Although it’s not typical of a study abroad experience, I have to dedicate at least one post in my blog to my German host-family! Without them I wouldn’t really know German or half as much as I do about German culture, history, and just general information about the country that at moments feels like my second home (a sentiment also made possible by my amazing host fam!)
That’s me with my host dad and brother!!
In many ways, I went into my study abroad semester set up for success! Not only could I hold my own speaking German and knew what to expect in a lot of situations, I had my host family that was just a phone call, email, or train ride away. When I say I wouldn’t know half as much as I do about German culture if it weren’t for them, I’m not just referencing my stay in their home in 2005-2006. They also helped immensely with my learning this time around.
When a student studies abroad and lives in student housing, it is tough enough finding friends outside of the international student population let alone a real-live-family in that country. Most international students living in student housing may never be in a traditional German home. For instance, when another international student accompanied me to Frankfurt to visit my family she was so excited to actually be inside an actual German home. She may have been in students’ dorms or apartments but throughout her yearlong study abroad she hadn’t had the opportunity to enter a conventional German home.
Spending time with my host family really helped put what I was learning into context. For example, in one class we had discussed a hot topic about German education that turned out to be playing out in my host brother’s life! Traditionally, it takes five years to complete the German equivalent to high school (Gymnasium) but now many states within Germany are trying to cut it down to four years. This has lead to lots of discussions about the impact of teaching/learning five years of material in four years. (For me and other students from countries where we’re used to long school days, like France, we think it’s kind of laughable how they are making a big to-do about being in school till 3 or 4 every afternoon instead of being out in time for a late lunch. But there is obviously more to it than that!)
One major impact this has on states that are making the change is that for one year there will be two classes graduating at the same time. The students in the last graduating class of the old system and the first class of the new system will be getting out of Gymnasium at the same time creating double the normal amount of applicants for university, jobs, or the military. Well, I didn’t really think about this aspect of that change until I was talking to my 11th grade host-brother about his plans for the future. He informed me that he will be graduating in this very situation. He is in the last class of the old system in Hessen, the state in which he lives.
That mix of learning the facts and then getting more background and context from my family as they share their stories has helped me learn so much. Plus, I can ask my host-parents anything and they can explain it to me in a way that I’ll understand. (And if I don’t understand I have no problem asking them to rephrase it or explain it again! That’s not always possible in a classroom setting.)
A word about reconnecting. . .
Although I speak so highly of my host-family, I was a little nervous to see them again after being gone for so long. Although we had emailed and spoke on the phone once or twice, it had been four years since we had seen each other. My worries were all in vain because spending time with them was just like old times. I know it may sound cliché, but it was like I had never left at all! Particularly with them—their house looked and smelled the same, I got to sleep in my old room, I still knew my way around town—so many things were the same.
I actually stayed with two host-families during my exchange and had the chance to reconnect with the second family, too. Although my connection with them doesn’t run as deep as with my first family I am still have so much gratitude and love for them. I joined them for dinner a week before I left Germany and, again, was struck by how everything seemed to be the same.
But of all these situations, this feeling couldn’t have been stronger as it was when I reconnected with two of my friends from my Gymnasium in Frankfurt. I had nothing but limited Facebook contact with these girls for four years but when we met up this spring it was literally like I had only been gone for a few months. We spent the whole day catching up and spent literally 13 hours talking basically non-stop. (A girl’s got a lot to talk about after four years apart!!) Also—in a random, amazing coincidence, a great friend of mine from Australia who I met when we both were exchange students planned a trip to Germany that happened to coincide with my semester there, so we got to reconnect, too. Seeing her, as you can imagine by how the rest of these stories are going, was simply wonderful! Reconnecting with all of these amazing people who touched my life was a major highlight of my study abroad experience!