Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I glanced out the airplane window preparing to land into Nice, France. My first glance of the French Alps lining the sparkling Mediterranean sea literally took my breath away. After 12 months of impatient waiting I was minutes away from landing in the Cote D’Azur where I would spend the next 11 months of my life as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student. As the plane descended closer to the ground, the potent mixture of nerves and excitement took over my body. I nervously walked off the airplane onto French soil for the first time in my life. I was greeted by a group of French men and women holding signs with my name. My host mom came over and gave me the customary kiss on each cheek and spoke to me in energetic and rapid French. The foreign language pulsing through my ears seemed more like an elaborate song than any type of communication. “Parlez-vous français?” Do you speak French? I used every morsel of information I remembered from my two years of High School French classes to answer with a hesitant “non” and followed the French couple to their car.
The reality of what I had signed up for began to sink in as my new family and I drove along the sea to their house. Every part of this country seemed incredibly foreign to me, from the complicated language to the narrow roads lined with speeding cars. A wave of fear washed over me as I realized communicating would not be as easy as I once thought. At the same time, I felt such excitement for the challenge that lay ahead of me. Up to that moment I had lived in the same house, hung out with the same friends and went to the same schools for all 16 years of my life. I had never spent two weeks away from my mom and had only traveled outside the US a few times before. The crave for a change, something new and different was what pushed me to sign up for the program. Walking out of that car I knew I was stepping into a completely new territory. I was leaping head first into a world of questions, new possibilities and strangers. For the first time in my life I was starting from scratch. I was alone, scared and more than ready to start this adventure.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
The 10 months to follow would indeed to prove to be the hardest and most incredible moments of my life. Culture shock mixed with language barriers and fatigue made for some pretty rough days. Spending my first Christmas without my family brought along more loneliness than I could ever have imagined and there were many times I just wanted to fly back to my familiar house and family in Wisconsin. However, I never caved into these emotions. Instead, I pushed though the difficult moments and fully embraced the good ones. I had the opportunity participate in a Bus Trip around Europe with exchange students that would become my best friends. My comfort zone expanded in more ways than I would have guessed as France and its unique culture edged its way into my heart, smelly cheeses included. I fell in love with every aspect of the complex and beautiful French language. The memories and friends I made in France will stay with me forever. Now, after returning home, my goal is to build on what I learned and encourage other teenagers embarking on their own adventure to take the same, terrifying yet exhilarating leap of faith.
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