Arriving in Tegel Airport, a young Ian is perplexed by the odd sights, sounds and smells that envelop his senses. On his way to baggage claim, he bumps into a typical German male with blond hair, blue eyes and broad shoulders. The man spoke into his ‘handy’ in a harsh and throaty diction unfamiliar to Ian’s ears. Perplexed by the curious sounds and his inability to apologize formally, Ian dashes forward. He reaches the luggage carousel, gathers his bags – weighing no less than a combined 50 pounds – and clambers for the exit. As he approaches the Doors to Germania, the smell of freshly cured Turkish meats spinning on a spit tantalizes his nostrils.
A seasoned traveler, Ian is determined to independently navigate the German public transportation system; he will succeed in reaching his checkpoint. Upon successful operation of a grossly obtuse kiosk, Ian rushes onward with a bus pass in hand. Exhausted and mesmerized, Ian climbs onto a bus filled with peculiar language and characters. Anticipation hung in the air. He schleps his luggage down the narrow aisle and finds a space large enough to rest with his belongings. As the bus lurches forward, Ian takes in the fleeting city life and structures from a passenger-side window. He ponders. “So this is my new home for the next few months. What lessons will I learn and what mischief will I manage?” Anticipation for his semester-long adventure grew. The future was unknown and the possibilities were endless.
My Homestay in Berlin
On the first day of travel in my new home city, I, Ian Shepardson, succeeded in arriving at the checkpoint for IES Abroad Berlin: a student exchange program. Unharmed, but exhausted from my journey, I met my host mom, Elke (Éhl-kah), who guided me to her flat across the street from Tempelhofer Feld – Adolf Hitler’s former airport, turned recreational park. I later learned that this section of apartments previously housed some of the Third Reich’s most prominent Nazis.This was to be my home for the entirety of my stay while in Berlin. I soon grew to love it.
Back in the States during my decision making process, my eyes were set on studying in Berlin. Ever since my youth I had a fascination for Germany, as both of my Grandfathers fought for America during World War II. I understood the German people to be a fun and rowdy bunch and knew that I would fit right in. Choosing the location for my studies was easy. Choosing the program was difficult. I had the choice of living in a homestay program or in typical student housing. I chose the homestay option because I wanted to experience German culture to the fullest extent possible, and felt that this was my best opportunity to do so. Boy, did I make the right decision! The lessons learned in IES’s classroom coupled with the knowledge gained from living with Elke, a German native, provided me with a much deeper understanding for German culture, politics and history. To anyone who is considering travel abroad, I encourage you to interact with locals as much as possible. You will learn more from these interactions than you ever will sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture.
Elke was an amazing host mom. Dinner was ready for me on the day of my arrival. My room was separate from the rest of the apartment. I had all of the amenities necessary for survival. The place was always clean (Elke would eventually enforce a ‘sit when you pee’ policy to ensure that it stayed this way). She helped me practice my German vocabulary on a regular basis. We discussed German and American politics, she provided me with lots of travel tips and a glimpse into her world of art and culture. Although it was expected of me to cook my own food following the first day, Elke and I worked together to create a couple different traditional German dishes. On one of these occasions, she asked me to invite some of my friends for drinks and Goulash mit Spätzle (a Central European beef stew with homemade egg noodles)…yum! Good food and good company, nothing beats that.
Through my daily interactions with Elke, I gained an appreciation for Germany and Berlin. Elke taught me that Berliners care for the overall community and health of the ecosystem. It is a regular practice to leave empty glass bottles on the sidewalk so that the less fortunate may collect and return them for a bottle deposit. Composting and recycling is also commonplace. Elke regularly assisted Syrians seeking refuge by teaching them to speak the German language (a requirement to obtain citizenship status) and much of her work was spent rehabilitating those unable to walk correctly. Her actions spoke louder than words, but she spoke as though charitable actions are a commonplace in Germany’s capital city. There is something to be said about a country that flips from hate-fueled Nazism, to a communal mindset. From ashes and rubble grows a beautiful flower. It was refreshing to live in such a place.
