Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back on 2015 and the experience of hosting an international exchange student

This has been a busy year, and it has flown by! It would take far too long to write about all the highlights, so I will focus on the most interesting experience of my year.

This year I had the opportunity to host a Polish international high school exchange student, Ola. She stayed for the 2014-2015 school year, and she returned to Poland during the summer. 

Ola and I after she arrived in Minneapolis
Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I found it interesting to host someone from another country, bring her to a variety of events and show her the American culture. And I appreciated seeing her reactions and hearing her perspectives about the American culture.

I enjoyed bringing her to visit many places around Minnesota, as well as a few other places in the United States. During the time Ola was here:

Ola at the Mall of America
Ola and I at Gooseberry Falls
  • We visited the Mall of America (several times!).
  • We attended the Minnesota State Fair and tried many "fair foods." 
  • We carved pumpkins at Halloween.
  • We drove up to Duluth in northern Minnesota. We drove along the North Shore of Lake Superior, a scenic drive along one of the Great Lakes (check out the North Shore Visitor to read more!). And we made a few stops along the way at Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls and more. We couldn't miss having pies at Betty's Pies in Two Harbors, which had a wide variety of awesome homemade pies!
  • We visited friends at their lake house "up north" in northern Minnesota a couple times.
  • We drove to Lake City, a  charming small town not far away, to see Lake Pepin and the scenic bluffs in the area.
  • I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family to give Ola the “American Thanksgiving” experience, complete with lots of food and great company.
  • We went to an excellent production of “The Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater and visited a holiday market in downtown Minneapolis.
  • We visited family near St. Cloud over Christmas. We even found a town nearby with a Polish name!
  • We escaped the frozen tundra of Minnesota to visit sunny Florida in February.
  • Ola and I in Diagon Alley
    • We explored Universal Studios (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was Ola's favorite! It really looks like I had imagined. The train ride between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade was awesome, and the other rides were worth checking out too. I also enjoyed the butter beer!)
    • We visited Walt Disney World – spending a day in the Magic Kingdom and a day in Epcot, where we visited many “countries” (Ola was disappointed there wasn’t a Poland). We ate at an Italian restaurant in the "Italy" area. And Ola tried her first funnel cake in Epcot.
    • We took a drive to visit Cocoa Beach and see the ocean along the east coast of Florida, although we thought it was a bit cool to swim. Cocoa Beach also had a lovely downtown area with a wide variety of shops that we enjoyed walking around.
Downtown Chicago
  • Ola had wanted to visit Chicago while she was here. I took some time off during her spring break from school so we could go to Chicago. We grabbed the train in Winona, and ventured down to Chicago. Staying in a downtown hotel, just blocks from Lake Michigan and near Michigan Avenue, it was a perfect location to explore the city. I always think seeing the city by foot when possible is the best way to see it, and our location allowed us to walk most places. We had many fun experiences including:
  • The Bean in Chicago
    • Eating Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s (an experience not to be missed!)
    • Visiting the Bean (and taking many photos)!
    • Meeting up with a friend of mine and her exchange student for some of the adventures
    • Getting a birds’ eye view of Chicago from the Willis Tower
    • Checking out Navy Pier
    • Shopping on Michigan Avenue 
    • Exploring the Art Institute of Chicago
    • Walking around a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, which had Polish bakeries, restaurants and shops. Ola found many Polish items in a Polish sausage shop, and the workers even spoke Polish!

Ola outside Kurowski Sausage Shop in Chicago
  • And so much more! We had many adventures throughout the year. And Ola had the experience of attending an American high school, which I think she really enjoyed. She participated in a couple sports, went to football and basketball games, attended homecoming and prom dances, and even participated in the high school graduation ceremony.
    Ola and I before the graduation ceremony
While the time Ola was here flew by, I was thankful for the experience to host her. It was a memorable and great experience. She became like a member of my family while she was here. I consider her my “Polish daughter” now. 

Ola and I on her last day in Minnesota
I haven't visited Poland yet, but I look forward to visiting Ola in Poland someday. And I hope she’ll show me around to all the historical and cultural sites in Poland when I come visit!

Happy new year!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Reflections

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and enjoyed the holidays with family and friends. I used to write a Christmas letter every year for my family when I was young – my mom had a long list of people she sent Christmas cards to, and for many years my job was to write the annual Christmas letter. I haven’t written a Christmas letter in a while. Instead of a letter this year, I've written a post with a few reflections I've had this Christmas.

Christmas tree

Christmastime and a foot injury
Christmastime, as usual, has been a busy time. I unfortunately injured my foot just before the holiday season kicked off, which has caused some changes in my holiday plans in the past month or so. For example, I needed to find ways to walk and drive less than I normally would in my everyday life.

I spent several December evenings with my foot propped up on pillows, an ice pack on my foot and Christmas movies playing on TV. I also had the opportunity to attend some lovely Christmas events with friends, which helped me to get in the Christmas spirit.
  Christmas tea

I usually enjoy decorating for Christmas – I have many indoor and outdoor decorations, a Christmas village, ornaments I’ve kept for years, and other holiday items. But this year, I kept it simple. I put up my Christmas tree (with some help from a relative) with the lights and ornaments. I bought a poinsettia that’s displayed on my table and displayed a few other decorations around my home. Decorating my home really helped me get in a Christmas spirit and keep a positive attitude through my foot injury.

While I normally enjoy the outdoor decorations, this year I didn’t place them outside. Instead, I’m enjoying my neighborhood’s Christmas lights and the Christmas lights I see when I drive around the city. There’s something about twinkling Christmas lights on dark December nights that makes me smile. When I was young, my family would go on Christmas light tours around the city, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing the variety of Christmas lights and decorations.

Throughout the time my foot has been injured, I’ve been purposeful about trying to keep a good attitude, to adjust to what I could do while it was harder to get around, and to watch movies, listen to music and read books that were positive and uplifting. While it’s hard to be patient as my foot heals, keeping a good attitude throughout it has helped me deal with it.

Also, being injured made me realize how much decorations, flowers and other items lift my spirits. And visits from friends and their offers to run to get groceries and other necessities really helped as well, especially early on when my foot was quite sore and walking very far was difficult. Knowing I had a support system and someone I could call or text if I needed something definitely helped.  

Soon after I was injured, I bought a colorful bouquet of flowers and displayed them on the table – a small thing that helped make my day better. Doing this, along with all of these other things such as decorating and having friends I could reach out to, helped me stay positive through the experience of having an injured foot. Now my foot is beginning to heal, and I’m thankful my injury wasn’t more serious.

Fall bouquet

Being purposeful about keeping good spirits in spite of an injury and incorporating decorations and flowers in my house reminded me of a time many years ago when my dad was in the hospital for several days during the Christmas season. My mom brought some Christmas decorations to his room and placed a door hanger decoration on his door with the “12 Days of Christmas” as a theme. It had a pocket for each day that included a little gift to my dad from her. Decorations like that really helped make the hospital room seem brighter and more cheerful, and I’m sure it helped my dad’s spirits.

Now I’m reminded of people who are in situations such as being ill or being unable to leave their home often. Little things, like a Christmas decoration, flowers, or even reaching out to someone with a call or text, can really help. I plan to watch for and think of ways in the future I can do something small for someone in a situation like that could lift their spirits.

Merry Christmas to you all! I wish you all a happy new year.