a little American style into the evening! Then we started to open up presents… This took another 3 hours because we opened ONE present at a time and we all watched each other open their presents…. It was really weird to do this because I’m use to everyone opening presents and it’s all over within 1 hour! Well after this wonderful dinner and all the presents were opened we sat down for cake, coffee and tea!!! Finally, everything ended and we all went to sleep!

I woke up the next morning and walked downstairs to what was just a normal day! Dec. 25th was a day of relaxation, playing with gifts and enjoying the family time… Well I must say I missed my family A LOT that day… I talked to them on the phone but it wasn’t really the same! I have learned a lot about the holidays and learned to cherish friends and family because you don’t know how special they are until they aren’t there anymore!

Well the holidays are almost over for me… they went by so fast! During the holidays I have been out partying a lot! I went hunting as well… it was like I was in a movie with hunting dogs and shot guns and plans on how to get the birds up in the air… so much fun!!! I have also experienced the “holiday rush” after Christmas… I could have sworn all of Denmark’s cars were at the same shopping center as the one I was at!!! Haha New Years was a blast! The holidays in Denmark were full of surprises, lots of singing, many traditions and TONS of fun!

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! GOD JUL! I hope everyone has a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! WELCOME TO 2005! (Time sure does fly!!)

GODT NYTÅR!!!!

(p.s. my digital camera broke.. that is why I have no pictures! But I will get that taken care of very soon! I just love technology UNTIL it breaks!)

January 24 Journal

Hej!!!

Well I hope everyone is doing well and is enjoying life! Denmark is still amazing but it feels more like a home now.. I am used to everything and really comfortable where I am at now.. School is great and I have been gone a week because I was in a town called Hirtshals helping teach English to a class of 8th graders so I have started to miss it a lot.. well not the classes but def. all my friends! It has gotten really cold here.. We have snow on the ground now.. not a lot but its white pretty much everywhere so that is a big surprise to wake up to every morning!

As most of you know I am living on a pig farm now and I saw the pigs yesterday… My host mom gave me some clothes to put on…. We then drove to the other farm to see the smaller pigs… When you walk in the door you have to take off your shoes and step onto this wood platform.. then you wash your hands with disinfecting soap and usually you change your clothes as well but I didn’t have to.. then you put on a different pair of boots that are on the other side of the platform and you dip the boots into disinfecting solution… then you walk into the long hallway… there was about 3 different doors on the right side.. each leading to a different room holding the pigs… we walked into the first one.. and there is one big aisle with about 11 little stalls on each side.. there held about 25 to 30 little pigs each… pigs are really scared… I was walking by and they all ran to the wall and looked at me as if I was a monster… they smelled like shit and made awful sounds… but it seemed they were always talking to each other because they would run to the wall and all the pigs in ALL the stalls would do the same.. kinda funny to watch.. Hanne (host mom) picked up a pig for me and she wanted me to hold it.. I couldn’t do it because I found myself to be so scared of it.. I did touch it but when you get close to a pig you notice their skin is greasy.. it reminded me of a man with too much hairwax in his hair that it made his hair shine even when it was dark out… yeah you can just imagine now… but I also helped feed the pigs a special mix of oats/flour dust/medicine stuff.. they only feed the pigs this the first 11 to 14 days they are there… When you walked out of every room you had to wash your boots with a hose that was right outside the door… then when we left the first farm we came back to the wood platform.. took off the work boots, disinfected our hands and put on our other shoes and drove to the farm that I live at to see the BIG PIGS!!!!

We did the same thing with washing up and changing and stuff.. I have noticed even though pigs are really dirty that the whole operation is quite clean in a way.. always making sure your shoes are clean and changing clothes and just little things like that.. but this was an older farm… there were 6 different rooms with pigs and they ALL SMELLED worse then the other farm… the pigs were absolutely HUGE!!!!! these ones really scared me because I thought they were gunna break out of their stalls and just attack me.. hehe Hanne was laughing at me because my face had a look of scaredness and a look of how gross at the same time… I got to see the sick pigs.. they are in their own stall so they can be taken care of.. also if a pig is dying they usually drag it out by their ears into the center aisle and leave them there to die.. I saw it done.. kinda creeepy.. especially when you have to walk by several… for every pig that dies they have to pay 50kr. about ($10) to get them disposed because they have to go to a certain place… I couldn’t walk up and down the aisles in all 6 rooms because the smell was unbearable.. I started to gag after the 2nd room.. you can’t even imagine the smell and probably you are thinking “Megan grow up, it’s just a smell, it cant be that bad..” Well all I have to say is… IT WAS!!!!!! you cant even imagine the smell… I asked Hanne how she can handle it and she says she is used to it but still I just thought this is a smell I could never get used to… well after our little adventure into pig land I got a nice long shower.. you see the smell is imbedded into your hair, skin, clothes and your nose…. after a 25 min. shower, half a bottle of shampoo and half a bar of soap later I had a nice little talk with my family and I think I finally understand a little more about farm life…

I imagined the pigs and everything to be really different.. I finally understand more about their work and life.. I felt better about seeing the pigs.. no I don’t think I would jump up and see them again in a heartbeat but I came to understand about farm life and it was an enlightening feeling…

Sorry I don’t have any pictures yet.. I have to get them on a CD first because I borrowed my host family’s… my digital one broke so I’m waiting for my new one to arrive.. I hope everyone is doing well… Denmark is WONDERFUL!!!! Love you! kys og knus hilsen

Megan

March 13 Journal

 

Hej Alle Sammen!!!

Well time just seems to slip away and I can’t believe it has gone by so fast!!!

I have been really busy these past couple of months and have had a BLAST!!! We had winter holiday and my host family and I went to Spain…

SPAIN IS AMAZING!!! I decided I will buy a house there once I get older.. haha such pretty views and lovely weather! We saw the market… it is every Thursday and there are so many different things to buy there.. Also we traveled to Granada to see the La Alhambra (a very old village with gorgeous gardens and castles) yeah.. I’m not too into the old historical stuff but this was so amazing and breath taking!!! We relaxed in the sun, shopped, enjoyed the company of Hanne’s (host mom’s) cousins and parents, traveled up the mountains to this little Spanish town and had a picnic under the orange trees also we went to Gibraltar!!! Gibraltar is a English part of Spain and it was SO GREAT!!! It has the Northern rock and from it you can see Africa, Spain, The Strait.. all at once!!! We saw the St. Michael Caves, The Tunnels, and the MONKEYS at the top of the rock!!! SO COOL!!! I even got a monkey on my shoulder!!! It was such a great trip!!! I saw so much and I even got to practice my Spanish.. haha lets just I screwed up a couple of menu orders and no one asked me again to translate for them!!! haha It was so nice to spend time with my host family!!! O and the weather was wonderful.. It was a nice change since we still have SNOW in Danmark!!!

School and my life here has been wonderful!!! We just had Galla a couple of weekend ago.. Galla is kind of like prom but not so over done… But we all dressed up really nice and had a GREAT evening!! We had to learn how to dance LANCHIER!!! We had to dance it that night with our grade… It is a really long dance… 5 parts… let’s just say it takes a good 7 minutes to dance it and I probably messed up about 1000 times… but it was so much fun!!! Also, I have started to get into shape a little bit too because the ROTARY 15 is gaining on me!!! So I have started to BOX!!! Me and about 4 other friends go 2 times a week and box.. so funny to watch!!! haha I have also started bowling.. I know it sounds funny but I also have a cool shirt!!! haha

Oh yeah I almost forgot.. I moved host families this past weekend!!! My new host family is wonderful.. They are sweet people who are so easy to talk too!! I am also the only child in the house.. they have 3 kids but they have all moved out or are at university! It is so weird to think this is my last host family then I move again to go home… It’s really hard for me to comprehend actually because I feel like my life is in Danmark… I have wonderful friends now that I always have a good time with them!!! I just love Danmark.. it’s home!!!! Life here is wonderful and I really truly couldn’t ask for anything better!!! It feels like I have it all!!! Oh yeah… We just had another Rotary weekend in Vejle.. everyone from all of DANMARK!! It was so crazy and so much fun… it’s amazing to see what happens when all exchange students get together… but it was really sad as well because this marked me as being an OLDIE… the newbies just arrived about 1 month ago and were still clueless about a lot of things so it was a wake up call.. we sang our traditional songs and we all cried because we knew that some of us would never see each other again!!! It was a great weekend though.. we had a great entertainment show that night and I met so many cool Aussies and Brazilians!!!

WEATHER IN DANMARK IS CRAZY!!!! Yes it is spring but we still have snow.. it just snowed today too!!! It’s so weird.. but we do have flowers that have bloomed but now they are covered with a nice frost!!! haha I love Danish weather! I hope all is well!!! Hopefully everyone is doing great!!

Hilsen Kys og knus

Megan

P.S. I give my Rotary speech this week!! AHHHH… I hope it will be okay but who knows because It’s all in Danish and let’s just say I’m not that comfortable with my Danish yet!! (keep fingers crossed)

May 14 Journal

 

WOW!! Where to begin!?! It has been a while since I last wrote and so much has happened that I could literally talk about it for days and days… well I will just try to summarize the past couple of the months the best that I can!

March– I gave my Rotary speech IN DANISH!!! It was so hard.. but I must say I did surprisingly well… Yes I didn’t pronounce everything right and yes I got REALLY red in the face but after I had everyone standing and clapping for me because they were so impressed.. what can I say I’m just a natural at Danish!! hahaha I wish! I also had “spring break..” which was really fun! I went to my host family’s summer house and helped them repaint and just enjoy family time.. Also my spinning classes ended.. I tried to exercise but ever since it ended I’m not doing so great.. haha what can I say!!

April– My Grandparents and my Aunt and Uncle came to visit me for the first weekend in April.. It was so nice to see them again.. we had a such a great time.. I loved showing them all my host families and a little bit of Danmark.. We went to Copenhagen with them for 2 days.. It was so nice.. I love Copenhagen.. Its a different “big” city… I met up with some exchange friends the day my family left to go back home.. We went all over Copenhagen just having a good time.. (There is a picture below of me and my friend Tanja on top of a really tall church on the outside.. there are about 400 stairs that go to the top of this church and half of the stairs are on the outside.. so pretty.. you can see the whole city!!) Also the 2nd week of school we got a week off to write this really important paper about a book… So I wrote a little paper, 1 page instead of 9 pages in Danish.. During that week I went to the zoo with my friend Josh.. So funny!!! they have a great playground there too!! haha I went to Århus with my host mom to visit my host brother and sister that live there… And shopping of course!! I don’t remember if I have mentioned this but I started going to BOXING… great exercise and it’s so fun to go with a group of friends… then after we go bowling at the local hall… I have also been to Randers to the “rainforest” with a bunch of friends.. it was a great trip!!

May– I went to Hobro with my host family to see gymnastics.. O yes my host family is very interested in gymnastics.. but its not what you are thinking its more rhythmic gymnastics.. really cool to see.. many Danes do gymnastics because its good exercise.. My host dad is the manager for the Danish National Gymnastics Team (which travels around the world and performs) and my host brother, Jacob made the team this year!!! It’s really exciting! We had the DNGT over one night for coffee and cake.. yes about 35 people in my house.. it was crazy! I went to Lønstrup this past weekend as well.. It’s a small town on the west coast of Danmark and it is falling into the ocean.. really big cliffs and a church is slowly falling into the water.. The weather is wonderful by the way.. It’s SPRING!!! It’s amazing how you learn to appreciate spring after a rough winter… its great.. so green.. flowers are blooming and yes bugs are out again!!! haha I love it!

As you know I lived on a pig farm for about 3 months – well I also had the pleasure of visiting a cow farm.. the coolest thing.. it was the only circle building cow farm in Danmark, that automatically feeds the cows to their nutritional needs… and it didn’t smell as bad.. unlike the pig farm… Also I have seen a mink farm.. nothing but long houses of cages and cages of minks in them.. so many colors!!! I have seen all types of farms now.. this is a record!!!

Well I have Euro Tour next weekend… gone for 3 weeks around Europe… CAN’T WAIT!!!! Last day of school coming up on Friday.. I didn’t think I would ever say this but I’m sad school is ending because I know everything else comes to a end soon after that… It makes my stomach turn thinking about returning home.. Danmark is home!!! I hope everyone is well!!! Until next time!

Hils Kys og Knus

Megan

June 15 Journal

hej igen….

Well this past month has been crazy and jammed packed!!! I finished school with a nice good bye and NO EXAMS!!! it was great but the day after “reading holiday” started, I was off on another adventure called EURO TOUR!

This was from May 21 til June 7… 18 days with 50 exchange students on one bus traveling around Europe and experiencing all different kinds of cultures, food and seeing SO many things!!! We went from Northern Jylland(Danmark) to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Venice, Verona, Monaco, Paris and Brussels… It was such a good trip!!! I made so many good memories and have so many good stories that it would take days to tell you everything!! I took so many pictures (over 800) and I will post those soon (well not all of them)! Promise…. Our last day was probably the hardest because I had to say goodbye to so many exchange students that I knew I would never see again! I knew I made some life long friends and memories for life and I guess in the end that is all you can really ask for!!!

I have returned HOME and my host family and I have sat down and planned my final weeks in Danmark.. It’s kind of hard to accept the fact that I am going back to Florida again but I guess eventually it will sink in… I have been really busy just doing important things with my friends and host family… It’s amazing how fast your schedule fills up when you know you don’t have a lot of time here!

This is the last journal I will write before I return to Florida!! This year has gone by so fast! A person who I look up to very much told me once “You have made it this far so returning home is just another piece of the puzzle!” It feels like I just arrived here.. clueless and looking for a translator and now I’m leaving what I have come to know as “my home!” My host families have been wonderful.. I couldn’t have asked for better… They were always there for me and showed me so many great places! They have let me into their life and family and for that I can always call Danmark… home! My friends here are amazing! They have helped me really get into Danish culture and way of life! I know they are always there for me and I will always have a special place for them in my heart! This has been the best year.. more then I could have ever expected… I have learned so much, not only about Danmark, or different cultures or even language but about myself! I have learned that I can accomplish anything if I put my mind to it, how to be independent and how to lead! I have learned who I truly am, as a person! Exchange teaches you so much that I don’t think we will ever know how much it has really affected our lives until a few years down the road and still we will crack up about the funny memories we had along the way!

I would like to say a BIG THANK YOU to Rotary because without you this would have not been possible! Thank you to my parents for all the support! Thank you to my host families and all my Danish friends!!! Thank you to Al for EVERYTHING!!! Tusind tusind tak!!! (a thousand thanks!)

Good luck to the new outbound group! Have the time of your life this year! Remember you only live once so enjoy the chance while you can! Congrats! to all the outbounds coming home.. We did it! A year went by and yet it only seems like a blink of an eye!

I am arriving home July 2…I will write again once more but until then…

Kys og knus

Megan

 

Jackelyn Lynch
2004-05 Outbound to Ecuador

Hometown: High Springs, Florida
School: Santa Fe High School
Sponsor: High Springs Rotary Club
Host: Quito Sur Rotary Club, District 4400, Ecuador

Jackelyn - Ecuador

August 24 Journal

Well it is now day 4 in Quito, Ecuador. Life here as my host mother likes to say is differente, but too beautiful for words.

Let’s start from the beginning. I won’t lie. I did cry when I left my parents at the airport, but that was all my dad’s fault. He started crying so I started crying… it was one of those downward spiral things. Once I got away from my sobbing father I was ok. I did cry for like 5 minutes but once I got on the plane to Miami I was fine. The flight into Quito was amazing… the city is so pretty. I got off the plane with my fellow exchange students and you could tell everyone was really nervous. In the end I found my family. They were holding up a sign that said Welcome Jackie Linch… notice that they misspelled my name. haha. My host mother is still misspelling my name. It’s ok though.

I live in an apartment surrounded by mountains. Actually the mountain behind my apartment is an active volcano. I have my own room, bathroom, computer, TV, DVD player, and CD player. Its really frigin nice. And of course… the maid is a really nice bonus. The first night was the hardest and that’s just because my host parents really worried over me and offered me anything under the sun. Are u hungry, thirsty, is ur bed good?… so many questions and they were all really fast. I didn’t understand most of it. But every morning I get up and eat breakfast and go back to the grind of learning… learning… learning. It’s paying off though. I can understand almost everything said to me… as long as it’s said slowly. And I can get what I want to say across.

Really it’s all the little things that really surprise you. The fact that they drive insanely here. Just because there are little white lines on the road doesn’t mean u have to stay on your side of the road. Or you can stop and park in the middle of a busy street to call someone on your cellphone. Also people just walk up to your car and try to sell you anything. You can taste the fruit before you buy it at the store. You can smoke ANYWHERE. It’s the things that you didn’t prepare for, that you didn’t even think it was going to be different that make you really realize… wow I’m in a foreign country. But even with all these little differences these people are not that much different than you. I love this place already. I’m not homesick at all. More than anything I think about how much I want to tell people about how amazing this place is.

My mother took this week off so she can be with me and show me the city. I actually got my first wax job and pedicure yesterday. It was the most painful experience of my life… but hey… it looks good. I’m probably going to get really addicted to it. Tomorrow I leave to go to the beach… which means I get to see almost all of Ecuador from here to there. It should be a lot of fun.

They actually changed the day school starts here. I start school 20 days after I was supposed to. So I have 20 days to hang out. My mother is enrolling in salsa and pilates classes. So that should keep me busy and keep that Rotary 15 away. I’ll be taking the classes with one of my new friends Heather… who is an exchange student from Pennsylvania. I haven’t really gotten a chance to meet kids from here that are my age.

Well that’s all for now, Bye!

September 3 Journal

I can’t believe it… has it been two weeks already? Well, I haven’t started school yet. That won’t start for another week or two, but I have signed up for my classes. You might think I’m crazy but just as promised I’m going very high academic. History of Ecuador and Geography are required, but then I got to make a choice and without hesitation I chose Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus. I’ll probably get into the class and think “OMG what have I done?” like most of the students thought on the plane on the way to their countries. Of course, there is really no risk for me… I’ve already got my diploma. I also get to take art and photography. Which should be fun.

Well the beach… was… different. I loved it. Forget the manufactured beaches and overcrowding of cars that you find in Florida. This beach was completely natural. The shells… completely unbroken. I didn’t find a broken shell while I was there, and the shells themselves are much different from the shells in Florida. Needless to say, I brought a lot of shells back from the beach. Uncle Dean if you’re reading this yes… a lot of the shells are for you.

But there was more than pristine beauty in this place, which also makes it very different from Florida. There was one huge hotel but that was probably a mile down the beach from where I was. Most of the coast of the beach was green lush landscape. It was really wild. However, down the coast in the city of Esmeralda they are drilling oil and there are constantly big tankers off shore. This puts small amounts of oil in the water. You could see it on the sand of the beach. It tinted the whole beach a little grey. My family along with some friends of the family Gomez, his wife, daughter, and mother (plus two friends of his daughter) stayed in this tiny rented house. Now this place is kinda sketchy. The water went out constantly so in the five days I was there I was lucky to get 4 showers. One night while the water was out, my family and Sophia (Gomez’s mother) was playing some Latin American card games… and guess what… the power went out. It was great fun playing cards next to candle light.

One night they took me to the intercambia… now I suggest that before you die everyone needs to see this place. It’s like a gigantic artist market right on the beach along with countless Tiki Bars. We went on a Thursday because it’s impossible to go on Friday or Saturday due to the crowd. There is also 5 dollar hotels lined up one right after another. Gomez told me that all it is, is a bed. No shower, no running water. Nothing. Hey you get what you pay for. It’s so crowded and from every direction there is something going on. I had women come up and grab me and ask me if I wanted my hair braided. You get to of course negotiate the prices of what you want to buy. They sell food on the streets. Wild dogs run around everywhere. People sit on the little swings around the bars of the Tiki bars. Now that is funny. Imagine someone getting drunk while sitting on a swing. You know sooner or later they’re going to fall off and it’s going to be funny. Drunken people have enough trouble with regular chairs let alone a swing.

But there is too much about this place to explain. I literally walked around with my mouth hanging open. I have never seen anything like that in my life. It was wild. Ugly and beautiful at the same time. That’s what makes it such a wonderful place. It doesn’t hide anything from you. It’s the truth, unfiltered. That’s what all of Ecuador is like. It has these amazing beautiful things but at the same time there is poverty and dirtiness… but they don’t try to hide that from you. I also went to a fish market. Which was probably the extreme of my stay at the beach. On the floor of the market, on the dirty cement, there was a huge… and I mean huge, swordfish. One man would just take his huge knife and hack a piece away from it and put it on his table and sell it. The smell was intense. After choosing a fish you liked (head and all) they would skin it for you and rap it up. Now I have seen my grandfather skin catfish before, but that seemed a little more sanitary than this was. Really I can’t explain my feelings at the fish market. It was such a shock to my system. I really just stood there hugging my purse very tightly and just watching this amazing crazy circus around me that to everyone else seemed completely normal. It is an experience I will never forget.

Well I think I have rambled enough. Sorry I have no pictures… my camera is broken and my dad didn’t bring his digital because you’re not supposed to take digitals to the beach or something like that.

Chao

September 12 Journal

Things have settled into a routine that feels very comfortable. It is now the end of week 3. I am amazed at how quickly time seems to move here. The days flow in perfect 12 hour increments. The sun rises at 6 and sets at 6.

Since the last time I have written a lot has happened. I have now been to the discos here twice. Once with my new friends Jenny and Michelle. And another with my friend Heather and her host sister Danielle. Jenny and Michelle are both from here but their dad is from the States so they speak fluently Spanish and English. Both discos are completely different from one another which shows you the incredible diversity here. The disco I went to with Jenny played a lot of latino punk (which I never knew existed till now). People would get up and randomly dance around in a circle. In the states this kind of dance is called skaing, but a lot of people have never heard of it. Here its very popular. It’s kinda dangerous. It’s a lot like moshing so picture me in heels jumping and skipping around with a bunch of latin people in a circle. I’m surprised I didn’t twist my ankle in the process. The other disco was a lot like a rave. There was a dj and techno ran through out the night. I figured out that there is nothing like an American girl to make the latin guys pounce.

The thing is, here, I am trusted by my host parents who I have known for 3 weeks. I can go to a disco, and stay out as late as I want to. Parties are no problem. I am trusted to do a lot of things here that my parents in the states would feel uncomfortable letting me do in the states. Parents offer me alcoholic drinks and they don’t care if I drink when I go to a disco. In this way I feel very old and mature, like I’m a young adult. I am finally grown like I’ve always wanted to be, but at the same time I have never felt so young and helpless. Not being able to communicate can do that to you. So here I am a grown up baby. It really is a very different feeling. I have spent most of my life trying to grow up, trying to get to have all the things that those that were older than me had. Now I have it, but my independence is gone. I am completely dependent on others here. Friends that know their way around here, know what not to do, what is safe and not safe. It is a feeling I have never encountered before in my life. I know that what I write here might not be what you at home might want to read. The knowledge that I am going out to parties and drinking when I do so will probably make you uncomfortable. But it is the truth and I would rather not hide anything about my experience here from you. It is apart of the culture here, a beautiful culture that is full of life and happiness. Everything is so open here. There is no need to lie or to hide anything. Almost every kid I knew in the states hid things from their parents. There is nothing but open loving relationships between children and their parents here. It is the way I hope to be with my children and I hope I can bring this culture into my family when I decide to have one.

I also went to the center of the world monument. Today actually. I did the whole tourist thing and stood on both sides of the yellow line that runs from the huge statue marking the center of the world and said “look I am in
2 hemispheres…wow” I took many pictures with my new camera. I shall send those pictures as soon as I figure out how to download them onto this computer.

I have also discovered a familiar game here. Pool. Seems people here like it just as much as I do. I am getting a lot of play time at the pool table and I seem to be getting really good at it. Well I’ve written enough for now. I will write again next week. And pictures will follow soon.

September 21 Journal

A lot has happened since I last wrote. Maybe I’ll just start from the beginning.

Meeting Jenny and Michelle just might be the best thing that has happened to me since I arrived in this country. In a lot of ways they are like me. They love music which is also one of my passions. During the week, there was an outdoor youth concert celebrating the independence of Ecuador. Jenny invited me. The bands were terrific. There was one band that was nothing but drums. That band was a lot of fun. Everybody would randomly jump around. In the states it’s called moshing. I came away with just a few bruises, but what made the afternoon/evening truly interesting was the fact that it started to rain… well hail. Now picture this. I am in khaki pants jumping around in the rain like a fool to some wonderful music. My pants got soooooo muddy. Let’s just say my maid had fun cleaning those. I also went to another concert benefiting the joys of reading. Michelle and her band played there along with many other bands. It seems like everyone is in a band here or at least plays some sort of instrument. It’s all very exciting. Discovering this new and wonderful music. The one thing that is absolutely wonderful about this culture is the fact that music is so important to them. It is in every aspect of the culture. People will randomly break out into song here. That is something I wish we had in the states. I mean I know music is important in the states but it isn’t woven into the fabric of everyday life there like it is here.

Sunday I also went to Otavalo for the first time. There are so many wonderful things there. The indigenous people here are wonderful artisans. Anything you might want you can find at Otavalo among the many tent-shops set up in the plazas. The shops are right next to each other and it’s not quite as crazy as the intercambia. Maybe that’s because there are no tiki bars to go to. Along with the help from Jenny and my host mother I am getting much better at arguing prices with the vendors. The art in these places are wonderful though. I feel kinda bad for arguing the prices because with some of these things the vendor deserves more money than what they are getting. Also one of the wonderful things about buying jewelry here is you can get necklaces turned into bracelets, bracelets into earrings, necklaces shortened… anything you want. They will do it right on the spot for no extra money and they are good at it.

School started this week. It was one of the most confusing days of my life. We stayed in one class and the teachers introduced themselves to us but we didn’t sign up for classes. I didn’t sign up for my actual classes till today and I haven’t signed up for my electives yet. Maybe it’s because it’s in a different language but it seems very unorganized to me. Even with the fact that I am taking all the hard maths and sciences I figured out today it won’t be as hard as I thought. In chemistry I already answered something that no one else in the class could answer. “What makes something inorganic?” After he asked everyone in the class, he finally turned to me and asked me. I answered “sin carbon” which means without carbon. Not the best Spanish but it answered the question and my teacher seemed quite surprised. I already have a little group of friends from the school. They invited Heather and me to go bowling and play pool with them. Sometimes I get frustrated with Heather. Yes some of the girls understand English but a lot of them don’t and Heather relies on her English a lot. She will say something in English before saying it in Spanish. It’s frustrating having to translate for her. Not that my translation is the best but I still have too. One gringa translating for another is almost like the blind leading the blind. I’m trying to get her to talk in Spanish more but it’s definitely hard.

My last revelation for the week would have to be seeing the Simpsons in Spanish. Now that is strange and mind blowing. To me the Simpsons is an important part of the American culture. Homer sounds like Homer and that’s that. But then turning it to Fox and seeing… hearing Homer… in a Spanish voice is the most insane thing ever. It makes his character completely different. It’s almost like my world came tumbling down around me. Homer… in Spanish. Now there are a lot of American shows here dubbed in Spanish but none of those had quite the same impact as… Homer in Spanish. My host parents laughed at me because it blew my mind so much. My host dad gets a real kick out of all my little quirks.

Well I’ll write again next week. This weekend is Jenny’s birthday so I’ll probably write about the terrific surprise party Heather and I are throwing for her… shhhh it’s a secret.

Chao

October 4 Journal

It’s been about two weeks since I last wrote so I have a lot to talk about.

First things first, I should start with the surprise party for Jenny. It actually wasn’t a surprise party since Jenny’s sister let it slip to her. It was ok because the cake we made for her was still a surprise. The cake was a lot of fun. As heather, Taby (another exchange student) and I were baking the cake we forgot to add flour to it because of the higher elevation, so the cake didn’t rise as much as it should have. We also baked it in a big bird face pan, but because we smothered it in icing, M&M’s, and jelly beans you really couldn’t tell. It was actually a game for people to guess what it looked like. We got a playboy bunny, the grinch, bugs bunny, and a monkey.

Halfway through the party Jenny made her neighbor come over. He is the drummer in a band, and as a present they played for us. After they ran out of their own songs they started playing other popular songs both in Spanish and English. Everyone at the party would sing along. It was a lot of fun… it’s just another example of how much music means to the people here. The band has a demo out and I have decided that I am not leaving the country without a copy of it… That’s how good they are.

School is not so confusing anymore, thank heavens. That first week was so insane. We do move around from class to class a little. There is one class you’re in for all your general classes, then another class for your specialized classes. You only have two choices with your specialized classes: Social classes or science classes. I’m in the Science classes which are the physics, calculus, etc… Then you move again for your electives. I am in cinematography which is a lot of fun. Homework for that class was going and watching the only movie to be made in Ecuador and directed by an Ecuadorian: Los Chronicas. It was hard to understand the dialogue but the action was easy to follow, and I figured out that I hated it. I didn’t hate it because it was a bad movie. I hated it because it had one of those endings that just make you mad. The bad guy gets away with murdering little kids… just thinking about it makes me mad. Otherwise school is very easy. I’m actually helping the girl who sits next to me with her calculus. I find it kinda ironic. Heather is not doing as well as me sadly enough. She actually cried in the middle of Lengua class. She also really relies on her English. She will speak in English before she will speak in Spanish. I find myself having to speak to the teacher for her, which is really sort of stupid. It’s like the blind leading the blind, but I guess it works for now.

This weekend my host parents took me to this lagoon thing. It is an inactive volcano with a lake in its center. It was really magnificent. What was funny about it is that it takes three hours to get there just to stand and look at it for ten minutes, take some pictures and then leave. This place is in the middle of nowhere to begin with. The drive there is insane. We went up to 1200 feet, and the whole way there was going around turn after turn at very high speeds. It occurs to me that Ecuadorians would make very good astronauts. Because of their driving habits, they are already used to the heavy G-Forces. The scenery is really magnificent also. Maybe it was because I was listening to the soundtrack from lord of the rings but that area looks just like the land of Rohan from Middle Earth. Everything is mountainous with the same yellow grass hillsides. Sometimes I expected to see Legolas and Aragorn to come running over the hillside.

After riding in the car forever I went to hang out with Jenny and I spent the night at her house. We went out to the mall but while we were there her mom’s car battery died… seemed all too familiar for me. In the middle of a busy parking lot we had to push her mom’s car so she could jump it into second gear. It was funny to say the least. I then learned that it is a bad idea to play any board game with Jenny’s dad. He’s very competitive. The whole family gets very mad at him. He’s really quite ruthless with the way he plays, but I handled my defeat with grace… or maybe I vowed to never talk to him again… it’s all the same. All in all it was a lot of fun.

Well that’s all for this week. I go on my first Rotary trip next week. I get to miss a whole week of school and go to the beach. I can’t wait.

Chao

October 19 Journal

OK it’s been a while and I’ve got a lot to say. I went to Manabi (that’s a beach here) last week with Rotary for the first district trip. All of the exchange students were there, all 96 of us, 43 of which were from the States. It was insane to say the least. I now have 4 really good exchange student friends. Carolina is a girl from Germany… and she is my best friend here. She goes to my school so we hang all the time. One thing that I will always hold against her though is the fact that she pushed me into the pool at Manabi with a skirt on. We stayed at two hotels. We only stayed at the hotel on the beach for one night so I only brought a little bit of clothes and she pushed me in with the only clean clothes I had left so I had to keep them on soaking wet. I guess that’s just the way Germans are… but I love her anyways. She makes life interesting. Cory is from Connecticut and we can never stop laughing when we are together. He lives in Rio Bamba unfortunately which is three hours away, but we keep in contact through email. Armando is from Italy and is one of the greatest guys I have ever met. He is so much fun and lovable… and he is a FANTASTIC dancer. He is the best dancer out of all of the exchange students by far… besides me of course. Last but not least is Danielle. He is from Arizona. He is a very chill person, which is one thing I miss about my friends back in the States. Thank god he lives in Quito. I actually met him before the Manabi trip. I met him the Saturday before at the bull fight I my rotary club was sponsoring.

OK time to switch tracks a little… the bull fight. That was definitely different. It was a joven bull fight so they didn’t kill the bulls. The bulls and bull fighters were too young. The bull fighters were only 17 or 18 years old. My host mother told me that the bulls were not drugged. It was very violent in many ways. Besides the whole cloth dodging thing they also stick these long sticks with barbs on the end onto the backs of the bulls. You can see the scars on the bulls from previous bull fights from these sticks. However, the bull fighters did do some pretty amazing things, which made them seem quite sexy. I can see why girls here love them. At the end of a fight women will throw their hats and roses to the bull fighters. It’s all very dramatic and romantic. This was a small bull fight. In December, during the festival de Quito they will have a regular bull fight where they kill the bull.

OK… back to Manabi. The trip started with all of the exchange students from Quito climbing onto a bus. The entire trip, there were people standing in the aisles and switching seats, making sure that we met everyone. It got very interesting when we started going through the mountains. Only the pros stood up because if you weren’t a pro (like me) you would be falling all over everyone. We arrived at a 4 star hotel far away from the beach. Now I say that this is a 4 star hotel… but anyone from the states would highly disagree, but it did have a heck of a view from the roof. The last night we were there, they let us stay up as late as we wanted and a lot of us went to the roof and just sat up there all night long.

The day after we arrived we left to go to the hotel right on the beach. The boys and girls had different hotels. The boys mostly hung out at the girl’s hotel because our hotel was really nice. The hotel was basically little cabins near the beach. Each cabin had a main living room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. The bathroom did not have hot water but we got over it. There was a really nice pool in the center of all the cabins, a hammock area, and flowers everywhere. While we were there we played “futbol” and “volley” on the beach. I say “volley” because it’s volleyball only we play with a soccer ball. The futbol games were a lot of fun and it turns out that it’s a very dangerous game. A lot of people got hurt. One of the Aussies had a black and blue toe after a Brazilian kicked it trying to get the ball away from her. In my spare time, Danielle and I decided to randomly dig a hole… I don’t know why we started but once we did nothing could stop us. We got it so deep that a full grown person could stand all the way down into it. Cory has pictures of it and as we speak I’m trying to get him to send it to me.

After leaving paradise we went back to the “4 star hotel”. The next day we were in a parade. It was a lot of fun because we got to bring flags and be patriotic. All of the different countries would sing or chant something that had to do with their country. I liked the Aussies the best. They really are a wonderful people. They are so laid back and in general wonderful. All week they had been chanting “AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE, OY OY OY, AUSSIE, OY, AUSSIE, OY, AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE, OY OY OY”. By the end of the trip they had lost their voices. The states showed through proud and true however. We sang a load of patriotic and children’s songs, along with a special rendition of Sweet Home Alabama, proving once and forever that the south is still alive and kicking.

I also rode a ferry for the first time and went to a zoo. I got to pet a sloth and a baby deer. Although the whole time I was petting the baby deer all I could think about is the deer that made me flip my car, so needless to say I didn’t pet the baby deer for to long. We went to a market and listened to a live band. I danced salsa with a Rotarian (very interesting) and got my hair corn rowed.

Once of the worst points of the trip was the visit to the Tuna Factory. I waited an hour to see 10 minutes of tuna slaughtering. Then we got a can of Tuna. Another part of the trip I didn’t quite like was the Florida/Bush bashing. Yes somebody did ask me if I could count when I told them I was from Florida. I know it wasn’t the thing I should have done but I had to correct them and tell them that it was the old retired snow birds down south who can not count… oh well. Otherwise the trip was amazing.

Since returning to Quito, I have slept a lot. During the whole week I got a total of 12 hours of sleep. School has been very hard going back to school, but I’m OK. I had a test the Monday I returned on the stuff I missed the week before… I got a perfect score. So school is still easy, but I love the people. Well that’s all I can think of… I’m sure I missed something, but what can you do. Chao until next week.

-Jackie

PS I saw Godsend… freaky movie.

November 21 Journal

As the shaman finished singing, he took his hand off of my head and I turned around to look at my mother and my best friend who were smiling at me, their faces illuminated by the camp fire. As I looked past them to look at the lightning on the horizon of the rain forest I realized, “wow this is something I never expected to happen”. Well that was a little teaser. I’m sorry I haven’t written in a long time. A lot has happened so I guess I’ll get started.

I guess I should start at the beginning. My school had elections which was rather insane. At the beginning of the week I was told we were having an election for president, vice president, and secretary. What I failed to realize is that meant that there would a party day at school. Instead of just random people running for different positions you voted for a political party. There were three political parties and in the middle of the week they all threw parties to try and convince you to vote for them. There were DJs, carnival acts, bands, and much more. You would just walk from party to party. People would chant the name of their favorite political party, dance, scream, and in general just act crazy. It was a nice surprise for hump day, especially since I got to wear what I want instead of the awful gym uniform they make us wear on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I think I have fallen in love with my school since then. As far as academics go my school is not that good. In fact it’s the worst private school in Ecuador, but they sure do know how to throw a party. So it’s really good for exchange students. Maybe not so good for the rest of the students that attend the school, but cool for the exchange students.

So the next day we got out of classes again for the debate… no I am not kidding, there was a debate. People really got into it to. The day before one of the political parties was handing out pencils in order to win votes. During the debate one of the students from a different political party asked them why they were trying to buy votes with pencils. Everyone began screaming and freaking out over this question. People took this all very seriously. The day after was finally the day of elections. Alianza (my favorite) won… and everyone began crying… crying. Whether their political party won or lost they cried. Needless to say it was a very exciting week.

The Friday of the next weekend started a five day holiday. Monday was the independence of Cuenca, a city here. Instead of having a national Independence Day, they have Independence days for each of the big cities here. Then Wednesday was a day to celebrate and remember the dead. Lots of people go to the cemeteries to visit their loved ones who had passed on. So because Monday and Wednesday are both holidays you get Tuesday gratis. So my family decided to go to the Amazon for the vacation. I got to bring my best friend here Karalina with me. We left early Saturday morning. Saturday was also the last day I could fax my vote to Florida for my first election ever. I know this is random, but I just have to say how proud I feel to have finally voted and to have my vote count.

Anyways, moving on… We arrived in Baños, a very beautiful city with waterfalls everywhere. Baños is also known for their hot water springs, but we were only there long enough to switch cars around. My host parents stashed their car and Karalina and I loaded up in Gomez´s car. We drove for a long time, watching the scenery slowly change from green mountains to rain forests, when the road came. Now I call it “the road” for a reason. This was a dirt road but you could not go faster than 15 miles an hour on this road because the road was in that bad of shape, and this street lasted for miles. Well finally we got to the place we were going. Middle of nowhere does not even compare. You had to park your cars and walk down this huge staircase to a river. The Napo, to be more specific, is a tributary of the Amazon River itself. We then had to load up all the things we brought with us in this little wooden canoe. Slowly everyone and everything was shuffled across this river by a native who doesn’t speak any Spanish. On the other side of the river you find a trail that leads right into the rain forest. Trees grow tall on each side of the path and for a place out in the middle of nowhere it is so loud. There are so many animal noises coming out of the forest it can be deafening.

After walking about a half a mile the forest suddenly opens up and there is this beautiful hotel and dining area. Its small but it seems like paradise. Turns out the owners of the hotel which you get to know very well during your stay owns the island I stayed on. That’s right it was an island. The Napo splits in two and surrounds this small bit of land. Also turns out, and my mom should love this, Survivor was filmed on the island during the Survivor Amazon season and I stayed in the hotel that two survivors stayed in after a reward challenge. Very cool. Well the next day we had a rain forest walk. Lost of fun. I learned about scraping bark off of trees and using it for medicine and finding fresh water by using vines. Got great pictures if I can ever get them loaded on my computer. That afternoon everyone went out to the Napo and went for a swim. Then we decided to do something called Hydro-surfing or something like that. We walked up the river and after putting on a life vest you got to float down the river through some rapids. Looking at these rapids they don’t look that big but when you’re there swimming through these rapids it’s pretty intense. Karalina and I did it twice and after a lot of persuasion we got my mother to do it as well. She was very scared but in the end it was a lot of fun for her.

The next day we all loaded up into cars and we headed out to see a waterfall. A few hours later on the most horrid roads possible we arrived at a beautiful waterfall and natural slide. The natural slide was where the water ran down a large solid rock. The water eroded away at the rock until a channel was formed for the water to run down: a slide. However a lot of people were there so we all went to the waterfall to swim instead. I’m really glad that my parents taught me how to play near waterfalls and walk on slippery rocks, because while we were there two people fell and hurt themselves. Otherwise, we all had a great time swimming in the pool below the waterfall. After having lunch we all returned to the cars and went back to the hotel.

That evening after dinner, we all walked out into the jungle. We followed the path in the dark with a couple of flashlights when the path opened up into a hut with a fire in the center surrounded by wooden chairs. In the biggest chair sat the shaman. He did not look like I had expected him to. I had expected him to be dressed in native clothes with some weird head dress or something but things are not always as you expect them to be. He wore a Tommy Hilfiger shirt and jeans and was smoking a cigarette. First thing he did was give everyone a drink that relaxes you. Then everyone who wanted to be blessed and helped in some sort of way would sit in front of him while he performed a ritual. Before he began he asked you what you wanted to be helped with. I asked to be given luck with love of course, just like every other girl, and I asked for my Spanish to be better. Then with a cigarette in one hand he began the ritual that included bouncing a stem with leaves all over it on top of your head, and rubbing a stone on your face, and singing some strange song in the native tongue. Afterwards I felt good, and it’s probably just something I did, but the next day my Spanish seemed to be much better. It was fun and definitely interesting. Being in that sort of situation always makes you think of life and how short it is and how wonderful it is to have a chance like this, to experience life like this.

The next day, everybody was wondering what we were going to do next. Some people just wanted to stay and relax. Others wanted to go tubing. Finally we decided to go for a canoe ride and go to a zoo. So once again everyone loaded up into their cars and we drove to another hotel right on the Napo River. Down on the shore of the river there was a beach and many canoes with motors on the back. While we waited for the men to negotiate a price, Karalina and I noticed that there were monkeys on this beach. They climbed and played on the beach and then tried to steal food from the people picnicking and swimming on the beach. One monkey even stole a soccer ball from some kids. I started trying to help them get the soccer ball back and ended up being chased by the frigin thing. These monkeys were very aggressive that’s for sure. So after being chased by monkeys everyone loaded up into the canoe and set off down the river. On either side of the Napo which was the size of the Suwannee River there was rainforest. Karaline and I just sat in the back of the canoe talking and watching the scenery pass us by. Finally we arrived at the zoo which was small but a lot of fun. After my host mom telling me like always to be careful I picked up a six foot python. I also played with a baby crocodile and some turtles. I saw lots of exotic birds and other fun creatures. What made this zoo fun was the fact that I could play and mess around with the animals. Then we got back on the canoe and went home very tired. The next day sadly we had to leave. We all got up very early and left in the rain. I did nothing but sleep on the way home. It was a great experience, an experience I will never forget.

Going back to school was hard, but then it got easier. Everyone was getting ready for sports day. Boys were going to play soccer, and run track, while the girls from each grade made a dance. There was also going to be a sports queen and king just like homecoming queen or prom queen. Karalina was chosen to be on the court. So that was very exciting. In the meantime I started working on the choreography. The rest of the girls wanted me to write it but they couldn’t come up with the music, which wasted a week, so finally I chose and I started writing and teaching. I chose Move Ya Body by Nina Sky, Bombastic by Las Ketchup (song from here), and a now favorite song of the school thanks to my ipod Baby got Back by sir mix a lot. Later they added a Samba song. Besides the dance to the Samba song, I choreographed all of it. I taught all of it. It was hard choreography too. At first, a lot of the girls didn’t seem interested and it was hard teaching it, but after they started learning, they started to like it. Then they started practicing it a lot. It was a wonderful thing. Sitting in front of them, yelling, “Give me more, I want more, perform more!!” took me right back to that auditorium where my guard practiced. It’s a wonderful thing teaching. I don’t ever want to teach for money, that takes the fun out of it. I want to be an engineer, but I think that I always want to teach on the side. It is such a rewarding thing.

Well, Saturday we had the sports day. Karalina did not win sports queen but I think she really didn’t want it. Another girl from my grade won and everyone was very happy when she did. Everyone practiced the dance many time before performing and it looked so awesome. However, we got out there in front of everyone and a few of the girls blew up. No one knows better than me how performing in front of a crowd can make you mess up. Even though it was not a good performance we still got second place which we are all proud of. The boys’ soccer team won against the other school, and we all danced and had a good time. I have a bit of a tan from the day, and many wonderful memories. I’m very happy I got to teach this dance because now I am much closer to all the other girls in my grade, not just Karalina. After the festivities were over I went out with the girls for some pool and shawamans (like a chicken wrap… very good). Ever since this whole dance thing started, I’ve been hanging out with these girls non-stop, and they are a lot of fun. I’m glad I’m not like Heather. All she does is hang out with the other exchange students, which is fun. I like to do it too, but you have to hang out with other people. You have to learn from the people here and learn their culture, not just hang out with other gringos and miss the American culture. She is actually counting down the days until she goes home. It makes me sad to think about going home. This place has become home to me. Oh a little side note a guy actually introduced me to one of his friends as a gringa. He asked me if I minded, and I said yes. I like gringita better.

Well that’s all I can think to write about. Oh and a little side note. I’m running for the geek award for the most journals…. Vote for me. Love you all and I’m working hard on those Christmas presents I promise.

Chao

December 8 Journal

Well I know there is no way I will be able to top the last journal. It’s kind of hard to top the Amazon but I will definitely try.

Well thanks to the dance I wrote for the girls in my grade, I am now very much a part of the group. Before, they were cool and we hung out, but now, they are good friends that I go almost everywhere with. Of course my best friend here is Karolina, but now I have more than just her. I have a whole group of friends. I am even painting murals on the walls of one of my friends´ homes. I go to her house almost everyday after school and paint. It’s a lot of fun.

I have also come to really really love my school. Yes it’s one of the worst private schools in Quito, but it is a lot of fun. Some days we just randomly leave school. One day all of the seniors left school with a teacher to go to a concert. The concert was for anti-drinking during the Fiestas de Quito. So I missed all day at school and listened to bands. Another day the whole school left and went to the movies to pre-screen a movie that was about the independence of Quito, and then we met the actors in the movie. Even though I’m pretty much fluent at this point, people don’t tell me when these things are happening so I will show up to school and one of my friends will randomly come up to me and ask me if I’m going to the concert of movie or whatever. Every day of school is like a surprise.

Switching topics the Fiestas de Quito was this week. It’s basically a week long party. To start it off I went to a party on the Friday that the fiestas started. I spent the night at a friend’s house and the next morning very early Jenny called me and asked me if I wanted to go to an anti-drinking concert. So off I went. At ten in the morning the concert started and I was there until 8 at night. There were almost 15 bands, and all of them were really good. A couple of the bands are native Quito bands but they are famous all through Latin America. At this point I was sick and a ska band went on. Now it didn’t rain but the ground was very muddy. A huge circulating mosh pit started in the middle of the crowd. In the states we call it skanking. It’s moshing only you rotate. Now these things can be dangerous. Especially since it was muddy and to make it interesting people throw things like water bottles and shoes into the pit. I really wanted to do it but Jenny wouldn’t let me because I was sick. It was a lot of fun seeing that shoe being thrown around. Somebody lost their shoe in the mud so people just started throwing it. I couldn’t really see but I think somebody got hit in the head with it. I hope he’s ok…

Anyways, moving on to Sunday. Sunday I went to a bull fight with my host mom. She did all the advertising at the Plaza de Torros so we got free seats very close to the ground and VIP entry to a Flamenco party after the bull fight. I saw Jenny and Edu there. They sat near to us luckily. The bullfight itself was… very violent. But I kind of liked it. They killed the bulls at the end and in total there were 8 fights. There were two really good fights with good kills. When there was a good kill people would wave a white cloth. The whole celebration is really interesting and intoxicating. When you’re there you forget how violent it is. You’re sitting there screaming and yelling as you watch an animal get stabbed with a sword and die. I think that every exchange student in Ecuador should see a bull fight before leaving, but out of the ones that have seen them I’m one of the only ones that enjoy it. It disturbs me, but I think I’ll get over it.

After the fight we all went to the Flamenco party. Everything was gratis inside, and the band was really really good. However what was even better were the Flamenco dancers. It makes me really want to learn Flamenco. It is such a cool way of dancing, but I’m already too busy to be putting Flamenco on the plate. I’m still learning salsa (which is a lot better).

During the week there wasn’t a lot going on but then this weekend came. The final days of the Fiestas de Quito are the wildest. I really don’t think I slept. There are dancing in the streets, discos, concerts, parties, Chivas (big trucks that you dance on as it rides through the streets), bull fights, and so much more. Also everybody plays this one card game called “cuarenta”. It means 40. It is a lot of fun and it is the card game of Quito so they play it all of the time during the Fiestas de Quito. I carried around a deck of cards with me all weekend long. We would be hanging somewhere and suddenly I found myself pulling out the cards and playing cuarenta. I want to bring it back to the states and teach people back at home cause it’s a lot of fun. My salsa improved a lot this weekend as well. I kept hanging out with this one guy named Lucho. He is really cool and a good friend, and once you dance with someone for so long you understand their style and where they are going to twist you. I’ve learned to follow him and it’s a cool feeling being twirled around the dance floor. I know I am going to miss salsa when I go back. Oh well.

Well that’s all for now. I leave Thursday for my next trip with Rotary. So the next journal should be fun.

