Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life in Germany?

So I haven't blogged in a while...but the reason was because I couldn't figure out what I'd write about. Nothing extremely exciting has happened recently...other than Marie-Claire turning 18, and now she's allowed to drive by herself, but that couldn't be a theme for a blog entry. (The party was a lot of fun. I had a few of great conversations (in german). Kaputt after the party was over around 3am on Sunday. Blog entry complete.)

And so after talking to my friend, Emily, she agreed with and encouraged my proposed theme: Life in Germany. It seems kind of broad, I know, but after Janaury being over, and the 5th month marker approaching, I feel like my time in Germany has started to feel like something that's rather normal. When you arrive at a foreign, new, and different place every...or basically everything is different: the language...the dial tone for when the phone rings...there's a Channel 1...the way you cut your food...etc. I believe I've written this before, but it's called the Honeymoon phase...probably the most exciting part with many hopes and expectations ahead of you. But eventually you get used to everything that is new...and I'm definitely at that point now.

-It's not that hard for me to wake up and automatically start speaking German. It's just normal for me now.
-I go to school with the S-bahn, and I carry a huge dictionary in my backpack. It's just normal.
-In other words...I feel like I'm living a "german" lifestyle. And to be honest...it doesn't feel like it's been too much of a change. But in retrospect, it's been a lot more adjusting than it feels like now. But anyways, the little things added up.

So the last three weekends I've got to one birthday party each weekend. In Germany, 18 is the significant birthday because you gain all the rights of a citizen: the right to drink, smoke, vote, drive (when you've got through Driving School prior)...and probably a few more rights that I can't think of at the moment. But after three in a row...it didn't seem as special. They were all pretty similar: beer, snacks, champagne (for when the clock strikes midnight - when the Birthday-person is officially a year older), at least one person who drank too much, and everyone else is just dead tired. I wasn't really a party-goer in NJ, and I didn't really stay out until 2 or 3 in the morning...however, in Germany, that's normal! Germans seem to take everything they do seriously, including partying, even though they do laugh and smile practically the entire time.

But let me just step to the side of my theme for a minute and explain something: What everyone believes to be typical German is completely not true about them. Yes it's not common for a German to flash a smile to a stranger walking down the street...and yes they are very honest...and yes their opinions can (occasionally) offend an American. But they are so much more diverse than that. If you don't know...the world thinks that Americans are all fat and only eat McDonald's. So it's never wise to judge someone based on stereotypes: but we must all admit...we've done it sometime in our lives. But I find that Germans are people that value trust a lot. Germans are content even if everyone doesn't like them. Germans take longer to warm up to you than some other cultures...they'd rather shake your hand for a while and get to know you before they give you a hug. But for anyone coming to a new environment...sometimes something like this is hard to adjust to, if that's not what you're used to. I know especially my friends from Italy and Latin America had a challenge with this. But this is a "shell" that you have to get through, and once you are welcomed into the "borders of trust", you know that you've got someone (a German) you can trust. But this is an aspect of the German culture that is normal to them...and that something I'm still learning. Because in general, human nature is usually something you can't always predict...just like the weather.

However these past months have been a lot of immersing and adjusting, and then re-immersing and some more adjusting. You learn from mistakes; you notice things that are done in a different way; you questions somethings that don't seem to be logical to you. But you adjust, and then you find it also to be normal. The human brain is a sponge that will absorb information if the person is open to it, and as a foreign exchange student, being open to new things is the only way to survive and prosper. And you learn to adjust. So maybe I should say that "my time in German is something that I've become accustomed or adjusted to and I've accepted this lifestyle as normal." Things are done differently here: not wrong in any way...just simply different. But I feel like it's not different at all anymore. And I'm sure after having adjusted here, I'll won't completely notice all the minute adjustments that I've made.

But there is excitement is that: Learning! Learning about yourself. Learning about life. Learning about how to cope. Learning how to accept. Learning how to be independent. Learning how to trust yourself. And through learning, you explore more, and therefore it's a cycle that I find very fascinating. And sometimes it's more obvious when everything's new, but with a little more effort, you're bound to find something. I'm proud to say that I try to do that, or in another way...have no regrets.
"You don't regret what you did do...you regret what you didn't do."
-Cheyanne Ivey
2009 German Honor Society Induction.


