Written by Natalie
Disclaimer: This article is long. Very long. But if you are a young PWS and interested in going to a youth exchange trip, this is definitely worth a read.
The 30th of June 2018, I get up on a beautiful English summer morning (This is rare), it’s a Saturday. I’ve already packed my bags, I just have to throw on some clothes and leave the house, we load the car. My partner drops me off at the airport. And so begins the worst experience of my life…
I won’t lie, I have never enjoyed public transport, primarily, due to my stammer. If there’s a ticket machine, banging! If not (normally the bus)… my god the anxiety. I’m also a worrier that I’ll miss it, AHA! which would just be my luck. Anyway… so my inbound flight is with Ryanair… I know. It was cheap okay… but if the website wasn’t so unbelievably unclear I wouldn’t have missed the fact that I hadn’t added my suitcase to my ticket.
I could have cried, and of course you can’t purchase this at the check-in desk… So off I trundle, through East midlands airport looking for the Ryanair customer service desk. I find it, only to be greeted by one of the rudest women I have ever met. My card wouldn’t work on her system, so she told me to go to the cash machine the OTHER SIDE of the ‘air-winger’ of an airport. I politely asked her if I could leave all my bags behind the desk so I can get back quicker. Do you want to know what she said?… “NEGATIVE”… she looked me square in the eyes and said negative like that’s a normal way to respond to another human being. She made my blood boil. From that moment on I couldn’t say another word to her, I couldn’t even look her in the eye.
I finally make it through security and into duty-free, here I face daylight robbery for forgetting my phone charger at home. 40 Euros I pay, and apparently they no longer see it necessary to sell the cable with the plug?!? I looked around to double-check I hadn’t walked into a joke shop. I also needed to pick up flip-flops, as I had also forgotten those. However as I went to pay, I looked at the board to double-check my flight was on it… that’s when I saw it… ‘gate closes: 11.40’. It’s 11.50. Obviously I still pay. and I run. The stress is unreal. I’m sweating, and I imagined having to call my partner back to come and get me because I have missed my flight.
I get to the gate, and I’m about 20th in the priority queue. I catch my breath and through the window I can see all our bags on the tarmac, but no plane. WHAT?!. Basically over and hour and a half later are we finally taxing onto the runway. The board lied, and there was a strike in France’s air traffic control. But I am in the air… On my way to Italy for an Erasmus+ youth cultural exchange trip for PWS. And so begins the week that changed my life…
One of my favourite parts of going away is when you step out of the plane, and you get that blast of new air. It smells different and feels different on your skin. I already knew that because my plane was delayed, I had already missed my first train (this was not a panic, the tickets are usable 4 hours from the time purchased for), but as I walked out of the airport, I saw a sign with Milano Centrale on it. That’s where I’m going my conscious screams at me. I look at a man stood in front of the bus and he looks at me, he asks if I’m going to Milano Centrale, I nod, as I’m still in a bit of a haze. He literally throws my suitcase on and takes my 5 euros. I climb on board and settle down to the beginning of my long journey (consisting of 3 trains) to Cengio. Our pick up point. expected arrival: 10pm.
I know I’m close to Cengio station because I have been following the train on my Google maps, a necessary seeing as it is now too dark to see the station signs and we are nearing the mountains. I have been watching them getting closer and closer in the sunset. We pull in and I stumble off the train onto the dilapidated platform. I already know to expect to meet one participant as I have been in contact with her already, and I know her train pulls in around the same time. But when I get to the front of the station, a man walks out and looks at me, with an ‘I know you’ look. “Natalie?” he asks. “Yes” I say in hesitation. It has always freaked me out when people know your name, without knowing them. He smiles and goes in for a hug, I hug him back and ask if he is part of the exchange trip (I don’t know why I asked either). He naturally says yes and we’re met by the participant I was expecting. This is already the most PWS I have been surrounded by since I was a child! We mingle and chat before getting in the car and setting off for our 50-minute drive up the mountain to our village. Levice.
