Friday, November 8, 2019

How I Became a Student Exchange Mom & Host Mom - Part I of My Exchange Experience

Today's post feels fitting due to the fact that it's November 8th...and yes, we did hug our exchange student!!

I get a lot of questions about how we got into hosting exchange students, and lately everyone asks how it happened that we sent our 15yr old son off for a year to do his own student exchange in France. (Update: he turned 16 in France this Fall.)

It started just about 7 years ago with the Chair of our local Rotary Youth Exchange asking if we'd consider hosting a high school exchange student from Spain. At that time, my own kids were very young...around 6 & 8, and I declined based on the fact that I didn't think we had the kind of lifestyle a young European kid would be looking to experience here (early bedtimes, etc.) The school year went by and we put it out of our heads.

That Summer we spent 6 weeks kicking around the UK, France, and Iceland before coming home right before school started, to find we were being asked again, urgently, if we could provide temporary housing for another exchange student, Jasson, from Romania. He was arriving in a few days and our Rotary district had offered to try to place him (since the district that had previously accepted him had to cancel with no notice.) Our guest room was available, we jumped through all the hoops, background checks, letters of recommendations, and agreed he could stay with us for a week or 2 until they had things figured out.

Mother's Day 2014
We loved him instantly. It sounds a bit crazy, but we did. He was charming, smart and sweet, loved our goofy kids as much as they loved him, was meticulous about everything, and was honest and funny (he would FaceTime his dog!) I think it must have been hard for him to be all of those things when he was jet-lagged, tired, and nervous about where he would be living, yet he was. He stayed with us until Christmas, moved to a 2nd host family until Easter, then came back to us for the rest of his exchange year. We didn't realize it at the time, but he made a big impact on our son, who very much looked up to him as a big brother.

2 years after he left, we visited Jasson and his wonderful family in Romania, while spending few weeks in Eastern Europe. It was such a beautiful reunion, and so fun to see Jasson maturing into a young man in college!
In Romania Summer 2017

When, 2 years later, we were asked to host again, we all worried that we couldn't love another exchange student as much as we had loved Jasson. (It was very much like that fear of having your 2nd child!) We needn't have worried. Jérôme from Belgium was older (18) but so were the kids by now (12 and almost 15) and again, we loved him and he fit right into our family. Jérôme was with us for the entire year with the exception of 2 weeks when we host a French exchange teacher every year. Being closer in age, and spending so much time together, the kids all really bonded. Charlotte loved having (now 3) older brothers. We had the pleasure of meeting Jérôme's family, who we absolutely loved, and we hope to visit them Summer 2020 while we are back in Europe.

What I should have seen coming was that our hosting would plant the seed in Julien's mind that he wanted to experience his own student exchange year. He spoke with Rotary and started his own application process (which took almost a year start to finish!) In order for our district to send out a student, they told us we'd have to agree to host again this year.

Flash forward to Summer 2019, where we said our tearful goodbyes to Jérôme at the airport, followed by a surprise visit from Jasson and his mom from Romania, welcomed Maggie from Denmark, and with much trepidation, sent Julien off to the south of France for his Junior year of high school.

Boston Summer 2019
Our exchange student from Denmark
We have been so lucky to host kids who feel like family to us, and lucky that our son has wonderful host families in France. We have met not only the kids we've hosted, but the students from other countries here on exchange (Fabiana from Bolivia, Pedro from Spain, Mathieu from Belgium, Ludovica and Andrea from Italy, Loïc from France) and met new families from Connecticut whose children have completed their exchanges or are out on them now like Julien. Our circle has grown wider. Julien's circle continues to grow as he meets new friends from around the globe while living in France.