Moreover, even though things feel like they've become more "normal", some things are still different, such as the traffic lights and signs. And you can always find something a little different around the corner, or even with the convenience of a SchokoTicket. For example, I used my SchokoTicket to go to Düsseldorf to buy donuts at Dunkin' Donuts and then we drove to Essen (where we found another Dunkin' Donuts) and drank Glühwein on Friday. Lucka and I found an ice rink and found out that Essen is the Cultural Captial of Europe for 2010. I told my host parents about the ice rink, and they told me there's also one in Krefeld. This weekend, Claude took me to a boat exhibition...the largest in the world in Düsseldorf...so there's always something new.




Wir essen Essen in Essen!
We eat food in Essen...my dream statement in to be able to say in German!



So I wish you all a wonderful new month! (Ich wünsche euch einen schönen Februar!) February is here in a few hours!

Bis dann,
Matt

Friday, January 22, 2010

You Know You've been in Germany too Long when...

Well I have a funny story, but a little embarrassing, so I'm going to start off by apologizing to my country, the United States: to the veterans, my family, my grandpas, and to all Americans.

Barbara, Claude, and I were eating dinner, and I got a letter today about who my Bundestag Resprentative (German Congressman) is...and then that sparked a conversation about national anthems. I explained how every morning before school starts we recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And Claude and Barbara asked me to recite it, but I stumbled about half way through. And I couldn't get past the 3rd line after several attempts. I had to look in the internet for the correct words. And maybe learning all this German has put my patriotic songs and pledges in a filing cabinet in the back of my brain...I'll consult "Organization & Management" (my brain) on Monday...it's closed for the weekend.

I guess you can really learn a lot about your country, that you thought you knew by heart, when you don't live there for an extended period of time.

Here is the Pledge of Allegiance for all the non-American readers and the forgetful Americans, like myself:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Schöner Feierabend!
Matt

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hast du Heimweh?

Well I just got finished reading my second book this week titled Double Take by Kevin Michael Connolly. This book looks at the world from a different view point because the author was born without legs, whereas the protagonist in have a little faith (the Reb) is well over 6 ft. tall. However, Kevin traveled to 17 countries all over the world and captured over 33,000 pictures of people staring and reacting to his appearance, being a torso without legs that is. And so Kevin wrote some points about realizing how things change at home with or without you present to witness them.

But I'm going to take this theme a little back in time. When I left New Jersey, and arrived to Washington, D.C., I was focusing on my year ahead of me. There were so many doors and windows of opportunity that I was formulating in my head and thinking:...what parts of Germany I really want to see and prioritize them...I'll probably be totally fluent in German by the time November rolls around...it won't be too hard to make friends..., but in simpler words: I overlooked all these important, major details as minor parts of life that wouldn't be anything more than small obstacles. They call this phase, the Honeymoon Phase, because everything is new and exciting, but you don't realize exactly how much you need to digest and process to become adjusted as best you can to your new environment. Furthermore, this adjustment phase doesn't happen overnight...and probably it takes longer than you'd like it take. This made me impatient at a few points thus far in my stay. And sometimes this impatience or frustration led to homesickness.

The first time I tried to say "homesick" in German, I said "Hauskrank." (Haus = house, so I implied home, and Krank = sick). I was corrected with the correct word, "Heimweh" (Heim = home, weh = ache or pain). And if you take this translation, it's probably more accurate than "homesickness" because you really ache for home.

But "home" is such a general term, usually I've found it that I miss one individual thing at home at a time. And during my 2nd and 3rd months, in particular, I would pass by or see something that reminded me of home, or the States, and that would make me stop and think for a moment about home. Usually it would pass, but my more painful instances of homesickness have been more me missing family members, especially my Pop Joe. We spoke literally everyday since I was around 5 years old, and for me to have my last phone call on July 26th, and then to tell him I was going to visit him on Monday (the 27th), I never expected he would pass away that evening, a half hour after I arrived. But there have been other times where I've missed talking to some of my friends and family back home. Sometimes it's really frustrating when you can't say exactly what you want to say, and it's impossible to express it with charades. But I've also learned who my friends (or the people that actually care about me) are because they've put an effort in staying in touch with me since I flew across the ocean. (My family is always going to be my family..and they have done a great job! Love you guys!) But yeah...people have shown me their true colors in a way.

