PROGRAM: Language Immersion
PROJECT: Language Exchange
WRITTEN BY: Sophie Hayes
Arriving at Sydney airport on the 7th of December, 2015 was the most nervous, excited and surreal moment of my life so far.
Dressed in our antipodeans shirts, 12 Australians said goodbye to their family members and departed Sydney for a 20 hour trip to Munich, Germany. Accompanied by our amazing Chaperone, Frau Lewin we arrived in Munich after stopping over in Singapore. Despite the length of the flight, our excitement levels were incredibly high as “the exchange” that we had been talking about for so long, had finally become a reality.
We left Munich airport to be greeted by our phenomenal guide, who made our trip amazing. After dropping our bags off at the hotel we left and went exploring for the day, visiting the gorgeous Christmas markets in Marienplatz and then touring the city, embracing every single aspect. Over the next three days we visited the BMW museum, the Hofbräuhaus, Dachau Concentration Camp, Neuschwanstein Castle and the Rathaus to name a few. It came to the end of our trip to Munich, so we boarded the ICE Train and made our way to meet our host families in Dorsten, North-West Germany. In the final 30 minutes of the train trip, the tension levels were high, with a mixture of excitement and nervousness thick in the air. As we exited the train, we saw a large crowd of welcoming families ready to take us in for the next five or seven weeks.
The next few weeks were action packed with a mixture of group excursions, family activities and of course school consuming every moment of our time. We were giving the weekend to settle in after arriving, but as Monday came we had school. I was completely shocked at first as school finishes at 1.30 and when their teachers are away they just get a free period! All of the teachers were very welcoming and tried to engage me in the class as much as possible. My host sisters friends were lovely and they had conversations with me about life back at home and were mainly shocked about our ways of life, many expecting us to have kangaroos in our back garden, snakes in our toilets and red dirt covering the ground!
The day following our first day at school, the Australians reunited at Dorsten train station to spend the day exploring Cologne. In Cologne we visited the large Cathedral and climbed to the top of the right tower, which allowed us to have an incredible birds eye view of the city. We were also given plenty of time to embrace all the shops that we don't have in Australia!
The rest of the week flew by with school taking up most of our time. On Friday the 18th, the Australians and Germans met up for a group disco - ice skating party and it was so much fun. We all got to learn more about each other and become more used to the cold! One of the best things about being in Dorsten was that it was very easy to go to other major cities in Germany as the train station allowed for many different trips to many different cities. I visited many different places with my host sister and some of the other exchange students and their siblings throughout the exchange. I visited Düsseldorf, Essen and the local zoo to name a few. Our second group excursion was to Bonn, where we visited the Rhine, Bonn University, Beethoven’s House and of course, the shopping district as well.
School finished later on that week in preparation for Christmas. In Germany christmas is celebrated a little differently to the way we do it in Australia. The celebrations are spread across three days. The 24th of December is traditionally the day where Christmas presents are exchanged and when people attend Mass. The 1st Christmas (25th) and the 2nd Christmas (26th) is spent with extended family where traditional German customs are upheld. Following the Christmas celebrations, the Australians and germans met up again at a mosaic and sculpture workshop where we created our own fish sculptures. It was a lot of fun and really good bonding time with our host siblings.
It reached the 31st of December and the Germans and Australians met up again for a bowling match at the local equivalent of strike bowling! We had a really fun couple of hours and then post all of our hard work we all came together along with our host families for a big feast for dinner which was absolutely delicious and we all had a really fun time meeting each others families and bonding together. Each of us celebrated NYE or Sylvester differently while we were over here. Personally, I went to a party with one of the other Australians and her host sister and we had a really fun time. The highlight of the evening was definitely the fireworks that we did ourselves and then looking across the skyline to see it completely lit up by fireworks, as everyone does their own in Germany!
The first few days of the new year were spent doing activities with out host families, relaxing and embracing the German lifestyle. However, on the 5th of January the Australians, along with a few host siblings departed Dorsten on the ICE Train towards Berlin. Everyone was extremely excited to reach the capital of Germany and fully explore and discover the history of Berlin. We arrived in the evening and were immediately greeted by the cold weather, but along with the -5 degree temperature, snow began to fall and we were all very excited to be travelling around in this winter wonderland. We decided that it would be fun to explore Berlin in the night so we went out later that day and managed to end up at the Brandenburger Tor. It was phenomenal and felt really surreal to finally be seeing it all in real life. Over the following three days we visited so many different sites. To name a few, we visited the Reichstag, The Berlin Wall, Ka De We, The Mall of Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie, Charlottenburg Palace, the Gedächtniskirche, Berlin Cathedral, the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Museum.
After an action packed three days it was time for the 5 weekers to leave Germany. It was so hard to say goodbye to the few people who were leaving as we had all formed such a close bond over the last five weeks and everyone knew that these new friendships would last a life time. We bid our goodbyes at a nice early time of 5am and then the 7 weekers went back upstairs and back to sleep. A few hours later we woke up once again to leave for a quick final sight-seeing tour and then went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and leave. A newly depleted group boarded the ICE Train on our trip back to Dorsten, a place that was beginning to feel like our second home. Upon arrival we were greeted by our host families who brought us back home and into reality!
Over the next two weeks all five of us experienced so much it is impossible to record every activity. However, all of us had one thing in common: we all attended school for the two weeks with our host siblings, and those two weeks were vital to my German understanding. I began to comprehend so much more, as I was getting used to the language and beginning to understand how it functioned. I would definitely recommend going for those two extra weeks as a significant improvement was visible at the end of that period of time.
As well as attending school, I did many activities with my host family and the other Australian exchange students. As a group, we all went on an excursion to an old steel factory in Bottrop in the pitch black and it was one of the coolest experiences of the trip. We climbed up to the very top of the factory and had a full view of many of the surrounding cities and the lights at night was one of the most gorgeous things I had ever seen.
It finally came to the end of the final two weeks and sadly we had to say goodbye to our host siblings. Personally, I found this extremely hard as my host sister and I have become so close and pretty much are sisters! I have to say a few tears were shed, however they were mixed with the sadness of leaving but the excitement to head home after almost two weeks away. As my host dad said when I was departing, “One door has to close for another one to open”. I really hope that my host sister will consider coming to Australia and stay with my family on an exchange or that I will see her in the near future. We have been and will stay in contact for a long time as the tight bond that we have formed will never be broken.
Without a doubt this exchange was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever done in my life and I am so incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to do it. I would highly recommend going on exchange to improve your language abilities or just immerse yourself in another culture you are interested in! I have just had the best time of my life and made so many memories that I will never forget. Sophie Hayes