Chao

January 3 Journal

I just finished with the holiday season. I remember that Rotary told me this would be the most depressing time of my exchange yet it was one of the most pleasant points I have had in my exchange. One Rotarian recently emailed me wishing me a merry Christmas. He also commented that my journals seemed to be very upbeat and how there must be down times. In all honesty… I have not been sad here once. Ecuador seems to be a constant flow of happiness and contentment. Even through Christmas, I was happy to be with my new family who treats me as one of their own.

Well a lot has happened so I’ll get to it.

In early December, I had another Rotary trip, this time on my home turf in Quito. All the exchange students came together once more from all over the country. One sad point is when I realized my good friend Cory who lived in Rio Bamba had gone home. His mother was very sick and he flew home to be with her. The trip was not the same without him (I have recently found out however that he will be flying back next week). However, the show must go on and we had a great time on the trip. We saw all the hot spots of Quito and took a lot of photo ops. We saw all the old churches and statues during the first night and the next day. Then we were off to Ibarra and Otovalo. We stayed in a very very cool ranch hotel in Ibarra. The hotel was really big and it had a pool, sauna, hot tub, bar, and game room. While staying there they had a wedding that we were allowed to attend later in the night. We weren’t allowed to attend the ceremony but we were allowed to attend the reception. They played a lot of techno and reggae so everyone danced the night away. During the next few days we visited mountain lookouts, and other scenic places. Everyone took pictures and played cards. All of the Quito kids taught everyone how to play “40” (the card game from the Fiestas de Quito). No one else in the country really knows about 40 so we taught and it became the pastime of the trip. We also went to Otovalo. We spent half a day in the market bargaining with all the shop owners. I got all of my Christmas shopping for my family back home done in 3 hours with room left enough to have some pie from one of the restaurants lining the streets. All in all it wasn’t as fun as the Manabi trip but it was great to see everyone back together again. It was relaxing and I got all of my Christmas shopping done.

With the Quito trip over I began to get myself ready for Christmas. It was really stressful trying to get everything ready and sent back home. Probably the most stressful thing I have had to deal with since arriving in Quito. However once I got the huge box in the mail I was very much relieved. When school got out for Christmas break, most of the people I knew were going to the beach for Christmas and New Years. My parents had to work so I couldn’t go to the beach like everyone else. I spent Christmas Eve with Jenny and her family. We had an American style Christmas lunch with turkey, ham, corn, mashed potatoes, and etc. It was wonderful to have American food. I had to go home relatively early however because here everyone opens their presents in the afternoon or evening of Christmas Eve. I got lots of great presents from my parents. Then we went to Gomez’s house to have Christmas dinner. Dinner was wonderful. By the end of Christmas Eve I was dead. I had eaten so much that after dinner I passed out from being stuffed silly. They sure like to feed you during Christmas but I guess that’s the same no matter

Between Christmas and New Years I spent my time with my Jewish friends Daniel and Yonathon. It turns out that the Jewish community here, though small, is quite wealthy. They just built an Applebee’s here and it is owned by three Jewish families. Because I am a friend to Jews, I can go to Applebee’s anytime I want and eat for free. So while I was with Daniel and Yonathon we went to Applebee’s 5 times. The owners now know me by name and for some strange reason they think that I too am Jewish. I was asked every time I went if I would be going to Synagogue on Saturday.

On New Years I went to Jenny’s house. There I learned about all of the fun traditions they have here in Ecuador on New Years. First, everyone dresses up like widows. The reason for this is that it is the death of the year so everyone is a widow. Even the guys dress up in dresses. Then everyone goes into the streets and asks people in cars for money. You could hold a rope up across the road and not allow the cars to pass until they give you money. Some people dance on the cars. It is really fun. That night in an hour and a half I made thirty five dollars and that is just my share. Of course it is all in change. Later in the night close to midnight, you have to write out a list of all the good and bad things from the previous year and the things you expect in the year to come. Then you wait outside with your luggage, grapes, list, and a straw dummy waiting for the clock to toll midnight. At midnight, the clock tolls 12 times and you have to eat twelve grapes in that period of time. Then you light the dummy on fire and throw your list into the fire. Some people light fireworks and you jump over the dummy while it is on fire. Then you take your luggage and you run around the block. I did all of this and by the time I was through I was very tired. I stood there watching the rest of dummy burn away in representation of the old year burning away and I looked out over Quito as fireworks lit up the sky. It was a very pretty scene, and one that I will never forget. Everyone was on the streets, with their dummies and fire works. I have never said this in my journal but it is something I say here with my friends. For being such a large city Quito is quite a small place. This is because everyone knows practically everyone else. While in the mall or concerts it is not abnormal to see at least 4 other people you know. I have friends I go to school with that know my other friends who live on the opposite side of the city. What makes Quito small is not the size but the people. People here are warm and friendly. Standing on that street with the fireworks going on in the sky behind me, I noticed once more how wonderfully friendly the people are here. They are what make the experience wonderful.

Tomorrow I leave on yet another Rotary trip to the Amazon. For this trip they are sending us in five different groups. I will not see all of my friends. It is only a group of 20, but it will be fun none the less. Till next time. I love you all.

Jackie

January 13 Journal

The mood here has changed drastically within the past week or so. I have now reached my half way mark. Five months. Only five months more to go. I leave July 18 to return to a home that seems to not hold the same meaning in my heart. It was not hard leaving Florida. In fact it was quite easy, but now the last days with my first host family are counting down and leaving them seems to break my heart in two. I remember walking into my house yesterday with my friend Karolina after a great day at school to my host mom. I gave her my usual greeting and she turned to me with red eyes and said “Jackie, tienes que cambiar tu familia”. (You have to change your family). I think my heart broke at that point. I have now come to accept it. Being an exchange student means being adaptable, but this is one adaptation I don’t want to make. Now I have the second half of the year with a new family, and the airport I pass everyday to and from school seems to be looming over me. Other exchange students don’t have this in their life but for those who live near to an airport it is a constant reminder that you are going to have to return home. Watching the planes taking off into the sky above beautiful Quito makes me think that in no time at all I will have to be on one of those planes against my own will. This half a year has been one of the greatest of my life full of new and wonderful opportunities, great friends and stories, and the most remarkably loving host family I could have ever gotten. In the last journal I said I have not had any down times but that has now been broken. Life goes on, and you have to leave this fantasy behind you. It happens a lot in a life time, but it has never hit me so hard.

Beyond that sappy paragraph, there are still wonderful things here to be enjoyed and savored while I still have time, and while these wonderful things are happening I must share them. I actually forgot a very fun story in my last journal. During the end of the year here they open a theme park in this vacant lot near to my favorite mall here. It’s called Play Land Park, and it is more dangerous than any theme park or county fair in the entire United States. It has a rollercoaster and a few other normal county fair rides. However, the construction and upkeep of these rides is far from safe. While on one ride that spins you around while going upside down, the ride operator started the ride without first closing the cage around my friend Jenny’s chair. As the ride started to spin Jenny, JuanMa, and I started screaming at the operator to stop the ride. I heard another story about Jenny’s boyfriend. He had an interesting experience on the rollercoaster. During the ride he accidentally pushed up the lap bar. Just for effect, this rollercoaster has a loopdy-loop that Edu went through WITHOUT A LAP BAR.

Now my favorite ride is something that does not exist in the United States. It would not pass the safety standards. The first thing you read under the name of the ride is that they are not responsible for any injuries sustained during the ride. It is a circle that has a bench that circles the edge of the ring. The seats face inwards and there is a hand rail behind the benches next to your head. Now there are no seatbelts or any restraints or any kind. So you basically grab on to the handrail behind your head and hold on for dear life. They start the ride by spinning you which isn’t that intense but then they bounce the entire ride. When you are looking at this ride it doesn’t seem like it is bouncing that much but when you are on the ride your whole body flies off of the seat and then slams back down into it. It will shake you, spin you, and bounce you until you can not take it anymore and then the ride operator does it harder. The first time I rode it nothing really happened to me during the ride except for a bruise on my arm. The ride came to a stop and these ramps dropped down so people could exit the ride but the gate to the ramp was still closed. Everyone started getting up to exit the ride and when everyone was standing the ramps suddenly went up so the ride could start up again while everyone was standing. I realized what the operator was doing so I yelled for everyone to sit and I grabbed Jenny and sat down in the closest seat. She ended up sitting on my lap while we both grabbed onto the rail. The ride started bouncing for about 6 seconds but soon stopped as everyone in the center of the ride fell all over each other. Thank the lord no one was seriously injured. The second time I rode the ride it was a different story. Jenny and I were sitting on opposite sides of JuanMa. To my right were some people I didn’t know. During part of the ride we were bounced so much that all of the people near me were scrunched together. Jenny ended up losing her grip and flew toward the center of the ride. She grabbed frantically for JuanMa but only was able to grab his leg. Because of the extra force on his body he lost grip with one of his hands and flew on top of me. At this point I had JuanMa in my lap and another girl next to me hitting me with her leg. I simply turned around in my seat towards the outside of the ride and grabbed the hand rail with both arms and assumed the fetal position. I only survived because of this. However because I was no longer in the leg room of the girl sitting beside me and JuanMa was basically in my seat, he got kicked in the balls by the girl sitting beside me. I admit I left the theme park with many bruises but I would not take it back. Besides roller coasters, it was the greatest ride I have ever ridden.

Now this should be when this journal should really get interesting. For the past week I have been in the Amazon for the second time now. I have come to fall in love with the rain forest. People who have never been there can not possibly understand the magnificence and beauty of this place. For this trip they broke the exchange students into five groups. I was apart of the first group to go. About 12 of us met in the airport. It was then that we met our guide Delphin, who later became known as Magiver. We flew in a plane for about 30 minutes. We arrived in Cooca. We had a break before we got on this canoe with a motor on it. The canoe ride was 4 hours long. When we arrived at the Yachana lodge we all realized we were in the middle of nowhere. We found out later that the closest hospital is 4 hours away. The first thing we met was a little monkey. Well I love animals so that was that and I became the monkey’s mom for 6 days. Now this seems all cute now… but after a monkey pisses on you 3 times it’s not that cute anymore. Our rooms were sort of like jungle dorm rooms. There were three rooms each filled with bunk beds. All three rooms were in the same building and the walls were so thin you could talk to the person in the next room. There were public bathrooms and showers. They didn’t have ceilings so you could always talk to the person in the shower stall next to you. There was also this cool huge common area with a couple hammocks. This area became the place to chill and relax. To give you some background into the Yachana lodge, it was started by an American as a non-for profit organization. It exists to support the local people. Any money the lodge the money makes goes into helping the people who live near there. They have built a small clinic and school for them. They also buy the “chocolate” the people grow there. The process the chocolate and then sell it to bring more money back into the community of the people. The Yachana lodge helps to educate anybody staying at the lodge as well. For three days we actually went into the forests and helped the people build a greenhouse and transplant banana plants. It was hard work but much more enjoyable when it was raining. I got blisters on my hands from digging holes with a post hole digger. After we stopped working we started to do the really fun stuff.

At this point in the story I must introduce Ward to you. We all called him Fabio because that is what he looked like. The first time I saw him he was wearing tan colored shorts and no shirt. His long brown hair was held back in a pony tail. My guy friends and I looked on in amusement as he took his hair down and did a hair flip. He is a gringo, but he has been living in Germany for the past five years. He is in marketing but hates his job. About ten years ago he was riding his Harley through the American desert and crashed. It was then that his “adopted family” (Native Americans) took him in. He was really badly injured and the Indians healed him with sticks, rocks, and prayers. So now he is a really spiritual guy and he came to the Amazon to learn about the secrets of the rainforest from Delphin. So that is the background story on Ward. So Saturday morning, we all went to a local market that they only have on Saturdays. There was meat hanging from hooks and little chicks up for sale. They were also selling stuff from the city as well such as clothes, cleaning products, and DVDs. It was really interesting.

When we returned from the market we started on our four hour hike through the rainforest. Ward came along as well. Delphin, who is a native, led us through the trails and dense forest. Delphin knows English, Spanish, and Chichua (the native language). He had to speak to us in Spanish because some of the exchange students didn’t know English, but this was perfectly fine. His accent was really easy to understand, but ward didn’t understand a lick of it. I ended up having to translate a lot of stuff to him. The fun thing about the walk is that Delphin would randomly stop and pull some plant of the rainforest to show us something. One of the funniest things is when he made a basket for us. He grabbed a palm limb and cut it so that he had two stems with six leaves on it. He then weaved the leaves together and took a small stem out of the middle of one of the discarded palm leaves. This small stick is something the rest of us would never be able to find. He stuck it through the leaves at so the weave would not come loose. He then weaved the other side together then the top. It formed a very nice basket but he wasn’t done yet. He then went off of the trail again and came back with a root that he tied to the basket to form a handle. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. That is why we call Delphin Magiver. The exchange students think that he is better than Magiver. During another part of the walk my boot got stuck in the mud and I fell skinning my elbow in the process. I got mud in the scrape so I asked Delphin what I should do about it. Delphin just looked out into the forest and walked over to a tree. He took a leaf with standing water in it. He poured the water over my scrape and washed away the mud. He then looked off into the forest again and went to another tree. He stuck it with his knife and a small line of red liquid came out. The tree was called Sangre de Dragon, or dragon’s blood. He rubbed the red liquid onto his hand until it formed into a paste. He rubbed that on my scrape and a day and a half later it was completely healed. Later in the walk we came upon this vine. Because the path was on a hill you could swing on the vine and try to grab onto a tree. If you grabbed the tree you were about 9 feet in the air. I did it although I did not hit the tree but it was a lot of fun. Delphin and a lot of the Germans did it no problem. Then… Ward stepped up to the vine. Once again he was not wearing a shirt. We asked him to take down his hair while he did it for pictures. He did and I swear he looked just like Tarzan.

We saw some monkeys, parrots, and a bullet ant. Near the end of the hike the trail led up to a look out point over the Napo River. We rested there a bit and that is when Ward gave the first of his famous speeches. “Be one of the earth not one upon the earth. Follow your heart. If you want to be a guide for the grand canyon instead of advertisement designer do it. If there was a solar burst, we would lose all of our computers. We would all be broke and we would end up killing each other but Delphin would just go about his life as usual. All the things that we do to make our lives simpler actually make our lives more difficult…” This guy was intense to say the least.

On our last day we went to the Shaman. The Shaman did a cleansing ceremony, which Ward took very very seriously. After the cleansing we got to play with blow darts and spears. I didn’t hit the target on the first shot with the blow dart but I got very good very quickly. The spear on the other hand was very difficult. No one was able to get it but Delphin was deadly with it. At a small shop Alaska (his real name is Tyler but he is from Alaska so we call him that) bought a blow dart. One thing you have to realize about Alaska is that he hates bugs and animals. He freaks out at the first sign of them. So with his blow dart he went to work. He ended up killing a small lizard. He was very proud of his kill and showed it off to everyone. He was the great white hunter of the group. The day we came back was also fun. All of the coast kids couldn’t grab a bus until around 10 at night and we arrived back at noon. So everyone stashed their stuff at my place and I showed them around Quito for the afternoon. It was exhausting but fun at the same time.

Because of this trip Thomas a coast kid introduced me to a new and wonderful kind of music. I have become addicted to electronic music, all of it. Trance, House, House Progressive, Drum and Bass, all of it. It is the freshest and most diverse kind of music I have ever heard.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS RANDOM COMPLAINING ABOUT ROTARY IN ECUADOR

I have come to really appreciate my club back in Florida. District 6970 is set up wonderfully to give the outbounds and inbounds the best exchanges possible. That said… Rotary here sucks. I am never in contact with my club. I have to call my counselor if I want anything. I have to remind him to give my money. I never know when meetings are because they tell me nothing. My counselor doesn’t know anything. I didn’t know I was supposed to give the money for the Amazon paseo. I found out about it from another exchange student and at that point it was already a week past the due date. They told me I had to change three days before I was supposed to change. The entire year, even after many questions, I didn’t know if I had to change or not. They totally mishandled the Amazon paseo too. All the coast kids had to ride a bus to Quito. They were all supposed to take buses to Portoviejo first to all meet up and get on the same bus together. Because there was no Rotarian there to meet them they ended up taking different buses to Quito and then once they got to Quito there was no Rotarian to meet them there either. This is a big dangerous city that they are dropping kids off into randomly. They all had to figure out on their own to get to the airport. Then they had to buy their own tickets when they returned to Quito after the paseo. They mishandle our allowance. Every kid in Ecuador is entitled to 70 dollars. We all signed a form saying so. The first month we all got the $70 but then they tried to decrease the amount. That didn’t work for me because my host mom had read the first document I signed and told them they had to give me my full allowance. However, most of the other kids just let the allowance drop down to $50.

I apologize about my rant, but it needed to be said. I really don’t live with Rotary in my life here. I haven’t gotten angry with Rotary in the past. The straw that broke the camel’s back is the having to change in a matter of three days. All of the other stuff is small. My life here is wonderful, and when it comes down to it, the problems with Rotary are small and pass in time as all things do. That is the end of my journal for now. I’m sure ill have another for you soon. Until then I love you all.

Jackie

February 9 Journal

Well it’s me again. It’s been an eventful past couple of weeks, so I will get to it.

The first thing that comes to mind was the concert I went to with, guess who, Jenny and Edu. It was a coliseum concert for Victor Franco, a popular Latin American singer. I had to pay 12 dollars for general seats that were all the way in the nose bleed section. It was still a lot of fun. The music was a lot of fun but the people in the audience are even more fun. There was this girl beside me who was more or less drunk and she kept telling me about how Victor Franco is the best singer in Latin America and how she loves him. I think she fell down as we left the stadium. Needless to say the concert was a lot of fun. I always enjoy jumping around and singing along with songs I have never heard before in my life. However, it makes me wish I could have been alive during the true concert era. It would have been great if could have gone to a true jam band like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, or Jethro Tull. That was a time when you were still allowed to light up a bic during slow songs. Unlike anybody going to a concert in the United States I was able along with the rest of the crowd to light up a lighter during some wonderful slow songs. It was so beautiful seeing all the sparkling lights across the stadium. I had a good view since I was all the way at the top.

I went to the concert on a Friday and the very next day I had to change host families. It was a sad day. As I unpacked in my new house, for the very first time in Ecuador, I cried. My new host house is nice. For the first time I have a sister. However we don’t talk that much. She is 24 and has a very hectic life of her own. I have a dog again thank the lord. I really missed having a pet to come home to and this dog, Becky, is much cleaner than my outside dogs back home. My host dad seems to be never home, and my host mom is home only a little bit more than he is. They both own clothes factories. So they are definitely swimming in money. There is this great balcony on the top of the house that I like to go to a lot. You can see a lot of Northern Quito from there, including the airport. I now get to watch the airplanes land and take off on a regular basis, but at night the city lights up and it is just so beautiful. One of the things I enjoy most about the house is the fact that for the first time in my life, I have a playstation. And yes I use it a lot. I’m ketching up on all those years I spent without video games. I guess I am trying to ketch up to the video game skills of the rest of the world. In true video game style, I am a much more nervous person, but my reaction time is much higher.

In school I got a two week vacation for Carnival, which I will talk about later in the journal. Because we had all this time some of the exchange students including me tried to set up a trip to Baños. It was so last minute that it fell apart. We couldn’t get all the permission we needed to get but some kids came up from the coast and we showed them around the city for a couple of days. Also, Cory, an exchange student from Connecticut, came back from the states. He went home a couple of months ago because his mother got sick. Her condition didn’t change so his father thought it best that he come back because you only get this chance once. A week ago he came back and we got to hang out before he went to Riobamba. Cory is one of my favorite exchange students so it was really cool to hang out with him again. We did all the touristy stuff and for a long time my house felt like Gringolandia. Then everyone went home and I was left with my new host family.

Last weekend was the start of Carnival and I got to go to Baños anyways. I went to Ambato, which is close to Baños, with my host family and Jenny (from Canada) their old host daughter. Saturday Jenny and I took a day trip to Baños. Baños is soooo beautiful. There are waterfalls everywhere and hot springs on the tops of the mountains. Jenny and I started by eating lunch in some obscure restaurant and then we went on the search for the famous Baños bungee jumping. That’s right, I bungee jumped. Don’t worry I’m still alive. The ropes held my body weight. It was fantastic. For years I’ve wanted to do it, and to finally have it off of my “Things to do before you die” list is wonderful. I jumped off of a bridge with a mountain river underneath me. I didn’t even hesitate. I climbed over the railing and the man behind me said, “Listo?… ok uno, dos, tres!!!”, and then I jumped. The falling part is so intense. I’m so glad that I did it. After that Jenny and I went back to the center of town where they were having a parade. During the parade they will throw out home-made toffee (a specialty of Baños) and fruits. Then my host parents picked us up and we went back to Ambato. The next day they had another parade in Ambato. It was a lot of fun and I danced Salsa with my new host mother. She is a really good dancer and very fun women. Later that day after lunch we went home.

Monday and Tuesday were the true days of Carnival. Now Carnival in Ecuador isn’t like Carnival in Brazil. Instead of a big party there is a big water fight. Everyone is always throwing water balloons at each other or buckets of water for that matter. The boys on my street tried to get me several times but they failed. I wanted to “play Carnival” but I wasn’t able to. However, I did get wet once. I was standing outside of CCE, one of the malls here, with Daniel, trying to get a taxi. That is when this car came out of nowhere and a kid in the back seat threw a water balloon at me. It hit me right in my crotch, so it looked like I had wet myself. I had to walk around for the rest of the day with this big wet spot on my pants. It was horrible. Daniel could not stop laughing at me to save his life.

Well that is pretty much caught up to date. The only other thing is that I threw my neck out. It’s kinda painful. Mami I miss you. Anyways Chao for now. Love you all.

Jackie

April 16 Journal

I know I have not written in a very long time. It’s because not much has happened. I go to school, do what little homework I have, and chill with my friends. However, I felt that I should write about what’s going on in the country right now.

As you may know Ecuador has been in the news lately for political unrest. I would like to assure you that I am completely safe and I am far away from anything that is going on.

Years ago, corrupt officials got elected into office. For more than a decade presidents stole millions of dollars from the people of Ecuador. Not only did they skim off the taxes they also stole money from individual bank accounts. Finally, there was a little uprising and the president got kicked out of the country. However, he escaped the country with all the money. That was about seven years ago.

They had the election for the new president this year and they had a choice between the brother of the president who was kicked out of the country or the current president. So of course they elected the current president by a landslide.

That was about five months ago. Now, slowly over the course of the last five months things have been going a little south. Each branch of the government has been taken over by corruption. The cops were also corrupt. When driving around you always should have forty dollars in the car in case a cop pulls you over. Otherwise, you would get a ticket. The first thing that happened was that the president appointed corrupt judges who were making decisions that the people of Ecuador didn’t like very much. That is when people started protesting, but only a little. They called on their Congress to do something about it but everyday a vote came up, the speaker of the house would make up an excuse and postpone it.

Now everybody is basically pissed. For the past two months there have been protests in the colonial district near the house of the president. I won’t lie. I wish I could have been there to see it, not take part, but see it at least. I saw a lot of pictures on the news though. Everyday that there is a huge protest I get off of school so it was kinda cool.

However things have just come to a head within the last two weeks. Last Friday a strike was planned. School was cancelled again, this time for four days. Wednesday is when they had the strike and every government agency went on strike. There were neither buses nor taxis. The taxis set up blockades shutting down some of the most important streets. This day my friend Jenny, who’s in a band, had a band practice getting ready for an audition and she invited me to the practice. I went with her in her mother’s car and along the way I saw tanks, that’s right I said tanks, rolling down the streets of Quito. There were cops everywhere and we went by a protest where the cops were throwing gas grenades into the crowd of people.

Last night there was a huge protest in the Parque Carolina. The people lined the streets banging pots and pans which signified the hunger in Ecuador. In all parts of the city cars were honking their horns. It was impossible to sleep because the whole city was alive with the sound of car horns. Today was the “march of toilet paper”. Toilet paper has coated the city of Quito. Cars, buildings and trees are covered in toilet paper and there are people everywhere screaming “Fuera Lucio!” which means leave Lucio, the president. This morning Lucio got on the television saying how he wants to become a dictator.

Monday everybody is going to turn off their lights at 8 o clock for fifteen minutes. So, for the first time in a long time the whole city of Quito is going to be dark. We might even be able to see the stars.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The government seems to be very much in control even though everybody is protesting it. Nothing seriously violent has happened because of it, but I don’t know where it’s going to go. It might die out or it might get worse. I hope if it gets worse it’s after I leave the country because I would hate for this to shorten my exchange.

I leave for Galapagos in five days so I will write about that after I get back. It should be an amazing trip. I can not wait. Until then I want to assure you that I am still safe and very much happy. I love you all.

Jackie

April 26 Journal

I have just one word for this entry. Galapagos. I spent four days in paradise and this is the point where you are all allowed to be very jealous.

Thursday, eight of the exchange kids from Quito met early in the morning at the Airport. From there we flew for thirty minutes to Guayaquil where we had a small layover. Then we all got back on the plane to fly for two hours to Galapagos. Daniel, one of my better friends here, was lucky enough to fly in the cockpit while we landed in Galapagos. The pilot was the father of one of his friends who had an exchange to Arizona last year. I kinda hate him for that.

My first impression of Galapagos was not what I expected. The airport has its own island and this particular island seemed like a desert. There wasn’t a lot of greenery and there were a lot of cacti. Not to mention it was very very hot. As soon as we stepped off of the plane all of the exchange kids were caking on the sun screen.

We then got on a bus which took us to the coast. We saw our first exotic animals there. Blue Footed Boobies. They look normal until you look at the feet which are sky blue. There are all sorts of shirts available for purchasing such as “I like Boobies!” if you are interested in that sort of thing.

We then got on a ferry which took us to the most populated island. We checked into our hotel in the main port of Galapagos and then went to eat lunch. While we were eating lunch we noticed on the TV that while we were in the air the EX-President Lucio lost support of the military and left Ecuador. We now have a new president who happens to be a Rotarian, and a good man according to the Youth Exchange Chairman.

After lunch we went for a walk with our guide through part of the national park to the beach. The national park area was really strange. Galapagos is almost like another planet sometimes. The most interesting part of the walk was the strange cacti. The cacti in Galapagos have a trunk. Supposedly, it evolved that way to protect itself from the giant turtles. Soon the vegetation opened up onto one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my life. The water was so blue and the sand so white. The waves were humongous. On some black rocks in the middle of the beach were lots of land iguanas and beautiful red and blue crabs. I am a little ashamed to say that I thought about how good they must taste. We swam for the rest of the afternoon in the beautiful blue water and watched the sun set on the beach.

That night we were free to go to the local clubs. I played a lot of pool that night. None of us went to bed early that night. The next morning we went and saw the giant turtles. The turtles are very big but not very active. It must be rather hard trying to carry around all that weight in such extreme heat. We also saw George, the last of his species. He is a giant turtle from one of the more northern islands and his species for some natural reason died out.

After the turtles we went to the boat that we would spend the next three days on. We got our rooms unpacked our things, then ate lunch. It was a small boat compared to the rest of the yachts around us but it was good enough for us. There were five rooms below deck which were so small. The bathrooms were a joke. On the main deck there was a dining room, kitchen and a sunning area in front of the boat. This is where most of the people slept. There was also a second floor which was mainly a chill out area.

After lunch we went through a cave to a huge canyon. It wasn’t as big as the Grand Canyon but it was big nonetheless. It was a hard walk but the view made it worth it.

That night around 11 the ship set off for the next island. We all fell asleep outside under the stars on the hard floor of the sunning area. It was way too hot in the rooms and it was very noisy because of the engine. We drove all night long and I woke up to see my first Galapagos sunrise. It was really beautiful but the pain in my back kinda took away from the whole experience.

After eating breakfast we all got onto the dingy for a wet landing on the island. The beach had red sand. Something to do with the oxidation process. That’s when we saw our first sea lions. You are not allowed to touch the animals but you can get as close as you want. While posing for pictures one of the sea lions nuzzled me with its nose. We then went on a walk through the island and we saw pink flamingos and wonderful views. Of course the bugs nearly carried us away.

After returning from the walk we went snorkeling which I have to say I love. I am actually really good and I can dive really low. I swam with all sorts of fish and saw interesting coral and then… I swam with my first sea lion.

We went back to the boat and we had lunch as the boat headed out to our next destination. We dropped anchor in between two islands. This is when we asked the crew if we could jump off of the roof of the boat into the water. The crew said fine so without hesitation I was the first to jump. Soon many of the exchange students were jumping.

Later in the afternoon we went snorkeling again. We saw a sea turtle, a shark, lots of fish, penguins, and of course sea lions. I love swimming with the sea lions. They are very playful creatures and you can swim all around them and under them and they will play with you.

Then we all went to shore with a coral beach. The beach was nothing but small white dead coral. I wanted to take one so badly, but it’s not allowed. Instead I busied my mind with taking pictures of all of the sea lions on shore. The babies were soooooo cute. You just want to pick them up and hug them… which is not allowed. We also walked to a cove where we saw these huge waves. Wave after wave would crash into the rock cliff. It looked like a lot of fun. Of course if you jumped into that water, death was certain.

After returning to the boat we set off again for the next island. We dropped anchor before dinner and once again we slept outside under the stars. The next morning we climbed the highest volcano in Galapagos. The island was relatively young and there was no vegetation. It looked a lot like the lunar pictures. Makes you wonder.

Then we went snorkeling again for the last time. I swam with sea lions again and we saw a blow fish which our guide caught. The blow fish inflated and bobbed on top of the water for about a minute. After snorkeling the boat set off again for another island. That afternoon after we dropped anchor we went for a dingy ride. There was an inlet of fresh water that you could drive up into to. Mango trees grew in the water creating a labyrinth of small rivers. We saw small sharks, huge manta rays, and fresh water turtles.

The boat set sail again (we did a lot of traveling) and this time set down anchor before sunset near the island where the airport is. There we were able to talk all ten of the exchange students to jump off of the boat together at the same time. When we jumped we rocked the boat scaring the crew. We swam while the sun set. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life. We all fell asleep late that night playing card games.

That morning we had our last hike. We saw lots of boobies, sea lions, and those birds who have basically big red balloons on their necks. We saw the mating ritual of the boobies. The females call to the males with this airy whistle. The male then gives gifts of sticks and then dances for the female. Basically, dancing means turning around in a circle lifting their feet very high. It was all very interesting.

Sadly we had to leave so we went back to the airport and flew home. I am now VERY tan, and enjoying the dry cold air of Quito. I don’t know how I am going to survive when I go back to Florida. The humidity and heat kills me. I enjoy the cold, and it is great for my complexion.

Well I have three more days of school then I leave for my last trip with Rotary. I will be on a bus for eight days. Should be interesting. Till next time, I love you all and I am having a great time.

PS. Politics have returned to normal so don’t worry I’m safe.

May 28 Journal

Things have been just so hectic that it’s been hard getting in a journal. I have found that the end of your exchange is the craziest part of it. At the end you realize that everyone is starting to go home and soon your exchange year will end too. 22 days. Everything is a mad rush to get done or fit into your schedule, and trying to get it ALL done can be stressful. However, at the end of it you realize that you had this amazing year and working for something so hard is always worth it.

Leaving off after Galapagos (that seems so long ago), I had a few days more or less to write my previous journal and wash all my clothes. Only a few days after Galapagos, I left again to go on the last Rotary trip. I spent eight days on a bus with 80 other exchange students. The last trip was my favorite. When your district is as large as a country the times when you can hang out with ALL of the exchange students are wonderful. You spend a year getting to know these wonderful people just to say goodbye to them on the last trip. Every moment becomes precious with these amazing people.

For eight days we traveled Ecuador. We first went to Baños, my favorite city in Ecuador. Baños is my favorite because it’s this wonderful city nestled in between lush green mountains. It’s a little cold because of the altitude but at the same time it’s so tropical and lush. The scenery is amazing… and green is such a wonderful color. The rest of the Sierra of Ecuador is yellow so it’s really cool to stay in a place that’s green.

After Baños we went to Rio Bamba for a night. Rio Bamba is the oldest city in Ecuador and has a big tourist attraction. From Rio Bamba you can take a train that leads you through the mountains with vertical cliff drop offs and sketchy train tracks. What makes the train ride truly wonderful however is the fact that you can sit on top of the train. It’s really cold but the view is better from the top. The one negative is that the top isn’t very comfortable and the train ride is 3 hours long, but it was a lot of fun chilling and talking to everyone.

After Rio Bamba we went to Cuenca for 2 days. Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and it’s really cool. I think it’s the best looking city in Ecuador. The architecture is amazing and it’s really clean… something you don’t really find in Quito. I kinda got into trouble in Cuenca. My two friends and I got separated from the group while doing a walking tour of the downtown area. We went to get some water and then the group was gone. We spent the next two hours trying to hunt down the group. We finally got in contact with someone in the group and we were right about to get in a taxi to meet up with the group when our friend called my cell and said the buses were leaving Cuenca. So we were stranded in Cuenca. Julio (president) wasn’t too happy with us, but he realized it was an accident and let it go. One of my two friends who went AWOL with me was in his club so he knew her well. Thank the lord I got lost with her. Julio at first thought we did it on purpose and I could have gotten sent home for it, but Julio is a cool man.

After Cuenca we visited some ancient ruins and then went to Guayaquil. The first thing I thought when we entered Guayaquil is, “OMG its Florida!” The architecture and climate is just like Southern Florida. It kinda freaked me out since I’m so close to going home and I really don’t want to. That night we had a party at a Rotarian’s house. It was really cool. It was Karolina’s birthday and she got a cake from Julio. I of course had to stick her face in her cake and she of course had to push me in the pool later… tradition you know. The next morning was the last time that we would all be together. There was lots of crying. I didn’t really say goodbye to too many people. There were people who I would never see again. However with the people I am truly close with, there is no such thing as goodbye. The few goodbyes I did say were strange. So many of these exchange students are truly wonderful people. Everyone of them is special, unique, and they made an impact on my life and knowing people like that makes me feel blessed. A lot of people cried. I haven’t gotten to my crying stage yet. I know the waterworks will come but not yet. After the crying fest the Quito kids got on a bus and left for the 9 hour ride home.

Since the last trip I have been going to school. I painted a mural against smoking tobacco. It was a fun day-project with my friend Karolina. The school really liked it and the principal was for once impressed with Karolina and I. My last day of school was Thursday. I said all of my goodbyes to my school mates at a birthday party Thursday night. My school wasn’t necessarily the best school. The teachers may not be the best and the kids may not be the smartest, but there is something wonderful about my school mates as well. For me, they represented Ecuador to me. My classmates are so much fun. They took me in from the very, even when I couldn’t speak Spanish. They were some of the most fun people I have ever met in my life and I will miss them so much. They filled this part of my life that I don’t think anybody will be able to fill again.

For the past two weeks, two of my friends and I have been planning a party. It was a party for the exchange students in Ecuador. Last night we had the party and it was fantastic. There was so much stress involved in doing something like this. This was an all out party. We cooked dinner for 40 people. Then we had an award show for all of the exchange students with awards like, “best eyes”,” most likely to change the world” or “most likely to go to jail”. Everyone got an award. I have spent the past week sending out ballots to the exchange kids so they could vote on it and buying all the awards myself. I spent $120 on it. Everyone brought $5 so I got $80 of that back. The rest of the money went into the food and renting the space. After the award show we had a DJ and people spent the rest of the night hanging out and dancing. It was the last time all of the Quito kids would be together. Once again last night I said goodbyes that would be forever. Of course I told everyone if they wanted to come and visit for spring break I would be happy to chill with them again. However, some things like that will probably never happen. This time the goodbyes were a little more personal. The crying at the end of the night was the reason I wanted to plan this party with my friends. Everyone had fun and it was a great last time. I really wanted a last time and for everyone to have fun. It worked out really well.

I have realized that goodbyes are strange things. I am about half done with my goodbyes now and it’s just a strange thought that you will never see these people again. You meet so many people on exchanges and everyone of them will mean something to you at the end. You realize that even though you’ve only known them for what seems to be such a short time, they mean something to you. These are people who matter and make a difference in your life. They know what you’ve been through because they have been right there beside you going through it at the same time. It creates this bond, a bond that doesn’t break with goodbye. This is what it is to be an exchange student, and every other exchange student becomes your family.

That leaves the rest of my exchange. I should be leaving today to go to Ibarra. I am going to stay with an exchange student there for a few days. On Thursday I will say goodbye to 5 more people. Friday is my birthday, and Sunday my parents are coming. After they leave I only have four days left in this country. 22 days. It’s something that’s hard to write about because I still have not accepted the fact that I’m going home. When that day comes it might be the hardest day of my life, but if my exchange has taught me one thing it’s that, things will not always be easy. Sometimes things can get really tough, but if you’re just stubborn and push through the pain, life will always reward you. I have to admit, I have gone through some rough times here, but it was all worth it. After an exchange year, you become a stronger person. At the start of an exchange you’re a wad of cookie dough. At the end of your exchange you are carved out of stone. Going back, you are sure that you could handle anything now. It has been the best year of my life and I am so grateful for it. Thank you

Jackie

Samantha Mandel
2004-05 Outbound to Taiwan

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Eastside High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Tali Kuo Kuang Rotary Club, District 3460, Taichung, Taiwan

Samantha - Taiwan

Septemeber 28 Journal

I think it has been about a month since I arrived in Taiwan, give or take a few days and I am finally starting to feel really at home here. Apart from catching some kind of stomach virus a few days in, I have been adjusting very nicely and having an amazing time. In my host family here I have two host parents who I call Mama and Baba (they would be highly offended if I called them anything else), a host sister who is currently an exchange student in Colorado, and two little brothers, Zhi Jia and Zhi Wei, aged 10 and 13. Never having had brothers before, this has been quite an experience! Their hobbies include watching TV, playing on the computer, and wrestling almost into my lap. They’re both rather adorable, and their behavior towards me is certainly different from what I would expect of little brothers in the US. Taiwanese people are sticklers for protocol and respect; hence, my brothers call me Jie-Jie (big sister) and do everything I tell them too (most of the time. I am still working on them not to make my towels soaking wet every time they shower. As their towels are always wet, they don’t understand why I want mine to be dry.) Just this morning, Zhi Jia handed his English homework to me with a grunt to be checked, and got a round chastising for not saying “Please Jie-Jie, would you be so kind as to check my homework for me?” I have found that living with two brothers does tend to make life infinitely more exciting, and as Mama and Baba treat me as if I were in truth their daughter, I feel very much at home. In fact, I’ve never had anyone worry about me as much as Mama does. She and Baba went out together one morning, and when she returned I asked her if she had fun. “Of course not!” she said. I asked her if she didn’t like visiting her friends, and she explained that she did, but as Zhi Wei, Zhi Jia, and I were at home, she couldn’t have fun because she was so worried about us.

I have found the accepting and welcoming attitude of my parents to be shared by most of the people here. I had four host families before I came, but so many people like me here that I now have five and counting! I also have numerous offers to stay a few days to a week at people’s houses, just to see what it’s like. I have also found a similar welcome at my school.

My school is called Ming Tai and has six buildings all seven stories tall. It was founded in 1945, but before that was the site of formal gardens, and before that the residence of my vice principal’s family going all the way back to the Qing dynasty! Parts of the formal gardens still remain, and many students go there on break time to study.  My school also houses its own museum, with some documents that are over 150 years old! As befits a school with such an exceptional history, it is not a normal high school but a variety of vocational programs. I am taking classes across vocations and across grades, which leaves me with a schedule that includes everything from Chinese cooking to Web Design to Teaching Media (for people who aspire to be kindergarten teachers to learn to make their own materials) to Music. However, no matter what class I’m taking, I am the center of attention. When Al said that we would not have a sign on our foreheads that proclaimed us exchange students and that we would have to seek out opportunities, for me at least, he was wrong. Every break time the entire class clusters around my desk to ask me questions, stroke my hair, and introduce themselves to me. As I have had seven schedule changes, the introducing part is still necessary in some of my classes. I have twice been stopped by teachers walking between classes and asked if I could spare five minutes to come and give a speech to their classes because their classes are so curious about me. While giving an impromptu speech in Chinese in front of a classful of students can be intimidating, it’s well worth it to hear some of the questions afterward. The first question all the girls have is “In America, do you have a boyfriend?” and the first question all the boys ask is “Do you think I’m handsome?” One boy even asked me for my cell phone number (which I still don’t know). Other questions include “Do you live on an orange farm in Florida?” and “Can you see dolphins from your house in Florida?” They all want to tell me their English names, which tend to be rather outrageous. Some of the most amusing were Yoyo, Porjay, Biky, and Zildjian. Most of the students and teachers are also eager to demonstrate their command of English. Unfortunately, as in the case of my Teaching Media teacher who translated something she’d written on the blackboard as an “adhibition of quadrates”, I usually find their Chinese a lot easier to understand than their English. My Chinese has been progressing very rapidly, and while I am still far from fluent, I am now able to communicate what I want to say fairly well. I am also learning to read and write Chinese characters. While the reading comes fairly naturally to me, remembering how to write Chinese characters is quite a task! However, the people here applaud any effort I make, which, while embarrassing, can also be encouraging!

I have also gone on several trips while I’ve been here. I took a trip with my host family to a town called San Yi to look at some of the most beautiful wood carvings I’ve ever seen, and I also visited my host grandparents who live on a rice farm. That was certainly an experience! I’ve also gone shopping with two classmates, Shuwen and Wanzhen, and another exchange student, Ada, who doesn’t go to my school. Going shopping probably made me realize more than anything else that I am in a foreign country. Shopping turned out to be a series of roadside, open air shops that can only be reached by walking between fast moving cars and equally fast moving motorized scooters. My Taiwanese friends absolutely could not understand why on earth Ada and I would prefer to cross one of the busiest streets in Taizhong at a crosswalk when the light had turned red. When we explained that walking across the middle of a street with cars moving 80 miles an hour or more would be suicide, they told us unconcernedly that we could just walk between the cars! After that they took us to a fourteen story department store that really seemed more like an amusement park, complete with indoor playgrounds and whole floors of games. Despite all this, the first thing my friends insisted that Ada and I see was the bathroom. I know that sounds really odd, but it was truly incredible. Decorated as if it were underwater, it was complete with disco lights, 3-D fish wallpaper, and mini children sized toilets.

Besides all that, I have also attended three Rotary meetings so far, and gone to five barbecues in the last week to celebrate the Moon Festival, which was on Saturday. This is a national holiday in Taiwan, which is celebrated by praying (in the temple which is a wing of our house), eating moon cakes, and, of course, barbecue! Needless to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself this month and look forward to more wonderful experiences here.

November 4 Journal

Now that I have been in Taiwan for about two months, I feel like I have more or less settled into my life here. At school, I can now go to the bathroom over break time without the entire hallway surrounding me, but there is no question that I am still the #1 school wide celebrity! When you think about it this is really understandable, since, no matter how long I’ve been here, I am still immediately recognizable in any crowd because of my Caucasian features. I find that, now that I’m not surrounded everywhere I go, I rather like the attention because it opens the way for me to have lots of friends here. My classmates are all incredibly friendly, and from what I heard, I think the whole school would like to go on an exchange if Rotary would let them. I think Taiwanese students are in general more open minded than Americans, and they are definitely less ethnocentric. More and more as I’ve been away from America, I’ve seen that Americans believe themselves to be the supreme model not only of a smoothly functioning democracy, but also of culture. When told of other countries’ customs that differ from their own, Americans tend to be derogatory. Because I grew up American, I am used to this and expected Taiwanese people to be the same way about Taiwan. However, Taiwanese people seem to be incredibly open to the concept that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” More than once, when I have told my host family of a differing custom in America, they have said “That’s really interesting, maybe we should do things that way in Taiwan.” This open-mindedness is probably one of the reasons why I get along so well with most people in Taiwan. If I have any problems at all at school, my teachers strive to accommodate me, and my classmates try to accommodate me in any way they can.

Despite everyone’s helpfulness, I felt a little bored at first in school because I didn’t really understand what was going on. However, now that my Chinese has gotten a little better, I have tried to involve myself in activities around the school. I act as assistant coach for my classmates who are training for an English contest, and I have started accepting some of the numerous invitations from friends to visit their classes for one or two periods. Invariably, this means that the teacher asks me to give a little speech to the class, and then he/she will try to hold a normal class for a little while the students all ask me questions and pass me notes, and then he/she will give up and declare what I call “Interview Samantha” time. Answering questions from lots of people that may not necessarily make a whole lot of sense is something I have become very good at it. Every time I have an available moment, students gather around me to ask me questions, and since my school has upwards of three thousand students, it seems like I am talking to a different group every time. Besides getting used to answering questions, I have also gotten used to comments about my appearance. For instance, one girl said to me “Your nose is so big.” All of the girls around her murmured agreement, and I, rather offended, was about to make some caustic remark back when she said “I wish my nose was that big.” I stood dumbfounded for a moment, and then, not sure I’d heard aright, said “You think big noses are pretty?” They all said “Of course, why, don’t you?” I have also received comments that express surprise that I don’t have the beginnings of a moustache on my upper lip, as all my female classmates do, that I look like Barbie (??), and that my face looks just like an apple. This last had me laughing for quite a while before my host mother explained that it was an expression. She said it’s because when I’m embarrassed, hot, or in the sun, my cheeks get red and, as I had already noticed, Taiwanese people simply do not get red in the face. Apparently they also think this is very attractive. All I can say is that everyone wants what they don’t have.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, as the only Caucasian in my school and neighborhood, I am constantly on show. If I do anything at school, be it so small as picking up a pencil, someone is bound to ask me why. Also, along with the feeling of being on show, I have had the completely new experience of finding myself to be the most liberally dressed person in a crowd. In America, I usually feel that I am one of the more conservatively dressed people, if not the most conservatively dressed, at school. Here, we wear a school uniform, but I go out shopping and swimming with my classmates on the weekend. I don’t own a bikini; I only wear one-piece bathing suits, but I still felt half-naked when I went swimming with my friends. The collar of my bathing suit was high in the front, but it dipped about halfway down my back. I would never have thought twice about this in America, but my classmates stared at me and asked if everyone in America was so “daring” in their dressing. I also felt uncomfortable the first time I went shopping with friends. I could only imagine what would have happened if I were a “normal” American and wore a bikini to swim. Warned by my experience with the bathing suit, I wore my most conservative clothes, but since we would be walking outside a lot I brought my sunglasses. In the entire press of people window shopping in the street, I was the only one wearing sunglasses. The girls I was shopping with (who will be my host sisters when I go to my second host family) oohed and aahed over them, and their little half sister and brother, who we brought along, wouldn’t move until they were allowed to try them on. I was rather amused when the little brother pronounced that he liked them and wanted to wear them. I had to gently explain to him that my sunglasses were definitely meant for a female and he might look a little silly wearing them. However, I did end up letting the little sister, Chian-Chian, wear them for most of our walk. In general, I’ve been having a lot of fun here, and between Rotary meetings, traveling with my host family, going out with friends, and school (7:30 AM to 4:30 PM) I have been incredibly busy! I sincerely believe that my year here is going to be one of the highlights of my life.

November 11 Journal

Ni hao! I know it has been only about a week since I wrote my last journal but I have since gone on a three day Tea Tour around Taiwan with Rotary and I want to write all about it before I forget. It was not only incredibly fun, the whole thing was one long laugh after another.

It started early (too early!) Friday morning when my host parents took me and another exchange student, Ada, to a rest stop where we would meet the other exchangees. Because Taiwan is so incredibly small, all the inbounds in Taiwan go on trips together and we all fit onto one bus with seats to spare. On the bus, everyone spoke English, even though everyone was not necessarily from an English speaking country.

I thought it was amusing when I met some German exchange students who couldn’t speak Chinese at all, but spoke perfect English! I also thought it was funny when some exchange students told me that before they came to Taiwan, their English was very poor, but it has gotten much better over here from constant practice. I was surprised to learn that most students, whether native English speakers or not, spoke English with their host families. I guess they’re still learning a foreign language abroad. Although I spoke English to most of the exchange students, I spoke Chinese with one student whose English wasn’t quite conversational (but whose Chinese was excellent!), I spoke half French and half English with the French and Quebecois girls, half Spanish and half English with a Mexican exchange student, and even compared some phrases in Swedish with a Danish student. I think by the end of our trip, I deserved to win a prize for Most Confused!

Our first stop was at Shui Li Civic Office, where they told us the “County Mail” would be so kind as to address us. It took about fifteen minutes of puzzling about the meaning of “Mail” before some bright student finally said “Oh! They mean countymayor!” When we got there they seated us in an auditorium and introduced the mayor, other important men, and the reporters. I found the fact that there would be reporters taping us a little surprising, but they kept mostly to the background. Then they asked one student to translate for the mayor, because he had studied Chinese for a year at the university in America and probably spoke better than any of us. However, the mayor spoke a mixture of Chinese and Taiwanese, and so of course all of us, translator included, had no idea what he was saying. Our tour guide therefore translated into our “translator’s” ear and he would repeat what she said into the microphone. When asked why she didn’t just translate herself, our tour guide replied that she was too shy. After that, they took us to visit a hydroelectric power plant and we watched a movie in English about the workings of the plant (which of course nobody watched. We all told the mayor that it was very interesting, though.).

Our next stop was at Shui Li Snake Kiln Pit, where we handmade pottery. After that we went to Tonpo where we bathed in the hot springs. We were a little shocked to find out that there were separate springs for boys and girls. Our guides told us “But of course! It would not be appropriate for boys and girls to bathe together!” However, the two springs were on either side of a rock wall with loose rocks piled all up the sides. Lots of the girls climbed up and talked over the walls to the boys on the other side. However, the boys just relaxed in the spring. After all, since all the girls were coming to them, why should they bother to get up? So, when two girls decided the spring was too hot and showered and changed early, we told them to give us their bathing suits. We all got down from the rocks, and then we threw their bathing suits into the boys’ spring. Seconds later we had six male heads peeking over the wall, looking all around to see whose bathing suits they were.

