I'm sure most people who know me will know that I spent my final year at high school living as a Rotary Exchange Student in the small town of Libramont, Belgium. I still look back and think that I must have been just a little bit mad. I was 17, I hardly knew where the country was, didn't speak the language, didn't know anyone and was woefully unprepared for the fog.
It's hard to say it's the greatest thing I've ever done - getting married, moving to the UK, going to University all rate very highly too - but it certainly was one of the best things I've ever done and very much a defining experience in my life. I also don't know if I would be where I am now had I not had that experience. I'm not sure I would have gone to law school if I'd stayed in NZ. It's paraphrasing slightly, but there's an employer of mine out there who knew I would be able to cope with the job because I'd been an exchange student - so maybe that was what got me the job? And seeing how my host parents interacted with each other certainly gave me some of the communication tools for my married life.
The brackets around the (Belgium) are significant and come from a conversation that one host Mum and I had that weekend as she taught me how to make one of my favourite soup recipes, while her latest étudiante also watched over. At the time, an exchange can seem like an isolated moment, perhaps more so for the families that you live with, where the student comes in, and then goes and life for the family continues.
I am very grateful that mine was not a bracketed experience and that I have continued to be in contact two of my families for, er, a few years.
This was my second trip back while living on this side of the world and I was very pleased to know that I could still speak french (albeit that I didn't have the vocab for two of the major topics for the weekend - global financial meltdown and pregnancies / babies - guess they weren't really required at 17!). The town had changed very little, although there was the new deli owned by host sister Magali and her husband. The best thing however was seeing how familiar everyone was, even after all the years. Even with all the changes - siblings growing up, people getting married, having children, generally getting older - the gests, the stories, were all was so familiar, and it was lovely to be a part of it all again.
I imagine that it will be some time before I will see these families again, but until then I will guard my memories, both the old ones and the more recent ones, and be eternally grateful for them opening their homes and their hearts to me so long ago.