Being apart from my teenage son is every bit as hard as I imagined it would be. I worry about if he's lonely, if he's understanding the teachers in school, if anyone can read his cursive writing (since he's never been taught and they don't use computers in his French school like they do here.) I've broken down in tears in front of the burrito section at the grocery store more than once. I miss his constant guitar and piano-playing, his singing, his music, his playing games or hatching plans with his sister, watching Parks & Rec reruns, and even his friends. It's so much quieter here. Confession time...I don't miss his laundry! That boy goes through SO many towels and clothes.

Having Maggie here has been a blessing. Charlotte finally gets a sister! Of the 3 students we've hosted, her English might have been the best upon arrival. She is sweet, kind, helpful, and fun to be around! Being a 16 yr old girl in a new school in a new country is a big adjustment. It can be overwhelming for these kids, and I think they're so brave to take on the experience, so far away from their support systems. It's not the same as our kids who go off to college. They're not going home for the holidays, and they're expected to change host families 3 times during their year here, in order to get a wide range of experiences.

Hosting has meant doing a lot of fun tourist stuff with the kids too! We've taken the kids to New York City, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, Newport, Vermont, New Hampshire, Cape Cod, as well as upstate New York. We've done museums, concerts, parks, science museums, escape rooms, hikes, football games, biking, aquariums, amusements parks, golf & mini-golf, and lots and lots of shopping! Rotary has activities for the kids to do as well, which in the past have included trips to New York City, ski trips, weekends at a beach house, group orientation weekends, etc. I have to say hosting has been a great experience for us! My family has grown in ways I didn't expect, and I'm grateful for it.

What have I learned from my exchange experience? Come back for Part II.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time...

Once upon a time I wrote this blog.

I started writing here in 2008. It was surprisingly successful and I really enjoyed my Thursday morning blogging routine. Then, after writing and not publishing the last few posts I wrote back in 2015, I realized that EVERYTHING I wrote felt sad. Between grieving the loss of my father, and the other heartbreaking news we'd received, the sadness and fear bled into my writing. In truth, I love reading other people being honest and open about what they're facing, seeing their vulnerability, but I felt I needed to grieve privately, and I had to protect my brother's privacy because he wasn't ready to tell anyone that he was so sick. 2015 was a really hard year for me, and it was a rainy Autumn afternoon while I was sitting at an open house in Glastonbury that I decided I had to take a break from writing.

Fast Forward four years to today...a beautiful, sunny, perfect October day...2019.

Photo used with permission and taken by Ted Morton Photography. (Thanks Ted!)

Of course I still miss my dad. I ask him to watch over my son who is living overseas. My brother is alive and well and headed to Hawaii to surf, and I'm so incredibly grateful for that. 8 weeks after my father passed, my brother nonchalantly (if you know my brother this makes sense) told us he was in Stage 4 renal failure. Like my dad (and the 22 others in our family so far with kidney disease,) he had Polycystic Kidney Disease and he needed a transplant. I immediately started the process of getting screened to be his donor, and on March 30, 2016, almost exactly 10 years to the day my mom donated a kidney to my dad, we had a successful transplant. This topic deserves it's own post, which I'll do. (A lot of people reach out to me to talk about my experience and I welcome all of them with their questions! Seriously, if you know someone who needs to talk about living organ donation, I'm happy to help.)

Minutes before going into the operating rooms. 

So much has happened and so much has changed! The kids have grown. Our family has grown (by the addition of our exchange students who have lived with us - no more babies for me!) We've made incredible memories across Eastern Europe and Ireland. My work brokerage has changed. I finally love avocado.

My youngest is now a teenager! She's funny, and smart, and sweet & sometimes sour (like the candy she's always eating) and adores her brother, who is having a blast living in the South of France as a Rotary exchange student! Letting him go overseas for a year at age 15 was extremely difficult for me, but we all agree it's an incredible experience for him. [Note to parents: This is the downside to hosting awesome exchange students...your own child quickly realizes how amazing of an experience exchange is, and it's hard to disagree.] Julien is lucky to have wonderful host families, fun host siblings, new friends from around the globe, and while school there is a challenge, his French is improving!

