If someone had told me more than 5 years ago that I was about to experience the biggest change in my life, I would probably have told them they were insane – I mean I would never have wanted to change anything major in my life when I was 16. But I had said yes to going on exchange in my gap year, and it turned my life upside down.
I want to invite you along with me, as I recall the very beginning of my travel to a foreign place. It was 3 in the morning in the airport, and all the students who were traveling to the states were gathered in the hotel lobby next to the airport. We were around 50 students, if not more, and along with us were parents, siblings and boyfriends, and girlfriends – it was like a hornet’s nest, total chaos.
Ahead of me was a total 30 hours of traveling. Oh yes, if you ever thought those 9 hour drives down south for holidays were bad, it’s because you’ve never had to travel to a small town in the states on exchange. The first hours weren’t bad, I mean we were a big group of excited 15-16-year-olds – boys and girls talking load not able to hold it in – and even though the flight was long, the trip to Chicago wasn’t that bad. I actually felt really energetic, like I could take on the world, even though I hadn’t slept in soon to be 24 hours (I think I was awake in a total of 40 hours, since I hadn’t slept since the morning before).
But that soon changed, you see my flight had actually been delayed a day because the staff in Frankfurt had been on a strike the day before, which meant I didn’t have a 3-4 hour layover in Washington D.C., no I had a +9 hour layover in Chicago instead. I mean, I’ve tried horrible layovers before, once my family and I slept in the airport hotel because the delay was that big, but there was no hotel involved in this scenario (unless you count gate benches and a Starbucks across the hall a hotel). All I had was the bench, my books, the few volunteers and the other students (who of course all had an earlier flight than me).
The volunteers were nice and all, but I remember just becoming more and more nervous as the hours passed. I think, normally when you go on exchange, so many things happen on the journey there that you don’t have time to think it through and then suddenly – BAM – you meet your host family. But I… I had plenty of time to think everything over a hundred times, and it just got me more and more nervous. Not necessarily nervous in a bad way, but I think I worked myself up to a place I wasn’t sure how to get down from. The whole thing was suddenly extremely real, and the cloud I had been floating on since I left home was slowly fading away. There was no turning back at this point, and I remember that, that scared me a bit.
Eventually I finally got to leave to go to my gate (I am actually surprised that I hadn’t collapsed yet), and I boarded my very last plane.
I met a very nice lady on that plane. First, I’d like to point out that this plane only had 10 rows, where the row in the back is like the back row on a bus and the rest of the seating was 2-1, not a whole lot of space. Anyways, I met this lady who was returning home from a business trip, and could see that I looked very official with all my weird exchange student gear and asked what I was doing on my way to Ohio. We chatted the whole way there (only an hour and a half but still), and I actually felt a bit more relaxed when we landed. Who knows, maybe she had special powers or something.
That, however, changed the moment I walked into the arrival part of the airport. Because ahead of me was the people I today call “mom” and “dad” as well as my younger host brother and my amazing area rep. I didn’t have any time to overthink things at this point (except thinking “holy cow this is really happening”), and when my mom took me into her arms in an amazing embrace, I knew I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of anything.
I went to sleep exhausted, but with a big smile on my face. This was the first step of my new beginning.