I know, it’s been awhile. I have been avoiding writing this type of post for all sorts of reasons. However, I’d like to get it written because I think it’s a good idea to document what these last few weeks have meant in relation to my exchange.
Four weeks ago, I left Porta Westfalica and boarded a plane in Frankfurt headed for Washington DC. I love overseas travel, but I don’t remember ever being less excited to board a plane. The week before, I held a goodbye party with my wonderful friends, helped organize, set up, and performed at my school’s Summer Fest (the theme was Europe and I was one of very few non-Europeans… :P), avoided packing, packed, got exhausted from packing, cried a lot, and spent time doing many many things for the last time.
It was a really difficult week. Yes, it’s amazing that I had something so wonderful that made it so hard to say goodbye. Yes. But it was really, really hard. Building a home and a life in a year only to leave it behind is a very strange thing, because it is a life that you can’t live again- it is simply a chapter of a much larger story, and it isn’t one that can be reopened in the same way. When it’s gone, it can’t come back.
A friend of mine made me a journal full of letters and German grammar (lol) and motivation, etc., and in it she wrote: alles wird gut, aber nie mehr wie es war.
Everything will be okay, but it will never be the way it was.
It’s difficult to accept that. Today I got the Facebook event notification for my school’s Abiball, a prom-like celebration that I would have attended if I were still at German home. Life has gone on there since I left- the people close to me lost a person, but I lost my entire life there. That’s not to be melodramatic, it is simply the nature of an exchange year. You come in and touch the life of certain people and you build a life. You develop an idea of what this other culture is and how you will allow it to shape you, it becomes home, and then you leave it. An exchange year is a snapshot of what it would have been like to be born in the place you are visiting, and it ceases to exist when you leave. Although I will have a lifelong relationship with my host family and some of my friends back in Germany, I will never go back to my school, sing with my 2 choirs, or live at home with my host family. That chapter is closed and accepting that is just difficult.
Going through that process of acceptance simulates grief. It is losing something you can’t get back and trying to find a way to reconcile it.
After leaving Porta, I drove to the Frankfurt area and spent time with both sets of host grandparents as one of the couples was celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. In a way, it was good that I was able to leave Porta and my friends and school behind and have a separate goodbye with my host family because it meant that I didn’t lose everything at once. Essentially, my last week was a sob fest. I have no idea if this is normal for other exchange students, but I was consistently overwhelmed with how many people and things I needed to say goodbye to, and I had no idea how to come to terms with it.
So, I have been avoiding writing this post. Because coming home was exceptionally difficult for me. During the CBYX End-Year Seminar in Berlin, our group was warned that we would experience culture shock. We were told that it was different for everybody but that coming home is an emotional rollercoaster. I knew that coming back would be difficult, but I did not expect to have as much of a terrible time readjusting to things that I thought I understood about my American home prior to my exchange year. Writing this post means accepting that my year is over and that it is time to move on. That doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve it, but it does mean that I’ve recognized that life goes on. I am working on focusing on the near future and the things I have to look forward to (ie. moving to Costa Rica).
Upon arrival in Dulles Airport in DC I had an 8 hour layover. Luckily, a fellow CIEE-er, Sav, had a similar layover time and we were able to spend time together. Being surrounded by English and Americans on all sides was one of the strangest things I have ever experienced. Everything around me felt foreign and there were several times through the course of our 8 hour layover that Sav and I looked at each other and, without a word, broke down sobbing. Part of this is exhaustion. Part of it is culture shock. I will say that I never felt as overwhelmed and out of place during my exchange year as I did coming back into the States. Because I assumed I would be different and strange in Germany, I was able to take things as they came without feeling bothered. When I felt foreign and lost in my own country, I panicked. For me, reverse culture shock was (and is) the most challenging part of my exchange year.
It is still strange for me to hear passerby speaking English. My mom woke me up the other day and I, not fully awake, responded to her several times in German until I woke up enough to realize where I was. I haven’t dreamed in English yet since getting back and have cried a lot. The adjustment has been difficult. I miss Germany. I miss my family and friends and I miss speaking German. By the time I left, I really felt that I was a part of my community and I didn’t feel different anymore. I have reconnected with old friends and have been crazy busy doing a show before moving to Costa Rica in three weeks (I am writing this post from a technical rehearsal). There is a lot to do and that helps me not to focus so much on being sad. I have been taking it as it comes and most importantly, have recognized that it is absolutely appropriate to be sad about being back. Even though I came home, I left home as well.