Bon Voyage Julien! 
We have hosted 3 Rotary exchange students so far. Jasson from Romania was first back in 2013-2014, followed by Jérôme from Belgium 2018-2019, and this year we have Maggie from Denmark with us. We have loved hosting the kids, and it's no exaggeration to say they have become family to us. (In my heart I have 5 kids now!) We went to visit Jasson and his family in Romania in 2017, and he and his mom came this Summer to surprise my kids! We're hoping to meet up with Jérôme this Summer while we're in Europe, and he knows he's always welcome here.

2019 is a big 2-0 year for us. This Spring marked our 20th anniversary of buying our house. This Summer marked our 20th wedding anniversary. This Fall marked the start of my 20th year in real estate. In 2018 my real estate team left our big brokerage to open our own office under our team leader and broker, Carl Guild & Associates. It has been an amazing move for not only the 4 of us, but for the 40+ other agents who have since joined us in this new community-focused brokerage. We've just opened our 2nd office and I couldn't be happier with the decision to do this. I love that we do so much to give back to our local communities, which is something the big brokerage didn't do at all. I'm a mentor to several newer agents who are all doing a great job and I'm so happy for them in their successes!

So...what's next? I'll be sharing more of my adventures in real estate, our travel escapades, my experience in living organ donation, recommendations, green living tips, local news, updating the look of the blog, and so much more!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cloudy with a Chance of Haggis - The Best for Last!

Our story picks up with our drive West from Fort Augustus on The Road to Skye.  I can tell you it was absolutely breathtaking - mountains and lochs (lakes) and rivers galore.  At one point, I think it was on the A87,  the landscape was so moving I actually wept.  I kid you not.  That's pretty much how I felt about every part of our trip from that point forward.  The beauty was overwhelming.  When Cousin Sophie had told me that I would love this part of Scotland more than the rest, I didn't really understand why.  Then I saw it for myself. (Wish I had a good picture to show you of the road, but hubby didn't stop the car, and the blurry car window photos just don't do it justice!)

Just before Skye we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, another scene straight out of a fairy tale, that I'd been looking forward to for a very long time.  (If, like me, you're a fan of the 1986 film Highlander starring Christopher Lambert & Sean Connery, you'll recognize it.)  You might also recognize it as the most photographed castle in Scotland…because it is THAT scenic (of course it has an Instagram account! - I follow their various social media pages just to look at the photos they post daily!)  What's different about this castle is that it is still owned by a family, who lives onsite, and rooms are decorated with antiques and memorabilia.  (It feels like someone's house - and they don't allow photos of the interior.) We had delicious pastries and coffee in the café (with an art gallery full of beautiful photos people have taken of the castle!) then crossed the bridge to Skye.

Isle of Skye

First stop was the Fairy Pools.  I'll admit, finding them was a bit of a challenge (not really well-marked) until we actually got there, but I can think of far worse places to be a little bit lost!  It was worth the effort, because we had a really memorable (and wet) hike (thank goodness for our rain gear!)
Scottish Gaelic on all the signs out this way! 
We hiked about an hour out along the trail, which included a river crossing!  Unlike the time we had to ford 2 rivers in Iceland (when I did chicken out at the 2nd river) I was able to cross this one with hubby's help.  It involved leaping across slippery rocks and hoping he would catch me - the rocks were pretty far apart!  I can't say I love doing that, but it felt like an accomplishment! 

We stayed 1 night at a really sweet guest house (booking early is absolutely essential - not many guest rooms on the island!) where we were greeted with tea, freshly baked shortbread cookies, and a warning to our son from the little innkeeper that she would "throttle" him if he used up all of her Internet data watching youtube videos.  It was awesome.  The house overlooks a huge loch and is fenced in because otherwise the sheep try to come in the house! Since it poured rain that evening, we stayed in and played board games in the living room and got an early night's sleep before our big day of touring the island.  Breakfast the next morning was possibly the best we had on the entire trip - everything cooked perfectly!  Hubby said it was the best haggis he'd eaten - and he ate it each and every time it was offered!

