Our Story, Part 3

About a month after my college graduation, I found myself sitting in Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport waiting for my flight to Washington DC. My parents were with me, and I tried hard to absorb their familiar loving faces deep into the fabric of my mind. I wanted to be able to call forth their images at will, because I was embarking on what felt like an exciting, but very lonely, year-long journey. By 21 years old, I had taken off from this airport many times before, but usually only for a few months at a time. I knew this memory of my family would have to sustain me until the following summer.

It was a hot mid-July day in 1991, and I was wearing my favorite bright red shorts and a solid white Tshirt. This well-loved outfit was swimming on me, because I was in the late stages of recovering from mononucleosis. For me, that illness had been a tenacious virus that didn’t want to quit. I’d had to leave college for a few weeks during my final semester to heal at home, before returning to graduate in June. My appetite was slowly returning but I barely weighed 90 pounds that day, and my dad later told me it broke his heart to watch my skinny legs—which had always been so athletic and strong—climbing the stairs to board the small plane at the beginning of a journey that would take me so far away.

Once on board the plane, I made myself comfortable and tried to picture what would happen next. Near the end of my senior year at Northwestern, I’d learned I was accepted into the U.S. Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program for Young Professionals, which is a one-year fellowship funded jointly by the German Bundestag and the U.S. Department of State. The name of the program was a mouthful, but from the minute I’d heard about it, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I had planned to study abroad during college, but back then, my journalism major’s internship requirement made that nearly impossible. The CBYX program promised a perfect combination of language study and an internship in Germany, and the academic pressure was off because I’d already earned my degree. This year would be one of pure exploration and enjoyment.

I was initially elated about the prospect of this adventure, but sitting on that plane alone, I felt a major pit in my stomach. I was heartbroken leaving my college friends and family behind. I tried hard to focus on the few things I knew I had going for me. First, I’d lived in Europe for two years already with my family when I was a child, and I had a wealth of positive personal experiences and memories to draw from to boost my spirits. Second, I was about to meet up in DC with the 74 other American students joining me on this exchange program to Germany. I didn’t know any of them yet, and aside from a few months together in language school together at the beginning of the program and mid-year conference in Berlin, we would be scattering throughout Germany and placed with host families for most of the year. Still, I figured chances were good that I could make a friend or two in this group that I could rely on over the course of the year. And finally, I knew my friend Julia was coincidentally planning to arrive in Germany six months later for her own year-long internship experience.

As I suspected, I found friends immediately within the diverse group of 18- to 26-year-old Americans on my program. Everyone who had been selected for this fellowship was an interesting and curious person, and I enjoyed hearing their stories. Many, but not all, were college students or graduates. Some were professionals in fields ranging from auto mechanics to hair styling. The program was intended for applicants with a demonstrated interest in German language and culture. That meant many of us had either lived or studied in Germany before, had German family members, and/or had a specific professional reason for wanting to spend time there. As part of the interview process, we had been interrogated about how we thought we would handle being on our own in a foreign country. Those questions triggered some soul searching for me, but I was firmly set on having this experience and I had been thrilled to have the opportunity to go.

When we arrived in Germany, the 75 of us were divided into two groups for language school. Half were sent to a location in the Bavarian countryside, while my group was based in Cologne. We found ourselves learning German alongside Nigerian nuns and Chinese businessmen, among others. Our group ventured out frequently together during our three months in Cologne, exploring not only the city’s famous cathedral and the Rhine River region but also the lively nightlife and club scene. When our three months there came to an end, my heart was heavy as I separated from these new friends who had become so dear to me in such a short period of time because of our shared experience.

On a cool, rainy late fall day, I boarded a train alone and ambivalently traveled north to the port city of Bremen to meet the family in whose home I’d be living for the remaining eight months of my program. I remember feeling something close to panic as I tried to envision what this family might be like. I knew very little about them, and I had a nagging worry that they could be antisemitic. I began thinking back to my grandfather’s funeral over the summer when my cousins had grilled me about why I would willingly spend time in a country that had systematically slaughtered our people by the millions, and I was having doubts.

