Hello again, everybody! As most of you probably already know, I had to make the unfortunate and difficult, but responsible decision to end my exchange year early due to the implications of the current virus and pandemic situation around the world. As a result, I returned home at the very end of March, and have been home for exactly a month at the time I am beginning to write this final blog post. In all honesty, it’s been a tough few months since returning home, and writing this blog post has been a long and emotional process that has taken a lot longer than anticipated. I apologize for those who have been waiting to hear from me, but I hope it’s worth the wait 🙂
Even with the last month of my exchange being in self-isolation in my village in Slovakia, I was still able to find new experiences for the time I had remaining in Slovakia. As well as this, we had our Rotary Ski Week at the very beginning of March, an event that (little did we know at the time) would be the last time all of us exchange students would be together again.
So, I figured that one more blog post would be in order, not only to cover that last month, but also to sum up my exchange experience as a whole, and provide some final reflections on what has been the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.
So, one last time, I hope you enjoy reading 🙂
The start of the month! Many of us had been waiting a long seven months to see our friends from the Czech Republic again, and finally the time came! We had a few more visitors the weekend leading up to ski week as three students from Czech Republic travelled to Banská rather than make the full (13 hr) trip to Ski Week all in one day. So we had a nice weekend showing them around the city and spent some time catching up before the main event!
It was a bit of an ordeal getting to ski week in the first place, but luckily we made it all in one piece. With the amount of ski equipment we had to carry (and fit on the buses/small doors of the trains) we had some difficulty, and then we ended up missing the train to Poprad! However, this was because of an error on our train tickets rather than our own mistake. So, we ended up having to take another, much slower train to our initial meeting destination, although luckily we were only delayed by about half an hour.
From Poprad, we all took a bus to Ždiar, the resort village which would be our home base for the week. After everybody had rented their equipment, we got into our hotel, unpacked, and prepared for some great days of skiing ahead! We also got our own personalized jerseys for the week which were a really cool surprise.
Now, rather than go exactly day by day in this post, I’m going to sum up the skiing experience, and then detail the other cool things we had the opportunity to do during our week.
So to start: our team! We got split up based on our experience skiing, and since I had been able to hone my limited ‘skill’ with my host family earlier in the year, I got placed in the advanced group. Even though I was scared I wouldn’t be good enough for this group, it ended up being absolutely perfect, and since it was a higher level there were a lot less people in our group. This meant we were able to bond a lot better during the week with each other. And by the end of the first day, we had already branded ourselves the ‘Snow Geese–‘ going so far as to ski down the slopes in V formation, flapping our wings. It was cheesy, yes, but also a great time.
For most of the week, the weather was simply perfect. If anything, it was almost too warm!! However, despite our fears, most of the snow stuck around for the week, including the jumps which many of took to trying throughout the week. As someone who wouldn’t have ever considered leaving the ground with skis on, I was pretty proud of myself for hitting the jumps, even if I did only get a bit of air. Along with jumps, our group leader also taught us how to do the ‘star-‘ a cool partner trick that we spent a lot of time mastering.
And of course- along with all the jumps and smooth runs- there were lots of falls and crashes as well. Luckily, throughout the week no one was seriously injured, but we all had our fair share of tumbles. Thanks to my trusty GoPro, I was able to capture many of them, so I’ll include a couple of my favourites below.
Aside from the absolutely great time we had skiing, in the evenings and mornings we also had some fun events in and around the hotel. We had plenty of free time for card games and group activities, but almost every night there was a highlight activity. The first night, as is to be expected when the Brazilians get together, there was a dance party. Having been thoroughly worn out from the stressful travel to ski week, I sat this one out and instead played some riveting card games to the sound of party music with some of the other students. But don’t worry, there were still at least one or two more impromptu dances to come that week, so I didn’t miss out on too much.
On the second night, we had a group movie night, complete with tons of unhealthy snacks purchased from the convenience store connected to the hotel. The total amount of snacks we brought probably took a chunk out of everyone’s bank accounts, but hey-! We needed energy for skiing, right?
The third night was undeniably one of the funniest and most memorable nights of the week. The Brazilians had planned out a mock Carnivale, which is Brazil’s biggest festival that takes place at the end of February ever year. Go google it– it’s really something to see. Anyways, the Brazilians were feeling sad about missing out on probably the biggest party/celebration on earth back in their country, so they planned to have a version of their own Carnivale during the one night of ski week. This included tons of food, tons of dancing, probably a few dozen pounds of glitter, and the main source of entertainment: the boys and girls switching clothes for the evening. Embarrassing? Yes. Hilarious? Yes. But hey, it was a cultural awakening for many to the absolute fun-time craziness of Brazil, and everyone had an amazing time because of that. Not to mention lots of good photos were taken that will probably show up sometime later in life.
