It’s been about a month since I arrived here in Germany. My experience here so far has been so different than I expected it to be. I now understand why people are advised to go on exchange with no expectations for what would happen. I’m not saying it has been bad, because I went in with high expectations, but it’s just been unexpected. So far, there have been extreme highlights and lowlights–and I have come to understand myself better than I thought would be possible.
Before I arrived at the Hanover airport, my biggest fear was that I would somehow lose myself or my baggage on the way. When neither of these fears came true, I took that as a good omen and stepped into exchange with soaring goals and high spirits. My first weekend was my exchange partner Cosi’s sixteenth birthday and we celebrated that at her house with nine of her closest friends. I soon learned that sixteenth birthdays are a big deal in Germany because people are legally allowed to drink here at that age. At first I was a bit nervous to meet Cosi’s friends, but they were all nice and easy to talk to. I left an interesting first impression when I tried to impress them into being my friends by showing off my extensive culinary skills. I flipped the egg we were frying for breakfast into the air, and straight into a wall. We all had a good laugh and my first good memory of the trip was born. During that weekend, though, I encountered what would become one of my biggest struggles with this exchange; the language barrier was an almost impossible barrier to overcome sometimes, both emotionally and physically.
In large group conversations at Louisenlund, people always speak in German. While this is totally understandable, it takes patience and persistence to not feel left out. Although if you instigate a conversation one-on-one with people at Lund, they will generally be happy to reply to you in English, it is really hard to feel like you fit in when you are in a large group. Some of my extreme lows came from such situations. People could go for more than 40 minutes in only German and I would only understand a few words like good, bad and water. I’m honestly not sure what I expected coming to Germany without knowing any German. To those going on exchange next year, I would suggest going to a country where you know at least some of the language (or pick up some key phrases before departing America).
That being said, not knowing the language also presents the unique opportunity to learn said language when fully immersed in it. I’m quite proud because I have learned to understand some basic German and know how to order the foods I can eat in restaurants and at school. It’s an amazing feeling to say something in German and having people actually understand me. My friends here have been teaching me new words every day. J
On the topic of food, I was quite hungry my first week here because Germans eat a lot of bread (brot) and meat. I happen to be a gluten-free (glutenfrei) pescatarian. It took me a while to realize I could order such foods from the kitchen. BUT BY THEN I HAD DISCOVERED THE SUPERMARKET WALKING DISTANCE FROM SCHOOL. IT IS WONDERFUL. Also, there are these chocolate candy-like things here called Kinder Joys and they are sooo amazing. There are two breakfasts, a lunch, a snack, and a dinner every day which is nice, but the meals still mostly consist of breads and meat spreads.
The Louisenlund school itself is beautiful and being in the dorms is enjoyable. I’ve gotten really close with the girls in my dorm and there is even a kitchen. I thought there would be more drama, but the only drama so far has been about stolen shampoo. I feel so lucky that I could get to know these amazing people and it’s so strange to think I didn’t know them one month ago. I’m still not sure what the classes are like here because it’s been exam week(s) so I have only been to two official classes. The six of us exchanges have been taking trips around Germany during exams, so I feel especially close to the other exchanges here. It’s nice because they understand what being on exchange is like and face similar troubles and joys.
All in all, I am excited to get to know these people better, and am so happy that I decided to go on exchange. Mine has been nothing like my friends’ exchanges, but I’m learning and enjoying it more every day.
Right now, my advice for people going next year would be:
- First impressions matter a lot, but they aren’t everything.
- Facetime friends and family when going through rough or amazing times on exchange. It makes everything better when you share the stories with others. It’s been especially nice for me to talk to friends who are on or returned from exchanges because it always makes me feel better and the advice they gave me helps so much. J
- Try all foods (unless you are allergic). Take every opportunity that is offered.
- Talk to everybody you meet, and try not to get intimidated.