I think I accomplished in this year what I set out to accomplish. I learned a lot of German and feel comfortable saying I’m fluent, I made friends and acquired a new family who I dearly love, integrated myself into my community, and learned more about myself and my country than I ever would have guessed. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the chance to learn another culture and to find a home in it. It has changed everything about how I view the world and other people, I believe that I have become more compassionate and a better listener, I understand what it’s like to struggle with basic communication and I have become more open-minded to ideas I would have simply written off, had I never gone to Germany.
I think it’s appropriate to mention that I could not nearly have accomplished so much without my wonderful host family. From the very beginning, my family was there for me in ways I had never anticipated. They took so many steps to make me feel welcome and safe, and I am indescribably grateful to be able to call them one of my families. This doesn’t mean that everything was perfect- like any relationship, we had our difficulties. But open communication on both our parts changed the experience for everyone and I am forever grateful for everything they did for me. The amount of emotional support, laughter, and advice they gave me are favors I will never be able to repay.
On exchange, every small act of kindness can change an entire day. Any time somebody invited me to sit with them, gently corrected my German, or praised me for my improvement, my entire mood changed like the flip of a switch and encouraged me to work even harder. This taught me how important these types of interactions matter to people who are lonely or struggling with communication for any reason, and it costs literally nothing to extend this type of kindness.
Many people said insensitive things to me this year about my culture, country, language, accent, and language-learning skills. I will never forget the 20 minute conversation I had with a man who stopped me after every sentence to tell me that my accent was so horrific he couldn’t understand a thing. He proceeded to have me say each syllable over and over again until he deemed it acceptable. I will also never forget the first time a woman I met stood in shock upon finding out that I was not a native German speaker. The latter situation happened much more frequently than the former, but the former made much more of an impression on me. It served to make me feel insecure and inadequate and bouncing back from that is much more difficult than coming down from a compliment. This year I learned that words matter.
For many people I met in Germany, I was a poster child for America. For several months, conversation began with “You’re American, right? What do you think of Trump?” Before I could properly communicate, I was simply the archetypal American girl struggling through a European language who probably owned several guns and recited a scary pledge each morning at school. This year I learned that labels can be too restrictive. Often it is easier to “other” people from foreign situations, but being on the receiving end of it is dehumanizing.
I learned this year that patience is a virtue that is helpful in every situation. Patience with myself and patience with others. I learned that taking time for myself is important and that being hyper-busy with no breaks is not the best way to take care of oneself. I learned to pick battles and listen more (occasionally because I couldn’t talk ) and I refined my ability to make a total and utter fool of myself.
The stereotype of Germans loving rules and punctuality is true.
The stereotype of them being cold and unfriendly is not.
I loved talking to my host family about big cultural differences this year. Seeing their astonishment that I thought certain things they did were absolutely crazy was hilarious. We hosted two Russian students for a week and we got into the car together to go home after picking them up from the school. My host mom asked them to put on seat belts and I muttered under my breath “you’re in Germany, we follow rules here” My host mom heard and burst out laughing before asking if I was actually serious. “Do you mean to say we’re strict about rules!?”
So many interactions from this year have taught me things that I am so grateful to have learned. I feel like a more well-rounded, educated, and open-minded person. I miss Germany with all of my heart but the memories I have of the past 12 months make me remember all of the wonderful things that happened instead of focusing on the heartbreak of leaving. I have *so* many things to look forward to in the next month alone and I am absolutely ecstatic to take it all on.
Having the opportunity to do an exchange year is a privilege that has changed my life. Living abroad is the best hard thing I have ever done. I don’t have the words to sum up all of the emotions I have around what has happened in my life in the past year but this blog post is my noble effort to share it with you, dear readers and Future Beth. If you are in high school and can take an exchange year, do it. Absolutely do it. It will change everything about how you view the world around you and will give you insight that is impossible to acquire by any other means. The interpersonal skills and open-mindedness that develops inherently for every exchange student are valuable wherever you go. I cannot encourage studying abroad enough.
If you have kept up with my blog this year, thank you! I have had a blast writing here and sharing my experiences. Although I am sad for my chronicles of Germany to be ending, I am excited to begin writing about my adventures in Costa Rica! I may write in the future about how my time in Germany has affected me, but for the next two years I will be living the pura vida. :)
Auf wiedersehen, Germany.
and buenos dias Costa Rica.
Thank you for reading, I will write again soon.
German Vocab Word of the Day: das Ende (the end)
PS: If you would like to follow my adventures in Costa Rica, check me out at bethindeutschland.wordpress.com. I will eventually change the domain, but this is the link to my travel blog for now. Tschuess!