Editor’s Note: Madalyn Lyons, a 2016 graduate of Cuba City High School, applied to and was chosen to travel with the Lions Youth Exchange Program. As a Cuba City Leo Club Member, she had the opportunity to choose Estonia as her destination for a summer of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. She was sponsored by the Cuba City Lions Club and shares her experience in her own words.
By Maddy Lyons
CCHS 2016 Graduate
When I said that I was traveling to Estonia, most people said “What?” or “Where is that?” Estonia is a super small country in Northern Europe that faces the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland. Itssurrounding countries are Russia, Latvia, and across the sea is Finland and Sweden. Estonia has more than 1,500 islands, rocky beaches, old growth forests and many lakes. It once was under control of the Soviet Union but gained its complete independence in 1991. I became interested in Estonia because of its vast nature aspect but also because of its thriving cities. When I received the opportunity to participate in the Lions Youth Exchange, I couldn’t pass it up.
I went to Estonia for one whole month. Instead of traveling for a short period of time, I decided to completely immerse myself into the culture of Estonia. Without the help of the Cuba City Lions Club, the Dickeyville/Kieler Lions Club, the Cuba City Lioness Club, and Ben August, this trip wouldn’t have happened. I am extremely thankful for all of their help in getting me to Estonia. I flew out of Chicago on June 25 at 9 p.m. and arrived in Tallinn on June 26 at 5:15 p.m. Getting off the plane was completely exhilarating. The start of my first big trip. Navigating the airport wasn’t very hard because most things were written in English.
After my arrival in Tallinn, I met my host family and we headed for the big island. My host family was extremely kind. We drove for about two hours and then boarded the ferry. After crossing the Baltic Sea, we arrived in Saaremaa. My new house for the next 10 days was located in Kuressaare, a city with about 30,000 people. My first night wasn’t very eventful. I unpacked my suitcase and we had pizza for dinner. Adjusting to the new sleep schedule was very hard. In Estonia the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. I struggled for a few days trying to sleep while the sun was still up. Another big change was that Estonians don’t start the day until 11 a.m. This wasn’t a problem for me because I love to sleep in.
On the second day of my trip, my host family and I went into town for shopping, smoothies and coffee. After shopping we went and saw the big windmill located in the center of the city. My host family was comprised of a 17-year-old daughter named Tuuli, a mother named Sirje, and a father named Seppo. Seppo and Sirje run their own meat company in Finland. The days I spent in Saaremaa were filled with many activities that truly represented Estonia. I saw castles, boat marinas, statues and windmills. Each day led to a fun new adventure. An exceptionally fun day was when Tuuli, Tuuli’s cousin Sigrid, Daiva (Sigrid’s exchange student), and I went on a coastline tour of Saaremaa. We traveled all along the Estonian coastline and stopped at many different attractions. I walked along the coastline and could see Latvia in the distance. After seeing the coast, we ate a traditional Estonian meal. I had mashed potatoes and gravy with chicken. Estonia is known for eating a lot of potatoes and they know how to make them well. The next day we went to an ostrich farm. They had six full grown ostriches and multiple baby ones. We ended that day with a traditional Estonian dance show. I even got to meet the dancers and took a picture with them. The first ten days of my trip were truly amazing. The Koskinen’s were a great host family, and I am so thankful for everything they did for me.
The second part of my trip was at the Lions Youth Exchange Camp. Twenty teenagers from all across the world stayed together for 10 days in nature-filled Estonia. I arrived early and unpacked my things in my room. I stayed with Anna from Norway, Marianne from France, and Lilla from Hungary. They made my time at camp so much better. We all stayed in a big lodge-type building with four campers per room. The boys on the left and the girls on the right. We had 15 girls and 11 boys. Twenty different countries were represented at our camp. On the first night. we did the normal ice breaker games.
We also learned more about the country presentations that we would all have to do. Every night four or five campers would show pictures or a video about their own country. I had to give my presentation on night three. My time at camp was filled with fun adventures and games. We toured the castle in the neighborhood, learned Estonian folk dances, spent the day at a Russian battlefield, swam at the beach, threw a party, worked with local orphans, and toured street art in Tartu. My favorite part of camp was spending the day in Tartu. This was the first time I ventured to a big city with my friends from camp. We got the opportunity to see how the locals in Tartu express themselves. Street art in Estonia is very popular and important. Instead of officials painting over the art, they allocate space for street artists to paint. Tartu was also fun because it’s a tourist attraction. The whole city was filled with old town charm. There were cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and a city center with a huge fountain. I liked spending the day in Tartu because I had free time to hang out with my new friends from Denmark and Austria. Leaving camp was one of the hardest things to do because I had just met all these lovely people and would probably never see them again. The last day of camp was filled with tears, hugs, and “See you laters.”
My last ten days in Estonia were spent in Parnu, the summer capital. This city has about 39,000 people. In the summer, Parnu is bustling with tourists. I felt more comfortable here because most things were written in English. My last host family lived just outside the city in a large home. My second host family was made up of my host sister Pirjo, her mother, and her brother. Pirjo did most of the driving because she is 18. In Estonia, the legal driving and drinking age is 18. We went all around the city experiencing the sights. We walked along the beach, hiked through the forest and marshland, shopped at the three huge shopping centers, took in a movie (in English, of course), went bowling and go-karting, played disc golf, and got ice cream almost every day. My experience with Pirjo and her family was very different from my first host family. Both were excellent families and I am so grateful for my time with both of them.
Overall, my trip to Estonia was incredible. I was able to experience new things. I am thankful for my time with each host family and time I spent at camp. Going to camp gave me new friends for life. Estonia changed my life for the better. I am so happy that I got to go, and I hope that if anyone else is given the opportunity to travel abroad, they take it.