To give hubby a break from driving for a day, I had arranged to spend the day with Donald from Skye Scenic Tours.  He's a local with a 9 seater van and a great sense of humor, and we had a super day with him.  We spent the day with a really nice German couple and a retired British couple (the husband was a retired professor with the SMOOTHEST accent - my son at one point said it was the most amazing voice he'd ever heard!)  So, we're not big tour bus kind of people, but to ride along with a local who showed us spots we might not have found on our own (like that dinosaur footprint out on a rocky beach) and who gave us history and personal commentary as we drove, was fun and worth it.  My little one got to ride up front, and dazzled our driver and our new friends with the Scottish Gaelic she had learned from our library's online learning program.  She absolutely beamed when he complimented her!  (Proud mama in the back was smiling ear to ear too.)  I didn't get a good photo of the Old Man of Storr, but here are some of the other favorite places he brought us:
Waterfall & Kilt Rock

The answer is sing, right?  Olaf would break into song? I wouldn't blame him - it's so beautiful!
Can you see the dinosaur footprint? (3 toes in the center of the pic.) At An Corran, Staffin Beach

The Quiraing.  Absolutely outstanding! (Stardust was filmed here.)

Exploring the Fairy Glen
This path was down a tiny road and came out to a view of Dunvegan Castle, where we had lunch.
Over the course of the day, C picked up a sheep stuffed animal, and asked Donald for a good Scottish name for it.  He chose Morag.  Here she is showing the local sheep her new friend Morag. Clearly they are not impressed.

Hiking up to the Dun Beag - a prehistoric roundhouse. 

The view from the ruins.

The Sligachan Bridge was so scenic we visited there twice during our stay on Skye.  We did so much walking.  My Merrell hiking shoes did not let me down!  Charlotte's cute wellies were less practical. 

That beautiful day had an equally beautiful ending, where Donald dropped us off to catch our ferry to Isle of Raasay, with outstanding views from every angle!
Trying to look all cool & aloof but they loved the scenery on the quick ferry ride as much as we did! If I haven't mentioned it earlier, the kids are wearing LL Bean lined raincoats, which got a TON of use on this trip.  (Yes, on trips,  I still dress them to be spotted easily in the landscape or crowd!) 

Isle of Raasay

This was just an overnight stay, but we quickly wished we had scheduled more time as the Raasay House had activities like kayaking, that the children would have loved to do, plus there was an whole island to explore but we didn't have time.  The view of the Black Cullins from the front lawn of our hotel was just mesmerizing though.  I pretty much sat at the tables outside and just stared at it while the children ran around the yard and played chess in the library before dinner.

 This was the path we walked back down to the ferry terminal.
Beautiful Raasay House where we stayed and had a lovely dinner

From Raasay, we had another scenic ferry ride on Caldonian MacBraye Ferries (CalMac) back to Skye, and from there we headed South.  We drove through many villages and towns along coastal roads I wish we'd had more time to explore, like Oban, before finding down a winding single-lane country road, the tiny hidden ferry terminal we were convinced might not exist. The ferry ride was especially fun because the captain invited us up to show us how he piloted the ferry using a joystick.  He was so kind and friendly, and gave us advice on what to see & do on Isle of Arran!  The Scots are such lovely people.