After a long, lonely three-hour train ride, those doubts were erased the moment I laid eyes on the family I found waiting for my arrival at the station. I quickly learned my German host father was an oncologist who had gone to medical school in Houston, where he had met his wife. She was a pediatric cardiologist, who was born in Burma (now Myanmar) but fled to the United States in the late 1960s when a military dictatorship took over her home country. She was an American citizen. Their adopted teenage children were her niece and nephew, who had been sent to them from her sister in Myanmar. This wonderfully generous multicultural family welcomed me with open arms into their meticulously preserved Jugendstil, or German Art Nouveau-style, home in downtown Bremen.

I spent my first few months in Bremen continuing to study German in immersive classes with other foreigners, observing classes at the local university and finding my way around the city. On weekends, I often met up with some of the other Americans from my program. I found a few new local friends, and I began searching high and low for the internship that would keep me busy for the second half of my stay in Germany. Thanks to a dear friend of my host family, an internship materialized for me in the PR department of the German Aerospace factory in Bremen.

Starting that January, I began riding the S-Bahn across town every weekday morning for my job. My internship consisted of rotating around the various departments of the company to observe how each one worked. I understood quickly that contrary to internships I’d had in the United States, this one would require mostly watching, rather than actually doing anything. The company itself was fascinating, and I enjoyed touring the facility that at the time was manufacturing the mid-section of the European Space Consortium’s Ariane rocket launcher. I was given the most spacious office of my career, with a massive window and desk. I spent many hours on my own in that office with absolutely nothing to do, as mainstream Internet access was still a few years in the future. Despite the beautiful window, daylight hours are sparse in northern Germany that time of year. In addition to being bored during the days at work, I was starting to feel pretty isolated. As kind as they were, my host family members were busy with their own jobs and school, and I was frequently alone.

Just then, Julia arrived in Germany like a ray of pure sunshine. Although on a different program, she had been similarly placed in a manufacturing company with little work to do. We were located a few hours away from each other by train, so we could not visit right away. Although phone calls were expensive and itemized in those days, we quickly realized that was not true in our corporate offices. Thus began a prized daily phone conversation ritual with a treasured friend from home. We discussed the trials and tribulations of being in Germany as young American women, both in the workplace and in our daily lives. In one call, Julia shared with me her boss’s reaction when he learned that she had joined a recreational women’s soccer league near Würzburg to make some local friends: “Soccer?! That is no sport for women!” Julia responded by batting her long eyelashes and asking if her college sport of choice, rugby, would have been more acceptable to him. I don’t know about Julia, but for me, our conversations were a blessing during those cold winter months.

By the time spring came and daylight hours were increasing, Julia and I had visited each other a few times. She met my host family, and we gave her a tour of Bremen’s medieval city center. Just before the end of my time in Germany, I joined Julia for the Mozart Festival at the Würzburg Residenz, a castle built in the 1700s and host of the festival since 1921. We picnicked on the lawn, drank local wine and bonded over our love of German chocolate in general, but Ritter Sport’s Pfefferminz specifically. That rich dark chocolate over sharp peppermint is still a favorite (weakness?) for both of us.

For my final adventure of that year, I spent two incredible weeks backpacking through the Greek Islands with four other participants from my program. That electric orange sunrise over a black sand beach in Santorini made an indelible image in my mind’s eye that I return to frequently.

Leaving Germany, I felt as though I’d packed many years’ worth of experiences and adventures into my first year out of college. I had been to places I never imagined I’d see, made many new friends that I still keep up with, and even shared wine and chocolate with my Kentucky friend Julia. I felt more than ready to go home and see my family. After a few weeks in Lexington, my next move became clear. As a thriving worldwide journalism hub, New York City called out to me as the logical choice. I felt ready for anything after tackling the cultural challenges of Germany, and luckily many of my college friends were already there to help me get started.

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