After some more activities, we were taken home by our assigned host families. They had found a host family in Shan-An for every two exchange students. I was assigned with Ada, and our host family gave me my first ride ever on a motorized scooter when they took me to their house (no helmet, no jacket, nothing). I found it rather exhilarating, but it was dark when they took me. The next morning when I saw the steepness of the hill that we had zoomed down and the sharpness of the corners that we had taken without slowing down, I felt my knees go a little weak.

My host family is probably what I will most remember about my trip. Ada’s mother is from Hong Kong, so she doesn’t look any different from the rest of the people in Taiwan. However, when I came in the house, my new host brother and sister started shouting, “waiguoren”, which means “white person”, or literally “foreigner”. They followed Ada and me upstairs and whispered behind their hands “Look, she’s picking up a brush. Wait, what’s she doing now? Do you think all waiguoren do that? Hold on, she’s walking across the room. Better be quiet.” Ada and I give each other a long look, because of course we could hear clearly every word they were saying. Finally, I asked them what their names were and they both jumped and said “She talks!” I felt like I was in a circus and the ringmaster had just announced the talking monkeys. When they told me their names with exaggerated slowness, I told them mine and they jumped again and said, “How can she understand what we’re saying?” That launched a long discussion of how it was possible that waiguoren could speak Chinese until finally Ada ventured a quiet “We can hear what you’re saying, you know, and we understand too.” That launched a flurry of worried whispers and finally the little girl asked “Do you understand Taiwanese?” I looked her straight in the eye and said “Oh yes, of course we do.” More whispers, and then “But if you understand both Taiwanese and Chinese, how can we talk without your understanding?” Ada and I both gave elaborate shrugs and turned our faces away to hide our smiles. When they didn’t go away after fifteen minutes, I asked them, “We’re kind of like a show, huh?” When they both nodded seriously, I shut the door. Only when we still heard them discussing our every move did Ada and I realize that we had closed the door but left the window open. When we closed the window and still heard them discussing our every move, we decided to open the door while standing behind it, so that they would look into an empty room (a childish trick, I know). However, as it turns out, they had been watching us through the crack where the door meets the wall, so of course they knew exactly where we were. Then I started down the hallway to go to the bathroom and their eyes followed me with this puzzled look on their faces. I announced, “The show is now going to the bathroom.” They both gave little “Oh’s” of understanding and turned back to watch Ada.

Things went on this way for a long time and then we were finally ready to go to bed when our host siblings announced that our host mother was taking us to see our “exchange student friends”. So, Ada and I changed out of our nightgowns. As it turns out, we were going to see a couple of exchange students who couldn’t speak Chinese and needed a translator. After about fifteen minutes of translating, Ada and I were ready to go home, but our host family had disappeared! So we played blind man’s bluff with the little household children and I overturned a carton of soy sauce on my new blue pants until our host family arrived (at one o’clock in the morning!) to take us home. When we returned home our little brother told us that if we heard scratching on the wall we were not to worry because our bedroom was next to the cat’s bedroom. Ada and I just looked at each other. However, apart from the fact that I found a toy gun, a plastic bag, and a dirty sock under my pillow, and apart from the fact that the cat meowed all night long (I swear it was inhumanly loud), I slept like a rock.

The next morning, Ada and I met our host grandmother. As soon as I saw how old she was, I had a sinking feeling that she couldn’t understand any Chinese. I was right; she only spoke Taiwanese. After a few futile attempts to communicate with us, she left the room. Literally about a few seconds later, she reentered by the door that led out to street. Ada and I look rather confusedly at each other, and once again she tried to talk to us, even though she must have ascertained last time that we didn’t know much Taiwanese beyond “hello” (liho). Then when she came in again, I realized with a start that we had actually been talking to two different grandmothers! I leaned over to Ada and whispered, “I thought they were the same person.” “So did I”, she whispered. “I was wondering how she went around the back of the house that fast.”

After that little faux pas, the rest of the day went fairly well. We visited Chun-Tai Zen Temple, which is the largest Zen Buddhist temple in Asia, we handmade paper and fans at Kang-Shin Paper Mill, and then had an impromptu talent show by the exchange students. One boy did taichi, and when I asked what that was I was told “That’s what old people do in the morning.” (??) Next up was lunch, or, as the schedule they gave us said “Sample the local cuisine.” Unfortunately, the “local cuisine” turned out to be McDonalds. That night, our host family took us to visit some hot springs with some other inbounds and a former exchange student in Argentina who was traveling the world (and with us just for the weekend). The hot springs were a lot of fun, but we got in at one in the morning again.

The next morning, Ada and I were so dead on our feet from two nights of four hours sleep that we could barely roll out of bed. However, our little host sister was apparently unaffected by the lack of sleep, and was bouncing off the walls! She was bored, and with no one else up, she focused her attentions on hapless Ada and me. She chatted to us in very rapid Chinese, and decided to teach us not one, but two new card games. We tried to explain to her that we couldn’t speak Chinese, much less learn new card games at this hour of the morning, but she would not be dissuaded. So, we took the cards she gave us, put random cards down, took them back when she said they weren’t right, and congratulated her when she gleefully announced, “I win! You two don’t play very well.” Then our host mother came downstairs and said that she had a treat in mind for us. She told us that she’d let us walk to the meeting place today so that we could enjoy the beautiful scenery. I almost swooned at the mere thought of walking up that steep hill carrying all my luggage. She went out of the room before Ada and I could tell her that that would be a nightmare walk at any time, but we were absolutely fried this morning. Luckily, we (or I ) were so slow getting ready that she told us regretfully that we would have to go in the car or we’d never make it on time. Ada and I put on our most regretful faces and told her that it was all right.

The rest of the day went by pretty fast. We visited Shan-An tea factory and learned how to make tea cakes (they tasted horrible!) and then were allowed to visit Chi-Chi village for exactly ten minutes because we’d taken so long at the tea factory. After that we all went home content, but thoroughly exhausted. I realize that this was an incredibly long journal and if you actually read through to the end, I would like to tell you that I’m very impressed.

Zaijian! (goodbye)

Zhang Wenting (that’s my Chinese name)

December 22 Journal

Li ho! I have been in Taiwan for a little over three months now and have moved to my second host family. I was a little bit worried at first about switching families because I liked my first family so much, but I love my second family! My family includes Mama, Baba, twin sisters aged 17 named Hsiao Chu and Hsiao Jia, a little sister named Chian-Chian (age 7), and a little brother named Shang-Un (age 5). This is a rather unique experience for me, never having lived with small children before, but I have become very close with Chian-Chian. I call her Meimei, which means little sister and I call Shang-Un Didi, which means “little brother”. The two of them have accepted an extra older sister rather naturally. Since the family actually has seven children, three of whom no longer live at home, I suppose they’re used to a large family. In Taiwan, families tend to live together, and so we also live with Amma, my “host grandmother”, and my “host uncle”, “host aunt”, and “host cousins” live upstairs. The cousins are referred to by the family as the “upstairs children”, something that never fails to amuse me. Taiwanese children tend to be very sweet and well-behaved, so for the most part the children are very pleasant. Yesterday when I walked home from the bus stop Meimei, Didi, and the upstairs children were all playing ball in the driveway. The second they caught sight of me they dropped all the balls and raced over to give me a big group hug, shouting “Jie-Jie! Ting-Ting Jie-Jie!” It’s surprising how little things like that can make you feel really accepted and comfortable in your host country. It makes me feel special every time my little host siblings make a show of affection for me because I know that these people are really as much my family as my family in America, and that however long I am away, I will always have friends and family in Taiwan. Actually, I have so many host families that I sometimes have problems with the traditional Taiwanese forms of address to other people. For instance, I have five host mothers and I call them all Mama. This means that when my first and fourth Mamas came to pick me up together once, I had an interesting problem. I wanted to ask fourth Mama something, but when I said “Mama?” both of them turned to look at me. I finally ended up pointing at the Mama that I wanted. Also, tradition has it that when you thank people you address them by name. I wanted to thank them for picking me up, so I said “Xie xie, mamamen.” which literally means, “Thank you, Mamas”. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese have a strict grammar rule that says you only use the plural “men” where people are concerned. This limits the list of things that you can make plural to teachers, classmates, sisters, and brothers. I think I am the first person ever to use the word “Mamas” in Taiwan!

Aside from all that, I have also seen and done some really interesting things since I went on the Tea Tour. A week before I changed families my first host family took me to a famous tourist town called Lukang. There, they sell every kind of traditional Taiwanese food, tea, and artwork that you can think of. All of the goods are handmade by expert craftsmen who you can watch at their work (I liked the sandalmaker). I got pictures taken by a professional photographer of me in traditional Chinese clothing and traditional Chinese poses. Of course, by the time he was done, I had a small audience of passers-by who had come to watch, and had to wait a few more minutes before taking off the clothes because my audience was not done taking pictures of me! I was also asked several times while I was walking on the street if I could spare just a few minutes to stop and take pictures with people. I really was somewhat of a novelty, especially since I speak Chinese. People would address questions about me (of which there were many) to my host mother, and would jump when I answered them. My statement that my host mom was my mother invariably caused confusion, which was funny since in Taiwan it’s not polite to directly ask strangers personal questions. I had a hard time not laughing watching people beating around the bush trying to find out how a woman who was obviously Taiwanese had a waiguoren daughter. Finally, I will explain that I am an exchange student, and then I will explain what an exchange student is, and then what Rotary is and why I wanted to come to Taiwan, and then whoever I’m talking to will finally nod in understanding and beam and say “Welcome to Taiwan!”

Almost as interesting as visiting Lukang was being on the Taichung local news. I had already written articles both for my school and Rotary newspapers about my life as an exchange student, and suddenly one day my Chinese teacher tells me “You should do something with your hair tomorrow. Reporters are coming to film you for our local news station.” The reporters wanted to film me in class with my classmates, but unfortunately the period they came I was having my one on one lesson with my Chinese teacher. They asked me if there was a class I usually had classes with, and I told them there was. The only problem was, that class was having English class with the only waiguoren teacher in the school, a Dutchman whom the students call “Ronald Laoshi”, or literally “Ronald Teacher”. The reporters decided that this was not what they had in mind, so they asked which textbooks I had with me. I had my math textbook from earlier in the day, my Chinese textbook, and my history textbook. So they ended up seeking out my history teacher, who was teaching a class full of students I had never seen before. They plopped me in an empty desk and said “This is good. We’ll film her here.” The teacher announced to the class “Well, class, this is our new student, Ting-Ting.” I stood up and bowed, a little embarrassed, and everyone clapped. Then the teacher resumed his teaching and I tried to look normal with three cameramen moving around my desk and adjusting their cameras to get a better shot. Then one of them told me to chat with my deskmate. This was a little awkward since I’d never seen her before. Later, I explained to the class that I found it a little awkward to talk to them since we didn’t know each other. “That’s not true”, they told me. “You may not know who we are, but we all know who you are.” Never has a truer thing been said. While I know only those students whom I have class with (which is a considerable amount), every one of the three thousand students in my school knows exactly who I am.

A few days after I had my television debut, I changed host families. After I’d been with my second host family for about a week, they took me to see the fongyuan. All I could say was that I picked the right year to come to Taiwan. While my first time shopping at the yeshi, or night market, was pretty incredible, the fongyuan exceeded all my expectations. It is a religious celebration that occurs once every twenty years in Taiwan. They have a period where they cannot eat fish or meat, and then they celebrate their renewed ability to eat these foods by three days of fongyuan. There were exhibits of manikins in traditional Chinese costumes mounted on spectacular pyramids and interspersed with dead pigs that were held in traditional poses. All the manikins and their clothing were built entirely of food, such as fish, meat, candy, etc. The pigs, all of them real, had been mounted so well that it looked almost as if they must be fake. In another exhibit, manikins dressed in traditional costumes of Japan, Korea, and China performed traditional dances and kung fu on an even larger pyramid. People loosed lanterns into the air with prayers written inside. The lanterns work almost like hot air balloons except that nobody pilots them. They float up into the night sky until they are just pinpricks of light, carrying the people’s prayers to distant places.

After we had finished sightseeing, I got to go on my second motorized scooter ride ever! Mama drives very fast, and I don’t think she knows what the word “straight” means. Riding with her was like riding on a roller coaster, and all in all, I was very satisfied.

That weekend, I attended the interviews for prospective outbound students. Although we did not make the interviewees dance the hokey pokey, we still had a lot of fun. For instance, we asked every student why they would like to go to whatever country it is they want to go to. Most of the students answered in a monotonous, pre-rehearsed voice, “I want to study a foreign culture and learn a foreign language.” One student, however, told us that he wanted to go to his chosen country because “The atmosphere is very clean over there.” I thought that was a rather odd reason to want to be an exchange student, but I gave him points anyway for the one and only original answer!

The interviews were really a lot different from what I remember about the American interviews. For one thing, they were a lot shorter, and the atmosphere was a lot more serious. For another, many students actually brought musical instruments or examples of their artwork to the interviews to show the Rotarians their particular “special talent”. I found the not necessarily harmonious music blaring from the next table a little distracting, but I also found it vastly amusing. It was nice to see some of the inbound and Rotex students again, and I look forward to getting to know most of our future outbounds better in the future.

Finally, last weekend I went to Taipei for the first time since arriving at the airport there to attend an inbound student Christmas party and a Rotary Youth Exchange Program Inbound Student Mandarin Speech Contest (what a mouthful!). I am pleased and proud to say that I took second place at the speech contest. I felt like this was really an accomplishment because I placed above two students who had been in Taiwan for almost a full year, and one who had studied Mandarin for a full year at university in America. Also, I’d like to point out that, at fourteen, I was the youngest student at the contest, and the third place winner, at fifteen, was the next youngest student. Who says younger children don’t make good exchange students? As a prize, I got a really neat trophy (it has a disco light on the top!) and a coin that, as far as I understand it, was issued by the president of Taiwan this year. Apparently there are less than one hundred issues of this coin, which bears special symbols. I liken it to our fifty states quarters, except that these coins are rarer.

I had barely gotten back to my seat after receiving my trophy when my second host mother told me happily that she’d told my first and fourth host families, Rotary, and both teachers who had helped me with my speech at school. I was a little upset because all of those people had worked very hard to help me have the best speech possible, and I felt that I wanted to tell them of my achievement myself. However, I now realize that, as my Rotary club’s only exchange student, how I perform in a Rotary sponsored speech contest is a matter of some importance to the entire club, and protocol demands that they be immediately notified if I place. How I perform reflects directly on my Rotary club, and so my taking second place is something for the whole club to be proud of. This is just another example of the major cultural differences between Taiwan and the US, for while I think an American Rotary club would be proud of their student, I don’t think the student’s performance would be a matter of face to them. All I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t know this before I did my speech because it would have made me incredibly nervous, and I’m pleased not to let all the people who have given me such a wonderful exchange down. Rotary, my host families, and my family in America have all worked very hard to give me an incredible experience, and I’d like to say a big thank you to all those who have made my exchange possible.

March 15 Journal

I know it has been a very long time since I have written, but this is perhaps because I have been so busy here absorbing my host culture. Christmas and the New Year have passed since I last wrote, but both of these holidays pale here before the significance of Chinese New Year. This was very unusual for me since I am used to Christmas being a major holiday and Chinese New Year a remote memory of visiting San Francisco’s Chinatown when I was a little girl. However, here it is just the opposite. Kids would wish me a “Marry Christmas” (no, I did not make a spelling error, that’s how they spell it here) whenever their class had a Christmas party. Most of them don’t realize that Christmas actually has a specific date and is not a holiday season that lasts for close to a month like Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year, or guonian is on February 8th and 9th, but people will start their phone conversations withXinniankuaile! (Happy New Year) for at least a month after the fact.

Taiwanese people have a lot of misconceptions about Christmas that emanate from comparisons between Christmas and Chinese New Year. For instance, Taiwanese people will count themselves as being one year old when they’re born, and then they become a year older every Chinese New Year after they’ve finished eating a special food called tangyuan. I have never seen little children eat anything so fast in my entire life! A week before Chinese New Year my host father said to me “So, let me get this straight. You’re sixteen in America and fifteen in Taiwan, right?” I said “I don’t know what kind of wacky arithmetic you did, but I’m fourteen in America and fifteen in Taiwan.” We went back and forth for a long time and I finally figured out that he thought we are also one year old when we’re born and then we become a year older on Christmas. When I told him he was mistaken, he said “So when do you become a year older? I thought Christmas was your biggest holiday. Do you become a year older on Halloween?” He was very surprised to learn that we actually use our birthdays. “But then everyone becomes older at different times!!” he said. All I could say was “Well, that’s the idea.”

Another misconception Taiwanese people have about Christmas is that it is an American cultural holiday in the way that Chinese New Year is a Chinese/Taiwanese cultural holiday. When I tell them that since I come from a mixed background my family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, they say “Hanukkah? What’s that?” They are all very surprised to hear that Christmas is a Christian holidays and that there are many “real” Americans that don’t celebrate Christmas. They’re equally surprised to learn that a large part of Americans are not Christian. There are only a few Christian Taiwanese people. Most are Buddhists and at the same time worship a variety of gods, depending on whether they are ancestrally Chinese or if they areyuanzhuming, one of the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan.

However lacking in festivities the Taiwanese may have been over the Christmas season, they certainly made up for it over Chinese New Year. They have especially tasty little tradition called homebao. These are little red envelopes that people who work and make money give to those who don’t work. These are usually given by family members, and since I am an exchange student with five host families, I have a lot of family members. I actually calculated the total amount of money I made in red envelopes and it came to about $280 in American currency. I also made $25 in gambling. This is not what you think! It is a Chinese New Year tradition for families to gamble among themselves with cards or dice. We played dice: the family against my host father. Since Baba kept rolling incredibly low numbers, everyone except him made the equivalent of at least $10 American dollars. He kept borrowing from Mama in the hopes that he’d win his money back. (He never did.)

Another guonian tradition is something called dasao, which I liken to our spring-cleaning. When I asked my sister Hsiao-Chu what dasao meant she said “It means you clean everything.” When she said everything she meant everything, from the car to the dog to the window screens to the ceiling (have you ever seen anyone mop the ceiling before?). We even shined the leather on all the leather furniture in the house (which made the furniture so greasy that we had to sit on the floor for a day). We had ample time to do all of this since we had a month off from school for Chinese New Year. All of Taiwan closes down for about ten days during Chinese New Year, which means that I traveled around more of Taiwan in a week long period than I have for my entire stay here.

First, I went with Rotary to Nantou, and later to Taipei. There, we visited the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. They have the fastest elevator in the world. It goes 80mph, which was fast enough to make my ears pop. They only let people go up to the 89th floor, but that was high enough to look down on the clouds (an experience that one more usually associates with an airplane). Later, when were eating lunch, a Rotary shushu selected four students, all from different countries, to eat with the chairman of Taipei 101 and to be the speakers later on when we met the mayor of Taipei. I know my Rotary back home will be pleased to know that out of the seventeen American exchange students in Taiwan, I was chosen to represent America. I gave the mayor my name card and a Florida Gator pin and he gave me an autographed name card. All Taiwanese presidents have first been mayors of Taipei and everyone tells me that the current mayor will probably be president someday. So, I think I can safely say that I have the autograph of the future president of Taiwan.

I also went to Lukang over the holidays with Rotary. I’d been there once before with my host parents. First, we had a barbecue…but in the old fashioned Taiwanese way. We actually dug up clods of dirt and built little dirt huts with holes in the bottom into which we inserted wooden boards. When the wood was heated, we used it to barbecue the food. I also learned to bargain in Lukang. Just to make this clear, bargaining is not a part of Taiwanese culture. It is a special privilege given to cute, light-haired exchange students. Every time my friends told me something was priced really expensively I would look at the vendor and say “Oh, but your stuff is so pretty and I really want to buy some to show to my friends back in America but only have (and here I name what I deem to be a reasonable price). My friends couldn’t believe that I was actually bargaining with the vendors (something Taiwanese girls would be far too shy even to attempt). Whenever my friends wanted to buy things they asked me to go up and tell the vendor that I was the one buying and to help them lower the price.

Besides learning to barbecue and bargain, I also got lost. It happened like this: a Rotary shushu gave my host sister Peiying and me a ride to the appointed meeting place. When we got there, we got out of the car, and he drove off with our bags and purses and cell phones and money all still in the car. He wasn’t stealing our things; I just think he was a little distracted. Anyhow, there was nothing we could really do so we just started following our group. After a little while, Peiying asked me where everyone was. I pointed in front of us to the people we’d been following, who, as it turns out, were total strangers. What had happened was that our group had turned onto another street and we had kept going straight. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that at the time. Peiying instantly started to panic, but I remembered someone saying the hotel was just ahead. So I insisted that we go all the way down to the end of the block and then told Peiying to just look at the signs and see which one was our hotel. Of course, none of them was our hotel. Then we walked back up the street because I knew there were people behind us, but there was no one there. Then I realized that I had put our group leader’s cell phone number on the flip side of my nametag. The only problem was, theshushu had driven off with both of our cell phones. So, when a vendor came up to us crying her wares, I asked her if she had a phone. She didn’t, but she was able to give us directions to our hotel (which was two steps away.) We were lost for a total of two minutes, but it was still a very valuable insight into Taiwanese culture for me. Peiying on her own would have been far too shy to ask anyone for directions and kept telling me how brave I was. I have to admit, I did feel a little silly telling her to follow me when I was the foreigner and she the native.

While getting lost was fun in its own unique way, the highlight of my experience in Lukang was watching one of the Chinese New Year parades. The people in the parade were throwing handfuls of candy into the crowd, but every time they saw me they would walk right up to me and give me a generous handful of candy. I thought that was sweet, but I don’t really eat candy. Better than the candy by far was the dragon. I actually ran out into the middle of the parade to get a quick picture with it. I thought the parade people might be upset, but once they saw what I was doing they backed the entire parade up (this parade is miles long, remember), just so that I could get a picture under the dragon’s head. They stopped the entire parade so that I could take as many shots as I wanted. Afterwards, a lot of the parade people came running back because they wanted to take a picture with thewaiguoren.

Shortly after coming back from Lukang, I moved to my third host family. They are just across the street from my first host family, and were not originally supposed to host me. My present host mother liked me so much that she asked special permission to be one of my host families. She talked to my second host mother, asking if I could move to her house within the week. After she got off the phone, my second host mother took me outside to talk to me. I was sure I was in trouble, and was waiting nervously for what she had to say. Then she says, “Ting-Ting, I don’t know if you’re a little princess or what, but everybody wants to host you. You do realize that this means you’ll have five host families?” I don’t mind having a lot of families. I think it’s fun to see how different families operate, and to have lots of host siblings. In my present host family I have three older sisters, Wanling, Shiying, and Peiying (the girl I got lost with). Wanling told me that I could use her English name, which is Barbie. Needless to say, I politely declined. I don’t think I would have been able to call her Barbie with a straight face. Now you know why I usually don’t mention my siblings’ English names in my web journals.

Nothing else really important has happened, but I want to talk about some of the cultural differences between America and Taiwan. These are not differences that I have just discovered in the last two months, but differences that I have been gradually becoming aware of and only now gotten around to writing about. Some of the differences I think of as bad things, and some I think of as changes for the better. For instance, the school buses here would definitely fall under the latter category. They have separate seats for every person (well-padded seats, mind you), foot-rests, curtains for the windows, personalized air conditioning, nets to put things in, and hooks on the seat in front of you to hang bags on. We Americans could really take some lessons from them. However advanced their school buses may be though, they are behind in a lot of other things. Taiwan is by no means a third world country, but they are not as technologically advanced as America. Their washer machines have only one cycle and don’t really get thing clean. Basically all clothes that aren’t T-shirts and jeans have to be hand-washed. My host parents tell me that even then, if you really want to get things clean you should first hand-wash them and then put them in the washer machine. Very few families have dryers, and those that do only use them in the dead of winter because electricity is so expensive. If you forget to wash your uniform in time for school, you can always use a blow dryer. Most families have irons, but again, never use them because of the cost of electricity. No one has dishwashers, and people rarely use soap when washing the dishes. They believe that using soap is bad for their help. Likewise, many people don’t consider using soap a necessary part of washing their hands. Washing one’s hands means to put one’s hands under running water for approximately half a second, and then not even bothering to dry them. The school bathrooms have no toilet paper, soap, or paper towels. Students are expected to bring their own tissues to use toilet paper and, as I said, soap and paper towels are not considered a necessary part of washing one’s hands. Another American tradition that I miss is napkins. At least in my mind, napkins aren’t just a vital part of American polite society, but they also have a practical use, especially when using chopsticks. By the way, have you ever seen anyone eat soup with chopsticks before? What about ice cream?

The final cultural difference I would like to mention is the Chinese preoccupation with catching cold. They believe that getting a cold is due to literally being cold. This means that a typical Taiwanese person will wear three layers when it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit out. If I dress in a shorts and a T-shirt, (which in America would be considered weather appropriate) they tell me to hurry up and put a sweater on or I will catch a cold. I continually tell them that I’m fine and I won’t get a cold. They grudgingly acquiesce. If I utter so much as one sneeze, whatever the reason, they are completely vindicated. Once I’ve sneezed, they’ll brook no arguments. They hustle me inside and make me put a few more layers on and drink hot tea. The desirable temperature for your hands is so hot that you’re actually sweating. If my hands are cool, they’ll make me put another layer on, saying that my hands are “cold”, and if my hands are actually cold, they use the word “icy”. Also, they think that if you’ve just been exercising and you’re sweating, standing under a fan or drinking cool beverages are terribly dangerous to your health. After I practice Japanese dancing in the hot attic room of my second host family and go to drink cool water, the Rotary ayis will all crowd around with concern and ask if it mightn’t be better if I drank hot tea. While this is annoying at times, I also find it amusing. If I am caught in a short-sleeved shirt in a temperature less than ninety degrees, I am almost guaranteed to have every single person I talk to start the conversation with, “Aren’t you cold? Won’t you catch a cold?” I understand that it is people’s concern for me that leads them to ask these questions, so I don’t mind. It is all part of the experience!

Sincerely,

Zhang Ting-Ting

P.S. I made the local newspaper. You’d think the whole town knows who I am by now!

June 13 Journal

So much has happened since I last wrote. Time really does fly when you’re on exchange. It seems unbelievable to me that it’s almost time for me to go home. Anyhow, starting from where I left off last time, at the end of March I attended a Rotary event called the nianhui. This is an annual two-day Rotary festival where all the Rotarians in Taiwan get together, along with some Rotarians from nearby Asian countries, and basically share culture and activities with each other. Every Rotary club puts on a show, all the Rotarians dress to the nines, and everyone sets up booths to promote their Rotary club’s programs, etc. I actually ended up performing twice. The first time was with all the ladies in my Rotary club, doing traditional Japanese dancing and wearing kimonos and the like. I really stood out, because not only was I the only dancer under forty, but of course I’m Caucasian. Our dancing teacher had me lead the dance or would position me smack in the middle of the stage whenever she could so that people would be sure to notice me (as if I wasn’t going to be the center of attention no matter where I stood). Because the auditorium was so big, there were overheads on either side of the stage to give close-ups on the dancers. My friends told me later that the cameramen focused on me for most of the time.

On the second day all of the District 3460 exchange students were scheduled to sing a song in Taiwanese. While we were waiting for the show before us to finish, I went backstage to find some tissues. I was wearing my qipao (Chinese traditional dress) and before I could get any near the tissues performers surrounded me and started clamoring for me to take pictures with them. I could do nothing but acquiesce. Fifteen minutes later, one of the stage crew comes running backstage to find me, telling me that I’ve got to hurry and get my microphone on because it’s almost our turn! We actually had those microphones that you slip over your head, just like pop stars wear. All I can say is, being a foreigner in Taiwan is good practice for anyone who wants to be a celebrity when they grow up.

In April, I went on the six day Culture Tour with Rotary. Because my district, 3460, hasn’t yet fully broken away from the mother district in Taipei, 3480, I actually belong to both districts and so can participate in all of their trips and activities. This means that I actually got to go on two culture tours, once with District 3480 and once with District 3460. On the 3480 trip, there were also three university Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship students with us, which was interesting (especially for them, since when they were invited on the trip they didn’t know that there were going to be upwards of eighty high school students along).

Anyhow, we drove around the whole country, looking at temples and mountain scenery. We also watched the aborigines perform their traditional songs and dances, ate Hakka food, and spent a day at the beach. As to the accommodations, one of the nights we stayed at a five star hotel, complete with its own beach, indoor swimming pool, and water park, and another night we stayed at a hotel where the air conditioning was broken, there were no towels or soap in the bathroom, the room was infested with mosquitoes, the shower water had one temperature: freezing, and the coverlets on the bed were thick enough to be used in winter. The general opinion among the exchange students was that maybe one was supposed to balance out the other. 

Just a few days after we got back from the 3480 Culture tour, I went on the 3460 Culture Tour. This was similar to the 3480 one, but more fun, since there were less people in general and most of them were people I knew. Both trips included all the outbounds for that year, and although I was unfamiliar with most of the Taipei (3480) outbounds, many of the Taichung (3460) outbounds were my host siblings. This is because of a rule in Taichung that says if your child becomes an exchange student, you have to host a student for a year. The Taichung Rotarians are a very close-knit group, and they believe that with anyone they don’t know (i.e. any non-Rotarian family), they can’t guarantee exchange students’ safety. Therefore, 100% of the 3460 outbounds are the children of Rotarians, and every one of my five host families was a Rotary family. I didn’t realize this at first and when my friends questioned me about the exchange program I told them that anyone could apply, and I gave them our Rotary chairman’s email, who wrote back saying that they would have to go through Taipei since Taichung only took Rotarians’ children. That was a little embarrassing for me, since I had been encouraging a lot of my friends to apply. Also, I felt like it took something out of the experience, not only because all of my families lived in the same area, were friends with the same people, and lived very similar lifestyles, but because a lot of times on Thanksgiving or Christmas or on someone’s birthday, I would go to show my host family something of the way Americans celebrate these things and they would say “Oh we know, our last exchange student showed us that.” All of my families had hosted at least one American student before, in some cases two, and most of the gifts I brought or cultural experiences I shared they had already seen or heard of before. That made me feel less special, almost like I wasn’t achieving the purpose of my exchange, which is to exchange cultures. I still get the benefits, I still learn about Taiwanese culture, but it’s like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. I think that when exchange students always go to the same few families, the whole experience becomes unremarkable and everyday to them and, especially with students from the same country, they tend to have a deja-vu attitude. This can really affect the experience for the exchange student. Also, I recently discovered that my monthly allowance was not, in fact, paid by my Rotary club but by my first host family, because their daughter is an exchange student in America now. The Rotary rule in Taichung is that if your child goes out for a year, you pay the allowance money for the incoming student. This made me feel a little uncomfortable since, in my view, the whole point of the exchange program is that it is a scholarship program, and students whose families might not otherwise be financially able to send them abroad for a year can still participate. With student’s families having to host and pay allowance money, however, students can only go out if their families are financially well off in the first place.

Despite all this, I did have a good time on the trip, especially since our first activity was to visit an amusement park with some really neat roller coasters. They had one that climbed up to a peak and turned a 90-degree angle and just hung suspended for a few seconds before it dropped straight down. I’d never been on a roller coaster that was actually vertical before I came to Taiwan. Also, I had moved to my fourth host family just before I went on the trip, and my new sister and I wore matching clothes, which everyone thought was really cute. In my new host family, I have three host sisters, Chiawei (16), Chiaying (12), and Chiaming (11). We also have a Vietnamese maid, which is nice, even though she can barely speak Chinese, which makes it kind of hard to communicate.

Another major event that has happened over the past few months is that I finally met the mayor of Taichung. Rotary figured that since we had already met the mayor of Taipei we should at least meet the mayor of our own city. I got his autograph in addition to that of the mayor of Taipei (who, by the way, will be running for president in three years time. My prophetic soul!). Afterwards, I went shopping with the other exchange students, since we don’t get to get together very often. I regretted that the next day though, when I saw how far I fell behind in cheerleading. Recently, I’ve been getting involved with a lot of activities with my school, including our intramural class cheerleading contest, traditional Chinese model dancing with the cosmetology program, and performing for the middle school students who come to see the school. The cheerleading is an annual tradition at Ming Tai High School that has been going on for more than twenty years. Since students don’t change classrooms like we do in America, but instead stay with the same class throughout high school, it is possible to have a lot of contests between classes. The cheerleading contest is one of these. We actually choreograph all our own moves, and rent pompoms and cheerleading outfits, etc. Everybody thought it was really funny that in all the cheerleading pictures taken, you could instantly pick me out just by looking at people’s bellies, because I have a white fish belly while most Asians have darker skin tone. I really do stand out in a crowd, whether you’re looking from the top, in which case I stand out for my hair color, or from the middle, in which case I stand out for my skin color.

Traditional Chinese model dancing was part of the program for the second semester “show” at my school. For the first semester show I watched in awe as the dancers performed, for the second semester I was given the opportunity to be a part of it. All of the dancers in my group wore traditional qipaos, two in red, two in blue, two in purple, and only me in hot pink. I was the center stage dancer, even though I don’t think I danced half as well as they did. At one point, I even got down off the stage and went among the audience, blowing kisses, etc. I did trip on the hem of my skirt a few times (the skirt was too long and my high heeled shoes were too big, so the skirt kept catching in the back of the shoes), I managed not to fall flat on my face. I’d never worn anything with heels bigger than a half-inch before, and it was all I could do when I was going downstairs off the stage not to go head over heels. All the same, it was a lot of fun, especially the false hair (which was at least a foot high and extremely heavy). I wish someone had been there to videotape the seven of us trying to go to sleep over naptime without being able to put our heads down because that would ruin our make-up, not being able to put our heads back because of the false hair, and not being comfortable with our heads straight because of the weight. We finally got to sleep with our heads tilted forward. The funniest thing though, was that since I was the center stage dancer, I had an understudy. One time when I had a schedule conflict between the cheerleading contest and one of our dance performances, my understudy had to go up and dance. The only problems was, my false hair was spray painted gold to match my real hair, and you can imagine how that looked on someone with black hair!

Another of my school activities was performing for the middle school students. Most middle schools will take their students on a trip to visit every high school in town, and since there are twenty something middle schools here, that’s a lot of students. Every high school, of course, wants to recruit the best students, and Ming Tai does this by making a show of everything new or different about the school. Well, you bet that an exchange student classifies as both new and different, so they asked me to sing an English song and make a little speech to the middle schoolers. I agreed to this, but they also asked me to go down among the students when I was done and shake hands and blow kisses with them. “You know, just like big celebrities do.” They told me. Well, that I did not agree to.

Another thing that I’ve been involved with in school is that whenever the principal is entertaining distinguished guests I am invited to come and chat with them for a while, because guests are invariably impressed that the school has an American exchange student and that she speaks such good Chinese. Sometimes, if the guests are foreign, I am even called in to act as interpreter. In one case, a dance troupe from Sri Lanka came to perform at our school and I was called in to interpret for them, as they spoke excellent English but no Chinese. I was seated next to them while they watched the show so that I could explain the various acts to them, otherwise they would have missed a lot of the unique aspects of the performance. One of the most interesting of these events, however, was when the vice provost of a Kansas university called Fort Hayes State University came to our school to promote their long distance degree program with Taiwan. It was interesting because I was at a unique advantage, being able to understand, both linguistically and culturally, both what the vice provost said and what her translator said. The vice provost, Ms. Eliot, gave a normal, easy-going, American presentation, and her translator translated less than half of what she said and turned it into a stiff-backed, very formal, very correct Taiwanese presentation (you know, the kind that puts you to sleep within five minutes). Ms. Eliot’s presentation was actually very lively and energetic and interesting, but you would never know it from her translator. Any jokes, teasing comments, etc. he completely left out of his presentation. Later, when the school officials took Ms. Eliot to see the drinks mixing studio, she completely flustered one poor girl who was in the middle of practice for her bartender’s license test. At first, she couldn’t get the lemon properly affixed on the glass, and when she did Ms. Eliot said “Oh good job! I knew you’d get it!” (in English of course). Then Ms. Eliot actually went over and gave her a hug and started telling her how well she’d done and the poor girl didn’t know what to do because teachers in Taiwan just don’t behave like that. She just stared straight ahead the whole time, with her face getting steadily redder and redder. Then Ms. Eliot went and stood on her tiptoes and settled her chin on the drinks mixing teacher’s shoulder, asking him if she could taste the drink. I thought the teacher’s eyes were going to pop out of his face.

 

Michele McDonald
2004-05 Outbound to France

Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Ridgeview High School
Sponsor: Orange Park Rotary Club
Host: Roubaix Sud Rotary Club, District 1670, France

Michele - France
August 31 Journal

I’m here in France, another country, another world. The trip here was a whole other world to me too because it was my first plane ride. Getting on the plane at Jacksonville was not that hard but the size of the plane was scary, it was so small. The ride to Washington was short and made easier by having Katie take the journey with me. Once in Washington the wait was short and I got on another plane that was enormous. I thought I was ready for the long plane ride but it was so much longer than I thought. The flight was like a dream.

I think the hardest part was stepping off the plane and onto France. After that, it was non stop. My host family had to get their daughter off to the US minutes after I arrived so we all had to rush to the other end of the airport. After all the goodbyes were said, I thought that I was going to my new home but no. I was going to stay with my host aunt for three days. In those three days I felt like I was in a daze. Was I really in France? Could this all be true?

My third day there we went to Paris which is the biggest city I have ever been in. As we drove toward the Eiffel Tower I saw an old Ford Thunderbird which stood out among the sea of identical cars. It somehow made everything seem alright to see something so impractical in a sea of practicality. I loved everything about Paris and I shall have to return again to see more. After seeing the city I took my first train ride which was fun and boring.

Now I am home and things are going alright. Yesterday I rode on the metro for the first time and it was basically everything I expected, people getting on and off.

I start school in a few days and look forward to forming a routine. Life marches on in both worlds, the one I left and the one I am living. In this world time just seems to move a bit slower.

Until next time,
Michele

September 24 Journal

Well, well, It was officially been a month that I have been in France. Life is becoming life here. I am settling into a routine and that makes life easier. I am happy with my new life, I mean, how could I not be – this is France. I love how here you can see people walking down the street with an arm full of baguettes and find it normal. To me it is all some great romantic picture that you only see in old movies. I love it.

School I would say is the majority of my life here but the great part is I don’t have to really try at school like I have to in the United States. Here, I can just go to the classes and listen to the teachers and try to make sense out of the words that are coming out of their mouths. I even had a test in history that consisted of four questions and the teacher just told me to do what I could. I answered one of the questions in a very brief way. When I got the paper back, the teacher said that it was good but she wasn’t going to grade anything right now. I must admit that I was a little disappointed because I have yet to have any teacher give me an actual grade. That is life here though.

Last week I went to the sea with my class to look at rocks or something like that but I enjoyed just looking at the beauty around me. There was mountains and ocean all in the same place. A totally new experience for me. On the way to the sea I got to ride on my first double-decker bus. I thought that it would be awesome but it was just another bus ride, like the bus I take every morning to school that is crowded with kids and the bus that I return home on. Buses are everywhere here.

My family is great here but so big. There are seven of us in one house. It is crazy to say the least. At least the house is big enough for us all, three stories plus a basement. Of course my room is on the third story, so probably three or four times a day I make the trip to my room which consists of 43 steps, oh yes I counted them, not to mention the 67 step I go up and down all day at school. Back to my family, there is my host father, my host mother, my 16 year old host sister, my 12 year old host sister, my 10 year old host brother and another new addition to the family, my host cousin I guess. He is staying here to finish school because his parents moved to the United States. Small World. Anyway, my family here is perfect, so different than my real family but that is what makes this all more of an adventure.

I love almost everything here but I could wish for better on the weather. I am basically a Florida girl and all my life I thought that I wanted to move somewhere cold but I was wrong. It is about 40 degrees here everyday with occasional rains. Needless to say, I freeze my tail off everyday. I am soon going to buy the biggest coat that France has. It isn’t really all that bad but at least when I am cold others are too. Well that’s it for now. I can’t wait until I can fully participate in everything here, the language is still a barrier but a barrier that is coming down quickly.

Until next time,

Michele

November 11 Journal

I know that this journal is coming a little over a month but I have been busy. I can’t believe that I have been here over two months. This last month has been the most interesting by far, mainly because of two weeks at the end of October. My host family and I took the school vacation in Corsica. That’s right, that little island in the south of France that is known for its amazing beauty, a.k.a., L’isle de Beauté.

The trip started out with a car ride that traversed all of France, from the very north to the very south. It was a long ride, which took all day long. I really enjoyed the ride though because I got to see the landscape of this country that I am living in. It was so different than Florida. There were mountains everywhere and my ears popped the entire way, but I was willing to live with it. We stopped in Lyon to have lunch with some of my host family’s friends and then we headed off to catch our boat.

My host mother told me that we were going to be taking a boat to Corsica and that we were going to be sleeping on it but I didn’t expect the boat that we got. It was basically a cruise ship and the biggest boat that I had ever been on. I know that it doesn’t seem like a big deal but just riding on that boat made me happy, oh the little joys in life.

Well, we went to sleep on that boat and woke up in the morning docked in Corsica. It was so pretty. I couldn’t wait to see all of it. We drove for about thirty minutes to my host family’s house. The view from the house was amazing. Looking straight out I could see the ocean and then when I looked to the side I could see mountains. It was heaven for me. We unpacked and then headed directly to the beach. It was so strange to be able to wear a swim suit and actually be hot when I had been wearing a sweater and a coat in the north. The next few days were passed at the beach and I even got a tan. It was great.

Of course, nothing can be perfect. The next few days, it rained and was semi-cold, but that didn’t stop us from doing things. We went out and collected chestnuts and then roasted them on a open fire. It was the first time I had ever had them and I found out the they are really good. We also went and collected mushrooms which is one of my host father’s favorite hobbies. I have to admit that I really like the mushrooms that we find in the forest, and besides, it is about as French as French gets.

After about a week and a half of fun in the sun, or the lack there of, we headed back to our little northern town of Chéreng. The cold was a bit of a shock when we arrived home but now I am getting used to it. I am not as cold as I used to be all the time. I like to think that means that I am becoming French.

It makes me feel really good when people acknowledge the progress I have made with the language. Almost everyone says that now I understand everything and I always have to tell them no but I am getting there. It is certainly a lot easier than a month ago and each day feels better. I did go through a short time of being incredibly annoyed with myself because I felt like I wasn’t learning fast enough but that was when things began to click.

Life is good now. I have friends at school and I can talk to them which is great. I can take the metro into Lille all by myself and feel completely secure because if I need help, I know that I can ask for it. Things are good and I can’t wait to see where I will be one month from now.

Until Next Time,

Michele

November 19 Journal

I felt the need to write another journal because a lot has happened in a short period of time. Last Sunday I went to Paris with two other exchange students and one’s host dad. It was really fun. We hit all the big tourists spots. It was the second time that I have been in Paris since I have been here and I know that it will be impossible to ever to be bored with that city.

I felt a sense of accomplishment when I was standing under the Arc de Triumph or when I was looking at Notre Dame inside and out. I had always dreamed of coming to France and seeing these things and to have done this sort of thing so young, I don’t know how I can ever do anything else in my life to top it. It was so weird to look at Notre Dame from the same angle and see it just as it is pictured on my French book back home. The feeling of knowing that you are in a city that is famous for its beauty and history is just amazing. Needless to say I am already making plans to go back. I have to go back anyway because we went to the Louvre but we didn’t go inside. I can’t have that.

Although Paris was great, I had a feeling the other night that topped it by far. I am in the theater club at school and last week there was a girl from Holland there. She is staying in France for two weeks. She can’t speak very good French but her English is amazing. She didn’t understand what the instructor was saying because of course it was all in French so I had to translate everything for her. It wasn’t that I understood everything but I understood enough to tell her what was going on. I don’t think that I had realized how far I had come with my comprehension in French. I was so proud of myself. I love that now other people are noticing that now I understand more. People are actually asking me questions now instead of asking the people around me about me. I feel like I have made a lot of progress but I am still not where I want to be, but it is definitely coming. For now, Life is good.

Until Next Time,
Michele

or as the French write it,
Michèle

January 9 Journal

It absolutely amazes me that I have been here for a little over four months. My memories from back home are still so vivid but at the same time I am building a life here and the memories are a little bit surreal.

Well I just went through the big holiday time. It was kicked off with Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day, I figured that I would try and spread the Thanksgiving spirit to the French. I went around all day long and said Happy Thanksgiving to anyone I saw at school. It was funny because everyone thought that it is just a holiday where there is a turkey so I got the chance to explain the story about the Pilgrims, but honestly they still believe it is our excuse to eat and maybe they are right. I didn’t do anything with my host family for Thanksgiving because they just weren’t interested in it but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t celebrate it. I went to the host family’s house of one of the American exchange students with all the other exchange students and we celebrated Thanksgiving. We had all the essentials, hand made cranberry sauce, corn, pumpkin pie, and the turkey, of course. The meal itself was a miracle that a bunch of 16 and 18 year olds cooked it and it was edible, actually good. It just gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling to celebrate a family holiday with my new group of friends.

Then there was the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was a time of just sitting back and absorbing everything. School became more and more like school back home. Teachers started to realize that I understand more than at the beginning and therefore started to make me do more work. I even started to do the tests in history. It is a good feeling to know that I understand well enough to do the work but on the other hand, that means that I have to do work. Why can’t things ever be win win; that’s life. Apart from that, my language is improving and life is becoming fairly simple. It is a much more reassuring feeling to get instructions on how to do something and actually understand the words. At least I don’t look like a total idiot all the time now. Anyway, the month of December was basically just a month of laying back and enjoying my time.

Then Christmas came and all the trimmings. Actually there weren’t a lot of trimmings because the idea of decorating houses with lights is still fairly new here. The few houses that were decorated were considered a marvel. I did have a hint of sadness because of the lack of decorations because my house in the states is always decorated for Christmas but this is a new culture and I adapted. I must say that I was kind of disappointed by my host family’s celebration of Christmas. We opened presents on Christmas Eve and the morning after we piled into the car and headed off to Chantilly to celebrate Christmas with the sister of my host mother, the same sister that I stayed with my first three days in France. We ate a big lunch and then everyone just kind of talked. I just wasn’t very much in it. I honestly think that it would have been better if I wasn’t incredibly sick at the moment but that was the hand I was drawn. My Christmas was memorable but I wouldn’t call it a great memory.

We stayed in Chantilly for three days. We didn’t really do much. My host parents did take me to the Chantilly Castle though. It is a beautiful castle and I enjoyed the little visit. When we left to go back home, it was time to start packing to go to my next host family. I had two days to pack and the third day was moving day, early in the morning. I must admit that I was excited to go to my next host family. My first host family was nice but I never really felt like part of the family there. It was so different from my real family with seven people in one house and only three back home, it was a little overwhelming. I did get along with everyone in the family but it just wasn’t comfortable for me. I think I am better for having a family like that first, I learned a new way of life that I would have never experienced any other way.

Now I am with my second host family and I couldn’t be happier. I arrived on the 29th of December and two days after was New Year’s Eve. I had such a good time at their party. It wasn’t very large, about 14 people, but the time was good. We finished eating dinner around 11:30 which left us just enough time to ring in the New Year, after midnight is when the real fun began. We played this game with pipes and styrofoam balls and we shot them at each other. There was no point in it but it was just fun. After we played games all together. All in all we stayed up until 7:00 in the morning. Needless to say, the day after, we were all dead and we slept until late into the afternoon. It was the best New Year’s Eve that I have ever had.

This host family is perhaps the perfect fit for me. The first thing that makes it great is that they have four cats and a dog which makes it more like my home. They have a 13 year old daughter and of course we get along great seeing as she was the one to ask her parents to host me after meeting me at my other host family’s house. The parents are great. The mother is just a very warm person to be around and the father is funny and enjoyable. The other night, my host father and I talked about tricks with words, like words that are the same backwards and forwards. He is trying to teach me all the slang so I can talk like a “real French person”. It is fun. Everything about this family is great for me and I couldn’t be happier.

Well that is my month and a half all summed up. I feel like the ones who read this are missing out on something. There is no way that I can write all the little things that make this exchange so amazing. They can’t know what I know. This year is just for me and I will have my little stories for all my life.

Until Next Time,

Michele

February 10 Journal

It has only been one month since I last wrote my journal but I feel like it has been an eternity but at the same time I feel like it has been a day.  This feeling is impacted by how much I feel I have changed and grown in the last month.  I would have never guessed that one month could be so important in my life.

I just recently had my birthday and now I am 17 years old.  Honestly, 17 is not much different than 16 but the birthday itself represents something more to me.  I have been here in France for almost 6 months.  I celebrated my 17 years of life with a family that is not by blood but has become my family by so much more.  They gave me a little birthday lunch that day.  My host mother made me a cake.  It was not a party or anything like that but I was with my family and therefore it took on all the characteristics of a family gathering back home.  It was a feeling that was just right.

