No song unsung

I'm not the first exchange student, and I certainly won't be the last. I'm also not the first to travel the world or to have seemingly incredible dreams. But this was a first for me. A first with a whole bunch of other firsts inside it, an adventure that brought me to my knees with sadness and lifted me up higher than I've been before.
Many, many people have tried to describe a year of exchange, with varying degrees of success. There is something so inexplicable about what I've experienced for the past ten months and twelve days, since I landed in Germany with little idea of what to say, what to expect and what was going to happen to me. When I think about what this year has been, even to myself, the best words that I come up with have been so often used that they sound trite and meaningless: 'the time of my life;' 'amazing;' 'the best thing to ever happen to me.'
I'd dreamed of going on exchange for years, learning German to fully feel a part of my German heritage and family, meeting people from all over the world, seeing and trying new things, and seeing if I was brave enough, strong enough, to be alone in a new place and to build something for myself there.
In the day-to-day that became my life relatively soon after I arrived, I sometimes forgot that I was an 'exchange student:' that this year was, in fact, just a visit and that I hadn't lived here for as long as I could remember. Every day brought something new to discover, be it a grandiose sunset, a new piece in choir or orchestra, exploring a new city or visiting other exchange students. It was the most natural thing to go to school (though I couldn't understand much), speak (in broken German) with my host family, spend hours and days with my newfound friends (though I couldn't have imagined growing so close to them in such a short space of time). Over time, that became my life, instead of something I was doing for a year, until now, when being any other way than I am seems strange and wrong.
This year has been inscribed into the 'posterity' of the internet on this blog, a way to share tiny parts of my time here. I am so glad and thankful that I could write something to you, to give a glimpse of what seems the most glorious tapestry I could have been woven into.
In less than twelve hours I will be bidding my home here goodbye, reversing the journey I took in September and returning to the United States. Even now, it's hard to believe that I have to leave; up until about the end of May I believed that my time here would go on forever.
On Thursday night I gathered with the Neuer Kammerchor for a party celebrating our choir competition in Italy. That evening we roasted Spanferkel, a whole pig on a spit, and enjoyed summer salads, German cake and lots of bread alongside. Around midnight, the evening of laughter and dancing had to come to an end; my best friend from Colombia was leaving for the airport in just a few hours and I had to begin packing my suitcases.
As we began the long process of thank yous and goodbyes, the choir gathered around us. One light from the house shines into the corner of the memory I carry with me, as I stand under a tree surrounded by altos, sopranos, basses and tenors, holding their hands. With laughter and a few false notes, a song begins. I know all the words, though they are German, know them by heart. I've sung this song in my school, in a basilica in Rome, in neighborhood churches in Germany. As we begin, I suddenly cannot sing anymore. My voice quivers; I've just realized that this is the last time. The last time I will sing with this choir I dreamed of joining, with the people that have become my closest friends, and go home to my family, in the German town with the castle. In that moment, I know that my heart has grown larger than I could imagine, and also that it is going to be soon irrevocably split in two. And despite that great sadness, the happiness is a million times greater; I would do it all, again, the same way, in a heartbeat.
There are no words, no tears or laughter, no pictures that can completely sum up my exchange year in Germany. Nor is there a way to express my gratitude and joy that this opportunity was mine. To my families on both sides of the ocean, my friends old and new now scattered across the world, and to Rotary, the organization that made this year possible for me. It was an honor to be here, an honor to write about my adventures, an honor to realize that I am not the first. I am not the first, and not the last. I return laden with chocolates, postcards and stories, having grabbed everything I could out of this year, but not knowing a lot more than I did when I ate that ice cream back in September. I only know now how much I don't know--how much there is still see, to learn, to make and sing and do.
I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for sharing this year with me. As they say, exchange is not a year in a life; it's a life in a year. And there is a life ahead of me too, one that has been made so much fuller by my time in Germany.
As I said during my countless farewells, we'll see each other again.

With love and gratitude,

8. September 2012

12. July, 2013


The time of my life (V)

After one last (okay, let's just say it) meager French breakfast, Team Exchange Student meandered slowly hopped once again onto the bus. We bid a sad goodbye to Paris as we headed out of the city, but luckily it wasn't time to say goodbye to France quite yet.
Our way eastward was surrounded by yellow fields and blue road signs that pointed the way to French villages.
 Around lunchtime, we made a stop on the River Meuse, in the town of Verdun.
 The site of the infamous 1916 Battle of Verdun in WWI, the city sports memorials to one of the most devastating actions in military history, as well as signs of hastily rebuilt buildings. However, the tree-lined streets display beautiful prewar architecture and quaint buildings, and both towers and ruins of fortifications shows the long and rich history of Verdun.

