I owe this blog a post. I’ve also been meaning to post for quite some time now (was trying to stick to the unofficial once-a-month thing) but I’ve just been totally swamped.
I am currently sick and partially miserable and sitting at home–which does mean I finally get a chance to sit down and write.
I really am at a loss for where to begin, but I know that if I push this entry off to an even later date, it’ll just be more difficult to start.
January went slowly. Cold weather, regular school schedule. Going to Düsseldorf on free days, seeing movies, eating Japanese food, going thrifting. Birthday party of a friend. The entirety of this month sits hazily in my memories; I’m not really sure where the month started or where it ended, or if anything crazy happened somewhere in between the pages in my notebook where I logged entries for January.
February started off with Karneval. We got about five days off from school for this holiday, where everyone dresses up and parades out onto the street to celebrate. It is also a sort of regional celebration, where only this region of Germany (Northwest-ish/in the vicinity of Köln) celebrates the holiday to the greatest extent. I believe Karneval is based (as many things are) in some religious tradition, but the spiritual aspect of it has been stomped out over the years. On one of our days off I went to a parade in town and literally found the entirety of grade eleven from my school there.
In the middle of February, just before going bowling on the same day with my Englisch course, I met with the local Bundestag representative. A member of the CDU (the same political party as the current Chancellor, Angela Merkel), she’d been the vice-president of the German Bundestag (their legislative body) for the majority of 2017. So I was intimidated going in. But the German representatives are not quite as superficially intense as their American counterparts. During our summer visit with CBYX to Washington D.C., we made a round trip to talk to our congressional representatives personally, and were greeted with security clearances and double-door office entrances. In Germany, Michaela Noll’s office looked like a non-imposing, somewhat average house with a cosy office inside. I just had to stand at the side door and ring in. I (along with one other CBYX scholarship recipient) was greeted by the German representative personally. We were offered tea, coffee and cookies and sat down for a chat about politics, culture, the representation of America in Germany. We were then sent off with a request to keep her posted on what we were doing for the rest of the year in Germany.
Then at the end of February was our Mid-stay camp for AFS CBYX scholarship recipients. For this camp, I hopped on a five hour train ride down to Possenhofen, right next to Munich, and was reunited with the other (approximately fifty) CBYX students for the first time in five months. It was incredible to see how some of us had progressed with the language–and hearing about other exchange years was a good way to put my own in perspective. No exchange year is alike (at least that’s how the cliche goes); but it is true. We all struggle with different aspects of our lives in Germany–host family, host community, friends, dealing with schoolwork, etc. In talking to each other, we learn to be grateful for the positive aspects of our ongoing years and assume new approaches to improve the not-so-good aspects.
The camp was four and a half days–two spent in our youth hostel, doing workshops, meeting the Public Affairs Officer from the American Consulate in Munich. The two days in Munich–a political city tour, art museums, a Jewish synagogue, and just wandering around churches, doing touristy things. The one major downside to the entire excursion was the -10 degree Celsius weather, which left my toes stinging and numb.
After coming back to the Düsseldorf area, the weather drastically improved, and along with it, both my mood and my sense of panic. I am simultaneously relieved at the sudden warmth and sunniness outside and anxious to think that I now only have four months left in this country. But boredom and loneliness are no longer constantly hanging over my head like they did in the first few months. I’ve got so much to do and so little time to do it.
Just a week after getting back home from Mid-stay, I took a weekend trip to Belgium with a friend of mine from the CB Program. This was wonderful because 1) my sense of independence has been rising slowly this entire year as I’ve gotten practice traveling without my parents and 2) the bus ride there cost only nine euros. I’d always imagined travel before as getting on an expensive plane ride, flying a minimum of two hours, getting off the plane, and being somewhere totally foreign and new. But in Europe, you certainly don’t have to go long distances to be in another country, surrounded totally by a language you don’t understand (i.e. after my bus ran into difficulties on the road, I got off prematurely a half a kilometer from our end destination, surrounded completely by signs and storefronts in Flemish, in a country I’d never been in before and walked those five hundred meters at 10pm to the Central Station in Antwerp, where I was to be picked up). Americans don’t know what they’re missing out on.
That weekend was truly lovely. We had late brunch everyday around 11, spent one day in Brussels and one in Antwerp, walking until my feet were crying in pain, drinking pink lattes and devouring Belgian waffles. We visited art museums, walked through parks, went vintage clothing shopping–and took some awesome pictures. I felt totally recuperated.
And that’s been my life until now. We have school break in another week and a half, and during that time I’m hoping to do a sort of bicycle tour with my host mother. And otherwise I’ve finally caved and made a bucket list of things I need to get done here before I leave (for example, the Haribo factory in a neighboring town. HOW can I pass up the opportunity to get marked down gummy bears?).
Thought dump time, to finish the post off.
One thing I would like to take with me from this year so far is the concept of second chances. Almost every friend I’ve made this year, be it in my host community or within the CBYX program were people I never thought I’d be friends with at the start. People are extremely complicated beings, act differently under different contexts. It takes so much more time to realize whether I’ll like someone than just the split-second time frame of a first impression, or even the first few weeks in which I get to know them. For so long at home I’d had friends who I’d been friends with for years, so I’d forgotten how long and sometimes cumbersome of a process it is to actually become friends with someone in the first place.
I feel like my personal tolerance of awkwardness has increased tenfold over the course of this year. Or at least there’s some kind of social awkwardness meter that has quickly been filled in the last seven months and has overflowed, and I am now desensitized to it. The amount of awkward silences I’ve endured, the amount of times I’ve been publicly humiliated in front of a large group of German teenagers, the amount of times I’ve said something entirely stupid–these are innumerable. And- they are, as I posit, indispensable to a successful exchange year. If you don’t embarrass yourself, you’re probably should. From these experiences you take away a reassurance that even if you make a fool out of yourself, you can move on from it. Or you get so used to awkward silences that it really doesn’t faze you as much as it did, and you become much more open to meeting new people. What’s the worse that can happen? I also can’t count the number of times I’ve been to some party of some person who I really don’t know. And everything turns out A-okay.
I’m also not as panicked about my German capabilities now, because 1) I can indeed hold a very good conversation in this language which I could not speak seven months ago and 2) I realized that language learning is a looooong process that I can’t force my brain to conquer within one year. There are so many people who do exchange years, who’ve learned the language for years beforehand and of course still continue to improve on that language after their exchange is over. Breath and take it slow. I will continue to learn and improve my German in the States. I will return to Germany, without a doubt. All will be okay. I just need to enjoy the time I have left.
It sounds indeed dumb, but I feel so old now. At the beginning, when I arrived in Germany, there was a division between exchange students among “Oldies” and “Newbies”–the Oldies were the exchange students who’d arrived a half a year before us and would also go home a half a year before we did. But now I’m an Oldie. Our local AFS exchange committee just received a new exchange student from Japan, who’ll be here for the next ten months. Now I’m the one with the experience, the one who can speak better German. His presence was a slap in the face reminder that my time remaining is the smaller part of my year.
Furthermore, the new CBYX scholarship recipients for the 2018-2019 year have just found out this week that they’ve been accepted. So I wish a hearty congratulations to them–they have a hell of a year in front of them.
Currently listening: Tightrope (from the Greatest Showman)
Graffiti wall in Brussels!