I am also now a person who has seen more of the world than when I last wrote.  Before, I could say that I have been to the United States and France but now I have the ability to say that I have been to Belgium too.  It is not such a large accomplishment when you look at a map and see the distance from my house here to Belgium (about five minutes by car) but it was my first time there.  Belgium is basically the same as France, same language, same types of people, but the feeling of crossing the border is thrilling.  The story of why we went and what we did there is my favorite part.  We went because my host mother just wanted to show it to me and once there we ate a Belgian waffle.  Walking along the streets, my host parents found some chairs that they liked and so they bought them.  As my host father and host sister carried them back to the car, my host mother said that they were like the street people who carry a chair around with them so they can sit down whenever they feel like it.  My story now is that the first time we went to Belgium was to eat a waffle and buy chairs.  I have been back one time after that but the second time didn’t hold a candle to the first.

I have seen things here that I have never seen before either.  The day after my birthday, I woke up and looked out my window but I couldn’t see out.  Snow had covered the window.  I was so excited.  I have lived in Florida basically all my life so snow is not a part of my life.  It was beautiful.  The car was covered with snow. Walking up the path to school, I almost fell several times and I had to hold on to my host sister to keep my balance.  The snow continued for three days and then it stopped but I keep hoping that it will return.

I have also met people here that I would have never met before.  I am American and therefore I speak English but because I have been in France for almost six months, I have an ability to speak French as well.  This became the reason that I was contacted to translate newspapers for an international youth tennis tournament.  It lasted for nine days and I met people from all around the world.  I only really had one problem with it, if a person does not speak French, they are expected to speak English.  This rule applies to kids who are 14 and 15 years old as well but they can speak English.  To me, I believe that this idea is wrong.  I do not think that people should be forced to speak English instead of their language.  I believe that those who speak other languages should try to learn others.  In a sense, the languages of the world are becoming obsolete and English is taking over but this is not right.  Now I realize all the English words that have leaked into the French language and I realize that the world is losing its languages.  The experience only makes me want to work harder to become less ignorant to the other languages around me.

Throughout this month, I believe that I have grown.  I see my language progressing at a rapid rate.  Talking is not a problem now.  Of course there are words that I don’t know but all they have to do is explain them to me and I understand.  My favorite experience occurred one night after dinner.  My family and I were sitting at the table and we began to talk.  We talked for about two hours or more.  I became myself. The language was no longer a barrier at all.  I was opinionated and expressed those opinions.  It was very much like what my family used to do back home. Progress in a language sneaks up on you.  You don’t realize that you have progressed until you sit back and think about your life.

There is no possible way that my life can be the same after this year.  I will no longer be the person that everyone knew a year ago. I have seen too much and I have experienced too much to go back to that state.  You don’t realize the choice you are making when you decide to join this program but after you have made it there is no turning back to the way you were, at least not for me.

À la prochaine

Michele

March 26 Journal

Well, I have been finally able to sit down and take the time to write my journal. I have to say that I have never been so busy before in my life. I have been looking at my agenda and I don’t have one weekend were I don’t have something planned. I guess that I should be grateful for that.

The end of February was consumed by the two week vacation which I spent with my host family in Bretange or as the Americans might know it Brittany. My host family’s middle daughter lives there and we went to see her as an excuse to do a little sight seeing around this beautiful land. Bretange is known for its rain which we did experience a little bit of but I have to admit that it added to its charm. We spent most of our days going to various little towns and just walking around. They were so incredibly beautiful. We walked along the ancient walls that once used to serve as protection for the towns. It was like something right out of a fairy tale scene each time (and we must have done this in at least three towns). The day was usually finished off by a crêpe in a nice little crêperie, I mean I am in France.

The very last day was the day I had been waiting for the entire time, not that I wanted to leave but we were going somewhere that I had been dreaming of, Le Mont Saint Michel. Bretange gave us a beautiful day with lots of sun for this event. I was so excited I could hardly stand it as we drove up to it. It was even more beautiful than I had imagined. We went all the way up to the top and looked out to see the ocean which had gone out and was soon to be coming back in. It was like something right out of a dream. I only have the utmost respect for the people who started building this church back in the 700’s. We ate on the rock and my host sister and I ruined the French mood by ordering a hamburger and fries but we thought “why not”. After our day we left to come back to the north.

On our trip home, it started to snow (I am sure that everyone is familiar with my love of snow now). It was so pretty and it was snowing a lot. I was happy and in my own little world but eventually we drove out of it. My host father said it was a good thing we got out of it because it was snowing hard and it was dangerous. All I could think was that I wanted more snow. Well, this little snow started out a series of snow falls which went all the way to the beginning of March. I am told that it never snows like this here especially in March so France was just being nice to me.

Of course, with how much I love snow, I would never think that it could do any harm but I was soon proven wrong. I had a trip planned with one of my exchange student friends to go to England with her class but the day before it snowed more than it had snowed here all year. It was pretty and I really liked it and just kept telling myself that we would still be able to go but at 10:00 the night before the departure we got a call that said the trip was off because of the snow. I was sad but we made the most of it. I stayed the weekend with my friend and we had snowball fights, made snow angels, and I made my very first snowman. The weekend was fun and the trip has been rescheduled and so I still love the snow.

My most recent interesting event was the Rotary weekend in Paris with all the inbound exchange students in France, all 350 of us. We took over a youth hostel and got hardly any sleep. We did some sight seeing and saw the inner workings of the French Senate which I find incredibly too beautiful for anyone to ever get any work done in there. After the visit we all joined in the gardens to ask some senators a few questions. The moderator was the channel 2 weather guy that I see every night and I got a picture with him. I am sure that will be worth some money one day. The weekend ended by a tour of Versailles which was indescribably beautiful. I can now check another site off of my “Things to See in France” checklist. The next day at school was hard because of my lack of sleep during the weekend but I made it and I have no regrets from that weekend.

Well that about sums up my month. Just a few random pieces of information. We had “Caranval” at school where everyone wears a costume and I wore my Rotary Blazer. I figured it was strange enough to catch a few eyes and it was a hit. It is good to know that it serves for something other than its classic duties. Next week I change host families and I can only hope that my next one is as amazing as the one that I am with right now. I will not be writing a journal for the month of April because I will not be at my host family’s house the entire month. How lucky am I, an entire month of Vacation!!

À Plus,

Michele

June 13 Journal

It has been a while since I last wrote and boy has a lot happened! For starters on the 2nd of April I changed host families. I wouldn’t have a chance to stay a while with them to get to know everyone because the day after I moved in, I went on my class trip to Haute Savoie. For all those who don’t know where that is it is smack dab in the middle of the French Alps. Let me just tell you, I was excited! Coming from Florida I don’t see a lot of mountains or snow for that matter so it was just another exciting experience in my year. We stayed at a chalet which was not necessarily beautiful but the cool part was that I got to stay with my class. We did some little visits like to a cheese factory, très français, but my favorite by far was the day in Geneva, Switzerland. The weather was beautiful and the day was just great. We saw the Red Cross museum and we went inside the United Nations. I found that to be very cool. The rest of the week in Haute Savoie it was raining and so the cross country skiing which was planned was cancelled but I wasn’t too depressed to not have it. As we were boarding the bus to go home, it started to snow. I know the irony. We we arrived back in the north, it was snowing in April!!! They all said it was my fault which I found to be a good thing. But the trip overall was great. I became closer friends with people I already knew and made a few new friends. It was an unforgettable experience.

Well I arrived back in my host family’s home that Saturday and it was once again back to the unpacking and then packing because Sunday we were leaving for their beach house in the Charante Maritime. Ok, not really a beach house but a close to the beach house. We stayed there for ten days. We couldn’t really do much. The weather was not great. There was a lot of rain and it was basically cold all the time so that meant no going to the beach or tanning. We stayed at the house most of the time where I tasted many new cheeses and found that not all French cheeses are horrible. I discovered that I can handle the mild cheeses. Each time I said that a new cheese was not bad my host family said that I was becoming even more French and that made me happy. We went to see the reconstruction of the boat that Lafayette took to go the US to help us out during the American Revolution. We also went to an aquarium where I saw fish that are from Florida. My very last day was a trip to Bordeaux where I took the train to Lyon to start my bus trip of Europe.

My bus trip was great. I saw a total of 5 new countries with a group of 50 exchange students all crammed into the same bus for 15 days. It was amazing. We started by touring Lyon which was pretty and then we headed to the French Alps. I was so excited, I saw Le Mont Blanc and I actually got to walk on it. We also went down into a glacier. It was so super cool and cold for that matter. After all the mountains we went to Germany. There we only saw a concentration camp, Dachau, which was a very moving experience. From Germany we headed into Austria which I would have to say was probably my favorite country. It was so incredibly beautiful. Everything was green and the people were so nice even though I don’t speak a word of German. We saw Salzburg and then we went to Vienna. In Vienna we ran into a group of exchange students, just to prove that we are everywhere. After Austria was Italy and the beautiful city of Venice. I loved this place. We did the classic tour on a gondola and just explored this ancient city and all of its wonders. Italy was followed by Monaco. This city is so rich but oh so very small. We saw the entire city on a 30 minute train ride. It is beautiful and honestly ça fait rêver. Spain was next on the list with Barcelona as the top city. I tell you that is a place that is alive. They live far into the night and there is always something to do. It was really so much fun. After Spain we headed back into France and all of us were so relieved because we could finally go into a restaurant or store and speak to the people. It was so annoying to always have to order things in English in the other countries and sometimes we would accidentally fall back into speaking French to the people and confuse them even more. Overall the trip was something totally amazing. I made some really good friends and I saw things that I had only dreamed of seeing. I loved it.

After my long month of vacation, it was back to school but I was so excited to go back. I was missing my friends. One month away from them all was just far too long. I had one week of full school and then I was off traveling again. I went to England one day with another exchange student and her class. It was fun. We went to Canterbury. I think I saw more French people than English people however. My friend and I went into a book shop and the lady who sold us the books ended up being French and we spoke to her in French instead of English. Life is so ironic but cool nonetheless. We went to England on a Saturday and I stayed with my friend until Sunday. She said joking to her host dad that he should let us stay home from school Monday because usually it is a day off of school but this year everyone is working and giving the money to the old people’s home and a lot of people were striking. To our surprise, he agreed and planned a trip to Paris for us. We were so happy. We didn’t do the classic tourist stuff in Paris seeing as we had already done all that. Instead we got our hair cut. Now I can say that I have aParisien hair cut and I must say that it suits me quite well. it was a fun day that was totally random. Honestly how many people can stay that they went to Paris on a whim?!

School was school but I found myself just hanging out with my friends more and more. I knew that I wasn’t going to have much more time with them and I wanted to get everything out of my last few weeks with them that I could. I did a report on the States, Florida and my life back home in history class and I was shocked at how easily I talked. An hour passed and I didn’t even realize it. It is when you do things like that that you know that you have really made it in your new language. The last day of school was very emotional for me, no tears but close to it. The last two hours of class were like a little party and I enjoyed just talking and goofing off with my friends but I knew that goodbye was soon to come. At the end, they gave me a big card which everyone signed and I can’t believe that I was capable of holding back the tears. I know that it was the last time I will see some of those people but I don’t think that I will ever forget them.

The next big thing that I did was I went to Paris with the exchange student who was at my school last year. I went there because my class from the US came to do a trip in France and Spain. It was so weird to see them in France. France has become my place and to put them here was just strange but we had a fun day together. I got to show off my French and they got to just hang out in the most beautiful city in the world. It was cool.

And now for something rather recent. I just got back from 5 days in Normandy with my host family. We saw all of the big sites of the war. It was sad but I think it is something that should be done. I was shocked by the amount of American flags that I saw hanging from people’s windows and in the towns. it showed that what we did for the French was and still is really appreciated. It was a good trip. although it was mostly serious, we succeeded in adding a bit of fun in there. There was beautiful sun the entire time and I got a tan, something almost impossible to get in the north of France. It was a great experience and I would love to go back to Normandy one day.

Well that about sums up my last few months here. To think that I only have a month and a half left. I can’t believe that some people are already home. It is hard to see the other exchange students leave one by one. I am going to be the last one to leave from my district here and that just means that I have the most goodbyes to say. I know that there will be tears and I am not afraid of them because I know that the tears represent every hard thing that I conquered this year and that has made me stronger. I know this is not the end, it is only the beginning.

À Plus,

Michèle

July 27 journal

Just when you finally get comfortable where you are and things start to seem normal, the rug is pulled out from under your feet and things are changed all over again. I am starting to prepare for my departure from France which will take place in a few days. It is hard to believe and the month of July just flew by me.

July was spent in Charente-Maritime with my third host family and we went to the beach everyday. I got a tan and it was strange that I went to the beach in France where I have to take a 10 hour car ride but I never go to the beach back in Florida where it is so close. That is the irony about this year, everything changes, you change and you may not even realize it. The trip was good but it used three of my weeks of the month of July and I returned back to the north with only one week left.

The thought of one week left threw me into a kind of panic. I couldn’t see how I was going to get everything done but now that the first few days of my last week are gone I can see the end approaching and I think that I will at least be ready with all of my affairs even if my mind doesn’t have a full grasp of the actual event.

The last few days are so strange. You have to end things that you started. I went to the bank yesterday to close my French account and I almost cried. It is not normal to cry over closing a bank account but that signified the end. As I watched the lady cut up my card I felt like she was cutting up my heart and my life in my new home. When we left the states we had to finish some things but we could leave some things unfinished because we knew that in a year we would be returning but in this case, I don’t know when I will be able to come back. It really does feel like an end.

The strangest part is that I don’t know how to react to the idea of seeing my family again. Throughout this year they have just become that voice on the other end of the phone, just a voice, that is all. I know that they are there and they will love me no matter what but I know that I have changed. Have they changed so they still fit with my personality? I doubt it but that was the risk of coming but honestly I am happy that I have changed. I feel so much more independent now, how my family will react to this new independence I don’t know but I am willing to try it.

I want to thank the Rotary for all that they have done. Without them I would have stayed the same person I always was but with their help I have been pushed to live a new life and I believe it is a better one. Thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout this year. Those people who say encouraging words through the hard times and even through the good were vital to my year.

I know that I will come back because I have started a life here and it can not just finish like that but the end of this year is hard. It has given me so much. I have enough stories for a lifetime and I have made friends that will last much longer than that. The end of the year that has done so much to change my life is fast approaching and not even my protesting can stop it from arriving.

Reste comme tu es maintenant ma vie, ne change pas, et attend-moi.

Michele

Samuel Motley
2004-05 Outbound to Germany

Hometown: High Springs, Florida
School: Santa Fe High School
Sponsor: High Springs Rotary Club
Host: Oldenburg-Ammerland Rotary Club, District 1850, German

Samuel - Germany

September 23 Journal

My journey began on the 14th of August. Well, I didn’t sleep at all the night before my departure, so actually the 13th of August. Picture me at 3:00 in the morning, pacing back and forth in the living room with that nervous twitch in my eye, wearing only a T Shirt and my trusty Mr. Potato Head boxers. Packing my bag, then unpacking it because I want to put my shirts in the bottom. Re-packing it, then unpacking it again because I wanted to fold all of my shirts (now at the bottom) another way. ”Don’t forget this”, ”I don’t really need that…”. Running upstairs, only to forget what I went up for. Sitting on the coffee table, watching the Weather Channel religiously, begging Hurricane Charley not to screw this up for me.

The next morning, all was OK with my plane departure. The only delay I had was due to myself running back inside, trying not to forget the things you remember you forgot when you are sitting in the airport terminal. After the long period of picture taking and pre-hugging, my Posse (consisting of parents, grandparents, brother and sisters) and I made that long, slow shuffle-like movement to the gate entrance. I would have to make the next walk alone. Then it hit me, this was my time. For once I was doing something right, something people I loved and respected were proud of me for doing. I was, in some way, special. As I gave those final hugs and kisses, as I made that long walk away from everything I knew, 3 or 4 tiny hairs sprouted out upon my bald chest, and I grew up a little bit more.

”Now approaching Detroit”, the captain says over the intercom. This was my second time in Michigan, so it was the farthest north I had ever been. It was also the largest airport I had ever been in. It took about 30 minutes just to get to my next gate. I was desperately looking for the immense group of Rotary exchange students I was told there would be going to Germany. There was no one… Not a Blue Blazer in sight. So I sat down quietly, sipping slowly from the $2.50 Diet Coke w/ Lime, for it would probably be my last. Then there was something that caught my attention upon the horizon of steel and moving platforms. Blue blazers, here came the cavalry! I was not alone! Well, my excitement was short lived… It turned out to be a small group of Japanese business men on their way to Tokyo.

Boarding upon the Royal Dutch Airlines was a process that seemed to take a small eternity. There were people of all different nationalities screaming in their mother languages. Even the babies seemed to be shrieking in another tongue. Everything was nice and calm though, once everyone was settled into their seats. The flight was long… incredibly long. But there was a free movie service, so I ended up watching Shrek 2 in German and The Punisher in Estonian. Yes, I did say Estonian. Curiosity gets the best of me sometimes.

We were landing!!! Hip Hip Hooray! I was still running on that diet coke and the vegetarian curry served during the flight. Still no sleep… but I thought to myself, ”I did it”. This was the first time I had ever left the United States. I stretched to the end of my seatbelt, trying to get a glimpse out of someone’s window from my dead center seat. Holland wasn’t really all that special to look at. I was expecting the grass to be blue or to see fish swimming in the sky, or something.

About now, I’m standing In the middle of the Amsterdam airport in awe. Now THIS was the largest airport/mall/ casino I had ever been in. I quickly slapped on my ”Help me” face and followed the general crowd. After going through passport check and finding my flight on the television screen, I made my way towards my designated gate. But when I got there, the only flights leaving from there for the next two days were going to Paris, so I officially had a problem. I tried waiting in line at the information desk, but that effort was hopeless. And why the hell wasn’t this Rotary blazer doing its share of the work? We were arch-enemies at this point, because there was no air-conditioning in the entire airport and I was too afraid that if I took it off, people wouldn’t know to help me. So as I was making my way back to the information counter, I found myself being followed by a strange man. I quickened my pace, so did he. I was really going fast when he came at me in a full sprint it seemed like. He started to scream something at me in Dutch. I had no clue what he was saying. And he’s screaming and screaming, so I start to scream back at him. Then he stops and says in English, ”Hey man, tie your shoes!” You’ve got to be kidding me… Well after waiting in the Information line for an hour, I found out that I needed to ‘Transfer’, something I had no knowledge of. But I made it through everything alright and found out the number of my real gate. This was all spanned across my 5 hour plane delay in Amsterdam.

I took the tiny ”City Hopper” plane to Bremen, where I was to go through customs. This was the part I had been dreading for days now. The few months before my departure, family and friends had told me all of the horrible stories about customs and how long it takes. Well they’re a little more laid back here in Germany. The customs agent asked me why I needed to go through customs. I thought I had to! All he asked me was if I had over 100,000 on me. No inspections, No Hassle. As I walked through the door, I expected to see a whole group of all the host families I would have over the year. Wrong again. Just two people, my first host family, minus the children.

I am living in the city of Oldenburg, in the North West of Germany, near the border of Holland. The city is a little larger than Gainesville, Florida, but with a more urban setting. I ride a bike everywhere I need to go, including school. There is an Inner city, where all of the main shops and Discos/Bars are. In most German cities, shops in the inner cities die out, so people come from around Germany JUST to go shopping.

People are very nice here, but they have more of an ”IN YOUR FACE” attitude toward things. Just try blocking the  bike lane on your way to school. For example, on my first day here, I was accidentally blocking the turn lane for the bike way. The next thing I knew, there was a gang of ‘little old ladies’ bombarding me with every curse in the German language, and there are A LOT.

School is good, but I am still a bit unsatisfied with their decision to put me in the 10th grade. 10th grade in Germany is the same set-up as 5th grade would be in America. So as a result, I will get no high school credits for being in school here because I cannot take High School classes. And it a bit harder to meet many people when you are in class with the same 18 people every day. But that hasn’t stopped me much. I meet new people every day and making new friends isn’t a problem at all.

On the side of my everyday life here, I’ve been on several trips already. I went hiking one weekend in the Black Forest of former East Germany, where I also toured a castle. I also went to the port city of Bremerhaven to visit their new Zoo and World War II U-Boot (submarine) museum. Germany is also home of many MANY cultural festivals, including Stadtfest and Kremermarkt. Not forgetting Oktoberfest, of course.

This is just skimming the surface of my first month in Germany. I couldn’t possibly express everything I’ve felt in the last month, I can only give you a hint. Thank you for enduring my unnecessarily long spiel.

Until next time, Tschau

November 9 Journal

It’s funny how you don’t really realize how long a year is when it’s thrown out in front of you and you can almost see how slow it’s moving. On the other hand, when it comes the time to write another journal, it seems as if I had just written one last week…

Things are routine now. I speak only German with my host family, which includes presenting my guest-father with as many reasons as I can think of why NOT to go to school as he pulls me out of bed. My throat doesn’t hurt anymore from making the heavy ”CH” sound. Learning 26 conjugations for each verb is ‘old news’. Riding my bike in the cold, wet rain is a passive, unnoticed factor of my life, much the same as what socks I put on this morning. It’s no longer surprising when the same meal of bread rolls, margarine, and cheese is served for breakfast and dinner, except raw meat and sausages accompany the bread in the evening. My English skills are plummeting greatly, meaning I’m heading for the, ”Ugga Ugga, Me want meat”, phase.

In the beginning of Oktober, we have the festival of Kramermarkt, which is a lot like an American carnival, just substituting cotton candy with sandwiches made of peppercorn and raw eel. Some children save their money for the entire year, just to blow it all on 10 days of rides and attractions that rearrange your insides and induce vomiting. For the older crowd, Kramermarkt is the ideal place to get pissed drunk because it’s free and you can bring your own beer. As a result, by 8 o’clock in the evening, the entire ”Fairgrounds” is a field of broken glass, garbage, and various body fluids.

On Oktober 9th, I left on a week-long tour around eastern Germany. I probably learned more Spanish in that week than German, for a Majority of exchange students here are from Mexico, and that’s not including the other students from countries that speak Spanish. We had many stops along the way, including a small town dedicated to nothing but witches, and Buchenwald, a World War II concentration camp. It was not a ”Death Camp”, but the number of people who died there was still unimaginable. One of the most morbid things there was not in the camp itself, but a Zoo established just on the other side of the fence built for SS Guards and their families. In the eyes of the spectators, the people working and dying on the other side of the fence weren’t human…

On a more happier note, the Grande Finale to our trip was two days of FREE REIN in Berlin. We had a tour guide one morning, just so we wouldn’t miss anything a tourist would hope to see, including the World’s Largest Stone Bowl and the Hotel balcony from which Michael Jackson had held his Infant son. We got to see the world’s largest department store and the world’s largest zoo. We went to Checkpoint Charlie and even to where the last remains of the Berlin wall still stand. I even got to visit Hard Rock Café.

Well my holidays have been long over, and school has once again been thrown back into the fruit smoothie I call my life…

We also had a huge riot here the other day, against the Republican party of Germany. For those of you who didn’t know, the Republican party is the fascist party here in Germany. There were 800 demonstrators to 6 Republicans, among the Republicans were skinheads and Hitler Look-a-likes (seriously). The police from Niedersachsen (my state) are really nice, for example joking around and holding friendly conversation with the protesters since they have to stand there together all day. Then along came the Eastern German polizei, and it got pretty bloody. Eastern German police are all like the dwarf “Grumpy” from snow white, and jump at ANY opportunity to beat someone with their batons. It’s also pretty entertaining to hear them yelling and reading people their rights in Low German (totally incomprehensible as far as we in the North are concerned).

I missed out on Halloween this year, since the entire continent of Europe gets sick, sadistic pleasure in neglecting my favorite holiday. The first snow of Germany hit today, but unfortunately, we didn’t get any here YET (schade!)

Well, that’s all I can wring out of my brain for today, but I’m sure Ill write another journal soon ,since I’m a LITTLE bit behind…

Bis Spdter…

-Sam

December 25 Journal

Frohe weihnachten! Merry Christmas! Yes, it is Christmas once again, but when I look around me, everything is totally different. After all, I’d celebrated Christmas the same way my entire life, so celebrating Christmas in a new culture was a huge slap in the face.

First off, Christmas was yesterday, the 24th. I woke up early in the morning to play Fed-Ex with my host father and three host brothers. My host father had baked 27 of his ‘special’ Christmas cakes, and it was now time to deliver each and every one of them to his friends and co-workers, but with this came a 30 minute period of drinking tea at each stop. So after 6 hours of this (and an exploded bladder) we finally arrived to home, where we ate a lovely dinner of toast topped with ham, pineapple, melted cheese and ketchup. Then it was time to open presents. In Germany, we open the presents at night before going to bed. This was also the first time we were permitted to see the Christmas tree, for it had been blocked off for some time in another room.

When I had first entered the room, my jaw hit the floor upon seeing my German Christmas tree. Then I said the only thing that came to mind, ”Ist es krank?” (Is it sick?). The trunk was crooked, giving it a hunch-backed look. There were maybe 20 branches total, which were not dressed with strings of lights or ornaments, but with apples, walnuts and candles. After examination of the tree itself, my eyes quickly dropped to the foot of the tree… WHERE ARE THE PRESENTS?? Well, it turned out that the presents were put on tables, and then covered with white cloth. Then came the waiting. My family told me that the youngest child gets to open his presents first, meaning the oldest (me) gets to open his last. I really missed the free-for-all paper-ripping fest that I had become so accustomed to. For those wondering what I got for Christmas, I got 3 pairs of fuzzy warm socks and a new hat…

Later talking to my friends, I discovered that my family had a REALLY strange way of doing things (not that I hadn’t thought that before). I really am a little disappointed that I had only one chance to celebrate Christmas in Germany, and the family I was with at the time gave me a totally false impression. I have now truly noticed that this family gave me many bad impressions on culture and other things. It was really a challenge to get this far into my exchange living with this family, but I guess it will make me appreciate my next host family even more, since I have already met them and are seemingly the nicest people on this side of the earth.

I just hit vacation last Wednesday, and we are scheduled to leave on the 31st for Heidelberg for new year’s, and then to Switzerland from there to ski. It will be my first time skiing since I was six, so maybe I’ll pick it up a little bit faster this time, even though I never really got the hang of it the first time around.

I would just like to extend another Merry Christmas from Germany to everyone and anyone. Please, enjoy the time you have with your families while you can, because I never realized how much I took my family for granted until being with them was no longer an option. I would give all three of my new pairs of socks and even the hat too, to be with my family now. Just remember that Christmas isn’t the presents or the stupid (crooked) tree, it’s being surrounded by family and friends. Now I sound too much like The Grinch who stole Christmas, so I guess I’ll stop while I still can.

Sam

Oh, and Happy New year while I’m at it…

January 27 Journal

Here I am once again. Sorry to leave everyone in the dark for such a long time, but I was planning on waiting until I got to my next host family’s house to update, but it seemed to be a lot longer than I really anticipated.

So where had I left off? Vacation! Yes, my vacation actually turned out pretty well. We left on New Years eve, which was a bit depressing, because I would have liked to spend New Years with my friends here. We drove to Heidelberg, a City built on the sides of a Valley, which was really beautiful. We stayed over night with the brother of my Host-mother.

We left the next morning for Switzerland. The trip took the entire day, which was all I could really handle. After 18 hours of driving, everyone was at each other’s throat, especially me. My host-parents decided it would be a good Idea to listen to the Harry Potter audio book on the way there. Listening to Harry Potter, disc after disc after disc after disc after disc, can really drive someone to a point of insanity, and it did!

Well we did eventually arrive, and Switzerland didn’t seem so spectacular at first. We were staying for eight days in a house that doubled as a barn. Literally, when I walked out of my room to take a shower in the morning, there was a cow, if not many, there to welcome me. Let me tell, the smell was wonderful. There’s nothing I love more than the smell of cow crap and spoiled milk in the morning. The other less appealing point of this all was the lack of civilization. I mean, we were living on the top of a mountain, more than an hour away from the last thing that slightly resembled a town. What if one of the cows had decided to eat my arm off one night? I never even saw a hospital our entire stay in Switzerland.

Don’t take the wrong impression about Switzerland, this was just my family’s Idea of a decent place to stay. In the end, it turned out to be a lot better than I thought, since we were only 5 minutes away from the ski slope. After the first day, I really didn’t like skiing, the same way I hadn’t back when I was six. I couldn’t possibly see the fun of doing this Seven more days in a row. Well the skiing gods must have come down and blessed me that evening, because I was the Ski master thereafter. I just got better and better as I went along. When I went to bed at night, I didn’t care about the smell or the cows anymore, though the smell was rancid, I just wanted to get up and go skiing the next day. It was SOOOO much fun and I will gladly take any chance I get to do it again.

ONLY 3 DAYS UNTIL I SWITCH HOST FAMILIES!!!!!!!!!

I’ve heard that the new exchanges have already been chosen. Note to you guys: Home-sickness does happen. Don’t fool yourself and think that it won’t happen like I had. It’s just now subsiding, but it was rampant for 2 months, at least (just ask my Mother).

My class is currently traveling in Austria, so I’m in the 11th grade (where I should be), and I love it. I’m going to get switched to that class as soon as I can.

It snowed today, first time in a while. They said it wasn’t going to get any colder this winter, but I think the weather man is being tarred and feathered as we speak.

Not much else to say. I’ll write another entry pretty soon, right after I change families. Trust me, I’ll be a totally different, happy, less whiney Sam then.

Sam, Lord of Ski

May 15 Journal

I’m back. Please feel free to give me the virtual spanking I oh-so deserve for neglecting my journal duties.

SO going WAYYYYYY back, I switched my host families in mid-January. Moving in with the Sayks was a well needed breath of fresh air. It’s amazing how having a ”Not so super-dee-duper” family makes you appreciate the good ones better. MY new family consists of my host father Ralle (Dentist/model train god), Armust (Housewife/ Duchess of Jedeloh) and my DVD ripping brother, Lennart. I also have a host sister, Kathy, who’s doing an exchange in Taiwan.

I had also switched to the 11th class a few months back, where I find myself much happier. It was much like changing host families in a way. Being able to start fresh with a decent grasp of the language seemed to invoke my new classmates with appreciation for my effort. They’re a lot more accepting than my original class, and being the same age group helps a bit too.

Everything thereafter seemed to flow ‘normally’ until early April, when my mother decided to pay me a little visit. We traveled to Holland where we visited the University city of Groningen, and of course Amsterdam. Seeing my mother after all this time was like a pit stop. Two months seemed like a hop and a skip after she visited me.

As of late, I just returned from the Euro-tour. I traveled for two and a half weeks along with 52 other exchange students in the same bus, visiting a pretty big chunk of Europe. The trip went like this…

France: Strassburg(2 days)
Switzerland: Luzern and Engelberg(1 day)
Italy: Lavagna (2 days), Pisa (afternoon), Florence (1 day), Lido di Jesolo (2 days)
Hungary: Siofok (1 day), Budapest (2 days)
Austria: Vienna (1 day)
Czech Republik: Prague (2 days)

As you see, we covered quite a bit of territory. Making this tour made me open my eyes wider to the world, even more so than my exchange originally had. I decided on the highest peak in Budapest, that I no longer want to be a cook( it’s ok guys, I’ll still make you cake). I decided to become a cosmopolitan, a person of the world. I know my mother’s probably thinking, ”Why couldn’t I have had a normal child?”, but this is what I want to do. I’m not really sure how one comes upon being a Cosmopolitan, but since when have I had a clue about anything?

Tschau

Sam

June 8 Journal

One week…

I remember my first week in Germany very well. It consisted of 7 showers, 21 meals, and the surgical attachment of German in 10 minutes a day to my right arm. A ‘normal’ week now is more like 4 showers, 14 meals, and constant debate on whether I should try to get my money back for German in 10 minutes a day or not. If you had asked me about a week at any other point in my exchange, I would have said something like, ”A week? You don’t know how long a week is”. For me now, one week is just a baby step away. A baby step that will walk right up to you and give you a full kick to the face.

About two weeks ago, my dad, step-mom and their friend had come to visit me. They had decided to make a tour of many major German cities, which turned out pretty good since my major city tally was seriously lacking. We covered Berlin, Hamburg, Oldenburg (aka Home), Cologne and Frankfurt all in 6 days, with the help of our super-dee-duper First class eurotickets.

I had never ridden in the first class of a train before, which is an entirely different experience compared to the ”Exchange student class” (one can sit on the floor for a third of the price). This was total luxus. You could have your own private 6-seat cabin where an attendant would bring more beer and chocolate than one could possibly consume, but it isn’t easy getting a seat like this. As the train approaches, the potential first-class passengers start to swarm, trying to estimate where that door will be as the train actually stops. Then all hell breaks loose. As everyone’s pushing and shoving in the doors, one struggles to maintain his luggage and sense of moral. Women using small children as excuses, war veterans flashing their ‘Wounded in Battle’ certificates, even old ladies throwing their walkers in front of other people. You name it, I’ve seen it. If you can overcome this, an exchange year seems like a breeze.

As that haunting day approaches, I try to soak in all that I can. I swear I’ve used my German-English dictionary more in the last 5 days than I have my entire year (not exaggerating). Packing up is the worst part of the exchange I think. I finally convinced myself a week ago that I was going to sit down and start packing my stuff, slowly but surely. Well I can honestly say that didn’t happened until today. Rummaging through all of my stuff, I wish I could just chuck it all. Then upon seeing my liter beer mug collection, I think, ”Oh, I cant throw those away…” Same story with the football tickets, posters and gummy bear wrappers.

I stopped at the post office on the way home from school today, to buy a well needed package to stuff all my crap in. I decided to stop and drink a cup of coffee before the epic 45 minute bus ride home. Well I swear everyone I’ve ever met in Germany was in that café. Seriously, both my old and new classes were there, my old host parents and all of my good exchange friends. This was supposedly in no way planned. As everyone had caught a glimpse of my bright yellow Deutsches Post box, I could see the shift in their facial expressions from, ”Hey, it’s Sam!”, to , ”Holy crap, Sam go bye-bye…”

That takes us here, one and a half hours from, ”One Week…..” Yes, Sam’s English go bye-bye long time ago…

I plan on writing another journal after I’ve returned home, since it’s not just the time you’re gone, but before, during, and after the exchange. I look forward to working with future exchange students. I want to share my experience, adventures and mistakes with the ‘newbies’, so that it may further help them as they make their years abroad, just as the ones before me had done. To me, this is the greatest gift givable.

I just want to get in a great big Thank You to Al and the Youth Exchange committee, as well as my parents. Before my exchange, I was failing out of school and throwing away a life of opportunities, but that didn’t stop you guys. I remember driving to Jacksonville to hand in my application to Al himself, on the last possible day. You guys gave me the chance that no one else in their right mind would have given me. You never gave up on me, which meant everything during a time when I had given up on myself. I thank you all again. I think it’s safe to say that you guys saved my life.

And to all of the new exchange students, I hope you’ve enjoyed the Orientation process and were able to bond with each other as much as my group had. There’s a whole new door open to you guys now, all you have to do is turn the handle. As you take these first baby steps through the door, don’t forget to wear your face masks.

Prost!

Sam

Monica Newberry
2004-05 Outbound to Switzerland

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Buchholz High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Sunrise Rotary Club
Host: Stans Rotary Club, District 1980, Switzerland

Monica - Switzerland

October 16 Journal

Okay…I know how much everyone of my Rotary peep’s and their parents have been anxiously waiting for this journal from possibly the most extroverted person in the group…so, here it goes. I have been in Switzerland for almost 10 weeks now, and I can honestly say that it feels like I have been here for about a month. I’m going to try and organize this thing the best I can, so I will start with the beginning and then how these 10 weeks have changed me into a different Monica.

I arrived in Zurich on Saturday, August 7th, 2004 at 10:35am (one hour late). The plane ride was tiring and somewhat worrisome. I was so tired from the flying, time changes, and going to the beach and staying up all night the night before my flight (I know mom…bad idea), that when I finally got to Switzerland I just wanted to find a bed and go to sleep. When I first came here, it didn’t really hit me like I was in a different country, but instead that I was just here. I would hear people speak to me and I would answer back, but then when I would try to remember what was being asked…it was like it had never happened…I am still like that today.

For the first two weeks I was here, I lived with my Rotary counselor and officer. I really have to thank these two people for taking me in and helping me more than anyone could have my first two weeks here. I learned so much German and so much more about Switzerland that I had never known before. Then, I started a three week language school the second week I was here. I didn’t really learn anything that would help me in school or in the real Swiss life, but it was fun to get to know the other inbounds that live close to me and go with them to Luzern (I know Elliott … your fav. city) and walk around and see Luzern. Then, after three weeks of language school I went to my real school…The Kollegi. The school…is crazy. I take so many different subjects and so many of them I have never had before…this though, makes it so much better because then when I go back to the states I’ll be able to pass everything. I’m not going to go into detail, I’m just going to say that they put me in the math class…they take 2 maths and they are Calculus and Angewandte (don’t ask). I don’t really understand these to the fullest yet, but everyday I work hard. I only went to school for two weeks and then it was three weeks holiday (one week hiking in the mountains with my class) and then I am back at school until December.

I really want to go into detail about this hiking week with my class, because even though it was the hardest thing for me to ever do (carrying a 16kilo rucksack and walking from Switzerland to Italy…literally), in the end I loved it and wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I met so many people from my class and got to be included in everything they were doing. I learned Swiss games with cards (still don’t fully understand, but its all good) and so many stories that my class has shared together. We made inside jokes, and I am now…the “Gangsta Mutha” of the “Gangsta Babies”…funny, I know. I pulled muscles and wanted to take the bus, but the girls in my class said…”You’ll regret it…don’t go…stay with us.” I did in the end, and I am so happy now. I used Italian toilets and didn’t have a shower. I wore the same pair of pants for 4 days. I did so many things that I would have never even thought of in the states, that I have done here and I love all of it. I have walked up a lot of mountains since I have been here, and just a few weeks ago I went to a ski place (Titlus) for the first snow of the season. I played in the snow in -4C temperature with some other inbounds from Canada and Australia…it was so great to see the snow for the first time…I LOVE THE SNOW!!! Now I am going to start snowboarding…thanks Livi for your stuff.

The language was extremely hard at first, and since in Switzerland they don’t even speak real German that makes it even worse, but I am starting to understand a lot of Swiss German and I find myself thinking of what to say and everything in German. I have found out that I can be Monica in English and the same Monica in German…it was hard, but I found a way to overcome that barrier. I have learned so much and am grateful for every single thing given to me here and back home. I left family, friends, and my Rotary gang who I love more than anyone. I have had homesickness (for about a week) and I thought…”Why am I doing this?…I had so much more back home.” I still don’t know why I am doing this, right now, I’m just going with what’s given to me and taking it as an experience I will never forget.

I have changed into a person I somewhat don’t even recognize in the mirror. I eat with a fork and knife (fork in left and knife in right hand), I don’t eat all of the Taco Bell (waiting for it Mom), and I don’t burp or fart (remember last orientation Jen)… I have become a polite nice little girl and when I come back…you guys are going to flip. The good thing though, is that I haven’t forgotten who the real me is, and I am still the funny, obnoxious, loud person that I was in Florida…just toned down a bit at times.

Well, I think that is it for now, but I want to shout out to some people and thank them for everything that they have ever done for me: my parents (here and in Florida), my siblings (here and in Florida), my Rotary gang (here and in Florida), every Rotary guy in Florida and all of them here in Switzerland. Livi- I am so happy to hear that you are okay, and hope that you are having a great time in Florida…I’ll be in your house in December I think. Well, I will send pics in a couple of days (lots) and I love all of you….

Monica

November 6 Journal

Okay…so I have been in Switzerland for 3 months now…the time has actually started to feel normal …it’s about time. I know that it hasn’t been that long since I wrote, but I have a lot to say so I think it’s time to write again.

First…Katie came last weekend…that’s right…Katie…in France…came to see me…in Switzerland. I was so happy to see her and show her my life here and my German skills. We talked about all of the good times we shared together through the summer and it was nice to reminice (spelling I know…englisch sucks now). I took her to a Halloween Party with some friends from school and it was so much fun. We ended up being the only 5 teenagers there, but it was still fun. She came at a good time too because I was starting to have problems with my family and she helped me through it…saying, “Monica, you’re strong…don’t even think about going home.” Well, Katie came for about 3 days and then was off to France…it was a nice visit and I can’t wait till we all get back…Summer ’05 baby…

Well…I have started a normal routine and it’s finally getting boring…I go out with friends from school and speak German…the normal stuff I guess I would do back in states…except the German part. The language is coming…considering I started out with no German whatsoever I think I’ve come a long way and am proud. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking though…mainly about what I’m doing and where my life is going to be when I get back. I thought I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and which college I wanted to go to and all of the stuff I needed to be thinking about…SAT’s. Now, I just don’t know anything…and even though it scares me, I’ve come to accept the fact that I just need to start living my life here and worry about making good grades here and everything. I’m not really homesick anymore…just trying to still remember the good things that I took for granted back home. This year changes you in a way you would never think…it shows you what you had that was so good that you never knew was good until you’re not there. I know this probably doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to…aren’t you guys proud…I’m maturing…maybe not…I dunno.

Now I have to talk about Halloween and Thanksgiving…European people just don’t have these…they’re too American. Halloween was a sad time…I love trick-or-treating, but I decided that I could live one year without that so I just sat at home and chilled with Katie…still had fun dancing to random mixes. Thanksgiving though…I’m gonna try and cook dinner for my family…of course, I will have help from other people, but it should be nice to show them some of American traditions…that’s what I’m here for…showing and learning at the same time.

Okay…so in September I did go in the snow, but it was on a mountain where I am going to start snowboarding maybe. I do have pics, but I have to learn how to email them, so when I do, I will email some pics. Snow…well, it’s cold, but it’s the greatest thing on earth…maybe tied with the ocean and surfing though.

Well, I have to go because I’m late for a train…

Tscüss,

Monica

March 3 Journal

So, since I haven’t written in such a long time I can’t really update everyone on what I have been up to because that would take way too long; instead I am going to tell all of you about something that happened here in Switzerland that changed my year and something that I will always remember…My Family.

I changed from my first to my second host family on December 27th. It would have been earlier but I had told my counselor here that there was no way I was going to move a week before Christmas, so after much deliberation I got to stay. I know that I had said in my last journal that I was having some problems with my family, but it wasn’t problems that they caused, it was problems that I was creating within myself. You see, I had some serious problems with attachment and abandonment from when I was younger and they were still there. When I had to move from my counselor’s house to my real family, I had gotten so attached to my counselor and her family after only two weeks, that I didn’t want that to happen again. The first two months with my first family were not as good as they could have been because I closed myself off to them…I wasn’t really me. This wasn’t good for me or my family. I had written my counselor telling her that I couldn’t live there anymore and that I wanted to move, but there was no reason why I shouldn’t have liked it there.

Finally, my host mom couldn’t take it anymore and asked me: “Monika, do you like it here by us?” Of course, I said yes because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but my host mom could see it in my face and eyes that something wasn’t right. So, she sat me down and we talked for about two hours…just on my problems with attachment and everything that I have. My host mom taught me that it’s good to change families because you get to see different parts of the culture (I know…Rotary already told me this). She said that my families want to learn about Florida and America. She also said that it’s so much better when I’m open and talkative and really me, than being so reserved and not speaking. After this talk with my host mom, I made such an effort to be more open and really me…and that’s when it all clicked. I wasn’t always perfect in this family, and in fact, I got in A LOT of trouble when I was living with this family. I was spending too much time with the other exchange students which was degrading my German, I slept at other people’s houses too much, I almost got sent home, and there was one time where I had stayed out entirely too late. I still don’t know how my family dealt with this because I know that if I had done some of the things with my family in Florida like here…I wouldn’t probably be here.

My host parents though were the most understanding people I think I have ever met, and it was so much better when I was honest with them than trying to hide it (which in fact I never did). This family did so much for me in ways that I will never be able to repay them, but I think that they know just how much I really love them. They taught me things I thought I could never learn. My host mom taught me how to cook special Swiss meals and things that will help me not only with my exchange year, but also with the rest of my life. She was there for me when I needed someone to talk to or just a hug or…a mom. My host dad was probably the funniest person I have met so far here in Switzerland. We laughed together, joked together, and ate Fleisch (meat) together. He was there for me when I was down or missing my real dad…he was a great host dad. My sister…well, we had our problems sometimes but that’s completely normal. She taught me how to not get into so much trouble and that it’s good to be “me”. We went to movies together, shopping, and eating. She had her life and I had mine, but we made days for each other…and they were great. This family dealt with my dad calling at 9am expecting me to be awake…and the funny thing is is that my family can’t really speak English and so them trying to explain that I’m asleep was priceless. They provided me with the best food I think I could have imagined…which is why I probably gained 6 kilos (3.5 now). They weren’t only my host family…but my family.

I moved two days after Christmas. We were being hosted by my new host family for a sort of dinner type thing. So, we hauled my now 3 suitcases to my new family and ate. I was doing extremely well at first…not crying and being strong. But at around 11:30pm when everyone was getting tired and wanting to go to sleep…it hit me that I wasn’t going too…I was staying. I just couldn’t help it…I cried and I didn’t care anymore. It was the hardest thing for me…to leave my host mom that had been more of a mom to me in my four months here. She talked me through it, and even though the tears didn’t stop it helped. To see my dad, mom, and sister leave while I was still crying was probably the worst thing for both sides.

Well, I know I can go to visit my family anytime I want, and actually I do, but I truly love this family as well, and having to think about how I’m moving in three weeks makes me want to cry…which is why I don’t think about it.

Well, I think that I have written a lot, but I just want to say this to the new outbound class (man…does that sound weird): be yourselves, be open, don’t be scared. People say it’s hard to be the same in English and in another language…but for me, it really wasn’t that big of a problem. You just have to not think about what people are going to think or say…”just do it.”

Congratulations Outbound Class 2006…your journey begins now. Congratuliert Hanna…Die Schweiz ist ein tolle Land.

Guys (you know who you are I hope)…can’t wait til Welcome Home Dinner…jammin in the van!

Jilly (Mommy)…thanks for letting me do my thing…I love you!!!

Okay…Tschüss

Monika…Smöni vo Floida (can’t say the r)

Elizabeth Salerno
2004-05 Outbound to Brazil

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Episcopal High School
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club
Host: Patos de Minas-Guaratinga Rotary Club, District 4760, Brazil

Elizabeth - Brazil

Hey!

At the airport my family could not find me with my short hair. I thought I recognized my host mother from the picture, but my counselor from Rotary recognized me and introduced me to my family. On meeting my family I liked them immediately. I worried the drive in the car might be awkward, but they had plenty of questions for me in Portuguese. Some were hard to answer with my limited vocabulary, but I think we understood each other. The first question was what does the W stand for – we always hear George W. Bush. They also asked (like many at home) why I cut my hair, and also (much like at home) what was the significance of my email “sugar its eli”. They also wanted to know if girls in the U.S. vomit after eating, so they can eat more. They told me this is very common here.

The juice here is sooooo good. It is just juice from the fruit and water and sugar. They make it themselves. I have had mango, orange, pineapple, lemon, and even watermelon. Mango and pineapple are my favorites. You drink them at longe (I think that is how you spell it), a meal at about 4 consisting of juice and pao de quijao. Cheese bread. Very good. My favorite meal. Very very good. Estella, my 13-yr-old host sister, and I went to get me a card at their country club, that is what it is really called. It is more like a fitness center. Indoor and outdoor pool. Many futebol fields, but I guess some are not really fields. One is a court inside and another is a sand pit. The rest are regular fields with grass. They must really love that game. They have about five fields. Also there is a gymnasium with volleyball. There is a basketball court and many tennis courts. Two pools, one in and one out, and several small pools with HUGE slides. Like the ones at Adventure Landing, or something like that.

I am obsessed with “da cor do pecado a novela”, a soap opera more or less. We watch it every night at sometime. That is a funny thing. Here television shows do not come on at the same time each night, and they certainly don’t have to start on the hour or half hour. It is usually on around 7, sometimes 6:45, sometimes 7:15.

Elizabeth

August 4 Journal

I went to school today. Everyone was very very nice. Biology and chemistry and physics were okay to understand. History I got a few words and geography I understood nothing. Spanish I knew a lot. We were going over body parts and no one knew them but me; but I didn’t know the words in Portuguese, so I pointed and she was very happy – the teacher that is. I took a quiz, with a reading passage and I could understand that, because it was in Spanish, but I didn’t know any of the questions, because they were in Portuguese. I was in the third year. 

School here is crazy. The kids talk the whole class and just get up and move their desks around. When we came in they were in three rows and everyone slid them around and pushed them right up against each other. It was quite humorous. A boy named Junio sat himself next to me. He tried to ask me the question everyone asks me, which is, “What did you think of Brazil before you came?” I didn’t respond, so he tried to explain to me in English, “All the exchangists think we live with monkeys.” Which is sort of what people think. They all think of the rainforest and beaches; but here it is very dry and mountainous. Then he said, “You know houses in trees.” We had a snack break and everyone offered me some of their sandwiches which they had bought at the stand. Very good. At 12:30 I went home for lunch, but returned at 2. Someone had told me earlier we would be dismissed at 3:30 so that is what I told my family. The one who told me that had counted on me taking English, because the people who take English left at 3:30 today, and tomorrow they will stay til 5:30, as I did today.

During the Spanish quiz one of the girls kept asking me what I’d put. I think she must have been very desperate to think the American exchange student could help.

I left at 5:30 and for the first time I was walking home alone. I got a little lost and ended up about a block away from the school, in the opposite direction than I had started out. A girl in my class, who I had chatted with during school, spotted me and I told her I was lost. We looked for my house, but couldn’t find it, so we returned to the school and asked them where I lived. She walked with me there, and I felt really bad for her going out of her way. Her house was in the opposite direction; but she was very sweet and didn’t seem to mind. I also felt bad, because Estella and Ricardo were out looking for me, since it was now 6 and I said I’d be back at 3:30. Daniel was there when I got home, so he called Estella and she headed home too. I was worried and had worried Ezio and Merie, my host parents, but when they came home from work they were glad I’d gotten home and just laughed along with me at myself.

