Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Surviving everyday life & school in Deutschland

So let me ask you a question, what do you picture when you think of Germany?  The electrifying nightlife of Berlin?  The cavernous beer halls of Munich during Oktoberfest?  Or enormous industrial cities?  Well I bet you wouldn’t of guessed farmland, farmland and wait for it..more farmland!  Yes ladies and gentlemen, Germany is full of crops and barren fields, in fact over 50% of German soil is used for agricultural purposes and my city, Flintbek, is smack dab in the middle of that.  Now my town is far from small compared to German standards.  With a population of just over 7000, it is quite large compared to the villages or ‘Dorfs’ some of my other exchange student friends live in where the livestock outnumber the people.

I’ve been placed in what I consider to be the perfect in-between. I can unwind in peace and quiet of a rural town, have vast open fields for my daily runs and occasionally I grab a long board, pop in some good tunes and the cruise through winding forest roads and barren fields.  Another perk of living in Flintbek is that it is one of the few towns to have a train track pass through it, which means I have a train every hour on the hour taking me to and from Kiel; a ride of maybe 7 minutes.  Kiel is the capital of the state of Schleswig-Holstein with a population of about 250k.  Kiel is a big harbor city, which runs right along the Baltic Sea.  Some of the German Navy’s Baltic fleet is situated here and the city is well known for producing the most luxurious & expensive Yachts in the world.  If you’re into sailing then you should already know what I’m talking about when I say Kiel can also be called the Sailing City.  It hosts the biggest sailing competition in the world every summer during Kiel Week, as well as being the host for the sailing events from the 1932 & 1972 Summer Olympics.  Currently, Hamburg is one of the cities in the running for hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics & if they get it, the sailing events will take place in Kiel again!  That’s music to my ears because I’ve always wanted to see the Olympic games and if they’re hosted here I have a place to stay with my host family  :D 

So aside from all the enticing facts about Kiel, which I’m sure many of you found oh so captivating, what does Kiel have to offer an exchange student that’s living here?  Well to be honest, not too much.  During WWII much of Kiel was destroyed, leaving only a few old buildings or monuments still standing so the city is pretty modern with not many historical sights. (Which sucks because I’m kind of a nerd about that stuff..oh well)  Anyways, what Kiel lacks in breathtaking sights, it makes up for with numerous surrounding beaches on the Baltic, beautiful Christmas markets and the infamous Bergstraße where the nightlife lives.  Kiel’s also situated perfectly in between Lübeck and Hamburg, being only 1 hour away by train from both cities, which are complete opposites with Lübeck being historical and cozy and the Hamburg more modern with a taste of crazy(Sankt Pauli) but I’ll talk more about these two in my future posts. 

Now I couldn’t tell you how many countless hours I’ve spent, whether on school breaks or waiting for my train, exploring aimlessly around Kiel.  I swear you could blindfold me and I could still probably take you for a tour around this place.  Another thing is, mainly for Americans visiting Germany or most places around the globe, you’re going to have to bid farewell to the comfortable, vehicle ownership days of the past and learn to use the public transportation system whether you like it or not.  When mastered however, public transportation can actually be much more convenient such as, during bad weather when driving can be scary, after a long night out on the town (the Deutsch Ban will gladly be your designated driver J) or those times when your feeling too dang lazy to even drive yourself wherever you need to go. 

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pull a Usain Bolt to catch my train/bus.  One night I was heading home around midnight from Niklas’s house and prior he told me that my bus would arrive around 12:15 and being quite far away from the bus stop I decided I would take the next bus, which runs every 15 minutes.  However, what he forgot to mention and my absent mind forgot to look up was that this was the last bus of the night until 4a.m…sheisse. When I finally looked up online and saw this, my bus had already passed and in one hour the last train would also leave for Flintbek.  I had no other choice than to start my midnight 5km run for the Hauptbahnhof in the hopes of catching the last train and not being homeless for the night.  Thankfully I made it home and the next morning told my host parents all about my little escapade only to find out that the bus stop was closer to my house in Flintbek that the train station… needless to say this was a learning experience and one of many!  Take a lesson and whatever country you visit, always remember to download the app for your country’s train & bus system.  THIS IS CRITICAL!  Why be stuck carrying around a 2-inch thick paper pamphlet when you can have public transportation at your fingertips??  In Germany you will need the Deutsch Bahn app, but be weary that contrary to the stereotype that Germans are ALWAYS on time, the DB, however is not.  So double check your train/bus times are correct before you show up and end up having to wait in the -1C weather for your late bus/train or find out they are on strike and not running at all. 

