ROCK HILL — Ten months ago, I thought the hardest thing Id ever do was to leave my family, friends, life, language and culture behind and become an exchange student.
It turns out theres only one thing thats harder coming back home at the end.
My goodbyes 10 months ago were for a defined, certain amount of time. The goodbyes I made at the end of my stay in Italy could easily be forever.
Ill do everything in my power to maintain the friendships Ive developed this year, and I want to visit my host family throughout next year when Im living in Florence, Italy. But I know that the exact life I lived this year in Brescia can never be recreated.
Last week was full of lasts.
My last cappuccino at Caffe Magenta. My last afternoon in the Center with my friends. My last night out with Lucrezia.
I said goodbye to many of my Italian friends throughout the week. Bright and early Saturday morning, I finally had to say goodbye to my host family.
I had to take a train from Verona to Rome, where Id stay the night in a hotel along with all the rest of the exchange students in Italy before parting ways for our assorted flights home Sunday morning.
Daniela and Lucrezia took me to the Verona train station. I gave them both letters saying thank you and telling them how much this year meant to me.
I cried and then Daniela started crying and they said theyd miss me, and then I had to get on the train because it was about to pull out of the station.
I think I cried the whole first hour of the train ride, all the way to Bologna.
Rome was basically just one big, final party. I guess we decided to go out with a bang.
My transport group to the airport was to be the first to depart at 3:15 a.m., so the conclusion was reached that it would just be better not to sleep at all.
Turns out no one did, not even those who were leaving later. We all stayed up late talking, hugging, signing one anothers Italian flags like yearbooks, and making plans to keep in touch.
I dreaded it and dreaded it, but 3 a.m. finally came. I had to say the last, hardest goodbyes to some of my closest friends: Ursi, Asena Eren, Madalena, Rijuta, Sasha, Annisa, Nattanon and Burak.
After all the last hugs and goodbyes, I was herded with the rest of my departure group into the room where all our suitcases were stored. We were checked off a list and led out a door through a courtyard where everyone else was gathered.
They had to set up barriers with a row of volunteers to keep those of us who were boarding the bus apart from those who were still waiting for later departures.
Everyone else, all our friends, were pushed up against the big barrier, waving, screaming goodbye. After we put our suitcases in the belly of the bus, they clapped. They applauded until all of us had boarded the bus.
From inside, we were all waving back, even though we knew the windows were the shaded kind, and crying all over again.
I zombied my way through the haze of airports. Rome to Zurich, then Zurich to New York. When we landed in New York, everyone applauded again. Everyone on the plane.
We did it. We did this, really did this, and now were back.
My parents and brother met me in New Yorks JFK Airport at noon on Sunday. We spent the rest of the day getting back to Charlotte, then driving home to Rock Hill.
With a total of 4.5 hours of sleep in a three-day period, I was pretty exhausted and not exactly in my right mind, but I know that I felt happy to be with my family again but really, really weird too.
I was home and homesick at once. English sounded funny. I was still wrapping my mind around the fact that the year, which felt like itd started just yesterday, was truly over.
I was glad that the hardest part the goodbyes were behind me, and I was looking forward to all the hello-agains in my near future.
Above all, I was glad that Id done it that Id gone to Italy and made a life there. I was glad because it was a life-changing, me-changing experience. It had ups and downs and I learned so many different things about living life, about the world and about myself.
I made friendships and memories that I will never forget. It was so amazing, like a 10-month dream. Waking up was bittersweet, but it sure takes a pretty incredible experience for the ending to be so hard.
And now I have one final goodbye to make, this time to readers of The Herald. Thank you for letting me share this amazing journey with you.
Chandler West is a Rock Hill student who spent her senior year in Italy. She wrote about her adventures abroad each week in The Herald. This is the final installment of her column.