When I started building this website, I devoted several hours to my “about me” page, since I knew it would be one of the most accessed ones. Besides, that’s the page that tells my history, where I dare to expose myself and reveal my essence. Each paragraph represents one of my steps in this great journey that is life. So, I had to find inspiration inside myself, which in itself is not an easy task. However, during this brief self-analysis process, it was one event in particular that mostly held me back. The paragraph about my twelve-month exchange in Ireland insisted on resulting unsatisfactory, generating innumerable versions, very different among themselves. When I finally finished, I put myself to think intrigued: what was it that had turned the simple composition of a paragraph into such a hard task? The answer was not clear either. When I remember my year in Dublin, the emotions are so intense and complex, that translating them into words is really challenging. It was then that I decided that this story was worth a post.
Not just a post, as the first one of this blog, since that here I intend to leave my most personal impressions recorded. The experiences that I lived in that period have helped shape the person that I became afterwards and the way I started seeing myself and the world. Those 365 days, filled with tears and smiles, impacted me in such a manner, that I am animated without hesitation to recommend the same to whomever it may be.
And so it is in this spirit that I leave here on the next lines a faint attempt to transform the most intense human emotions into words; to gather some of the reasons why I believe that an exchange is, in fact, one of the most significant experiences someone can live.
Learn the language for real
No matter how much and how long you study in your country of origin, you will hardly ever learn in a course how to say “colander” or “chives” in the language you’re learning. And these are just two very modest examples of the innumerable words that I only learned on the exchange, even though I had studied English for ten years in Brazil, become a teacher and traveled once on vacation to the United States. This is because there are vocabularies that you only realize you need when you live and have a routine in a certain place. Besides that, understanding and being understood by native speakers as well as speakers from other nationalities, with different accents, allows you to get involved in the local culture to a degree higher than the comprehension of a text or the lyrics of a song. Watching a movie will never have the same effect as chatting with the old man who sat next to you at the train station.
Get to know fascinating places
Everyone knows that Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Statue of Liberty and China has the Great Wall. And of course seeing these great monuments in person already awakens indescribable sensations. However, when we move to another country, or even to another city, our curiosity and our desire for belonging lead us, inevitably, to want to explore every corner of our new home. And that’s when you find out that a place is defined by much more than its postcards. The planet Earth is huge and infinitely diverse in its geography and in its civilizations. Whichever be the place that you choose to go on your exchange, living somewhere for a period longer than usually last the holidays opens up possibilities for you to get to know incredible places, that you probably had never even dreamed before that could exist.
Enrich your vision about other countries
For all the reasons I already mentioned above, and still for some other motive, mysterious to me, yet exceptionally transforming, immersing yourself in a different culture makes you begin to understand the world through a whole new perspective. You start to see, almost literally with other eyes, not only the country you chose to go on your exchange, but also all the other ones. This is because it’s very likely that you meet other people, from different nationalities, who will be there for different reasons, and the contact with these people will also provide you with an indirect contact with their respective cultures. However, even if you travel to an extremely remote place and interact almost exclusively with the locals, just the fact of experiencing a reality that will surely be entirely distinct from any expectation before imagined, that alone will already promote such a powerful liberation from stereotypes, that it will allow you, from then on, to travel to any other place with a truly open mind.
Enrich your vision about your own country
Even harder than explaining how much my perception about other countries expanded, is trying to describe the intensity of the transformation that my understanding of Brazil underwent. When you go live away, you start bit by bit to incorporate yourself into the new home and start to look at the events in your native land from another angle, as an outside observer. And this is an extraordinarily revealing experience, that only who goes on an exchange can live. The contact with foreign cultures attracts your attention to things that, before, went unnoticed or were considered normal in your place of origin. Before long, you start to value much more some of them and to question others. Not to mention that it’s quite possible that you meet other people from different regions and social classes from your own country, whom you hardly ever would know if you hadn’t left there. Especially if you come from such a large, densely populated and culturally diverse nation as Brazil. You understand, then, that there can be infinite realities and customs within the same territory, and that what you thought you knew, no longer fits in a little box.
It doesn’t matter your age or how much life has already taught you, an exchange will always be an experience of intense maturation and personal growth, both on the practical side as well as on a more abstract one. For those who have always lived with their parents, this can mean having to do the laundry or to cook without help for the first time; for those who had already left home, but stayed in the same town as the family, it is remembering that you can no longer borrow a bowl from your mom, or stop by your grandma’s just to get a hug. You will be hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, maybe even in another time zone, and there will be moments when you’ll feel completely alone and displaced from the world you left behind. And as much as you try to explain, those who stayed have no way of understanding. Then it’s time to look inside and talk to yourself. It is in these moments that you will really get to know yourself, find out what there is of best and worst in you, and consciously become the person that you wish to take to your future.
Learn to live in community
Be it in a hostel, in a host family or sharing an apartment, the gigantic majority of those who go on an exchange will live with other people. And they will be, as a rule, almost surely people from the most diverse social and geographical origins. What at first may seem the perfect setting for a never-ending fun atmosphere, may also easily become a nightmare. It is a kind of living together far more challenging than having to share a toy with someone, or being able to simply lock yourself in your room for a while, until the sorrow is gone. You will need to learn to share tasks, negotiate and respect differences at astronomical levels. In the end, maybe you even find out that being together is the best thing in the world. But you will also know that, sometimes, it’s necessary to be alone. Thereby, you will finally understand the real meaning of individual space, both for yourself as well as for the others. And, unintentionally, you will end up carrying these lessons forever, and acting like that not only in the domestic environment, but also in public spaces and other social circles.
Make friends for life
If I could give only one certainty about an exchange, I would say that you will meet a lot of people. Some will just pass, with others you will keep in touch for some time; some will become good friends, and a few more will be your soul siblings. But, don’t worry. The relationship with your family and old friends will continue the same or, who knows, will even become closer, on account of the time away. Nevertheless, there will be feelings which, however hard you try, however great it is your desire to share them, they will simply be impossible to be expressed in words. Only who was there, physically by your side, who saw and lived together with you all those moments, the most euphoric and the most desperate ones, will really understand you. And these ties will be so strong, that it won’t matter which paths each one takes afterwards, the connection will always be there, as vivid as at the time of the meeting.
Become a world citizen
After going on an exchange, you will start to feel always with one foot here and the other there, and the mere concept of belonging solely to a certain place will seem illogical. You will see, in an ever more and more evident way, that the geographical frontiers of the Earth are artificial; that notions so harshly established, such as country and nationality, are in fact conventions that humanity created to fragment, isolate and limit itself. The reality is that this big patchwork spread, that we see on the atlas, exists only on the paper. If we stop to think about it, that is too cruel. In fact, we all belong to the same species and inhabit the same planet. There comes a time when this awareness awakens in you in such a startlingly natural way, that it becomes more and more difficult to identify yourself with a single piece of ground. You understand that you do have roots, but you also have branches, leaves, flowers and fruits that can grow and go as far as you want. You are part of the global community, you belong to the world, and as such you are free to go out and explore every corner of your home, with neither guilt for leaving some things behind, nor fear of what awaits you over there.
I cannot foresee whether your exchange will be good or bad, more or less intense, more or less revealing; but I dare say that there will be a little bit of everything and that it will be unique. Each one will live completely different experiences and there is no way of knowing, if you don’t dive into the unknown to find out what yours will be. An this is exactly one of the greatest wonders of this kind of moving. There’s only one certainty: it will be worth it, every cent invested and every minute lived.