Moreover, while I've been homesick for my family and friends, there have also been things I've been homesick for:
-my bed (as comfortable as my bed here is...it took a little getting used to.)
-Dunkin' Donuts (but I found 2 in Köln and one in Düsseldorf, and they sell Boston Creme donuts, so it's okay)
-Certain foods, like bagels...some candies (Reeses Peanut Butter cups, Oreos, Skittles...Aunt Nancy, you know me well.)
-hugs from Family and Friends (Skype is wonderful...but unfortunately no human touch. And German hugs are not quite the same, nor as good as American hugs.)
-the holidays were also different without the people I've always celebrated them with.
-and there are also minor things that I won't be able to think of right now off the top of my head

I wrote this blog because I'd like to share insight of the times that aren't so great as an exchange student. But do not conclude that being an exchange student is overly depressing (and I'm not either), but it's also not 100% fun and games. It's life...just altered with the language, culture, and people you spend it with. Life goes on...but an exchange student literally steps out of their life at home for a year, in my case.

But the best way to avoid this "Heimweh" is to stay busy and be distracted from missing home. I was a little homesick at the beginning of the week, but I went to the movies two times yesterday. I saw "Fame" with Lucka, and then Marie-Claire asked me if I wanted to go see "Friendship", a German film, which was really funny about two Germans that fly from East Germany, just after the Berlin Wall has fallen, to the USA. They try to make it from New York City to San Francisco, and they have adventures and obstacles that test their friendship...but it was so good! And today, I tried fencing (the sport - Fechten). The coach is a guy from Belgium, so he was pretty cool. There's a lot to learn, but I'm willing and going to go back on Monday for the next practice. I also had off from school today because of report card conferences, so I have school tomorrow and then, the weekend!

I've got to find a book in German now! :-D

Schönes Wochenende!
Matt

P.S. I forgot to mention how I got a three-day weekend last weekend without a snow or sick day! The first 6 periods got cancelled for me because the teacher was sick and then there was a test that I didn't have to take. But I only had art, and a student is allowed to skip class if the drive to and from school (25 minutes each way for me) is longer than the instruction time (which was 45 minutes). So I got a day off!! Gotta love Germany!!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Reflection of My Time in Germany

So I've been in Germany for just a little over four months, and after reading have a little faith by Mitch Albom, it's made me want to reflect on my last four months in Germany. I know I've been simply writing about what I've been doing, and some of my reactions to things and experiences. But I feel like I've left the reader to react and create their own opinion of my experiences have been like for themselves.

I set a few personal goals before I left for Germany, but they were pretty generic.
-Learn German as quickly as I can.
-Try as many new things as possible.
-Meet new people, particularly German people.
-Try to develop friendships that will last beyond this year.
-See and explore as much as I can about Germany and its culture.

AFS tells you not to go with many expectations about your year abroad. Probably because the anticipation can mislead you, or you may get a little too disappointed. The other thing that AFS never told us was that we were going to get bored. Mitch Albom writes how the Reb's wife made a joke that she's been married happily for 30 years, but in reality she's been married for longer than 30 years. But an hour here...thirty minutes there...it adds up. And that how they should describe a year abroad. Overall this far, I've really enjoyed my time...but certainly not every second. So you have to get creative and occupy yourself!! AFS also said that every AFS year is different...and that I can certainly imagine.

However, I have learned so much more than I expected in ways I did think I could. That might sound a little vague, but I have accomplished many obstacles through trial and error (with about 1% trial and 99% error). There have been many little things that most of the time are overlooked and not noticed for what an accomplishment they really are.
-I've learned to tolerate the blunt opinions of Germans, especially since some criticisms were delivered harsher than others.
-I'm still learning how to live with sisters.
-I'm still learning about the German perspective on things, but it seems like the stereotype I heard about Germans has been in majority completely false.
-I've learned it's usually wise to take a risk when you have nothing to lose. (For example: Don't be afraid to speak with people.)
-I've learned the difference between living with a cat (current host family) and a dog (first host family), and that my dog at home is a strange mix of the two.
-I've learned to laugh at myself (more easily). And it seems like everytime I say something wrong, it has a bad connotation.
-I've learned how much I really put my faith in God and hope, and sometimes that is all I can trust.
-I'm still learning to speak my opinion and directly answer a question.
-I've learned every family is different, no matter the similarities two or more families may share. The Smiths are the Jones and never will be.
-I've learned to appreciate where I come from. Even though I'm open to try new things, things are not the same like they are at home.
-I've learned to accept and tolerate differences of opinion. For example, Claude told me he felt that Germany was a country with more freedoms. I didn't really know how to respond, he caught me dumbfounded, but you learn so much by just listening. Which I had to do for a while since I couldn't say exactly what I wanted to in German.
-I've learned that people are the toughest part of this experience. I've made friends with people who I thought, "Oh yeah...like we'll be friends." And on the other hand, people I've trusted have drifted away.

