As she was looking forward to her 2012 high school graduation, Monica Berndt had some other goals in mind. Back in the fall of 2011, she was encouraged to apply for the Rotary Exchange program and experience the culture of another country.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college right away,” said Berndt. “Rotary Exchange gave me the opportunity to experience different lifestyles and different viewpoints.”
Berndt applied for the Rotary Exchange program in October 2011. In February 2012, she found out she was going to Turkey.
“Turkey was on my list, but it was last on my list,” Berndt admitted. “I was unsure for a while. I started looking at where I was staying. The more I researched, the more excited I was to go there.”
By May 2012, Berndt learned she was bound for Izmir on the west coast of Turkey where it borders the Aegean Sea. It’s just a jump from Greece.
She left Sept. 14 from Seattle. The trip had a couple of stops, including Chicago and Munich, Germany. In all, Berndt racked up a total of 18 grueling hours of travel time before she landed in Izmir, Turkey.
Berndt was met by a representative from Rotary along with her new mom, dad and sister from Turkey. Berndt knew only a few words in Turkish, like how to say “How are you?” and how to count to 10, but her host family, who spoke fluent English, was impressed.
Although a little homesick, Berndt got used to her new surroundings. She enjoyed being in Turkey and she especially enjoyed the food. Most of the dishes were vegetable-based, and she ate a lot of soup, salads and seafood. Her favorite dish was Iskender, which is pita bread cut up with thinly sliced beef topped with plain yogurt and a tomato sauce.
“They have little bakeries all over, too,” said Berndt. “Usually the bread is really fresh.”
In her spare time, Berndt would sit at the cafe with friends.
Rotary provided many opportunities for excursions and side trips during Berndt’s stay. She traveled with her group to ancient Ephesus, about 90 minutes inland.
“It was an old city with columns, statues and buildings with detailed sculpture work,” said Berndt.
Her first host mother took her to see the Berlin Orchestra at an outdoor amphitheater that holds 25,000 people.
She also went to Cappadocia to see an ancient area where homes were carved into the rocks. Berndt was informed that Christians built their homes there after fleeing from the Romans.
Though Berndt did not go out of the country much, she did go to the island of Chios in Greece, where the group stayed in a tiny village.
The biggest difference in the Turkish culture was the level of hospitality. She was warmly welcomed by her two host families.
“The Turkish people treat each other like family,” said Berndt. “People call elders who are unrelated ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle,’ and call people on the street ‘brother.’ They are very hospitable and welcoming.”
Berndt described a typical scene of being invited over to the home of a Turkish family. It is customary to take off your shoes when you visit, and then they offer food and drink at least three times. They always ask how their visitor is and about their family.
“They are courteous and considerate of other people,” said Berndt. “When you refuse food, they offer it to you several more times. It is good manners to accept the offerings of the host.”
Izmir is a big city with 3.5 million people, with some concentrated into eight-story apartment buildings. Their transportation system of buses and subway trains is heavily used. As Berndt described, there are not a lot of people driving their cars because they can get wherever they want to go by bus or subway. Berndt rode the subway every day 40 minutes to her school.
During her stay in Turkey, Berndt missed her family, Quincy and the snow. She also missed going to homecoming.
If she could, Berndt would love to return to Izmir again one day for a slightly shorter visit.
“I would definitely recommend the trip to anyone,” said Berndt. “Izmir is a modern city with a lot of things to see.”