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The Blue Blazer

My Year Abroad

The text below serves to describe some of the main parts of my year abroad as a Rotary International exchange student.

Departure and Arrival

August 6, 1991 I boarded a plane to Hannover, Germany. I flew from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then on to Chicago, Illinois. From there, after a short delay, I caught a plane for London, England. Two other Rotary exchange students - one from Wenatchee, Washington, one from Highland, Indiana - were on the same plane. As much as I love having a window-seat on flights, this time I had the misfortune of being trapped in my seat for the whole flight; when we finally landed and got off the plane, my muscles were cramped... but at least I was in Europe.

Julie (Washington), Amber (Indiana) and I stuck together and kept an eye out for any other Rotary exchangee in the airport. After a while we found a small group that had camped out in an area of Heathrow and we joined them. Julie was going to Hamburg and had to leave after a short time, but the rest of us were all going to the same district. Our layover was about 8 hours; others had already been there for several hours. That evening we finally caught our plane; a small, barely half-full jet bound for Hannover. After arriving in Hannover and going through customs for the second time in less than a day, we gathered our luggage (I remember helping some other students with theirs as well) and went searching for hour host families.

My host father and sister (Jürgen and Claudia) were there to greet me; I regret that I was too exhausted to attempt talking to them in German. We left the airport, loaded my bags in the back of their Audi, and headed "home." It was dark, so I didn't get a good view of the countryside. Indeed, I had no idea what direction we were taking, what the roads looked like, etc. As we sped along between 120 and 160 kilometers per hour, Jürgen asked me if I would be interested in playing soccer while living in Germany; he told me there was a club nearby that I might be able to join. After a short while we arrived in Gifhorn, my home for the next year. We unloaded my bags, went inside, and I met my host mother, Irene. I was offered something to drink - I took a Sprite (my host father managed the local Coca-Cola plant). We talked briefly, and then I called home (it was about 10:30pm in Germany).

The first few days

The next day I awoke late (mid-morning); Jürgen had already gone to work, and Claudia was out temporarily. Irene got me some breakfast. From then on, however, I got up earlier; we (Irene, Jürgen and I) almost always had our meals together.

A week after I arrived, Claudia left for the U.S. - she was going on exchange to Ohio. From that first week, the following events stand out:

One week later

Exactly a week after I arrived, school started. On the first day I went and met my counsellor - Herr Pinkowski - who introduced me to a few of my fellow "Schüler" - Anika, Jessica, and the rest. They accompanied me to my first class - chemistry - where I also met Adrian and Rene (the "Gau"), who became among my best friends in Germany. In retrospect, I am extremely grateful to my fellow students who were kind of enough to speak English with me when German just didn't work; on the other hand, they also encouraged me to speak more German, and didn't ridicule me when I really fucked up...

That day I also had my 12th grade math course - my first "Leistungskurs". They'd decided that the first day of school was a good day to start differential calculus. Needless to say, I had a few "problems" - calculus is challenging enough without a huge language barrier. I took good notes, though, and I picked things up here and there.

My other LK (Leistungskurs) was Enlgish with Herr Nitschke, an Oxford-trained German. He was a wonderful teacher; however, a language barrier of another sorts gave us a few problems that year: British versus American English. In his class I also met Inka Sonnenberg and Olaf Johannsmann, who had been on exchange to Seattle, Washington with Rotary and Australia with AFS, respectively. Both were extremely cool people; Inka was also in my art class with Herr Witt (a very quiet man who never spoke above a whisper...) and Olaf was also in some of my P.E. sections. Physics was about the only course where I didn't interact with people on a regular basis; of course, that was also the course where the teacher regularly showed up 15-20 minutes late, or failed to show up at all.

Rotary still exists...

Two weeks into my stay we had our first exchange student get-together. Those of us who had been together in London had a chance to see each other again, and we also met many other exchangees - both other new arrivals as well as the "Oldies" from Australia and South Africa. Rotary managed to stick us on a big red, double-decker bus and drive us around a bit. They also got us out to the Windmill museum in Gifhorn (trust me, it really is worth visiting).

The fall semester was the season for Rotary trips. There was my first trip, in September, to Soltau. Also, my first time traveling alone on a train. And, the first time I got mistaken for a European (a Swede, in particular). On my way there I sat in a train compartment with several other people. The elderly man across from me began telling a story to whomever would listen; at the end everyone else laughed a bit, so I joined in a little. The man asked me if I'd gotten it all; I replied that I had not, that I didn't speak German very well. He asked me if I was Swedish, to which I replied that I was American. This excited him; he loved Americans because they had freed the Germans from the Nazis. (Obviously not everyone shares this opinion of the Americans, but this was just one old man) He insisted on giving me a gift: a box of chocolates - a large box of chocolates. One month and ten pounds later, I finished that box...

