December 3, 2013
Moin! Well, it's been awhile. In fact, more than awhile. I apologize in advance for my disappointing lack of news here, and for not being as diligent as I promised a few months back. It's been said time and time again by outbounds turning in journals late, but I really just couldn't find the words or the right place to start. The truth is (and I am speaking to future outbounds here) these past four months have been a complete and utter whirlwind. Yes, four months. It sounds crazy, right? The idea of leaving my family, friends, and home four months ago sounds so insane, in fact, that I can't even put it into words. Life has a funny way or working when you're on exchange. You start to lose track of time, and four months can seem as long as a lifetime and, at the same time, as short as the blink of an eye. In just two short weeks, it will have been exactly a year since I found out the country I would be spending the next year of my life in (which happens to be the beautiful country of Germany, if you somehow didn't know) and so I figured I would try to write a short (most likely incredibly long) passage for you future inbounds to describe some things you might want to know about how your life could be very soon.
I left home on July 25, 2013. I was the first in my district to leave, and one of the first in the whole state of Florida. I must say, while exchange is something I have planned on doing and looked forward to for my entire high school career, I didn't hold myself together very well when the time came to go. It was emotional, to say the least. Since I left so early, all of my friends still had their lives going on as normal, and most of them, understandably, had no idea what I was going through or even what I had exactly signed up for. I had lived in the same home with my parents for my entire life, so even though this program was a great adventure that I been so, so excited about for such a long time, pulling up those roots and finally leaving was not without hardship.
Outbounds: leaving will most likely be tough. Packing will be tough, preparation will be tough, goodbyes will be tough, your flight will be tough. You will have rushes of anxiety and sadness and excitement and constantly feel like you have forgotten something (this sounds ridiculous but it is so true) and maybe even have second thoughts, but trust me... it gets better.
When I got off my plane in Hamburg, Germany, I was at the wrong arrival gate and spent nearly 45 minutes ambling aimlessly across an airport with no idea where I was or what to do. My luggage had been lost and I had no way to get in touch with my host family. It was perhaps not the best introduction to my new home. Eventually, I found them waiting for me at the next gate, and I received such a lovely welcome that nearly all my worries went away. I was met by my host mother and sister, and I immediately felt comfortable. I guess what I am trying to say is that on exchange, you will learn to appreciate the little things, like simply knowing there are people there for you that care about your well-being.... like small kind gestures, people saying hi to you on the street, and people remembering your name. I think learning to see these things and not take them for granted helps to make you a better person.
I live in a tiny village called Neufeld, with only about 400 people living here. I am convinced that I have the best host family I could have asked for. My host brother lives in Hamburg and my host sister is on exchange in Brazil, so it is just me and my host parents at home most of the time. I really love home life here. I live in a beautiful house right on the water. The fields surrounding my home (and most of my village) are filled with sheep and geese. Just 5 km away from my village is the much bigger town of Marne, where I go to school. I am in the 12th grade in Gymnasium, the German equivalent of a higher-level US high school. I spend a lot of time in Marne, because while I do love Neufeld, it is very small and very quiet. Pretty frequently, my friends and I will take a train to Hamburg, where we can stay with either my host brother or my host mother's brother and spend the weekend in the city. I could not be more thankful for this. I have completely fallen in love with Hamburg, one of the most incredible cities ever, which is luckily just an hour's train ride away from my town. Hamburg has a certain energy that just couldn't be replicated in the States, and I have come to absolutely adore it.
