How to Talk to a Homeward-Bound Exchange Student

I had pals in high school and college who spent a year studying in another country. Upon our reunion after their year abroad, I would wet my pants thinking of the appropriate thing to say to them, to impart to them after such a year. 

What do you say to someone who has spent the last year not only away from you, but in this insane situation of constant adaptation and cultural overwhelm? To hope to possibly understand the entire experience within one question is impossible and I knew it. I would struggle to utter the most intellectually deep and profound phrase in order to effectuate a proper response, spending seconds of awkward energy to reach far within my intellectual recesses. This energy would manifest itself as:

Uhm…how…was your year? 

To which the addresser would visibly frown, shrug the shoulders, plaster on a smile and reply:

Quite good, thank you. And yours?

And I would reply likewise and suddenly conversation was over and now let’s talk about class or politics or how-is-your-brother because that’s a topic we have more in common. 

Now, after being that prodigal exchange student, I understand the frown. And the shrug. And the fake plastered smile. Because that is the worst question ever. 

How was Austria?
Tell me about your year!
What was your favorite part?
Did you have fun?

Or even better:

Did you see any kangaroos?

I spent my last afternoon in Graz strolling up and down the Mur river under a summer sky musing about how to talk to people back in Kansas. How to tell them about this year; how to ever hope to explain what just happened. 

The current massaged my ankles and the sun draped itself over my back, igniting a flurry of raised hairs. It was quiet; the trees behind me blocked the sounds of running feet and bike tires scraping against the gravel path down from which I had picked my way to the bank of the river. 

As I danced from one polished rock to another, drinking in the smell of fresh air and breezy wonder, I gained perspective:

Time didn’t stop in Kansas. 

It sounds quite obvious. Yes, I went away for a year and had….I don’t even want to attach an adjective to it, because that would do it a serious discredit…had a year. A year in Austria. 

But just as much, my friends and homies in Kansas had a year. A year of adventure and exploration and being uncomfortable and changing and learning and growing and developing. Becoming new people is something we do regardless of location, and it is entirely unfair for me to presume that my year was in any way better than the year of anyone back home.

Epicness is not a result of locale.

As I pondered this, I began to get nervous:

What am I supposed to ask them back in Kansas? 

What do you say to someone who had a year meeting new people and crafting new passions, who spent a year away from you? Who has had entirely new memories and stories and emotions and responses as a result of this past year? How could you ever ask an appropriate question to encapsulate the experience and the distance? 

Unless you have a few days of just solid conversation, I don’t think this is an appropriate expectation. No one will ever know exactly how Austria was for me. Equally so, I will never know exactly how your year was either. 

To relinquish the expectations of imparting entirety is like running through Death Valley and finally getting a drink of water. 

I don’t need anyone to understand how it was because this past year in Austria is for me. I want to share what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed, what I’ve become. I want to share my stories of adventure and exploration and cultural awareness. But the entirety of the experience–the lavender smell of my flat after a weekend spent traveling, the sound of my flatmate taking a morning shower as the rain would hit the window panes and the kettle would be starting for tea, the sound of someone stepping wrong on the slack line and the line rushing past the outside of the foot–these sensations are for me. 

The silence of the night, a deep hollow throbbing energy massaging through my hair as I would watch the stars and wait for the dawn. The lingering sound of church bells curling through the cool air. My toes whispering across the black kitchen floor on my way for some breakfast. The sound of the chunky door lock. The light in the bathroom that would pop three times before coming out to play. 

My year is aestheticism. 

The sound of a nightbus, inhabitants breathing softly and the odd snores tucking into the air conditioned darkness. The sound of footsteps carrying a heavy backpack against smooth cobblestones. The mumbling of myriads of unidentified languages bubbling into one smooth noncoherence. 

The smell of a bike tire against a hot pavement. The clink of a lock as it’s locked to a post near Uni. The grumble of bus 63 on it’s way to St. Peter Zentrum. The brushing past of women with wicker baskets laden with celery and blueberries from the turkish markets, smelling faintly of coriander and basil. The smells of ceramic cups of espressos and tall flutes of afternoon aperolspritzers. 

What do I say to you after a year spent apart? 

I want to ask you something interesting. Something that you would care to answer and that I would care to hear. Something that wouldn’t make you frown, or shrug, or plaster smiles upon disappointed lips. 

I would like the same. Please don’t ask how the year was; I guess that’s my main request. 

I’m not so ignorant as to expect this to not be the standard question. I completely am expecting 87% of all interactions back in Kansas to start with this question. I want to talk with you, I want to share with you, I want to live a moment with you. But I don’t want to reduce either of our years to a few phrases of absolute generalization.

What was your flat like?
What was your favorite trip?
What was your most interesting class?

I would be absolutely enthralled to answer these. 

What was the biggest culture shock?
Who were your best friends?
How did your german get along?
What was it like to not speak fluent German in Austria?

Seriously ecstatic. 

What did you do with your pals?
Where was your favorite place to go in Graz?
What was Uni in Graz like?

You could even get more personal, if you’d like:

Did you meet any…boys…in Austria?
Did you do anything scandalous? 
In what ways did you change? 

I want to ask you the same. I want to replace all the local qualifiers with “Kansas” or “Missouri” or wherever you are from. I want to communicate with you and connect with you. I don’t want you to be intimidated or me to be terrified of relating with you. 

There’s so much, but there’s not too much that we can’t talk about any of it.

Peace and Blessings,

Josie