By Katherine Ward
Thirty years ago, at the age of 18, I started a grand adventure and boarded a plane on my own toward Istanbul, Turkey. I was headed off on a yearlong Rotary Youth Exchange.
Before I left, I attended several camps that prepared us for culture shock and gave us a general sense of some of the changes we could expect. My high school wouldn’t accept any credits from Turkey, so I had accelerated my course schedule, completing all but one required course to graduate.
I spoke absolutely no Turkish but, despite my struggles with language learning at the beginning, my host families were wonderful. They took in a scared, noncommunicative teenager and showered me with affection, kind concern, and caring. They were hard to leave at the end of the year. One of my host fathers even made a special show of sending me home with the keys to the house, so I knew I’d always have a home there. I still have them, to this day.
Holidays were odd. For Halloween, the other exchange students and I carved a watermelon during lunch break at school. We skipped school on what would have been Christmas Day — going would have been too much. My own Christmas package didn’t arrive until March, so my little celebration was a bit delayed! Thankfully, my host mother had prepared a few little treats for me.
Turkish holidays turned out to be major food fests. Seker Bayrami, perhaps better known here as “one of the Eids,” was an all-out three-day food marathon. It comes at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and I spent the first day with my host family visiting relatives and friends — my journal says 11 different houses — and the second day hosting relatives and friends at home. I don’t remember what we did on day three, but I imagine it involved a lot of recovering from the vast amount of sweets devoured!
I learned some Turkish cooking. My manti-making lesson stands out as one of the best, as a lady I came to call Teyze (Auntie) taught me how to form the thin dough around morsels of meat and into delicious little dumplings that would be served under a blanket of garlicky yogurt sprinkled with paprika. In return for these cooking lessons, chocolate chip cookies were the best I could do.
I did some writing while I was there — both for my local newspaper back home and for a couple of Turkish publications — describing my experiences and thoughts about this wonderful, strange city that was more and more becoming home the longer I was there. I was encouraged by a friend’s father, himself an author. It helped me know that it was right to go back to Canada and pursue my journalism degree when, every day, my year got closer to ending. It got harder and harder to think about leaving.
My exchange year had a huge impact on me. I’ve been back a few times in the three decades since, most recently this past summer when I got to share the trip with my teenage daughter and see it anew through her eyes.
- Read more of Ward’s account of her Rotary Youth Exchange on her blog, Act 2, Scene 1
- Learn more about taking part in or starting an exchange
About the author: Katherine Ward is a Canadian communications professional who takes pride in helping companies tell their stories clearly and succinctly, with a view to increasing brand awareness. Her Rotary Youth Exchange experience in the 1980s had a lasting impact on her life.