As of this moment I am comfortably curled up in my room in Teltow, a small town just outside of Berlin, Germany. It isn’t a big room, but it’s cozy with everything I need. A large closet and a desk and single bed that lies under two windows set into the sloped ceiling. At night, if I turn over on my back, I can see the stars. But in all reality, this isn’t my room. I’m simply a visitor here. I am actually an entire ocean away from Boulder, Colorado, the only home I’ve ever known, hundreds of miles from my family and friends, in an unfamiliar country, and striving to keep up with the flurry of vaguely familiar German words being exchanged between my host family and friends. And I can honestly say I haven’t been this happy in a long, long time. Deciding to go on exchange was probably the best decision I’ve made in my short 16 years of life. Germany has been the chance for me to learn who I am and who I want to be as well as simply giving me an experience I wouldn’t be getting anywhere else.
I am living, as I mentioned, in Teltow, Germany, with the Keppler family. The Kepplers are already familiar with the Shining Mountain community as Nils, the 4th child of the family, attended SMWS on exchange two years ago. Maren, my exchange, is the youngest of the five siblings. Her older sisters have long since moved out, leaving only Maren, her older brother Nils, and her parents Matthis and Katja. And me too, of course.
When I arrived in Germany, Maren and I had already established our relationship while she was living with me in America. I was glad to see her again, but a little nervous about meeting her family. Of course, I didn’t need to be. The Kepplers are quickly becoming my second family, complete with sometimes-moody-but-mostly-wonderful siblings and two very loving parents who are always ready to help me learn or laugh at the various mishaps that seem to be a side effect of learning a new language.
We spend many of our days exploring Berlin, playing board games, or (my favorite) driving out to work on their vacation house in Rabel (three hours or so from Teltow). The weekends are very rarely empty here, with constant meetings with friends and striving to see all the best of Berlin before I have to go back to the USA. And the weekdays are hardly quiet either.
I’m attending the Rudolf Steiner School in Berlin with Maren. The first thing that struck me about the school is its size. This school is at least twice the size of our beloved Shining Mountain. The main building is a large and sprawling blue structure that has, and get this, staircases! Real, genuine my-legs-are-burning staircases we have to traverse in between classes and breaks. (It’s probably proof that I come from a small school community that this is one of the things I feel exciting enough to mention in an article.) Maren’s class was another group of people I was nervous about meeting, and again, it was needlessly so. I’m quickly developing friendships that I know will last beyond the length of my exchange and am already making loose plans to have some come and visit me in the following summers. Inside jokes, laughter, various discussions, and even one brief food fight abound. Every morning I walk into the classroom and get a chorus of hellos and spend the day wrapped in warm conversation. But it isn’t all fun and games.
I start every school day with a private German lesson that focuses on basic grammar, structure, and vocabulary. This is probably the most productive class of my day as it goes at the pace that I set it at and I feel comfortable asking as many questions as I need. The rest of the day’s classes are a little bit more difficult as these are set a higher pace and with more difficult materials. The best that I can do is just try to keep up with what’s being said during the lessons which is, at times, difficult as it means a lot of quiet concentration and very little actual activity.
Perhaps one of my favorite days so far wasn’t even really spent in Berlin. The first day was in the beginning of April when Amrita Shore and her exchange, Yola, were in town along with Tom (Yola’s boyfriend), and Lina, an international student who attended SMWS for the first half of the year.
Lina, Amrita, Maren and I were all headed out to a local food market. On the way to the market we ducked into an adorable second hand shop where we dug through expensive vintage clothing and laughed at some of the strange fashions buried among the shelves. We tried on various outfits, hoping to find something to buy, but everything looked awful in various degrees. We left without any new clothes but some new bemused smiles to wear.
The market was crowded but warmly lit and the sound of chattering voices and the competing smells of the various food were almost overwhelming. There was so much to see and taste. We spent hours running around tasting everything from brisket to sushi to waffles and ice cream to vegan burgers. The whole experience can only be described as sweet. Once we left, despite the gross amount of food we’d already tried in the market, we went into a small pink ice cream shop on the way home. There I bought arguably the best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever had in my life. The best parts about it (excluding the taste) were the name and the coloring. Despite its aforementioned vanilla flavoring, it was a dark blueish black color with the clever name of ‘The Dark Side’.
So, while all these are certainly wonderful snippets that contribute to my love of Germany and my experience here, they are not the reasons I consider it to be my best decision. That lies on a more personal level. For me, Germany has been a discovery of independence and therefore a discovery of who I am. The separation from home and the people there who I’ve known my entire life has allowed me to break the stereotypes that have been built around me over the past few years. You see, one danger of staying with one class throughout your entire school career is that you can become defined by past versions of yourself without much room to grow into something new. Sometimes when my fellow students looked at me, I felt as if I’d been reduced to the 6th grader with messy hair and a bad attitude that I was so many years ago. In Germany, I can cast away all those preconceptions and finally become someone completely new. Well, maybe not completely new but definitely someone who’s never been seen before. I feel as if I’ve grown. I feel as if I have a worth, a spark, that wasn’t always there or wasn’t always seen before. Is that cheesy? Maybe, but it’s true too. This experience is not like something out of a book. It’s not all perfect novelty, but it is life. And I’m so excited to see what happens next.