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Leaving The Comfort Zone: Seven Lessons From My Year In Germany
During my senior year, I took a plane and traveled 7.800 miles to Aschaffenburg, Germany, where I spent a year as the exchange girl. Here are seven lessons from my year abroad.
During my senior year, I took a plane and traveled 7.800 miles to Aschaffenburg, Germany, where I spent a year as the exchange girl.
At eighteen, I could not seize the repercussions those twelve months would have in my life. But here I am, nine years later, writing about them.
Here are seven lessons from my exchange year.
Lesson 1: Measure Your Life In Areas
I knew I would be dealing with building connections with different people: my host family, the kids at school, people I would meet at different activities, etc. I’ll never forget the advice coordinators gave me once we arrived:
Measure your life in areas. If one is not going well, lean into another one, and it won’t feel as bad.
So, if, for example, I wasn’t getting along with my host family, it shouldn’t be taken as a dealbreaker for failure; I had other areas to lean into to make my experience a good one, like my friendships with other exchange students. Today, I still divide my life into areas.
Sometimes, certain experiences can make you feel like the world is ending, your life is ruined, and everything is terrible. But by compartmentalizing, you are forced to keep a wide perspective, and nothing ends up being disastrous. It takes practice, but most often than not, I do myself a favor and remember to zoom out.
Occasionally, one area is on fire, and you escape into another to care for yourself.
Lesson 2: Not Everyone Understands Your Reality
It was shocking to realize that people didn’t know where Chile is. The country I had spent my whole life in.
It’s so easy to assume everyone understands your reality when in fact, why should they?
Why would someone get my worldview if he or she has completely different experiences and customs from mine? I was being unfair by expecting that.
Now, as an adult, I'm happy to clarify when someone I encounter doesn’t have all the pieces together to understand my origins. In fact, I find it a nice and interesting conversation to have.
Lesson 3: Try Things Before Judging Them
I arrived in Aschaffenburg on the 8th of September 2012. Twenty-two days later, on Sunday the 30th, I walked among tipsy and cheerful people wearing Dirndls and Lederhosen. I could never have imagined that I would visit Oktoberfest, but there I was, surrounded by singing, animated, and drunk people.
Did the most famous beer fest live up to my expectations? YES! Did I live to the events’ expectations? Hell no. I was the most disappointing visitor in the history of Oktoberfest. It was like I wasn’t even there.
I. DIDN’T. DRINK. A. SINGLE. BEER.
But Catalina, why on earth wouldn’t you?!
I just didn’t like beer.
Through the years, I have come to realize that, most times, I am not open to new things and opportunities. Thankfully, I learned that I should try things before judging them.
Maybe I could have enjoyed a nice cold beer at Oktoberfest if I wasn’t so fixated on being a person living in Germany that didn’t like beer.
Be someone open to new things. Drink that Bavarian beer!
Lesson 4: Family Is Irreplaceable
My younger host sister had been doing her exchange year in California. Once she was back in Aschaffenburg and I met her, I envied her return home. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to leave Germany, but nothing could suppress my need to be close to my family.
While away, I learned what belonging means. What belonging feels like. It’s amazing and irreplaceable.
We crave connection with those who raised us. The appreciation I had for my family changed during my time away. I cherish those moments when we are all together: grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins because I know what it feels like to be far away. My relationship with them has never been the same since.
Lesson 5: Being Honest Is Never a Mistake
In my area, there were five Latin American girls doing their exchange year. We were all friends in an instant. As we all lived near, we organized a weekend where we would go out partying in Frankfurt.
It was the worst experience I had during the year.
That weekend we would stay at our friend Annes’ house. But one of my friends lied and said she would stay at my house in Aschaffenburg. Turns out we were at the party longer than we expected, and when we didn’t reach out to our host parents, my friend’s parents called mine, and the disaster was unleashed. Besides the truth coming out, they were really scared and angry.
She was sent back to Mexico, and I was shouted at.
It taught me always to be honest.
Lesson 6: Managing Stress is Key
During the middle of my stay in Germany, I made a three-week trip to Lübeck, a maritime bay in the westernmost part of the Baltic Sea. It was like an exchange inside the exchange. I stayed with another host family and went to school there. In Aschaffenburg, I rode a bus to school; in Lübeck, I rode a bike.
One morning my host brother was late for school, so he rode his bike FAST. I was behind trying to keep up with him when BAM! I collided with a lady who was also riding a bicycle. We both fell. His beige pants were stained with blood. She had hurt her knee. I felt guilty.
I was so terrified I forgot how to speak German. I stood there frozen. A couple of people assisted her; I wanted to ask if she needed help going somewhere or if she wanted me to call someone. I couldn’t speak a single word. She was taken to the hospital. My insurance paid for her care. I never spoke to her, and I never rode a bike again.
During my whole stay, I never craved smooth communication skills more than that day. My shock didn’t let me respond the way I would have wanted to. I felt helpless and guilty about not being able to talk to her.
Managing stress and being able to communicate is key.
Lesson 7: We Can Create Deep and Lasting Relationships In a Short Period of Time
My last month in Germany was difficult. I remember holding back tears while I ate cereal one day after school. I was sad, I didn’t want to leave. My host mother could totally see right through me and hugged me. I cried in peace.
I cried while packing my bags, I cried at the airport, I cried once back in Chile.
I tried so hard to replicate the life I had in Germany. It didn’t work. Through that failure, I learned that I had to value each experience as its own.
Ten years later, I still talk and keep in touch with my host family. I even visited them once with my dad and sister.
I learned we can create deep and lasting connections in a short period of time.
To Wrap Up
Without those specific events, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I dealt with them alone, at eighteen, far away from my family. That makes me proud until this day.
Leaving my comfort zone by moving to a foreign country makes me open to new possibilities and people; living with strangers (who later became my family) taught me always to remember I don’t have the whole picture of others’ lives; learning a new language from scratch made me realize there are opportunities everywhere, you just need to work hard to get them.
These learnings I take with me wherever I go. In part, they make me who I am today. Thank you, Germany.