The weekend in Soltau was a district get-together. Why Soltau was chosen, I can't be 100% certain, but I suspect it may have something to do with the "Volgelpark" there - a combination bird park and big playground. I stayed out in the country in this wonderful house with a thatched roof. My host was a psychiatrist, and his daughter (Dorothea) had been on exchange to Australia the previous year (where she had really learned how to drink). That evening, Dorothea took several of us (including Ramsey, who was staying at the same place I was) to a rather nice little Kneipe. We got some pasta to eat and a "boot" of beer. What is a "boot"? you ask. A boot is a 2-liter drinking-glass shaped like a cowboy boot and made of glass. You take turns drinking from the boot. You hold it with one hand, toe faced away from you. Eventually, the beer gets low enough that it drains out of the toe of the boot, causing air to rush in, and splashing the drinker in the face in the process. The person to whom this happens has the added responsibility of finishing the boot at that point.

Rotary - or at least the Soltau club - managed to make the final evening quite memorable. They took us to a bar they had partially reserved for us. Everyone was given about 4 drink/meal tickets - each ticket worth DM 3-. With drinks costing about DM 4.50 each, there was little chance that anyone was going to get drunk (never mind that Rotary was paying for us to drink alcohol...thank you Soltau club...)... until 1) a group decided to pool their resources to just buy the whole bottle of tequila; and 2) The Rotarians there got just a tad bit tipsy, and decided to start giving out the huge pile of extra drink tickets they had available. I, of course (the responsible individual that I am), remained sober. The end result was 1) few people actually wanted to get up on time the next morning, and 2) certain individuals managed to end up in the wrong beds...but that's another story.

That fall there was also a week-long trip to Berlin arranged by another district. Many of us from my district - 1800 - also went along. The Berlin trip is obviously too much to describe in all its gory detail. Highlights include:

At the end of November we had a district exchangee weekend in the Harz mountains. Seeing as it was the first time I'd seen mountains since leaving Idaho, I greatly enjoyed this get-away. From Gifhorn I took the train to Braunschweig; I remember talking to this German mother along the way. In Braunschweig I caught the next train to Bad Harzburg. Bad Harzburg does have historical significance, but all I was thinking about as I exited the train station was the view from the main square: mountains in the background. After everyone (most everyone) was accounted for, we caught a bus to Torfhaus. Our youth hostel was up in the mountains (such as they are in northern Germany...). We received a visit from Herr Kleihauer, who was in charge of the exchange program for the district. We also had a few visiting Rotarians from New Zealand who gave me a few stamps from their country (I used to collect stamps, and my dad still does). In addition, my birthday was that weekend (November 30th), and as a present, Herr Kleihauer gave me several roles of Kodak film - not much, but greatly appreciated (considering I took over 1100 pictures that year). Highlights from the trip include:

Oh, and I can't forget the Rotex weekend in Lehrte, near Hannover. Getting there was harder than it should have been. Lehrte is just a piss-ant stop along the way from Gifhorn to Hannover. I got off where I should have. However, I had no directions to the school we were staying at - someone was supposed to pick me up. In anycase, I eventually got there. We took over an elementary school for a few days. Main activities included:

I also had my Rotary presentation that fall. I had brought slides with me from Idaho, but my host family didn't think they were enough, so I wrote home, had my mom take some more pictures, and send me the slides. I also found - after lots of translation to even find the right word, and lots of work just trying to find the damn thing once I knew what the German word for it was - an opaque-projector for some of my other material. I quickly wrote out the text to my presentation, practiced it on my host mother, and gave the whole spiel that night at the Rotary meeting. It went rather well. Rotary meetings were (are?) cool if for no other reason than they give you the opportunity to collect interesting bottle openers from the restaurants. Okay, nevermind.

Other non-Rotary "Stuff"

My most memorable event - or accomplishment - of the fall semester was learning to speak German. I had only had one year of high school German before going abroad, and I was too lazy to study at all the summer before I left. As a result, school was a tad bit challenging at first. However, by November, I was doing just fine. In the winter I joined the local chess-club (I even became a member of the German Chess Federation) and managed to fool one 8th grader - quite by accident - into believing I was a native speaker - perhaps the greatest compliment I received that year.

