25 years ago yesterday I started my first overseas adventure without my parents. I flew out of Sydney with a group of other Rotary exchange students, bound first for Melbourne (where we would pick up another big group), then Singapore and then Copenhagen. Arriving in Denmark, we flew on to Odense, where we would have a two week crash course in the Danish lanuage – not to mention the art of Danish dinner parties, nightclubbing, eating and walking in the cold and ice.
I can remember the day as clearly as it was yesterday. My parents and sister were there, along with friends, my Grandparents, and other relatives. After checking in, we met with the Rotary area coordinator to receive our HSC (final year of high school) results three days early. This was almost a bigger deal than leaving our families for the year. Opening mine to receive a score of 96/100, I could breathe easy knowing that entry to my prefrred course of Commerce/Law was pretty well guaranteed and that I could enjoy my year knowing I had a place to come back to. I knew the small group from our Rotary district as we’d had various get togethers and from memory, we were all pretty happy – although I remember one friend holding out until we were outside Australia to open her incredible result.
I was so excited that I didn’t even cry saying goodbye to everyone the first time, but then my sister’s best friend (who was like a little sister) started crying setting Dad off and then it was on. I vividly remember doing the rounds of the group a couple of times before deciding that I really had to go.
Excitement soon took over as the NSW crew met on the plane. We stood out with our bright blue or green blazers with big yellow name badges and the beginnings of our pin collections. We swapped business cards and the addresses of our host families and settled in for the flight to Singapore which included a trip up into the cockpit. In Singapore our numbers grew, and from memory, the 52 Australians all flew into Copenhagen together. It was on the flight that I finally met the gorgeous Olivia – who I would go to school with in Vejle and who is a friend to this day. It was hard to believe she was only 16 and had just finished year 10 because she had more confidence and spunk (and could dance better) than most of us.
We were billeted to various Rotary families for the two week language course. I stayed with a lady called Inge together with a girl called Nicole from Sydney. Inge’s daughter, who had died in her mid-20s a few years before, had been an exchange student with my Rotary Club in Australia and so she liked to have students from my clubs. He husband had also been involved in the exchange program and so the two weeks was a whirl of dinner parties as she introduced us to lots of exchange students, past and present. She even entertained the head of the Rotary Program in Denmark – “Onkle Arnie”who was ultimately responsible for all of us – and would enforce the rules – “no dating, no driving, no drinking, no drugs” (to which we may have added, “do have fun, don’t get caught” – but then Denmark was pretty relaxed compared to Australia. We would soon learn the concept of “freedom with responsibility”.
I’m sure I put on five kilos in that two weeks – the food was exciting and new, I couldn’t understand a word so I took second and thirds during dinner parties and Inge was determined to feed us up. Nicole and I would also buy danishes on the way home and then eat chcoolate cake with hot chocolate (with cream on top) for afternoon tea when we got home. Dinner usually involved large amounts of pork, fat, butter and potatoes – and dessert.
We had two weeks of lessons and I can picture my classroom so clearly. Like many of my classmates, I had never learned another language which put me at a disadvantage as we struggled with the grammar, not to mention wrapping our Australian accents around the complex Danish vowels. Lunchtimes were spent eating hot chips, drinking beer and mucking around on the frozen lake outside school.
We went along to Rotary and made speeches, were introduced to the now trendy concept of “hygge” (which is probably closest to cosy and comfortable – think open fires, low lighting, candles and Scandinavian design), before parting ways and getting on trains to head to the towns we’d call home for a year.
This was the era before email and mobile phones, so we swapped addresses and telephone numbers of our host families and planned to catch-up at the first exchange student catch-up in March. Unfortunately I missed that thanks to a school excursion to Italy! Imagine Mum and Dad’s reaction when I rang after my first day of school to get permission – and the funds – to head on a week long tour to Italy the following month. Apart from Olivia and a few people close by, we’d next meet up on our crazy European Tour in May – 50 exchange students, a yellow bus, 2 chaperones and 8 countries in a couple of weeks – aka – a recipe for disaster! Might save that story for another post.
Before I finish, a note on the title. Danes are big performers and a few weeks after arriving at school, all the classes in my year performed at assembly in advance of our upcoming study tours around Europe. I’d never heard John Denver’s Leaving on a Jetplane, but by the end of the first verse, I was in tears for the first time since leaving Sydney two months before.
For the first time, I realised that not only did I miss my family, but that at the end of the year, I’d being saying goodbye to all these amazing new friends and host families who had made me feel so welcome. Now whenever I hear that song, I’m reminded of how bittersweet travelling and making new friends can be – but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I still consider my Danish host families as family, and I’ll be forever grateful for the experience they provided a young girl from Wollongong.
My exchange year developed my love of travel, gave me the confidence to travel and live overseas on my own and would eventually lead to my diplomatic career (and coincidentally, yesterday also marked six since years since our first adventure as a family when we headed off to Hanoi).
P.S: When I set out to write this post yesterday, I thought it would be a general post about expat life and friendships – instead, I took a lovely long trip down memory lane. So over the coming months, I’m going to share a few more posts about my exchange year – going to school in a foreign countries, living with my host families, travel, turning 18 and making friends. Maybe they’ll inspire a whole new generation of exchange students!