Written By: Sal Hargis, 39th Cohort of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals
Before August of this year I had never lived outside of the United States, nor even my home state of Ohio. Although I have been learning German since high school, I was pretty nervous about the change!
I had no illusions that PPP would be challenging, in fact it was one of the very reasons I chose to be a part of the program. From the language, to living with a host family, to making friends in a foreign country, to all the unforeseeable challenges along the way (thank you “pay as you go” phone plans!), I knew that I certainly had a lot to learn!
My goal for myself was “to make the most out of the experience.” Afterall, being part of this fellowship is a once in a lifetime opportunity! But, what exactly does “making the most out of my time here” in Germany really mean? Does it mean traveling to another country every weekend? Studying all the time for my courses? For me it means having an attitude towards living in Germany and truly getting to know the people who live here. It is the culmination of small things, things that are difficult to explain to friends in a text or phone call since they are not major events you can wrap up nicely. The following are a few experiences that have meant the most to me so far. Enjoy!
Making Home Your Home
For the first two months in the language school phase I lived with a single host mother in Konstanz. Admittedly I was nervous to live with a host, as I lived independently in college for four years. However, it couldn’t have been better! She gave me a wonderful introduction to Germany through local food, showing me various towns in the Bodensee region, and through great conversations with her and her friends.
Likewise, I was able to teach her about America beyond the political headlines: I made her tacos for the first time, I showed her that Ohio is very different from New York or California (the typical German view of America), and my university’s crazy football traditions.
In the evenings we would often play Backgammon, something I had never done before. In the beginning I was bad, and in typical German directness, she didn’t have a problem letting me know. But, by playing nearly every night I started to improve. I was even starting to beat her most of the time towards the end of my stay there (although she may not admit it!).
But, those evenings weren’t really about the games themselves. They were about the conversations we had during them, the laughs and stories we shared.
Even talking with her 90 year old neighbor who was my age during the second world war, a Trümmerfrau who helped rebuild Germany. Those were the best moments, the times when I started to feel more at home in a foreign land.
Becoming Part of My Community By Giving Back
I was initially afraid to get involved in the community since I had so much to learn: language, culture, and socially fitting in. Should I wait until my German is perfect? Until I never make a social mistake? The answer of course is: No! I had to tell myself that my perfection paralysis was actually counterproductive, and that doing something poorly at first is necessary and better than not at all.
Luckily for me, once I moved to Saarbrücken my new long-term host family placement directed me to their nonprofit store “Charity Shop,” in which donated items are sold at low prices and 100% of the profits are donated to a local charity. The store also serves as a community meeting place of sorts, the customers typically being older or financially less fortunate members of the community. For them it’s a unique place to meet up at and socialize.
By helping at the store, I’ve been able to understand and interact directly with the varied and lively Saarbrücken community beyond what a visitor may experience, all while giving back to my city. It’s given me a closer tie to the city and a place that I can point to and say, “Hey that’s where I work, I’m a part of your community too.” Volunteering has reminded me that the best way to get involved in the community is to give back to it, since even a new resident such as myself has something to offer others.
Continuing My Passions
As much as living in a new country is about experiencing new things, I realized quickly that there’s no virtue in denying myself the things that I’m passionate about. In fact, I’d say pursuing what has been meaningful to me has allowed me to get closer to Germans and their culture. For me this has been hiking and running, which many Germans love to do too!
Whether I’m overwhelmed, need fresh air, or it’s just a nice day, hiking has always been time for myself. In Germany it has allowed me to discover my state of Saarland as well as the Black Forest region. Hikers on the trails are very approachable and friendly, making it easy to talk with people.
I once saw a man wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball hat and I asked him about it, to which he said that he had never been to America before. His face lit up when I told him that I was from that city and grew up going to the games that he watches! We talked about sports and America for the next hour before we split ways. While meetings such as these are small, the culmination of connecting with people has meant the most to me feeling at home.
I also enjoy distance running, as do many Germans. For me running is simply a fun way for me to get to know the area I live in more intimately than with public transportation. It has taken me to small villages, horse farms, and quiet neighborhoods.
While running is something I enjoy doing alone, I also wanted to be a part of an event with other Germans. The Schwarzwald Marathon is a relatively small marathon in the picturesque backwoods of Baden-Württemberg. It began in the town of my first host mom’s friend, and she gladly invited me to stay with her and her son the weekend of the event. I have always been pleasantly surprised at how hospitable and welcoming Germans have been, and how eager they are to get to know you and show you their country!
The marathon was difficult, with 1000 feet of elevation gain it was the most challenging race I have ever done, but also by far the most rewarding. Once I finished they gave me a beer (which seemed fitting) and the small village had a festival to celebrate its largest annual event. It was great to sit back and talk with other runners (who were surprised to see an American in this small town marathon!) and enjoy the beautiful autumn day.
Saying Yes to the Unknown
One of the best and simplest pieces of advice I was given before coming to Germany was the advice “say yes to things.”
It is simple and seemingly dismissible advice, however no other philosophy has allowed me to make more friends, meet more new people, or have as many spontaneous experiences as this one has. There’s a village festival Friday afternoon? Sure. My host invites me to her friend’s house in Freiburg? I’d love to come with. Students from my university course are meeting up after class? I’ll be there. I’ve been shocked by the abundance of opportunity in Germany, all I’ve needed was a willingness to say yes, and the courage to do so.
So far when friends and family call me from back home, they are eager to know what the best and most excited things I’ve done have been. Although I can talk about going to Oktoberfest and visiting cool cities, it’s the smaller moments in between that have meant the most to me.
Whether it be the late night conversations with my host family, meeting German students in my classes, going to a village festival or just finding an peaceful hiking trail all to myself– these are the moments I hold most dear to myself. These are the moments that have made Germany begin to feel like home, one small step at a time.
I began courses here at the Universität des Saarlandes in Saarbrücken just a few weeks ago for the Study Phase of the program, which lasts until February and at which point the Internship Phase will begin and continue until we leave in June.
While taking courses in German with German students has been challenging, it is intellectually stimulating and immensely helpful to have a high standard to strive towards. I can’t wait to continue my studies and start participating in the many clubs that the campus offers!
Soon enough in January we will find ourselves in Nuremberg for the midyear seminar and I can’t wait to see my CBYX friends that I met during the language school phase and learn about their experiences in Germany thus far! Until then, Tschüss!