This was the first time I was able to think about meeting the other participants. I was nervous. Although I’m still unsure if this was just hunger?! Anyway when we arrived we pulled up in front of what I can only describe as a community hall. I can see people mingling outside and the lights are on, making silhouettes of the people inside. We made polite introductions as we made our way in, on the hunt for supper. My group leader met me inside, this was our first meeting and she was the ray of sunshine I had imagined, with her broad Scottish accent and brightly coloured top. She introduced me to a few people before I raided the kitchen. After a bit of general chit-chat, I was taken down to the hostel to get in bed… I was cooked! I got ‘cosy’ on my camp bed surrounded by about 5 other people (plus 2 empty beds) around me fast asleep. It’s hard to remember the conversations I had that first night and the people I met, but I was excited to meet the rest.
The first morning, is a bit of a haze. I got out of bed and I got dressed while chatting to the other girls in my room, and it was amazing to meet them. We had a mix of British, Swedish, dutch and Finnish just in our room alone.
Today I would meet 40+ participants from 9 different countries. It was daunting. We walked up the hill (it was seriously steep) to the hall for breakfast. I walk in, knowing a lot of the participants have already met as they arrived much earlier then I did the previous day. I was fresh meat.
The rest of breakfast is a haze of introductions and conversations about life at home and of course, stammering. I just remember listening to all these amazing people and just being blown away. We started every morning with meditation, this is something I had been looking forward too. the rest of the morning consisted of introductions of the group leaders and the week, followed by a tour of the village. The group leaders introduced us to the week planner (This huge, coloured laminated card stuck on a wall like a school planner) with all the planned workshops on for the week. The theme for the week was ‘performing arts’, something I had been apprehensive about before coming, I am not theater inclined and don’t particularly enjoy acting and I most certainly can’t sing. But I had told myself I would throw myself in 100%. The planner was chocker block with workshops. It was going to be a busy week.
The aim of the week was for us to (within our group) perform a 15 minute play on anything we wanted. We were split up into 4 groups. My group was fantastic. half of the workshops where planned so that they would aid us in the planning and performing of our performances, for example we did workshops on improvisation and creativity, alongside rehearsal time. The rest of the workshops were focused on cultures and analysing ourselves as PWS. For me some of these were an emotional roller-coaster. On the first day we did a fears, needs and expectations workshop. Here we were split into groups and we discussed what our fears, needs and expectations were for the week. Then we would look back at the end of the week to see if we would change any of them.
We did a fantastic workshop on prejudices and stereotypes that really got people talking and debating. The thing with these workshops is that they can sideswipe you out of nowhere, it just takes 1 person to say something and you’re a blubbering mess. I found this in an improvisation one, we were in groups of 6 and we had to do a 2 minute speech on whatever came into your head, so I wanted to tell everyone how amazing they are and how grateful I was to be there, but I got to grateful and just cried my way through the rest. For me one of the workshops that ‘woke me up’ was ‘values and strengths’. We walked around a garden looking at signs on the floor with different values on them, we had to write down our top 10 we rank highest values and out bottom 5. Then we had to decide on just 1/2 and explain to the group why. Mine… ‘Purpose’ + ‘Passion’. Now, this workshop came towards the end of the week, and I had been struggling with all the emotion and feelings I was feeling, until this workshop. As soon as I saw that bit of paper, it made everything clear and I knew that, that is what I was taking away from the week.
Outside of the workshops we had a bit of free time, one afternoon 10 of us went to a vineyard (it would be rude not too?!), and shared 4 bottles of the best wine EVER, cheese, bread and salami with a beautiful Italian man. He was fascinating, couldn’t speak a word of English, but luckily we had our very own beautiful Italian translator, AHA!. He not only owned his own vineyard but he also ran marathons and wrote his own book! It would have also been rude not to have bought any… so I bought 4 bottles. We also visited another village called Bergolo that had a pool, this village was also where we performed our plays… believe it or not they had an actual amphitheater… on the top of a mountain!! I went to the pool once to play water polo with the boys, I hate to embarrass them, but I scored the most goals!. This village was the other side of the mountain so we had a very beautiful trek through the forest, with the most amazing views I have ever seen, overlooking the valleys. On one day, it was so clear that we could see the Alps poking over the top of the mountains. Views like that always take my breath away.
