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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.