Last night I went to Priscilla’s birthday. She is the niece of the lady Marissa, with the maids who made fun of me. The party was very fun. It was strange because some friends were there and all her family too. The family sat in the living room and we sat in a place where the stairs curved and you could see everyone else in the living room and there was a stereo and a couch and chairs. It was funny; Priscilla spent most of the party going back and forth between the rooms getting people drinks and more food. I was scared it would be awkward, but it was very fun. Then I went home and slept and to school I went.

When I got there we still hadn’t figured out what grade I should be in. Meire and Ezio wanted me in the second, but there was no room. So Merio and Ezio thought I should be in the third. The administrator said all the intercombistas who go to the third are lost and they fail their exams. Personally, I wanted to try. They said they’d put me there for today and figure out later what to do with me. I bet no figuring is done and I stay there – which is fine with me.

Elizabeth

 

August 31 Journal

I have been here one month and it really does not feel like it. School is not as bad as I thought it would be. I can get along quite fine in math and chemistry. History, Literature, and Writing are a little harder. I took a test in Chemistry and for some reason she did not have the actual test to hand back, so she read the grades out. I thought this was interesting, because no teacher would ever do that at home. Here no one really cares if everyone else knows how they did. Grades are quite different. People are happy as long as they got more than half and really happy if they get something that would be a 70%. Anyhow Elizete (That is the teacher’s first name. They call them by their first names) read out our grades and everyone started yelling when she said mine. I got a 6.5 out of 7. Lots of people yelling “nossa senhora” and “que isso elizabetch?” – yes elizabetch would be my name. They don’t know what to do with the th, so it just becomes a tch sound. Nossa senhora or just nossa is something people yell a lot, particularly during the volleyball games in the Olympics. It means our lady, or as we more commonly know her Mary, mother of God.

I went to my first real party. Beforehand my friend Julianna took me shopping. I wanted to buy pointy shoes, because that is all anyone wears when they go out at night. I bought some and a sweater that makes me look slightly like a bumble bee. Here you can pay for clothes with installments. Ju wanted me also to buy a pair of jeans that were $80, and she tried to persuade me saying that I could pay 27 dollars a month for three months. She did not understand that it was the principal of the thing and not the actual method of paying that was the problem. I will not pay $80 for a pair of jeans. Don’t get the idea that things are really expensive though, because they aren’t. Just jeans. (Naturally this was all in reals, not dollars, but I want you all to get the full idea.) Anyhow I went to the party in my new shoes and sweater and it started at 11:30 and we left EARLY by leaving at 4:30 in the morning. The party was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The word “festa” translates to party, but that is not really the right word. A party does not involve hundreds of people who you don’t know dancing! in a parking garage (yeah that is where it was held). It was more like prom, or winter formal, except much, much cooler. I spent the night at Ju’s and played puppets the next morning with her little brother. He was adorable. At this point I suppose you’re wondering if I am conversing with all these people in Portuguese and yes I am. Actually I am getting along quite well. The biggest problem I have is that sometimes people think I have got the wrong word and so they interrupt before I can finish the sentence and make sense of it all. For instance I am holding a pair of Julianna’s shoes and saying bubbles. Naturally everyone is like “no you’ve got the wrong word.” But I haven’t, and eventually when they let me finish my sentence I get to say the pattern on the shoes looks like bubbles. However I can understand that it must be very irritating to wait as I stumble around trying to pronounce things correctly and looking for the right conjugation.

My family has a farm, which I finally got to visit after hearing about it and seeing products from it. They have brought back eggs, oranges, bananas, and even meat. One day I walked onto the porch and found Ezio, my host father, hacking away at the carcass of some animal. It didn’t have any skin. It was just meat, but there was blood everywhere. It was hanging up against the wall, and the wall was covered in blood, and the blood was running down the wall and across the floor. It was apparently a bezerro, or calf. I had never thought that the meat I eat at their house probably came from the farm, but when I saw Ezio putting bits of it into the refrigerator I thought it was pretty safe to assume that it would be lunch someday soon. Visiting the farm was very cool: Horses, pigs, cows, chickens, a turkey, garlic, potatoes, and lots of plants that we either don’t have at home, or I don’t know what they are in English. We picked oranges. I am very excited also because there are lots of mango trees and when they have fruit that will mean lots of mango juice, which I adore.

However I think among the most exciting thing to happen to me was when I got trapped in a bathroom stall for all of chemistry class. Bathroom stalls at my school are different and you cannot climb over or under. The only way out is through the door. But with the help of several different handymen I eventually was free. I had quite a lot of fun explaining to everyone who asked how it was I came to be imprisoned in a bathroom stall. I say imprisoned, because the word everyone used to ask if I had been trapped was apresa. Which if you look it up just means imprisoned. Anyhow it was all very amusing and I was very glad I knew the word for doorknob.

I met another exchange student who just got here 10 days ago, and I feel quite bad for her, because her name is Ruth. Which is lovely in Canada, but since here r’s become h’s and th’s become tch’s – her name is Hootch. Also she seems to be really homesick. I have personally decided not to get homesick. I am just too busy for that. However I do have my own problems here. I am getting really sick of everybody thinking that all we ever eat in America is McDonald’s. Honestly! Also I am not from Peru. Just because I don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes this does not mean that I cannot be from the United States.

Everyone at school wanted to see pictures, so I brought some. They get really excited because it is all just like in the movies. They have seen lots of American teen movies and know all about prom and cheerleaders and houses without walls. They all loved my yard. Here people don’t really have yards, because they have walls encircling their houses. Sometimes these walls have broken shards of glass sticking up out of the top. This, I am told, is to keep the thieves away. I think it is pretty however.

I went to a football game between my Rotary club and the Rotary club in a nearby city. It was funny to see men who are just like Al and Mr. Gregory running around in football uniforms. Apparently this is quite normal here. It is not just kids that play games. Instead of using workout machines or jogging, adults play games too. It was quite fun to watch. And afterwards we had a bar-be-que. Churrassco it is here. They put a bunch of little pieces of grilled beef and pork on a plate and everyone picks at it. Also you eat manjoca, which tastes sort of like a potato, but is shaped more like a banana. You eat them together and it is very yummy.

Elizabeth

October 10 Journal

Well in my second month here I have figured out the habits. The woman who gives my host mother and sister manicures comes on Monday, and sets up all her tubs in the kitchen, so we eat in the dining room. Luciana also changes the sheets on Monday, so you don’t have to make your bed. The little kids go to English classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Stella has her crazy class where she jumps on a trampoline in a pool on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well (I have gone to that with her and it is quite fun.) The church group meets on Mondays and Rotary on Wednesdays. Sundays we go to visit the parents’ families in a nearby town. The first weekend of every month someone goes to the farm. There are less mysteries now. I know where everyone is if they are not at home. I know where to find the pao de quiejo if there is none in the bread bin. I know where they keep the scissors, staplers, and tape. I don’t go hovering around anymore asking about things. I go in the freezer and defrost myself some pao de queijo. I walk into my parents’ room and plop down on their rock solid bed ( yeah not really sure why, but everyone likes to have really hard beds. My brother told me that the mattress I use used to be his, but it got to soft) just like the other kids. If I need a full length mirror I go into my mother’s closet and use it.

Another thing that makes me quite happy is all the people I know. I remember the first time I went out with Julianna to buy shoes and the whole thing took about an hour longer than necessary, because she knew everybody and had to stop to greet 11 out of 10 people. I went out with some friends the other night and they could not believe how many people I knew. I couldn’t either for that matter. My friend Laura declared that I knew more people in this city than she did. I am so lucky to be an exchange student, because people want to meet you and then they introduce you to their friends and those friends introduce you to their cousins, and the cousins introduce you to their classmates and before you know it you know everybody.

But enough about my feelings I did do lots of really interesting things. Like ride on a motorcycle. Also I tried Acai. My little sister’s English teacher took me and Ruth from Canada to Torteria Holondese to try it. It is the most amazing thing in the world. It is a fruit that comes from the Northeast and it is purple. However no one here has actually seen the fruit, just the pulp. You eat the pulp all mashed up with granola and chopped banana and then honey on top. It is icy cold and amazing. I figured out that if I ate one everyday for a month it would use all the money Rotary gave me for the month. However once I go home I will never see this fruit again, so I kind of feel that I should eat as much of it as possible while I can. The owner of Torteria Holondese is quite familiar with me. His name is Julio and I see him playing volley at Caicaras (the country club).

I have also been to so many political shows it is not even funny. I know all the words to Jose Humberto’s campaign song, which you hear all day long, because there are motorcycles whose purpose it is to drive through the streets where people live and play it out of the huge speakers on the back of their motorcycles. Anyhow I sing it constantly and people always find it humorous. O catorce e Jose Humberto e o catorce Jose Humberto vai ganhar. O progresso tem que continuar. Para que parar, parar pra que? Nossa cidade agora sabe o que crescer. Jose Humberto prefeito differente fala pouco e faz muito Patos vai seguir na frente. Speaking of the elections it is really interesting here, because you can vote when you are sixteen, and once you are eighteen it is required. Required! Also the way in which they vote is funny. Each candidate has a number and you punch that into the computer, a picture of the candidate appears and if it is the one you want you hit confirm. How simple is that? I know you are wondering how people remember the numbers, but they are worked into the songs. Jose Humberto is catorce-14. And if I, a simple American exchange student, can know that than I think everyone who is voting knows too.

I also went to Ludimilla’s farm. Our whole class went as a sort of class trip. It was amazing! There was a river there and we spent most of the day there, because it is hot. I got 74 mosquito bites on my back alone. It was funny, because everyone got bitten and it just wasn’t a big deal. No one didn’t go back to the river the second day because of the bugs and it wasn’t something anyone remembered or even joked about afterwards. It was just forgotten. At night we would come back and eat chuhassco (barbeque), and played truco. Chuhassco is amazing. Someone just walks around with a plate of sliced up grilled meat and manjoca and everyone picks at it. Trocu is amazing too. It is a card game similar in design to spades or hearts, but the trump cards are the most random things in the world. 4 of clubs, red sevens and the ace of spades. Then come threes. It is really fun though and the best part is when you get to throw down your card with a vengeance and yell TRUCO! Ruth and I also taught them how to play spoons and BS. They loved them both. They were vicious at spoons. Lots of people ended up with cuts on their fingers from someone else snatching a spoon out of their hand. Saturday and Sunday we rode horses a little. I only rode on Saturday, because I realized I was so bad and no horse will obey me. Just when my friend was trying to explain to me that I had to keep my toes and not my heel on the front of the stirrup or I might fall off, my horse veered off at top speed into the cow pasture, and I thought this is it. This is where my exchange year ends. They will tell stories about me and I will be that exchange student who went to Brasil and fell off the horse and was paralyzed for life like the guy who played superman. I really did think of that too. I had a perfect mental picture of Christopher Reeves as my horse headed straight for a herd of cows. Somehow I stopped him before that and then Ludimilla’s little brother came and helped me. This little brother was so little and was riding in flip-flops. I fell like the big idiot from America who didn’t know how to ride a horse. It wasn’t just me though. The next day Gabi fell off, but her foot was still stuck in the stirrup, so she got dragged a bit and it was pretty scary. It was amazing though, because she didn’t break anything. She got a couple of ugly scrapes on her face and shoulders and back, but nothing serious. I couldn’t help be amazed how chill everyone was about it. Ludmilla’s parents weren’t terribly concerned and she stayed there for the rest of the trip without calling her parents or anything. The funniest thing about the farm was the way we were sleeping on the ground and in tents and swimming in the river and making campfires and grilling our own food, and yet somehow everybody, everybody insisted on taking a shower in the house, everyday. I didn’t take a shower one of the days and Ludmilla’s 10 year old twin brothers were all over me telling me that they knew how I’d “escaped” the shower. I couldn’t believe it. This is camping. You are supposed to be really dirty.

Also just a few more interesting things: There are more twins in this country. I know I think 5 sets, and at home I know 2. Longbranch, New Jersey must be full of no one but Brazilians. Everyone has a cousin or a brother who lives in Longbranch, New Jersey. I had never even heard of this city before I left and now people will be like “oh I have a niece who lives somewhere up north.” And I’ll just be like “do they live in Longbranch, New Jersey?” And they do. They always do. Also being here I realized the U.S. is really big and I don’t know anything about it. I tried just to see if I could to name all 50 states. I only got 47 no matter how I tried. When I looked it up I discovered I’d forgotten Wisconsin, Idaho, and Oklahoma. When I come back I am going to get to know the U.S. better. There is a girl from Peru who is an exchange student in this town too. It was quite funny, but she said when she met me she thought I was from Japan. Japan! Honestly.

October 30 Journal

So here they have caterpillars just like we have at home. The sort with the spots on the side that look like eyes. The word for caterpillar is largata. Coincidentally this is the same as the word for lizard, which they also have lots of here. My host mother here hates the caterpillars and my little brothers use this as a justification to burn them alive. It is the most horrible thing I have ever seen. The really big fat ones make a loud popping noise, that wakes you up if you are taking an afternoon nap. All I can think about is how when I was their age we were collecting them and keeping them as pets in margarine tubs with holes in the top. But about lizards. I don’t like them. I don’t like them at home and I don’t like them here. They are huge here. You can hear them running around in the bushes. Anyhow the other night I was talking on the phone in our outdoor space, which is almost completely unlike a yard, and when I returned inside my host father made the most horrible face and told me not to move there was a largata on my shoulder. My host mother meanwhile hid in the pantry. I started freaking out imagining one of those foot long lizards and shut my eyes and told my host father I didn’t want to see it. He led me outside and then called the maid to remove it. After she had done this I looked down to find that it was nothing but a little caterpillar. My host father then asked me exactly where I’d been. It was hard to be terribly specific, because the space that is almost completely unlike a yard is very small and I sort of just stood in the center of it. He then sent the maid to search for caterpillars in the trees and destroy them. He then comforted my host mother explaining that the man who was going to come and kill the caterpillars would be here next week. On Monday the man came and walked around on our wall spraying every tree with lots of horrid smelling poison. I couldn’t believe any of this. All this fuss over a caterpillar. They have ants living in their sugar tub, and they can’t handle a few caterpillars in the yard. It is just one of those things I’ll have to get used to.

I have been spending a bit of time in the bank, and I think it might be one of the most interesting places ever. So when you walk in everybody gets a number in theory when that number shows up on the screen you go to the desk that is indicated below to be helped. However it hardly ever works out like that, because honestly you can go there and sit there for 4 hours (and you won’t even know it, because they don’t have a clock, where they should have a clock they have a golden crucifix) and some people have to bail out before they get to go to a desk. So if you’re lucky you will arrive just when one of these people is leaving and they will give you their number, which is fun, because then you get to make someone really happy by giving them your number. Another thing that confuses things are the skippers who just walk up to a desk and proceed with their business. This is just the second floor. On the third floor you stand in line, and I have learned you cannot go on Friday afternoon. The Friday I went I spent 2 hours on the second floor and then three on the third. The one really nice thing is that they have to keep the bank open until everyone on the third floor has been served. They won’t let any new folks in after 5, but if you’re already there you’re golden. One might think it would be horribly boring to spend 5 hours in the bank, but it is one of the most jovial places to hang out. I remember at one point the guy in front of me whipped out this phone and the antenna was about two feet long and made of metal. When he turned around it would hit people in the face. I saw this guy and I just started laughing hysterically and before I knew it all 70 people in the line were pointing at him and laughing at this ridiculous phone. Meanwhile his friend kept trying to explain that “it really wasn’t a cell phone, but a type of radio.” But no one was interested in an explanation. Some guys in the front of the line pulled out their own phones and stuck long rolled paper on the ends of them trying to imitate him. Overall it was a very fun day in the bank and I made some friends waiting in line, which is funny because now when I run into them whoever I’m with is like “oh, where did you meet them?” and I have to say “well, they were right behind me in line at the bank.”

I also went to a party for a girl who was turning fifteen. It was really more like a wedding. She had two different really fancy dresses and she had to dance the valsa with like a dozen guys. The first of which was like 13 and the last of which could have been almost thirty. But the most interesting part for me was when they showed the hour long power point with pictures and video-clips of her, starting with one of her mother pregnant with her and ending with a very recent posed picture that had also appeared on the invitation. The reason this was so interesting is because with pictures of her at every age I was able to see exactly when it was that she started being “fresca.” Literally fresca is just fresh, but what it really means is that you are a girly girl. You don’t pick up caterpillars, you don’t climb fences, you certainly don’t swim in lakes with your clothes on, and heaven help you if you want to sit on the ground and pet stray dogs. However I’ve noticed that little girls still do these things, but their older sisters don’t. So when I have the desire to play tether ball or climb a tree I have to be satisfied with companions who are at least ten years younger than me. But anyhow in this power point you could see it so clearly, because there was the video of her chasing a chicken when she was like 8 and then starting when she was 9 the rest of the pictures were of her brushing her hair, or looking pretty in a garden. Also at this party when we first came in they had a huge portrait of the girl, which everyone had to sign around the edges. I thought it was pretty funny, because I signed it, and this portrait is something she will keep forever and maybe she will always wonder who is this Elizabeth Salerno that signed her first and last name, and what was she doing at my party. And she really will keep it forever. My host mother has one of herself above her bed, and it is a quite common thing to see in people’s houses. It is kind of humorous, because in the pictures they always have on tons of make-up, and they have their hair straightened and they got on some big mother earrings, and they are trying to look all sexy, but then the majority of them have braces and it ends up looking funny. Everyone here has braces, or they have already had them and have perfect teeth.

Novemebr 8 Journal

Well I went on another trip to a farm and I had a realization. Awkward situations do not exist for Brazilians. It’s like this. On all of my trips to farms there have been so many people that we’ve had to rent a bus. Once we get there we stay there for several days. So the bus driver just stays there too and hangs out with us. At home it might be slightly awkward to have some complete stranger who has to at least be in his mid-thirties hanging out with a bunch of high school kids. You might think such a person would have nothing in common with the others and would feel out of place, but that is not the case. He does have something in common: he likes to eat barbeque and he knows how to play troco. So that is how we spent our time at the farm, us and the bus driver. And I slept in a hammock, and they told me I was crazy. But if they thought I was going to sleep in one of those rooms inside they were crazy. At night, because people had left the lights in the rooms on, tons of bugs had come in. Most of these bugs were as big as my hand and had fangs. Even in the dark you could here them flapping their huge wings around.

So yesterday was my birthday and graduation. This past Wednesday at the Rotary meeting they had a surprise party for me. Fabulous cake. It’s funny, because when I first got here it was my host mother’s birthday and I remember thinking the cake was disgustingly sweet and there was no way I would ever like it and how could anyone make icing taste bad. Well I guess I have gotten used to it. This makes me wonder if, given time, I could even start to like papaya. The Rotary club also got me a present of gold pointy toed shoes that I could wear to my graduation!

Graduation here was like this Friday night we had a mass and the actually diploma ceremony. I read during the mass. In front of everybody. Various teachers presented sentimental slightly corny power points. They are really into power points here. Went to a party afterwards, which ended at about 7 in the morning. And then I went home and spent most of my birthday sleeping, getting up around 5 to go get my hair done for the big graduation party. This was more like a prom only it was cool because everybody brought their whole family. I brought a friend of mine from another school and at first I thought it might be awkward because she didn’t know anyone. Then I remembered there are no awkward situations in Brazil. Returned from this party also at 6 in the morning, which brings me to what I am doing right now. Woke up around noon and am currently wondering Where is my family?

December 5 Journal

Two weekends ago went to the Festa de Pijama and that was completely incredible. This year it has a live band, J Quest, which is one of the most popular bands in Brazil. They were expecting about 5,000 people for the party. Lorena (from Peru) and I went together. It was at 11:30 p.m. that it started, so my host dad asked if we were sure we were brave enough to walk. We both thought that naturally he was asking because it can be a little sketchy walking around after dark. We assured him we would be fine. It was only when we got out on the street and found ourselves walking through town in our pajamas that we realized my father had not been referring to any danger we might encounter, but was simply thinking about our embarrassment. And it was embarrassing, because at 11:30 the whole world is sitting outside at bars eating barbeque.

However as we got closer and closer to the place where the party would be we found that most of the people on the street were in their pajamas as well. It was kind of humorous, because weeks before the party when people asked if I was going their next question was “so, have you bought your pajamas yet.” I thought this was weird. I have pajamas, what do they think I sleep in every night? But as I saw all the other people I began to understand. Everyone was in very cutesy, very coordinated, but still very skimpy pajamas. They had probably bought them just for this party, and would never wear them to sleep in. I had a great time even if I did feel a little out of place in my baggy and mis-matched p.j.’s.

J Quest probably only played for about an hour, but the party continued until well into the morning with a DJ. Lorena and I left around 7 by foot, despite many offers for a ride. Personally I would not have minded accepting a ride, because I had lost one of my flip-flops during the party. Even though I did arrive home with the dirtiest foot of my life, I was glad we walked. It was fun to be headed home to sleep when the rest of the world is out and about with their regular business. Next day it rained and we hung around my house most of the day calling up some friends in the afternoon, who came over bringing a movie: The Butterfly Effect. We watched it in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles (for Lorena from Peru) and it was humorous, because even so I was the only one who understood it. We kept having to pause it to give me a chance to explain. This gave me a weird sort of homesickness, because it is always the same way with my mother, when we watch a movie with flashbacks that jumps around in time. She gets confused asking “but why is this happening again, we already saw this part?” “Is this real, or is he dreaming?” At the end of the movie they all said they had liked it a lot. This made me happy, because I felt useful (instead of my usual feeling of helplessness). Possibly if they had watched it without me they might not have figured it out and wouldn’t have liked it.

This useful feeling did not last long, because when we went to rummage about in the kitchen we found that the dogs had been sitting out in the rain. What needed to be done was that someone needed to go open the gate that lets them into the covered porch. It seems like quite a natural thing that I as the person who lives with them should simply go and open their gate. Let me explain why this is a problem. These dogs are demons whose purpose in life is to make me feel ill at ease. For the first month I could not go into the kitchen by myself to get a bite to eat. The very sight of me through the window would send them into fits of horrible snarling and jumping. Don’t think that I can go into the kitchen now by myself, because they have become accustomed to me. I have simply gotten smart and know how to sneak in quietly, so as not to alert them. They are miniature pinchers and I feel ridiculous that a dog the size of my foot can instill so much fear in me. Anyway the dogs were getting wetter and wetter and someone needed to let them onto the porch. Personally I would have left them there hoping that they might die of pneumonia, but my friends insisted that we had to do something. I must sound terribly cruel, but they bite me maliciously every morning when I leave for school. And I have tried to be nice to them, but I think along with being mean they are stupid and forget all the times that I have given them food and attempted friendly conversations. In the end one of my friends backed them into a corner of their pen by hissing and waving a broom, than she opened the gate and ran for the kitchen while they snapped ferociously at her heels. I hid in the pantry. After my friend slammed the door in their yapping faces I emerged. My other friend Juliani had suggested we dry them as well, but now everyone understood that was out of the question.

Last weekend I went with a friend from another school on a class trip to Ouro Preto. It is a historic city in Minas Gerais. It is basically a city filled with frat houses and churches scattered around monstrously steep hills. We stayed in one of the frat houses. Pif-Paf. It was a really cool old building and the guys who lived there were very nice. The first years in the fraternity had to shave their heads all funny and when they went out they had to wear big signs and their pajamas (which can be pretty embarrassing as I had recently discovered). So we left Patos Friday after noon and got there late Friday night, after a long bus ride. Someone had brought a tambourine and someone else a guitar and these were played while everybody else sung. About half way through the ride someone called me over to ask me questions about America and what is different in Brazil and the whole thing. I am quite used to this, so I went, but the rest of the bus noticed and all of a sudden the whole bus was crowded around me asking me questions and demanding that I sing certain popular American songs (such as Toxic by Brittany Spears or anything by Alanis Morisette). I have encountered this before, and sadly I can only remember a few words of Toxic and I have not listened to Alanis Morisette since I was like 12, so most of the songs I could sing are not any they are familiar with. I have been faced with these demands before and have long ago discovered that you do have to sing something, and the best thing is Last Kiss, who I am not sure sang it originally, but Pearl Jam did a remake of it. For some reason most Brazilians know this song and someone can always play it on the guitar. So I sang it and that pleased everyone and then they made me eat some food they said was very typical of Brazil. It was a mixture of beans and this flourlike stuff and lots of other things. I liked it and that made everyone pretty happy.

When we finally got there at midnight I was sleepy and thinking about going to bed. No one else was. They were thinking about a party in the basement. Somehow I managed to wake myself up to this idea and actually stayed up partying until 3. Then we all got up at 7 and hiked around on those hills visiting all the churches. My favorite part of the day was when we went to the highest place in the city and looked down on it all. From here you could see all the churches at once and it really was quite beautiful. The rest of the day we had free time to go the market and shop.

One of the funniest things of the trip was lunch on Sunday. I had gone out early with some friends and had accidentally spent all my money. We went to a nice place for lunch and I felt funny borrowing 8 reals (that is a lot for just lunch) from someone. So I told them I would just wait until I could go back to pif-paf and get my credit card and I would just eat with the other folks who were going to eat in the bakery later. No one accepted this. They insisted on sharing their food with me, which would not have been a problem except it was an all you can eat place, and you have to pay 3 more reals if you have leftovers on your plate, so you are not allowed to share. No one seemed to care about the rules of the restaurant however and they shoved things into my mouth while the workers were looking the other way and the p.e. teacher who was there as a chaperone kept passing me sausages and such under the table. Eventually someone noticed and came over and yelled at us all. Still no one listened and kept passing me stuff. Then the restaurant brought in a police man. Not serious or anything. Just to scare us all. Then the owner asked that I please buy my own plate of food. The others decided to all pitch in and buy me a plate even though I protested. I had actually eaten quite a lot already. They insisted and told me to get the biggest cuts of meat that I could, bc those were the most expensive for the restaurant to provide. I ended up with a plate full of food, which naturally I had to eat all of, bc I couldn’t pay the 3 reals for leftovers. I left the restaurant stuffed to the busting point, but everyone else seemed to feel that they had pulled one over on the restaurant owners so they were all happy and therefore I was too.

Lately all my friends have been taking entrance exams for the colleges they want to go to. There is a tradition where if you pass everyone throws eggs and paint and stuff on you. My friends Julianna and Bruno passed, so we all left class and went to the town center with them all painted and covered in eggs and flour. Then you approach cars at stop lights and ask the people for money. We raised more than 70 reals for … you guessed it, a party the next day. Also if it is a guy who passes, you cut his hair all funny, and then he has to shave his head, because no one wants to keep their hair all different lengths.

January 1 Journal

This month I discovered curdled milk flavored Popsicles.

There are people who walk around with these rolley coolers and sell Popsicles for 50 cents a piece (40 if the Popsicle is made without milk). Anyways normally I like the burned coconut ones, which are quite different from the regular coconut ones, but today I felt like trying something different, so I picked a flavor I had never heard of – coalhado. I took a bite and turned to my friend and told her there was something terribly wrong with this popsicle. It tasted like cheese. I gave her a bite and she assured me that that was how coalhado was supposed to taste. When I got home I looked up coalhado to find out that it means curdled. Generally I think of curdled milk as something you should not be eating. I found it quite difficult to believe that they purposefully created this flavor and that there were actually people out there who liked it.

I don’t want you to think this was the most exciting thing that happened this month, but it is one of the few exchange student moments that I had. By exchange student moments I mean those moments when you feel like a complete fool, because you did not know as much as everyone else because you are from another country. I am not saying that that was the only time I felt like a complete fool this month, but the other times were results of me being Elizabeth and not results of me being an exchange student. For instance jumping in the pool in my clothes at the Rotary Christmas party was purely a foolish Elizabeth moment. Also making up my own line dance at the night club and becoming surrounded by gay guys who wanted to learn it was a purely Elizabeth situation as well. It’s like when you are a guest in someone’s house and you aren’t really sure what their rules are, so at first maybe you try to be super polite, but you make some mistakes like wearing your shoes in the house, but eventually you know the rules and then you start feeling more comfortable and at home and you start acting like yourself. That is how I feel with all of Brasil. At first I wasn’t really sure what was acceptable, so I just kept quiet and tried not to offend anyone. However finally I understand and can be myself. In the beginning there were just too many differences between Brasilians and Americans that I couldn’t add in my own Elizabeth differences. I felt as if people just liked me because I was from America, and now they can like me for being Elizabeth.

I am sorry if my journal is more pensive than usual and doesn’t have as many anecdotes, but besides the story about the Popsicle everything has been very normal. I spend the night at friends’ houses. We go out and eat pizza. We watch movies. I finally have a normal life here.

February 28 Journal

Well the January trip was completely amazing. The whole month, 40 exchange students, and all of the northeast. It probably would have been fun to just hang out with them in the bus for a month. It is funny because the northeast trip is mainly beaches, but my favorite city was at the very beginning of the trip before we reached the coast. Lencois. It was full of mountains and waterfalls and lakes and caves. 

We went scuba diving in a cave. You really didn’t see any fish because it was dark (being a cave and all) but it was really cool to be swimming around in complete darkness. You could see nothing. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face or the outline of anything. We went to one waterfall that was like a smooth rock face and you could actually slide down it where the water was flowing. I also really liked Fortalaza where we went to a water park which had a water slide the same size as a four story building. This confused Debbie from Denmark a lot. 

She kept going on about how it must be horrible to live on the fourth floor of the building where they had this water slide. We kept trying to tell her that the water slide was not part of a four story building, but just the same size as it, but she didn’t get it.

Yeah as much as I liked the trip and all I had more fun talking to the other exchange students. The cathedral in Brasilia was fun but it was even more entertaining to settle Anushka and Mariana’s discussion of the pronunciation of the word city in English. Anushka liked to say it city with a t just like it is spelled. Mariana liked to say cidy with a d sound. These arguments of theirs were ongoing and probably stemmed from the fact that Anushka learned Britannic English being from Germany and Mariana learned American English being from Mexico. Pao de acucar (The big mountain that you see in all the Rio de Janeiro pictures) was phenomenal, but even better was the ride up in the glass ball with us exchange students singing our favorite Brazilian song as loud as possible much to the displeasure of the other passengers. I learned a lot from the other exchange students and also learned that Canadians are weird. It is funny because you would think that I could relate with them the most what with us being neighbors and both speaking English, but they were the most foreign people on the trip. Not to say I don’t love them, but come on who calls couches chesterfields?

After coming back from the trip it was carnival like the day I arrived in my home town. There are two carnivals in my town. There is the street carnival, which everyone tells you isn’t safe and is nicknamed the knife carnival and there is carnival at the country club- Caigaras. i went to Caigaras.

Carnival is crazy. You arrive at like 11 at night and then go home at about 5 in the morning, sleep til 3 and then head out again. Most people would then leave at 7 or so and shower and come back. I however had to stay from 3 until 5 in the morning because I am under 18 and after 8 you only get in if you are under 18 if you have your parents’ authorization. My host parents were willing to do this for me, but because I got back the day of carnival there was no way to get the permission slip authorized. It was so strange to have been gone for a month and then get back and go to this huge party and see everyone again and they were all exactly the same as they had always been. I didn’t even realize it but I changed in that month. Being around exchange students who also wore flip flops everywhere and didn’t get dressed up in high heels and tank tops to go to church made me forget that the rest of Brasil did those things. I showed up for carnival in a t shirt and sneakers, and I probably had more fun that way. I did not think it was possible that there were still people in this town that I haven’t met, but there are and I met them and I would tell them I was an exchange student and they’d all be like “uh-huh, right.” Nothing wrong with that.

The sad thing is that after this amazing trip and carnival I had to switch families and start school. it isn’t that switching families is bad, but my new house is out in the middle of nowhere and it is very quiet. It is terrible. I feel like my exchange year is winding down. It is like that feeling you get when you have a really big party and then everyone leaves and you are all alone with the house and there are still balloons and decorations and stuff, but it is quiet and lonely.

I love my new host sisters and all their friends, although I feel a little awkward because the two of them are grounded right now so whenever their friends want to do something they can’t and I end up going off with their friends. I love the maid at my new house. She is very vocal. At my last house the maids would never talk. She talks all the time. Also at my last house the maids would never scold the kids when they were doing really bad stuff. This maid is always yelling at everyone for everything, but it is all in good humor. Also at this house there is a dog who loves me. He sleeps under my bed and will always find my things in the living room to sit on. My new family is really into Big Brother Brasil. It is a reality TV show here. Basically it is just like the Real World only people get voted off and sometimes they have to do strange things for a week like wear donkey ears or pirate hats. We tease my host father because whenever we all sit down to watch the show he is like “this is ridiculous, who wants to see this?” But then he goes and watches the 24-hr camera that the show has on the internet and always knows what is going on more than any of the rest of us.

Across from my new house is a place called the zoonose center and one day I was walking home and decided I would just walk in and see what it was. It is a lot of fields and a few buildings and I sat down because there was a good view of the sunset. Sadly when I went to leave I found that the gate was locked. I seem to have a knack for getting myself imprisoned. I saw my youngest host sister down the street and yelled for her to bring me a stool or something so that I could climb over the wall. It was just the time when everyone is sitting out in the street socializing, so everybody saw me sitting on top of this wall and laughed at me. We couldn’t figure out how to get the stool over but then some nice man who was walking by helped us out. It is funny. As much as I learn there are some things that I always screw up. I get myself locked in places and I always find myself explaining the animal hippopotamus, because I can never remember the word in Portuguese.

April 16 Journal

Well my family has come and gone and that certainly was fun.  It was nice to see them get to enjoy all the things I like about Brasil and to see them be puzzled over the oddities.  My brother asked me how you pronounce the Brasilian money which the word is spelled real, but the way you say it is like heyow more or less.  Like I was shocked to find out, so was my brother, that r’s are h’s.  “But they don’t say hio de janeiro do they?”  I am afraid they do.  I loved traveling around with my family, but I was surprised at how much I missed Patos de Minas, my city and my friends there. 

So here in Brasil there are no woman in the Rotary, but the wives of all the men in the Rotary are automatically a part of the “house of friendship” which meets every 14 days.  My new host mother is the president of it because my host dad is the president of the Rotary.  I went to one of their meetings for the first time and it was really funny.  There was quite a discussion, because some woman who is not in the Rotary wanted to borrow the table cloths for her parents’ anniversary.  She had called Carla my host mother to ask if it would be okay.  My host mother then proposed it to the other women.  Then all hell broke loose and everyone was yelling about how so and so had had a party and they hadn’t let her use them, and wasn’t this woman’s mother dead, and was she the woman who was married to Fabricio?  It surely couldn’t be her parents’ anniversary, because her mother was dead.  No she was the one who worked in the shoe store by the pharmacy.  So once everyone had figured out who she was and who her parents were and agreed that she was a very nice lady, they decided not to lend her the table cloths, because then they’d have to lend them to everybody.  Then they made plans for making food for the dinner they were having to raise money.  I helped out and rolled meat balls for like 3 hours and then cheese bread, and then I put chicken on sticks and peeled manjoca and lastly I ironed all the table cloths.  It was the first time I had felt useful to my Rotary and that made me happy.

So with my new family we get movies on Saturdays and Sundays and we just sit around all day watching them. it is funny the sort of movies my sisters like to get.  They either get something really cheesy like My Prince and Me, or they get something super scary like The Exorcist.  There is no happy medium, but I have gotten used to it.  It is funny how living with them changes me.  I find myself actually liking these films and getting teary right along with my sisters as the cheerleaders in A Cinderella Story publicly humiliate Samantha.

Sometimes Ruth (the Canadian exchange student) gets mad at how little Brazilians know about geography.  There are some people that think Canada is a state in the U.S. and there are others who have never even heard of it.  It is hard to imagine knowing so little about the world, but yesterday when I went to a town of 200 people I began to understand.  Ruth’s new host dad invited us to go to his coffee farm.  He is like a coffee king. The rows of coffee just go on and on for days.  Down the road from the farm there is a little city with 200 people.  The only thing noteworthy that it has about it is a parrot that speaks Japanese.  We hung out there eating popsicles in a tree and talking to some little girls.  I tried to imagine what they must think of us.  At first we didn’t tell them we were from other countries, because we didn’t want to completely blow their minds.  They were pretty excited just to meet people from Patos de Minas.  “So you guys are from a big city? What’s that like?  Do they have lots of parties there?”  I had always thought of Patos as sort of a nothing town, but now I was realizing that to these girls Patos is like the New York City of their world.  Why would you even need to think about whole other countries when there are cities that are situated about an hour away that you’ve never seen.  It just made me think.

I cannot handle the maid at the new house. I know I said I loved her, and I do, but she is driving me nuts. She puts all my stuff in really weird places, where I can’t find them.  Like my tweezers, why would I want to keep tweezers in the shower with the shampoo?  Also she likes to take my wet towel out of the bathroom and lie it on my bed.  This is terrible for two reasons – it gets my bed all wet and I have no towel in the bathroom.  I think the trouble is that she would like to yell at me like she yells at the other girls, but I am not sure she feels comfortable doing that.  Also I don’t eat as much as she would like to imagine.  People always think that because I am like 4 times larger than any Brazilian girls that I must eat like 4 times as much as well.  I am afraid to say that sometimes I disappoint them. 

June 9 Journal

Well my last months in Brazil were great.  There are still things which can surprise me.  Apparently if you are at someone’s house watching a movie and you have not been to the person’s house before and they do not invite you to lay down on the couch you should not lay down on the couch.  Also I used the buses in my city for the first time.  I had never used them before because everything is so close and you really don’t need to.  They cost 1.30 and they are very nice.  The corn festival was awesome.  My city is the corn capital of Brazil and at the end of May you have a week of school off and there is like a fair  everyday with concerts and rides.  I had corn juice and corn soup and these corn cakey things. I probably had more corn than I have ever had in my whole life in that one week.

My friends had a surprise going away party for me.  It was a tacky party and you had to wear tacky clothes.  They brought some for me to wear, since I didn’t know because it was a surprise.  The funniest thing was that everyone had borrowed clothes from my closet to wear.  I never knew I was so tacky.  I didn’t feel like the party was for me.  I still haven’t realized I am leaving, or actually at this point I still don’t realize that I have left and am home.  It was just another party only this time I knew everyone at the party.  That is the first time that has happened in Brasil.  Normally I go to parties not because I was actually invited, but because someone thinks I should go to meet people. 

I love when I see things that my friends and family are doing that make me feel like I might really have made a difference.  My sister never would have worn a long skirt out in public before she met me.  She still felt a little awkward, but she kept saying “it doesn’t matter if no one else wears them like this.  I like it.”  It sounds strange, but I felt proud of her.  When I saw one of my friends tucking their trash into their pocket until they found a trash can instead of just throwing it on the ground I also knew that someone would remember me.   More importantly though I know that I will never forget them.  Now I know that avocadoes are not just to be eaten with salad, but can also be drunk with milk in an avocado milkshake.  I learned that there is nothing wrong with being clean.  I developed a taste for horror movies and teeny-bopper movies. 

In going away I discovered what things are really important to me and what things are really trivial.  When everyone is commenting on everything you do, you have to decide what is important enough to argue about and what you can let go.  I have returned more easy going and less argumentative. 

In Brasil it is very common to comment on someone’s weight and people did not feel funny in the slightest telling me that I had gained weight or even gotten fat.  At first I resented this, but eventually I got used to it.  In coming back to America and people seeing me who hadn’t seen me for a year I was prepared to hear about how fat I had gotten and whatnot, but no one said anything and the one person who did say something was quickly shooshed by the rest of the world and I laughed it off.  It seems odd, but that is when I knew I had changed.  A year ago such a comment would have made me cry probably or at the very least left me pensive.  Now I just laugh and move on.  It was the same way when I first got to Brasil and people would insist that my life must be just like in the movies.  I would feel offended and argumentative, but by the end of the year I would just agree with whoever was talking “yup we have those cliques with the mean cheerleaders and everyone really does eat eggs and pancakes and bacon for breakfast everyday.’’

Why should I get so defensive about petty things?  I feel I really have grown so much in the past year.

Sharon Steel
2004-05 Outbound to Denmark

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Aarhus Vest Rotary Club, District 1450, Denmark

Sharon - Denmark

August 18 Journal

It’s amazing how much can happen in just over two weeks. I arrived on Saturday, July 31st after 24 hours of traveling (land and air time) and no sleep for a little more than 30 hours. I was way too excited to get any sleep on the plane, no matter how hard I tried. I spent the time watching movies, writing in my journal, listening to music, and hanging out with all the other Rotary exchange students that were traveling the same flight. My family picked me up at the Århus airport and there was the expected nervousness and awkward silences. I dozed off for most of the ride back to the house, but I couldn’t help notice the beautiful and different landscape.

Many Danes have asked me why I didn’t go to Norway or Sweden where there are beautiful hills and mountains. They think that Denmark isn’t really very pretty, but that it has other good features. However, when compared to the flat Florida landscape, the Danish rolling hills of Århus are welcome. There are certain places that you can stand where you can see the whole city.

My first host family is very nice. It consists of my host parents, Keld and Rikke, my host sister, Julie, and host brother, Frederik. They also have a girl my age, Sofie, who will be spending the year in Canada. In her absence, I will be taking her room. I met Sofie a few days before she had to leave. She showed me some areas downtown and taught me some of the bus system. She was a lot more depressed than I was about leaving. I did not cry when I said goodbye, nor did I have any urge to so for quite some time. It wasn’t until the end of my first week here that I shed any tears. My eyes would water cry at random things that should not have triggered tears. This lasted for about
3 days, and during that time I felt stabs of homesickness. I wasn’t homesick for Florida, I was homesick for family. That passed quickly though, and I am now a very happy person.

I am making many friends here. The people in my class are very nice and accepting. They try and help me out as much as possible and I spend a lot of time with them. One of my first days of school, two friends of mine took me downtown and bought me some ice cream (mango, passion fruit, and hindbær flavors). We had a great time getting to know each other. I remember that at one of the orientations we were told something a former student said, “I wish they could know me in English.” I don’t feel the same way. In Denmark, people CAN know you in English. Instead, I think, “I wish they can know me in Danish.” I want to be able to speak Danish. To be able to join in a conversation and understand everything that is going on. I don’t feel comfortable with people translating for me and saying things twice (first in Danish to the other people, then in English to me.) This is my main motivation in learning the language. Today I will start my weekly Danish course, and next week I will be at a language camp in Copenhagen. Hopefully, I will be able to start picking out words when the teacher speaks to us soon.

I’ll have a lot more to talk about next month.

Hej hej!

-sharon

September 28 Journal

Hej everyone!

Well, my quest to learn Danish is progressing very fast. I can hold a conversation with my friends and generally understand the dinner table talk. The key is to not be timid. I make plenty of mistakes, and I practically have a flashing sign over my head screaming “FOREIGNER” when I open my mouth, but I don’t care. I say what’s on my mind and my sentences become more comprehensible as time goes by.

And time is flying. It has already been more that two months! I try and keep busy, but in Denmark that is a little hard to do. I have to be very forward and get my friends’ schedules at least a week before hand, so we can plan something to do on the weekend. Nothing spontaneous here. If I wait too long to see what they are doing, then the slot will already be filled and they will be too busy to hang out. Everyone carries around their student calendar/ appointment book, and they seem to be really organized. I’m looking into joining the clubs here. If not sports, then maybe a photography class or something similar.

I am going to change host families on November 1st. That seems far away, but I am sort of looking forward to it. My current family is a perfectly nice and normal family, but there is nothing holding me back from moving to the next one. My host siblings ignore me, and I get pretty lonely in the house. Maybe the next family will be better.

As far as school goes, I have settled into a general routine. There are certain classes where the teacher ignores me and as long as I turn in the rare assignments we are fine. In some classes I have special assignments that help me learn Danish. For instance, in my Danish class yesterday I wrote a poem describing the character of Gainesville, Florida. The rest of the students are analyzing an intense poem written by the Danish equivalent of Shakespeare, so it is understood that I have no clue what is going on. The special assignments are helpful in these cases.

Some interesting thing I have done lately include:
– Going to a Danish football (soccer) match. Very spirited and loud.
– Rotary camps where I met all the “oldies” from Australia and New Zealand.
– Going to many birthday parties and school festivals. It seems like everyone has their birthday in September!
– Learning the city like the back of my hand.
– Preparing for the Århus Kulturnat. (My city’s Culture Night)
– And I am currently starting a search for a Coffee House. They are practically non-existent here, but I have heard of some.

Well, that’s it for now.

Vi ses næst måned

-sharon

October 27 Journal

Hej! So another month has gone by. My definition of time is definitely changing. The length of one week no longer has the meaning.

I’ve been pretty busy the past couple of weeks. I have already moved to my second host family. This family seems pretty nice. They are very different from my last one in several ways. I no longer have younger siblings. Instead, there is a girl my age, Kathrine, and an older guy named Andreas. We have a dog too! This family is really loud, outgoing, and active, whereas my last family was calm, quiet, and collected. I enjoy both so it all works out for me. Adjustment to a new surrounding is coming on pretty easy. I decorated my new room with pictures I have drawn and I’ve fallen in love with the outcome. I should really consider interior design… it’s a lot of fun. My host mom is really into art, so we have a lot in common. She suggested that we can paint together and stuff. She also said I can use her painting room whenever I want. It looks like it will be a lot of fun.

I never thought I would say this, but I actually miss homework. They don’t really assign homework to the students here, and when they do it is something way over my head. One of my teachers still has me doing little assignments, but the rest don’t really ask for any. I’m starting to wonder how the grading system works… no assignments, no tests… what is there to grade? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

I’ll write more about what is going on here really soon, since I can’t think of anything to write right now. I do, however, have some news for you guys to think about….

MY FAMILY IS MOVING BACK TO FLORIDA! Not back to the same city, but I will still be able to visit and everything. I can come to the welcome home dinner and see all of you guys again. It looks like they will be going to New Port Richey in Pasco County (near Tampa for those of you who don’t know where that is.) I was sort of looking forward to England… but it makes so much more sense to be back in the states on so many levels.

As I said, I’ll tell you all more later, when I actually have something to write. And I’ll throw in some pictures too…

Hilsen, Sharon

November 29 Journal

So much has happened, so much to say…. where do I start? Hmmm…let’s do this chronologically then.

First off… I would like to thank everyone who told me I should keep a journal. You were so right.  I have been actively writing in a journal (for the first time in my life) and I’m very glad to have it. Actually, I’m currently on volume 2 since the first book filled up so quick. It also makes recaps like this so much easier.

I failed to mention some of the more exciting parts of October in my last entry. Such as the demonstrations that Megan told you guys about. I’ll just quote what I wrote about it at the time… It’s a lot more lively that way.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004 – “This is pretty exciting. My school is in the middle of a demonstration against education cuts. The students are barricading the doors and blocking the teachers from getting into their rooms. Actually, all the students managed to get all the teachers out of the class rooms and heard them into the teacher’s lounge with a series of human walls. It was really quite easy for them to accomplish because the teachers all agree with the students on the issue that they were protesting (they just weren’t allowed to voice their opinions or they would risk losing their jobs.) Half of the school just left to protest down at the town hall while the others stay and hold up the fort here. I’m learning a lot about what the different political opinions of the youth are. I wonder how many schools doing this. I know it is happening all over the country.”

Wednesday, October 06, 2004 – “Day two of demonstrations. Yesterday I headed down to the town hall at around 2 o’clock after “holding down the fort” at the school. There were hundreds of students down there. Very exciting. Then, last night, there had been a planned film festival that was still on. I went there and many students slept at the school so that when teachers and students arrive today everything will be blockaded. More than ever do I wish I had my camera here to photograph this. They have a series of chairs and stools in front of the door in the shape of Sata’s sled. They even have animals and decorations all over it. There is an old fashioned alarm clock with wires attached that looks like a fake bomb around the chairs. That would SO get someone arrested in the states. They also have this inflatable alligator on top of the chair pile to “ward off” all who dare enter. Its a lot of fun. I don’t know how long it will go on though. A lot of people do not agree with it. I’m not taking any political sides in this, I’m just observing and learning. To me, it sounds like the demonstrating group would be the extreme liberals in the states. Even though the two political systems are incomparable. After this demonstration I am to give a speech about the USA to a class of 8th graders. (that means slow speaking and hopefully they will pick up some of my English) I just got the information on what I am to talk about last night. It should be easy.”

Thursday, October 07, 2004 – “Day THREE of demonstrating!  It ends today though. They were demonstrating in the morning, and then everyone voted and we ended up heading to class instead. Classes just resumed as if nothing had happened and the demonstrations weren’t even mentioned.”

I spent Halloween with all the other exchange students in Denmark. It was nice to meet all the “oldies” (the exchange students who arrived in the winter) but it was also sad because it was the last time we would see any of them. It was actually a weekend put on by rebound exchange students from Denmark who went to America and fell in love with the tradition.  Here are a few pics from that weekend:

Moving onto November…

This month has been SO busy. Filled with ups and downs.  The downs being the discovery of exactly how much weight I have gained since I have been here. My clothes still fit so I’m not worried there, but I have become more physically active. Now every Sunday I rollerblade around the lake (10 kilometers). It also makes for some quality bonding time with my host sister, Kathrine, who joins me.   

I’ve also noticed the weather a lot lately. The absolute beauty of autumn was stunning. And when that disappeared I was captivated by the way the frost glittered all over the city. Then we had snow! It only lasted one day and then it rained and turned into slushy mush… but it was snow all the same! It’s gotten a lot warmer since then.

