Stuart, outbound to Germany

It hasn't been too long since my last one of these, however I figure I should make up for my lack of journals and just start pumping out what I can more often. I'm at about month 5 or so right now. Everything has slowly started to become more and more normal, easy, and just more fun in general. So here's a recap on some things and some other things, as best as I can tell them.

I'm currently living with my second host family, on a nice (and rather large) farm just outside of town. I of course spent Christmas here, where we had the entire family over. German Christmas is definitely different. My favorite thing being the markets. Starting in late November or early December, many towns have Christmas markets, filled with little sort of huts, decorated all festive, with all sorts of nic-nacs and sweets for sale. And of course, Gl├╝hwein, a traditional German drink usually reserved for the Christmas season. It's a sweet, sugary kind of wine served hot. And let me tell you, people buy that stuff and down it like it's hot chocolate.

Unlike in the US, Germans don't put up their Christmas trees until a day or two before Christmas, and then leave it up a few days to a few weeks afterwards. The only thing about the Christmas trees here that I still seriously can't wrap my head around is they way they do the lights. That's just the thing, there aren't any lights- There's candles. Yes, candles. Like real ones. With fire. ON THE TREE. As a person who's lit a Christmas tree on fire before, I still don't understand why anyone would think that's even remotely a good idea. I even asked and nobody seemed to think it was a bad idea. At one point a relative asked if I wanted to help light the candles. It's probably the only thing I've given a definite "NEIN" to while here, because quite frankly I don't want to share any responsibility for when the house burns to the ground.

Christmas is also celebrated more so on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day. Presents and everything are done in the evening. In the US the religion part of Christmas is slowly and slowly fading, where as in Germany it's certainly the opposite. A big part of it is Advent. If your family is Christian, then of course you go to a church service Christmas eve. For whatever reason a thing people eat on Christmas eve here is Fondue. Delicious never the less. The next day was possibly the best thing I've ever eaten in my life. Fresh, locally hunted fawn venison (Bambi meat), made into a Gulasch type deal with this soft pasta kind of stuff.

As my family lives on a farm, throughout most of the year they're, well, farming. And summer is especially busy. In Autumn, everything is harvested, and prepped for the next year's planting. And in winter, nothing. Paperwork and a cup of coffee. So every winter my family takes a vacation to Austria to ski, and they were incredibly nice and decided to take me with them. And let me tell you, it's one of the greatest things I've ever done. We drove all the way there (7 hours total), spending a night on the Bodensee before heading to our ski resort, Obergurgl. I've already been skiing a few times, so seeing snow and mountains and all that wasn't anything too new, but still always a little breath taking.

We were all rather concerned when we got there, as there wasn't too much snow for being halfway through winter. However, the first three or four days of skiing was nothing but heavy snow. At one point on the mountain, visibility dropped to about 100 ft. Because it had been snowing so heavily for so long, I actually really hadn't seen any of the surrounding mountains. Although, there were still breath taking views here and there.

At one point I was waiting with the group at the bottom of a hill, stuffed between some trees sitting in the snow. I was looking up the mountain waiting for the others, and for just a few minutes the clouds cleared a little. Although it wasn't much, the dark outline of a pointy mountain appeared, dwarfing the one we were on. It was the first I had really seen, so I really didn't have any idea of the surrounding views.

The few days were mostly completely clear, and also incredibly beautiful. Because it had been snowing so heavily the first few days, there was heaps of fresh snow. And because it had also been so windy, cold, and just generally awful weather, most of it was untouched. It was possibly the best skiing I've ever had, and ever will. It was nothing but knee deep powder that never stopped.

On the first clear day we went to a high point on the mountain, which over looked a vast range of mountains that continued into Italy. Despite the awful wind and cold on some days, it was still some of the most fun skiing I've ever done. We were all in ski school groups, and eventually people who weren't asked if they could join until the bottom simply because they had lost all orientation of where to go.

The whole trip also made me realize how (for lack of better term) "Germanized" I had become since arriving. At least a third of everyone there was English, and I was constantly noticing differences, where as a few months ago everything would have just been the same.

Because it had been snowing so heavily for so long, I actually really hadn't seen any of the surrounding mountains. As for New Years, I actually fell asleep early. But right as I was just about asleep, the clock struck twelve. Which meant fireworks. Twenty minutes worth the fireworks. After six days of skiing, we packed up and drove to Munich, where we spent two nights with some of my host dad's family.

As far as other adventures go, it's come to be an unfortunately sad time of the year. While most students arrive in the district in August, some come in January. So when myself and the other 50 some exchange students arrived in Germany, a dozen or so had already been here for ten months. Mostly from Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Over the past few months, especially since I haven't really been in school, these people have come to be some of my closest friends, with the best memories. Sometimes it was walking up a mountain, sometimes it was hunting down a Chinese buffet outside the airport. Never the less, some of the most best people I've ever met. It's been bitter sweet the past few weeks, as it's come time for all of them to go home. With that, it also made me realize not only how fast time goes by, but how great the little things are that you never thought about. Before this point, I never really thought about the things we've done. But now it's a hard reality that some of those things aren't going to happen again.

We used to meet Friday nights at a spot in Dusseldorf on the Rhein river at least once a month, but it's a strange feeling that it won't really happen again. Even small things like just hanging out in a train for hours, bouncing between cities. It's really made me just sort of slow down, and cherish things a little bit more than I did before, as I've realized that my year away is a lot shorter than a year. I keep thinking about "the end of my exchange" as being this mystical, imaginary far away point in time that I'll eventually reach. Kind of like the way one would think about the end of the school year.

Of course, no I'm not at the end. I've still got time, but put into perspective it almost still feels like I've only been here a few weeks, but yet with no time left. What's also hard is not really being able to share what you're experiencing. Sure, you can send photos back home, send some candy in the mail and tell a story over Skype. But I can't ever just introduce someone to my friends back home, or my family, I can't just take someone to see a place, or try a new food.

Culture wise, Germany isn't too different from the US. With that said, I never really thought about anything being too grand. I may not be Alice in Wonderland, but I've still come to realize there's just great little things. Like taking the morning train over the Rhein, or just being goofy with friends in the Christmas markets. It's just not something that can be shared. So for those of you new outbounds who may or may not be reading this, take note. Time goes fast, and there won't always be a next time. The Rotex and Rotarians will always tell you to make the most of your exchange in any way possible, and the easiest start is by just cherishing whatever it is you're doing.