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Cultural Exchanges and Making Lifelong Friends!

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.

School group in Konya, Turkey.
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.

My Rotary exchange to Japan, pictured with a teacher and students.
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.

Drinking tea at a traditional tea ceremony.
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.

Teaching Lithuanian students in Kaunas.
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.

Learning folk dances in Kaunas, Lithuania.
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.

Dancing in Lithuania.
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.

Visiting our exchange daughter in Chile.
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.

Visiting our exchange daughter in Norway.
Here we are with our Norwegian daughter, Siri. (Really!)
Visiting our Norwegian friends.
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.

Girl Scout exchange with Britain.

I’m constantly surprised at what opportunities arise. If you hear of exchange opportunities, 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.

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.


Friday 6th of June 2014

Corinne, this is an excellent post, and I really enjoyed reading it. I was not aware of so many exchange program opportunities for adults. What a great way to experience a foreign country!

Corinne Vail

Friday 6th of June 2014

Frank, It really is. Thanks for stopping by!

Nancie Lee

Tuesday 3rd of June 2014

I love learning about cultures! You have had some great experiences. I've never hosted anyone, but have been hosted in several countries. They were a wonderful experiences. Thanks for sharing!

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 4th of June 2014

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!

Adelina | PackMeTo

Monday 2nd of June 2014

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!

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 3rd of June 2014

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!


Monday 2nd of June 2014

Hi Corinne, Wow such a rich and rewarding experirence you had through the exchanges you made. I enjoyed reading your experiences with the locals and the connections you have made. I have not experience any exchange programs but your experiences are so touching and inspiring that I may have to look into it.

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 3rd of June 2014

Marisol, You would love it! There's just nothing like it, and the friendships you make are life-long!

Meggie Kay

Sunday 1st of June 2014

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.

Corinne Vail

Monday 2nd of June 2014

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?

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