Bridging Borders, Memories to Last a Lifetime

October 1, 2012
In October of 2011, I had the opportunity, along with eleven others from Troy High School, to open my arms to eleven German exchange partners, as they would do the same for us in a short six months. Eleven of us had been preparing for this exact moment for the past three years through our years of learning the German in high school. The classroom was just the backdrop for a group that turned into lifelong friends.

Working through the German American Partnership Program (GAPP), we managed to have everyone from each side go to the same school, and live in the same general district – this was very generalized in America, since I personally live about an hour away from most others in the group. The German group was the first to make the exchange, and travelled the world to come to our small town of Troy. One wouldn’t imagine how different our two cultures are until you witness it first-hand. You wouldn’t think that the extraordinarily active German culture would coincide with the laid back American culture, but somehow it works, and as they say: opposites attract.
While the eleven German students were here, we took them through our school and did all of the touristic activities that one would imagine doing while living on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. My partner, Marike, and I visited New York City for a day and hiked the Watkins Glen Gorge. In New York, a world all anew opened for Marike, who lives in a small home in a town that has everything she needs in a minute’s walk away, and at most a bike ride away. Climbing to the top of Rockefeller Center and staring down the seventy four floors to the ice rink at the very bottom, it was a unity of two different cultures at what seemed like the top of the world. After about a month of being in America, the calendar turned to Halloween, which the German culture is not nearly as eccentric with, which was an interesting experience for all of our exchange partners. All of them were excited just to dress up, let alone get all the candy that they did.

Six excruciating long months later, in April, we made the trek to Germany, and realized how different the two cultures really were in regards to, well, everything about them, learning that what the Germans joked about our culture being laid back weren’t all that sarcastic. We found out very quickly that even if you are well trained in the art of bicycle riding, you are still ignorant until you go to Germany where they don’t have any “low” bike seats. You have to basically hold the bike sideways to the ground when not in motion. Biking in Germany is practically a religion, but they managed to let up on us once they had their fun of watching us fail to ride as smoothly as they do. The entirety of the school is different as well; there is no student parking lot provided on campus of a high school, but instead a bike rack is in its place. From day to day, the classrooms change places, and sometimes your class will get a call that the session has been cancelled for a day, along with an occasional eighty minute break where there is no class at all; we really felt as if we were at college instead of just a high school.
At one point during the trip – perhaps a favorite of mine – we took a ferry to the island of Föhr and then visited the Hallige Hooge’s, which were a cluster of gorgeous islands protecting the northeast of Germany from the North Sea. Only thirteen families are housed on these islands. On the island of Föhr we saw houses that were lined with thatched roofs and each house had a year on the front of it, representing the year that the house was first built, and the oldest that we had seen was 1268. With this island being a small pile of earth in the middle of the North Sea, floods weren’t only occasional, but as expected as we expect a snowstorm every spring in central Pennsylvania.

While in Germany, I was fortunate enough to find out just how fast the people there will walk – rather, run. This is one of the big differences between a German community that rarely takes an automotive form of transport unless travelling at least an hour away as compared to an American farming community that only about a quarter of the school district is within even remotely walking distance of the school. When we Americans do go for long walks, we like to smell the flowers and watch the world around us, as compared to most Germans when they will get to where they are going with speed without breaking a sweat. Neither culture is wrong, it is rather a matter of how we handle ourselves.

You would be amazed at how different it feels to host a foreign exchange student than to be in someone else’s home in an entirely different country. To host feels natural, like a good friend is residing with you for a few weeks, and so you don’t really think about how they feel in comparison to how familiar the host family will act with everything about their home, or even their town. To be in the exchange student’s position is a completely new and terrifying world. Two opposite cultures and two opposite families that don’t do many things the same within the household is such a change that it is hard for the exchange partner on either end when in opposite places. My partner always acted nervous for the first week and a half, timidly taking on new things here and there while trying to speak more and more English; she started out simply saying hello and goodbye, and then slowly progressed into having full on conversations with us for hours. When I was in her home, I was the same way, even though my German was not nearly as advanced as her English was. Being there, in someone else’s home, I was afraid to ask for things, but my host family was extremely generous and helped me loosen up and did things for me I would never have dreamed to ask them to do. Hosting a family and being in someone else’s home may be terrifying, but both experiences I had were some of the most memorable times I have ever had and ever will have. It is true that the world is large, but it may seem small by how two cultures can come together in unison in such a case as this one.

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