Hello again from Vienna! Yesterday marked four months of me being in Austria, and the past few months have presented me with many new opportunities and challenges that I never once thought I would have.
I finally met my Rotary Club on the 11th of November. It was an interesting experience, much different from my Rotary Club in Georgia. My counselor picked me up and gave me a brief overview of the club, and I arrived at a restaurant to the club with only male members. It was slightly uncomfortable at first, but I introduced myself to each one of them, and everyone was so welcoming, so it ended up being fine. I didn’t get to listen to the meeting but rather sat aside with my counselor and YEO to discuss the year so far and how I’m doing. I then got to present about myself and my exchange so far, which was nerve-wracking, but well-enjoyed by the club. There were many interesting questions that I got to answer, all in German!
I arrived in Austria with a solid base of German, and still have only spoken German with my host family. This has been difficult all year because of my limited skills. There is quite a disconnection between us because I cannot completely express myself, and don’t have many words to say. They wish I would talk more, I wish I could talk more, but it seems a bit too far to speak any English in efforts of building a better relationship. Nonetheless, they are still a loving family that cares deeply about me, and I am so thankful for that.
I speak a mix of German and English at school because my classmates love to practice their English. Language skills are constantly improving on exchange, but not always steadily. You will feel like you haven’t learned anything in weeks, but suddenly notice a huge improvement a few days later. My best advice for studying your language before leaving is to sit down and study vocabulary and learn grammar through reading newspapers and listening to shows in your host language. For vocabulary, it is helpful to use a list of the 300 (100, 500, 1000) most common words. This prevents you from first learning words that you won’t use commonly. For me specifically, my grammar wasn’t great three months ago, but from immersion, I have picked up on the German cases and different word order. Just today, I noticed that my classmates only spoke German with me, and they invited me to go to the Christmas markets with them, it took three and a half months of school, but I finally made a big step in having local friends!
Homesickness has recently become a reality for me. The first proper homesickness that I felt was on Thanksgiving. I thought I would be fine because the holidays were never too big of a deal for me, but I woke up and my heart just ached a bit knowing that I wouldn’t feel the togetherness of my family not only for that day, but for many months until I return to Georgia. I celebrated the way my host family does annually, by going to a restaurant and watching American football. I thought this would be a great reminder of home, but when I walked in, a skyline of Atlanta was on the screen, and I didn’t know I would ever miss the city. I went home that night and made a list of things that I am thankful for here while listening to country music, and felt much better later. As the holiday season has progressed, I have felt a bit more down, but realized it’s because of the amount of time that I’ve been here, not the holiday season. After so much time, you begin to settle into a routine and life feels normal. Personally, this feeling of normal often gets to me because there’s only so much time left and I want to make the most of every day.
Part of this normal life is taking part in local activities. I go swimming a couple of times a week for exercise, and it has been good to be back in the pool, also good exercise considering it is so cold outside. I also joined a ballroom dance class, and have that every Tuesday night. I went to my first ball of the season and it was a truly amazing experience. I went with four other exchange students, we took photos at the Christmas market, had a nice dinner, then went to the ball for 6 (SIX!!) hours until 4 in the morning. We took public transport around in our ball attire, definitely got some funny stares, but had an amazing night attending a traditional Viennese ball.
In the past couple of months, there have been three more trips with Rotary and all the other exchange students, and I have gotten to travel a bit more as well.
The first was a four-day trip to Vienna, so not as special for me because I am lucky enough to live here, but it was great to show other students around my city. We saw The Sound of Music at the opera, had a tour around the city, went in the palace, had a ballroom dancing class at Elmayer, and went through city hall. I got to do so many of the more touristy things in Vienna that I hadn’t previously done, and maybe wouldn’t have gotten to do otherwise.
The second was City Tour, a four-day trip between Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. We were really lucky to have great weather for the entire trip, relatively warm and sunny the entire time. I took the train from Vienna to Linz, where we met the other exchange students and got on the bus to Prague. After a few hours, we arrived in Prague where we had a walking tour and a little bit of free time before heading to Dresden. Prague is a beautiful city, very similar to Vienna, and I am so glad I got to see a little bit of it. The next stop was Dresden, a smaller city in Germany, but quite interesting because a lot of it was destroyed in the war. We got to see all the sights, walked around the Neustadt (new city), then had a picnic along the river. We drove to Berlin in the evening and had some free time after dinner. The next day, we had a bus tour of Berlin, and then the afternoon free. Berlin is such a cool city because around every corner there is a piece of history. It is a rather large city, so I hope to be able to go back and explore more of it.
The third was last weekend where we met in Salzburg. This trip was a bit different from the others as we had a German test, some other organizational things, the inbounds to Croatia were there, and it was the last weekend with our oldies. I found the German test to be quite difficult, but I did very well on it, thanks to the amazing language preparation by RYE Florida and District 6900. It was sad to say goodbye to our oldies, but it’s a good thing as it made us all realize how fast time passes, and to take advantage of the next 6-7 months of our exchanges.
I had a long weekend in mid-November and took advantage of that time to visit some friends in Vorarlberg, the region of Austria on the other side of the country. After 11 hours on the overnight train, I arrived and got to explore the city. It was cool to explore on my own for a bit before meeting up with friends in the evening. The dialect of German is very different over there, so it was fun to see these differences talking with the host family that I was staying with. We went to Feldkirch, which is a small, adorable town nestled in the Alps and had a coffee, then decided to catch the bus 40 minutes to Liechtenstein! It really is a micronation with little to do, but we climbed up to the castle, got a good view, then headed back to Bregenz for the night. On Sunday, we met with a different group to go ice skating. Later, we went and celebrated the birthday of another exchange student by making macaroni and cheese and chocolate chip cookies. Baking here is different because the ingredients are not the same as what I’m used to. Brown sugar isn't really a thing, you use vanilla powder instead of extract, and chocolate chips don’t really exist either. We improvised and made some of the best cookies I’ve ever had. We grated six large blocks of cheese, boiled a kilogram of pasta, and ended up with a delicious, American meal. After a day of pure fun and togetherness, I dreaded going home, but I reluctantly boarded the night train back to Vienna after one of the best weekends of my exchange so far.
I then thought my travels were slowing down for a bit until I got a text asking if I wanted to go to Venice for the weekend, say yes to everything, right? I met with another student and his host family in Graz on Friday afternoon to begin our weekend trip. We drove four hours across the Alps and arrived in Mestre, Italy, about 30 minutes from Venice, on Friday evening. We were staying with the host grandparents of my friend who only speak Italian. It was so cool to connect with them by speaking German through the host parents to Italian and back. Visiting Venice was an absolute dream, and even better because it was the low season for tourists. Even though there were still some crowds, we got to see the major sights and wander the streets along the canals relatively easily. I also had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. The grandparents cooked both nights, fresh seafood, fresh pasta, bread, polenta, vegetables, and so much more.
These trips are amazing not only because I get to see more of Europe, but also because they bring people together. One of the main goals of my exchange is to create lasting relationships with people from around the world, and I think I have been rather successful so far in doing so. I am so thankful to have these trips because I otherwise would not have had.
I would like to conclude this journal entry with a big congratulations to all the students that have just been selected to go on exchange next year. You have just made one of the best decisions of your life. I have had the best months of my life so far, with many highs and lows included. Start studying your language now, it helped me so so much, and you won’t regret learning more of it rather than less. Once again, congratulations, and until next time,
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