Cultural Exchanges and Making Lifelong Friends!

Getting to Know Your Global Cousins

For some reason, I just assumed that cultural exchanges were for students.  There are all types of student exchanges in high school and in college.  I never really expected there to be opportunities like that outside of school, but now I’ve been on a number of them.  So I guess I was wrong. Whenever I get the chance to do an exchange, I take it; all have given me memories to last a lifetime.

Exchanges Travel Better

With my host sister in Wakayama, Japan.

My first ever cultural exchange was when I was in eighth grade and was living in Turkey. We bused to one of the holiest cities in the country, Konya, and were paired up to stay in host family homes.  My mother actually came on this trip as a chaperon, but I don’t know where she stayed–not with me.  What I remember from that trip is following my hostess around her high school and being asked all kinds of political questions, which I was really intimidated by.  Then to make me feel worse, they challenged us to a basketball game, and I have never really been much of a sports aficionado.  As a 13 year old, I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I ate what they fed me, tried to converse with hand and facial expressions, and just had a fantastic time seeing the sights of Konya and getting to see how real Turks live.

Exchanges Travel Better

Konya, Turkey. Can you find me? (I’m the first one on the left, squatting, in the blue jacket.)

After high school, the very first travel  and cultural exchange I went on was when I was in the Air Force when our squadron exchanged with a French squadron. Jim and I actually were on this one together. We flew down to Orange, near Marseilles, on a C-130 and, once we landed, were greeted by our French hosts with a catered dinner right there in the hangar.  They sat us right down to eat and drink champagne while they unloaded our plane, and that was only the beginning of our week.

The French Air Force wined us and dined us, took us on excursions like to the Nimes coliseum, where we watched a bull fight, and then when we returned to the base each evening we partied half the night.  I had to put away my lightweight ways for a week and just go with the flow–tremendous flow–of alcohol.

We stayed in the French barracks and ate our breakfasts and lunches at their base dining facility where I was amazed at the fact that on their drink station they not only had milk, water, juices, and soda like we have, but they also had beer, and white, rosé, and red wines to choose from as well.  At the end of the exchange, while we were loading our plane, we took the opportunity to strip our uniforms.  We traded belt for belt, cap for cap.

Exchanges Travel Better

Here I am visiting one of the many schools hosting me in Japan.

A bunch of years later, I went on a five week travel exchange with the Rotary Club. Rotary Club sends adults to different places to see how business is conducted.  The Rotary Club in Anchorage, Alaska, sent five of us to the Toyama and Wakayama prefectures.  We stayed in both host family houses and some hotels.  We visited all kinds of different businesses from textiles to a shipping company.  We visited temples and other sights.

Exchanges Travel Better

We are being taught how to conduct and be a part a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

We were treated to great dinner after great dinner trying many typical dishes.  One that really sticks in my head is firefly squid, but one of my favorite nights was with one of my hosts.  He took me to a yakinikuya, where everyone drinks and eats chicken on a stick…all the parts of the chicken, everything from cartilage to gizzards.  Really I did so much during that five weeks that was so amazing, I just couldn’t even think of putting it all down.

Exchanges Travel Better

At the elementary school that hosted us in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Just last year, we went on a cultural exchange to Lithuania, this one also with Jim.  (How lucky are we?)   We were changing jobs, moving from Turkey to Germany when I received an email from my new school.  Who wants to do a week exchange teaching in Lithuania?  I didn’t even have to think about it. I emailed a response for us immediately.  The exchange only had room for 15 people and my new school had 70 teachers.  We were lucky to be included, and there were eight people on the waiting list who just hadn’t made up their minds.  That’ll teach them to be wishy-washy.

Exchanges Travel Better

He’s trying to talk me into dancing! I gave in, probably much to his chagrin.

My edict is, whenever I’m offered a travel or cultural exchange, I take it.  There’s nothing like being hosted by locals.  The trip is so rich and rewarding.  On this past trip, not only did I do the things I would normally do, touring the cities, checking out good places to eat, etc., but I also learned some folk songs, ate lots of food that is eaten at home, not just in restaurants, spoke more Lithuanian (well, tried to), danced, heard personal stories, stayed in their home (not a hotel or apartment rental).  It was all wonderful.

Exchanges Travel Better

Dancing at a folklore night put on just for the 15 of us!

An added bonus is I was sick, and my host took care of me.  She gave me some local cough drops and made sure I had something warm to drink.  Usually traveling while you are down with a cold, or worse, is just miserable, but I was well taken care of and meanwhile she knew where and how to fix me up with local drugs and remedies.