View of the Kiel Harbor

Old-timey German house with a thatched roof
Abandoned windmill in the country
Bridge in the Germany countryside
Olympic Rings from the 1932 & 1972 Summer Olympics

Now that you know a bit more about the area I live in, heres a rundown of the German school system, my school and the friend making process as an exchange student!  So I began school 3 days after arriving in Germany.  Since my placement in Kiel was so sudden, AFS had no time to prepare a school for me so we chose the one that first accepted me.  I attend Käthe-Kollwitz-Schule, one of 15 different Gymnasiums in the city of Kiel.  Fist of all, let me explain a bit Germany’s school system because  its structured quite differently than in the U.S.  They begin primary school in the 1st grade until they reach 4th grade.  Then there exist several possibilities for schooling, depending on if you plan to attend a university following your general schooling or go straight into learning a trade such as a mechanic, nurse, etc.  For the students planning to further their studies at a university they attend the Gymnasiums, in which students can pick a focus, such as language, science, arts, music, theatre, etc.  The others who want to start practicing a certain trade after school go to either the Hauptschule or the Realschule where they still learn the basic curriculum as those in a Gymnasium, but with some trade classes.

            It’s been a bit weird and amusing going to class and having to wait behind a herd of 5th graders trying to cram into their classroom.  Another very different aspect from U.S schools is that in Germany one gets placed in a certain class in the 5th grade and keeps with that class all 7 years at the Gymnasium.  Starting in 11th grade, students have the possibility of choosing a different art, science, sport and language class apart from their regular class, but the core subjects always are done in the original class.  I was a bit taken by surprise when I found out that I was going to be placed in a class with ALL girls and one other boy!  I thought to myself, “Oh god I’m going to become a chick by the end of this year”. Thankfully my class turned out to be very laid back and everyone had been so nice to me these past 2 months, showing me which buses I had to take in the beginning and inviting me to go grab a snack with them on our breaks.  Also, in Germany ever class period is 1 hour and 20 minutes, but following that is a 20-minute break along with another 45-minute break at noon, which is so much better that the 5 minutes we had in between classes in the U.S.

Going back to the snack spots, they have their own version of Chipotle here in Germany!! It’s called Döner & I can summarize it in two simple words, cheap and delicious!  It’s originally a Turkish food, where you can either get a sandwich or burrito in which they stuff almost every vegetable you can think of and then you have your choice of beef or chicken, followed by 4 different sauces all mixed together mmmmm.  When you find yourself wandering the streets, hungry after a long night in in bars and clubs, Döner is your savior!  They are the only food places open until 3 or 4 in the morning. So if you’re ever hungry and have 4 euros to spare, find the nearest Döner shop (which shouldn’t be hard) and enjoy being full for the rest of the day.

So enough about delicious food and back to school life (yay right?)  On my first day, Jannik, the one boy in my class, came up to me & we began to have a conversation.  By the next period we were friends and I could tell he was excited not to be the only guy in his class anymore.  We have a group chat for our class and when I was added to it I found the name to be pretty funny, “Las Chicas y Jannik” poor old Jannik haha.  I was kind of expecting to come into school and have my teachers treat me as part of the class, but that hasn’t really been the case.  Most of the time they apologize before they begin their lectures and tell me to either relax, take a break or I’ve even been told that I could leave if I wanted too while the other students worked on longer assignments.  My favorite class so far has got to be English because I actually have an idea of what is going on around me and I feel like an assistant teacher sometimes.  