How about I quote a few more of my journal entries…

Wednesday, November 24, 2004 – I went to this movie that was all in French with Danish subtitles with my French class. I was amazed at how much I understood. It is so much easier to read Danish than to listen to it. I know I am not happy with the amount of Danish I speak. I spend way too much time speaking English because it is so easy to just fall back on. But after watching this movie I thought back to when I first came and how much Danish I knew then and I realize that maybe I have learned a thing or two. I now understand what people are saying… I just need to work on speaking it myself.”

I truly believe that it is harder to learn the language here than in some of the other countries because of how much English everyone knows. My friends flip from Danish to English and than back to Danish without even realising it, and they do that with themselves too, not just with me. TV and movies are in English, the radio is dominated by American singers,  and often the billboard advertisements are even in English. I’ve come to realise that this is part of the culture. American culture and Danish culture are so intertwined that I can no longer pick out the differences between the two. It’s hard for me to remember if the meal I am eating is something we have back in the states as well, and stuff like that. When speaking English people here either have a Danish accent or an American accent, and they use American slang all the time.  

Thursday, November 25, 2004 “THANKSGIVING! It completely and totally rocked!  I made all the classics…turkey, stuffing, yams, green beans, biscuits, corn bread, deviled eggs, potatoes and gravy. I had tons of help from my host mom with getting the ingredients, but I ended up cooking most of it myself. I had a blast though. I truly enjoy being busy and stressed. After everything was cooked I kept pacing the kitchen trying to find something to do until my friend Julie looked ate me and was like… “Sharon, slappe af!” which means calm down in Danish. Two of my friends came; Julie and Camilla, and my host family consisted of 6; my host parents, sister, brother, grandma, aunt, uncle, and cousin, and then 3 family friends came as well. So in total, 13 people showed up for the dinner and I am happy to say that it was successful. Everything tasted the way it should and people seemed to love all the food. They were sceptical at first with the thought of marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes that are an orange color, but they loved the taste. And stuffing is the hardest thing to describe in Danish.”

Sunday, November 28, 2004  – “First Christmas tradition of the year! I woke up and noticed I had a Santa hat tied to the doorknob outside my bedroom. Inside the hat was a little gift! I opened it and there were the most beautiful earrings inside. My host mom rocks! So I learned that this is the start of Advent and every Sunday until Christmas we will be getting a present on our door when we wake up. So cool.”

The Christmas season is now upon us. The city is decorated in lights and everyone is getting into the spirit. I think I’m going to have a lot of fun celebrating Christmas. Not only will it be my first Christmas in Denmark, but it will be my first Christmas ever! The traditions are so different here, but I’ll wait to tell you guys all about that in my next entry.

Knus!

-Sharon

January 25 Journal

Hej alle! It’s about time I wrote another journal entry…sorry for the delay…

So I’m stuck at home with the flu… yes…home. Because that is what this place is to me now.

Home.

I never thought it was possible to have more than one home. If you think about it there isn’t any reason for there not to be. “Home is where the heart is,” and seeing as there are people with my heart all over the world, then I guess that means I truly have more than one home. Home is not a place, at least for me. I used to think about “home” and I would picture my mom, dad, and sisters. Now I when I think about “home” I see this little screen with arrows pointing in two separate directions. I follow one and I see the previously mentioned faces of my family. Then, if I follow the other arrow I see all the faces that I have encountered here, most prominent are my host family and friends.

So the people are my home, not the place of residence. This is important to know, seeing as I will be changing my place of residence at the end of this month. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I love my current host family. I fit in perfectly and I’m comfortable here. Staying with them has been an awesome experience and I’m not sure if I want that to end. I’m at the point where I look forward to telling my host mom what I did that day and casual banter with my host siblings comes naturally to me. My current host family organized a little get together with my next host family a few days ago. Nothing big, just a casual cup of coffee to talk over. I’m pretty sure this host family was just as curious as I was to see what my next one would be like. We discovered that they seem incredibly nice and they have a witty sense of humor. Sarcasm is something that the Danes have perfected. I wouldn’t be surprised if they invented it. Anyway, we talked about where I would live and what their life is like. There is promise of travel. The most recent being a trip to Paris on February 12th, the beginning of our winter break. It will last for 3 or 4 days and I am incredibly excited! Overall, I think I will love it at my next family as well. Which will hopefully add even more faces to my picture of “home.”

But I can write more about them later. I have been so incredibly busy that I haven’t been able to write about what has been going on since my last post. So lets recap on the last two months:

December began with the duty of deciding what our return date would be. I know, right? Only December, and we are already thinking about which date we should return on? Well I finally decided on June 3rd. So now that that is out of the way, at least I don’t have to worry about it. It did come up in a recent conversation, however. In my language class we were discussing the fact that a new batch of exchange students arrived on the 23rd. Officially changing our status of “newbies” to the more respectable status of “oldies.” It made us think about how time is moving so incredibly fast. I have been here for almost 6 whole months, meaning I only have 4 more months left in Denmark. Then someone said that 4 months is actually around 17 weeks. 17 Weeks! Barely anything on the scale of our lives. This is an open door of opportunity, but the door will only stay open for so long. I really need to make these remaining 17 weeks worthwhile.

Then on December 7th, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah came. I took the opportunity to share with my host family aspects of my life. I told them the story of how the holiday came to be and we participated in some of the traditions together. They were with me when I lit the menorah for the first few times and on the last night some of my friends came over and we played dreidel. I only felt a slight twinge of the “holiday blues” that many exchangers get. It passed after talking with my family and listening to them celebrate the holiday over the phone. Here is a pic of the menorah that my family and I lit.

Later in the month, I took part in an awesome Danish Christmas. The week before Christmas I made tons and tons of cookies with my host sister, Kathrine and then on the 24th I went to the church with my host family. After that we all went to my host Uncle’s house and we spent ‘Juleaften’ or Christmas night there. We had a really traditional dinner and I had a good time getting to know everybody. Then Mads (host cousin), Kathrine, and I went to get all the gifts from the car and put them under the tree. Now there were millions of gifts. I’m amazed we fit them all under the tree. Once we were done we had to leave the room for my host Aunt and host Uncle to light the candles on the tree (they use real candles instead of Christmas lights to decorate the tree). When they finished they let everyone come back into the room and we all stood around the tree. Each person got to choose which Christmas song we wanted to sing, starting with the youngest child and working our way up. We held hands and danced, sung, and laughed around that tree. Then Mads, Kathrine and I took turns pulling out gifts and handing them out to everyone. I had so much fun and got so many cool things. Definitely a great first Christmas! But it doesn’t end there… In Denmark, not only do you have Christmas night on the 24th, you also have Christmas Day on the 25th, and Second Christmas Day on the 26th. I spent the 25th at Mathilde’s house for a ‘Jule frokost’ meaning Christmas lunch. Basically, it is just an excuse to eat lots of Christmas foods. And then everyone came to our house for the 26th to eat even more food. So much fun.

Then the beginning of January commenced with an awesome New Year’s. It started with a large get together at a family friend’s house where we ate more food and listened to the Queen’s traditional New Year’s speech. Afterwards, I went to a party at my friend Jakobe’s house. We saw the fireworks at the school (cause she lives right next to it and it has the best view) and they were really pretty. Instead of there being one huge professional show for you to watch there are fireworks all around you. Every other house in the city was setting off the expensive stuff. No matter which direction you turned you saw fireworks. It sounded like a battle zone (or is that battle field?) One tradition that stuck out in my head was that everyone stood on the chairs for the countdown and jumped down when the clock struck midnight. I’ve been told that this is not necessarily a Danish tradition but that it is still very popular among many Danes.

We also had a hurricane in the month of January. It was actually the first storm I experienced in Denmark. You get all sorts of weather here. In one week you can have rain, snow, hail, frost, wind, and clear skies. But we never seem to get actual storms here. I remember looking out the window and seeing the trees sway and bend. It reminded me of Florida. The sound of wind blowing the trees against the windows and branches falling on the roof. The only thing is… in Florida you also have the sound of pounding rain during a storm. That was missing here. It seemed to be all wind and only a slight drizzle of rain. Anyway, it was a HUGE deal to have a storm/tropical storm in Denmark. The whole country freaked out about that one.

And on the language front. Speaking Danish has been getting easier and easier. I think less about what I am saying and words seem to flow out of my mouth now. I consider myself rather fluent in the language, even if I have troubles with certain words in certain situations. Danish comes naturally to me now and I often think solely in Danish without realizing it.

The last thing I wanted to mention is that I have been in a REALLY great mood lately. For no apparent reason the past month has been just awesome. Everyone says that this is where the exchange gets good, and I have a feeling that they are very right.

KNUS,

Sharon

March 20 Journal

Wow, I’m amazed at how much has happened since I wrote last. The beginning of my exchange year had periods where I had absolutely nothing to do and therefore nothing to write about. Since then, my plate has had more and more piled onto it. To the point where I do not have enough time to fully digest what is going on in my life anymore. That’s where writing in a diary comes in handy. I can sit down and just let words flow through my hand. The speed at which they come is increasingly fast and in no time I have a record of what is going on in my head. I seriously recommend to all exchangers to write in a journal often during your year abroad.

Journal keeping can sort of be related to cleaning a teenage bedroom. Clothing strewn all over the floor, bed, and desk. Homework papers covering all the remaining counter space. There is no time to go in a pick up the mess, so instead it just gets worse and worse, until you just can’t take it anymore. The decision is finally made to crack down and clean up. It takes a few attempts to find enough discipline to get started, but after awhile a routine starts to form. Before you know it, the room is clean and you feel so much better about yourself. The same goes for keeping a journal. Your mind is the room and your thoughts are the sock on the chair and the stack of papers by the door. As the words flow from the pen they organize themselves to form a nice and tidy mind. Anyway, I’m getting off topic here. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the more often you write the less often you have to clean it up. I’ve been slacking on my writing duties so its about time I clean out the old attic.

To start with, I moved to a new host family. These people are amazing. I feel so at home and comfortable here. I have two host siblings, Mette and Søren, two host parents, Jens and Vibeke, and a dog named Malou. Mette is fourteen years old and the perfect shopping partner. She has become a close friend and is one of the easiest people to talk to. Søren is eighteen and has a great sense of humor. Though I don’t see him very often, since he lives at an English speaking school in another city during the weekdays, we have had enough time to get to learn quite a bit about each other. Vibeke and Jens welcomed me with open arms and attentive ears. Within the first week that I was here I felt “a part of the family” and the awkwardness that normally lingers at first, melted away at a shockingly surprising speed.

I have been developing lots of bonds lately with those around me. Obviously with my host family, but also with my friends. We’ve had a lot more time to hang out and acquaintances have become close friends and close friends have become best friends. Bonds have formed and I wish to keep them intact for as long as possible. I’m starting to get mixed feelings about returning to Florida. It will be a true test on these new strings that bind us together. Hopefully I will be able to braid those strings into strong ropes within the next two and a half months.

Mid-February saw a trip to Paris with my host family. We had an awesome time there and I have to say that Paris is the most beautiful city I have ever visited… despite the horrible weather we had. We managed to fit all the most important tourist sites into just one week jam packed with days that required good quality walking shoes and a relaxing bath that night. I was amazed at how much French I actually understood and how easy the Metro is to follow. The art in the Museé D’Orsay was stunning. I saw Degas pastels and Van Gogh’s portraits, along with many more artists that I have studied and favored.

The architecture of the Sacré Coeur is impressive and we were actually able to go inside and watch a real Sunday service. Everyone that steps foot in that building respects the holiness of the place and even though there were hundreds of people inside, only the sole voice of the priest resounded in the room. The Notre Dame is a contrast in so many ways to the Sacré Coeur, but it was beautiful in its own right. We went to so many places and ate out at so many restaurants. We had a great time.

After Paris, we spent the rest of the Winter Break at my host family’s summer house. And in a few days we will be returning to said summer house for påske ferien (Easter break). It is a peaceful and sweet house in a small town on the North-Western coast. It is very common for people in Denmark to own both a normal house and a summer house. The summer house is a perfect place to go and get away from it all. A great concept.

Then on February 24th I had my birthday! It was so perfect. I woke up early for a traditional birthday breakfast. Mette had spelled my name out in gummi-bears and all my presents were sitting out next to mini Danish flags. I got to open my presents and every present was perfect. My host family had gotten me awesome gifts, my previous host family sent some and had just received a package from Florida. It was absolutely perfect. My mom called later in the day while I was drinking the Barnie’s coffee she had sent me and my grandparents called later in the day. That night we ate a special dinner and we had a traditional layer cake and I blew out the candles. The whole day had this really nice and very special feeling to it… one of the best birthdays I have ever had.

Most of March consisted of stressful homework and getting sick again, but soon I was off to Berlin. We did so much; tourist sites, school assignments, partying, and just hanging out. I learned a lot about my friends and a lot more about how they interact with each other when living together. There has been a sudden burst of improvement in my language skills and that is all due to the help of my friends. The simple act of correcting my grammar when I speak and write is a welcome way of learning. We talked about all sorts of topics, from what our favorite foods are to the casualness of sex in Danish teenage life. We had a blast. There is so much that we did that (knowing me) writing it all down would take pages and pages. I won’t bore you with all the details and instead I will leave you with one sentence. This trip has been just one of the many experiences that have made this year one to remember and cherish.

Sort knus,

Sharon

May 28 Journal

 

My life has taken a very surreal turn lately. You see, I realized that I only have 5 days left before I hop on the plane back to Florida. It doesn’t seem real. I feel like I suddenly jumped off the carousel and now I’m looking for something to grab so I can jump back on. Only, the carousel is moving too fast and it is impossible to continue life as it was. I have to step back and move on and find a different ride at the fair. It’s a strange feeling, but it is something I am ready to do. I’m going to see my family again. I am going to see my old friends. I’m going to re-visit my old life. I’m going to stop living this “dream” and wake up to reality.

But my reality is not the same reality as the other exchange students. As I mentioned in previous journals, my family has moved around a bit since I have been on exchange. They moved to England and then back. They are currently (and now permanently) living in Tampa, Florida. They moved into their new house a few days ago. So I won’t be returning to “the way things used to be.” I will have a new city, new house, new school, new friends, new job… the list could go on and on. I won’t have to worry about people expecting me to be the same way I was before I left, because I will be starting fresh once again. I sort of feel exactly like I did before I left to come to Denmark, I am on the verge of a new adventure.

As for a recap on what I have been doing since March… well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I celebrated my first Easter. It was lots of fun. My host siblings and I received a big cardboard egg filled with millions of chocolate, licorice, and marzipan mini-eggs. Easter was also my host grandpa’s 80th birthday. So we had a huge party with all of my extended host family attending.

I also have continued with my new fascination with mother nature. Here is an except from my diary in April:

søndag, 10. April 2005 I went out to go on a walk with the dog today and it truly felt like spring. The birds were all singing different songs, and the sun was warm on your skin despite the cool breeze. The trees are budding with spurts of leaves and baby pinecones. All the dogs were running around chasing and sniffing each other. People were having picnics and riding bikes. Truly and completely SPRING. I’ve never actually seen spring at its fullest before. In Florida they say that the seasons are described as; almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. We never really feel the change from one season to the next. And that change is actually very deep. Everyone’s face now bears a smile. People’s moods are lifted and the overall happiness seems to be contagious. I didn’t even realize that winter was making me slightly depressed until I saw how spring did the opposite. I think I sort of had the opposite of cabin fever. I always wanted to stay inside and sleep instead of the other way around. I had wanted to stay in the so called cabin and not leave but now it’s different. It’s a time of change.

I’ve been doing some traveling around Denmark as well. I visited Copenhagen, not too long ago, with my host sister. We had a blast. We went to all the tourist sites and did a whole bunch of shopping. Then I went to Ebeltoft with my host mom one weekend. There was a new Hans Christian Anderson exhibit at the glass museum and we were curious and interested. That was also lots of fun.

Oh yeah, on Thursday I gave my Rotary speech. I spent 40 minutes standing in front of my club talking about what I did this year in choppy, nervous Danish. They all seemed really impressed with it afterwards, but while I was talking I kept on looking into their really bored faces and thinking, “should I be making more jokes?” But it is done and over with now. They told me that all their previous exchange students only talked for five minutes and in English, so I went far beyond their expectations.

When I got home from the Rotary meeting I proceeded to bake 9 dozen cookies. I have become famous here for my “American Cookies” (you have to love the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse Chocolate Chips bag). I mentioned to my friend that I was making the cookies for my going away party and they all literally jumped for joy. It made me smile.

Then the next day was the going away party. I had a bunch of friends over. Eleven friends actually. We had a blast. We made dinner (with lots of potatoes) and drank wine while talking our mouths off. They got me this beautiful necklace with matching earrings as a goodbye present. I’m going to miss them so much. Really.

Then today all of my host families are coming over for a farewell lunch/dinner. I think there will be around 15 people here for that. I cant help but think that that will be a little weird. When I think of my life in Denmark I sort of think of 3 different mini-lives, and now they will all be in the same room at the same time. I hope it wont be too strange.

But then again, as I said before, strange and surreal have become flashing billboards in my life right now.

Besides that I have just been living regular old normal life. Gossiping with the girls about which guy we think is cute, stressing over school grades, making plans for Friday night. You know… normal life. It’s funny that when life becomes completely normal, I have to leave.

So this is my last journal. I want to thank everyone that read it. To all of you that are thinking about becoming exchange students in the future, go for it! To all the outboards that are succeeding us, good luck! And to all the exchangers that are finishing up our exchange year, congratulations, we made it!

Thank you Rotary. You changed my life.

Knus og kys,

Sharon

Anna Tompkins
2004-05 Outbound to Slovakia

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor: Arlington Rotary Club
Host: Zilina Rotary Club, District 2240, Slovakia

Anna - Slovakia

September 30 Journal

Well, I’ve been in Slovakia for a month now. Quite possibly the most difficult, and certainly the most confusing month of my young life. The plane ride on the way to Slovakia sucked, I felt absolutely crappy. I don’t know why, but I always seem to forget that I have motion sickness, and every time I get on a plane it all comes back and slaps me in the face (or the stomach for that matter). My family is great and I’m living in a very nice house instead of an apartment. I think that the only real issues that I’m having with Slovakia is that they don’t use shower curtains and they always have those shower heads that you have to hold. I guess I’m just lazy.

The first day of school was a bit of a shock for me, but in a good way. It started at 9:00 and ended at 11:30 in the morning. They basically just gave my class our schedule and we waited for the day to be over. I remember asking the girl next to me, “We’re done?” And of course they all thought that it was funny when I kept on asking in disbelief, “Is school over?” I probably looked like such a dork. Oh well. The second day of school I agreed to go on a bike ride with some of my classmates, little did I know that it was a 17km (10 mi) trip and that we would be going up a small mountain. I eventually made it up the mountain, but I had to walk my bike up a good deal of the way, it was like a 35 degree incline. Then a week later I went on another bike ride with my parents to visit the site of a ski resort. This one was the same distance but about half of it was uphill. But all in all, I’ve gotta tell you that all that work was definitely worth the rush of the downhill.

It’s so weird, everyone keeps talking to me in broken English that I’m beginning to think in it. But once I got to language camp I was so excited to be with other exchange students who speak my language. I was talking so fast, and with a bit of a southern accent (?), that no one could really understand me. While at camp, Ivan Lamos (Slovakia’s Al) thought it would be a great idea for us to go hiking through the mountains to go visit a really old castle. I’ve never had so much constant exercise in my life. In Martin, my city, if you ever need to go anywhere the best ways to do it is either walk, bike, or take the bus (which only costs 5 crowns! or 15 cents). Everything’s so cheap, I love it!!

After the language course was over we all hopped on a bus, grabbed our passports, and headed for Kromeriz in the Czech Republic for a district orientation. While there, with all the other Czech and Slovak inbounds, I took a dance class that taught some traditional and some non-traditional Czechoslovak dances. My two favorites were the Cha-Cha and the Polka. Yes, I know how to Polka. Now all of you out there that actually know me might be a little shocked that I now know how to Polka, but its really quite fun and can be very useful for things like balls and stuff.

Octoberfest is coming up in Kosice and a lot of the exchange students are planning on going there and stay in a hostel. We’re calling it an officially unofficial meeting; we’ll probably stay there for a few days. We’ve all decided that it’s time that we speak Slovak to each other even though it would just be easier to speak English. I sometimes have to speak Slovish (half Slovak, half English) just to get my point across though. You wouldn’t believe how long it’s taken me to write this much. A lot of the letters and functions on these keyboards are switched around, and I’m basically typing very slowly and with one finger at a time. I can’t decide whether it’s funny or annoying, but a bunch of the billboards here are in Slovish. The most common English words are REAL, EASY, FREE, and NONSTOP.

Well this is all I have to say for now about my exchange so far, but I would like to make a holler out to all my pals in Jacksonville; I miss DA so much and all you technicians out there, Todd I loved your cd (especially the Hokey-Pokey). I love you guys and will be thinking about yáll a lot.

Dovidenia (good-bye)

Anna

October 7 Journal

Okay, I know it’s only been a few days since my first journal but I just had to tell you what happened to me at school. So me and another exchange student from Chicago both go use the computer during the hour of our class’s second foreign language (the first is English), and as we were sitting outside the room waiting for the teacher to come we just happened to start up a conversation in English. Then we both noticed this group of ten year olds standing by the staircase smiling and staring at us (there were about 15 of them). Well then they started talking amongst themselves and occasionally pointing at us. I guess I figured they were going to make first contact. Then the entire mob swarmed around the bench where we were sitting and this one brave little boy stepped forward and said to my friend Monica, “How are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?”. Once she said that they all ran back laughing to where they had been standing, I think I saw one kid fall over with laughter. We were both smiling and all I could think was, ‘what was that?’

Well after they collected themselves, they shot a series of questions at us in Slovak (luckily I understood them enough to answer back without using that very confused look that I have recently mastered). They seemed to get a kick out of it when we told them where we were from. They got all excited when I said Florida and they were definitely in awe when Monica said Chicago. Then they went on to ask us how old we were, whether we had pets in America, if we like Slovakia, whether or not Monica and I were sisters. I guess we could be mistaken for sisters seeing as how we are practically the only slightly overweight people in the entire city who wear baggy clothes. They hadn’t quite finished their interview when one of the professors noticed the predicament that we were in, and shooed the crowd away. As they left they were smiling, laughing, waving, and saying ‘Bye’ to us. We officially felt like we were on display. I’ve never even seen these kids or really most of the people in my school or my town, but everyone seems to know who we were, or weren’t.

Except for this one lady on the bus this morning on the way to school. It was fairly packed, she was sitting, I was standing and holding on this pole so that I didn’t fall over. Well I think I might have been hitting her in the head with my backpack, when she turned to me and said about a paragraph in Slovak. All I caught was taška, bag, so I got the message, sort of muttered okay under my breath. I was about to go into this whole speech about how I’m sorry, but I only speak a little Slovak (Prepačte, hovorím len trocha Slovenský), when she smiled and turned back to her original position. Conversation closed I figured and squeezed my way to the back of the bus. I probably should have tried to continue the conversation, but it was too early in the morning for me to concentrate and didn’t feel like having this new batch of bus people know that I was a foreigner. It’s been one of my goals to just blend in, but I’m not quite there yet. Today was one of my days of weird experiences.

I joined the basketball team at my school and am once again surrounded by people younger than me. And once again I reminded myself that I stink when I tripped over my shoe and gave my knee one of those gym floor burns during a drill that I had never done before. But it was fun.

I’m sure that none of these stories sounded very interesting, but I guess you just had to be there.

Ahojte.

Anna

October 29 Journal

Ahojte,

Hurray!! I got my visa yesterday! Now they can’t deport me! For not having my visa that is. Hehe!

J

Ahojte

Anna

P. S. Yes, I realize that this was an exceptionally short journal.

November 20 Journal

Wow, I really can’t believe that it’s almost been three months since I first stepped off that plane, actually I sort of tripped off. It really feels so much like home here, I think I’m starting to fit in quite nicely. My language skills are coming along, slowly unfortunately but not for my lack of trying, it’s just a lot more difficult than I anticipated. But on the bright side, I’m always getting complimented on my pronunciation and progress by the dudes at school. I just hope all that stuff doesn’t blow up my head to the size of a watermelon. Ok so this journal is gonna be in a bit of an outline format, just so I a) don’t forget anything and b) don’t end up in endless rambling.

Weather. Let’s talk about the weather first, why not it’s always a good conversation starter, in any language. It started snowing yesterday, so needless to say, it’s rather cold. I’m just glad that my bed is conveniently situated next to a radiator. And it was either yesterday or the day before when the weather people predicted a strong wind to come, so when I got to school everyone was talking about the hurricane that’s coming. A hurricane? That’s like geographically nearly impossible for Slovakia. So I started to go about explaining what a real hurricane was like, and one of my best friends Soňa decided that she didn’t want to move to Florida. It actually turned out that this ‘hurricane’ was a wind of about 20 miles an hour. Not a hurricane.

Sports. So yeah, I’m officially a hockey fan now. I love going to hockey games, and not just to watch the match, for the atmosphere too. These are the things needed to make a good game: Two teams of equally aggressive players to batter each other in the attempt to hit a little black rubber cylinder into a partially blocked goal, enthusiastic half drunken fans to cheer on the home team and angrily whistle at the guests, and three referees who always seem to make really bad calls. Put those three things together and you’ve got yourself a very exciting next two hours. So I enjoy watching hockey, and I enjoy playing basketball just as much. All my teammates are really cool, and even though they’re all younger than me we always have a good time together, for the love of the game I guess.

School. School is an adventure and a half, I’m so glad that a understand a lot more that’s going on. But sometimes, when I’m attempting to keep up with a conversation, the teacher all of a sudden asks me what I think of what they were just talking about. Sometimes I don’t have too much of a problem answering their questions, but sometimes I have to give them that ‘what were you talking about?’ look. Then they just go back and explain it in simpler words and everything is okay. All my classmates are great, they’re always willing to give me any kind of help that I need, from shopping for school supplies to correcting my grammar. I’m really thankful that I have these people as my resources. As far as my participation in class goes, it’s obliviously not as good as it would be if I were speaking better Slovak, but its fair. I’m getting used to being put on the spot like that and I sort of appreciate it because it forces me to use my vocabulary off the top of my head. The other week my chemistry teacher gave me an assignment to study in my book about nuclear energy and then present what I learned to the class. Little did I know that what was going to be about a seven-minute lecture actually turned up as a lesson for the whole class period. The teacher would stop me periodically and elaborate on points that I guess she thought were important. But there was this one word that was necessary to use but I just couldn’t pronounce it for some reason. I got some polite chuckles at my performance by my classmates. P. E. class is always fun. It starts off with everyone lined up in military fashion while the coach gives us the scoop on what’s going to happen. Then a couple of laps around the gym, then the coach attempts to teach us clearly incompetent kids how to play volleyball. It’s chaos, balls are flying everywhere, people are hitting balls backwards that were supposed to go forwards, some are making desperate dives to save the ball from hitting the ground, and sometimes if they can’t reach the ball in time they resort to soccer techniques. There’s never a boring day in gym class.

Family. Needless to say, my family here is great. I really feel at home here. I never in my entire life thought that I would actually enjoy doing chores around the house, but it makes me feel like a true member of the family. My host grandparents who live on the floor below us always make me feel welcome. And they’re always feeding me, I was hoping to lose some weight, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. They take me to church on Sundays, which is way different from the church I grew up with, but that’s mostly because it’s Evangelic and I’m Baptist. It basically consists of a lot of sitting and standing and singing hymns and reciting prayers (I’m still not sure if they are prayers or not). And then the pastor or whatever you would call her in English steps up to the pulpit and begins the lesson, and every time about ten minutes into her speech she sounds like she’s holding back tears. I guess it’s all just super emotional for her. Anyways last Sunday she gave me a Bible as a gift that I had originally intended on buying, so I was thrilled about that. My host mom makes great food, in fact all the food that I’ve had so far is really good, I feel those ten pounds coming on, = P. My host father is great, and my sister Lucka is in her own way sort of hilarious. I particularly find it funny when she gets mad at the computer and proceeds to curse it.

All in all, I’m having a great time here in my new home and am eager to see what else this year has in store for me.

Shouts to my family in the States. Matthew, I really miss arguing with you over insanely pointless things. Timothy, I really miss laughing with you over insanely pointless things (Mario Twins) = P. And Mom I really miss you just for you and I’m so happy that you were always there to put up with all the antics that we three brats always got into. Thanks so much for always sticking by me through all of my crazy adventures and desires. I love all you guys, and I’ll see y’all in about seven months, for some earlier.

Ahojte

Anna

December 29 Journal

Ahojte všetci.

Okay, so I really don’t know where the best place to start in my order of events and I don’t remember everything chronologically, so it looks like outline format for me again.

School: So I’m reading this book for my Slovak Literature class called Mamka Pôstková. And just to my luck it’s in an older version of the language. So I go around class from one student to another asking what all these words mean, and they sure didn’t know. Then my friend who was sitting next to me said, “I don’t see why you have to read this if most of us don’t even understand it.” “Me neither”. So I just sort of sat back in my chair and thought ‘Thanks’. I’m not sure who it was directed to, but made me feel better in my moment of annoyance at this text. So I just kept on reading, and it didn’t turn out that bad, but it was pretty boring. I still don’t do anything in my math class, which is a little annoying because I went out and bought all these supplies and have still yet to use them. All my other classes I usually take notes like everyone else, unless the teacher has some special assignment for me.

But gym class has definitely changed from fun to fun, but slightly embarrassing. We started gymnastics the other day. I have to admit I felt a little apprehensive when I saw these other girls nearly perfectly executing twists and tumbles. But I gave it my best shot and didn’t do so bad, but my neck definitely hurt afterwards.

Snowboarding: So yeah, I went snowboarding a while back, definitely harder than it looks. And more painful. It all started with a polite invitation by my friends to go snowboarding for the day. I eagerly accepted. So I rented a board and some boots for 220 crowns, and a pass for 50, and confidently marched my way up the kiddy hill. My first two runs weren’t that bad, I didn’t fall, but this was all because it was early in the morning, we were the only people there and it really wasn’t necessary for me to steer. But then the kids came, about fifteen years and under and perfect skiers. I immediately found that it was necessary to dodge them in order not to crash into them. And in doing so I made some pretty gruesome crashes. I did a double summersault 900 degree fall. Which actually would have looked really good on TV if I’d have landed it right, but I didn’t, and it hurt. My next adventure came with the challenge of the vlek. I’m not sure what it’s called in English, but it’s basically a stick attached to a cable that you’re supposed to hold onto to pull you up the hill. It became immediately that I wasn’t from around there after my fifth failure on the vlek. Even after the vlekar’s (middle-aged, grim-faced dude who works at the vlek) guidance, I still brutally failed. After about my tenth attempt the vlekar asked me, “Why can’t you ride this thing like every other person?” So I gave him a rotary smile, shrugged and said, “I don’t know”. I made about thirty-five more attempts, and every time around after I had fallen and made my way back to the starting point, I was greeted with a very intimidating ‘go back to your country’ look by the vlekar. Finally I made it up to the top without falling, a personal accomplishment for me. It ended up that I had spent most of my time on the vlek and not the hill, but all in all it was a great day. I think I’ll try skiing next time, they say it’s harder than snowboarding. It should be fun. J J

Christmas: It all started with everyone dressed up nice and sitting around a table which was the beginnings of our večierok (Christmas dinner). But first my grandfather went through some Christmas speech, which to be honest with you I didn’t catch everything he said because I was partially eyeballing the labels of all the different drinks that were on the table. I was a little thirsty. After that speech, grandfather individually poured out little shot-sized glasses of sausage juice to everyone, which really wouldn’t have been that bad if there wasn’t so much alcohol in it. Luckily for me I didn’t have to drink it all. After that we had Lokša, Kapusnica, Kapor and Zemiakový šalat. After we were all officially full from eating, we sang a few carols. We being me and my two grandparents, and of course I was sight reading everything, so I either didn’t pronounce something right, or missed a few notes. Then after that we all got to open our presents. I got a pair of pajamas, with a fitting cow design, a really big book about Slovakia, and two little figures made out of corn husk. Pretty cool stuff. Then we stayed up talking till about 2:30 in the morning. Afterwards for the next to days we didn’t do anything but watch fairy tales and whatever movies that were on TV. Christmas is three days long in Slovakia J !! I’m still on holiday, so I’ve basically been sitting on the coach and watching TV all day.

Baking: I’m not going to say much, because I’m getting tired of writing, but I officially learned how to bake cookies for Christmas. At one point, me and my host mom were talking so much that we ended up burning a batch. We made a lot, hundreds and all different kinds. I’m still pleasantly living off of them.

Well that’s really all I have to say for now. I’ll be moving to my next host family on the 6th of January, so I’ll let y’all know how that all turns out. Majte sa!!

Ahojte

P. S. Happy Holidays!!

January 19 Journal

Okay, so starting from the beginning. It was about five minutes before the start of gym class, and we were going to keep working with our gymnastics. I knew from the start that gymnastics was going to be a problem for me. Not only is it difficult, but it’s just down-right dangerous. So in the gymnasium was set up this thing called the koza (with literally means goat in English, but I don’t think that’s really what it’s called in English) which was basically a four foot high, uhh, something, that has a spring board in front of it that you’re supposed to jump over. So some of the girls in my class were going to have a go at it before class started. And I had already tried it before, so I wasn’t afraid of it. So I step back a bit to get a good running start, but I think what my problem was that I accidentally jumped with one foot instead of both. So I trip over the top of the koza and make a devastating landing right on my left elbow, fracturing my arm into two pieces.

At first I didn’t know it was broken until my friends came running up to me yelling don’t move, it’s broken. And of course even then I didn’t quite know how bad it was until I saw my friend pick up my upper arm, and then all I could think was, ‘why do I still feel my hand on the floor if my arm’s way up there?’ And then the pain came. Then an ambulance came within about three minutes. My arm was crudely braced to my body and I was taken to the hospital. I got placed in a wheel chair, when the doctor saw my face go from ghost-white to a slightly healthier hospital-sheet-white. Then I was wheeled off to get an X-Ray. A very painful experience. I saw the X-Rays and immediately knew that I was going to have to have surgery. Which of course was a fear of mine, not only because of the cost, but also if anything went wrong, the last thing I needed was an international malpractice lawsuit on my hands.

So I had surgery on the next day, Thursday. Which I assume went fine, because I was still alive when I woke up, and they didn’t say that anything went wrong. Actually, the doctors never gave me any information face to face, I had to listen to what the nurses and other people were saying. And then I was glad that I had paid enough attention in biology class to actually understand what they were saying. I ended up getting an iron rod through my humerus up from the elbow. And even through all the painful nights, really boring days and cold meals that I was served, one of my secret dreams has just come true. I can actually set off a metal detector now! That’s so cool! And I thought that I was going to get my chance when they said that I would have to keep the rods in for a year, but now they’re saying four months. I can only hope that we’ll pass through security when we go on our Euro tour in April.

So yeah, keeping high hopes as always. But unfortunately, I don’t get a cast, I have to wear this freaky strap thing, that’s really uncomfortable. This isn’t the whole story of my incident, but it’s basically the gist.

Oh and a week before I was supposed to go to a Rotary meeting in another city called Žilina, because there was a guy who just came back from the Himalayas and apparently he had a pretty interesting slide show. So I thought, cool, I go, I’m not doing anything else on Monday. So I take the train form Sucany to Zilina, but for some unknown reason, I got off at the wrong stop in a small town called Strecno. So I make my way to the nearest bar to use a phone and call my counselor. He said that I was just going to have to wait there until the next train back to Sucany arrived. So I waited in the bar for about an hour and fifteen minutes, with only the company of completely happy drunken Slovaks, who were so drunk by this time that I couldn’t make out what most of them were saying. I had to get a slightly less drunken man to tell me what they were saying. Then I was finally on a train back to Sucany and everything was fine.

I know when they were talking about comfort zones at the orientation meetings, that this was probably not what they meant. But at least I can’t say that they didn’t warn me.

March 11 Journal

I just came back from a weekend in Prague that all started with a road trip on the bus down to Bratislava to pick up the new Australians who got here in January. Australian accents are so cool, but I have to admit that there were quite a few times in our conversations that I had absolutely no clue what these kids were saying. It was so weird, it was like we were all speaking Englakish, because we couldn’t remember how to call something in English, so we just said it in Slovak and everyone understood. Except for the Australians, they’re still in that clueless stage. So anyhow, we finally got to Prague after an insanely long and uncomfortable bus ride, and I found that it’s actually warmer there than in Martin, only 10 degrees below. So needless to say, I was happy to get a little relief from the cold. And what made me even more happy was when I discovered that most of the sidewalks weren’t coated with ice. I don’t understand, these people are running and dancing in the streets (not literally), and I’m walking as slowly as possible, and it’s like a winter slip-and-slide for me, except I’m not enjoying myself when I fall. I think these people have some sort of nerve in their brains sending them subliminal messages saying ‘You can walk on ice!’, and I just don’t get that. So yeah, the tour around the city was pretty cool. And then we met up against the palace guards who just stood there and you could do just about whatever you wanted to get them to move. I didn’t really do anything that great, I just stood there and started talking to him, and he just stood there. Then my friend went up and kissed him, and he just stood there. We all tried to do something to make him move, but he just stood there. I sort of admire him for putting up with all that junk.

They’ve got awesome buildings from just about every art period. And when we finally had the chance to do some private shopping, I found this great store with a lot of cool stuff in it and I bought some chopsticks, because they were cool and cheap. Everything is cheap!!! Hurray! To the point, Prague is super awesome and I can’t wait to go back.

The day after we all got back from our tour in Prague, I got invited to a Rotary sponsored bowling. Boy is that interesting! The first astonishment was that all the pins are attached to strings. So when you knock them down they’re not just swept away as a new set comes in, they rise up, straighten out, and are ready for the next play. But that’s not the only cool thing, because they’re all attached to strings, if you hit a pin correctly it will swing around and knock the rest of them down giving you a strike. And then after about four and a half hours of playing I went up against my bud, Pablo from Brazil. Needless to say, I was brutally defeated, and shamed off the lanes. Just kidding, what was really shameful was the way some of the Rotarians were yelling at the pins when they didn’t go down. So anyhow, five hours of bowling and I woke up the next day with a really sore arm.

And then back at school I had to make a presentation about social groups, but I got a little nervous so I started talking really fast and no one understood me so I had to slow down and repeat myself. And conveniently my topic was on the social groups of my class back in the states. So I happened to mention that I used to sing. Then everyone started asking me to sing, I really didn’t want to, but my teacher asked me, so I agreed. And I sang the first song that came to my head, American Pie. The Madonna version that is. And when I finished, everyone was convinced that I could win SuperStar, which is Slovakia’s version of American Idol. So that was exciting! And then I had to take a test in chemistry on organic chemistry. Which was basically naming different equations using numbers and crazy Latin terms that don’t make any sense. But I think I did okay, because when my teacher took it up and looked at it, she just nodded and said okay. And then I have to make another presentation in biology, so I’m currently working on that. It consists of a lot of memorizing and a lot of painting.

I’m going this weekend to a village called Liptovsky Osada with my host family to go look at differently sculptured snowmen.

So this is all basically the gist of what I’ve been doing, nothing too exciting, just normal life. Sorry I still don’t have any pictures, they’ll come soon.

Zatiaľ ahojte, a majte sa krásne. Všetci ktorý sú na exchange, prajem Vám úžasny pobyt vo svojej krajiny.

May 29 Journal

Right now I’m really annoyed that I have to write this little report all over again, because the computer lab teacher at my school deleted my first draft.

First of all, I’d just like to start off with the fact that I won third place at our school singing competition on 21 of April. I probably might have gotten more votes from the student body if I had been more of a ‘crowd-pleaser’, but I wasn’t. On the bright side I was awarded with a T-shirt, a recorder, and, of all things, an English Language workbook. I even got interviewed on TV afterwards.

Two days later my mom and aunt came to visit. And of course, they arrive with no luggage. All that came about three days later. It was fun, but very tiring for me to show them around and translate stuff for them. I now have a new appreciation for interpreters. They were here for a week, and we went and checked out the museum, some schools, we saw a few castles, most from the distant view of a train or car, and we visited host families. I’m just glad I didn’t have to go to school that week.

On the very day that mom and them had to go home, I had to start my EuroTour. Conveniently we all had to be in Bratislava at the time so it all worked out. At about seven thirty on the 30th a taxi dropped me off at the main bus/train station in Bratislava, that taxi then taking mom and aunt to the airport so they could await their flight. So we wait at the station until all the other Slovak students arrive, then we all pilled onto a bus and make our way to the Czech Republic, where we stopped in Brno to pick up some of the Czech kids, then we made our way to the eastern part of Czech to pick up even more Czech kids. In all we had 42 students and three adults, not including the bus-driver, I’ll get to him. So we’re all on the bus heading for Austria, when the tour guide lady starts talking in English. All I could think is, What is this? Everyone of us understands Slovak or Czech (except for that Hungarian kid who came along), and they’re practically the same language, there’s not that big of a difference, why aren’t we listening to that? I just didn’t understand, we’re supposed to be learning a language here, I would have much rather listened to Czech (because there was only one Slovak lady, and she didn’t talk at all) than English. But then I realized, those Czech students don’t understand Slovak. I understand them, but they haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, so I started using Czech a bit too. I think the reason for all this is that in Slovakia we get a lot of programs in Slovak and Czech, but they only have Czech. Anyway, I sort of gave up on the whole Slovak thing, English was much faster, but I always spoken in Slovak to the Mexicans and Brazilians.

So anyways, we’re in Austria at a gas station for supper, and I was extremely surprised by the insane prices for food. Not only was it the Euro that frightened me, but the general cost of things. I immediately began silently cursing the Euro and all the trouble it has and will cost me. Evil! We made it to Salzburg that night and did some individual tours of the town for a few hours. I saw Mozart’s house, but was very disturbed when I found it was painted in a very unsettling throw-up yellow color. Then I went to check out some of the shops, but they were all closed, so I and my Australian friend went on back to the bus to await a very long and uncomfortable overnight bus ride to Italy.

Day 1 of Italy consisted of thirty minute walk to that really famous square in Venice, Piazza San Marco. And we basically stayed there for the morning just privately touring the area and the shops, I personally spent at least an hour feeding pigeons, that was real fun! I even got some of them to sit on my shoulder. Unforunately, I got really bad sun-burn that day, but it didn’t turn out that bad in the end. Then at around two in the afternoon, we all got on a taxi boat and headed for the bus. Afternoon and evening spent on bus toward Verona. We finally got to our hotel just outside of the city and had dinner. THE BEST LASAGNA EVER!!!! First night spent in hotel, bed good. Day 2 of Italy was a drive to the French border at Vertimiglia and then further to Monaco.

Monaco, small, but really rich. These people have got to be loaded, there is no other reason for their perfect buildings being as perfect as they are. Then as we started to walk through the city of Monte Carlo I stood with my mouth wide open in awe of their perfect cars, perfect yachts, perfect water, perfect houses, perfect grass, perfectly paved streets, and perfectly tanned inhabitants. And then I said to myself, “this is a perfect country, that consists of about two mile shore line (give or take), surrounded by a mountain range and the ocean, Why don’t we all live like this?” After my shock subsided, we went to the Ocean Aquarium Musée Océanographic, the Palace of the Prince to see the guards change, and then to the Casino, admittance 18 years or older. Darn! =P

From there we went to Eze in France to visit a perfume factory. Very cool, but very expensive, I bought some anyway. That afternoon we made it to Nice and got settled into our first of a long line of Premiere Classe hotels. Now, on the schedule it’s written that we would have ‘an evening visit of the city centre’. That actually means, ‘an evening of running around town at all hours of the night making complete fools out of ourselves and meeting back in the morning with just enough time to get back on the bus’. Some of us had the pleasure of walking across the acclaimed French Riviera, which was actually a beach of rocks. Now I’m not talking about little pieces of gravel, each rock was about the size of my fist which made walking barefoot or even in sandals a completely unpleasant experience. We all made it back alive in the morning, but some with really bad headaches.

Avignon was our next stop, where we spent most of the day touring the Pope’s Palace ‘Palais de Papes’, and the historical sites of the town. That was actually a highly informational, but so uneventful day. That is until we made it to Orange for our evening accommodation. Another Premiere Classe hotel, but this time with a pretty decent parking lot, which gave us all the opportunity to stand in a circle, throw at least six frisbees at each other and discuss the meaning of life as an exchange student.

The next day was spent in the bus through Lyon and Vierzon until we got to Blois (which is really hard to pronounce, by the way) to sleep in a, yes once again, Premiere Classe hotel. Now most of us this whole time are living off of bread and cheese, because it’s the cheapest food to find out there, so once we dropped our stuff off at the hotel, we all set off in search of the local grocery store. Well needless to say, of course I was with the group of kids who ended up doing a full circle until we found the right direction to the city’s center, but only to arrive fifteen minutes after the store had closed, but with the rest of our friends standing at the cash registers buying all their food and pointing and laughing at us outside. We, the needy and poor exchange students with only about five Euros each. We, the desperate children of the journey. We, the ones that found the McDonald’s across the street. Yes, our empty bellies were quickly filled with very pricey small servings of unhealthy French/American fast food. This was also my first experience with McDonalds outside of the US. Sure we have McDonalds in Slovakia too, but no one really eats at them. As we were walking back to our hotel, we found that the travel was really about five blocks away, and not that mile circle we did. Needless to say, we all felt like dummies.

Paris, the city of love. Really the city of a foul wind that only dropped the temperature from low to lower. It was about 30 degrees (Celsius) the day before in Nice, but here it was about 10 with an evil wind furiously blowing constantly in my general direction. And of course I caught a cold, a really bad cold that lasted the whole rest of the trip and the week after. So of course our first stop is the Eiffel Tower, which means about 600 or so steps. I only made it to the first floor, I settled with that because the second was another three hundred stairs and I already felt like I was going to collapse. So I spent my time taking pictures from the first floor and exploring the gift shops and little museum and the other things that there was to do at the meager first floor. Afterwards, we all sat out in the park below waiting for everyone to finally make their way down those insane stairs. Then we hopped on the bus and went to the Louvre. AWESOME!!! We were only allowed to stay for three hours, so I did a quick tour with my Australian mate Stef. We cruised through Egyptian antiquities, in about thirty minutes at a speedy pace. Then to Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. We saw ‘Winged Victory’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’, which I thought was really small. Then we basically saw a lot of other paintings from well-known artists, and some really big rooms. Then we had free time which was spent, for me, shopping but not buying at some of the best clothing stores, and some really crazy gift shops. And we did all that until 9:00 p.m., then we took the bus outside of the city to our accommodation at, you guessed it, another Premiere Classe hotel. By this time every single one of us was fully aware of the contents and parking lot that surrounded Premiere Classe.

Wake up at six, breakfast at seven. By this time every one of us has started swiping the breakfast rolls and saving them for lunch, because we’re all running out of money, that desperately needed money used on completely useless, but oh so unoriginal and cheap gifts to give to your loved ones with the assurance that they’ll be contented with the whole two dollars you spent on them. Yes, we were broke. That day transportation via subway got us to Notre Dame Cathedral. I was very disappointed when I saw how small it is. I just stared thinking ‘I thought it would be bigger’. But once I actually got inside I found just how huge it really was. I practically heard Quasimodo ringing the bells. I immediately had an uncontrollable desire to see the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I left Disney behind in the US. Afterwards, when we were waiting for all the kids to gather back together, one of my friends exchanged in the Czech Republic took out this things called Devil sticks and started doing a street performance in front of Notre Dame. He got a pretty big crowd. A lot of tourists were taking pictures, probably because they thought that he was French, trying to present his art. He got those sticks juggling, doing turns and flips, and mid-air tricks and all that stuff. So we all started throwing coins in his hat that he had in front of him trying to coax the tourists into doing the same thing, but it didn’t work. So when he finished we all took our money back and said ‘sorry kid’. Then we saw Palais Justice, Quartier Latin, Saint Germain, Sorbonna, and Luxembourg Garden. From the garden we split up into small groups and did some more exploring/shopping. We were all supposed to meet back at Notre Dame at six to make the boat tour down the river Seina, and my group was lost. So we made it to this little square with a fountain in the middle and saw a group of teenage boys kicking a soccer ball around so we’re all like, ‘okay, we’ll just ask them. Maybe they’ll understand a little English’. So we walk up and ask if they know where Notre Dame is. It appeared that they didn’t understand English that well, so we started ‘Notre Dame. Where?’ and pointing in different directions trying to show that we’re lost. They started speaking in a language that clearly wasn’t French then one of the boys pulled a map out of his back pocket. This made everything clear that they definitely weren’t French, so they eventually showed us where we need to be going. And when we made it to Notre Dame with about five minutes to spare we set off down the river in search of a tour boat. When we found it we all pilled in, most of us going to the top deck to get the best view. The tour guide spoke in French and English, and it was pretty clear that she had done this tour at least five times already that day by the bored tone in her voice. Unfortunately for me her French accent was so strong, I only understood half of what she had said. But what really matters is that I saw what I thought she was talking about, and that I got some cool pictures. Then back to the hotel to sleep in a nice warm bed with a stomach full of bread, cheese and canned Mexican food. Yes, this was the life.

