Student reflects on her unique semester abroad

Studying abroad is an opportunity to have completely new experiences. Photo Credit: ciee.org

By Stephany Harrington

They told me to write while I was away. They said to write down my experiences so I could appreciate them later and relive them all over again. They said to do that and I didn’t. I have some regrets that I failed in something I had intended to do. I set a goal for myself and never came close. I could have had a lot of mate­rial to work with this year, but instead I have a memory that likes to blend days and mo­ments together until I am not sure I even lived it.

I wonder if my semester in Berlin was just a hazy dream that I sometimes feel I am still living.

I am not sure I will ever be able to put into words what I learned there. The same people who told me to write always ask me the same questions, “How was Berlin?” “How did you like Germany?” While asked with good intentions and some genuine inquiry, they are also too generic and not curi­ous enough. I cannot possibly sum up my experiences in one sentence because that belittles what I learned there, but for their convenience, I just say, “It was great, thanks!” or “I loved it.” After they hear my response they move on to the next person they want to see or talk to. And that’s usually it. Sometimes they ask me about the food, or how expensive things were. But it is still all very standard and basic.

No one has yet asked me what my experience really was. And I do not really think it is quite fair to blame them, because I still don’t think I could even really tell them. To verbalize four months into a concise story seems impos­sible for me.

I want to tell them that I arrived in Germany with some language background, but I was not pleased about how incompetent I felt when I col­lected my bags from luggage claim and had to interact with a grumpy, elderly cab driver who did not speak a word of Eng­lish. It turned out that I com­municated quite well with him, or as best that I could. I arrived at my intended destination so I considered it a success.

I want to tell them that I was terrified of everything: the new people, the language barrier, the city life, the fact that I was entirely alone. I am not a naturally homesick type of person, but this was differ­ent. At first I thought I made a mistake by coming to Berlin. Part of me wanted to take a flight back and stay at Gettys­burg for my spring semester. I called my parents as much as possible so I could maintain the support system that I was so far away from.

I want to tell them that little by little, the fear dis­sipated one day at a time. One of my greatest fears was meeting my host family. I had communicated with them via email in the preceding weeks, but it was still nerve-racking. Our host families picked us up at the first day of orientation. While I sat there watching host families pick up their guest students, it was like watch­ing orphaned puppies being adopted. Everyone was a little bit nervous, but we were still excited. And as I waited, I did not really know what to expect. And then I saw her. She came into the room with flowers in her hand, a small puppy trail­ing behind her, and a beautiful smile on her face. Although I had never seen her before, we looked at each other with slight familiarity, and that’s when I knew she was my host mom.

I want to tell them that although we began as complete strangers, I came to deeply care about my host family. I played games with my nine-year-old host sister, and im­mersed myself completely into the language. I spoke German every day with them, and that frequency forced me to let go of my self-consciousness and just speak. I learned public trans­portation all on my own, and after a while people asked me for directions on the street. It made me smile a bit to myself, because when they saw me, they assumed I was German, not American. I started to feel like I belonged there.

I want to tell them that although I did not think it was possible, I became a Berliner. I walked with them, spoke with them, and ate with them. I have a new family now on the other side of the world. I miss them, but even that does not quite explain how I feel.

I want to tell them that after three months of living in Berlin, I finally felt like I was at home. And I already had to pre­pare myself for leaving it. That last month passed so quickly, with final exams and the need to squeeze everything I had not done into only a few days. I sat by the Brandenburg Gate at night and people-watched. I walked to my homestay apart­ment and felt the breeze at my back and smelt the flowers in full bloom, while watching cars pass on the cobblestone street. All of these things felt familiar. Home.

I want to tell them that the hardest thing was saying goodbye. That yes, I missed America, but I will always miss Berlin. I will always miss the people I met and the things I did there. Sometimes I replay the memories like a reel and even see them merge together. Somehow four months turns into one short scene.

How was Berlin? How did you like Germany?

It was great, thanks. I loved it.

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Author: Isabel Gibson Penrose

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