rotary youth exchange

Dear baby exchange students,

Yeah you, the ones who are so excited to fly away in just a few months or weeks. Take a deep breath, this is really exciting - I know! Here’s a few tips from a girl who is not ready to leave her host country, hopefully they are a bit different from the “don’t hide in your room” tips you always hear:

1. Take photos. Of everything. A good meal, your friends, a dog you see on the street. Do not be embarrassed to take selfies in front of random things. The locals won’t get it, but they don’t have to.

2. Eat the scary thing. It might be nasty, it might be amazing - either way you have a story.

3. Don’t take a single moment de granted. Because one day you won’t see that view of the town on your long, rainy walk home. You will miss it.

4. Exchange weight is whatever. Eat all the things. Eat Japanese sweets and Italian pasta with your friends until your stomach hurts from good food and laughing.

5. A good way to make friends is just tagging along. My best friends here, I made by pretty much following them around for weeks until I became a part of the friend-clique. It works!

6. Take a deep breath. Some days, everything will suck. Remember how lucky you are to explore the world.

7. Go to school. But also skip class. Be lagom, as the Swedes say. It doesn’t translate to English properly, but it means not too much, not too little - just right.

8. Remember that you go through 5 years worth of growth in exchange. That comes with five years of emotions in one year. Feel these intense feelings, and roll with them. Let them come. It will make you better.

Good luck, my little exchangers! You’ve got the world ahead of you - go take it all in!

The Secrets of Exchange

Exchange is strange because you live two lives. Not just in the sense of where you came from and where you are now, but something more than that. You have the life you show on Facebook and the wicked pictures you post on Instagram and the fun, PG outings you write about in your blog, but what nobody knows until they get there is what’s beneath that surface. No one back home hears about when you sat in the bathroom and cried on the first day of school because your classmates just blankly stared at you when you walked into the classroom. Nobody knows about the times when your host mom washes your laundry and it takes a week to dry. No one hears about the times when you cry when you wake up and count the days until you’re back home. Nobody hears about the silent dinners with your host family when they aren’t up for talking. No one hears about the times you’re yelled at for things that you can’t even control. No one knows about the nights when your host dad texts you at 11:30, telling you it’s time to come home. See, people don’t hear about each and every strand of hair you have to remove from the drain every time you finish taking a shower, in an attempt to not annoy your host family. Nobody hears about the hours spent studying the language. Nobody hears about the shitty feeling you get when you realize that you were probably only invited to this party because you’re foreign and the boys want to get you drunk. Exchange is hard, and this is what nobody realizes. Exchange is dry skin, terrible breakouts, brittle nails and hair that falls out. Exchange is not always fitting in. Exchange is inevitably feeling pathetic sometimes.

But that’s where the magic lies. This is the reason why we grow. If we weren’t pushed to our emotional limits, we wouldn’t become completely different people. Exchange makes you sympathetic, tolerant, adaptable, more chilled out. The bad things make the good things that much sweeter. Exchange life is life to the utmost extreme, and once you’ve lived it, you’ll never be the same again.

Exchange is learning to deal.

Exchange is gaining grace.

Hey you behind the screen! I have a few tips for you!

So I just met with an early return from Germany who was kind enough to answer some of my many questions. Here is some of the information she gave me about life as an exchange student, particularly as someone from the U.S.A. in Germany.

Plan on spending around €200 per month. Her allowance was €80 per month, and mine will be €75 a month. Budget accordingly. Transportation costs add up fast. Do your research and get a student card if possible to save on fares. German teens also tend to get out of school for the day earlier than their American counterparts. This can lead to frequent (and costly) trips to local cafes and ice cream parlors.

One big suitcase, a rolling carry on, and a backpack worked well for her. Wear your heaviest shoes on the plane. Shoes are one of the worst things to over-pack. Note: Germans don’t wear flip flops as often as Americans do. They’re nice for the pool, but walking around in them all day on cobblestone streets causes serious pain. Scarves are more popular in Germany. It’s also generally cooler outside than the U.S. (besides Alaska).

The Trip and Customs:
Most exchange students to Germany have a layover or two. Customs are no big deal and there’s no reason to lie.

Host Family Conflict:
If you have a serious conflict with your host family, talk to your organization! Don’t downplay anything. This is YOUR exchange!

Be friendly. Germans tend to be more reserved. The returnee stressed that when they are drunk, they tend to act like they know you very well, but the next day you’ll still be acquaintances. Don’t think they dislike you if they go from your best friend while drunk to an acquaintance when sober. The reality is, they probably do want to be friends, but being upfront is just not part of their culture.

Unsaid Expectations and Norms:
Germans may seem to be much like people from the U.S., but the returnee reminded me they are not. They still have their own expectations that aren’t necessarily voiced. 

  • For example, at home, most Germans expect you to keep doors closed. They believe it is orderly. They’ll even keep the bathroom door closed all the time! Just because Germans have their doors closed does not mean they are avoiding you. 
  • If you’re at a restaurant and order “Wasser,” literally translated to “water,” you will receive mineral water, and it will probably be room temperature. If you want tap water (water from a sink), specify. German tap water is safe to drink, but for some reason Germans normally drink mineral water. If you would like to order tap water, the word for it is “Leitungswasser.” The word for cold is “kalt.” Milk is also sometimes served warm. 
  • Beware: Refills are never free in Germany. 
  • Don’t wish a German happy birthday before their actual birthday. It’s bad luck and they will totally die before their actual b-day. 
  • Older Germans in particular will glare at you if you open a window on a train or otherwise allow a breeze in. It supposedly causes colds. 
  • Places like Walgreens do not exist. You can buy toiletries from a “Drogerie,” but prescription medicines must be bought from an “Apotheke.”
  • If you’re from the United States, don’t be surprised if people sit down next to you on a bus or other public place. People from the States tend to think they need more personal space than people of other nationalities.
  • Also for people from the U.S.: small talk is unnecessary. You’re probably talking too loud for everyone else’s liking, too.
  • Getting your driver’s license as soon as you’re of age is not as common as in the U.S. German teens must be 18 to drive, and they must undergo a rigorous driver’s education course and a fairly difficult written exam, in addition to an in-car exam. Not to mention, for a German to finally get their license, it often costs  €2,500-€3,000!

What? Rowan? Actually blogging? Could this be? Yes, believe it. I am back. Half a year of silence, but I have returned to my blogging duties (yay!)

But why? Why six months of silence and then this unannounced sudden return? Well, that is a great inquiry. As this is an exchange blog, I wanted to speak to the fact that after an exchange student comes home, their exchange does not really end. Exchange is this beautifully endless experience that transforms your life entirely.

And that’s what I want to start touching on. The ups, the downs. It can be hard to come home from exchange, which I have already began to speak about. However I want to share my mountains and valleys of my rebound year experience, so that if there are any others who really have struggled with returning “home”, they can hopefully heed a little advice.

Ready? OK.