Our interview was going well. I had quick answers to every question. Sol, the other exchange student from Argentina, and I were enjoying our time with the reporter; we easily bounced off each other, adding more details and anecdotes to our stories. I had an answer to every question…until the reporter asked what I would miss the most from my study abroad. That’s when it hit me–I’m actually leaving.
It was June of 2014 and I had two days left in the small German city I called home for the past ten months. I spent nearly a year building a life in the city of Bad Bentheim and now I had to leave it. Declaring one thing as something I would miss the most felt like a crime. I breathed in, counted to three, and then exhaled in order to clear my racing mind.
Never again could I feel at home in one place because a piece of me would forever be in Germany. Realizing this is as beautiful as it is sad. Teachers told me studying abroad is a special opportunity to travel, develop foreign language skills, and understand other cultures. These are all true, but studying abroad is special because of the relationships developed.
Even to this day, three years later, I call my host parents mama and papa (mom and dad are reserved for my birth parents). They were never hosts; rather, they were loving parents who cared about my growth and safety. Mama ensured I had a warm meal every night. Papa encouraged me to follow my dreams. Mama comforted me when I learned my grandmother was in the hospital and papa told me my singing was lovely, even though it is most similar to the sounds of a dying walrus. They paid for a bus ticket when it was too cold to ride my bike to school, laughed every time I biked into a street light, cheered when I earned a good grade, and corrected me when I made a grammar mistake. Calling them host parents seems unworthy of everything they devoted to me.
My German friends are some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. We depended on each other for support and good times. We always had a good time, even when they introduced themselves with false names for the first few days. They helped me learn German by teaching me new words and correcting my grammar, tutored me in difficult classes, lent me money when my card was canceled due to suspicious charges, and always ensured I was having the time of my life. All the late-night dancing, morning breakfasts, bike accidents, and late-night Döner runs made my year in Germany unforgettable.
Deep friendships were found in the other Rotary exchange students. They understood how high the high moments and how low the low moments were because they, too, experienced these moments. We laughed through language mistakes together, such as when I said “Ich bin voll” during a Rotary meeting believing it meant ‘I’m full’ or ‘I’m no longer hungry’ (it actually means ‘I’m drunk’). We suffered through travel mishaps together, like paying 20 euros to take a picture with a pigeon. We matured together. A year away from everything familiar is challenging, especially at a young age, but it was made possible with the wonderful support system of other exchange students.
Sure, I would miss the excellent European public transportation, homemade Knüdle, and casually sitting in the town square with friends and family. But none of that forms memories or strengthens relationships. I decided to study abroad because of the educational opportunities. I decided to stay because of the relationships developed.
The reporter asked for a shorter answer. I said, “sitting at an ice cream shop in the city center” and explained that’s where my first and last memories were created. My host family and I ate ice cream on my first day in Germany and there I was eating ice cream on my last day. It’s where my classmates told me that, although my passport says I’m American, I am a real German. Ice cream shops remind me of my German parents and friends to this day. That very ice cream shop is where I decided to study abroad again.
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