Surprisingly, when it comes to friends, I really do not have much of a connection with anyone in my class, or my school for that matter, other than one kid, Jasper.  Coming here I thought that my class would become my go-to friend group, but it’s turned out to be quite the opposite.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re very nice people and in class I enjoy talking with them, but outside of school I couldn’t see myself wanting to spend time with most of them.  It might sound mean, but when I first arrived I did what any exchange student should do and talk my mouth off!  I tried to speak to each and every one of the kids I met and slowly I began to realize that while everyone was friendly, we didn’t have much in common.  It sounds a bit anti-social, but sometimes id rather take a walk alone or study German on my breaks than force myself to socialize, which I felt guilty of.  If you don’t want to do something, why should you HAVE to?  Thankfully my friend, Jasper brought me into his friend group, which consisted of other guys from different schools or some even attending University and they immediately made me feel like part of the group.  There I met my buddy & training partner, Niklas, which I can now say has been my best friend so far here. 

Also, for those of you who are a bit nervous about making friends in your local neighborhood or school or are having a bit of trouble connecting with the natives, don’t forget about your other AFS friends in the area!  They’re in the same position as you so they’re always down to have fun and hangout whenever you’re feeling lonely.  Plus, you’ll want to become good friends with them because you can utilize that in the future by having people you can visit all over the globe, like my girlfriend, Jacqueline, who’s stayed with multiple AFS friends throughout her journey across the world!  Check out her blog in the link at the bottom of the page!


Me & Jasper wakeboarding!

The illuminating moon over the Baltic

AFS late orientation camp!

Eckerförde, a small seaside town in Northern Germany

AFS peeps

more AFS peeps

The Kiel Canal
The cloudy Baltic Sea

Monday, November 9, 2015

My new German family!

Hey guys!  I'm sorry or "Tut mir leid" its been quite a while since my last post, but I've been so much busier than I would've ever thought.  I've been making new friends, going out, spending time with my host family taking small trips around Schleswig-Holstein, Jacqueline visited me for a month and I just spent the last week in Straßurg, France, but more about that in the upcoming posts. I'm looking to catch up on theses past 2 months so stay tuned because I want to start posting much more often!  Let's begin where I last left off and that was first meeting my host it feels so weird reading this post from a month or so ago, by now I'm so familiar with my family its crazy that this already feels like my home away from home!

My anticipation grew as I watched fellow exchange students get off at their train stops to meet their host families who were enthusiastically waving American flags and holding posters, welcoming their new family members.  Watching these encounters filled me with such joy that I could barley wait another 40 minutes for that to be me.  I must’ve stared at the picture AFS gave me of my host family for 10 minutes before arriving just to make sure I don’t walk right past them at the train station.  When we finally arrived in Kiel my host parents were nowhere to be seen.  I became a little worried that they had not come or perhaps did not know that I was going to be arriving at the time I did because my train did have a delay out of Frankfurt.  A lady approached me, and thinking it was my host mother I went and gave her a big hug before she could say a word.  She seemed surprised and told me that she was just an AFS volunteer and not my host mom..oops. She’d been sent to pick me up because my family had planned an event prior to agreeing to host me and could not make it to the train station.  I did not take it to heart however, but saw this as an opportunity to meet this new lady named Caitlyn who later invited me to her apartment in the center of the city and later took me on a tour of Kiel showing me the shipyard, university, sailboat docks and city hall.  Later than night I was dropped off at my host family’s house and by now I was beyond ready to FINALY meet my permanent host family! 