Next day with accommodations still in Paris, the bus took us to Versailles Castle and lush gardens. We ended up waiting about an hour to get into the castle to do the tour, and some people paid an insane about of money. Not me, I was lucky under 18 at the time. I wasn’t that impressed with the castle’s design seeing as how everything was in gold and they carpeted the walls. I’m sorry, but it seemed to me like every room in the castle was the same. Which went basically for the garden too, except that was a nice walk outside in the freezing cold. That place was huge. They even went as far as hiding random ice-cream shops behind the walls of grass. It was pretty nice, but I easily got lost. As we were making our way towards the buses, I couldn’t figure out which bus was ours, so I settled for looking for MulletMan (the bus-driver). Then this salesman practically jumped at me offering all these watches, key-chains, cigarette lighters, little models of the Eiffel Tower, and wouldn’t go away. So I did the dumb thing and played the ‘I don’t speak English’ trick. Don’t do that, it just makes thing worse. Then I was like, ‘No, I don’t want it. Go away!’ But he didn’t, so finally one of my friends pulled me away and onto the bus, which I had already passed but didn’t know it. Beware of the salesmen who hang around popular tourist sites, they’re like cockroaches! So that afternoon we went back to Paris and did some more unbothered shopping.

Morning departure from Paris to Normandy. But before all this happens, I get on the bus to get ready to leave and I expected to see the boots that I had been wearing for all the walking. I had left them on the bus and exchanged them for my flip-flops, because they were much more convenient for just walking to the hotel and back. I had done this every day before and expected to see my shoes under the seat in front of me like they always were, but this day was different. When I got to my seat and noticed that my shoes were missing, I asked the bus driver about them. He was waiting for that question, you could tell. So he leads me to another row of seats and points to an assorted collection of shoes and asks, ‘Are those your boots?’ I sort of just stared in shock of the pile of shoes, then finally responded with a quiet ‘yes’. ‘I washed them for you.’ He washed my shoes?! ‘You washed my shoes?!’ Now if this were any other person, I would have said thank you or something, but coming from a man who had always reacted with anger to anything we did, for him to wash my shoes– I just found that really weird. None of the other kids could believe it when I told them he had washed my shoes, every reaction was ‘He washed your shoes?!’ That was a very strange moment in my life.

First stop, Mont Saint Michel. I really enjoyed this place and the monastery at the top, I just didn’t like getting to the top. Once more, way too many stairs to count. But the monastery was so quite and peaceful, I just wanted to stay there. That was a truly beautiful day. Then we got to Omaha Beach to see the docks and port, or what’s left of them. It was a great relief to finally to walk on a real beach, not the rocky beaches of Nice. Then we drove over to the local docking house and took an overnight ferry to Portsmouth, ENGLAND!

ENGLAND! ENGLISH! Weird English, but English all the same. Our first stop, not including customs, was a little grocery store to buy some necessary food products, such as salsa. So my bud from Ohio, who is convinced that I have a southern accent, asks me to go up to one of the workers in a suit and ask him, in my most southern accent, “Do you know where I can find some salsa?” He smiled warmly and led me in the direction of my most definitely needed spicy salsa. Then as I started to look around, I saw the unbelievable; Real Florida Orange Juice. That‘s what it said on the box, Real Florida Orange Juice, so I bought it. As I got on the bus and began to taste it, I found that it actually is Real Florida Orange Juice, and not the stuff I‘d been drinking for the last nine months. This was officially my favorite grocery store in all of England, I have no idea what its name is. I was in heaven, I finally got my spicy salsa and could down it with Real Florida Orange Juice. And then I got a stomach ache. Then we went to Chichester, Brighton, and Hastings for potty breaks. When we got to Greenwich, we went to see the Old Royal Observatory. It wasn’t all that interesting, I mean I’ve seen stars and stuff before. But afterwards we all went to the park that was next to the Observatory and played Red Rover. That game was brutal, people were bleeding, that was the most fun, vicious and probably the most embarrassing game of red rover ever. When we finally got to London, our first stop was at the London Wax Museum, where all the movie stars and TV personalities were recreated into life-size versions of their real selves. Then we drove over to see parliament, and then had free time to explore the city. London. Wow. So we all decided as a group that since we’re in a city that speaks English, that it is our duty to talk behind their backs in a foreign language, just for the heck of it. That was soooo cool. Do you know how great it is to be able to make fun of someone right in their face and they not have a clue what you’re talking about? Bohovske! Anyways we found it a lot harder to get lost in this city than all the others, mostly because we could read all the signs. And you guys wouldn’t believe this. As I was obnoxiously singing one of my favorite Slovak songs as we were walking down the sidewalk, two Slovaks stopped and asked us if we knew where Parliament is. Me and my friends were all really surprised to find other people speaking Slovak in London, so we decided it’s probably a good idea to watch what you’re saying, because there’s still a chance that someone can understand you. When we got to the hotel that night we weren’t at all surprised to see that it was yet another Premiere Classe hotel. Apparently, London is the main city of operation for this hotel chain. How convenient.

Day 11 of our adventure sent us to the Tower of London and the dudes that work there in their crazy looking outfits. That was a very interesting museum, because of all the historical artifacts it had there. Horse armor, stone carvings, period swords. Yes, all stuff I’ve seen before, but still very interesting. Then at one of the towers they showed this really old reenactment from a really old film about English princes who were supposedly murdered by their jealous uncle, but no one knows if he really did it or not. Then we got back on the bus and waited for a tour guide lady who was going to show us around. As it turns out, this lady spoke English, Czech, Slovak, and Chinese. Interesting combination. So we saw Leicester Square, Soho, Piccadilly Circus, the Queen, her palace and her jewels. And a few other famous buildings, whose names I have currently forgotten. Then at around four, they let us run around again until nine, then back to our Premiere Classe hotel.

The last day of London. On our schedule it’s written that we were supposed to go to Museum Madame Tussaud’s, British Museum, National Gallery, and free time, but all I remember was the free time. I have no remembrance of what happened the first half of that day. But I think that our free time was just spent going to the book store and watching friends buying random books just because they were in English. Maybe they were desperate. It was mostly the Czech kids who were going crazy over English books, but I think that might have been because they didn’t care that much for Czech. Who knows? For me anyways, that day was really just pleasant window shopping, which works for me. Again, at about nine we headed back to the hotel, lights out at ten. But no one really cared.

Okay, so technically this is the last day in London, because we were still accommodated by morning the next day, so sorry for the mistake. That morning we said good-bye to London and hello Dover and a boat departing for France. So when we get there, we have to go through customs, and they held us so long that we missed the boat we were supposed to take at ten thirty. So we waited till noon for the next one. I have never hated riding on boats as much as right now. My head was turning, my stomach was churning, and the worst part is that the doors were locked to the outside deck. There, at least would be fresh air and an ocean to barf into, but I was never given such the luxury of throwing up. No, that would have ended my suffering way too soon, I had to wait another hour and a half until we docked. This all quickly subsided when we hit dry land, and then came back when I decided that reading on the bus was okay. So enough of that. When we got to France, we quickly made our way through Belgium (consisting of only a gas station), and straight into the Netherlands. There we had a sightseeing stop at Antwerp’s city center, but I don’t recall any of that. I don’t think that actually happened. Oh, I remember why I don’t remember that. It’s because we had taken a late boat, we didn’t have time to stop. There. That has to be it. So that night we made it to Alkmaar where we ate at this hotel that only had two rooms. So the forty of us that couldn’t sleep at the hotel, had to go to someone else’s house for the night. Me and two other girls went to stay with this elderly couple, who were so sweet and in the morning they even gave us soft-boiled eggs with sweaters on them to keep them warm. But it was so cool. It was like the beginning of my exchange, I had no idea what they were talking about, but I’m almost sure that the Dutch word for shower starts with a D.

Next day we got to Zansche Schans to see a village museum where they had traditional windmills, cheese production and wooden shoes. I sat in a wooden shoe. I and about six other people all at the same time. It was just like one of those competitions where you try and see how many people you can fit into a Volkswagen beetle. Our seven won. Wooden shoes are so cool. When I saw this guy making them and wearing them, I just thought ‘Wow. This guy is wearing wooden shoes…. Wow.’ They even had a wooden shoes museum where they went so far as making wooden shoes for their horses. Then we went to Amsterdam where we went on a boat ride down some canals. After that we basically had free time until seven. So I decided the perfect place to visit would be the Vincent van Gogh Museum. That was amazing, but unfortunately we could only spend an hour there so that we could have time to do other things. From what I saw, it seemed to me that the whole of Amsterdam is nothing but a huge collection of tourist shops and restaurants. But that wasn’t a problem, I finally got some Chinese food. Cold Chinese food, but I didn’t care. The part that wasn’t tourist shops and restaurants was various drugs, wooden shoes and sex products. I tried to ignore, but other than that it wasn’t that bad. Except for when it turned out that it was already seven o’clock and me and my Mexican friend were on the opposite side of Amsterdam from where the bus was. We ran the distance in fifteen minutes, looking like complete idiots, and getting rightly told off by one of the adults who claimed he feared for us like we were his own children. Oh please!

From Amsterdam we took an overnight bus ride through Holland and Germany. Germany being a side of the road rest stop so we could use the restrooms, with a really annoying German man there, insisting that we wouldn’t go until we paid half a euro each. It was like that everywhere in Europe and it made me sick. Once while we were still in France I had to pay two euros. Do you know how much that is? That’s like four US dollars. That’s insane, that’s gross. Then when we got to the Czech Republic we dropped the Czech kids of in České Budějovice and went to Brno. Then took a train to Slovakia and finally home to Martin. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Meryn Thunen
2004-05 Outbound to Finland

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Episcopal High School
Sponsor: Southpoint Rotary Club
Host: Lovisa Rotary Club, District 1420, Finland

Meryn - Finland

August 11 Journal

This is my first entry from Finland. I’ve been here for about a week and a half. It seems like longer. One of my good friends gave a letter to me at the airport on July 31st, a day I’ve been looking forward to for months. She gave me this small letter and told me to open it on the plane. So an hour or so later when I’m on the plane, I’ve forgotten about the letter because of all the crying and of course in-flight drink and peanut service. So I get out the letter and I can say with 100% clarity that it was the perfect thing for someone to put in a letter, and I’d like to read some of it, or write some of it rather, here.

“*Pinch* Yep, You are awake. You’re not just dreaming anymore, you are living this dream. It’s not that day when you found out you would be living in Finland for a year, it’s not that day of our last exam when we were making plans for summer, it’s July 31st. This is the day that you take your journey…” When I read that at 24,000 feet it all was clear. I was on a plane, to a country I don’t know. To a language I can’t speak, to people I don’t know. And right now with only being here for a week. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. My other good friend gave me a book called “100 Small Comforts: Wise and Witty Words to Lift the Spirit”. It’s got quotes from famous people all about living in the moment and things like that. Well right now I could use every one of those quotes to describe my experiences so far and it’s only been 12 days. Has anyone ever thought why clichés are used so much? Maybe could it be because they are true? Well even so I love hearing them because they usually are true. One of my favorites from this book is by Albert Einstein. He says, “There are only two ways to live your life: One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as if everything is.” That is what this year is, a miracle. And I hope I can remember that, especially if things get harder which I know they will. The honeymoon and everything being new has to end sometime. Okay now on to trying to explain everyday life here in Finland.

I am in a town, well not really a town, more a village. Its name is Pernå. It is very small and then Loviisa is the town closest. That is where my school will be. I start school next Tuesday. Pernå is very pretty. Right along the coast, so there is a bay that is quite pretty. I went out with my host family on their boat and they showed me around so I got a view of Pernå from the waters point of view. We are very much in the country here, we can bike around the village and stop by the side of the road and pick berries and eat them. It may sound crazy that I find this so cool. But coming from Jacksonville Florida, we don’t do that a lot. It’s quite relaxed and quiet out here. I like it a lot. The Bergmans have been so nice to me. They are my first host family. They make me feel very much at home and I don’t think I would if it weren’t for them. The food is very good here. It’s a very good thing if you like meat and potatoes. We have a potatoes garden in the backyard so when we want potatoes for lunch or dinner, we just go to the backyard dig them up wash them and then cook them. Again for someone like me coming from the city this is a very exciting thing. They have a really good kind of bread here that I think I eat oh 5 times a day. There’s no way to describe it it’s just great, you’ll have to come to Finland to try it. Oh and they have really good ice cream. There’s no way to describe that either. Well I’m sure I will write again soon with school starting in less than a week I’ll be sure to fill you all in. But until I write again I hope things are going well wherever you are in the world.

Hej då (goodbye)

puss och kram (hugs and kisses)

Meryn

September 8 Journal

Hejsan!

Well it’s hard to believe I’ve been here for a little over a month. So far it’s been filled with nothing but new and exciting experiences. I started school 2 or 3 weeks ago, I can’t remember anymore, it’s just flown by. School is great. All the students are really nice, as are the teachers. The classes here are good. I got to pick my own schedule so the classes I picked were all chosen by me, so I don’t have anything too hard or complicated. My hardest class would be philosophy. I don’t understand much at all in that class. But each day I learn more and more Swedish. I hear things and understand what they mean and then later use them. Many times I surprise my friends when I say something that they haven’t taught me. I guess I’m catching on fast. But wish I could catch on faster. It’s a little frustrating at times know that everyone else understands the teacher and each other but I don’t. After anyone says something I don’t understand (which is a lot) I always say Va? Va? Which is like saying What What?? I can’t wait till I’m more fluent and can speak with people with more confidence.

My birthday was a few weeks ago and we celebrated in quite a different but cool way. My host brother is serving his mandatory year in the Finnish army, and on August 28th there happened to be a gathering at the army base. It’s a day when the family and friends of the soldiers can come and visit and see where they live and what they’ve learned. Well this day happened to be my 17th birthday. It was such a different experience one I’m sure I will never forget. My host parents and I kept joking that I would only be able to speak the little Swedish I knew because otherwise they would think I was an American spy and kick me out. Thank goodness they didn’t hear me speak English and I survived my day in the Finnish army.

I’ve been to Helsinki twice already, it’s only about and hour and a half by bus. The city was very beautiful. The architecture and all the buildings were amazing. It all seemed so “European”. I guess living in the small village of Pernå has gotten to me, because even though the population of Helsinki has the same as Jacksonville, it still seemed bigger!

You can feel the weather changing here and autumn is coming. You can feel it every time the wind blows and you can see it when the leaves start to drop off one by one. A very different experience since we don’t have winter let alone autumn in Florida. It stays green, all year. But here you notice things are changing, it’s a nice change. The only downside to it getting colder is getting sick. I had some sort of flu this past week and spent a few days home resting. There was a little bit of homesickness because I had so much time to myself and time to think of home. But it quickly went away and now with being back in school, I have a schedule and things to think about other than home. After all, I’m only here for a year, which isn’t enough time! Along with my school schedule I’m keeping myself busy and active after school by with Dance. I’m taking classes at a studio in a town nearby called Borgå (Porvoo in Finnish). The teacher in the class speaks Finnish not Swedish so I just watch what everyone else does. But I’m starting to remember the combinations, and slowly I’m learning a little Finnish. Of course right now it’s just the numbers (to count the movements) and open, close, right, left, front, back, but you gotta start somewhere! I’m glad I’ve found a dance studio. It helps me stay busy and active and meet new people, who speak not just Finnish but Swedish too.

I went to a language camp in Kurkku, which is near Tampere. I went when I very first got here, but never really talked about it. It was so much fun and I wish it could have lasted longer. I met many people from all over the world. We had classes in the day until about 3 then we would have down time. We went to sauna, to the lake, played futbol or just hung out. It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of really great people that I’ll see in December when we go skiing in Lapland (Northern Finland). There was only one other girl going to a Swedish community, named Laura, so we bonded instantly. We actually met at the airport in Detroit so started the journey almost from the beginning. It was just the two of us in class learning Swedish so we had great fun. We were all sad to leave each other because we had all connected so quickly but knew we would keep in touch and see each other soon.

I’m going to Sweden in 2 weeks with my host parents and my friend, Paula. I’m very excited! We’re going from Helsinki to Stockholm by boat. They showed me pictures of the boat online and what it looks like; I’m real excited because I’ve never been on that kind of cruise boat! We leave on the 23rd so I’ll be sure to write about the trip. Pictures and the words from my host parents lead me to believe that Stockholm is a beautiful city and I can’t wait to see it!

One of my friends from home gave me a letter that has one important message that stood out to me. He couldn’t really understand why I would leave everything I knew and loved for a year. He then saw a quote that he felt explained why I felt, I agree with him. The quote is, “Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there.” So simple an idea but such a hard complex behind it. This is definitely my Mt. Everest. Full of times of hardship, but I know when I get to the top and look at the view – my accomplishments; it will be so well worth everything. Thanks to Rotary for giving me the opportunity to even get to the base of the mountain, and thanks to my friends for being the best support I could wish for, but mostly thanks to my parents for letting me on this amazing journey, There’s no way I could do any of this without your support. Thanks to everyone!

Hej då

Meryn

October 17 Journal

Hej Hej!

I can’t believe it’s already mid-October! Time is going by so fast. A lot has happened since my last entry but all of it has been great! Things have now become everyday life here for me. It’s now a routine, but I think that’s a good thing, because it’s a routine I like. School is going well, my Swedish is coming along in leaps and bounds, I think. We’re in our second marking period so I have different classes. An especially interesting class I’m now taking is German. Now I have to remind you that I’m learning German, in Swedish. When I first decided to take that class, I thought it would be next to impossible, but surprisingly I’m learning German just like the other students, and I’m learning more Swedish because of it too! So school is going great, maybe when I go home I’ll know Swedish, a little Finnish and some German too! My host family is really great; they’ve really done so much to make me feel welcome and a part of everyday life, which is so nice because I do. I’ve also made lots of friends! I’ve met a lot of my school mates outside of school, on the weekends and stuff which really loosens the atmosphere and lets me get to know them better, which is great! It still is kind of strange having people know who you are before you even know their name. I went to a party for school 2 weeks ago and my friends introduced me to people and stuff and they would say oh you’re the exchange student. It’s something I’m not really used to but I guess it’s a part of the territory of being an exchange student and living in a small town.

I went with my host family and my friend Paula on a weekend trip to Sweden by boat. The boat left Helsingfors (that’s Helsinki in Swedish) at about 5pm Thursday night. So we drove there and when we got to the boat I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was so cool, so huge! When we got inside Paula and I put our stuff in our cabin and started to walk around exploring this huge ship! Well you could have put me on there without telling me it was a boat and I would have thought it was just a mall and hotel, because that’s what it felt like. There were all these restaurants and shops, and then the best part was going up to the top deck and looking out at nothing but water. At night when all the stars were out it was so beautiful. We got to Stockholm about 9am the next morning, so we got off the boat and drove around Stockholm a bit. It is really an incredible city! I never realized that it is many islands, so with all the bridges and beautiful architecture, it just blew my mind away! We walked around for a bit, a very touristy part with all these funny little tourist shops, we visited this really old beautiful church, and lastly we had to make a visit to the king! Yup, we just drove up to the king’s palace and parked in the parking lot and you’re allowed to walk around the gardens in the back, very different from the US. That would be like just taking a stroll around the white house. I don’t think you would make it very far without being taken down by a CIA guy. Anyway the palace was very beautiful. It was built to copy the look of Versailles in France, so it was nothing less then beautiful. So we walked around the kings gardens for a while, then got back into the car and continued on. Our final stop was at my host father’s brother’s house. I guess that would make him my host Uncle. I met him and his wife and his daughter and son. It was very cool to be there and meet them, and the best part was when they spoke Swedish (real Swedish, not Finnish-Swedish) I could understand most of what they were saying. It was really great to meet them and get to know more of my family! So we spent the night at their house and then the next night we drove back to the centre of Stockholm to catch the boat at 8pm back to Helsingfors.

Okay I can’t send in this journal entry without telling about the coolest thing weather wise, and when I mean the coolest, I mean literally. So last weekend on Sunday, I woke up looked outside saw beautiful blue skies and thought to myself; hey it’s nice when the weekends are always clear when the week has rain. Then I get up, brush my hair, change etc., now I look out the window again and my eyes dart to the ground, which is now white! Now to a girl who’s lived in Florida all her life this isn’t a normal occurrence on waking up on Sunday mornings. So I rush out of my room into the living room with a huge smile on my face saying to my host dad, whose reading the paper, there’s snow!!!!! So I grab my camera and run outside to, of course, take pictures. It was so warm and sunny that it melted later in the afternoon, but it was by far the coolest thing! The weather has gotten colder, that’s for sure! In the mornings when I wake up it’s usually about minus 1 or 2, sometimes colder, sometimes warmer (of course the term warmer has a different meaning here). And the snow will some again, in a few weeks or so, which is so exciting for me, I’m ready for it, probably not ready for 5 or so months of it, but I’ll get use to it!

Yesterday I went to Helsingfors to a Helsinki Day with our Rotary District 1420. It was really fun to see some of the inbounds again, because I haven’t seen them since August! We went to a Sea Fortress on a little island off of Helsinki’s harbor. It was quite beautiful, and interesting; filled with lots of history because all of Finland’s history with Sweden and Russia. Then we went back into the centrum (the centre of Helsinki) to a modern art museum. It was quite interesting, very modern art, to say the least. But nonetheless it was fun to hang out with other exchange students for a change. Also with the inbounds were the “oldies” the Australian and New Zealand students. It was interesting to talk to them because they’ve been here since January and will also be going home in January. It was great to talk to them, how their exchanges are going, and good to get some advice from them. We will see them again, there going on the Lapland tour in December so we’ll see them before they leave. It’s weird to think when our exchanges are just in the beginning, theirs are ending.

Next week my school has its Fall Break from Wednesday to Friday, so we have a long weekend and me and my host mum will be going to the Vasa area (it’s on the west coast) to visit her family. I also get to visit my exchange student friend Laura, who lives near Vasa. It will be nice to meet more of my extended host family and see Laura again!

Well I guess that’s all for now. I’m getting use to everyday Finnish life here, and I love it. Hope everything is well if you’re in Florida or South America or Europe or Asia or anywhere!

Kram

-Meryn –

November 14 Journal

Hejsan!!! Well I really can’t believe that another month has gone by. It seems like I just wrote the last journal. Well let’s see what has happened…In the very end of October we had our fall break from school so me and my host mom drove up to the Vaasa area to visit her family in Vörå. We stayed with my mom’s sister and her family. I also met my mom’s mom and dad and brother and his family. It was really nice to see her whole family and meet them all. They were all really nice and made me feel just a part of the family. I also got to see Laura who lives near there, which was nice. It sounds so weird to think we hadn’t seen each other in 3 months, but when we met and went shopping it was like we’d never been apart. So we went around Vaasa shopping and stuff. Went to her friend’s boyfriend’s hockey game which was fun. The next day (Sunday) my host mom and I started the long drive back down to Pernå.

We’ve started the 3rd grading period in school last Monday, which means all new classes. I’ve got another full schedule with classes like German, French, Latin, Biology, Dance etc… Lots of new languages I know! Hopefully I won’t get them all confused! But school is going really well. The language is also going really well! I went to my Rotary Club’s meeting and they asked me if I wanted to say a few things about how things are so far. I was sitting there during the meeting contemplating whether I should attempt to do the whole thing in Swedish. Because I knew I could, it was just taking that extra risk, stepping outside of the boundary a bit. So when it came time for me to get up and talk, I just started out saying “Vi ska se om jag kan pratar alt i svenska” (We shall see if I can talk all in Swedish), I could then feel everyone’s eyes on me a little more intently, everyone leaned in a little more to see if I could really do it. Of course I was nervous. But after I did it, telling how it all was going, in Swedish, then I felt the accomplishment. It’s little things like that, those times of stepping out of the comfort zone, which will in the end, change each and every exchange student. Of course all the Rotary guys flipped, saying wow your Swedish has improved so much, no other exchange student has tried that so soon. It’s then, when not just other people say it, but you can say to yourself, hey that was pretty good.

The weather has gotten colder, to me it is. But everyone here says its been surprisingly warmer. And I’ve found myself while checking the thermometer before going out the door to school say hey its 7 degrees today, it’s warmer. Right now it’s about one degree C and hopefully will stay colder so the snow can come!!! I’m very excited about the snow coming, and hopefully we’ll get it before Christmas. The temperature has been pretty consistent but the darkness thing is a bit hard to get used to. Like waiting for the bus home from school at 4:20 and it being dark out, like it’s night. It’s definitely been a bit of an adjustment, coming from the “Sunshine State” and all. But I’m getting used to it.

Oh my gosh, I almost forgot, how I celebrated Halloween in Finland! We carved a pumpkin and I baked the pumpkin seeds and made everyone mulled cider. It was so funny to look outside the window and see the little pumpkin just glowing. Might have been the only carved pumpkin in Finland; well it was certainly the only one here in Pernå. Speaking of holidays next weekend we’re celebrating Thanksgiving! I know it’s not the real date but the real turkey day is in the middle of the week so I can’t very well do Thanksgiving dinner. So my friend Laura, from Vaasa, is coming down and we’re going make my family turkey day dinner!!! We’re going have to make a lot from scratch because they don’t have canned pumpkin or cranberry, ya know the real American way to make things, from a can. But hopefully we won’t burn it all, I’ll be sure to have pics for the next journal!

Hope I haven’t forgotten anything! I’ll write another journal after our Thanksgiving fiasco!

Hej då!

Meryn

November 18 Journal

I know I wrote like a week ago, okay maybe less then, but I had to write about the snow. Yup we got snow!!! In Pernå where I live there wasn’t snow but as I rode the bus to school in Loviisa it kept getting whiter and whiter. I was sitting there on the bus, beaming, thinking wow this is so cool, knowing that everyone kid on the bus couldn’t care less about the snow.

I know all my friends here MUST think I’m crazy, during our break in Biology today we went outside and threw snowballs and stuff, and then after lunch I made my first Finnish snow angel!!! Then during our free time at school we went outside again, sort of against my friends will but I made them go. I really think they all think I’m insane for thinking snow is so cool. I was thinking, to them its like rain, ‘cept more fun to play in, so if someone came to Florida and wowed at the rain I would think they were weird too, hehe.

Anyway so the snow, I definitely won’t stop talking about it till it melts, because I think its that cool, which for my friends here will get annoying I’m sure, so I apologize to you all in advance! J So yea, it’s so pretty! At first when it hadn’t snowed yet there was frost everywhere and it look liked someone had thrown glitter over everything, which was so pretty! And now like everything is white! I don’t know how many ways I can say that I think it’s so cool; I’m gunna get repetitive especially until it melts in spring. Like during school I would forget about the fact that there was snow and I’d look outside the window and then a huge smile would pop up on my face, again!

Its funny – going on this exchange you are supposed to mature and feel different and have a new perspective on the world. But right now I feel more like a child then anything else. And I love it!!!! It’s such a carefree feeling, like playing in the snow, just acting like you were as a child. I wish I did that more often, although I think it will be hard to find something back home that puts a constant smile on my face like something as simple as snow.

One of my good friends sent me an email, just a simple forward but it really meant a lot to me, meant more to me if I was just back home. I think every exchange student thinks at one point or another why am I here, like why did I do this, look at all the stuff I missing, whether we ask that when we say goodbye to our home, our life; or we get off the plane into a place we don’t know, we’ve all asked ourselves that. Well when I got this email from my friend, it had a prayer from St. Theresa, the saint of the little way, meaning she believed in doing little things with great love. And one part of the prayer says this, “May you trust your highest power that you are exactly where you are meant to be…” I really like what that says. I know some student worry about this year will affect their academics or family life, or something with their friends, but what if you forgot all that, and said to yourself this is where I’m suppose to be. I was talking with my friend and I was saying wouldn’t it be weird if I’d never come here, like I would have never met you guys… and she said to me (ever so bluntly, like she always does J) that’s stupid, don’t think that, don’t think what if, you are here! And she was so right, I don’t want to think what if, or what I’m missing, because I know, this place is where I’m meant to be.

So I thought I was just writing a short entry about the snow, turned out I felt like writing more. Turkey day celebration is this weekend, I’ll be sure to have pics!

Love ya all, and know that: wherever you are, it’s where you’re meant to be!

Kram!

Meryn

December 21 Journal

Morjens!!

I can’t believe its only been about a month since I wrote last, it seems like its been a lot longer, so much stuff has happened, I’m gunna have to think about everything ‘cause I have a lot to cover.

November:

Well I of course have to talk about Thanksgiving! I met one of my exchange student friends Laura in Helsinki on Friday the 20th and we went around the city doing some touristy stuff with two of our tutors from the camp when we first got here, of course we did a little shopping then we got on the bus and headed back here to Pernå. The next day we got up and started to make our big Turkey Day Dinner! And yes we did know that the 21st isn’t the real Thanksgiving but we had to do it on a weekend so we would have time to make all of it since we didn’t get time off from school! So we make 2 small turkeys, 2 kinds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, salad, and my favorite part, PUMPKIN PIE! While we were starting to make all the food it started to snow. It was quite perfect like a movie or something, so of course being the silly Floridian that I am, I went outside, taking Laura with me and we went outside and took pictures (Laura had her video camera) and I even danced in the snow, it was quite perfect if you ask me! The favorite part of the whole day was not the stuffing or turkey or pumpkin pie, or even the snow. It was just being here, sitting with my family, my best friends. My mom and dad had sent a card and my host mom opened it at the table and when she handed it to me and I read it, I almost started to cry, I just got a little teary eyed. If anyone else would have saw they would have said I was homesick, but the real reason for my teary eyed moment, wasn’t because I was missing home, but because here feels so much like home. So my first and last Finnish Thanksgiving was great, I’d have to say one of my favorite and most memorable Thanksgivings I’ve had.

The next weekend we had what we call Lilajul (literally translated that would be little Christmas). Basically it’s the first of advent, and everyone goes to church and then for dinner we have little Christmas food. So sort of Christmas just downsized a bit. My host mom and I went to church in Borgå, it was a very beautiful church, and very different from the churches we have. My host mom pointed it out that the church here in Pernå was built almost a hundred years before Ponce de Leon even set foot in Florida, how funny to think that. Anyway so church was beautiful, besides being in Swedish mainly the same as back home. When they read the Niece creed it was weird because for years I’ve known it but when I see it in Swedish, I can’t think of the English version anymore, oi I think I’m gunna be a mess with English when I get back.

December:

Wow oh wow I can’t believe it’s already December, and I got here in August! How the time is flying, I really do think Rotary does something with time when you sign up for an exchange because as I’m sure all of the other exchangers know, it goes so fast!

Anyway about the first week of December I went up to Lapland (which is way way way northern Finland) with Rotary. So on the 2nd I went to Borgå at 6pm to catch our bus, we started out as only 4 exchange students but as we drove up north we stopped at more cities and towns until we had a whole bus load of exchangers (there were also 3 other busses going different routes through Finland, so there were prolly 100 of us total) so after about 18 hours of driving (well for those of us lucky enough to get on at the first stop) we finally reached the Article circle. Of course we stopped at a little gift shop that was there, and then we continued on until we got to Muonio. We had lunch and we got our rooms and then we took a little tour of our hotel place. There was a river off to the side and our guide was like yeah, that Sweden. So I didn’t really know we would be so close to Sweden, but we were literally right on the border. There was a sign in the river saying Danger (because of the ice) and because the Finns has such a warming brotherly love for Sweden (think the American-Canadian relationship of making fun of each other) the Finnish speaking exchange student said the Danger sign was not to go to Sweden. The 5% of us, or whatever the stat is of Swedish speakers to Finnish speakers, didn’t find it as funny, hehe J.

Anyway so for the next week or so we spent up in Lapland we went to a Ski Place where me and Marion and an exchanger from New York, learning to Snowboard! It was sort of scary at first, but after you got it, it was so much fun! I might trade in the waves in Florida for snowboarding; it was just that much fun! We also went to a reindeer farm which was pretty cool, we got to go in a reindeer sleigh, ride on a dogsled and the best part was prolly on our trip back stopping in “Santa Park” which you guys is where Santa really lives. None of this North Pole stuff, Santa lives in Finland. Was pretty cool, the whole place was so full of Christmas, and tourists and therefore, gift shops! I didn’t get my picture taken with Santa because he’s a little on the expensive side, but I did see him at least! We went to Santa’s Post Office, where you can buy stuff (of course) but also its where all the letters come from little kids, to Santa. It was possibly my favorite part of the trip. There were these bags that you could buy that went to Unicef and they were just the envelopes from the kids, obviously Santa has the letters. Anyway but it was cool, so I think I now have the coolest thing I could have bought from there. Because it’s got the stamps from all the different countries and sometimes it’s in Finnish or French or Italian, or even if it’s addressed to just Santa, The North Pole. It still finds its way here to Finland. Oh that gave me chills, it’s like in getting those envelopes you could just see the Christmas spirit that so many children all over the world have. I’d have to say, one of my favorite presents yet. But sadly our trip had to end, and one by one as we drove down Finland again, people got off and said until next time, which might be all the way till the St. Petersburg trip in May. But finally after 19 more hours of driving and not a whole lot of sleep I managed to make it home.

So now what else can I say, It’s only a few days before Christmas, and it has snowed the past few days so we have a lot more, I went for a bike ride with my camera, it was quite a beautiful day. One thing that’s been more noticeable is the darkness. Yesterday was the longest day, where we had the least amount of light, that used to mean nothing to me in Florida – you couldn’t really notice any less light, I mean it’s the sunshine state! But here when I’m on the bus to school it’s dark, and the sun just rises as I’m in class, about 9, and then at like 3 you see the sun start to set again. But from now on, the days will get lighter and lighter, until in about a half year we will have midsummer with the whole day of light. In about 2 weeks or so we should be able to see a noticeable difference in it being lighter.

On another note the Swedish is going really well. I’m pretty conversational now, and mostly at home and with friends we talk Swedish. I was thinking one day wouldn’t it be cool if I did that whole “I wont talk anymore English”, that some exchange students do, but then I realized, I’ve already sort of done that without noticing, which is pretty cool. Something else that’s new is I will be moving families after Christmas; I’ll move the 2nd of January. This will be interesting and I think quite hard because this family has been so amazing, I feel like home here. Leaving here will be like leaving Florida again, but of course it will be good to see a different perspective and live with my next family.

Wow if you’ve read all the way to here to deserve a prize, didn’t realize I’d babbled on much, anyway I’ll be sure to write after Christmas, after I switch families and get settled there and tell ya’ll all about how my Finnish Christmas was!

Puss och kram God Jul och Gott nytt år!!

Hej då

Meryn

February 14 Journal

Oh my gosh its been so long since I’ve written last…I guess I have A LOT to catch everyone up on…I’ll start in December, lets hope I can remember that far back, it feels like it was ages ago.

Christmas:

Back home (wherever that actually is now that I think about it) Christmas was always a special time for me, like many. I was afraid this year that Christmas wouldnt feel the same, it wouldnt be Christmas. Without eggnog, my stupid Christmas CDs that at the first beat of music I feel the Christmas spirirt. Without Christmas claymation shown on tv almost everyday. I was afraid that without all that, Christmas wouldn’t be the same, well that was for sure, it wasn’t the same, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t just as great. I’ve heard that it’s a very hard time for some exchange students but I wasn’t home sick at all, it’s just that here feels like home so much, it’s hard to think I’ve ever lived anywhere else. Christmas Day (which is our Christmas eve) was the day where we celebrated the most. We woke up and had morning bastu (which is Swedish for sauna) then I went with my Host mom and dad and brother to Farmor and Farfar’s house (grandma and grandpa’s) to eat porridge which was really great! Then we came back to the house and hung around for a while until we left to go to church. It was a short but very nice service, there were lots of people and we sang a lot of nice Christmas songs. It was sometimes hard to hear them in Swedish because the melody sounded so farmiliar but I couldn’t think of the words, I’m still trying to figure out the whole song of “Silent Night”. After church it was only about 4 or so and it was already dark like it was night time, but the moon was out and full and it reflected on the snow- it was so amazingly beautiful. Then when we got home Me, My host mom and Farmor helped in the kitchen getting dinner ready. My host dad, brother and Farfar were in the living room talking. It was a really special feeling for me that night, we’ve never really had big Christmas dinners since its usually just my mom and dad and me, but when we had so many people it felt nice. Dinner was amazing!!! It’s sort of like our Thanksgiving in that there’s so much food and basically you have leftovers for days after (which isnt a bad thing). After many courses of food we all gathered around in the living room and Rasmus, my brother started to pass out the different presents to everyone. Sometimes I wish I could have put that time in slow motion, so I could see it clearer. It felt so right, being there. I felt so at home, there wasn’t a question of missing home when opening the little presents from my parents, I was home. So Christmas came and went, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to show how appreciative I am to the Bergmans, for making me feel so great, so a part of things. But just as Christmas came and went so did Christmas break. One day during our break my mom and I went to Helsinki for all the after holiday sales which of course is always fun!

January:

One thing that was very hard about the holidays was knowing that on January second I would be leaving my first family, the Bergmans. After realizing really how much stuff I had gained since arriving here, I finally got all my junk into my three suitcasses and we got into the car and we drove away from the village of Pernå to the “big city” J of Lovisa. It felt surreal, almost the same feeling driving in the car from my house to the Jacksonville airport. It felt like once we got to our destination, we would just turn around and go back. But we didn’t. My new family, the Tuovinens are great. I can’t say that it was an easy adjustment, but it was one that had to be made. Possibly the hardest part in my exchange so far was leaving the Bergman family. I thought to myself, why is Rotary doing this, why can’t I stay in one family the whole year? If I think from then until now, I know I’ve ganined so much, and that is why Rotary makes us change, because change helps us grow. Days went by, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into a month. I couldn’t believe that I had been at my new home for a month. I guess I should write a little more about my family first. I live with Eero, my host father, who is a Finnish teacher at the middle school in Lovisa; Liisa, my host mother who is retired; and my 16 year old sister, Matilda. They have been incredibly great and overall amazing and I want to thank them also because without them I wouldn’t have grown as much as I have. One thing that I did in the end of January was go to Tampere, a city about 2 hours by train from Helsinki, to meet our newbies. If you aren’t familiar with Rotary Exchange terms I am now an oldie, as awful as that sounds. It sounds awful because I don’t feel like I’ve been here long enough to be someone’s oldie, but alas I am. So during the last week of January I went with a bunch of other exchangers to meet the newbies from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They were cool, it was weird though, because that was us like six months ago, and now here we were giving them advice and telling them about Finland.

Febuary:

Well a big thing that’s happened so far was Febuary First was my 6 months in Finland anniversary. I can’t explain to you all how many times I’ve said- can it really be six months. How is that possible, I left like yesterday!!! But it has been six months and six amazing ones at that. I celebrated by going with two of my friends Paula and Carolina to an Ice hockey game in Helsinki. WOW it was so fun, it was my first game, but hopefully not my last, and our team won!! Go HIFK! Not a lot else has happend in Febuary so far, but there’s still plenty left. On Friday we have the Gamlas Dance. I guess translated that’s the “Old Dance”. Basically it’s marking that the third year students are graduating and we, the second years, are now the oldest in the school. So to celebrate that, on Friday we all get dressed up with dance dresses for the girls and formal suits for the guys and we dance for our families and friends the dances that we’ve been learning in school the past two months. It should be very exciting and I’ll be sure to have pictures. The week after next is Sport Lov, which is like spring holiday and I will be going to a city in central Finland with my host family.

Another thing with my new host family is that they speak mainly Finnish at home, but they also speak Swedish. So lately I’ve been hearing a lot more Finnish, which has been really cool for me. I’m certainly not learning it as well as Swedish and I know by the end of the year (and even now) I dont feel the same when I hear Swedish compared to Finnish. But I have picked up on some words here and there, which is quite fun!

The other day I had to make a presentation on myself and Florida in my English class. It was a little weird for me to talk about my family and friends and Florida and say this is my home. Because for the last six months it hasn’t been my home – this is. It’s really hard to explain the feeling, but if I didn’t know better I would think I’ve lived here all my life. The concept of Florida being home has sort of escaped my head or at least there are some cobwebs on that section of my brain. But it’s hard to think I have a life, or have lived anywhere else because this is my life, my home, my family, my friends. They mean the world to me. And it’s hard to imagine, almost impossible to imagine I really do have to leave this place. I always joke around with my friends here and with people back home, saying that I won’t really go home and we always laugh and joke about it, but after the laughing stops I’m always left to wishing I could say that and really know I don’t have to leave. But the return date is set, as surreal as that is, and me and my friends even decided that I’m gunna sing “Leaving on a jet plane” at the airport, even though we’ve also decided it would be interrupted with sobs. But I won’t think about that now, I’m going to enjoy the amazing people and time I have left here.

To the new exchange class – you guys are so lucky. A part of me wishes I could start from the beginning but a part of me likes knowing it’s happend the way it has. All I can say to you guys is enjoy the start to a very great roller-coaster ride.

I’d like to dedicate this to all my amazing friends here in Finland, especailly Paula because it’s her 18th birthday tomorrow! Grattis Paula. To the rest of you guys, thanks so much for making this year mean as much as it has. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to express how much that means.

Puss och kram och hej då

-Meryn-

p.s sorry for any bad english, or if I wasnt able to express myself clearly, even with having english class in school everyone here has noticed a downfall in my english skills. J

March 20 Journal

Well I guess I should inform you guys a little more on how things are going here in Finland. Things are going great as usual and it’s hard to think about life being incredibly new and exciting because in a way it is, but in another way…it’s just normal life…

I guess I need to start back where I left off in the last journal, in the middle of February. On the 18th of February we had our Gamlas Dans. I think I tried and explain it in the last entry but I’ll say it again. It’s like a day that marks our grade, the second years, as being the oldest in the school, when the third year students are finished. So on the morning of the 18th me and my host sister got up and went to the hair dressers and got our hair done. The sweet guy who did my hair said it was free, and it was his gift to the American exchange student. Then we came back home and did our make up and put on our dresses and went to school. Basically we’ve had dance classes as a class in school since December, in these classes we’ve been learning Waltz, Tango, and about 8 other dances that in February we would perform in front of the school and then in front of our parents and friends. So when we got to school we quickly said hey to everybody else, admiring how nice everybody looked. Then it was time to dance. It was our first time performing and it was certainly nerve-wracking seeing all the people from the school sitting watching. But it went great, and I think we all danced pretty well. We’re all quite relieved that it went ok, but there’s not a lot of time, we quickly have to be over on the other side of the town to dance for the elementary school and for a special needs school. Went very well again! Then we all went back to school and we got professional photos done, a group photo of everyone and then we could get photos with friends or individual photos. After that we all went to a restaurant in town and had a late lunch. After that we had to wait a little bit, but then we had to go back to school and get ready for the last time we would dance, for our family and friends. It went really well, the best out of all the times we danced I think. It also went by really fast. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. It was very special for me, especially since we don’t have something like that in the US, and I was very glad and proud to be a part of it. But unfortunately the day had to end, and considering how long we had been practicing to get ready for it, just having it one day seemed all too short, all the girls looked like (and I felt like!) princesses and all the boys looked so formal with their suits.

The week after the Gamlas Dans we had sport lov. I guess I said it wrong in the last entry it being a spring holiday, because well it’s Finland and it’s still cold and not really spring. Actually it was during Sport Lov when the weather actually turned really cold. From someone who’s lived in the Sunshine State all her life, having Winter go from Oct to March is something that’s taken time to get used to. I went with my host mother and sister and aunt to a city a few hours away in central Finland called Jyväskylä. We spent the week being there and staying with my other aunt and being well…sporty. We were actually really lucky with the weather because it was sooo beautiful the whole time. We went skiing one day, which considering I’ve only been skiing one time in my life went quite well, no broken bones or anything. We went on the little bunny hill with all the little kids a few times and then my aunt and sister and cousin headed towards the lift thing saying we’ll just go halfway, so we did. And I did fine then too. So we did that a few more times and then they were like ok all the way up to the top…I was a little doubtful, but I said ok. It was actually pretty fun and the view was amazing, you could see the whole city from the top. It was actually pretty funny because my aunt was telling me how I should ski, but in Finnish. Which was a bit problematic since I don’t speak Finnish and she couldn’t speak Swedish, but like I said it was fun and I didn’t break anything. The next day we went horseback riding. Horses have been a part of my life since I was about 8, and I gave it up maybe 3 years ago, and I must say after riding that day I could have just bought a horse and lived here in Finland with it. It was soo much fun, and especially in the snow! Well remember how I said this was when the weather started to actually get cold, and since I thought -10 was cold already I was thinking how could it get colder. Well that day that we went out to ride it was -20 C!!!!! But again the weather was soo beautiful, blue skies, no clouds, that I didn’t even mind the cold. We rode for about an hour I think. Now that I think about it I didn’t really pay attention to how long we were gone, we just went on a trail and just rode…It was soo beautiful. Imagine just fields covered in snow and the sun sooo bright that it shines all over the fields and it looks likes millions of diamonds are just covering the ground. It is so beautiful I can’t even come close to describing how it really is, you’ll all just have to come here and see for yourselves!

But Sport lov had to end and then we were back to school, which isn’t a bad thing because I actually like being in school, I get to see my friends and stuff, which is the best part. Since then nothing too exciting has been going on. The weather has continued to be beautiful, I was getting very optimistic because we had sun shining everyday, I assumed that the snow would melt and it would be really spring. But then I realized after everyone told me – this is spring. Ah naive Floridian. Fall is when the leaves fall and it turns chilly, yea that was Sept :-). Winter is when the snow comes in November when it’s dark most of the day which goes way past Christmas. But then Spring is when there’s still snow, but we have light and it’s pretty weather. And I’ll let you know about summer when it gets here, if it gets here. So that was a lesson for me. See Floridian seasons are: Fall is putting a sweater on but still wearing flip flops and the trees being green, Winter is having a jacket instead of a sweater, still wearing flips flops at all costs and the trees still being green – that jacket weather ends in January. Then it’s spring which is normal clothes and of course flip flops, and green trees. And then summer which is replacing normal clothes with bathing suits and of course keeping the flip flops and green trees. So it’s been quite a difference. But it’s like after having the dark days feel like they won’t end and everyone feeling so down and tired all of winter, it feels good to feel the sun on your face knowing, hey I deserved this. Us Floridians take that for granted.

That’s definitely something I learned a lot this year, how much we take things for granted. I was really lucky and didn’t have a lot of culture shock when I first got here, but what I did have was like my own little culture shock. Realizing how much I took for granted back home, and eventually when I am home, realizing what I took for granted here. It’s that whole saying you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore. Which is very true in every aspect. The thing is it’s hard to think that there is a cure for that. Take my sister for example. We have gotten really close, and I know that I will miss her very much, especially since I don’t have any real siblings back in Florida, so if I think hey I have to spend as much time with her now so I don’t realize I’ve taken her for granted then it’ll be that much harder when I’m gone. So I’m convinced there isn’t a cure, you just gotta live knowing that maybe that thing that you love so much won’t always be there, and you gotta learn to live without it, even if it’s been a part of everyday life for the past 17 years, and that is something you will learn very well on an exchange.

So I’ve been busy and things will continue in that way, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the next few months and can’t wait for them all. I’m going on a Rotary trip to Russia and my parents are visiting and I’ve got the Euro tour and all sort of exciting stuff, and I cant wait!!

Puss och kram!

-Meryn-

May 19 Journal

Well it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since I updated last, the time seems to have flown by! I guess Easter is a good place to start. I spend the Easter weekends back at my first host family’s house. It was very nice to be at their house again, because as soon as I stepped in it felt like I had never left. Easter has always been an important holiday back home, so it was interesting to see what it would be like here. There wasn’t a lot of difference with Easter and a normal weekend. We didn’t go to church, and they don’t really have the Easter Bunny…but they do have: witches. Yep Witches. I don’t know if I can really explain why they have witches because my host mom couldn’t really explain it to me. It’s really a lot like our Halloween. It’s when throughout Easter weekend children come from around the village and they’re dressed up as witches, not in black clothes with witch hats but with older clothes (don’t know what other word to use) and they use coffee pots to collect the candy. And they come house to house and say a little rhyme and they give you a little present and then you give them some candy. We didn’t get so many because we live in such a small place but still it was cute to see them! Another thing that is quite Finnish around Easter is Memmä, which is actually from Russia but in Finland since it’s so close they took this as Easter Food. It’s very hard to describe the taste or how it looks. Basically it is a black blob, and it’s made out of rye bread, but it’s not bread…it’s blob, wow maybe the English is getting that bad or maybe it’s just that hard to describe. But actually I didn’t think it was that bad. So it’s official, I like memmä, I’ve been in Finland too long!

Then April came, and before I knew it I was headed to Russia!! The 21st of April I started on my way to St. Petersburg Russia with about 100 other exchange students living in Finland. I got on the bus in Porvoo and we rode about 2 or 3 hours to the border. That’s something that blows my mind. This whole year I’ve been living that close to the Russia border. Russia’s always been such a far away place but we were going there!! So when we got to the border everyone on our bus was joking that we would be shot as we got off the bus to show them our passports and stuff, and they told us don’t take pictures as the border which of course made everyone want to take pictures. There actually wasn’t that much to see or take pictures of, but just because we were told we shouldn’t of course made everyone get out the camera. Finally we got back on the bus and drove a few more hours and we were in St Petersburg!! We drove around the city in the bus of course everyone with cameras out, taking pictures of God knows what, random building, street signs in Russia, and even a KFC’s you name it. Then we got to our hotel and ate dinner. The next morning we got a real tour of the city, so we knew what we were taking pictures of this time. We had a guide, who was quite good, and she showed us around the city and finally we got to go to the Hermitage! It was amazing! Our guide said if you wanted to look at everything it would take you 14 years!! Luckily we didn’t see everything, but everything we did see was unbelievable. Rembrandt paintings, beautiful statues, rooms made of gold. I can’t do justice by describing it; you really have to see it for yourself. That night we got dinner and had a Russian folk show! They sang and danced and even took members of the audience. It was pretty fun and the dancing was amazing! The next day we went to a summer palace in the suburbs of the city, it didn’t look as impressive as the Hermitage but on the inside it was just as amazing! Then after we drove back to the city we got a few hours in the city to go around and shop and just hang out. I went with Laura and Adam, both from Pennsylvania, around the city. It was actually a little cold that day but we went to a market and bought souvenirs and took photos! The last day we left the hotel and drove back to the border, it took us longer to get back, but luckily we did. I don’t think I’ve ever missed home so much. It felt so good to be here again. I realized how much I missed my friends and family and clean tap water!

