When old words come to life again

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Why do old pictures always make me want to cringe?! This was a group of Rotary exchange students in Sorrento, Italy in 2004. I’m on the far right.

My brother Graham is about to embark on a life-changing experience. He was accepted for the Rotary International student exchange program and will spend his next school year in Belgium. I’m especially excited because he’s following in my footsteps. I did a year-long Rotary exchange to Sardinia, Italy, way back in 2003-04, and hearing about his preparations for the trip brings back many memories.

This weekend he’s off to an orientation weekend that deals with the administrative and legal side of his exchange. I remember that day – sitting at a table with a gigantic binder of information in front of me, feeling rather daunted by the immensity of the adventure ahead.

The organizers of Graham’s exchange emailed him a PDF of the binder he’ll receive. (You can see how technology has advanced in 11 years!) As he perused the pages, he stumbled across a section that caught his interest – a long list of quotations from “one exchange student’s letters home.” This anonymous student, the page said, was in Sardinia… in 2003.

He called me immediately and read one passage aloud. “Is that you?” he asked, recognizing my writing style immediately. “Yes!” I said, then proceeded to listen in amazement as he read quote after quote. It was the eeriest feeling, hearing my own voice echo back to me after more than a decade. These words have been locked away in letters that I wrote once, and then sent across the world to be read by my parents in rural Ontario. I’ve never gone back to read them again, even though my mother has passed on the enormous file of papers I created over the course of that year.

Graham read aloud to me things I’d forgotten – the strange sensation of being in a foreign country that I couldn’t quite grasp, while my homeland slipped further away from me; descriptions of feeling suspended, of not being able to hold on to anything; of the interesting people I met, such as the former Mr. Italia who continuously proposed marriage whenever I showed up at the gym; the time a bomb was set in the high school and everyone was evacuated; my passionate teenage vow never to live in Canada again because I couldn’t possibly be happy there; and a disturbing reminder of the awful climax of my exchange that I described as “the greatest betrayal of my privacy that I’ve ever experienced.”

I felt emotional listening to all those random, disembodied quotes. Oh, to be sixteen again, and to feel everything with such intensity! But they brought back difficult memories, too. There is a reason why I’ve never gone back to read those letters to my parents, and it’s because they’re too raw, too painful, and too much for me to handle – or, at least, they were for a long time. Maybe I could do it now; I don’t really know. I have suppressed a lot of memories from that year, since the exchange damaged me nearly as much as it strengthened me. (Strangely enough, this has become clearer to me as I’ve grown older.)

I don’t know how Rotary got a hold of those quotes; probably my mother passed on copies upon request, but I’m delighted to know they’ll be used during orientation. Graham said they will be the basis for group discussions about hypothetical situations and how to deal with issues that come up.

Knowing that Rotary has found my letters to be this useful is inspiring. I’ve always dreamed of writing about that year — and someday I will do it – but it would be a sticky, messy, complex book, guaranteed to offend some people. For the time being, I’m happy if my words can get some exchange students thinking about what they’re doing and realize that it’s no walk in the park; but it’s also probably the smartest thing they can at this stage of their lives.

Funny how one’s past creeps up at the most unexpected times, in the strangest of places.

you might also like:
lessons from a Sardinian high school
the (Italian) jean jacket
an emotional reunion

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4 thoughts on “When old words come to life again

  1. Love that picture! I can’t stop laughing. Tears are rolling down my face. Maybe it’s just that I am so grateful those days are over. You’ve always made life so exciting.

  2. How strange it must have felt to hear the words you wrote a decade ago! Is it too personal a question to ask why your year abroad was so damaging?

    I’m preparing for a year abroad (starting in September) in Spain as part of my degree. I’ll be teaching English to primary school children. What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to exchange/year abroad students?

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