This list could go on for a very long time, and I'm not sure then I could remember every little thing I learned about myself.

But allow me to take a step back a little to where I was before I left for Germany. Throughout high school I was an avid swimmer, and swimming and school were always my priority, and I had a very structured lifestyle with the demanding practice schedule of swimming. I was also a Special Olympic swim coach at the same YMCA. I graduated from high school #24 out of a class of 700. My GPA was something to be proud of. My family, in particularly Pop Joe, and Germany were my main focuses during the summer of 2009. Pop Joe died at the end of July, and he was one of the people I admired most. He was a very influential person in my life, and you really learn who your friends are when something like that happens. And so I left for Germany with lifted spirits, excited for what I was to experience in the year abroad. And I'm just about 40% complete with my 10 months away, and sometimes I can't fathom all that I've experienced. There's no need that I re-state all that I've done because I've blogged those experiences regularly. However, this has definitely been the largest growing experience of my 19 years on Earth, and it's definitely been worth it.

I've been asked if I regret anything that I've done over the last few months. And I don't regret anything specifically because it has brought me to this point and has happened with a purpose. And here's an example of how everything works out for a reason. My best friend here is a girl from the Czech Republic. She lived not too far from me in Moers. So we bonded having lived so close and saw each other so often. At the beginning of November Lucka switched host families. But she told me about a trip to Amsterdam that her AFS chapter was taking. I was not in that chapter then, but I asked if I could join them. During that trip, I met Marie-Claire, and we had exchanged phone numbers and stayed in touch with texting. So two weeks or so later, my host family and I decided it would be better if I switched as well. So now I'm Marie-Claire's host brother. So this example is obvious to me that things happen for a reason, and they have an order to them. So no regrets. And I feel there's a power greater than me guiding me. I'm certain there are a few special angels watching over me, and many more in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and one in Wisconsin cheering me on. I find it amazing how this community of support...at home...within AFS...my friends I've made through AFS has made me feel more confident in this foreign country.

I've also been asked "How's your Germany coming?". And I'd like to start off by saying whoever felt that after having no German in school and only living in Germany for three months they were fluent...WRONG!!! Not true. Although I can say that I understood a solid majority of what was going on around me by the end of October and able to speak basically what I wanted to say (even if I had to describe my way around a word I didn't know in German) by the end of November, I'm still learning everyday. And I really think that will continue throughout my year, never really ending. I don't usually remember my dreams, and I only remember one, partial dream in November where I dreamt in German. But it was so gradual that now I can think in German. I was eating breakfast, and I told my self in German, "Immer noch denke ich auf Englisch." (I'm still thinking in English). So that made me realize that German had solidly sunk into my brain.

So I know this sounds corny and cliché, but I've feel that I've grown so much as a person. And as for the kid that was ambitious about being a translator of 5 or 6 languages, well I'm leaning towards something else, but I'm not exactly sure what. Psychology? Socialogy? I know I'd like to use my skills in German in life somehow. And I'd like to pick up at least Spanish too. But this is getting off track. In conclusion, I've learned a lot more about myself being in a foreign environment...one more different from home than I realized. And if this is all that's happened in the last four months...then who knows what else to expect? No idea...Keine Ahnung.

(And so I feel like I've said what I intended to.)
Schönes Wochenende,
Matt

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

4 Monate in Deutschland!!

Hi everyone! Today marks the 4th month that I've been in Germany! Man has the time been going quickly...i can only imagine how fast the rest of it will go!

So now school is back in full swing and it's not any different than it was in 2009. But I'm going to focus on the last week of my Winter vacation. I went to Cologne (Köln) for New Year's. And the Germans take their celebrations of Silvester (New Year's Eve) very, very seriously. I had a fun time and it was very different than the traditional New Year's Eve that I'd spend with my brother and Pop Joe and we'd bang pots and pans to signify the new year! But this year, I went to a party at fellow CBYXer Marios' house and it hosted a great party. His friends were really friendly and I saw Claire and Mark, my other American AFSers there, so it's simply a good time whenever we get together. But it was really quiet on January 1st. I took two trains home from Köln and it was really quiet...like an eire quiet. Maybe because everyone is so exhausted from the celebrations of the previous night. A lot of people looked like they hadn't slept at all. And so the next day, I was underway to visit my fellow CBYXer, Emily, along with Marie-Claire. The train wasn't bad, but the ICE was awesome!! There was wi-fi, which I didn't realize until we had 5 minutes left in the ride, but now I know about it! And so when we got there, Emily showed us around her village, which had some very nice ruins that was a 5 minute walk from her house.


