The year was 1993 – I was 16, and I flew to Germany. My sister’s friend was an exchange student, who spent a year in my small town of Avon, Connecticut. At the end of the year, she invited me to Germany to be an exchange student for a year as well.
It is funny how memories change over time. 1993 was 23 years ago — but it was an adventure that shaped my entire life.
Bremen is a lovely city in Northern Germany – it has a wonderful city square, with a friendly pedestrian zone and with the statue of the famous “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten” (loosely translated as the Bremen City musicians) – a statue of a rooster on top of a cat, on top of a dog, on top of a donkey. They were a quartet of animals, abandoned by their owners, who, on their own, scared off some robbers who attempted to take over their house, and they lived happily ever after.
Happily ever after was not destined to be my year in Bremen.
On a bright summer day in 1993, I landed and was picked up by my host family in a big EuroVan. They continued on and took me to the Bremen Galeria Kaufhof, a huge department store in downtown Bremen. My arrival was more like a footnote in their busy day – I remember being a bit dazed from the flight, and falling asleep as they did their shopping.
I was not prepared for what it meant to live in another family. I grew up in a typical American nuclear family with my mom, dad, sister and dog. This was not that family.
In my host family, I had 7 host-sisters. Two older sisters, including the eldest who had been friends with my sister, and with the other slightly younger; two twins in 5 grade, and two triplets who were just a year or two old. The third of the triplets was a boy, but had passed away at birth. Needless to say, it this was a very different family from what I knew.
When living in a different family, in a different culture, you start to notice everything that you took for granted.
I lived in a room they had been using a closet – much like in Harry Potter (although it had windows) – it was the size of a twin bed and a desk, but I didn’t really seem to mind at the time. Privacy was not a right – I remember my host mother entering my room without knocking to angrily question why I had so much laundry. That I took a shower every day, was not “normal” (although I was a boy, who, as they’d learn, doesn’t smell as nice as girls.) Dinner was served at lunch, and supper was a slice of a brown grainy bread with mustard. Food was a big change, but I was thankful I was fed, and they were shocked a boy in high school could eat so much. Oh, and they didn’t cut their spaghetti, but twirled on the spoon. Who cuts their spaghetti, really?
When small things you consider “normal” are different, you realize how much of your life and your habits you never question. You don’t question these habits, because you don’t know any differently – you rarely question subtle beliefs that are working for you, especially when no one around you questions them. But once you start, you realize how much of your life you took for granted, and you start questioning everything.
It was difficult living with such a different host-family, but I learned so much from that year, I wouldn’t trade it for any other experience.
My host family gave me a distorted picture of a German culture for the first few months. But over time I made friends at school, and in particular with a friend who had the same family as me — one sister, 3 years older than him, and a dog. I remember spending much time over at his house, and remarking how eerily similar they were to my family.
My biggest take-away: people live very different lives, but deep down, we’re all very similar. We have different judgments, and different gauges of what is normal and acceptable — and it is these differences that give us rich cultural experiences. But at the core we’re not really different, and it’s this commonality from which compassion arises, that creates the ability to forge bonds even through great adversity.
At the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat. We’re born, we live, and then we die. We have different experiences along the way, but we have joys, desires, pain and suffering that we encounter. And we all work together to make it to the end.
From my vantage point, it feels like we continually make life more complicated than it needs to be… as if we’ve lost touches with the simple truth of who we are, and what really gives rise to a meaningful beautiful life filled with joy.
Also published on Medium.