In 2011 I left for the trip of a lifetime, as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student to Mol, Belgium.
I had always wanted to travel, and it seemed like the perfect way to do it. It would also look amazing on any university application. So I applied, without my parents knowledge. They actually didn’t know about it until we were on our way to the interview. I never imagined I would be the one chosen from Fort St. John to go that year.
So I arrived in Belgium, at 16 years old, wide eyed and scared. Not knowing a word of Dutch, and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.
But my host family was there, and they took me home.
I’m not going to go into detail about my life in Belgium. I did some pretty amazing things, from meeting Jane Goodall (my personal hero) to running (kinda) a half-marathon around Brussels. I also experienced some heart breaking moments, like Christmas away from my family, and saying good bye to each of my friends as they got on the plane to go back home, to which ever country they had come from.
There’s a saying that is said about going and leaving exchange. That it’s easier to leave your home country than it is to leave your host country. You know you will be returning home in 365 days, and the days go quickly until you see your friends and family back home again. Leaving your host country is another matter. When you say goodbye to your exchange friends, the idea of possibly never seeing them again is heart breaking. Everyone goes back to their own separate corners of the earth, back to the lives they had before. Even when you eventually make it back to your host country, you know that nothing will be the same. People have grown and moved away. You’re no longer teenagers anymore, the act of growing up and going to college and getting a mortgage has taken over the teenage rebellion and fun you had during that year abroad.
I believe in before’s and after’s in life – that there are certain moments in your life that changes everything. My exchange in Belgium changed my life in ways I never knew could happen. My first before and after moment was when I got on that plane to Belgium, and when I got home a year later.
At 16-years-old, I though I had my entire life planned out. I knew I was going on exchange at this point, but that was a lovely in between point, a chance for me to get a glimpse of the world and a reference that would look amazing on a resume and college application. I was planning on going to art school, preferably to Emily Carr. I had a boyfriend and naïvely thought we were going to be together forever. My job was amazing, a great entrance job as a graphic designer in town.
My plan was to graduate, take out student loans, go to school, get an apartment and paint for the rest of my life. I would be in love, and living in one of the beautiful cities in Canada, whether it be in Toronto or Victoria.
My life was set, my plans were set.
When I came home, everything was different.
Well, no. Everything was the same. I was different.
I had caught a glimpse of the world. I had lived in a country for an entire year, learning new customs, language, and lifestyle. There was no right or wrong anymore, just opinion. I actually came home with an accent, which my sister made fun of me for immensely.
Essentially, I got back into my old routine. I moved back in with my parents, went to school to graduate (my friends had graduated the year previously), I went to parties and hung out with old friends. I got a new boyfriend, and even got my old job back –which I was over the moon about.
It took about 4 months before I started to get an itch. It started in my chest, an awkward empty thud every now and again. It moved to my feet, and I couldn’t sit still. It made its way through my entire body, slowing taking over like a parasite.
I became moody. Grumpy. It didn’t take very much to set me off. It was embarrassing.
Eventually, I realized it was unhappiness – it was the knowledge that I had done all of these amazing, life changing things in my year abroad and I somehow ended up right where I was before. I needed out.
So I planned trips with friends, returned to Belgium and some of Europe. A year later I went to Ghana, Africa to work in an orphanage for a couple of weeks. But I kept returning to my old life afterwards; my wanderlust sedated for just a little while.
I no longer intended on going to university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life as a career. I thought about becoming a doctor and going overseas, about becoming a teacher and teaching English in Southeast Asia. I thought about becoming a translator, or a UN worker or working in a consulate abroad. See a pattern?
Rotary had shown me a glimpse of the world, a glimpse of what is really out there, away from my small city in Northern Canada. And that glimpse had given me wanderlust; I wanted to see more, to see it all. Experience food, culture, make friends and learn languages.
In 9 days I leave for Australia – perhaps my second before and after. I have Rotary to thank for the change in my life, for Belgium, for my first before and after.