My friend Adrian had his birthday in early September and I was invited to his birthday party (the first birthday party I'd attended since Greg Trosper's back in Kindergarten, actually). Before the party, I remember going shopping for a gift with Jessica, Kathrin, and others, as well as sitting in "Das Cafe" on the riverside. I occasionally went out with friends from the 12th grade. After all, some of them had cars :) I guess I broke the no driving "D" while helping Olaf drive to Herr Nitschke's house for a get-together. More time was spent with members of the 10th grade - all of us in class 10f2 (10 for 10th grade, f for French as the 2nd foreign language, and 2 for the 2nd such class. There was also 10l - the group that studied Latin). In particular, Adrian's party, various gatherings downtown, and a party at Tanya's house to celebrate the end of the first semester.

The local bookstores provided hours of amusement for me. Indeed, the whole of the Fußgängerzone played a role in my year abroad. All the important shops were there; anything I needed to buy I could get simply by biking on down to town. I eventually - after several months - found a barber shop where I could get my hair cut. (Getting your hair cut while trying to communicate in a foreign language is not the easiest task in the world)

Also important was soccer. The manager and the coach of one of the local teams came over one night and "interviewed" me, and told me I could come try out. So, Jürgen and I went shopping and got me appropriate shoes, shin guards, etc. The team kept me, and I had an absolutely wonderful time and got in great shape. Our team won the winter indoor championship; unfortunately the championship game in the spring was on the same day I left to come home to the States. After we got one of our trophies, we had a slight celebration; trophies make great "glasses" for drinks (especially champagne, vodka, other alcohol, and mixtures thereof). That night when I returned home, Jürgen asked me if I'd been drinking beer. I replied I hadn't, to which he responded that yes I had - he could smell. I answered truthfully: no I hadn't, I'd been drinking vodka. (If I'd had more to drink, I suppose it might have been an interesting bike ride home...)

As is common for exchange students, I got myself in the local papers a few times; local paper love interviewing exchangees. I enjoyed - as did my fellow students at school - how my accent was described as "broad." It provided some great laughs. In the winter I enrolled in German course at the local VHS or Volkshochschule; sort of adult, continuing education. A new exchangee from South Africa had arrived - Natasha - so we attended together. Many of the other "students" were recent immigrants from Poland and the Ukraine. Another was an old Gastarbeiter from Italy. Our teacher was Frau Knapke...the name says it all (actually, she was rather nice). The course solidified the more colloquial German I had learned at school from my friends.

Weekend get-aways

Most exchangees have 3 or 4 host families during their stay abroad. Some have up to 7 or 8. I only had one, until the end. My family went to the U.S. in June to see Claudia's graduation, after which they went on a tour of the western U.S. At that time, I moved in with the Gmyrek family (also Rotarians), who ran a meat processing plant in Gifhorn (aside: while in Budapest four years later, I saw a Gmyrek truck on the road; their business really had expanded...). However, instead of having multiple host families, I often spent the weekend with other Rotarians.

The first family I stayed with - the Brandau's - were good friends of my host family. Peter Brandau was (is!) a doctor, his wife a Hausfrau. When I stayed with them, we went on a trip up to Schleswig-Holstein, where her family lives. The two younger children went along as well. It was my first trip to the North Sea, and the first time I'd seen or stood on a dike (in Büum). The weather was fierce; the autumn winds tried to blow us from the dike. We also visited a large market (Thursday, I believe) in Heide, where for the first time I saw live eels being sold. Having spent many childhood spring-breaks at the Oregon Coast, the trip to the North Sea was definitely welcome.

I also stayed with various and sundry doctors and other professionals. A group of businessment took me to the IAA (International Automobil Ausstellung) in Frankfurt one day (one of the world's largest auto-shows...it is HUGE!) With one family I went and played league table tennis and went out with their son to the "Jolly Joker" in Braunschweig; the Joker is a club located in a huge old warehouse. Deafening (even if the Joker is the not the greatest excuse for a club). I also played Monopoly one afternoon with their son, who had been a Rotary exchangee to the States. I won. In fact, I began lending him money to keep the game going. I eventually had to start charging interest. We also played indoor soccer. One family took me hiking in the Harz (lots of wonderful snow). And I spent one weekend with a man (non-Rotarian) who took me to a motor-cross race. Another new experience.

I also spent one weekend with my Rotary Consellor, Peter Goehler, the local pharmacist. He, Roberta (an exchangee from Australia), the another girl who would be going on exchange, and I went to Halle and Leipzig. We went to the the Händel Haus and a Rotary convention in Halle, as well as the Weihnachtsmarkt in Leipzig (Awesome event). Perhaps the highlight of the trip was eating at Auerbachskeller in Leipzig, a location forever immortalized in Goethe's Faust (if you don't get the reference, go read Faust, part I, or e-mail me). On another date Herr Goehler took me and Natasha to CeBit in Hannover (huge computer and technology expo).

