The weather is sooo nice here! My host family thinks it’s terribly hot, but I’m enjoying reading outside with jeans and socks on without worrying about sweat or mosquitoes. I tried to take a nap on the hammock on the balcony today, but the unfamiliar sounds of the neighborhood wouldn’t let me. In Florida I’m used to the sound of cars driving by and sometimes crickets chirping. Although Amstetten is actually a nice-sized town, cars only drive by every 10 or 15 minutes. What I hear instead here are the horses down the street whinnying (that’s the sound horses make, right?), and occasionally a MOOOOO or a BAAAAA from who knows where! It’s really strange to me because we’re not in a rural area or anything, but I love it! Also, there are always birds chirping and tons of flowers in every garden.
Another sound is barking; my host family has a golden retriever named Cara! She’s very well behaved and doesn’t bark often—only when a stranger walks by, which is quite rare because everyone here seems to know each other! So far I’ve been on two walks with Cara and my host parents. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk to my school at the edge of Zentrum (downtown), but when school starts my host father will drop Magdalena and I off nearby on his way to work.
Before school starts I have a two-week language camp that begins this Sunday. So far my family’s been speaking mostly English to me, but after language camp we decided they will speak mostly German. The first few days have been a lot harder than I thought they would be with homesickness and all, but it’s usually just in the mornings when I wake up and I’m by myself and I just want to be in my own bed. But once I get up and start talking to my host family again, I forget that I am across an ocean from my past life. I definitely don’t feel at home yet, but there’s this strange reality to everything. I think it’s because I’ve been envisioning this time for so long, and now when I look around I’m really here, and it’s not like I expected it would be – not better or worse – it’s just more real.
Friday 3 September
I got back last Sunday from Sprachkurs (Language Camp) and in the end I have to say it was a blast! The first few days were exciting meeting 63 other exchange students and exchanging pins and cards, then by the middle of the week 63 teenagers living in one building started to seem like the premise for a reality TV show, but by the end of the second week all 63 of us became best friends who can’t wait to reunite at the hiking weekend this month.
Now that I’m back the days are much more empty, mostly going on the computer, reading, or watching TV with my host sister Magdalena. The shows we watch on TV are: King of Queens, What’s up, Dad? (My Wife and Kids), Eine schrecklich nette Familie (Married… with Children), and if it’s a good day, the Simpsons or Die wilden Siebziger (That 70’s Show).
I can’t think of too many updates other than that, so I’m just going to list a few interesting observations and experiences I’ve had so far:
o You can buy eggrolls
o A McFlurry with M&Ms means peanut M&Ms, which is my new favorite!
o You will never, ever, ever get the check until you finally realize after almost an hour that you have to ask for it
o Your waiter does not keep coming to your table because he thinks you and your exchange student friends are cute – he’s waiting for you to ask for the check!
o You pretty much always have to pay with cash
· Around the house
o Your host mom will gladly do all household chores, including daily loads of laundry!
o You must always knock on doors, in the home or at school or in the city hall, even if they’re open. –Ingrid Zeller
o It’s good manners to always eat with two hands (harder than it sounds!)
o It’s normal to use your hands to eat a hotdog with ketchup and no bun, but you should use a fork and knife to eat fish sticks and mozzarella sticks.
o Lunch is the main meal of the day – no joke – don’t expect more than a roll, cheese, and maybe a slice of ham for dinner. If you’re lucky, maybe leftovers from lunch!
o There is no speed limit. I’m not sure if that’s really true, but it’s how people drive.
o There is one traffic light in my town (that I’ve seen so far) and it turns yellow before it turns from red back to green
o MTV actually plays music videos for the majority of the day
o Ice cubes do not exist anywhere inside the borders of Austria.
o Austrian soccer is terrible. (not my opinion, everyone tells me this)
o Austrian beer is the best. (again, not a personal observation)
o You will hear the above two statements any and every time those subjects are brought up.
o Everyone here speaks English, and if they say they can’t it means they’re more or less fluent.
o Translating idioms is always an easy laugh
o 99% of Austrians speak some form of dialect, and even if you think you can understand German you will still have no idea what’s going on, especially with a group of teenagers.
o It’s FREEZING here! And it’s technically still summer?!?!
That ended up being longer than I planned, and I didn’t even put down everything I thought of! I start school this Monday and my birthday is Wednesday, so hopefully this week will provide a lot to write about for my next entry!
