Sunday, April 16, 2006

Die Familie

After my brief rest, I was invited outside for dinner. It was summer, and the weather was amazing. I had stepped onto the plane in Arizona's 110 degree heat, stepped off into London's oppressive humidity, and stepped off in a cool German evening. At the table was my new family: my two older sisters and their boyfriends, and two older brothers.

To an American, it seemed a very unusual dinner. It consisted of soft pretzels, bread, various cheeses, salad, jam, butter, deli-type meats, and yes, sausages. I had heard of these European style dinners in my German classes, but actually sitting down at one was kind of surprising. As time went by, I really begin to enjoy the richness and variety of these meals, and I rather miss them these days. That first day though, I don't think I ate very much, and I know for certain I didn't talk very much.

Looking back on it, I'm actually quite amazed that I followed what was going on at all. I'd had three years of German in high school, but that had nowhere near prepared me for a table full of Germans wanting to know how my flight was. During those first few weeks and months I spoke quite a bit of English, mostly with my host mother. Had I been more assertive, I would have stopped her, since it was detrimental to my progress with German, but in my stead, my closest host brother, Daniel was there to do it for me.

I remember that first day, after dinner, my eldest sister, her boyfriend, Daniel and I went to the cellar to play pool. "Billiard spielen" (to play billiards\pool) was part of my vocabulary from German class, so that part was easy. Calling my shot when I won the first game was a little clumsy, but it worked. Understanding Daniel's gallant attempt to explain 9 Ball to me, without using a word of English, was impossible. Still, I progressed rather quickly was able to carry on most of my conversations in awkward, slow, incorrect German within a month or so.

Beyond my first dinner and playing pool, my first week or two in Germany is sort of blurry for me. When I tell people this, they don't quite get it right away, but let me put this into perspective. You're in a new country, whose language you don't really speak. You're living with entirely different people, whom you don't know. You know that school starts in a week, and there is a flurry of activity going on to get you ready for that (more on school next time.) And on top of that, jet lag has you waking up at 4 and getting tired at 8. I think you'd be a little confused. Still, by the time school started, I'd adapted fairly well and was ready to get into school and make new friends with my class. If only they'd felt the same way…

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mein neues Zuhause (my new home)

To facillitate a smooth arrival, my host father and I had exchanged pictures and flight information the day or so before my flight. This proved to work very well; we found each other within minutes.

The ride home (and indeed, the next few jetlagged weeks) is sort of a blur, because by this time I had been awakee for nearly 30 hours (my flight left in the evening) and was surrounded by so much new information. I do remember a few things about the freeway system going from Hamburg to my new home-town. For one thing, due to the prevalence of small cars and lack of free space, roads in Germany are much much narrower than in the US. Second, my host father really liked driving fast in his VW Passat. I've always been somewhat nervous about lane-size, and the combined narrower lanes and fast speed were quite unnerving for the first several weeks.

My host father spoke English the entire way home, promising that this would be the only time we would ever speak English together (and it was!) He told me about the tiny village of Rosenweide, where "we" lived, and about the tiny city, Stelle, where I would go to school.

About 45 minutes later, we arrived at my host family's house. When I was a kid, when asked to draw a house, I would usually draw one of these:

/ / / \
| _ |
| | | |
|_|_|_|

but I had always wondered why, since I had never seen a house that looked like that. Well, as it turns out, that's exactly what most German houses look like (or some variation thereof.) My new home at Rosenweide 3 was no different.

Upon arrival, I was given a quick tour of the house, introduced hastily to my host mom, and shown my room. I had a few minutes to rest and change before I was introduced to the rest of the family over my first German dinner.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The flight

The flight to Germany was, at the time, by far the longest flight I'd ever been on. The total time from takeoff out of Phoenix to touchdown in Hamburg was 14 hours, with a brief layover in London.

The flight over the ocean (and the rest of the U.S. I suppose) was quite pleasant. The plane was far from full, which meant that I shared my row of 3 seats with a pleasant middle-aged woman going to Scotland to visit her daughter. The in-flight movie was O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but I didn't watch it, because I was too excited and nervous.

To my surprise, London-Heathrow had pay showers set up near many of the bathrooms throughout the terminal. I'm wouldn't be surprised if those showers did great business the day I was in London. Europe was experiencing a major heatwave, which was even covered in the news in the US, and London was very hot and very humid. The humidity and heat were even too great for the air conditioning, which resulted in a lot of very sweaty, very unhappy travellers.

After taking the bus from my arrival terminal to my departure terminal, it was time to make the final hurdling leap into the sky. The flight to Germany was on a smaller commuter plane and took a mere 45 minutes.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

In the beginning

I first heard about the Radial Youth Exchange Program (not it's real name) when I was in my junior year of high school. A woman from the program came to my German class and pitched the program to us. Most of the kids in the class weren't particularly interested, but I knew from that moment that I would be in Germany in a year.

When the time came around, I was an easy recommendation for my German teacher to make. I exceled at German, was a great student, and most importantly, I really wanted it.

The application process was fairly involved; I was required to fill out an application more formidable than the application for ASU. It entailed an essay explaining why I was a good candidate for the program, a survey about my habits, preferences and interests, and an interview with several Important People (TM) with the program.

In other countries where youth exchanges are more popular, this process is highly competitive, with 10-15 people applying for 1-2 slots. In the United States, however, programs struggle to get participants. Of the 10 people applying in my district (there are 2 districts in my state, 9 clubs in my district, each of whom sponsored 1 student) 9 were accepted. I had applied in January, and by March, I knew I was one of the 9.

Towards the beginning of the summer, things really started to pick up. By June my girlfriend and I had broken up, both over the exchange and other issues. By July, my plane ticket was purchased and I was packed to go. In mid-August of 2003, I said good bye to my family, hugged my crying sister, played pool one last time with the guys, and boarded a plane to Hamburg, Germany.


Well, technically to London, England, but that doesn't sound nearly as dramatic now, does it?