Furthermore, during his spring break (February), my host brother, Stefan, came home from college (in Konstanz). We'd also met in the fall - once before his semester began, and alo at X-mas. I took several weeks off from school and went with him down to Konstanz, on the Swiss border. We made a trip or two to Switzerland: the Rheinfall, Stein am Rhein, Schaffhausen, etc. On our way back to Gifhorn, we stopped in Ravensburg, where Stefan and a friend of his were determined to get me wasted. They didn't succeed; however, Stefan woke up the next morning with a horrible hangover...and he had to drive.

Jürgen and Irene also insured that I got my share of culture that year. I saw my first opera (Aida), a Beethoven concert conducted by Kurt Masur, Die Flädermaus, and everyone's X-mas favorite - The Nutcracker. All in all, a great year.

The Gmyrek's were enthusiastic about taking me places. Once they asked if I wanted to go somewhere. I said sure; they asked where; I responded that I had no preference; they decided we should to to Mannheim and the Rhein river (for those of you who know your German geography, you know this isn't a typical day trip). So we went to Mannheim, home of an awesome, salmon-colored sandstone cathedral. We also drove of the Rhein, saw some castles, stayed the night (in an expensive hotel), and drove back the next day in the rain (going 260km/h in an Audi V8 through central Hessen...the roads are not straight). I think the weekend excursions, etc. made up for not having a lot of host families.

More Rotary

Exchangees live for trips and skipping school. During the spring semester we didn't have that many trips - only two big ones, in fact, and a final Rotex gathering in Hannover. However, the length of the first trip (along with my extended vacation with Stefan) insured that I missed my share of school.

Every year there are various big trips offered in the spring. I would have loved to have gone on the the European tour. As it was, I went on the Deutschland tour arranged by Rotex in district 1840. The beginning of the trip was made a bit more difficult by a certain fact of life in Europe: strikes. In this case, those responsible for such things as garbage removal, the mail, and public transportation had gone on strike. The result: only two trains a day from Hamburg to Munich...each terribly crowded. After a great effort, I (we) made it. I was the only exchangee from my distict to do on the trip (until we got to Celle, where we picked up Veta "if you get past the first name don't even attempt the last name" Sitaropulos, a newbie from Austalia). Lasting two and a half weeks, there is simply too much from that trip to list on this page... so I won't attempt to do so. (When I get around to it, I'll devote a separate page or set of pages to this trip). A short collection of highlights includes:

Our Rotary distict (1800) also decided to do a trip to the former East Germany. Destinations included, among others, Leipzip, Dresden, Wittenberg, and Berlin. Main features of the trip included Chip and his guitar, the "sächsische Schweiz", very long nights, and the Irish pub in the Europa Center.

Our final Rotary gathering was a day trip to Hannover, arranged by Rotex. Included in the trip was a tour of the Gilde brewery - in order to get the tour, Rotex told them we were all college students. Not. The tour concluded with what was basically an hour or so of "all you can drink, on us". Brett was in Heaven. We also went to visit a radio station, got ourselves alsmot lost in the Hannover suburbs, and finished our day at the Paulaner Beerhall (where they actually post a guard to try to stop people from stealing their nifty beer steins. They usually fail).

Going home

As June approached, my year was coming to a close; my family was going to the States, and the Gmyrek's could only take me for a few weeks. The first week of June was dedicated to a trip to the Black Forest, this time it was a "Klassenfahrt" - a class trip (high school students often do one a year).. We went down to Lörrach, a small town on the German-Swiss border, which (when traveling by train) can only be reached by first going to Basel, Switzerland, and then coming back across the border. We spent some time in Basel, as well. Our youth hostel was slightly out of town (a nice 20 minute walk or so). Lörrach's (sole?) claim to fame, per se, is the Milke Chocolate factory (we got a tour, and lot of samples...yum). We also went hiking in the Black Forest, and made an excursion to Straßburg and a concentration camp near the French border.

I said good-bye to my friends from school. I collected addresses. They wrote down mine. There was another, non-Rotary exchange student in my school (also, another exchangee, Kate Duman, transferred from Wolfsburg during the second semester), who had a going away party of her own on June 19th, the night before I was leaving. A bunch of rowdy and drunk German 18 year-olds makes for one entertaining party. That night, I packed. And I packed. I didn't go to sleep. By daybreak I was done and off to the airport. Hannover again. It was a long flight home with no other exchangees to talk to. The only real highlight was London, where the lead-lined tubes of watercolor paint in their box - packed away in my carry-on - appeared to be a box of bullets to the x-ray machine and security guards. Talk about causing an uproar. That night I got back to Idaho. Everyone - myself included, I guess - had aged a year. My brother had grown 6 inches. My dog nearly had a heart attack when she saw me. One of the cats was a bit more senile than before. But I was, for better or worse, home again.