Since being here I have experienced things I never thought I would. I have spent time in some of the most beautiful places I could dream of, met some of the most genuine people from all across the world, eaten amazing food, and tried my best at getting comfortable speaking what I believe to be a pretty challenging language. I encourage all of the outbounds.... try things! If you only listen to one piece of advice Rotary gives you during your exchange, let it be this one: never say no to an opportunity. Thinking about how much I would have missed out on if I had said declined opportunities makes me feel really glad that I kept an open mind and didn't turn things down, even when they may have sounded strange. Because of that open mind policy I've kept, I've walked 7 km through knee-deep mud to an amazing island in the middle of the north sea, gone to the biggest heavy metal festival in the world with a VIP ticket, seen some of my favorite musicians at an awesome Hamburg music festival, taken a train alone to Denmark to visit one of my best friends (with only somewhat disastrous results), gone to famous Hamburg football team games, visited the south of Germany, modeled in a fashion show, and formed the most incredibly day-brightening friendships with the best people I have ever met. I also will be going to the Canary Islands in Spain with my host family in January, and will be spending a month touring all of Europe in May. This is a Rotary Youth Exchange journal so you can expect cheesiness without a doubt, but here is some MAJOR cheese for you all: Keep an open heart and mind, and beautiful experiences will come your way. (Wow.... okay, it's over now.)
In the last four months, I've learned a lot about what it really means to be an exchange student. There are some major challenges, and so I thought I would go ahead and offer my own findings here in case a future outbound with some curiosity happens to read this.
I've made a list of all the things that I've learned since being here that I wish I had known before I left. Hopefully this will be helpful for someone....
-You are human. You will make mistakes, whether you incorrectly translate something into your language and embarrass yourself or unknowingly bring up a huge taboo subject. It's natural, and people will understand. Don't have the world's highest expectations for yourself.
-If you want to hang out with other exchange students, go ahead. Don't feel bad for not only hanging out with your classmates from your host country. Exchange students make amazing friends and they know exactly what you're going through. Not to mention you get to learn more about other countries besides just your host country. My best friends here in Germany are Brazilian and Mexican and I learn new things from them every day, plus we provide each other with an incredible support system.
-Trying to speak your host language is very, very important, but English is also one of the world's major languages. A lot of people you meet will speak it, and if it helps you to connect with people, share amazing moments, or even form friendships, I say go ahead, use it. Leave the guilt of speaking your native language behind for a few minutes. It's fine.
-Don't expect everyone to want to be your friend. In Florida, I feel we are really overly welcoming to our inbounds, but that may not be the case in your host country. This isn't because your peers are unfriendly; they merely see you as an equal and sometimes friendship is earned rather than automatically granted.
-If you are going to Europe, be ready for changes in your environment. For example, if you are coming to North Germany, where I am, you will have to get used to the sun setting at 4pm. This is hard, but you will find ways to deal with it and soon it will seem normal.
-You are bound to come across those who have deep-set negative opinions about Americans. Prove them wrong, be open-minded, caring, peaceful, and classy. Since being in Germany, I've really been tested by European standards on what it means to be an American. It has been really difficult and challenging and I can seriously say that I have grown and changed as a person (both in my way of thinking and in my opinion of my home country) so much just in these four months since my arrival. It's really special to be able to go into a conversation and surprise others who seem to think all Americans are the same. I love to see how the idea of Americans practicing open-mindedness and tolerance shifts their opinion of the US. A friend recently told me she was talking to a guy I had spoken with earlier, and he told her he didn't usually like Americans, but when he talked to me he actually felt differently, and he thought I was "really cool for an American." That r eally made me happy.
-Try to speak your host language. You will sound ridiculous. People will laugh. Laugh with them. They are also probably really happy and impressed that you're trying what may seem impossibly difficult to you. And eventually, all of that stuff that sounded like nonsense when you first got there will start to click in your brain. It may be something really small, like understanding a word in the middle of a complicated overheard conversation, but that's still a step forward.
And finally, most importantly, this is a year of your life. It is amazing and beautiful and full of moments that will take your breath away, but it is also just a year of your life. Don't expect every moment to be filled with parties and adventures and never-ending fun. Yes, there will be adventures to tell amazing stories about when you get home, more than we can ever dream of having had back in Florida. But there will be days when it's very hard for you, and also days that are just that– normal days. You will learn to find joy and inspiration in simple moments like biking around town with your friends, making pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving with your host family, or jumping on a trampoline in the rain. It sounds cliche, but it's the little things that really make your year.
So, all in all, it's been a whirlwind of a time here.... but alles gute!
Liebe aus Deutschland (love from Germany)!