Now, I won’t lie, and I know the others would agree. The schedule, was chaos. quite often we weren’t eating our evening meal until crazy late, but that gave us plenty of time to mingle and get to know each other, over an alcoholic beverage. It was great, you could either sit and have a sophisticated and yet frustrating game of Fluxx, sing around a guitar or dance to the macarena. We even had a few nights of stargazing, we even saw some shooting stars. Our nights often didn’t end until 3/4 am, to be back up at 8 for another crazy packed day of workshops. When we did eat, the evenings were themed. 2 countries each prepared a national meal each night, the Swedish chocolate balls will definitely stay with me! Yummy! I must also mention the 4 lovely Italian cooks that volunteered in the kitchen for the week. Each day also ended with self-reflection, something that was quite helpful to remember what you had done that day! but also to focus your thoughts and identify what you have taken away from the day.
For my group, we had decided to fill out 15-minute slot with lots of smaller scenes.
Our title, ‘The exciting life of a stammerer’, the basic premise was exaggerated life experiences of bad reaction examples. So for example there was a scene of a PWS on the phone, and with a doctor. We drew our inspiration from our own experiences, mine was an experience with my parents from my childhood. This gave us an opportunity to share our most shocking and painful experiences but applying dark humour. It was great and we gelled so well as a team we had no struggle with the scripts or preparation. And so Friday arrived and it was performance day. We spent the day in Bergolo practising and finalising props. For me, I took part in a scene from my childhood, but I played a person with no stammer (PWNS), this it wasn’t until later on had some healing effects to those memories and they became less painful on reflection.
The performance itself was amazing, because you didn’t know what the other groups were doing or who was performing it was emotional to see the individuals that at the beginning of the week wouldn’t say boo to a goose, taking center stage for a solo. A SOLO. You just can’t help but feel emotional. Watching these journeys is something that will stay with me forever. After the performances we celebrated with a BBQ in the worst lit area known to man, we were using our phone torches to see our food, but we were together and still buzzing off the adrenaline from the performances. I had to take myself away at one point, I went an stood on a lookout that overlooked the valley, the silhouette of the mountains the other side of the valley were visible and then the blackness, spotted with lights from the small clusters of houses spread throughout the valley. Above the mountains is a distant thunderstorm, no thunder, but the lightning is visible and eerie. We have 1 day left. It was painful to think about leaving this place and these people. It made my heart ache.
The last day was a blur, the anxiety of going home was real, and I just wanted to surround myself with all these amazing and inspirational people and soak up as much of them as I could, as I don’t know when I’ll see them again. There were relationships I made and formed that have themselves, changed my life. I always believed that there is more than 1 soul mate out there for all of us. This trip confirmed that for me.
I wish I could tell you about all the people, but it would take me forever, so I plan to hopefully involve them in future articles or appear with me on a vlog, so you can see for yourself how amazing they are and to hear their stories. I also feel like I have only given you a glimpse into what the week was about. I have given you a practical view, but I am unable to share the feelings, emotions and the conversations of the week, which is why I would urge anyone to go to one of these exchange trips. I have attached the youth exchange website to the bottom of this article for you to have a look at if you are interested.
The reality of coming home. The reality of carrying on with your life. For me this was made harder by finding out I was being made redundant 2 days back to work, I have struggled to process the events of the week and the feelings I have come home with. I mean the day I traveled back, I cried the whole ‘2 trains and 1 plane’ journey, in between sleeping. It is just over 2 weeks later that I feel I am finally able to put the experience into words, but even then it doesn’t feel enough.
What have I taken away from the week… that’s easy: A sense of belonging, love, motivation, inspiration, passion, connections for life, the endless cycle of singing ‘1234 heel toe, heel toe’ in my head, but most importantly PURPOSE. I finally feel like I have a purpose.
If you’d like to know more about this trip, please feel free to drop me a message!
For more information on these exchange trips, please visit:https://www.erasmusplus.org.uk/take-part-in-a-youth-exchange