Monday, July 05, 2010


Many, many moons ago I was an AFS student. I am thinking about it now because a young man I have never met but whose life intersected with mine through a connection with K12 is preparing to leave on an AFS year - made even more special to me because he is going to Norway, just about my favorite country in the world.

I remember those days before departure oh-so-well, even though I was just 17 (do the math, I'm 48 now...) I don't recall exactly when I left - sometime in late July, I believe - but I do remember that I didn't know where I was going. Back in MY day, you couldn't choose your host country, as you can now. I knew I was going somewhere, but didn't find out where until about 3 or 4 weeks before I left - and that was just the COUNTRY. Yugoslavia. My first reaction was "WHERE is YUGOSLAVIA?" I didn't find out until a few days before departing what town I was going to (Skopje) and who my family was (the Darkovski family.)

Looking back, I find myself wondering what my parents were thinking. How did they manage to let me go on such an apparently unorganized trip - for a year - on the other side of the world? But I don't recall ever being stressed about it, just excited. And I am certain that feeling came from them. I often think that I was an AFS student to begin with because they had both wanted to be but couldn't. The day I came home saying "there's this thing called AFS and you can go live in another country for a year ...." they both started telling me I was going. I mean, don't get me wrong, I was open to the idea, but they were both so firmly in the camp of DO IT that it never really seemed optional for me.

And off I went. The night before I left, I went to the Doobie Brothers concert in St. Paul with a friend, then came home to my house filled with all of my friends - we stayed up all night, packing and talking and laughing ... and though I don't remember it, there was probably some crying, too. I have absolutely no memory of going to the airport or flying to New York, which is where we had about a 4-day orientation. The next clear memory I have is when our flight from Brussels to Belgrade, the capitol of Yugoslavia, was landing and we (me and the other 3 AFSer coming to the country for the year) looked out the windows at the armed military guards surrounding the plane. And we looked at each other and a tiny granule of fear was evident in our eyes. Remember, this was way back before terrorism was even on the radar screen for airline travel. I don't think I had ever seen a real gun before.

As I think about Jon heading off to Norway, now, I think about how different his experience will be. When I went there were no computers, no email, no blogs, no cell phones. Handwritten letters took 3 weeks to be delivered and postage was significant enough that we used extra-thin paper and wrote really, REALLY small. I knew going over that I would get two short phone calls - one on my birthday and one on Christmas, but that would be it. Nothing else. And back then, AFS even discouraged that much contact. TWO phone calls was pushing the limit. Because, you see, they felt that if you had such frequent contact from home it would inhibit your bonding with your new home and new family.

Wonder what they say now?

I wonder if now the focus of an AFS year is to "visit" for a year - make friends, observe a new culture, learn to get along in a new language. Whereas 30 years ago, you went to come as closely as possible to completely, 100% assimilate and become an almost-native of a new land, and a true member of a new family.

And I wonder if that difference matters.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Huh, that is a good question. I only did a summer abroad with AFS, so of course it is not comparable. It would be so hard to limit interaction with families now what with email and chat.

Jorge as in Norway briefly yesterday and I thought of you. He said it was gorgeous!