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Swiss exchange 'time of my life,' student says

'Saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because who knows when I’m going to see them again and we’re like family now'
Hannah Bywater presented her experience over the last year in Switzerland as part of the Rotary Student Exchange program. Photo by Ryen Veldhuis.

Hannah Bywater has had many adventures in her 17 years, but after spending a year in Switzerland as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program, it’s hard for her to articulate exactly how impactful the three host families, friends, and other exchange students she had the privilege to meet and connect with across the Atlantic.

“I’m so honoured to have been selected to represent North Bay in Switzerland,” she said, thankful she was chosen by Rotary for the program. “I was confident in my ability to adapt to the culture and meet new people based on my previous adventures. I had the basics of German down—with some tutoring help prior.”

But no amount of preparation could ready her for when she stepped onto the property of the first of three host families in Switzerland.

“As soon as I stepped out of the car, all I could think about was the smell,” she said. “I knew that my family lived on a farm and I don’t know what I was expecting, but they lived on a farm with over 2,000 pigs (amongst many more farm animals), so my extended family was also all farmers. I certainly experienced life in the rural part of Switzerland.”

But living on a farm—especially when your host mother is a cooking teacher—presents a perfect opportunity to experience foreign cuisine. And Bywater experienced just that, but a maybe a little too different, in terms of culinary items, then she might have liked.

“She cooked many traditional meals from regions all over the country,” Bywater said. I learned a lot about Swiss cuisine. The strangest thing I had eaten was cow utter and cow tongue...I didn’t know what I was putting in my mouth, but some people were kind of laughing because nobody told me. I wouldn’t eat it again, but it was an experience.”

While taking in the rural region of cantons, she had the opportunity to take in the Swiss nation sport of Schwigen, a sort of wrestling, which she said didn’t beat out watching a hockey game for her, but was still fun to watch nevertheless.

“Although I didn’t take it up while there, I got to do many others things I love doing, like volleyball, horseback riding, skiing, and hiking,” she said. But there were many more challenges for her, as would be for anybody experiencing language barriers. “The region had more French speakers than German and my host mom was bilingual, so while I worked on my German I could rely on my French instead of my English.”

Bywater said it took quite a few weeks for her to accustom to speaking in Switzerland, mostly due to them not actually really speaking High German—what she had been learning.

“They speak Swiss German,” she said, “not High German—which is very different. It took me about six months until I was comfortable having a full conversation.”

However, all things come to an end but are followed by new beginnings—her second host family. It was a time she both feared and looked forward to.

“It’s hard leaving a host family after you make such a strong connection with them,” Bywater said. “I was so nervous. I loved my first host family, but I was so excited to see what my next chapter offered me. My next host family was amazing, and I had two younger host siblings who loved to play and loved to speak, so I learned a lot from them. This family did everything they could for me, they wanted me to have the best exchange possible and really opened up many doors for me.”

She said she was incredibly lucky to have been able to visit a ski resort every weekend with her second host family while getting to go snowshoeing, paragliding and visit cheese and chocolate factories with them.

“My host dad was also a Rotarian, so we went to meetings together and got a long really well,” she said. “One of the Rotarians sponsored me to go to the world championship ski racing, and they also sponsored me to go to Greece for a week with my school’s choir.”

She said Rotary Switzerland organized many events for rotary exchange students, making their time abroad as best as they could.

“My third host family had a special train pass that would let them use any train, boat, and tram—anything,” Bywater said. “Let’s just say in the last few weeks I was able to fit the entire country in my travel schedule.”

“I was lucky to be surrounded by such amazing people…”

A year can pass faster than we think sometimes, and when her year came up, it was time to pack the bags, say goodbyes, and wipe away the tears. But Switzerland wasn’t done with her. They had organized a special one year party for her, inviting all of her host families so she could get a proper goodbye.

“All members of every host family of mine came to it and it was a great time for me to see them all for the last time,” she said. “It was a great closing party. The love and appreciation I have for my host families cannot be said. We met as strangers, but the relationship we have now is something I hold so dearly. I met so many amazing like-minded people, sometimes I feel like I got to know these people for longer than a year. Saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because who knows when I’m going to see them again and we’re like family now.”