I can never give enough thanks to Bellair Rotary Club, Florida Rotary, Rotary District 6950, and to Doug Loebel; and to all my friends and family members who are reading this – I love and miss you all so much!!
The last two months have been surreal. Well, living them felt quite real but looking back so much has happened I can’t believe it! For a brief overview, I’ve started school, celebrated my 18th birthday, been on two hiking trips, visited Vienna twice, been to an Austrian “prom,” and learned a LOT of German.
Being an exchange student is really not a shabby title to hold. First of all, you are sort of a celebrity at school. Even at my school where the kids were really shy at first, after the first few awkward days I started to meet like 3 new people every day and it hasn’t stopped! It also doesn’t hurt that everyone loves a chance to practice their English, but I’ve started to ask them to speak German with me unless I really don’t get something. After three months I understand at least the topic of every conversation, and I’m even starting to get the jokes the guys in my class are constantly cracking. I also watched the new Harry Potter movie in German and I was so surprised at how much I understood!
The second super part about being an exchange student that I think goes for any country is the bond shared by all the inbounds. We’ve had two meetings since language camp, one hiking trip and one weekend in Vienna, and I always almost want to cry when the weekend is over. It’s difficult to describe in words the level of excitement when we’re all together. It’s also cool having friends from all over the world and comparing food, movies, school, etc.
How I feel on a day-to-day basis is pretty much at home. In school I can kind of somewhat understand the lessons, and sometimes I even get called on! Even though I can’t usually give a proper answer, it’s ok because I am able to laugh at myself and no one expects me to be perfect. With my host family I feel mostly comfortable. Their daughter is on exchange in California so they are able to relate to what I’m going through. So far, more than the “cycles” of homesickness we learned about, it seems to me that some days it just randomly hits you. One thing I personally deal with all the time is realizing that I’m never going back to my high school in America. All my friends are at different universities, and even when I go back nothing is ever going to be the same again. I guess I would have had to deal with that anyway, but it’s still what makes me sad the most often. However, I’m really looking forward to the holiday season here – and snow!! It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m missing Thanksgiving since it completely doesn’t exist here, which actually makes it easier to forget about.
I’ve had a cold more or less the entire time I’ve been here, but I’m used to it by now and always have tissues on hand. It hasn’t snowed in my city yet but tomorrow’s forecast says there’s a chance and I can’t wait! My family loves skiing and they are always telling me how much I will love it.
As for profound insight, I can’t exactly say I’ve uncovered any secrets about the world or even myself really, at least not yet. So many things are simultaneously different and the same. What I’m finding more interesting than learning Austrian culture itself is discovering how the people here view themselves and the world around them. I guess you could say that’s what culture actually is. Also, in the past few years there’s been a lot of Americanization here that has created a real love-hate view of the U.S. It’s often hard not to take personally, but I try to remind others and myself that I’m not America, just an American. I can only be held responsible for my own actions and I try everyday to be a positive presence.
Tomorrow I will have lived in Austria for five months.
Since I wrote my last journal so much has changed. First and foremost I’ve seen my first snowfall! With snow everything changes. When I first came to Austria in the summer, everything was so picturesque with flower boxes under all the windows and just so stereotypical of what you think Austria would look like. It was beautiful, but it was pretty much what I expected. However, after the first snowfall I can honestly say with all my heart that Austria is more beautiful that I ever could have imagined! I’m sure I sound so Floridian, but seeing fields covered with fresh, clean white snow and the rooftops looking like something…. I don’t know how to describe it, just something I’ve only ever seen in movies! But in person it’s SO MUCH BETTER than in any movie. For the first two weeks I couldn’t resist touching/stepping in/sitting down in any snow I passed by. And riding the train to anywhere, I can’t ever look away from the window because the towns we pass by are just so beautiful and perfect looking!