The original plan in the itinerary for the fourth day of ski week was to spend the day at AquaPark, a really big water park in the nearby mountain city of Poprad. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions that fell in place that very same day, things had to be switched up a bit. Luckily, Rotary was able to find an alternative option that was just as entertaining, if not more so. We headed along the Tatry highway to Tricklandia, an art/illusion funhouse type of thing in the middle of one of the small resort towns in the Tatras. It was a lot bigger than the illusion museum in Vienna and had a lot more stuff, which really suprised me. We took tons of photos and had a really good time looking around all the exhibits and getting lost in the mirror maze.
None of us knew it, but that day would be, for many of us, our last real time together, and our last moment of freedom in the district. Being away at ski week for four days, with days packed full, none of us really had time to be on our phones checking the news. As a result, we were blissfully unaware of the rapid spreading of covid-19 in Europe over the course of just a few days. None of us had heard anything about the wave of EU countries shutting their borders, shutting down their whole societies indefinitely. Until it hit us.
We were out enjoying our fourth day of skiing when we got the call that Czechia and Slovakia were both closing their borders, and that all public places (including ski resorts) were to be shut down the next day. It came as a massive blow to all of us, who were still expecting to have two more days of skiing and activities, and a celebration at the end of the week to wind it up. Instead, that night in a panic, we packed up all our stuff, returned our ski equipment and tried to enjoy each others company as best as we could knowing the next morning we would be shipped back to our cities by any means possible. When we said goodbye the next day, most of us still hadn’t realized the depth of the situation, and as a result said our goodbyes with a lightheartedness stemming from the belief we would see each other again in a month for our Eurotour. I think that is one of my biggest regrets from all of this, is that I didn’t have a chance or a thought to really say goodbye to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I didn’t even realize it then, but thinking of it now, it stings a little. But I suppose the whole nature of this pandemic has caused equal and greater hardships for many other people across the globe. So instead of being filled with regret, I’ve instead tried to cherish the fact that we did have such a great time together during the week, even though it was cut short.
And much to our luck, we were still able to take the classic Rotary group-photos the day before we left, so we’ll always have the photos to remind us of this, the last time district 2240 would be together ❤️
And with that, Ski week had ended. The Czech students walked over the border to Poland, and from there took a bus to Czechia, and the Slovak students all dispersed home by train, bus, or whatever means were available with the rapidly diminishing public transport availability.
It was undoubtedly one of, if the not the, best week of exchange. Getting to see all my friends again, and spending time skiing in one of my favourite places in Slovakia– it was just an absolute blast. So many memories were made that I’m sure I will never forget, and despite being cut short it was still more than I could have ever hoped for.
Following ski week, I entered the period we all know so well by this point– quarantine. For three weeks I stayed in at our house in Ľubietová, and after a few days of utter and complete boredom, I managed to find different ways to experience Slovakia and Slovak culture even just on my own around the house.
As a start, I began taking daily walks around the village and into the nearby mountains/forest to take photos and go birdwatching. I was getting super stressed having been in the house for so long (and having not been able to play piano for over a month- ack!) so in order to find some peace I started wandering around on the trails in and around the village. I realized I had never really taken time to listen to the birds, or appreciate the trees and quietness of the mountains and forest that I had lived by for 4 months. So, armed with my phone camera and some hiking shoes, I explored, and tried to look and listen for birds. It’s amazing how different the wildlife can be, even though the mountains and forest are similar to what we have some places in Canada. I took joy every day in trying to identify birds (and send videos of them to mom for help in doing so) and even just sit and listen to them. It really gave me some comfort in what was a really stressful time for me, and everybody.
Also, it feels important to note that I gained a new friend in our host family’s cat, Olina. For the first few months she didn’t really like me, but after I realized she just wanted a place to sleep, we began to have daily ‘cat’ naps on the porch following my walks every day while the sun was setting. Relaxing to the max.
