the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
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Sex & Low Beach
As I flipped through my European phrase guide, I started to panic. I glanced over at the curly-haired boy next to me on the plane, looking for a means to ease the nervous fluttering of the butterfly garden that had unexpectedly bloomed in my stomach—or was it the altitude? Either way, he had fallen into a deep sleep somewhere in the middle of Confessions of a Shopaholic, and was now drooping his head dangerously close to my shoulder. I turned to the window and found nothing but dark sky staring back at me. I turned back to the book and found my place at the first page of the chapter titled “Mastering the German Language.” No matter how hard I tried, there was simply no way to avoid the reality of the situation: I did not speak German. Yet, in five days, I would end up in the home of a German family who barely spoke English.
My thoughts started to wander, and I entered into that masochistic game I loved to play with myself at the most inconvenient times: the “if” game. What if a surly gentleman and his stern wife ushered me into their home with unfriendly grimaces and forced me to recite simple phrases until I could engage in satisfactory, severely awkward dinner conversation? Or what if the family had kids my age that thought it pointless to even attempt to converse with me and spent the week whispering secretively to each other? Or worse, what if the family decided not to show up at all, and I was left standing alone at the bus stop? Game over. The plane had left the gate, and there was no turning back.
Despite my worries, I joined the rest of the passengers in a restless slumber. I awoke a few hours later to the breathtaking sight of the Swiss Alps’ glittering snow-capped tips. Over the next few days, I gradually got used to the curious stares and nervous glances of the locals as we journeyed through small villages in Switzerland en route to Germany. We arrived at the airport in Zurich and started our trip from there. We stayed in small villages in Switzerland for about four days before we made our way to Germany (and our homestay families) via bus.
The bus lurched to a stop, and I surveyed the crowd of families waiting to pick up their assigned student. My name was called, and before I knew it, I was speeding along a highway through Mindelheim with Mrs. Sigl, 14-year-old Cathi, and three-year-old, white-blonde Laura. “Welcome to Wiedergeltingen,” Mrs. Sigl said with a warm smile. It took roughly ten minutes for me to realize that my fears had all been for naught.
I stepped into their house with the perfume of sunflower fields and climbing roses wafting in through the open windows, and I felt more at home than I could have ever imagined. The butterflies had returned to their rightful place in the garden. My most vivid memories were made in the unexpected moments, the in-between hours. Sipping coffee on the patio with elderly Opa, bike riding to Cathi’s music lesson (where her class learned “Feed the World” in tribute to Michael Jackson, who had passed away the week before), playing a card game with her charming uncle who lived on the floor above, or splashing in the pool with Laura—these simple interactions required no words at all.
I had always thought of myself as gregarious, but in Germany, words often failed me. Living with the Sigls forced me to tap into other senses and engage in alternative means of communication. In order to understand Cathi when she tried to tell a story about her day before we fell asleep at night, I needed to listen—not just hear, but really, truly listen for the inflections in her broken English phrases, the nuances of her emotion as she tried to express herself. It felt as if we were two strangers struggling to make out each other’s features in a dark room—reaching for an outstretched hand just to feel connected. In these exchanges, my European phrase book was useless.
On the last evening of my stay, the family gathered for a delicious homemade dinner. As we laughed about the day’s events (more specifically, my falling off of a specially made German bicycle), I was suddenly filled with a sense of familiarity. This was just like a dinner at home with my own family—a little dysfunctional, a little quirky, but absolutely loving and engaged.
By the end of my stay, I had taught Laura how to count to ten in English and even managed to master a few basic German phrases (including how to correctly pronounce Wiedergeltingen, which took all week). In retrospect, however, the larger lesson I took with me had nothing to do with conversing in German. When Mrs. Sigl passed me a steaming hot bowl of homemade soup with that equally warm smile? That required no exchange of words whatsoever.
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