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When I was sixteen, I was accepted as a foreign exchange student, and I spent the summer with a family in Sweden. Talk about a growth experience. After going through orientation at a camp in southern Sweden, I was put on a train and told to get off at the Mockfjӓrd station. Another American student was going to a farm in a nearby county and we sat together, but when she got off at her destination I sat alone as the train kept chugging north. I studied my Swedish phrase book and practiced how to say Vart ӓr badrummet? (Where is the bathroom- very important), and was sure I’d miss my stop.
Then my station was announced and I got off the train and met my family. They spoke wonderful English, and, like me, my host sister Kristina was always looking for adventure and fun things to do outdoors. We spent a lot of time with my host brother, Sören, a cool twenty-four-year-old who ran a youth hostel in the beautiful port village of Norrtӓlje.
I’d never thought that Americans were prudes, but compared to the Swedes, we (or at least I) definitely were. Sören took Kristina and I to the beach, and people were changing into their suits right on the beach like it was no big deal. Kristina and I climbed over some rocks and found a couple nude sunbathing. Shocking.
Sören played the violin and danced in a folk music group. I remember going with the rest of the family to the changing room after a performance and Sören asking how I liked the show as he unselfconsciously dropped his drawers right in front of us. I looked him in the eyes, all the while thinking: don’t look down.
This is why student exchange programs exist, right? You experience other cultures and often learn something about your own. My mom said my summer abroad changed me. She was right. I was more confident and self-reliant, and I’d caught the travel bug.
And I was no longer such a prude.
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