IES Abroad Berlin
Outside of the apartment, IES played a major role in my Berlin experience. The education center would serve as my second home while abroad. It was here that I met all of my classmates, adventure buddies and a few lifelong friends. The classes that I enrolled in were engaging (with the exception of one or two) and enlightening. I took a class on the history of German urban development, a class on the architecture in Berlin, a German language course, a film study and a class titled, “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N Roll: The Impacts of Pop Culture on the Modern Metropolis”. Frequent field trips and engaging discussions provided me with a deeper understanding for Berlin’s culture and infrastructure.
Through IES, we explored the German cities of Potsdam and Dresden, Paris, France (more on this in my next blog post), and numerous streets, bunkers and museums within Berlin. We learned that both Berlin and Dresden are fairly new cities from an infrastructure perspective, since they were leveled by Allied air raids during WWII. Not too long after, territories were split amongst the Allied nations and reconstruction began. USSR influence in East Berlin is still apparent today via block-like architecture and monochromatic surfaces. In my lessons, I learned from professors who lived in both East and West Berlin during the Cold War Era. One first-hand account from a professor described being followed and approached by the Stasi (USSR agents in Berlin) in an effort to recruit him to spy within East Berlin’s education system. It was a truly one-of-a-kind educational opportunity! Life as a young American traveler doesn’t seem so bad when compared to those victimized by communism. We learn the plight of those stuck behind the Iron Curtain during the 20th century, but do not fully understand the magnitude of the situation until speaking with those who have firsthand experience.
Personal Experiences and a New Global Minds
Beyond the classroom, the rest of my opinions and lessons gained during my semester were of personal experience. From drunkenly wandering the streets of Munich, lost, during Oktoberfest, to feeling the eyes of hatred upon me when wearing a distinguishably American shirt, I was humbled. I shared opinions and stories with countless travelers and German natives. I explicitly traveled by public transportation and foot. I frequented numerous bars, perused several flea-markets and attended countless music events. My motto for the semester was, “I’ll sleep when I die.” Living as a pseudo-German for three months was fun and educational in ways that a lecture could not succeed.
I learned the power of interconnectivity. In my interactions with locals, I realized that I have more in common with people half way across the World, than I do with my own dog (read “Lessons from a Four-Legged Friend” to understand the magnitude of this claim). As humans, we are all similar in physique, interests, pastime, lust and more. We claim that we are different in religion, in politics and in morals – wars have been waged for millennia over these beliefs. Yet I, an English-speaking Yankee, managed to thrive in a foreign country with people who not too long ago, were considered our enemies (for good reason, but the sentiment remains). We live in this world together. It’s time that we act accordingly.
Unfortunately, not everyone has this global mindset. We see rampant war and hatred to this day. The evil eye I received on an U-Bahn platform when wearing a New England Patriots shirt, was a stark reminder of this. Foreign involvement and terror creates enemies; America is well-known for both. If we worked to understand and not to control, we would see the humanity in our adversaries and may rethink our actions. True strength is setting aside our own biases to expand our understandings.
As I stated in my previous blog (“The Beginnings of a Lust for Travel”), I used to believe that America is the best country in the World. Up until my Junior year of college I had my suspicions, and my semester in Germany confirmed them. Now, I believe that there is no true #1 Country in the World; it is but a matter of personal opinion. I love Germany for its sense of community and open-mindedness, and its people’s desire to break from work and enjoy life – some sentiments that America seems to lack. Beyond their rough demeanor and language, Germans are quite friendly and fun. Yet, I love America for its freedoms, its relative safety and its vastness in Geography. My semester abroad provided me with further interest in Worldly cultures and desire for travel and discovery, but it also instilled in me a new respect for my home country.
If only the American populace cared for each other and the wellbeing of our planet, the way that Germans do.