Ahoj z Northfieldu! Something sounds a little different in that introduction, huh? Yep. That’s right. I’m back in Northfield now. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many of you, because most students who were abroad this year through exchange programs had to return to their home countries due to various complications as a result of COVID-19. All of the Northfield Rotary Youth Exchange students are now home. We weren’t forced to return, but rather highly encouraged to because of the virus. I made the decision because my Czech school had been canceled for the remainder of the year, almost all of our Rotary trips with other exchange students had been canceled, the country was completely shut down, and because of the Level 4 Travel Advisory issued by the United States which said that all citizens abroad should arrange for immediate return to the country because returning at a later time may not be an option for awhile.
It was a very difficult decision to make, but I am certain that it was the right thing to do. I have been home for just over a month now and life here is finally beginning to feel normal again (although I miss my Czech friends and family every day). I wanted to write one final blog post about my exchange firstly to formally let everyone know of my return and secondly to share the rest of my experiences in Czechia before my departure. I will hold all of these final moments in my heart forever.
My final Rotary Event was our Ski Week in Slovakia. We stayed at a resort in the mountains and skied for 8 hours each day. It was so beautiful and so much fun. I think we’re all really thankful that the trip happened when it did because it made for such special last memories together (although at the time we had no idea this would be the last time most of us would see each other again).
The week we were away in the mountains is the week that COVID-19 spread to Czechia. Everything happened so fast and it felt as though it came out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the skiing was cut one day short because the resort was forced to close. We had to get back to our host cities as soon as possible, but it was very difficult because Czechia closed their borders with Slovakia and all means of public transportation had been shut down. The Rotarians with us did a great job of handling the stressful situation when it sounded like we’d all be stuck there for a pretty long period of time. By some miracle, they found a way for us to get back in the country, so we immediately started our long journey home. We rented a big bus and drove to the Slovak-Polish border. Then we walked by foot across the border into Poland with all of our stuff. In Poland, we took a bus into Czechia which stopped to drop students off all along the way. Prague was the final stop, so I spent quite a lot of time on that bus. The time went by quickly though, as we talked, sang songs, and played games the whole way home. We really made the best out of such an unexpected situation and it sure made a great story to tell.
The life I returned to after Ski Week was very different from what I was used to. Schools were canceled, all stores were closed with the exception of a few essential businesses, and face masks were required by law anytime you left your home. When I left for the trip just a week earlier, everything was completely normal. I said see ya next week to my Czech classmates that Friday, never imagining I wouldn’t see any of them again.
The quarantine began on March 11th in Czechia. I spent it at my house in Želkovice with my wonderful host family. I am so lucky I had them. We watched a lot of movies, played a lot of games, and most of all cooked A LOT of food. We were also blessed with very beautiful weather, so we spent a lot of time outside. Having that weather seemed to make all the difference and it’s something I’m grateful we have now in Minnesota quarantine, too. Below are some pictures of our quarantine days in good ol’ Želkovice.
Throughout quarantine I was frequently in contact with my Rotary clubs and exchange friends, both in Czechia and at home, trying to figure out whether or not I would have to end my exchange early. With so many unknowns, it was very difficult to figure out the smartest thing to do. As plane tickets home were becoming increasingly scarce and Czech restrictions increasingly strict, I knew I didn’t have much time to decide. After a very difficult conversation with my parents and host parents, we agreed that I had to book a flight. Unfortunately, the only flights that hadn’t been canceled yet were all within the week. I didn’t have much time to do all of my “lasts” that I had dreamt of, although most of them were impossible at that time due to the quarantine, anyways. My host family was so supportive of me during the last week and they did everything they could to make it special for me. We shared so many tears, stories, and laughs in those final days.
March 26th was the day. Arguably the hardest day of my life and full of so many emotions. I was angry that my year had ended early because of something I had zero control over, I was heartbroken that I couldn’t see so many special people to properly say goodbye, I was thankful for all the happy memories, and I was oh so excited to hug my family after seven long months away from them. My host family brought me to the airport and we cried the whole way there. It was especially hard to say goodbye to my four little host siblings and my host parents, but we have made many plans to see each other again soon. They are so important to me and I am so lucky to have a second family for the rest of my life. After my host family left, I was able to meet some of my exchange friends and a special Prague host family to say goodbye as well. I am so grateful for the love and support I received that day at the airport.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, the airports on my way home were completely empty. Flying across the world during a pandemic was pretty weird … to say the least. I flew from Prague, to Amsterdam, to Atlanta, to Minneapolis and everything went surprisingly well. I was so relieved when I landed safely at MSP and got to run up to my brothers and finally hug them again. My heart was so happy!
So, I guess we’ve reached the end. Thank you all for following my adventures in Czechia this year! I’m so disappointed that things had to end this way, but that doesn’t take anything away from the amazing seven months I had. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world!
My life back in Minnesota has consisted of a lots of family time. We’ve had such beautiful weather, so I’m usually outside with Max and Jens running, biking, playing soccer, etc. My grandparents are getting ready to sell their house in Faribault, so we’ve been down there working a lot, too. I’ve started working at the Northfield Golf Course and I’ll be there for the summer again this year which will be nice. I’m still planning on starting at Grinnell in the fall, assuming things start to get better and they’re able to resume by then. The world we’re living in right now is crazy and it does suck sometimes, but I know people are going through things much worse than I am. I’m sure thinking of you all these days and hoping that you’re safe and healthy. Thanks again for reading my blog this year, I hope you enjoyed it. Looking forward to seeing everyone again soon!
Hi, I’m Elsa! I’m from a small town in Minnesota. I’m 18 years old and I will be living in the Czech Republic for my gap year before attending Grinnell College.