The different experiences that I have gone through over the years have shaped my character in a quite different way when compared with my character as a child and as a teenager. Today, one of the things that I am most passionate about in life and the reason why I came to India, is to travel. When I look back to the person that I was as a child or as a teenager, I cannot find anywhere that craving for adventure and desire of learning about new cultures that I feel now. Being a girl, I was introverted quiet and shy; those traits were a pattern during my teenage years too. Things were different and I felt safe when surrounded by my family; but when it came to venturing into unfamiliar environments or with strange people it was difficult for me to create bonds. By following this link you can read about my experiences in India.
My brother and I studied at a Swiss school in Bogotá, so from a young age we were introduced to the French language, and almost without realizing it, we learned through games to speak French very quickly. It has been easy for me to learn new languages since I was a child, so I gained a reasonably good command of the language after just a few years of school. However, demonstrating good command of French in a classroom had nothing to do with using those skills in other settings. My parents only speak English as a second language so our good performance in French depended only on our practice at school. That was perhaps one of the biggest reasons why my parents, great supporters of our learning process, liked to plan vacations in French-speaking places.
The first trip we made for the purpose of practicing French was to the province of Quebec in Canada. As a family we travelled a lot, so I knew the rhythm of airports and planes; usually my parents showed a lot of confidence while travelling and I felt safe and confident with them around. However, on this trip things were different, because my parents did not speak any French which is the main language in Quebec. My brother at that time was around five years old and had only been in school for two years so, my parents depended mainly on me even to ask the simplest questions. Knowing my character at that time, depending on me did not seem like the best idea; even though the trust parents have in their children is unbreakable, in this case they suffered a couple of disappointments. One afternoon, by mistake we entered a shopping mall that was already closed, this was because as a kid I did not notice the “Closed” sign, in fact we entered through the fire exit! When the watchman saw us, he became furious and began to scold us in French. My mother, tried to explain to him in English that she could not read the signs because they were in French, but he could not follow English. Although I understood everything the man said I stood next to her and I kept quiet. My mom was trying to coax me into explaining to the guard in French, but I stood there quieter than a mummy until we went out to the street. The next day, it was another failed attempt, my mother wanted me to ask the driver of a bus if it was the route we wanted, no matter how much my mother begged me, I did not even mumble a word, in the end it was my five year old brother who ended up asking the driver.
The years passed on and I grew, along with my command of French. But in those years not many things changed regarding my temperament and my way of dealing with unfamiliar situations. It was then, just two years before graduating from the school, when the school organized a trip in which all the students of my class have the chance to live and study in Switzerland for six months. Each student was going to live with a family in Switzerland and would attend school normally as if we were in Colombia. Beyond having the opportunity to develop ourselves with the use of the Swiss-French language in an environment of total immersion, we would have for the first time in our lives the possibility of experiencing the customs of the country of origin of many of our teachers, and living the day to day life in Switzerland.
Most of my companions were going to spend their stay in the rural province of Valais, and only four people, in whom I was included, were supposed to live in Geneva. Geneva is one of the most important French-speaking cities in Switzerland, located right on the border with France. I had explicitly asked that I wanted to live with a family in the countryside because I was tempted much more by the idea of not having to struggle with a school with many students and a city environment, but sometimes teachers make decisions contrary to our wishes for our own good. For many of my classmates I was lucky because they would prefer to live in a city instead of the countryside. I was told that in Geneva my host family was a family of four; father, mother and two children. Their house was located on the outskirts of Geneva, in a municipality called Chêne Bougeries. The father of the family is of Spanish origin and therefore speaks fluent Spanish, their children who were four and seven years old at that time, had been adopted in Colombia. With the communication I had with the family before travelling, I knew that the whole family felt a great closeness to my country and had already visited it several times, which gave us a common theme and a special affinity.
Being 14 years old, I was about to embark on that study trip; it was the first time traveling abroad without the company of my parents. I was aware of the opportunity that life was giving me, but I was scared to death. As the time of the trip approached, it seemed to me that I was going to be swallowed by the darkness of a whale’s mouth. And even today, I remember that moment when my parents said goodbye in front of the immigration door, and I was left alone. Although I was with my classmates and an accompanying teacher, I was leaving my family which was the only world that generated any confidence for me. During the first week we were all traveling as a group through various cities in the German-speaking area in Switzerland. As the days went by and we got closer to Lausanne, where each of us were going to be picked up by our respective host families, the picture became darker and darker for me. To make matters worse, the three other companions who would also live in Geneva were not part of my nucleus of close friends; but hey, it gave me some peace of mind knowing that I was going to have someone whom I knew close to me around.