On top of learning and experiencing so much more in such a short time, I also made friends.  Good friends.  Friends for life.  Our school hosted them in April, so we showed them all about our expat lives in Germany.  They were very excited to try home-cooked American food and see how American children learn.

Exchange, by the nature of the word, means that it is a reciprocal hosting, and Jim and I have been involved with or even organized many of them.  Our first experience hosting was an AFS (American Field Service) student for one year from Chile.  She was 16 and my daughters were 12 and 10.  It was a fantastic experience, and we’re still in touch with her.  We did go to Chile to visit her and it was a wonderful reunion.

Exchanges Travel Better

Erika, Devon, and Polyn…my two natural daughters and my Chilean daughter!

We also hosted a girl from Norway, for just one month.  She and her dad came back to visit us the very next year, and then we just went to visit them for one week last summer.

Exchanges Travel Better

Here we are with our Norwegian daughter, Siri. (Really!)

Exchanges Travel Better

Siri’s parents and her dog take us on a walk to the ancient rock carvings not far from their home in Lyngdal.

On top of that, when the girls were growing up we were really involved in the Girl Scouts and have hosted and been hosted by the Sapporo Girl Scouts (Japan), and the British Girl Guides, in conjunction with the Sister Cities Cultural Exchange. It’s amazing how much you learn about another country when you are doing the hosting as well.  The world just opens up to you.

Exchanges Travel Better

I’m constantly surprised at what opportunities arise. If you hear of exchange opporunities, like with the Sister Cities program, or a sports program, or really anything, go for it.  The friendships you make will last you a lifetime.

Have you been hosted on an international cultural exchange?  Have you ever hosted anyone?  If you are thinking about it, and have questions, just drop me a line.  I’d be more than happy to answer any questions.


Note:  This post is linked up to Sunday Traveler.  Check out all the great posts people have linked!

Sunday Traveler


    1. Jessica, It was a great experience for all of us, and it feels like traveling, but being home at the same time. It’s great, and I highly recommend it!

  1. I went on an exchange programme in High School to Cardigan in Wales, which was also twin city with the town i went to high school in. I later returned to Cardigan on my own (a few times) and my host family there has become a real part of my family. They have visited me a few times, i have visited them a few more times and we are still in touch to this day. I also used the Erasmus programme as a student to be sent one year abroad to the UK (which was the start of my series of expat moves).

    In Europe, the twin city thing is quite big and cities are usually teamed with not just one but many cities across the world. Ask around where you live, this is a good and cheap way to discover somewhere new. And for university students, Erasmus is always good and fairly easy to apply to.

    See you around…
    Jameela recently posted…I’m nominated for the Liebster AwardMy Profile

    1. Jameela, Thanks for adding all this information. I hope it helps more people go out there and do an exchange program, because they are so rewarding!

  2. What a wonderful and rewarding experience for you and your family. I loved reading the stories and it’s great to see that you’ve made these lifelong connections. I wish I can say I have hosted or participated in a cultural exchange but I haven’t had the opportunity. This is so inspiring and one I really hope to try when my kids are a bit older. Thanks for the inspiration and idea, Corinne!
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted…Exploring the Underground World of Boyden CavernMy Profile

    1. Mary, You are the perfect family to host. We hosted our first as I mentioned when the kids were young. I thought it was better that way. We had a lot of fun and they had an older sister! I hope you do it some day!

  3. I love exchanges and did 2 so far. My first was a Rotary Youth Exchange for a year to Germany when I was 17/18. I used it as a gap year and even though I didn’t necessarily like the town I lived in, it was an amazing learning experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I didn’t know Rotary had cultural exchanges for adults. I also did an exchange in university to study in Singapore. Again, that was an incredible experience. It’s good to know that now I’ve graduated school, there are still some options for exchanges.
    Meggie Kay recently posted…A Spring Day around Downtown KitchenerMy Profile

    1. Meggie Kay, You are so fortunate to have done two already. They are a special way to see a country, aren’t they? Where were you in Germany? And, did you stay with only one family in Singapore?

  4. These sound like some really rewarding experiences!. I’ve never done a cultural exchange in that you live in a host family’s house during it. I’ve only lived abroad which is similar, but probably very different in terms of cultural immersion. It seems like a great way of getting insider knowledge of a new country and culture. You sure have had a lot of great adventures! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!
    Adelina | PackMeTo recently posted…7 Free Things To Do in LjubljanaMy Profile

    1. Adelina, Thanks. Yes, I’ve lived in quite a few countries, but I think in an exchange you are living the way of the locals not just within them. It’s quite a bit different, I think. Do try it, if you get the chance!

    1. Nancie, Hosting is just as fun as being hosted. I love the questions; people always surprise me about what they are curious about. I would certainly encourage you to host as well!

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