This past weekend, dozens of exchange students converged on Poprad for Rotary Youth Exchange’s Annual Winter meeting. Past years have seen former students high into the Tatras, sledding among the winter peaks and exploring wintry woods. However, atypically warm weather had turned sledding slopes to slushy slip n’ slides and the alpine paths to little more than muddy snow-melt creeks. Plans had to change.
We arose to breakfast Saturday morning and then boarded a tram to Štrbské pleso. It was our fortune—a tad late as it was—that overnight nature had reversed her warm temperament of the previous week in favor of a beautiful, snowy one. I struggled to keep my camera protected against waves of falling flakes, eventually wrapping it completely with my scarf in such a way that I could quickly uncover the lens and view port for a few quick shots.
A competition placed stakes on everyone’s photo taking. Mere chocolate bars and a bit of recognition, but stakes nonetheless. Rotary planned on publishing three photos from that day’s hike in an International Rotary magazine and chose from the photos we took. Several of us were equipped with DSLRs and professional-level gear, yet, ultimately, it was three cellphone photos which took the prize. An important lesson to learn; photography is a matter of composition and creativity, not fancy tools.
We returned to Poprad and walked to the historic town center of Spišská Sobota. There we ate at a Rotarian’s penzion—a small traditional restaurant and hotel. The food was wonderful, as was the atmosphere. From this traditional settings we ventured next to Poprad’s most modern attraction, Aquacity. This water park and hot spring was certainly the highlight of the weekend for most of us. Despite living just a few minutes away from it for the better part of my exchange thus far, I had yet to visit. Within, I relaxed and played with many students that I had yet to become familiar with. I swapped between several different groups and enjoyed the steam sauna, water slides, and hot springs.
That evening, we prepared for some of the performances we will put on at the end of the year. We all sang the Slovak song “Hej, sokoly” and us Americans began to devise a unique performance of dances from US history. I will be swing dancing with a few others, while the rest perform everything from waltzes to 90s punk rock headbanging.
The first of these meetings, in late September, was not a good experience. Yet, each successive one has greatly improved upon the previous. I believe this is less to do with an quantifiable advancement than it is to do with a change in my mindset.
At this meeting, I behaved in ways that were quite unlike me, at least as I’ve known myself. While some of this shift may be attributed to sleep deprived zaniness, I also recognize it as evidence of how my exchange is changing and improving who I am. Just a few months ago, I would have found another quiet person, sat with them and enjoyed the proceedings as best as I could from a distance. Yet, over the past weekend, I fit right in with even the most outgoing of exchange students. I sung and danced, I chatted with all and made many new friends. All of them people I have had opportunities to talk to before, but never taken. I was exhausted afterwards—of course I was! I am a very introverted fellow and I recharge my energy with alone time. For once, though, that energy was put into something worthwhile instead of wasted on anxiety about how crowded these meetings are, how uncomfortable they make me, and what others would think of me if I didn’t maintain my characteristic stoically withdrawn and intellectual veneer. In fact, I did get comments. They said openness bettered me.