And so Emily and I introduced the card game "Bullshit" to her family (and Marie-Claire), and it was the fun evening activity for the next three days. It was really a lot of laughs, and we weren't very good at lying.

The second day (Sunday) was Ulm! There is a tongue twister (Zungenbrecher) "In Ulm, um Ulm, und um Ulm herum", so try to say that 3 times fast! It's not easy at all. And so Ulm has the highest Cathedral in the world, and even though we weren't allowed to walk all the way to the top because of the ice it was still an awesome view! And it was an absolutely gorgeous day! And so we went to a Bread Museum, since we couldn't find whatelse to do, but it was fun because there was a computer program designed for children that kept us entertained.





The 3rd day was the highlight of the new year thus far! MUNICH!! It was Emily, her host sister, Marie-Claire, and myself, and we did a city tour on a bus and that provided some cool information. I listened to the speaker in a little Swedish, but mostly German and English, and it was interesting. But I'm interested to see more! And so we went to the Englischer Garten, Hofbräuhaus, and saw the Rathaus (town hall). But Munich is so big, you can't explore the entire city in one day. I'm planning to make it back there before I come back to the USA. It's really a nice city to visit! And in fact, I heard more English with tourists asking where to find stuff compared to people speaking German. And I'll mention that I got carded when I ordered a Radler (half lemonade/half Dunkel beer) at the Hofbräuhaus. So I'll take it as a compliment that I look younger than 19.




And so on Tuesday, after a visit with the best weather that Emily has seen since she moved to her village near Ulm in September, Marie-Claire and I returned home. Well I was exhausted after that awesome visit!! And the pictures are up on Facebook. Along with the snow angels that Emily and I made in the Englischer Garten and when we printed out a train ticket at 10:30pm! (It's called (or at least I call it in German) "Guck und Druck" which means "Look and Print"). But Wednesday I went to Köln with Juan and Giulia, and so we went to the Chocolate Factory, the Kölner Cathedral, and the overview point where you can see everything in the city. It was pretty cool. And the bridge that goes over the Rhein River has thousands of locks with names of couples. And this signifies the forever love they possess. They lock the lock on the bridge and then throw the key into the Rhein.

And that ends a magnificient Winter Break! Thursday and Friday weren't bad in school. I started to understand Math, so I'm really starting to feel progress with understanding what's going on with school. Although I need to say how much I love my new school! I feel like it's such a better fit since I switched! It's been awesome that everyone's been so friendly and I feel really welcome there! But over the weekend, I went to an 18th birthday party for a girl in my school, went to youth group in Duisburg and also said good-bye to the Winter Arrival group of AFSers (which was very depressing to be honest, to imagine myself in that position in 6 months), and on Sunday I went by Lucka's house and we watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding in german, which was fun!

School was fine on Monday and Tuesday. I really had a good time when I started Sport today. It was more like recess compared to the painfully boring gym I've had the past. But I'm going to start reading my two books I got from Christmas...they're in English if that's what you're thinking...but after those two...my next book will be in German!

Schöne Woche!!
Matt

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Info and Photos to Come!

Hi everyone!

I have been very busy this week and don't have enough energy to do a blog entry, but I'm going to say that it's currently -11ºC (12ºF) outside, and on Saturday it's supposed to get to -20ºC (4ºF) with a strong chance of snow. And I'm going to be using all the winter clothing I got for Christmas. Thanks Mom, Dad, Brian, and Aunt Nancy!! School started today, but the weekend starts tomorrow!!! I'll write about my last bit of break over the weekend, probably during the snowstorm!!

Schönes Wochenende!!
Matt

Friday, January 1, 2010

Prost Neu Jahr!!

Prost Neu Jahr!! Happy New Year!!

And I forgot to write that New Year's Eve is called "Silvester", which the first time I heard that I thought of the cartoon character.

Tomorrow I'll be in Ulm!

I wish you all a wonderful 2010!

Matt