After our first dinner and day together, I immediately knew that they were a perfect fit for me!  My host father, Jörn, speaks the best English out of the family and was very excited to finally have a boy in the house since he has 3 daughters.  He loves to discuss politics, current events and tells me all he knows about different aspects of German culture.   For example, I never knew that in Germany it is normal for students to take a “social year” before they attend a university in which they choose to either travel or work a year in some kind of social work in which they earn little money, but gain much experience and life knowledge through areas such as childcare, elderly care, environmental awareness programs, servicing the poor and homeless, etc.  I think that’s an great idea because it helps give back to your community and also helps you kind of find yourself with plenty of time to decide what you truly want to pursue in college or simply giving you a unique life experience where you can discover more about the world than just what is taught in books and classrooms.  In other words my host dad and I have really been hitting it off and in Jacqueline’s words, it seems I was the son he never had haha.  I also found out that he is very fond of sports, such as running, bicycling and crossfit.   So after hearing about that we instantly became best friends and since I’ve arrived we have gone on a 5km run, 30km bicycle ride through the country and attended a local crossfit gym, Crossfit Kiel, along with my host sister Merle who also likes to workout!  

Me, Jörn, Merle & Barbara 

Merle is the same age as me and she is in her final year at her Gymnasium, which focuses on arts and theatre.  So far we get along really well and I’m so happy that I have a sibling my same age so I have someone in the house I can more closely relate to at times.  I have tow other host sisters, Lara (16), which is currently being hosted in Arizona so that means I won't get to see her until the summer :( and another older sister, Jana (27) who lives in Hamburg and is studying to become a Pediatrician. My host mother, Barbara, is very fun loving and humorous. I’ve spent a good deal of time with her the past couple days, walking around the city and going out for lunch.  I have been getting along great with my new host family!!

Now for any of you planning to live with a host family here in Germany there’s a couple tips you should be familiar with that’ll help ease the awkwardness you might have in the beginning.

·      Disregard any stereotypes that German people don’t like to hug.  If you’re a hugger then DO NOT hesitate to give your family a big ol’ hug as soon as you see them!  It really shows how excited you are to finally meet them rather than a boring hand shake, save that for meeting strangers, but these are the people that are willing to host and take care of you for a full year so let em know how happy you are to have them!  You might encounter the awkward moment when they put their hand out for a shake and you go in for the hug, which is what happened to me and the surprised look on my host family’s face was priceless, but completely worth it.

·      I don’t care if you’ve only slept 5 hours the past few days or had a 17-hour flight over, when you first meet your family turn that frown upside-down and think of things you want to talk or questions you’d like to ask the beforehand (and don’t start off by asking the family rules) Nothing will make your first encounter more awkward than silence and just smiling at one another back and forth.  Don’t be afraid to make jokes either regardless of how corny they might be!

·      German people will often look you directly in the eyes when talking to you, for the whole conversation, so be ready for some intense eye contact. The best thing to do is to take another step out of your comfort zone and begin to do the same.  It might be awkward at first, but trust me the more you do it the more natural it will become!  Also, if you’re really uncomfortable staring into someone’s soul you can try a little trick I’ve learned.  When they are looking you in the eyes, stare at the top of their nose and it looks as if you are looking them right in the eye!  You’re welcome lol

I hope these tips help make your first encounter with your host family a great one!  Thanks for reading and stay posted for my next post about daily life and Gymnasium (high school) in Germany!  Bis später :)

P.S Here are some pictures of my host family's house and pretty garden!

Friday, September 11, 2015

A lesson in humility

In my previous blog post I thought that I was going to be going to Celle, Germany for a language camp for the first 4 weeks.  Surprise, surprise however, I was finally informed 2 days before departing for Germany that a final host family has been found for me in the city of Flintbek in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost region.  I’ll be 15 minutes away from the bustling port city of Kiel and 100km away from the border of Denmark.

