“We are not alone”. These words stood on a poster on the wall of a typical high school classroom above a picture of the world globe. However the only landmass present was the United States. I silently smile at the poster’s subtle sarcasm that seemed to illuminate a negative stereotype of the American mindset. Simultaneously, the poster triggered a memory from two years ago when I had the opportunity to participate in a three week exchange to Braunsweig, Germany.
The summer of 2008. I was sixteen, fresh out of sophomore year and about to embark on part two of my school’s German Exchange Program. For three weeks in February, sixteen students were invited to do the exchange. I was also chosen and in within a few months my family and I were hosting a seventeen year-old girl from the German countryside. Those three weeks were definitely exciting and enlightening, but it wasn’t until I went to live with the same girl, did I receive the full experience of an exchange.
Imagine a world where the cars seem extraterrestrial. The words spoken around you have little concrete meaning. And the glory of soccer is everywhere. This is Germany. During those three short weeks, my adventures included a tour of the Auto Stadt, breathing in the historic Berlin air, crab-hunting in the mucky low tides of the North Sea, crawling into the abandoned mines of the Herz Mountains, bobbing up and down inside a dark and wild teen night club, and dining on white asparagus – better known as spargel – all for the first time in my life! The entire time my host family was extremely hospitable. The German youth was shy but eager as long as the conversation was about soccer. Finally, three things you’d probably never know about Germany: 1) Sometimes you have to pay to use the restroom (Yes. Just like a vending machine). 2) It hails in the summer. 3) Their ice cream is so much better than ours.
Along the way I met several other Americans and foreign teenagers who were already there on year long exchanges. Witnessing their progression in the language definitely served as a catalyst for my own desire to become fluent. Being away for nearly a month from my parents unlocked a sense of freedom that I never felt prior. And learning to force myself to speak another language in order to communicate gave me a confidence that I never would have gained in the states. Living in an mega-eco friendly environment made me appreciate the comforts of air condition. In all, the exchange inspired me to continue to take German classes and advance on my own. Two years later, and what is the result? I hosted another German for ten months my senior year. I’ve won first place twice in a foreign poetry contest. I am the sole recipient of the German award for all four years in high school. And lastly, I have the rare privilege to cite my experience in hopes that I can at least spark someone’s interest to explore anything international.
For me, the answers lie in Germany. They may, however, lodge somewhere else for whoever reads this. Maybe one day you and I will meet in passing and chat about our travels and adventures. Or we may spend our whole lives diving into one adventure after another all around the world and never meet once. Where ever our paths cross, I wish you luck, fellow travel and Auf Wiedersehen. Oh! And remember – you are not alone.
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