Unfortunately we barely had time to enjoy the sunshine during lunch before heading on to the next port of call: Strasbourg. The names on the blue road signs looked increasingly German as we drew near; when we arrived in the city we realized with delight that Strasbourg was a wonderful mix of French and German atmosphere and culture.

 After dinner, we wandered the city before embarking onto a boat that chugged along the Rhine, past houses, cafes, and the European Parliament, and under low bridges where criminals were hung and kings and queens walked. Founded as a Roman military outpost in 12 BCE, the city has undergone many changes, made history and hosted many well-known names and events. The richness, beauty and energy of the city were tangible as we ate our gelato by the cathedral and walked over the bridges back to our hostel.

Our time in Strasbourg was much too short, as we drove away the next morning for the second-to-last stop on our tour: Europapark in Rust! Divided into different 'countries,' the amusement park offers roller coasters in Switzerland and Iceland and water rides in Greece. It was a lovely culmination to sit and scream together as we rolled upside down and explored a miniature Europe in the sunshine. 

In September, three weeks after I arrived in Germany, I went to Triberg im Schwarzwald, a town in the Black Forest, for a weeklong Rotary orientation where I met the other exchange students for the first time. From the moment exchange students meet, they have a connection that is impossible to explain; in that week I made some of the best friends and memories of my exchange year. At that time, I had no idea what was in store for the rest of the year. I had no idea of the friends and memories that were still to come.
Like I said, Eurotour was a distant spot on the horizon to be anticipated, as going on exchange was last year at this time. Once it arrived, it got better every day. Ups and downs and long bus rides and breathtaking views and the best friends in the world: Eurotour was a three-week microcosm of exchange for me.
I would never have believed how close I could become with people in the space of a year, how much time we could spend together and how many things we could experience and learn from and with each other. My heart has grown bigger in the past ten months, and now the pieces are scattered all over the world as we begin to go our separate ways again. I'm so grateful for the Eurotour experience, and so grateful to have shared such an incredible year with these other exchange students.

Current Event Juni

After a long winter full of snow, and a late spring, Germany was ready to welcome summer and the sun. However, May showers (or deluges) brought June...showers. Since the beginning of June, much of Germany has been on flood alert and cities such as Dresden and Leipzig have experienced serious flooding as rivers overrun their banks. The danger has touched multiple states in northern, southern and eastern Germany. Thousands have been forced to leave their homes, with damage to homes and other buildings in worth of millions of euros. Some whole towns and areas are still under water. Infrastructure such as streets, bridges and the infamous autobahn have also suffered damage, which in turn damages the economies of affected areas. Still more tragic is the loss of whole businesses, houses and enterprises which may not receive adequate insurance coverage, turning lives and livelihoods literally inside out.
The measure of the floods have topped the so-called 'Century Floods' of January 2002, making a new record.



The time of my life (IV)

Paris: The city of love, of dreams, of Moulin Rouge and hunchbacks and Marie Antoinette. Of river water, iron towers; Hemingway, Picasso and Stravinsky. Of late night jazz clubs, hawkers of souvenirs and a blur of colors and languages. 
And, for three days, our city: The city of the exchange students. 
We took the city by storm from the moment we saw it, devouring views and smells and sounds (and tastes) with our every pore and camera lens. 
 After a drive through Belgium (with a stop for chocolate) we arrived in the late afternoon gladly at our hotel. A quick jaunt through the neighborhood and a brief meal preceded our first big outing in Paris: the Eiffel Tower.
Having visited the Eiffel Tower before, I was excited to see the city but not bubbling over like many of my colleagues. But as soon as we got off the bus, my heart skipped a beat as the entwined metal loomed above me, glittering to signify the change of the hour. 
We crammed ourselves through turnstiles and into the elevator, rising up and up into the skyline of Paris. 
My breath was gone; we stood high above the city, wind whipping in our hair. Languages whirled, cameras flashed, and below us, there was a carpet of light.
The next day began bright and early with a breakfast of bread, hot chocolate and jam. No German spread of sausage and cheese and rolls and bread and crackers and fruit and Nutella and salad was this; we were most definitely in France now. 
Gastronomy aside, we packed our bags, hopped on the Métro, and climbed entirely too many steps to get to Sacré Coeur. 

The steps were worth it.
Since we were so good at being tourists, we figured we might as well stick to it; after a refreshing pain au chocolat we roamed the streets, searching. For what, we weren't sure. 
Then we figured the Louvre might be a nice place to start. 

Who doesn't love enjoying famous artwork in peace and quiet? 
The rest of the day was taken up by other famous sights, souvenirs, getting a bit lost and found again (several times) and trying very hard to remember how to speak French. 

