8 “Firsts” when You’re an Exchange Student in Germany

German Word of the Day:


n., f.,  novelty, news


Travel is nothing if it’s not about trying new things.  An exchange year is practically a treasure chest of brand new experiences: people, language, food, customs, histories, perspectives, beliefs.  I believe that the ultimate purpose of spending time abroad is to learn to experience – to stop making plans, stop making conclusions and judgements, and whole-heartedly savor whatever comes your way (the easy and the hard).  I’m not always so great at that.  Sometimes I really just want things to be the way I’m used to.  Sometimes I get sick of always being the one asking questions instead of receiving them.  Sometimes the novelties are simply thrown at me so fast that the wonder and excitement get drowned in shock and overwhelm.  So, 40 days before my return to America, I’m making a list (definitely not comprehensive) of the first-time experiences awaiting an American in Germany.


1.  You learn to ride the rails.

Trains will get you pretty much everywhere in Germany.  It’s worth figuring out the train system as soon as possible, because the rails will be your “ticket” across the country, and practically the continent.

2.  You get comfortable couch surfing.

When you’re traveling on a budget, you learn to be the extrovert you never thought you were.  That distant relative of your grandparents? That friend of a friend of your mom?  That business partner of your neighbor?  If they live in an interesting place, it’s so worth calling them to get an insider’s scoop of where they live, and maybe a free place to crash for a night.  Somehow, being a traveler makes a lot of situations way less awkward than they should be.

3.  You eat Döner.

Döner, a German-Turkish grilled-meat-and-pita-bread creation, is just one example of all the unique foods and traditions you discover that aren’t part of the German stereotype that Americans usually think of- although I have eaten plenty of spätzle and apple strudel as well.

4.  You stop talking so much.

As Treebeard the Ent puts it, “never… say anything… unless… it is worth… taking… a long… time… to say.”  When every sentence in a foreign language takes you 2 1/2 years to form, you start to get picky about what’s worth commenting on.

5.  You spend time in buildings that are 1000 years old.

Going to a church service, picking up your visa from the town hall, staying at a bed and breakfast – it all becomes cooler when you realize that the building you’re standing in is older than your entire country.

6. You shop at H&M.

Apparently these department stores exist in the states as well, although I’d certainly never set foot in one until this year.  But when the nearest Target is thousands of miles away, H&M becomes your lifeline when you’ve gotta look European on the cheap.

7.  You learn to linger over breakfast.

In Germany, there’s breakfast and there’s breakfast.  Sometimes, the bus is coming and you overslept, and you slurp down a bowl of cornflakes before running out the door.  But whenever possible, breakfast is as long and drawn out as it can possibly be.  Every imaginable bread topping is pulled out of the pantry until the table practically disappears, tea is made and bread is handed out, and the glorious meal of Frühstück is given its due.

8. You adopt the lifestyle of a family of complete strangers.

This is the most difficult and the best part of foreign exchange.  It sets it apart from all other types of travel.  No matter how many countries and world wonders you’ve seen, there will always be more to learn in the home of one family than could possibly be discovered in a year.


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