Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Books of Scraps

Back in October, I mentioned scrapbooks I kept while I lived in Germany and Prague as an exchange student. They were not exactly works of art, and they are already falling apart because I had none of the special scrapbooking materials used so widely today, but I will always treasure them.

Here are some of the pictures from my Germany scrapbook. I lived in the former East Germany from July 1991 to July 1992, arriving just nine months after the reunification.

When I went to Germany in 1991 with the Congress-Bundestag program (I applied because there was no language requirement and most exchange programs had them), I was one of the few exchange students who didn't receive any information -- name, location, etc. -- about my host family. I just went where the program leaders pointed me, which in this case, was onto a bus. The bus then drove east for a long, long time. When we passed the dirty gray "Kontrolstelle," formerly the border between West and East Germany, I realized my year was going to be very different from what I had expected.

My host family picked me up at the bus station -- they knew my name -- with a bouquet of flowers and a tiny red two-door Ford Fiesta. There were four of us in that tiny car with my gigantic, heavy, American-teenage-girl-traveling-for-a-year-sized suitcase, and I was absolutely terrified. They didn't speak any English, and I couldn't speak any German beyond "Guten Tag" and "eins, zwei, drei." Maybe I imagined it, but I thought they gave me a lot of strange looks that day.

There were eight of us in town for a four-week language program. I was one of the three who stayed in that city after the program was over, and I almost never saw the other two after that. I didn't stay because I liked East Germany all that much (actually, at first, I hated it, and I really just wanted to go to some nice little Black Forest mountain village like I had imagined, not this dirty place where years of pollution had killed all the trees), but because my host brother asked me very sweetly in halting English if I wanted to stay with them all year, while my host mother smiled at me, and I didn't know how to say NO. So I stayed, sure that I was making the worst decision ever, and ruining my whole year.

In fact, it was the best decision I could have made. No better way to learn a language than to be in a city of 50,000 in which about 5 residents speak your own language. You have no choice, if you want to talk to anyone.

And no better way to truly become part of a family and a culture than to be far from everything familiar. Well, not everything: my host mother faithfully bought me corn flakes to eat every morning. But you know what breakfast I liked best? Rolls with cheese, jam, or Nutella. I couldn't stop eating them. No wonder I gained 30 pounds in just a few months.

Even though I played federball with my host brother and sister almost every day (at least at first). I was amazed -- I'd heard of badminton, but I'd never actually known anyone who played it. I wish I did now because there's something quite satisfying about that thwack.

Once I stopped wishing I was somewhere else, I truly started to appreciate where I was. I still get homesick.

And I made friends -- rather a few wonderful girls picked me as their friend -- which also amazed me, because I was not only terrified, speechless and extremely shy, but socially awkward, even in America. And they took me everywhere with them, including the theater over and over and over. It was even better once I started to understand what was being said.

I still can't say exactly what made me decided to apply to go spend a year in a country where I didn't speak the language, at 16 years old, other than a wish to travel that I'd had since I was very very small, and a desire to get out and see the world. But I am so glad I did. My mom didn't want me to go, but she said I could, and I will always be grateful. A full post on all the things I learned, the ways in which I grew, the benefits I gained and the love I came to feel for my host family, my host city and my host country would fill a book. I wish I could send every American high school student overseas for a year. If you know anyone who's thinking about it -- student or adult -- encourage them to go even if you think it's crazy. I can't recommend it highly enough. If anything ever leads to world peace, it will be people who go out and live elsewhere and share their own cultures while learning to appreciate those of others.

A final, surprise benefit I got from my time in Germany: my host family took me to Czechoslovakia (it was still Czechoslovakia at the time) for a trip, and while I was in Prague, I stood on the Charles Bridge and said to myself, "Someday I will live in this city."

Four years later, I walked across the USC campus, and glanced up sign on a telephone pole that said, "Live in Prague." And I said, "Oh, yeah, I forgot, I'm going to do that." So I detoured to the Overseas Studies office and one thing led to another, and I ended up living in Prague, where I had all sorts of further adventures, including a few memorable glasses of the archbishop's wine, and learned how to speak enough Czech to get a fair rate on a cab ride.

That scrapbook next time.

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