It feels strange sitting down to write this now because, exactly a year ago I said goodbye to everyone and everything I knew to go and study abroad in Switzerland. I remember taking that eight hour flight with the twenty other exchange students coming from the U.S and how excited we all were, I remember walking past customs into the group of host families all waiting for their own exchange student to walk past that gate, I remember meeting the people who I now call my family with such clarity it's hard to believe that it all didn’t happen yesterday.
The only thing you get to decide on when embarking on an exchange year is what country you would like to live in and, even that's not certain. My first choice was Austria but as fate would have it my exchange year would take place in Switzerland, to be exact in a small village called Hondrich located in the Berner Oberland. Where I lived is the stereotypical image of Switzerland. A quaint place on the edge of a lake in the Alps surrounded by cows. The view from our house was breathtaking, you could perfectly see the lake and mountains that surrounded it.
For the first month of my exchange I went to a language school in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Luckily Bern is only a thirty minute scenic trip by train. I took the class with about thirty other exchange students from all over the world and there I would meet two people who I would later count as some of my closest friends: Tyla from South Africa and Camilla from Spain. We spent the first month exploring a city that was created so long ago it looks like a real life Hogwarts. The streets are made of cobblestone with beautiful fountains and statues lining the way. Trams carry people up and down the streets and at the end of the city is a beautiful rose garden.
After two weeks of running around without much of a schedule I would have to begin normal school alongside language school. I was so nervous. I could barely speak the language and where I lived people had a somewhat negative connotation of Americans. But I had my host sister and Camilla who ended up going to the same school as me. For Camilla and I it was sort of like how they introduce new kids in a movie. Our guidance counselor pulled us aside while everyone else's started their day so we could pick our courses. Then he separated us and lead me to what felt like my doom as he introduced me to the sixteen other students who would be my classmates for the next year.
It's funny how much you build up something in your head. When I walked in to that class everyone was friendly and inviting especially a girl named Zohra, who would become my best friend.One of the things I like better about schools in the states is that your with different people for each class. The case for most schools in Europe is that you'll spend your core classes with the same fifteen to twenty people through all of high school, so if you don't like someone you better get comfortable because your going to be in it for the long haul.
For the most part I enjoyed school in Switzerland. The classes were more inclusive and you were free to walk off campus into town whenever you had free time. The one thing that really bothered me was how small the school was. There were only about 200 kids so whenever you did anything it was a topic of conversation and seeing as me and my friends were big spazzes we were frequently shot judgemental looks.
Something that I loved the most was the freedom. My friends and I would go out to clubs and wander back home at three and it was perfectly acceptable for our parents. Sometimes my host dad would even offer to pick me up at four if I wanted to stay out a little later. My friends and I would also hop over the border to France, Germany and Italy whenever we wanted. Camila and I decided to go hike in Italy one weekend with another friend of ours and we forgot to pack water so our waterless four hour trek became an inside joke between the three of us. The amount of safety and trust is just so different it's been hard to readjust.
I miss hiking. It was so fun to pick a trail and spend the day with your friends scaling mountains all around the country. I also miss the trains. Nobody drives, instead you hop on a train or a bus to get where you want to go. It sure made things easier when I went to Open Air, a hip-hop festival. It was four days of camping out and concerts and it was sort of a little celebration seeing as it was my last weekend before I headed back home. My favorite performance was by J.cole he was amazing live. But after a few days with only three hours of sleep in total I was exhausted and I ended up passing out on the floor of first class for the train ride back.
Open Air is definitely one of my best memories. Another favorite of mine was when my host sister and I skipped school and went to Italy. We were home alone for a couple of days and my host sister and I got up looked at each other and decided a trip to an Italian café sounded better than math.
The year was full of so many things culture, adventure, friendship all of the cliché stuff you expect to get when traveling abroad. Some advice I would give to those considering doing in exchange year is make sure you want it. From the first moment this exchange year was what I wanted. If you are not doing this for you I promise you will not enjoy it like you should. Also going abroad will not automatically solve all your problems, the one thing you can't run from is yourself and I've known a fair share of students who were miserable because they thought that being an exchange student would act like a magic pill. Whether your thinking of doing an exchange year or not spend some part of your life traveling. The world has more to offer than just what's in your backyard and you owe it to yourself to see it.
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