Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Today has been one of those days for which the only thing I can say is "uff da!"

I realize that I should have seen it coming; those three day weekends will always catch you off guard.  That's right, I had Columbus Day off, people.  Don't hate.

Good news:  my car is ready.  This means that tomorrow I get to use my lunch break to drive like mad to the repair shop, pay what is owed, turn in my rental (bye bye Focus!) and pick up my pretty little girl.  Apparently she has a new headlight.  Woot woot.

Tomorrow night, Lena and I will make our triumphant Corolla-sponsored return to the scene of the crime:  my parents' driveway.

Thursday night, I have class.  Oh, and a presentation.  Don't ask what it is about because the subject is technical and I would likely bore you to tears before I even finished explaining what the acronym "TEI" means.

All I can say for sure is that it will be nice to have that finished.

I decided, in a fit of creative thought yesterday, that I was going to blog about my various European travels.  I know this may come across as snobby, and if you're upset, fine.  But the hard truth is that I have been to Europe several times in my life thus far and interesting things happen every time.

As I considered my past travels and worked my way back to the first, I found that I nearly completely overlooked my premier voyage.  How can this be?  Was I too young to remember?  No.  I was 16.  Was it not a good time?  Sure it was.  But let me explain.

When I was in 10th grade, my family signed up to host an exchange student from Germany.  Actually, we would have taken a student from any country, but after our failed attempt to host a young Norwegian fellow during my 9th grade year, we weren't too picky.

Our exchange student came to us through the Rotary Club.  I have no intention of going into an explanation of Rotarians, but just know that they are a bunch of civically-minded folks and they like to sponsor youth exchange programs.

Her name was Kim.  She was older than me, but shorter by several inches.  She looked nothing like what I imagined a German to be.  She had short dark hair, wore glasses, and dressed just like everyone else in my school.  Yes, she had an accent, but she never seemed overly foreign to us.

For the most part, we got along fine.  Not best friends, but friends.  Part of the deal with Rotary exchanges is that the student stays with three different families over the course of the year.  We had Kim first.  Around the holidays, she moved on.  Later in the spring, she moved again.

Finally, in late July, she was ready to go home.  To be honest, I did not really care all that much.  Lucky for me, my mother did.

Somehow (and I really have no idea how it all happened), my mother and Kim figured out that I should accompany Kim on her return voyage and then stay on with her family for a month.  Lest I sound like a total unaware idiot, I agreed to it, but I was not greatly invested in it.

My theory as to my lack of enthusiasm is simple:  I was 16.  I received my license to drive in April, and I had my first job by May.  My friends and I were active people and liked to hang out in our summer time off of school.  The thought that I would have to give up one entire month of that time was a little difficult for me to fathom.

To add to the issue, I was entering my junior year, which meant that I was taking AP English.  Which meant that I had summer reading and journaling to do.  Reading and journaling that I left until August to complete (of course).

My final piece of resistance was the fact that I did not know German; I was a student of the French language.  I had spent the past three years learning the wonders of French culture.  German had limited appeal; it was a harsh language and the only thing I really knew about them was that they liked beer and started two World Wars.  Hm.

Regardless of my reservations, I went along for the ride with no expectations.

Let me just say, that if you are going to Europe for the first time at 16 without any family or close friends, try not to travel with someone who is returning home to see people they have not seen for a year.  It is awkward.  Everyone is so excited to see the long-lost native that they have far less attention or enthusiasm for the strange American they brought home as a souvenir.

OK, OK.  Kim's family was actually very nice.  We landed in Frankfurt and were exhausted.  They drove us home to their house near the little town of Birkenau, located outside of Weinheim.  Truly, it was lovely.

From that point on, my trip was mostly rather relaxed.  Kim and I would bike into town to visit her non-English speaking grandparents and eat her grandmother's authentic German food, ride around on her Vespa scooter to try out different ice cream vendors or take day-long train trips to the bigger cities for sightseeing and shopping.

The primary things that I learned from this time:  German banks close at odd hours, German ice cream is very good, Birkenstocks are cheaper in Germany and Fanta is wonderful.

As a side note, I should add that my second most rebellious alcohol-related moment occurred on this trip.  When Kim and I went to town to visit her friend Alex, we were offered a small bottle of plum flavored schnapps.  Seriously, it was probably about two sips.  But I drank it and I felt naughty.

Most of the time, we were at the house.  But we did make two major overnight voyages.

The longer of the two was a group bike trip.  Again, I found myself in a situation where I knew very little at the outset of what was about to happen and just had to smile and go along for the ride.

Along with Kim's mother, stepfather, brother and stepsister, we drove to Passau, on the border of Germany and Austria.  Kim's mother made sure that the border guard stamped my passport, which was a nice touch.  We arrived at a quaint little hotel with free range dogs where we were "outfitted."

I mentioned that this was a bike trip, right?  Not just any bikes, mind you.  Old-school, used European bikes, complete with bells.  Essentially, the trip followed the Danube River over the course of a week to end in Vienna.  Not a short trek, thus there were several stops along the way arranged at various hotels.

This is how I was able to truly see the countryside of Austria firsthand while getting in the best shape of my life.  We toured the glorious monastery at Melk; we toured Mauthausen, the old Nazi concentration camp; I ate schnitzel for the first time; I toured Vienna.  I had yet to see Versailles, but the Sch├Ânbrunn is a pretty decent preview.

Honestly, for all my weirdness about it, it really will always be one of the most unique experiences I have ever had.

By the end of the journey, we were tired.  People were crabby.  Naturally.

Our other major trip was a voyage to the corner of Germany that borders France and Switzerland to visit Kim's former stepfather, the American.  Have you ever heard of the Black Forest?  That's where we were.  Oh, and we got to hop over the border and grocery shop at a Carrefour in France.  Eek.

In the end, I was glad to come home.  I kept a travel journal (that I cannot find) and took many pictures.  But when I think back, an event on my last day still stands out the most.

We were pretty casual on my last day.  We visited some of Kim's friends, and as usual, I sat quietly while they conversed in their native tongue.  Kim would translate, and often her friends would address me in English.  As we were preparing to leave, someone asked Kim a question, to which she responded, "Ich habe keinen Schl├╝ssel."  Without batting an eye, I blurted out, "I know what you just said!"

To prove this, I translated, "I don't have a key."  

Kim was elated.  Through no formal training, I had finally (in five weeks) managed to absorb enough language to understand some conversation.  She was convinced that if I were to stay five more weeks, I would have been nearly fluent.

Sadly, that was not an option as my school year back in Minnesota was starting in a week, but it was an intriguing though.  

Of course, I did not return and immediately drop French for German.  Oh, the French would pay off someday, that much you will learn.  But for a brief part of one of my teenage summers, I was immersed in a real-life language program.  I saw things that I will likely never see again, tasted things that may never be tasted again and spoke a language I may never understand again.

Such was my introduction to Europe.  I knew I would be back.  

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