Many hours and two tired feet later, we fell into bed. I wouldn't say we slept like kings and queens, but the next day we were royalty for a few hours. 

Versailles was even more packed with tourists than it had been in the late 18th century with courtiers and nobility. After singing and dancing standing in a long line, we entered the palace, shuffling along in hot crowds full of cameras. The gilded ceilings, tiled floors and embroidered hangings closed around us, until the Hall of Mirrors magnified everything for us. 
To continue our theme of simultaneous gross excess and great beauty, we spent the afternoon on the Champs-Élysées and the evening lounging by the Seine, soaking up the sun.

All in all, Paris was a triumph.


The time of my life (III)

By this time in our European adventure--for adventure it most certainly was--we were seasoned bus riders. We got in and got out (mostly) punctually, didn't litter the corridor of the bus (too much), and weren't too loud (except when we were).
But one thing we were really, really good at was looking out of windows. The German autobahn, while not quite as daredevil as most people think, is surrounded by green fields, rolling hills or the banks of a river. As I woke up from my second nap of the day, I glanced at my watch: still hours to go. Cows roamed the fields around us, little streams ran past square looking houses... Wait.
After a long debate, it was confirmed. Thanks to the EU's minimal border controls, we had rolled straight into Holland without being any the wiser.
Several hours later, something much more obvious was staring us in the face: the ocean. After nine months of living inland, smelling the air of the North Sea was like taking a long drink.
We boarded our ferry to Borkum, an island in the North Sea, for a day of resting and recharging. After a barefoot hike through a salt marsh, we took our rented bikes to the beach to soak up the sun and salt air, before watching the sunset from the top of a tall dike.

On Saturday morning, it was already time to leave. We bid the coastline goodbye and turned once again inland. Hours later, after driving through much more of Belgium, we arrived at our hotel, eight kilometers out of Amsterdam.However, as it frequently is in Europe, the problem of distance was solved happily by a train.


Masters of sightseeing, users of the buddy system, taking pictures as we walked and finding the best-priced postcards and pommes frites, we squeezed every bit and back alley of tourism out of Amsterdam in the evening we were there. We even took a turn through the famed Red Light District, where photos were strictly forbidden.

To find out where we went in our magical bus next, check back tomorrow!


The time of my life (II)

Waking up, I had to remind myself that we were in Berlin. The constant travel, switching of scenery and sensory overload was thrilling but exhausting. 
I hopped out of bed, woke my roommates and took a shower, ready to greet the day in a fresh new city. As I and the other exchange students breakfasted in the youth hostel, chattering about the day's plans, we took the trouble to look out the window. 
It was raining. 
But exchange students are an indomitable breed, refusing to be cowed even by cold, wet weather at the end of May. Unleashed for an entire day of free time on the city of Berlin, we first made stops to the souvenir shops before heading to some of Berlin's most beautiful attractions. 

Brandenburg Gate

Congress (Reichstag)
We walked and walked, up and down streets and bridges, stopping to nourish ourselves with pizza and chocolate from the Ritter Sport store, where I created my own custom chocolate.
Chilled to the bone but very warm with excitement, we slept very well before waking up the next morning to see an old friend: the sun. 
The day began with a tour of an old bunker in Berlin, where hundreds of people hid for several hours at a time during WWII. The walls glowed with phosphorescent paint; after only an hour underground with subway cars rushing overhead, I was glad to be back outside. 
After so much history, our group was in need of some nourishment. Dropped off in a little square in the city, we immediately went in search of nourishment: pommes (French fries), cookies and Currywurst (sausage with curry sauce). 
The day wasn't over yet: we were issued bicycles and handed over to a tour guide, who led us around the city. Once more we visited the Brandenburg Gate and the house of Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany),  the remnants of the Berlin Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie. 

Several of us made a stop at the Holocaust memorial on our way home. 

That evening, our entire group took a massive elevator to the top of the Reichstag, or German Congress. We watched the sun set over the newest city to find a place in our hearts, before heading back to the ground. 
In true Eurotour form, we headed out early the next morning, frantically boarding the bus with our luggage and then sleeping until we arrived at our next destination: Hamburg.


We spent the afternoon on a bus tour, examining the ornate houses and gorgeous gardens, lovely churches and streets. Hamburg, Germany's musical capital, is on a harbor, which meant a boat trip early the next morning, followed by fish for lunch, the necessary souvenir shopping, and an afternoon reveling in the sunshine. Getting a bit lost in a city is one of the best things that can happen to a person; asking locals for directions, seeing back alleys and getting mistaken for a German, and afternoon ice cream made Hamburg one of my favorite places on the tour. 

It's not over yet; stay tuned for the North Sea, Amsterdam and Paris!