Oddly, February was the perfect time of year to go to Germany. I resided on the third floor of the Zarda’s home in Istein (outside of Frankfurt) for close to two weeks. The small window overlooked fields that remained empty as the winter came towards its end.
The first morning brought a surprise as I came downstairs to a full breakfast spread. At home I would usually grab a piece of fruit, and even then I probably wouldn’t eat it until lunch. But laid out was an assortment of breads, butters, and jams, smoked fish, cold meats, eggs, and cheeses. I didn’t want to offend my host family by not eating, so I politely poured myself a cup of coffee, grabbed a piece of toast (sourdough? pumpernikel?) and spread apricot jam on it. The mother didn’t speak much english, but her smile said it all.
The youngest daughter, Alex, was closest to my age and had spent time with my own family in America. Her and I were exact opposites in appearance, but our spirits were the same. We delighted in shopping trips to Wiesbaden, gossiped about anyone we mutually knew, and helped each other pick out outfits and costumes for Carnaval festivities. On one particular trip out of town, we went to a love lock bridge, where people would write the names of their loved ones on padlocks and attach them to the bridge. Right outside of Koln, you might be able to find a red lock that says Alex and Hannah.
We would pass the time with Alex’s friends and other exchange students from America. We’d meet up and drink at the Brauhaus (conveniently located right across the street from the high school). We’d order enormous pitchers of beer and drank until the waitress brought us a basket of soft pretzels so we could soak it all up. Other nights we sought out the best schnitzel restaurant we could find, which served large portions of schnitzels with apple wine. I remember nights spent sitting in the basement of the Chinese restaurant owned by the Ten family listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, which I was surprised everyone knew.
In the prime of our trip, Carnaval occurred. We all went to Wiesbaden dressed up in costume, much like halloween, and watched the parade go by. We collected candy, miniature bottles of liquor, and beads thrown into the crowd. We bonded over the silliness of costumes and immersed ourselves in the colorful Mardi-Gras-esque traditions of Europe.
While Alex was at school, the other American exchange students and I would spend our time walking through old castles on hills that overlooked the Seine river. We’d tour towers associated with sacrifices and witches and listen to tour guides talk about the process of distilling alcohol, when all we were interested in was the free samples at the end. We climbed 533 stairs to the top of the cathedral in Koln, but the view was almost entirely blocked by the safety fences put in place. And with all the enthusiasm we could muster on the subject, we followed our tour guide around the Gutenberg museum.
Aside from a cruise that went to the Caribbean, going to Germany was my first time being abroad. Everything was so new and so exciting. It was the first time my eyes were truly opened to how big the world is. For the first time I was really beginning to understand that there was so much more than my little town and my seemingly small life in America. It’s hard to understand the expansiveness of the world we live in until you go abroad, and once I did, I was absorbed in the thought of seeing and experiencing more. The excitement of my adventures in Germany woke me up to the world, and I’m forever grateful for everyone who made my first experience abroad inspiring and unforgettable.
Istein, Germany. February 2010.