All my friends here tell me I’ll get over it, and I haven’t quite yet, but I will admit that after a few days without any fresh snowfall the roads get kinda gross looking and a lot of it melts. Anyways I’m sure that’s enough about snow. Now, on to my everyday life. I enjoy getting dressed every morning, then adding an extra sweater, scarf, boots, coat, gloves and hat on top of everything I was already wearing. And then I get to school, take all of these things off and put them in my locker, and then put on my slippers and walk to my classroom. We have a different schedule everyday. Mondays are the worst because (besides from Monday just being a terrible day) we have classes like History, German and Religion which are just lectures that I can’t completely understand. Sometimes I do some of my own German stuff or daydream, but sometimes I actually try to listen and write down random words that I hear but don’t understand. My favorite day is Thursday, especially at the end of the day when we have music for two hours! I feel like I’m on the TV show Glee when the whole class starts to sing – and everyone actually sings! Somehow I can’t picture myself in a US high school class participating in weekly sing-along’s, but here it’s so much fun! Also we sometimes play Dance Dance Revolution.
I stay with my same class in the same room for almost every subject, even for lunch. Every class has a different personality, and mine is definitely a crazy one! During the breaks the guys all wrestle, peg chalk at each other, build chair forts, turn on loud music and have dance parties, open the windows and yell at people walking by, or any number of other things, while the girls sit by the heater watching disapprovingly but also sometimes we have to laugh. We go on a lot more field trips than I’m used to, and it seems like we hardly ever have two full weeks of school in a row, either due to a field trip or some holiday. One surprisingly interesting field trip was EU day, where we went to a presentation about the EU. What it actually turned out to be for the most part was listening to students and recent graduates talk about being au pairs, foreign civil service workers, or just cultural exchange students. It was interesting for me because a few had been to the US and experienced the reverse of what I’m going through. It sounds kind of silly, but hearing all the advantages of living abroad and the enthusiasm of all these kids just gave me a sort of boost, like I got really excited about my exchange all over again, even though I was already here! Towards the end one of my classmates leaned over and told me I should go up there and give a presentation. He was kidding of course, but at the same time it got me excited to promote RYE when I get back!
My experience with Rotary in Austria has been great so far. I’ve met some other exchange students with different programs, but it seems to me that our group of inbounds has the most support, from both the clubs and multi-district level and from each other. I’m the only exchange student in my town, Amstetten. At first I was really jealous of the 10 or so exchange students in Vienna who all get to see each other every weekend, if not every day, and not to mention the public transportation system of the U-bahn which makes it really easy to get around Vienna without a car or taxi. After 5 months though, I’ve realized I love exactly where I am right now and wouldn’t ask to be anywhere else. It only takes an hour by train for me to get to Vienna and hang out with some other inbounds, but I don’t end up doing this too often. In my town I’m really special; people want to meet me, want to hear about Florida and what I think about Austria and Amstetten, if someone hears me speaking English (or German for that matter) in a restaurant or on the street they will introduce themselves and ask me where I’m from and why I’m here. Most of the waiters and bartenders know me by now and no longer stare at me quizzically when I try to imitate the local dialect and miserably fail. On the weekends when I’m out with friends I’m greeted by so many people I totally feel like a celebrity, plus the way you greet people is kissing cheeks which just seems so classy! Everyone is so welcoming here; I already know I will miss this feeling so much back home.
Weihnachten (Christmas) was another day (or weekend rather) that truly made me feel welcome here in Austria and in my host family. We celebrated on the 24th. Singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) around the Christmas tree (adorned with real candles of course) and receiving presents from the family just like I was one of their own children was an experience I will never forget. There were also plenty of parties that weekend – my favorite was going out with a few of my host cousins on the 25th. I heard so many stories that night of their childhood and all the mischief they would get into at their grandma’s house, and they also told me funny stories about my host siblings. For some reason this night I really felt like a member of the family.
So far I’ve been skiing once with some classmates, two of whom are certified ski instructors and so I got free private lessons! Skiing is way harder than it looks – I fell down so so so many times and every time it felt like I had broken one or both legs. Nevertheless I had a blast and I think skiing might just become my new favorite sport! It’s also what we watch most often on TV this time of year. My new role model is Lindsey Vonn; all the Austrians love her, she trains in Austria a lot of the time and does her interviews in German… but not just regular German, she can speak Austrian German! Austrian dialect is different in almost any city you go to. In Vienna it’s pretty close to Hochdeutsch (Standard German), and in my area they speak something called Mundart (~from the mouth) or Mostviertelisch (I live in the Mostviertel region of Lower Austria). Even though I can now read novels in German without too much difficulty, I’m still challenged to understand everyday conversations. I’m making progress though, and it’s really fun when my friends introduce me to someone new and then follow with, “watch out, she can understand dialect!”
I have two hopes for the new year: for my language learning to speed up and for time to slow down!