The thing about exchange is that not everything is perfect. Not everything is sunshine and mangos the entire time. If you just read the blog posts and look at the pictures, everything seems amazing. The dream life is that perfect picture of you and a gorgeous view with your flag or your best friend. But in reality, exchange is made up of every day moments, too. Moments where all you do all day is go to school and come home and then go to bed. Days where you have a cold and feel miserable.
My first night in Brazil, a little more than four months ago, I thought that I had made a terrible mistake. The lights were off, it was dark outside, I was tired and jetlagged, and I was definitely not very happy at that point. I was wondering just what I had gotten myself into. Everything was different. My room was small, it was hot and humid, I didn’t really understand my new host mom, wifi didn’t reach my new room, the mattress was lumpy, etc.
Of course, since that first night, life has been pretty good. I have lived the dream. I have plenty of those perfect pictures. I was lucky to get a great first host family.
One of the policies of Rotary is that each exchange student will switch host families at least once, and the Rotary exchange students of Natal, Brasil, are no exception. The switch happened just before New Year, and I was again lucky enough to go to my first choice house. The exchange students here switch families amongst ourselves, and I went to Eric from Finland’s first host family. The setup of this family is exactly the same as my previous host family: a mom and me. My new mom’s name is Nelly, and her son is doing his exchange in Newton, Iowa. (What’s in Iowa? Apparently he’s pretty bored. Poor kid.)
The reason Nelly was my first choice is primarily because of the location of her apartment. My first host mom lived in one of the best spots in the city, in my opinion. Near public transportation, school close enough to walk to, easy access to beach, mall, athletic club, etc. Nelly lives about fifteen blocks down the road, in the same part of the city, with all of the above applicable. Plus, she is a really nice person. All of the exchange families are really nice here, so I really couldn’t lose on that front.
The switching of families went off without a hitch. The letting go of Mom One (as I’ve taken to calling Virna, to make it easier for all those involved) was not so easily accomplished. I still think of Virna as my mom. I think of Nelly as my mom. This makes conversations complicated.
Nelly is great. She is very spontaneous. She doesn’t speak a word of English which is really forcing my Portuguese to get better, because with Mom One I could ask her for words in English during conversations. I now know the words for all sorts of random things because Nelly will see something and stop and make me repeat it until I have it memorized (speed bump is lombada). She is loud. She talks a lot. She blasts music in her tiny apartment at ten at night. She has a tiny apartment with a hammock in the main room that I have quickly fallen in love with.
I was very melancholy my first few weeks with Nelly. My first night at Nelly’s house mirrored my first night at Virna’s. I was sad, thinking I was crazy, and wondering just what I had gotten myself into. I missed Virna. And it was all the harder since I knew Virna and her new exchange daughter Veera had a standing invitation to come over and spend the night whenever I wanted to. They have a guest room which they have basically dubbed as “Claire’s room.”
I have taken Virna and Veera up on this standing invitation. Nelly didn’t have any plans for New Year’s Eve, and Virna’s family did, so we went to the Yacht Club and watched the fireworks as they were set off over the main bridge that leads into the city. I stayed the night, and then Virna told me to stay another night, so I did. Before leaving Nelly’s apartment, she had told me that if it was summer vacation and that if I wanted to stay at Virna’s for a week, she didn’t care. All I had to do was let her know what I was up to.
At this point I was feeling very comforatable at Virna’s, and not at all comfortable at Nelly’s. Of course I wanted to stay for a week at Virna’s house, but there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I just needed to get used to Nelly and everything would be fine, and that even though Nelly had told me that everything was fine with her if I hung out with Virna and Veera for a few days, I was a bad exchange student for not even trying to have a relationship with my new mom. So even though Virna told me to stay another night, I told her that I needed to go back to Nelly’s house. It just about killed me to go back, but I did. I told Virna this and she hugged me for about five minutes. I think she misses me just as much as I miss her.
That being said, Nelly has become such a great mom to me. She had to get used to me just as much as I had to get used to her. She’s never had a daughter before, and she is used to loud and expressive children, just as she is herself. She told me that she worried about me the first few days because she thought I was really unhappy and upset with her because I was so quiet, but now she knows that I am generally pretty quiet.
Also, I can now see why it’s a good thing to switch families. Virna is Brazilian. Nelly is Brazilian. With Nelly, I’ve been exposed to a completely different part of Brazil than I was with Virna. With Nelly, I’ve been receiving an education on Brazilian Rock, gone to Mass once, gone to small markets and restaurants, seen what public healthcare looks like, met a huge huge huge extended family, and have gotten insight to another Brazilian’s view of politics. Life is good and I am very happy.
Yesterday I went to Mass with Nelly. Nelly is very Catholic. In her apartment she has a shrine to the Virgin Mary and her dead mother. She goes to Mass at least once a week, and many times more. I went with her yesterday to see what a Brazilian Mass looks like. I don’t know what an American Mass looks like. I went to a Mass once in the Vatican, and that is about the extent of my Catholic education. When everyone stood, I stood, and when everyone kneeled, I sat. I didn’t feel completely comfortable kneeling and Nelly didn’t say anything so I figured I wasn’t too disrespectful. It was kind of funny, because she was really insistent that I do some things, like crossing myself, while in the next minute she told me to take my phone out so I could take a picture. I had kept my phone away, not wanting to be disrespectful. In the long run, in it didn’t matter, since my phone ran out of space so I couldn’t take any pictures anyways.
I like the food so much better here at Nelly’s than at Virna’s. Neither one of them cook, but Nelly’s maid makes more variety and also makes enough food to last for the days when she doesn’t come so Nelly doesn’t go to restaurants all the time like Virna. Not to mention the fruit. The fruit here is the same that I had at Virna’s: mango, papaya, pineapple, guava, so on. The fact that it’s the same doesn’t make it any less of a treat. Furthermore, unlike at Virna’s, Nelly makes concentrate for juice herself, while Virna would just buy it at the store. This makes the juice all the much better. I have also learned the joy of having orange juice minutes after it was squeezed.
After mentioning to my parents and friends back at home for several months that I was considering playing basketball, I have finally signed up. I have never played basketball in my life, except for messing around with friends in driveways.
Nelly is a member at a nearby athletic club called AABB. I have become her dependent, and have joined the basketball practice they have three times a week there. Veera from Finland, Virna’s new host daughter joined basketball at the same time that I did.
I know absolutely nothing about basketball, but so far it’s been super fun since I’m running around and doing drills that the teacher has to literally help me do step by step and playing pickup games, etc. This is the first time during my entire exchange that I’ve joined something that I’m actually really into, and it gets me out of the house more. AABB is maybe ten or fifteen blocks down the road, so I’ve also been walking to and from the club. As far as I know, we won’t be playing games against other teams, but they have pickup games every Saturday and Sunday that I’m planning on going to, and I’m perfectly to mess around with other people knowing that I’m terrible. The practice is coed, but so far there has only been one other girl other than Veera and myself.
Tchau for now!