After Russia, Laura came here to visit me and spent the week here. Then after that I moved back with my first host family, the Bergmans! I couldn’t believe it but then that next week would my parents be here. So on the 6th I went to the airport with my host mom and dad and waited for my parents. They finally got out of the terminal, they had to talk to some people because their bags didn’t make it, but the important thing was that they did. It was weird to see them at first. Because they’re your parents, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them, but it was because I hadn’t in 9 months! It was hard to think, how weird is this? they are my parents. The end part of an exchange is about balancing your two lives; well this felt like one world crashed into the other, it was weird at first seeing my mom and dad here in Finland. They were here 10 days, which was the perfect amount, I’m afraid if they had been here any longer it would have been much harder to say goodbye. We went to my school and showed them my families and friends basically my life here. At one point I remember thinking this is like introducing a boyfriend to family and friends, because it was like you didn’t want them to say something embarrassing or something “too American”, but it was great, they did a great job. We went to Turku (the oldest city in Finland) and were tourists a bit. It was weird to talk English with them too. Because it’s like the past 9 months you try to fit in, try and shut up if you cant speak the language and try not looking “too American”, but when they were here I had to talk English with them, which felt weird at first, but it all came back (most of it). There are a few mistranslations I’ve made, or made up the English word because I forgot it, which will take a while to live down, but otherwise I think my interpreting was ok. J I’m really glad my parents got to come, I got to show them into my world here and a glimpse into what I’ve been through, it will also be nice for when I go home and make references to people and places, they have some idea of what and who I’m talking about. Thanks for coming you guys, love you!

Of course since I’m very Finnish now, I have to talk about the weather. Spring is FINALLY here! The trees have green on them again, we have fields of green grass, and wild flowers are starting to pop up. One of my favorite things to see here, is how the weather changes. I now know why the Finns celebrate spring and Summer so much, because after a long winter, you deserve it! Well it feels like right now life is back to normal, we have about two weeks of school left and then the day after school ends I go on my Euro Tour (June 5th) Will be great fun and will definitely write about it when I get back.

Nothing much else to report, I’ll write after Euro Tour.

Puss och kram!

Merikukka J

July 2 Journal

Ok before I talk about anything else I need to talk about the Euro tour I was on! We started June 5th in Turku, Finland. We took the boat to Stockholm, and then drove down Sweden to Denmark. We stayed in Copenhagen and went to the famous Tivoli! We then drove to Germany and stayed in Bremen, then next day we drove to Amsterdam and got a water canal tour of the city. The next day we were off to Paris! We made a stop in Brussels which was really beautiful! Of course we ate Belgium Waffles! We got into Paris in the early evening and at we stopped at our hotel and then we went to the Eiffel Tower! It was so amazing and surreal to be there! After all the times I’ve seen it in movies I was finally there! We saw it light up and got to see the whole city by night, I’ll never forget it. The next day we had a city tour with a guide and then in the afternoon we went to Versailles, which was indescribable! The next day we had a free day! Me and Laura walked almost as much as our feet could stand it so we could see as much as we wanted. We went to the Notre Dame and the Louvre- of course saw the Mona Lisa. It was amazing to be in Paris! I loved the city so much; I will definitely have to go back! Then we headed to southern France, we went to Grenoble and Nice! It was so amazing to be in a warm climate again! I almost died when I saw beach, the water was so beautiful so blue and green (I even saw palm trees for the first time in 11 months!). We also went to Monaco on a day trip and got some time to look around! Laura and I went to Chanel and got a bag of free perfumes and stuff! Then we headed to Italy! We stayed in a touristy place called Lido di Jesolo for 3 days, with a one day trip to Venice. Venice was amazing, of course we went to the square with the pigeons and then on a boat ride through the canals! Being at the beach in Italy was amazing, I had forgotten about the beach after being in Finland so long! Then we started heading north, but we stayed one more night in Italy in the Italian Alps, we even went on a hike, with great views! We drove through Austria and stopped in Innsbruck for a few hours and then continued to Münich. Then we drove up Germany to Berlin, stopping in Nurnberg to see a war museum. We stayed a night outside Berlin and then the next day got a city tour, it was amazing being there too. We saw the Berlin wall and stopped at Check Point Charley. Then we drove back up Denmark and then to southern Sweden and stayed there a night, the next day we drove up Sweden and at night got on the ferry to Finland and arrived here the morning of the 23rd. It was really sad to say goodbye to everyone because we had all become so close.

Well, not much else to talk about than the surprisingly little amount of time I have left here. It’s a concept you know you’ll have to deal with, leaving – it just becomes such a foreign idea – it’s weird to think it’s almost time. Thanks so much to Rotary, here and in Finland, you guys have changed me and my life! Thanks to all the people I’ve met here in Finland, I’ll never be able to explain what this year has meant to me. I love you all and you will all be in my heart wherever I am. To my families – thank you for letting me be in your families and your life, I will never forget you. Lastly to my friends, I love you guys so much and I will miss you terribly.

Puss och kram Tack för allt!

-Meryn-

Leaving on a Jet Plane….

Jennifer Zebouni
2004-05 Outbound to Argentina

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Episcopal High School
Sponsor: Mandarin Rotary Club
Host: San Fernando R. C., District 4820, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jennifer - Argentina

September 9 Journal

Hola!

Jfklajfajhfnhjkasbfjkasbfjklabfjkabfjkabfjkafansjkfnajsfnjkafnjkawnfjawnfjkanfjksanfjksan- jfknsajkfnsajkfnajksfnjafnjksafnanfoiewfjañklmndsnafjnwafajfnsjkafnjkasfhniewfhwafjiew

That is about what it was like my first week here….Hola I could usually almost always pick up. However, as far as everything else was concerned I really didn’t understand much at all. My first three weeks pretty much were a mixture of emotions of all extremities. Extreme sadness when leaving Jacksonville, to extreme happiness now that I am beginning to fit in and assimilate to a new culture.

Argentina is amazing! It is gorgeous, the people are the nicest people I have ever meet in all my life. School is great. I go to a school where we have to wear uniforms, which are not too attractive but it’s all right. I finally know my way to and from school now. This week I was able to understand the majority of my classes and I actually took notes in history. The feeling when you begin to learn the language is by far the most exciting feeling I have ever experienced.

My family here is great. Mom, dad, older brother, cat. No dogs but I actually really enjoy the company of the cat, despite the fact that I am highly allergic. Soccer is really popular here which is really great, it’s always on TV and people are always playing it. And by people I mean boys, only boys. In school the boys and girls are separated for gym and the girls dance and play volleyball and the boys play rugby and soccer. After a lot of insisting and begging, in Spanish of course, I finally got the authorization to have gym class with the boys which is so cool because I will finally be able to play soccer! Next week I am starting guitar and tennis lessons and I am really excited.

When we talked about culture shock I really thought it wouldn’t apply to me. But I was wrong, it even effects you physically. I was the child that never ever slept, I really truly thought I had insomnia haha but now every day when I get home form school I sleep for 3 hours. It’s great – my brain is constantly working and trying to learn the language. I’ve already been to the mall twice, dancing, a rugby game, and many tea parties. The friends that I have made here so far I feel like I have known some of them for years, they are great. I really love it here! The best thing is, there are a lot of girls shorter than me in my class jaja, the people here are much shorter than in the USA!!

BESOS

October 15 Journal

Well it’s been exactly two months since I arrived in my new home, and I am definitely having the time of my life. But I am having the time of my life not because I have made new friends, and people find me special just for being American, or because here we go out until 7 in the morning, but because I have learned to enjoy myself in the hardest of situations. Things used to be fun for me only because they were easy, the harder things very few people like. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done but I am loving it so much.

This week I took my first two tests, and well…Yes well…My geography test went very well. I know I passed. But my “analsis calculas” kind of “worked me hard core”. I had never taken a test that I didn’t know anything about before, so that was a trip.

I am starting tennis lessons and horseback riding, so I am trying new things, and of course I play pickup soccer whenever possible. I also went to the center of Buenos Aires which was so amazing, I have never seen architecture like that before. I felt like I was in Europe, it was amazing, everything here is amazing!! And it’s spring!! And to make things even better I can basically understand everything and I can make myself understood. I am even telling jokes…well I think they are jokes ..no one ever laughs, but no one laughs at my English jokes either so I am not worried. Things are going great and keep getting better!

December 7 Journal

Yesterday I got home from a 20 day tour of the south of Argentina. We went to places such as Puerto Madryn, Bariloche, San Martin de los Andes, Calafate, and Ushaia which happens to be the southern most city in the entire world. I saw penguins, alpacas, whales, sheep, foxes, wild horses, everything. I saw mountains, snow, ice, everything. It was quite different from Florida actually. It was breathtaking.

On Thanksgiving day we were in a city called Calafate and we walked on a glacier. It was seriously so amazing. It was such an experience that it is truly hard to find words to describe the places. In the past I had always considered myself one who appreciates nature but I realized on this trip that really I had no idea. I began to notice how different the wind felt, how different the lights looked in each city, how different the air smelt and the people acted, it was truly incredible. I truly took advantage of every opportunity.

In Florida I have two dogs which I miss dearly and here I have a cat, so I am somewhat missing the affection of my pets back home. So when we were traveling I went to a pet store and asked if I could rent a bunny. The man sort of looked at me silly but smiled and said sure. I had to leave 5 pesos which is less than 3 dollars and then when I returned the rabbit he returned my money. The rabbit itself only cost 8 pesos. It was so much fun! Then the next day I rented the same one again but this time I didn’t have to leave any money because the man knew I was trust worthy. It was so funny he said he had never met anyone like me before, I don’t think many people rent rabbits.

It was truly an amazing trip and I met some kids from Austria and Hungary and different places, although most of them were from the United States. It was so refreshing to finally come home. It was nice. I realized after this trip that I truly have made Argentina my home, because when I got home the way I felt and the way my family felt made me realize how at home I am. I felt just like I do when I used to go on a trip and then come home to your mom’s food and your dad’s jokes and fighting with your brother over whose turn it is to wash the dishes and most importantly your bed. It was so nice. Now the vacation is truly over. Beginning the 17th of December I begin with my exams of the year. Which may not sound too difficult but you have to remember I arrived in late August, school began in March, and it’s in a foreign language. But I’m excited to do well and finish the year strong so I can begin studying for the SATs that I have to take here in January. Officially it is summer here, and tomorrow we are going to put up the Christmas tree. Happy Holidays everyone!!

January 22 Journal

Well for those of you who are doing your exchange in the northern hemisphere, and you Matt who’s in Siberia, I am sure envying you ironically enough. Right now I am on my summer vacations, and here it is very very hot. Especially since air conditioning is rarely used. It isn’t even that people don’t spend the money on it, it’s that other than in businesses no one sees it necessary or practical. I’m adjusting even though its in the 90’s every day.

I just got back from spending a little over 2 weeks in Pinamar. That is a beach which is about 4 hours from where I live and everyone goes there during the summer. It was so much fun because all your friends are there too, so it’s amazing. All the Argentine famous people go and spend the time there too. I met Carlos Tevez who played for Boca and now is playing for the Corinthians, a club in Brazil, and also the keeper of River Plate. Which is ironic because that is like meeting a Florida Gator and Seminole, quite the rivalry.

Now I’ve been back home for a good week, and of that good week, believe it or not, all of that time has been put into collegeboard.com, where I have practicing for the SAT which I took today. Let’s just say it’s obvious that I am talking better Spanish since I have apparently forgotten all English vocabulary. Now comes the fun part – studying for school exams that I have to take in a couple weeks to bring back credits. So my summer is packed with school, which I don’t too much mind. We are having a big super bowl party here so all my friends can watch my city on TV, too bad the only good team in the NFL didn’t make it (Indianapolis Colts, for those who aren’t familiar with the NFL).

Anyways I am having a wonderful time. It’s amazing – you would think that after 5 months and the fact that it’s no longer new, the fact that I have to study, the fact that I am not the special new girl, that it would lose a little of its appeal. But literally each day gets better and better. I feel like the time has passed so fast, too fast, but at the same time that I have been here my whole life, it’s oxymoronic actually.

Bueno me tengo que ir ya a estudiar así que te dejo con esa información y espero que te disfrutes.

Feliz Año Nueveo!

April 4 Journal

Well I have been very very busy lately. My summer came to an end almost a month ago. It was a wonderful summer! I was able to go to Pinamar, which is a beach in Argentina that almost everyone goes to during summer. It was beautiful and I went with my best friend and her family, which is practically my family. Don’t worry – even though they were not Rotary it was rotary approved 🙂 In Pinamar I ended up meeting the most famous soccer player, Carlos Tevez, that recently went to play in Brazil. I saw him out dancing and went and talked with him and his friends, it was amazing! I was looking for him all that day on the beach to play soccer and then that night when I wasn’t even expecting to see him I ended up meeting him. It was GREAT!!

Also my family was able to come down and visit me the last weeks in February, which was really amazing. It had been almost seven months since I had seen them and it was so nice to see them again. Not only my parents but my grandmother and brother as well were able to come. It was such a wonderful feeling to be able to show my family where I lived, my friends, my school, my new home. It was really incredible and I really enjoyed it. We also were able to travel a bit. And by a bit I mean literally from the very top of Argentina, Iguazu, Misiones, to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. Iguazu was beautiful. I think that most would agree that they are the most beautiful waterfalls in the world. Then I went to Calafate which has over 7 really large glaciers. It was great!

Then my family left and I began school. Which this year is much easier since I understand everything. But there are still some challenges. I am really enjoying it. On the school subject, I have been really busy studying for the ACT which I have to take this Saturday which hopefully I will do well on, if not I guess I’ll just have to stay here 🙂

Perhaps the most exciting day of my exchange occurred last Thursday, 31 of March. My mom decorated a restaurant for an exhibition because she is an architect and it was in a big exhibition. Anyways the exhibition was done by the magazine GENTE, which is like the American PEOPLE magazine. Anyways there is a program here on TV that I absolutely love!!! It really helped me to learn my Spanish, because it’s meant for younger children even though all my friends watch it. Anyways I am obsessed and it’s called Floricienta. It’s kind of roughly based on Cinderella. Anyways at this exhibition I saw a girl that acted in the program as the English tutor of the children in the show, and I went and talked to her. She was really nice and recently moved to Spain with her boyfriend so she doesn’t act anymore. Anyways she told me to follow her, she wanted to show me something … She took me to the Nokia section and there he was … The lead star of Floricienta ..THE PRINCE! We talked and he gave me his autograph and we even took a picture. He also invited me to the set on my birthday to watch the show. It was seriously my dream come true!! I also met a lot of other really famous TV stars, which are all really friendly! But he was the most famous and special to me of all of them. Anyways I will leave you all with this news. Even though I’m not sure it means as much to you all as it does to me 🙂 In final, I have so much luck in Argentina … I meet all the famous people!!!!!!! In America I don’t know anyone famous, well accept AL of course!!!!

Chau

June 7 Journal

Well these past months when I haven’t been studying for the ACT or the SAT or the SAT IIs, I have been studying for Spanish literature, sociology, economy, etc. So my past few months have been incredibly busy with school. Too busy!

The most recent thing I did that was really really neat, I mean everything I do is really neat in my opinion jaja but maybe not for everyone, was I went to see FUERZABRUTA. This was an act made by the VANGUARDIA, in ingles I think it is called Vanguard. It was really really cool. Throughout the entire [obra] we were moving because those acting moved as well. Above us was a huge pool of water where people were acting. It was really hard to describe but a really amazing experience.

A lot of the exchange students that were here in Argentina left this past weekend, which for me was really weird because it was my wake up call that I too would be going home soon. Well for some people 37 more days may seem like a long time, like my mom and dad back in the USA. But for me and my friends here it is nothing. In fact me and my host brother went the other day to the Argentina immigrations place to ask a question about my visa and as a joke my host brother asked if we could make me a citizen, but they said not unless we were married, so we decided that I’ll just have to take out a visa next time I want to come jajaja.

It seems weird now to write a journal about how I took the bus alone or the train alone, or about how we eat dinner at 11 at night, because to me all those little things that I had never done before seem normal to me, and not just that they seem normal but I have a hard time imagining how it was before I got here. I have truly fallen in love with not only Argentina, my friends, my family, and my life here, but I have also really learned to love the Jen that I have become in Argentina.

But as sad as it for me to think about leaving and going back it makes me also happy. I will now have the opportunity to share with all my family and friends about Argentina. And I was also be able to share America with my Argentine friends when they come and visit. So when I come home I know that I am really bringing back Argentina with me.

Elliott Woehler
2004-05 Outbound to Austria

Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Sunrise Rotary Club
Host: Scharding Rotary Club, District 1920, Austria

Elliott - Austria

August 11 Journal

Hallo jeder! (hello everyone)I am now in Zell an der Pram. The town is gorgeous! There are beautiful rolling hills in every direction, and amiable people flock the streets of the local villages. I am trying to get used to the change in time and food, but I’m sure that will come. German is slowly invading my brain as I prepare for language camp on Sunday. I hear it is on scenic Lake Traunsee, however everything in Austria seems to be scenic, but I suppose the Austrians are used to it. I reside in upper Austria, which is the less traveled part of the country, but I think that makes it more enjoyable.I am going to Linz today to get a basketball so I can play. I am trying to bike and get enough exercise so as not to add that “rotary ten or fifteen lbs., or 25 kilos….”My host family is great. We play cards every night. They like to tease a little bit, but that’s okay, in a few months I will be able to understand them and tease back 🙂 They have a crazy dog whom I call Vereichte Hund. They also have many animals, they are all over the place.The trip over was okay, the Amsterdam airport wasn’t so great (too many tall Dutch people and no A/C 🙂 Pictures will come soon!

Tchuss,

Elliott

September 2 Journal

Servus!,

I have now been in Osterreich for just over three weeks now and the time has flown, literally. So much has happened since the last time I have written, I almost don’t know where to begin.

Well, I went to Language camp in Altmünster for two weeks, which was a unique experience in itself. I went to class every morning from 8 to 3, with a one hour break in between. We also got short 10 minute breaks called pauses in between each class. It was funny because I would always do something in class to insinuate that it was time for a break. Sometimes I would do a fake cough and say the word Pause as I was coughing. Other times I would look out the window and say something mildly obnoxious like, “wow look at that pause!, I’ve never seen one like that before.” The teacher enjoyed it though, no one is too serious here. In the evenings after class I would sometimes go down to the lake shore and indulge myself in the inexplicable essence that is Austria. The scenery looks like a picture, none of it seems real.

After glaring at the sheer magnificent beauty of Traunsee and Traunstein, the lake and mountain in Altmünster respectively, I would attempt to go swimming in water that was so cold it could be compared to the water in Ireland or Maine, too much for a Florida Boy either way. Sometimes on the beach, I would sing songs with the Latin Americans that we learned in class. The songs were very stupid, but they initiated plenty of laughs and odd looks on the beach. Somehow, though, I enjoyed telling the whole beach of Lake Traunsee that “I am a foreigner and I don’t speak very well in German,” but that’s why I am here right? I stepped out of my comfortable world in Florida and took a nosedive into a realm where everything seems surreal and the confusion factor is nonpareil.

Most of this I can contribute to the language. They speak a strong dialect in this part of Austria, so Hoch Deutsch doesn’t do me that much good anyway. Nonetheless, it is still enjoyable to engage my mind in a language that I can’t comprehend beyond any real significance. On the plus side, my German has improved a lot, especially my reading. I can comprehend a surprising amount of what I read, but when I attempt to watch TV, I can only pick out a few words. I also find I get headaches sometimes at night because of the influx of this confusing language into my mind. Even my jaw hurts sometimes from attempting to speak it…lolOther than that, I have been to Linz, Passau, Salzburg, Gmunden, and various other places. I am going to Vienna next week and I start school in two weeks.bis bald (until soon),ElliottPS- If you ever venture to Linz, you must checkout AARS Elektronika museum, it’s quite impressive…

October 12 Journal

Hello all you eager followers of my journal, I know it has been a while since I have written, but I have been really busy here in Austria. I began school on Sept. 15th, which is much later than I begin in America. On my first day of school I only had to go for two hours because it was only an information day. Many of the students were interested to meet me and know who I was, but I wasn’t as big of a buzz as I thought I would be. In a way, I was kind of disappointed and in another, I was relieved. I’ve come to find that that has what my whole exchange has been, ups and downs. I’m slowly learning that you can’t expect everything during the exchange year to be perfect, because nothing in life is. You simply have to put the year in perspective and consider the experience as a whole.

Anyway, I have been going to school now for over a month, and overall I’m having mixed feelings about it. I generally get along with the girls in my class, but the males are extremely immature. Thereby, it is difficult to be able to get along with them that well because I am a more reserved and introverted person. My classes are very difficult at times. Most of the time, I can only tell partially what is going on in class, because most of my teachers speak in dialect and not hoch deutsch. However, some of the students are pretty nice about keeping me informed on the class material, and most of the teachers have been patient with me and the other exchange student in my class who is from New York. School is very different here in Austria. The students don’t change classes, the teachers do, and we have to wear these funny house shoes while we are in school. Oh and my teachers like to make jokes in the classes, but other than that, they aren’t the most interesting people in the world. Ahhh, how I miss the political tirades of my former history teacher last year….

Since I have last written, I have traveled to so many places that I simply don’t have time to list them all, but I will name a few. I’ve have been to Vienna a couple times, one to tour the city and another to take the SAT test and meet up with last year’s inbound to Florida from Austria, Teresa Lexmüller. She took me to some museums in Vienna, which was fun. And while I think Vienna is a very pretty city, I do not think I would want to live there…however, I am not sure why. I also have been to bad füssing in Germany to go to a health spa with my host mother’s father. I was surrounded by senior citizens. And being that I was the only person within a 3 mile radius under 50, I was strangely intimidated by the multitudinous senility. Also, I went to Tauplitz for a Rotary meeting in late September, which is a village on a mountain in Steirmark. It was absolutely gorgeous on the mountain, although somewhat cold (it was snowing there). The Australian inbounds from January simply couldn’t help themselves as the inner children in them took over and they had to fling snowballs at the Northern Hemisphereans.

As for me, I’m doing fairly well. I have gone in and out of spells of depression, but I suppose that is just part of the experience. I am in good health though. Amazingly I have not gained that much weight since I’ve been here, and I eat plenty of cheese and the Nutella that “Will be the Death of Katie’s Figure”. I think part of that can be attributed to the fact that I am growing some, so it balances out I guess.

Note to future aspiring Rotary outbounds: When Rotary mentions the Cultural shock and spells of depression, don’t take it lightly, because some of you will have a tendency to believe that the info doesn’t apply to you. I felt the same way, trust me it will, it’s part of the experience. Overall, I think the most valuable reward of an opportunity such as this is learning something about yourself that you didn’t previously realize.

–Elliott

PS- Good luck Tom. I hope you are doing well in Daytona.

November 20 Journal

Servus,

Sorry I have not written in a while you guys, but I have been quite busy. Since my last entry, I went to Vienna for a Rotary meeting for three days on Fri. the 24th of Oct. It was nice to see all of the outbounds again and cruise around Vienna with everybody. We even got to see a theatrical performance of Elisabeth, the former kaiserin of Austria, and we also embarked on a tour on Sunday morning around Vienna by bus. I have been to Vienna 3 times now, and I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the city. I have also been to Salzburg to buy supplies for my host aunt’s shop, and on numerous hiking occasions (one of which is displayed in the picture below, by the way…those kids are just friends of my host family). I officially love to hike now. It’s a great way for me to get exercise, spend time with other people, and absorb the essence of a place that I may never see again.

It has begun to snow here in Austria. The snow is incredible. Not only is it beautiful, but it is good packing snow (perfect for making a snowman or throwing snowballs). Many people in my village know me now, if not everyone, so I’ve built a good enough rapport to throw snowballs 🙂

Also, I’ve been scrambling to get all my college applications done, which is rewarding and scary at the same time. Completing them only reminds me that my remaining childhood is dwindling. So in essence, I am riding my exchange year in Austria into the sunset of childhood. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tchüss,

Elliott

December 30 Journal

Servus!,

Here it is, the long anticipated monthly journal of Mr. Elliott Scott Woehler. And you, the anxious reader, want to know what has happened in my life over the past month here in Austria. Buckle your seatbelts ladies and gentlemen. No, seriously… Lol

Well, what have I been doing? Let’s see, I went to a Rotary Meeting in Salzburg earlier this month. I got the privilege to see all of the Rotary inbounds again, and then some. We had some special guests: Rotary inbounds who chose Croatia to spend a monumental year of their life. This spiced up an already exciting weekend. It was interesting to share stories with them about Austria, while also hearing about their ventures in the Balkan heartland. Salzburg was buzzing during this particular weekend because of Advent (the time leading up to Christmas). The markets in the street were booming with people perambulating about in an attempt to find their loved ones some heartwarming gifts for Weinacht (Christmas in Austria). All of the inbounds went on a walk in Salzburg to tour the city, and to see what all the excitement was about. The street market was incredible. You could buy just about anything there. The Christmas cheer and ambience was augmented by the caroling street-singers nearby. A large crowd swarmed about them like flies because they were so good.

While all of that sounds great, the whole weekend wasn’t entirely euphoric. Rotary made us practice singing “Oh Happy Day” about 150 million times, wait maybe it was 151. I didn’t mind too much because I knew it was practice for our district conference in Osnabrück in January; thereby, while it wasn’t the most thrilling activity, I figured it was at least worthwhile in order to put on a good performance for the all of the Rotary members who would be present at the district conference. However, I thought it was an interesting song selection. I know one thing, I will never watch Sister Act again in my life.

Moving on… the celebration leading up to Weinacht in Zell an der Pram was a lot of fun. There were a few performances in the church that I attended, and when I wasn’t at church, it seemed like I was singing with my host family, the Haunolds. This is a dangerous combo though. The Haunolds already love to sing, and when you give them an excuse to, you will probably ended going to bed very late. Weinacht came, which was nice also. We, of course, gathered around the tree, and not surprisingly, sang more songs. After that, we opened gifts. I liked all of my gifts, but my host sister played a joke on me by giving me a calendar with pictures of firemen with buff bodies. I then told her it would soon be on EBay. She must have laughed for what seemed like an hour.

And finally, I also managed to do something extremely exciting just the other day. I climbed a 200 foot windmill. It took about 20 minutes of solid climbing up one long, and what seemed like, perpetual ladder. The view at the top was more than worth it though. I was a little bit scared before attempting it, but afterwards I was immensely proud of myself because I felt like I had added one more notch to my belt of challenges. My whole exchange year has been nothing but small challenges, one after the other. If someone told me a year ago that I would one day climb a 200 foot windmill, I probably would have laughed obnoxiously. The difference now is, I have more confidence in my abilities. I feel like I’m ready for anything. That’s my life. Thanks Rotary.

–Elliott

January 30 journal

Servus!

This is captain Elliott reporting back for yet another inspiring and profound journal entry … just kidding … Anyway, cutting out the obnoxiousness, some pretty interesting things have happened to me over the last month, the most important probably being that I changed host families on Jan. 2nd. I switched from the Haunolds (Hey Tom!), to the Mohrs. Basically I moved about 20 km closer to my school. It’s been nice not to have to get up so early, but then again I always slept on the bus anyway, because honestly, a 40 min. ride with screaming adolescents with whom 99.9% of them own cell phones, and actually find the show “The Nanny” funny, is not the most fulfilling way to begin your day.

Anyhow, since moving to the Mohrs, I’ve found that while I miss the Haunold family, I also really like my new family. They are warm and friendly people who seem to be in a perpetual state of family-bonding. It has really impressed me to see peaceful cohesion amongst so many people under one household. Of course, I’ve only been here three weeks, so who knows J At any rate, I feel extremely comfortable and welcome here, and I would also like to tell everyone to watch out, because I’m taking dance lessons with my host mom (read: her husband is too chicken to do so himself J) I told him he is going to owe me a lot of money by the time I leave … .

And of course, that hasn’t been the only thing that has happened to me over the past month. I went to a Rotary district conference in Osnabrück, Germany with the other Rotary inbounds to Austria. We met in Linz, stayed there for a night, and started out on our arduous ten hour venture the next day to land of the unknown, the place where they actually speak real German … dun dun dun … Actually, it was kind of nice hearing people actually speak the language that I am learning in my German class, and not all of that crazy upper Austrian dialect … .so anyway, after the painful ten hour ride in which I must’ve heard “Sand in my shoes” a hundred and fifty million times, we arrived at a youth hostel in Osnabrück. I was, of course, exhausted because I don’t sleep well on busses. Basically, all I wanted to do was crash on my bed and go to sleep, but lo and behold, there were copious amounts of other exchange students who were anxiously awaiting our arrival. They were inbounds to Germany, with the exception of one random guy who was inbound in Switzerland. Some of the exchange students were from Sam’s district, but Sam was unfortunately not there (You’re in trouble Mister).

All the exchange students seemed to enjoy getting to know each other. Dancing and talking were the most popular activities it seemed. However, Rotary once again made us practice singing, so we could present our song in front of hundreds of other Rotarians. Luckily, they scrapped Oh Happy Day, because everyone hated it, and no one sang with enthusiasm. I also think Whoopie Goldberg is now the consensus least favorite actress amongst all of the inbounds to Austria. Instead, we decided to sing an Austrian folk song. It’s called “Peter’s Brundele.” It’s a lot more fun to sing, and there is no obligation to learn ambiguously passionate gospel choreography (which didn’t fly well in our group either). So then the Rotary meeting came, and it was interesting to hear people from all over the world articulate their presentations in either German or English. It wasn’t always enticing, but hey I’m still a puerile young man. During the presentations, the Rotary international president from Alabama (of all places) stood up and gave a speech. For some reason, I became strangely intrigued to see a fellow American on stage, and hear his thick southern accent. It seemed as if I was comforted by it. It was also quite comical to hear him say a couple sentences in German. I must admit that I chuckled along with most of the other Rotarians. However, it was okay because the guy read it in a way that emphasized how bad his German was. After the district conference, we made the treacherous ten hour journey back. I was so tired, I almost fell over when I got off of the bus in Linz.

I also wanted to announce that I celebrated my 18th b-day with the Haunold family. However, I was a little melancholy during the days leading up to my Birthday as the song “Have you seen my childhood?” endlessly replayed itself over and over in my head. I also had numerous flashbacks to random scenes that I remember while growing up, and in a way, they were comforting to me. That, along with the fact that I’m doing something that has already propelled me into adulthood, has made the transition easier. As I grow older, my exchange year will help keep me younger, because I can reflect on all of the wonderful things I have accomplished this year. I will always be able to envision in my mind how truly amazing this year was. Whether I’m 20 or 60, I will always have that at least that much.

Life? Where are you? Show yourself! You don’t scare me …

February 28 journal

Hallo!

Wow! As usual, it has been about a month since the last time I updated you on my life. I hope all of you, my readers, are interested in this next update. However, I don’t want you to be disappointed simply because not really all that much has happened to me in February. Actually, February has been probably my most normal month here. I did have semester holidays for a week. It was nice to have a few days where I could either veg-out or go outside to go bobsledding. But now that I’m back in school, my mind seems to be a bit behind due to the layoff, but I enjoyed seeing my friends nevertheless. One of my friends actually went to Bratislava during his Ferien and took pictures of President Bush and Russian President Putin while they were having a conference in Bush’s attempt to call for a reunited Europe and US. What’s funny is that the Austrians don’t see it as that. Considering just about everyone here hates Bush, they see it as a phony attempt to appear genuine, or a very belated attempt to do something he should have done years ago.

Now that I have hit the half-year mark, the passage of time hit me with full force this month. The speed at which time moves when you are away from home is something I’ll never be able to explain. Sometimes it feels like the time won’t go fast enough, and yet it feels like I just wrote my Jan. entry the other day. Along with that, I have been pondering quite a number of things. Like, what I was most surprised about when I came to Austria (just how tall Austrian people are), and what I have noticed simply from living here so long (that so many people either own many of the same things and/or behave with similar mannerisms). A lot of Austrians are very much alike, and they are a people who are very stuck in their ways. But those ways work for them, and that’s why it seems like everyone is alike in one way or another, because they share a common bond in thinking that their way of life is the best, and most efficient way to live. One year ago, had I known this, I probably would have called these people nothing more than a bunch of sheep. But what I now realize is that they are a people that value structure and continuity, so everyone being alike in one way or another is almost vital to their way of life. It’s just different, but not wrong.

Also, as a side note to my small diatribe above, I would like to note I will be going skiing for a week soon and I also have a Rotary function in Linz on the 11th of March, in which I will be celebrating 100 years of Rotary. All I have to say is Rotary has impacted the world in a positive way for one hundred years. Which if you think about it, is impressive and overwhelming at the same time. Keep up the good work guys!

Ciao,

Elliott

March 31 Journal

Servus everyone,

This is Elliott, catching up again. Since the last time I wrote, I have gone skiing in Schladming. It was a nice resort. It wasn’t too touristy, and the view was incredible (right). It took me a while to get the hang of skiing, but once I did, it was a lot of fun. I think the main reason that I had problems at first though was that I was expected to make these pinpoint turns on skis that had no wax on them to speak of. I realized this by the second day, and got this problem fixed, and immediately improved. I also did some sledding down a track that was all the way at the top of the mountain. It was so thrilling. Even though the sleds don’t really go that fast, it feels like flying, because of all the hairpin turns and perilous stretches of ice that send you careening all over the track.

Since I last wrote, I have changed to my third and final host family. My host father is the president of my Rotary Club. He’s a really nice guy. Now that I mentioned it, everyone in my host family is a pleasant person. I like all of them. So far, I have had no problems.

My host father wants to take me on a few trips around Austria, which seems like a fulfilling way to finish out my year. I know, it’s here already, the final quarter of my year. It’s incredible how fast time moves when you are away from home. And because of this rapid movement of time, I am basically facing a dichotomy in my emotions. This may sound clichéd, but the feeling is inevitable I think. While my departure is imminent, I am not that scared or nervous. I mean, sure, I will miss my friends here and all, but I’m excited to see how things are going back at home. I was recently accepted to Emory University, and am thrilled about beginning college life, but terrified at the same time. Looking back though, I can only be fully grateful to Rotary for giving me the chance to bring my life in a different direction, so that I could dabble into something new, and discover something about myself that my life at home wouldn’t allow me to. I now understand Elliott more because I have been an exchange student. And while I still have some enigmatic qualities about myself, I am at least more ready to accept them as something that makes me unique.

So until next month,

Elliott

May 4 Journal

Hello all.

Well here it is, my April journal. April has been a pretty calm month for me. The weather has finally warmed up to a comfortable amount here in Austria. Therefore, the basketball court has been taking a lot of punishment from me. It has been great to get outside and shoot some hoops, and get some exercise. I love the feeling of coming home with sweat dripping off of my face.

Other than that, the only thing out of the ordinary that happened in April was me taking a trip with my class to a University in Salzburg. It was interesting to take a look at the University system here and compare it with that in the US. The University was very spread out, but much more austere than what I am used to. There are few extracurricular facilities for the students, who are more or less on their own to accommodate themselves in that department. However, I met some of the teachers, and even got to sit in on some of the classes, and it seemed as if the students at this particular University were in good hands.

Also, I have to begin University in America soon, and I am getting really excited. I have to get my school here in Austria to send in my final report card and hopefully that will go through and I will be on track to graduate. As of right now though, nothing is guaranteed. I also hope that Emory University understands my situation here in Austria and that the grading system is a bit different. So they have to consider me a special case.

Well, that is all for now, Good luck to the rest of you finishing out your years wherever you may be. Spend lots of time with your host family as this is the last time you may ever see them…

Until next time,

Elliott

May 30 Journal

Hello everyone,

This will be my second to last journal. Wow, the time is almost gone. I’m feeling a little melancholy right now about my imminent departure, but am excited at the prospect of showing my dad around Austria for a few weeks.

The season changed here with a whip, and it is quite warm now, if not hot some days. I find myself sweating in mid to upper 80 degree weather as I think to myself, wow I’m going to die when I land in Gainesville. Okay, so maybe Matt the converted Siberian will die before I do, but nevertheless, I can’t believe how accustomed I have become to this cooler weather and abounding rain. But there is hardly ever any lightning here. One of my host sisters in my second family, Myriam Mohrs, apparently loves lighting. I should tell her that there is a lot of amusement beckoning for her in the sunshine state.

Since my last journal, I took a trip to Salzburger land with my current and final host father. We visited a large bird sanctuary, Hitler’s city of birth (including his house), and a fortress on a mountain in Germany where Hitler used to spend his holidays. I found it quite amusing that Hitler’s birth house is nothing more than a yellow book store with nothing but a stone with a quote about fascism engraved on it to indicate that that was where Hitler was born. The lady who owns the bookstore must be somewhat of a prude. I also took a day trip the other day with a friend of mine to a water park, which was nice but expensive.

Also, my report card was sent in from my school here in Austria and I am just waiting for it to be processed by GHS so I can successfully graduate. It’s nice to be finished with school and not to have to worry about doing homework anymore. It’s funny though, because I didn’t really have to take tests but in two classes this year, I actually missed having to study with my friends for a big test. I must say that I learned this year that life is more ironic that I could have ever imagined.

Finally, I visited my first family, the Haunolds, this past weekend just to see how they were doing and to catch up a little bit. I biked a total of 12 miles to do so. It was all in all a good way to get exercise and socialize a little bit. I am also going to Linz this weekend for my final Rotary meeting. I am excited to see the exchange students again, but I am somewhat despondent in realizing that many of them will be flying home soon thereafter.

–Elliott

PS– I wish nothing but the best of luck to all of the district 6970 04-05 inbounds and outbounds for the remainder of their year.

 

Gwen Dormandy
2004-05 Outbound to Austria
Destination: Baden, Austria
Sponsor Club: West Jacksonville
School: Douglas Anderson School of Arts

Gwen - Austria

October 12, 2003

Am involved, for those who don’t know, in my first theater show. Show went up this past weekend. Was received v. well. Show was v. time consuming. Mon thru Thurs from 1 to 5 or 6ish were my rehearsals for a month. It’s not normal theater, its in the new experimental theater movement. It’s weird, but kinda cool. Like it, and apparently am good at it (who knew? Never really thought was that good of an actress, though with everyone here telling me I’m v. good….). Whee. Hehehe… who said creative writing wouldn’t come in handy? Basically, w are taking poems from Jandel (an oscure german poet who plays with sounds) and putting together movement pieces to his poems, or based off of that idea. I play a researcher trying to help fix a society of Primates. It’s very weird and I don’t think I can explain it very well. It was very very weird. Will leave it this way: one of the scenes I am in is me explaining to a primate what an Eulen (owl) is through gestures, and somehow it turns into Owls eat chickens.. It’s v. comical, though The show has several underlying themes that have come about throughout the making of it. See, there’s no script, no single concept that runs the show together when you start. You are just told to go on stage and ‘do something’ so, basically it’s a lot of improv (thank you thieves’ guilde) that then gets turned into a story.

Part of role as the researcher Is to randomly give a monologue, explaining some concept through gestures. Have 3 monologues, the first, is to describe what ‘parallel’ is, The second is to describe what Closeness is, and the third and most difficult is: ‘The concept of society as a masquerade’ and as can tell, this one is v. difficult to describe through gestures alone. However, this monologue is favorite so far, because am trying to get the Primates to make different masks for different emotions and don’t want to cooperate and steal my hat and things. It’s v. cool. If record the show, will get a copy to take home with so everyone can see it.

Am making losts of friends, well.. not many in school, but when did ever have a lot of friends who were in school with self in self’s grade? These kids are 16, so… it’s kinda hard to make friends with them, as most of friends back in FL are older than self, but am making the effort. But Tessi, Allicia, Jenny and Stefan are v. cool. Usually hang w-them, annie from canada, or Christoph- nice guy who grad. all ready. Is 20, has car, is v. nice and has cool friends. Also hang with Natalie from time to time (theresa’s friend. 19. v. cool.) Max is fun too. w- friends from school, we hang in cafes after school (cool little eurpoean cafes. Fav. is in Mvdling, it has funky furniture and modern revamps of the great art works. v. cool! ! With Chris, we go to different pool halls and cafes in other towns (the above cafe is one chris and self frequent) also hang out with mike and julie with him. V. cool. Natalie is my clubbing partner! Whee!!!!! Fun fun fun!!! It’s funny to watch Europeans dance. Dance like such white people. Seriously, 90% have no rhythm at all! Hehehe. Thanks to Brenda teaching self to dance long time ago in states, am one of the best dancers at the club. The bouncers let self in free (all ready they knew nat, and now the melker keller ones know me, working on Dance Palace next) Max, Annie, Sabine and self usually go to the park and hang out, or sometimes will go to movies.

Is v. cold!!! Was hailing other day, and was at 0°C (32°F) last week. Brr!! Seriously, something is wrong when it’s that cold the 1st week in October. Floridian behind is freezing.

Never complain about gas prices!!! Glad now that don’t drive far too expensive. is 8.75 for cheap kind

Hrmm… anything else?… school is v. easy. Most classes are discussion, which don’t understand yet, so usually sit in the back and work on German. English teacher likes self a lot, nat. Doing unit on America, and watched Bowling for Columbine. Now, expected questions about Schwarzanegger (who won, by the way. Did you hear?? Did, about a million times every hour) and Bush, etc, but never, ‘You are American. How many guns do you have??’ Stunned. Have no guns, actually hate them. Give no chances, hold no honour, etc. Never thought that this would happen. Ppl here usually think it’s cool that am American, but is v. weird with this respect. All think am violent. ! Me?? Would self ever do anything like that…? (thinks of Thieves’ Guilde and swinging swords around) but that was just stage combat!!! Most of the time… ^.^

erm… Annie and self and Krystyn are talking about starting a modern cafe like the ones here in Boston when go back and through college. Am v. good at numbers and management, Krystyn is excellent cook and baker (taking gourmet cooking classes starting in Jan) and Annie has good design instincts and advertisement things. Who knows? Could happen. Would be cool if did. Thinking a modern cafe w funky lights and comfy-cool furniture with neat tables. Postcards from Europe all over the walls, and a few of Krystyn’s art works. Kinda like feul, only better. And have started adding up start costs, and have been taking inventory in stores for different lamps, plate styles, etc. and have looked up average costs to get a restaurant space in Boston. So far, starting costs figuring about 25 grand, but am cautious and would like to have an additional 5 grand added to that cost, for just in case. And yes dad- added insurance to! that cost, and furniture, and lamps, electricity water, food costs etc. Fun to plan even if doesn’t happen. Who knows? Maybe will, but then, is about fourth time since January have changed career. Any ideas?

Have actually been getting bit homesick. Didn’t think would but is hitting self hard. Miss friends, car, parents, job, cats, Vera’s dog, life. Is hard. Didn’t think would get homesick, but am. Contrary to most people, feel much better after talking to friends and things b-c reminds self that they are all remember and still wait for self to come home. makes less homesick after hearing from them.

ON language: Understand about 75% of what people say aber, ich kann nicht sprechen sehr gut. People have a hard time understanding self b-c I speak American accent, (and self’s english dont understand either) not british. Have spoken british accent with random ppl so they understand self better, and have started talking slower than usual. And have started speaking britain english instead of american so ppl understand self. Help them with english and help self with german. Funny story: was in the club the other night and was dancing, but got hot so stopped and sat down. Friend asked why, and self said, ‘Ich bin heiss’ which thought meant, I am hot, (heiss meaning hot) but no. apparently, if are talking about temperature you say mir ist heiss (me is hot) because if you say ich bin hei_ it means you are horny. Couldn’t figure out why she was laughing so hard until she told me. Was amused.

Well, I suppose I will leave you with this.

More as it comes

Gwen

January 9

Ok ok ok… I can no longer ignore the demands of my adoring public. I will use a bit of my valuable time and post an update for your ever-eager clutches. Ok, so it’s not an autograph, but you can print it out and pretend.

Moo.

Moo.

Do you have your inner moo? I do. If not, I know where you can buy some. No? How about a free sample? Are you sure?? It’s free! Your life will change with the inner Moo!!

I have my inner moo. I found it while hiking in Tauplitz (yes, me… hiking and getting sweaty and dirty and gross. When Austrians say, let’s go for a short hike, they mean a 20 hour plunge into the wilderness to enjoy scenery. Thank the Gods that there aren’t mosquitoes here!) Two of my best friends among the exchange students Heba (aus Colorado) and Margaret (from the Great white Tundra known as Canada) and I elected to go for the really long walk around instead of climbing a mountain. We had a lot of fun laughing and joking around, and had some great apple juice in a little house in the middle of the wilderness. It is a humbling thing, to stand in the middle of nowhere on a large rock and realize that without you, this will endure. A quiet comfort to those who have gone through many trials, and who will go through many more. On the way back to the rustic lodge we were calling home for the weekend (where you had to pay for showers! how insane is that?? Bah! I am a poor exchange student, and they put sinks in each room. paying to shower when you can sponge bath and wash your hair in the sink. This is how I learn to adapt >besides, I heard the water was beyond freezin. hahaha to those that paid! my sink was warm and refreshing. and free!!!> ^.^) We got lost. Horrendously. Huzzah. But, reaching within our inner souls, we were able to pull forth the Order of the Cow, and we realized our savior had come. on the bottom of Margaret’s shoe, and later on her pants when she slipped. It was hard (and smelly!) work, but by trusting to our inner moo, we were able to forge a path back. Now, don’t you wish you had your inner moo??

SNOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW is everywhere! Falling outside right now as I write this. There is already about 3 feet on the ground, and more falling on the sky. It’s sooo beautiful. I have used 2 rolls of film on nothing but snow. ^.^ First fall was in late October, very unusual say the Austrians. I’ll say! In October, I am still wearing sleeveless shirts and sandals!

November warmed up a bit, and there was no more snow until after Christmas. v . v But that gave me an opportunity to buy a winter coat. A real one. Insane

But November was not entirely uneventful. I took Ball Room Dancing classes. Huzzah! Everyone knows how to dance here (except my host brother. he adamantly refuses.) I know how to do Langsam Waltz (English) Weinese waltz (Viennese waltz, or fast waltz), Fox trot, Boogie, Samba (ewww…) Rumba (Roman makes me lead for this dance cause he can’t do the counts) and Tango. huzzah! (Which Is good, because I attend the first of the Balls today <yes, realllllll Balls! weeeee!! I am going to three. only in Austria can you buy your ball gown for cheaper then a sweater… my dress was 40 euros, and thick sweaters run from 35 to 50 euros. crazy…>).

We celebrated Thanksgiving too! How wonderful is my host family?? They are soo cool ^.^ I hope Teresa <the one you all know in FL> knows how cool her family is and how wonderful of people they all are. Annie aus Canada and I cooked the whole meal ourselves. Two turkeys (big tom and little Clyde), gravy (made by yours truly!), broccoli, mashed potatoes, Candied yams (the most, err… ‘interesting’ dish), fruit salad (done in the Austrian fashion with Rum added…), salad, and apple pie ala mode. (Now, this was most interesting to make… They don’t exactly have pie tins in Austria… so we improvised and made pie in the lid of a pot. pictures below). It was ever so much fun!

in Austria, they have thing called Krampos, which is like a devil who comes around to scare all the little children into behaving. They have a parade where young men dress up in scary costumes and go through town, flogging people they think have been evil. Strange.

For my Christmas, I went with my host father to church to get some fire from the flame that was lit in the church of Bethlehem. (Did you know that every Christmas eve <which is when Austrians celebrate Christmas> they light the fires in the church in Bethlehem and take the fires in planes to every church in Old Europe?) My host mom was decorating downstairs and I wasn’t allowed to see the room until she finished. then we went through the house with incense and they did a chant praying to God to keep evil out of the house (which was cool). We went into the living and dining rooms where my host mother had decorated the Christmas tree very beautifully. With lit candles and sparklers. just sat there praying the house wouldn’t catch on fire. It didn’t, fortunately, and the sparklers wore themselves out with resigned dignity that they could do no harm. Then we opened presents. I got a hematite bracelet, an Vsterreich jacket and candy. oh and some lotion, which is always a good thing in this freezing country! how wonderful is my host family? (as I have said before and will say again).

I went to Altausse for a week following Christmas. Altausse is a town that’s so small, it wouldn’t be allowed in CanAmerica. Seriously. We walked across town to the grocery store, and it was about 10 minutes. All the way Across town. But! There was snow a meter deep! and it kept snowing the whole time we were there, so that when we left, there was much more than a meter. it was cooooooooooooool!!!! v. cool. v. cold! we made a snow man who was taller than me by about 4 or 5 inches!!! There are pictures of me sitting on his head (not pictured here). And I also tried snowboarding for the first time. ,., NOT my favorite activity… I fell down for about 5 and a half hours…. couldn’t even go up the lift, never mind making it down the mountain. not even up the lift…

Now I must dash, my adoring fans. Tears are not becoming on your face, do not shed them when I take leave of you. Fear not, When I stop being busy and lazy, I will write again. Until then,

Tschus!

Gwen