As the days in quarantine drifted by, I was thankful to have my absolutely amazing host family with me at most times to keep me busy. Although we had to stay in and around our house, my host father Marián and I took the opportunity to make a whole bunch of Slovak recipes homemade. Being in quarantine and having all of our trips for the year cancelled (along with not knowing if businesses would ever open again) I felt sad knowing I wouldn’t be able to buy my parents any meaningful souvenirs from my travels. I had waited until the last 3 months of exchange to do so expecting that I would find really cool things from the different places I went. After realizing that wouldn’t happen- I thought of a different idea! With the help of my host family, and all of my exchange friends from around the district, I collected almost 70 home recipes from Slovakia, Czechia, Brazil, Taiwan, Colombia, Lebanon, USA, and a bunch of other countries where the exchange students hailed from. With these, I made an international cookbook that I presented to my parents as their ‘souvenir.’ It was really special not only for them but for me too, as my host family and exchange friends lovingly rose to the occasion to help me learn/get these special recipes when they heard of my dilemma. Below I’ll put some pictures of all the Slovak meals I cooked with my host family in those last weeks, as well as the cookbook when I presented it to my mom.
Despite those last weeks being at home in quarantine, they went by in a blur. And in the last few days of my time on exchange- even moreso. I’m sure many of you saw my Facebook post regarding the details of how my exchange came to an end, but just in case you didn’t I’ll immortalize it here so the record stands.
Up until 3 days before I flew out of Europe, I was still planning to carry out my exchange to my July departure date. Before I came on exchange, I told myself hundreds of times “under no circumstances will I come home early.” I knew that even if I became really homesick for Canada, or whatever challenges would come my way, I wouldn’t give up this opportunity I have received and come back before the end of my exchange. If you had have told me 9 months ago that I wouldn’t be able to stay true to that, there’s no way I would have believed you. And yet, that’s what happened.
On that third day before my departure, a realization set in with not only my own family, but my host family and rotary club as well. After talking with my host father and another Rotarian, we deduced that based on how unpredictable the pandemic is, along with the nature of Slovakia’s government, it was a real possibility that I wouldn’t have been able to leave the country until much later than my July departure date. Even though now it’s clear that wouldn’t have been the case, based on how volatile the situation was back in March, it was a harsh reality to face. Because of that, in the course of a very stressful 48 hours I submitted the documents for the end of my exchange, and booked one of the last flights out of Vienna back home to Saskatchewan. In a slight panic, I packed my bags full of all of the items and memories I had collected over 8 months (along with a whole bunch of Slovakia Horalky snacks to bring back). Luckily I only had to leave a few shirts and pairs of jeans behind in order to fit everything.
It was an emotionally draining three days, but I was lucky enough to be able to say goodbye in person to Valerie, Sam, Gabi, and Leo (who met me at the Bratislava border with Austria). I know I had to break social distancing rules, but looking back I think it was acceptable to give a hug to some of the best friends I’ve ever made, not knowing when I will see them again. Leaving was a sad reality for many of us, with only around half the original 72 students in 2240 remaining as of now. I think any words I could say to them, and to all my friends, both Slovak and international, I have already said in personal goodbye messages. So I’ll just say this one last thing: you all made such a big impact on my life, and have given me so much more perspective on myself and the world around me. I love and will miss all of you dearly. And I hope we can meet again.
And on the same day I said goodbye to my friends, of course, I had to say goodbye to my host family that I’ve been with since December. I have every thanks to give to them for making the second half of my exchange such an amazing cultural and familial experience. Within a month of staying there I truly felt like a part of their family, and I’m so grateful to them for just taking me in and helping me feel comfortable, even during what was such a difficult time for everyone in March. I look forward to visiting them again as soon as possible! Thank you so much to the Benkovci for everything 🙂
And finally, the goodbye to Slovakia. It felt surreal driving out of my village and Banská for the last time, knowing it could be years before I have my daily drive by the castle on the hill, or eat at my favourite cafés and walk the streets again. There really is no way to describe a goodbye that you weren’t expecting to have to make. As to be expected, I shed quite a few tears, but I left the place I’ve called my home for 8 months with so many great memories and experiences. So rather than leave with sadness, I left knowing I will always have a home in Banská Bystrica, and Slovakia as a whole. And in turn, I know the city and country will always be a part of who I am as a person.
The last drive…
When I reached the border of Slovakia and Austria with my host father, I said my final goodbye to Leo (who as I mentioned earlier met me at the border) and then made my way to the taxi, which would take me across the border into the Vienna airport. Funnily enough, I met my ‘host’ sister, Miška, who was taking the same taxi back from Vienna airport into Slovakia. She had been doing her exchange in British Columbia and happened to be returning the same day I left. So we did a literal ‘exchange’ at the border, after taking a quick photo. It figures that right up until the very end of exchange, I was making new connections with Rotary.
From there, the taxi took me into Austria, and I took one last look at Bratislava castle through the blossoming trees in Austria before turning my attention to the next few days of travelling ahead.