Isle of Arran

This was quite possibly my absolute favorite place of the entire trip, and I could have spent another week exploring it!  My "must-see" on the island was the Machrie Moor standing stones, while hubby wanted to tour the Arran Distillery, which makes outstanding whisky. I had booked a swanky resort/spa, the Auchrannie Resort, where we stayed for 3 nights.  It was just perfect and I'd go back in a heartbeat.  The staff was so helpful, the food was excellent (wish I'd gotten a pic of the breakfast buffet!)  the pool was huge, and the activities were so great that we wished we had known about them ahead of time - they had gorge walking, climbing, segway tours, abseiling, mountain biking, archery, and sea kayaking, plus a children's play barn where my daughter played for a bit.  We spent our one FULL day there exploring the island, and found an excellent lunch outside next to the Arran Brewery (I can't seem to find a name of the café, but it was very good!)  The children did an island Scavenger Hunt, which we found in a small shop, and I helped them find the clues in Lochranza while hubby took his distillery tour & tasting just down the road! It was really quite fun - the clues took us to signs in the village, or the old castle ruins where we had to find letters engraved in stone.   I also fell in love with Arran Aromatics while we were there (I brought some back as gifts as well as some fabulous lavender & tea tree lotion for myself! 

These are pics from the Machrie Moor - it is accessed from a farmer's field, so to get to it, you walk through fields upon fields of sheep (and their droppings - wear boots because it's impossible not to step in it!) 

The standing stones did not disappoint!

After the moor walk, we drove down to the southern edge of the island where we found a local butcher who has a brother in Connecticut.  We had almost stayed in this town at a nearby hotel, but I was so very glad I had chosen Auchrannie Resort, because nothing came close to it!

Lunch in Brodick on a beautiful day!

Isle of Arran has a huge red deer population - they were everywhere! They also have red squirrels, but we didn't find any!

More views on my walk with the kids around Lochranza - such a charming village!

Finding scavenger hunt clues!

After our scavenger hunt at the castle ruins, we walked back to the café at the Arran Distillery for tea time and some shopping!  Seriously, such a great day!

Coming back to Brodick at dinnertime, we watched the CalMac Ferry glide past GoatFell, the beautiful mountain overlooking Brodick Castle, and the children rode a few amusement rides at the shore. We also smiled as we watched a college-aged guy playing bagpipes which moved a mum nearby to start highland dancing!

We ended the day with a picnic dinner and frisbee on the lawn of the resort, followed by a good long swim in the spa pool before calling it a night!  (Remember, the sun would rise around 4am, and didn't set there until 10pm, so we had some very long & memorable days!) 

The island was just so enchanting.  They call it Scotland in miniature, and I can see why.  If you're ever considering a visit, it' s a quick & easy ferry ride (but do reserve in advance if you're bringing a car!) and not far from Glasgow.  I wish we'd had time to climb GoatFell, wish we'd have done some of the adventure activities at Auchrannie, had more time to shop the darling little shops, visited Brodick Castle, the Heritage Museum, and the Mogabout Safari tour.  There's so much to do it really deserves more of a week than just the 3 days I had planned.  The ferry ride back was smooth and the ship sold the Cobb Mutiny Bars that we had fallen in love with back in the highlands (yes, I bought out the entire supply at the ship's café that morning to bring home with me!) 

(For those of you who asked, yes, I did kind of look for Sam Heughan in Glasgow, but I didn't find him.  Apparently he wasn't at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens where we had our picnic lunch.  He was probably busy filming somewhere.) 

So now we've finished the last of the tea we brought back, and the last Cobbs Bakery Mutiny Bar is ready to be shared at dessert this evening.  The whisky, somehow, has managed to multiply into a 2nd bottle, which I take to be Scottish math, or a testament to how good it is!  Scotland, like much of the UK, is very special to me.  In many ways it reminds me of growing up in Canada.  There's something more to it than that though, it still feels more untouched, more genuine, more steeped in tradition.  There is inspiration everywhere; castles and hairy cows, mountains, lochs and fairies in the glen, sheep, rivers, delicious woolens, mist, hearty food and hearty drink, and time for tea.  

I recognize that part of what made the trip so important to me was that it was a part of the grieving process after losing my dad the week before we left.  I thought of him, talked to him, and I felt like he was there with me. Turns out it was exactly what I needed.