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It began as a seed, sewn into my consciousness during the beginning of eighth grade year. A single discovery: Lugano, Switzerland.
Lugano immediately enticed me with visions of impregnable green mountains, idyllic Italian villas, and sailing on the lake. It became an obsession. I pored over pictures, books, and watched the sun rise over Lake Lugano via webcam technology. I even found a college. Franklin College Switzerland – my college, I liked to think – and I frequented the website with a regularity that was almost unhealthy.
I knew, deep down to the core of my being, that one day I would live in Lugano. I would stand on San Salvatore’s peak and look down at my home. To my thirteen year old self, it was not a question of if, but when.
My parents humored me.
“The price of that college is ridiculous,” my mom said, rolling her eyes, “But if you still have your heart set on it in four years, well, we’ll see.”
I held onto these words with the futile hope of someone who has nothing left to hold on to. I begged, bribed, and pleaded. Wasn’t Switzerland the perfect vacation destination? Boarding school wasn’t that expensive, was it? Didn’t I need to practice my German? Four years was too far away.
“Fine. If you want to go Lugano so badly, you can sign up for foreign exchange in high school,” my mom said, “But you are not going until then.”
It was better than nothing.
Over the next few months, a strange new feeling entered my life. A great, yawning emptiness crept through me. I did not know what it was at the time, but I have felt it often since then. I associate it with one word: wanderlust.
When I let my guard down, Lugano was there. In the mornings, on my walk to school, I would look up at the mountains and suddenly – BAM. San Salvatore. Sitting on my front porch, I could almost imagine I was in the company of Swiss friends, speaking a conglomeration of French, Italian and German. And then the caged feeling would begin, and I would gasp for air. I was trapped in my neighborhood, in my school, in a bubble that was much too small.
At times, I was so desperate, I thought, “I’m never going to get out!” My worst fear was staying in one place, and at times I would cry myself to sleep. There was one thought that kept me going: I was going to Lugano, I was going to Lugano.
But over time, Lugano faded. It was inevitable. I dared to imagine myself in new places, even though my parents were less than happy about my choices.
“Nepal?” my dad said seriously, “Didn’t you hear about that one girl…? She went missing in Nepal, you know.”
“Namibia? I wouldn’t want you going to Africa.”
“Laos?” my mom shouted as I revealed my newest dream, “You’ll get killed. Stay away from that area in general. I don’t want you anywhere near it.”
The places came and went, but the seed had been sewn and took root in my head. Somehow, I was going to travel. The words “foreign exchange” floated, back from where they had been lurking in the murkiness of my memory.
I got to work freshman year. Researching (sometimes stalking) different organizations. Answering questions like “What do you believe qualifies you for foreign exchange?” Filling out my name, my address, my phone number, medical history, school info and essays on one application, and then doing it for another. For the first time in my life, I understood how time-consuming the process was. My applications were nearly all last-minute, but I sent them off with almost undeserved enthusiasm.
The applications came back nearly four months later, rejected. I was devastated.
“Try again next year,” Mom said, and her encouragement was worth more than I could have hoped for.
Somehow, I ended up going to Nicaragua that summer. Nicaragua was more than pretty mountains and a lake. I remember bits and pieces of the landscape: beaches, green trees and a volcano or two. But the people stick out the most. I remember the crowded marketplaces, packed with mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. I remember the weaving cars, the blaring loudspeakers. I remember the family I found there, in the form of a rural community. The friends who held my hand and played Frisbee, who taught me Spanish and drew animals in the dirt by my side. I close my eyes, and I remember their faces. Not the trees. The people stay with you.
My host family e-mailed me yesterday. I have two sisters.
I go to bed at night, and I think, I have two sisters, I have two sisters. I wonder what we will do together, what we will fight about. The days are filled with small wonders. I am constantly amazed at how much paperwork it takes to leave the country, and I am sure I’ve killed at least a few trees by now. It is also amazing how small the world gets with foreign exchange. Everyone knows someone.
“My friend lives in [country] – here’s her e-mail – she’d love to tell you everything you need to know.”
“Rotary, you said? How funny, I’m the club chairman.”
My eighth grade self would be amazed, but I don’t think she’d understand. I would tell her it’s not about the place, it’s about the people you meet. And it’s not about “getting out”, it’s about the person you will be when you come home.
I’m not going to Lugano, in case you were wondering. Maybe I will someday. But for the first time in my life, I’m not trapped by the “maybe’s”.