Stay how you are, our little Australian…
These are words I never thought I’d hear. You see, when I was 17 I won a scholarship to be an exchange student to Germany for a year. Wide eyed and full of anticipation a young girl from a small country town in Australia boarded a plane thinking she would have the time of her life, meet loads of people and see another country.
This is not your typical exchange student tale.
My exchange story starts in a north German city called Rostock; located in the former DDR 9 years after reunification.
My time with my first host family was, uh unpleasant, for both parties… let’s just put it out there.
My host father was a lovely man; soft natured, kind with a big beard and a hearty hug. I had always felt my host mother only took an exchange student due to the fact that her own daughter went to New Zealand the year before. A fact that was later confirmed by her. She felt that any exchange student that lived with them was there to experience everyday German life. It was very clear that everyday German life was to be the same as what her children experienced. School, home, homework, housework PERIOD. No going anywhere with friends (to the movies or the like) no trips to see the sights or nearby towns etc. Kids at school tried, then gave up after a while.
Then there was the language barrier. In this case I was to blame. I couldn’t speak a word when i got there so there was a lot of communication via post it notes and hand gestures. I had trouble expressing how I felt and was disheartened after going to an exchange student camp and hearing about other students experiences. They were all having such a good time and having the experiences I had anticipated.
Now, everyone’s upbringing is different. At home in Australia we had to feed the chooks, do the dishes, walk the dog and mow the lawns. I was slack with my room and had never cleaned a toilet in my life. Some may think this fair, others may not. I firmly believe that the way you experience life is molded by your past experiences and upbringing.
I met a girl who lived up the road, she was 2 years younger than me but my host mother knew of her so I was allowed to occasionally do things on weekends with her and her friends. When I got back from the exchange student camp I decided to apply to move in with her and her family. She was an only child, and lived with her parents in a 2 bedroom unit in a tall complex.
I lived with her for a few months and was initially much happier. We went to a local fair, I made more friends, went to 2 concerts in Berlin (Pearl Jam and Bohse Onkelz) and we took a summer holiday to the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter things went bad. My view on it was that she was sick of sharing her room and started making up stories and telling her parents I was getting drunk with boys and stealing her tampons etc. it was quite ridiculous.
Once the trust was broken with my host parents it was all over. Before I knew it I was being shipped off to another family.
This time in a tiny town called Zeppelin surrounded by a maple forest, near a town of 5000 called Butzow.
Here I met my new host parents and host brother. They had hosted many children from around the world before and I think were asked to have me as a ‘last resort’.
By this stage I was crying myself to sleep every night, counting down the days until I could go home and wishing that I hadn’t won a scholarship so that I could quit.
Life in my third family was different. I rode through the forest 12km to a new school where I was welcomed by all the students. I enjoyed music class and felt pressure to get 100% on my English exams.
While at the beach one afternoon I had met an American boy who was in the army and was stationed in Germany. we started dating and he visited me regularly. This gave me an outlet to speak English and things started to improve.
My third family had pigeons that they kept for eating. On a couple of occasions my host brother and I slaughtered, gutted and prepared some for dinner. I felt like a contributing member of the family rather than an inconvenience. Sure I was still crap at cleaning my room and I almost killed the indoor plants (due to under-watering followed by over-watering) and occasionally had altercations with my host mother but I was getting out there and going bowling with friends, visiting places and generally getting by. I even spent 2 weeks in the south German city of Bamberg with my American boyfriend and his Army appointed German host family.
As the year drew to a close I experienced my first white Christmas and a fun Sylvester (NYE) with friends. Just as i was starting to enjoy life it was time to head home, deep down I was ready to go, fluent in German and so sick of pork I never wanted to eat it again.
I returned home to Australia, thankful for the cultural norms I never noticed before.
For years since, I have had a reoccurring dream where I went and knocked on my first host family’s door. In recent years, husband has been by my side as I knocked.
I never kept in touch when I returned to Australia. I am friends with a few school friends on Facebook but was eager to forget that year of my life.
Then came the opportunity to go back…