I can’t hardly believe I’m about to write this... ten years ago today I stepped off a plane and into Taormina, Sicily, what soon become my second home, for the first time. My brain is struggling to grasp that a whole decade has passed since I embarked on my high school exchange as a sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old.
As well as blowing my mind at how fast time slips by, the realisation of this anniversary has made me reflect on just how much I have gained from the amazing experience that was that year; how much I have to appreciate. I am so grateful for it still and I am sure I always will be. The whole experience – encompassing all the beautiful and the difficult moments – helped shape me into the person I am today.
In the short term, I had a year full of most amazing moments; I ate the best food of my life, I became fluent in a second language, I gained a second family; I was lucky enough to enjoy one of Italy’s most beautiful locations and call it home; I made new friends; I got a tan I could never hope to get in New Zealand; I rode on the back of scooters; I finally got a dog... the list goes on.
In the long term, there have been benefits a-plenty. I am endlessly grateful that I had the experience I did and that my parents enabled me to go, despite the convictions of my school principal that it would be detrimental to my education. On the contrary, it educated me in so many ways school never could have. I am still benefitting from these a decade later, meanwhile the maths I learnt during those years has all but fallen out of my memory.
The benefits of doing a high school exchange are too many to name, but there are two things for which I am particularly grateful...
When I think of all the places I may have gone on my exchange, it is so weird to think of it possibly being anywhere else. Not because of the place, but because I cannot imagine my student exchange without the people who made it.
The Italian school friends I made at my liceo classico, some of whom I am lucky enough to still see semi-regularly. The grandparents I was so grateful to get to know, given I lost all my own by age 13. The fellow exchange students from Norway, Japan, Finland, Australia, North Carolina and Brazil, one of whom I visited in Helsinki just last week and whose friendship I value so highly. The three individuals I called siblings for a year who showed me what it was like to be a big sibling, and to have a brother. The host parents who took me into their home without knowing me, giving me the best year of my life. All of them. I feel so fortunate that my exchange gave me the opportunity to know them.
BEING FORCED OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE WHILE YOUNG
When you hear people reminiscing about high school exchanges, it’s nearly always positive, naturally. We choose to remember and share
the good bits. But it’s not all easy and fun and exciting. Sometimes it’s bloody hard... quite often actually, especially at the beginning.
For the first time in my life, I was utterly out of my comfort zone. Of course it’s partly the language barrier, which firmly plants a 10-foot-high, solid concrete wall between you and everyone else, which you quickly learn is your responsibility – not theirs – to break down.
You can go a whole year being that shy, mute foreign student in the back of the class and it won’t make a difference to their lives in the slightest. Or you can work tirelessly every day to learn their language and become a part of their lives so you do make a difference to them in some way. It’s exhausting and frustrating and yet despite this, you will be mocked (in good humour, but still) for your attempts and there a days when you feel like crying because you are TRYING and don’t need to be reminded you haven’t yet succeeded.
It’s not just the language though... it’s the experience of being a total cultural outsider, always looking in. I went to a culture that has a lot more in common with my own country than some other exchange students, but there’re still so many differences on a deep level; differences you cannot possibly see until you live amongst them. The utter frustration of every single person around you INSISTING that something is done a certain way and you, completely on your own, saying ‘no, it doesn’t have to be though’ gives you a profound understanding and appreciation of cultural differences.
Before my exchange, I would often look at cultural groups within my own city and judge the way they always tend towards each other, and cling to what they left behind. I always thought, ‘why come this far and leave your country at all if you’re only going to continue speaking your own language and eating your own food?’
I wasn’t an overly cocky teenager, but there is something about those years around age 16 when we think we’re invincible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s practically innate in teenagers to think we know everything, and we have a certain sense of superiority in this perceived knowledge. Truth is, at that age, we barely know anything; we haven’t had a chance to learn it yet because some knowledge and understanding is simply gained through life experience. There is no experience quite like a student exchange to gain such experience. Being thrown into a foreign culture and a family of strangers on your own, at this stage of life... It’s a game changer.
I am so grateful for AFS. I am so grateful for la famiglia Zingali. For Taormina. For liceo classico Santa Maria Gesù Rendatore. For everyone I met that year. And for arancini. Now please excuse me while I go and have a wee nostalgic photo-viewing session...