From the beginning Ricardo & Fabienne, my foster parents were kind to me. The arrival at the house was a positive surprise because my room was airy, bright, and large; It was located on the second floor with a window to the garden. It had a double bed, a desk, and a puffy chair that was as soft as sleeping in the arms of the Gods. Just upon arrival, they taught me that shoes should be left in a closet at the entrance and that only slippers were worn inside the house. The older son Nicolas was a bit shyer and quieter with a personality like mine, while the little girl Tamara was a beautiful whirlwind with a mischievous smile. She and I hit it off easy, because I managed to win her over with certain little tricks that I brought from the experience of being the older sister.
The first test was resolved, because it seemed that it would be easy for me to adapt to the family that received me with the best disposition, and to their beautiful home surrounded by a green garden with a wooded path in front. What made me the most insecure from the beginning was the fact that I had to go to school with kids of my age, and it was not an easy experience at all. Perhaps it is difficult for you as readers to understand why I felt so insecure instead of being excited to share a classroom with students from other cultures and to make new friends. My insecurities came from those memories that were imprinted on me from my primary school days where I was bullied and mistreated by other kids. Children are innocent beings and for that reason it is difficult for them to measure how much they can hurt other people; it took me many years to understand why someone might want to have fun while making someone else suffer. What I went through during my elementary years was an experience that marked my life drastically. One of the ways battered people seek to protect themselves is by building an armour to be ready to attack, rather than be attacked. In my case, I tried to disappear and make myself go unnoticed as much as possible, especially when I came to environments that seemed hostile to me.
During the six months that I studied at College Claparede in Geneva, I only made two new friends. One of them was older than me and we used to meet each other every morning at the bus stop, and the other was my classmate at school. Outside of class and on weekends, I used to share my free time with my Colombian classmates with whom I built a beautiful friendship that lasts until now. I was the only one from the Colombian group who would spend most of the time alone, for the rest it was much easier to adjust and they made a lot of new friends. They always tried to include me in their activities, and I thanked them from the bottom of my heart.
It was difficult for my host family to understand why I did not want to go out on Friday nights or invite my schoolmates over to the house like any girl of my age would do. It was strange for them that I preferred to spend hours locked in the room reading books that I picked from the school library. I read all the books in Spanish that I found in those shelves and I found refuge in them during all the breaks in between studies. Looking back, I feel that reading in Spanish was a good feeling, because it was like going back to my language, to my land, to what made me feel safe. Honestly, I spent many hours locked in my room crying and counting the days on the calendar to return. My mom talked to the host family and explained to them that I was shy and introverted, and while I was in Colombia, I would spend most of my time with family. From that point on, they did everything they could to make me feel good, and they included me in all their weekend activities. I still remember with a lot of love those walks in the mountains and going to eat fondue prepared by grandmother on Saturdays. I loved helping in celebrating the birthdays of Tamara & Nicolas, and I was thrilled the day they bought my favourite cake to celebrate my birthday. It was wonderful to have breakfast ready waiting at the table each morning and, share dinner with the family which always used to end with a cheese board for dessert that they used to buy especially for me. During that time, we built a beautiful relationship, so strong that today I feel like I have another family in Switzerland; so much so that three years later when my brother travelled according to the school’s study schedule, he lived with them for six months.
In 2018, fifteen years after my first trip to Geneva, my brother and I went to visit our Swiss family again. It was a wonderful trip to the past. We were no longer the same, their children today are adults too, but the affection remains intact even after so many years. Today when I look back, I understand and forgive Cristina the teenager for not taking full advantage of that golden opportunity that life was giving her. But I appreciate all the lessons that I learned from that experience; particularly that living in the present and enjoying every little detail that life gives us is what makes our life special. Generally, opportunities do not happen twice. Even though I could have lived that experience in a different way, I feel it was totally worth how things turned out. Now my family is bigger, and I know that my Swiss family will be always waiting open arms for me.