So I am currently sitting a train from Frankfurt headed towards the city of Hamburg where I’ll be switching trains and taking one for Kiel, my final destination where my host family is eagerly waiting for my arrival!  This has been an eventful 6 days since I last saw my family.  We began our CBYX gateway orientation on Tuesday when I arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel.  During my time there I had the amazing opportunity to visit the State Department where we had a few guest speakers that were part of the Foreign Service tell us all about international relations and how to become student diplomats ourselves in this upcoming year abroad.  After, each of us made appointments and met up with the office of our regional Congressional representatives.  Our mission was to thank them for their continued support to fund the CBYX program with over $3 million a year alongside the German Bundestag.  Perhaps my most favorite part of the orientation was when I had the honor of being able to visit the German Embassy and have a presentation directed toward us by the German ambassador about what we should expect this upcoming year in Germany, different functions of an embassy and the main objective of this scholarship that I received, which was in turn to be an unofficial student ambassador between the U.S.A and Germany, teaching one culture about the other and vice versa.   Meeting with these international ambassadors and Foreign Service members really got me thinking of a possible career in working for the State Department as a Foreign Service officer.  One of the guest speakers I had the pleasure of meeting was Alice, she has been in the Foreign Service for over 28 years and has visited over 89 countries!!  She has been part of several peacekeeping missions between Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq and has learned in her travels over 6 different languages.  For anyone interested in a career that involves travel and making an impact in the world you should seriously consider work in the Foreign Service!  I sure am glad that I have been exposed to this field of work and have something to keep in mind when I begin looking for a job in the future.

 I have met so many new people, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds.  So far I have made a few good friends with whom I plan to meet up with in Germany and hopefully have the opportunity to call them lifelong friends.   Among those is a kid named Thomas, a fellow Ohioan; Spencer, a 16-year old amateur DJ from Pennsylvania; 2 Belgian guys named Lucas and Arnold and Carolyn, a girl from New York that has been with me the past day in the hostel in Frankfurt in which about 50 AFS students where required to stay overnight for train scheduling reasons.  I’m thankful for this opportunity because it was the first time being integrated with students from several other cultures.  We had kids from Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Spain, Japan, Thailand, Denmark, Norway and many more!  Surprisingly, one of the most captivating people I have met so far was not one of my new good friends or any AFS student for that matter, but a fellow in his 20’s named Josef on the train ride from Frankfurt to Hamburg.  At first he looked like your typical biker, leather jacket, leather pants and bulky helmet right beside him.  We began to introduce ourselves and I soon found out that there was a lot more to him than meets the eye.  His passions seemed to be motorcycles and travelling the world.  He told me that last year he took a semester off of school in order to travel from Germany all the way down to Cape Town, South Africa!  He started with a map and a couple thousand Euros in his pocket and ventured off into the unknown just like that!  He told me how he would mainly sleep in his tent on the side of a road or in a jungle, but at times he said it was easy to start up conversations with the locals and find yourself a free place to stay for the night.  This amazed me beyond belief and the more he told me about his 7 month escapade, the more I became inspired by his free-spirited nature and absolute love for travel.  I was awestruck at some of the stories he told me of the people he had met in several war-torn African countries.  These stories in which random strangers and families treated him with such intense generosity and placed such heavy trust in him gave me goose bumps!  In one instance, he met a man who had helped him with a flat tire.  The man proceeded to house and feed him for the next week, insisting that he stay as long as he wants and one day actually entrusted him to babysit his kids while he was away.  That to many others and myself sounds insane!  When asked why he did so much for a stranger, the man replied, “This is my country and you are my guest.  I will treat you with the same respect I treat my family and show you the best my country has to offer.  So I know that if one day I will visit your country you will do the same”. This made me feel a bit disgusted looking back at many societies in 1st world countries where people have more than enough to give and share with others, but if a foreigner were to come over the U.S or Europe for example, with no money or connections he would be left to starve on the streets.   Most of us have so much that we should be ever so grateful for, yet we don’t realize it in our daily lives.  In essence, there is one valuable lesson that Josef taught me about travelling.  It is not always about the adventures and the sights, but the most important aspect of travelling to him was that is constantly forces you to change the way you perceive life and world around you.  Travelling, in itself, is a life lesson in humility.  This year I hope to meet individuals, such as Josef that will open my eyes to new ways of thought and vigorously inspire me to branch out and learn to get rid of any preconceived notions of self-importance and thoughts that I have some privileged place in this world and to be able to interact with others simply as one human being to another.  We eventually said our goodbyes and he gave me his blog which he insisted that I read (only problem is that it’s in German..) so maybe once I become a bit more fluent I will attempt to give it a read! For any of you reading that might know a bit of German you should totally go and give it a look at !