A short flight to another country, a giant leap out of my comfort zone
As a European, visiting other countries is relatively easy. Three hours to Italy, ten to Denmark, five to the Netherlands and only two to France are absolutely normal when I start to travel from my hometown Ulm. When in school, talking about vacations in Scandinavia, Poland or at the coast of Spain was normal for my classmates and me, as were day trips to Austria or Switzerland. In Germany, we grow up with the impression that most countries, cultures and languages are just one road trip away. That is, until we get older and understand that some areas of the world are only accessible by plane. That gives these countries an aura of mystery and we become fascinated by the idea to see them one day.
One of the most fascinating ones is the U.S., since it is so similar and yet so different to what we grow up with. So when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to seize it and to apply for the Sister Cities program, which meant living in the United States for three whole months — without knowing who I would meet, how they would react to me and what I might experience. But I was still optimistic, since I had heard only positive reviews from previous Sister Cities interns about their time in New Ulm.
During the three months I lived in New Ulm, I worked for six weeks at KNUJ radio and for five at The Journal, while spending one travelling and one more week exploring New Ulm. The people I have met during this journey were all very open-minded and all eager to show me what made their hometown and their country so special to them.
I visited family lake homes, sports stadiums (both Twins and Vikings), county fairs and other festivities — like Bavarian Blast, for example. Bavarian Blast in particular was an amazing experience, since it was then that I fully realized how much German culture can still be found here and how it has shaped the identity of this town and its residents.
In one of the fondest memories I have from Bavarian Blast, some people addressed me with “Willkommen” (German for “Welcome”). The huge smiles that formed on their faces when I replied in German with “Danke” (“Thank you”) were not only very moving, but are also an example of the presence German still has here. I even learned something about German history in the form of the legend around Hermann the German, which was previously unknown to me.
But there are not only similarities I found here. What stood out too were the differences — I still marvel at the size of some supermarkets and the amount of flavor variations for some groceries.
Other examples of what struck me as peculiar include political advertisements (in Germany, the amount of money that can be spent by parties for advertising is strictly limited to avoid disadvantages for smaller parties), public transport, the recycling system, and beer (I am still surprised about the lack of foam I find on American beers, since in Germany the foam is highly valued as a sign of quality).
But the most memorable part of this exchange will be the people that I have met during my time in New Ulm. The host families, the colleagues and the friends I have found here are the key reason why this exchange has turned out to be as amazing as it was. Their willingness to take me to places in and around New Ulm (in some cases even out of the state) was not only surprising to me, but opened up a wealth of opportunities to learn and see more than I could have as an ordinary tourist. I was, for example, through a chance encounter able to visit the Pow Wow in Mankato last week and speak with Native Americans about their history and traditions — a possibility that I would never have had in Germany.
This is why the Sister Cities Exchange was so valuable and interesting for me. Living and talking with Americans, experiencing and living a culture about which I have read so many academic essays, studies, and books was indeed eye-opening and changed my perception of the country and its residents in many ways. Talking to locals about how they see themselves, what has shaped their upbringing and personality, and what they value most has made this experience so personal and educative at the same time.
It took me a lot of courage to hop on a plane and follow the decision to live in a foreign country — even if it was only for a limited time. But it was time well spent and the reward I got — in form of memories and friends that I have made — is immeasurable.