Now, I could go into the full details of my travelling home, and the minor chaos that ensued in Vienna and Frankfurt, but that’s a looong story for a different time. So I’ll just give you the parts that went correctly, haha. I stayed a night at the Vienna airport hotel before catching my flight out from an absolutely abandoned Vienna Schwewat airport (needless to say, customer service here was beyond good– I think the few people still working there were just excited to see someone). There were approximately 3-6 people on my flight to Frankfurt. Then, after a long and stressful 30 hours in Frankfurt airport, I took my flight out for Canada. I met up with Griffin and Nevada, two other district 5550 outbound students who were on their way home on the same flight as me. It was cool to see them again, if even during sad circumstances, and to be able to catch up after having seen them almost exactly a year earlier at our Russell orientation meeting.
From Frankfurt, we flew to Toronto in a Boeing 777– the third largest passenger jet in the world— that had maybe 20-25 people on it. The 8 hour flight went by like a breeze despite getting no sleep. Once we were in Toronto and had found our gate for our connection, we did what any group of sensible Canadians who have been long-away would do– buy Timmies. The vanilla iced Capp felt like literal heaven on Earth.
After a few hours in Toronto, we took our final flight to Saskatoon. Despite being only a 3 hour flight, this seemed to last waaay longer than the one from Frankfurt. The excitement, nerves, and sadness all sort of bundled up for that final flight back to my home province, so much so that my mind couldn’t settle the entire flight.
Finally, arrival. It looked a lot different than how I expected it would be a few months ago. Rather than my whole family welcoming me with hugs and tears and excitement, it was a more somber affair, as my dad was the only one able to come to the airport to pick me up. We picked up my bags, headed out into the cold Saskatchewan air that I had so missed, and headed home to Melfort.
Just like that, my exchange was over. Almost two months later, and the gravity of the situation still hasn’t sunk in entirely for me. Some days I still wake up expecting to have a ham + cheese breakfast and take the drive past the castle in for school. It feels so weird to be home, and over the past few months (and now more than ever) I’ve had to grapple with lots of conflicting emotions over my decision to come home– along with the basic reverse culture shock that every exchange student experiences. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about now.
I want to end this last blog post with a quick show of gratitude for all the people that changed my life, this year and beforehand. I often say from the deepest part of my heart, that every person I ever encountered before exchange played some part in my decision to take this leap of faith. Whether it was my family, Mom’s stories of her exchange, Amber, the Belgian girl who told me how much I could gain as a person from exchange, my high school friends and teachers for always supporting me as a person and for building me up, the Melfort Rotary club for encouraging and sponsoring my endeavours, or even just the random people who would show interest in what I wanted to do after graduation. Every single person helped me in some way take that first step, and I’m so so happy you all had my back as I did so.
The choice to go on exchange led me to so many places, people, and ideas I could only dream of beforehand. Walking away for 8 months of your life and coming back a different person is something you’d think you’d only see in movies, but it really is the case with exchange. From my amazing friends, host families, and host club, I gained more perspective of different cultures, the world around me, and just as importantly I gained more perspective on myself as an individual (and, you know, a few ok friends along the way 😉 ). I’ve faced the world with all of you by my side and come out a better person because of it. So thank you, to everyone who was there with me for the ride, and thank you Rotary districts 5550, 2240, and Rotary International for facilitating this kind of immensely positive and educational change in myself and others.
And finally, thank you Slovakia– Slovensko— Slovenská Republika. You are the epitome of a hidden gem in this world, and a perfect example of how some of the best people and places can be found where most would never expect. You are a tiny country with a massive heart, one which I’ve now added my own to. From your stunning mountains, you gorgeous cliffsides, to your rolling Moravian plains and ancient cities and villages, to your long and unique history and deep-rooted culture (and your perhaps a tad over-complicated, but genuinely beautiful language). It was an absolute joy discovering all of it, and I’m so grateful to be able to come out of my exchange calling myself a Slovak-Canadian. I will always be proud to say the first country I ever went to outside of Canada was Slovakia, my land of discovery, my second home, my own hidden gem. Slovensko, milujem ťa, a už mi chybáš ❤️.
My heart now has two homes..
One last time I want to thank you all, so much, for reading and following along on my journey these past 8 months. It’s been an absolute pleasure sharing my experiences with all of you, and I hope I’ve been able to show or say at least one or two things that have inspired you to explore, learn, or step out of your comfort zone, in whatever way that means for yourself. Having the support of you all has meant so much to me.
With that, I say with a heavy but full heart, goodbye for now. This has been Graydon Eskowich, Rotary Youth Exchange Student 2019/20, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia.