CBYX Blurs the Lines Between Hosts and Families

Whether it’s watching Keeping up with the Kardashians or the German crime drama Tatort, sharing an excursion to the former East/West German border, or checking out the Gum Wall in Seattle, cultural exchange takes on many different forms for Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) participants.

Many American and German participants are placed with host families during their year abroad to facilitate their immersion. But for a couple of families, the connection to the program runs deeper than that.

Sophie with her youngest host sister at the Gum Wall in Seattle

When Ilana Novakoski mentioned to her mother, Heather Hein, that host families were needed in the U.S., Heather was happy to help. Her family already knew about the program.

“Our daughter, Ilana, had a fantastic year participating in [CBYX] in Germany last year,” she said. Both in Germany and the U.S., CBYX participants attend university classes in the fall and spend the remainder of their year gaining additional work experience. Since August, Sophie Maier, a 22-year-old German, has lived with Ilana’s family in Woodinvale, Washington.

Even as a first-time host, Heather describes the process as much easier than she expected. “Sophie describes herself as ‘uncomplicated,’ and I’d say that’s true,” she said. “She’s happy to participate in whatever we’re doing, but also perfectly content to pursue independent activities.”

The family took Sophie to local attractions like a bird sanctuary, Snoqualmie Falls, and the Seattle Gum Wall. They’ve also introduced her to American media like The Bachelor, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and Say Yes to the Dress, and have plans to attend a musical together soon.

Sophie spends some time with the rest of the non-native English speakers staying with Heather

The family helped Sophie with logistics at the start of the year by taking her to get a social security number, apply for a driver’s license, set up a bank account, and find a car along with insurance.

Sophie and her host family are learning the nuanced differences between American and German culture. “I see my grocery store with new eyes,” Heather noted. “When I say I’ll ‘bake a cake,’ for example…, that usually means using a box mix, and this was new to her.” Sophie, on the other hand, was surprised by the pets’ prominence in the family. Heather’s family has several dogs, tortoises, and a tarantula. “[The dogs] all love the extra walks and playtime they get,” Heather said. “[Sophie] draws the line at having them sleep in her room at night…”

Across the pond, 22-year-old Tommy Ruether also ended up with a host family with close ties to the CBYX program. A native of Washington, Missouri, Tommy is living with Stefanie Hugo and Dorothea Hartman in Magdeburg, a city in Central Germany. They are the parents of current German participant Til Hugo—who is staying in Portland, Oregon.

Tommy, Dörte, and Steffi’s parents outside Lager-Dora Concentration Camp

While Til explores the Pacific Northwest, Tommy is getting to know Magdeburg and its surrounding areas. “They are really two of the nicest people I have ever met,” said Tommy, who affectionately refers to his host parents as Steffi and Dörte. “They’ve taken me to Nordhausen to visit Dörte’s parents and Maasholm to visit Steffi’s. We’ve also taken day trips around Sachsen-Anhalt to climb the Brocken and visit some of the older towns.”

As with Sophie, Tommy also pursues independent activities beyond his work and studies. He volunteers locally for an AIDS relief organization and is introducing technology to local seniors. Some of his other favorite experiences in Germany include searching door-to-door for his host mothers’ lost cat, chopping down a neighbor’s tree, and partaking in the weekly ritual of watching the German crime drama Tatort on Sunday evenings. Tommy said he often finds himself “sitting with my host moms around the table and plauschen [German: chat, talk digressively] about everything between god and the earth.”

Tommy, Dörte, Steffi, and her parents visiting a beach on the North Sea

Tommy’s and Sophie’s experiences reflect a broader trend. Family outings, shared homes, and pastimes like plauschen blur the lines between hosts, participants, families, and friends during the CBYX program. The stories of participants like Tommy and Sophie highlight the deep bonds which occasionally develop throughout the course of the program and also clearly demonstrate how the influence of the program’s cultural exchange extends far beyond its applicants.