ROSBURG, Wash. — It all started about two years ago. I was coming home from school and my parents asked me if I still wanted to go to America as an exchange student.
I had been interested in that since I was a little girl. My main reason was always to get to know the country I was born in. You see, both my parents are German citizens, but I was born in California while my dad was working in the United States. We moved back to Germany when I was very young.
So, of course, I was very happy for the opportunity to go to the United States. Back then we didn’t know about the difficulties that would wait for us along the way.
We thought that my U.S. citizenship would make things a lot easier. In the end, it was the biggest issue. We contacted several exchange programs, but they refused to take me because of my dual citizenship.
After we figured that out, we looked for a family that could take me as a private exchange. Because my parents lived and worked in the United States for four years, they hoped they might be able to place me in a friends. But none were able to host.
One day, my dad contacted a former classmate, Ed Hunt, whom he remembered from his student exchange in the little town of Lyle, Washington, 30 years ago.
My dad asked him through Facebook if he would know a family that could take me as an exchange student for a year. Ed replied, that his family would be happy to take me. Pretty soon there was a Skype meeting. It was the first time that I saw my future host family. To my mom’s surprise the family Hunt was still willing to take me, and Ed’s oldest daughter even offered to share her room. We Skyped several times before I traveled to the U.S. My family took this as an opportunity to visit the states again. We did a wonderful tour across the country until they dropped me off in Washington State.
At the fair
It was a warm summer day when I arrived at the Wahkiakum County Fair to meet the Hunts for the first time.
Naturally I was very nervous at the beginning. But Lindsay and Grace, Ed and Amy Hunt’s two daughters, just integrated me right away. I got to lead cows around at the fair — until that day I didn’t even know that was possible. I had, overall, a couple great days at the fair with my host family. I also met Grandma and Grandpa Nelson: During those days I would spend a lot of weekends over at their house.
When I imagined a village, I imagined a small group of houses in one place. That is what German villages look like. Villages in the U.S. instead can be a lot more spread out. So I was really surprised when I saw the house of my host family. It was a beautiful blue house in the valley. The part that surprised me was that they were no houses around it.
I figured out the advantage of the big fields that surrounded the house when I first went on a horse ride. There’s no better feeling than to lay on a horse’s back in the field and look into the blue sky.
And then the rain
Soon cross country at Naselle started and with it came the rain. It seemed like it would never stop raining again. Even though Lindsay warned me about the weather in their area, I couldn’t imagine it would be that bad. I wasn’t use to having sport seasons, because, my entire life, I did sports all-year around. I thought it was great, so I could try a big variety of sports.
Cross country began before school, so when school started, I knew a couple of people. Every week, my host family would go to the football game at school. It was great. There were so many people supporting the team, and after a while I even understood the rules.
The American school system is a lot different than the German school system. What I liked a lot about the American school system, was that you have the same classes every day. That makes it easy to remember the people and the classrooms you need. I quickly found friends and a table at school lunches. I thought it was so great that there was freshly cooked breakfasts and lunches at school.
As the days got shorter, Halloween grew closer and closer. Trick or treating was one of my personal highlights of that holiday, and, of course, the spirit week in school. The hallway decorations amazed me. It was so fun to set the whole thing up.
When I’m already talking about holidays, I want to mention Thanksgiving, as well. It is another U.S.-specific holiday that I didn’t know from home. We had Thanksgiving dinner over at Grandma’s house. She prepared all the amazing food that is traditional to the holiday. The whole family got together and that was so nice.
The fall started to slowly turn into winter. Basketball season had begun. I’d never played basketball before, but my coaches taught me quickly the main rules and techniques. Basketball became one of my favorite sports, after a while. We even almost won a game.
I made a couple German dishes over the time for the Hunts, but one I remember more because I remember making it as a child. We call it Weckmann, a traditional German bread made for St. Martin’s Day. I made it one evening, together with Grace for church. In the end, it looked a little interesting because I forgot the eggs, but it still tasted fine.
The winter brought the first snow. I grew up in the black forest, an area in Germany where it snows a lot. The people got so used to it that you never get a day off because of snow. So I was really surprised and happy when we had a snow day. That was my first snow day in my entire life.
Pretty soon it was Christmas and we started decorating. I couldn’t stop looking at all the little things that appeared out of the basement. In addition we went to cut our own Christmas tree.
Soon Christmas evening arrived. I had spent the last days shopping for presents for everyone. Furthermore I was very excited to see if they would like them. In Germany, all presents get opened on Nov. 24. To wait until Christmas morning was therefore hard for me.
I also must admit, that I was even more surprised and happier than usual about my presents. But how could you not, if one of them is a clown’s nose?
One morning, Grandpa informed us that the first calf was born. The calves were so cute and I really wanted to see how one was born. I found a cow that looked like it would give birth pretty soon. There I stood with binoculars the whole day at the window. After hours, I finally gave up. The next day there was a new calf jumping around in the field.
With spring came track season. I had the feeling after basketball and cross country, that I was never in better shape.
Everything started to turn into a bright green. Easter flew by and soon school was out. We did a lot on school vacation. We went camping in the mountains. We drove to Eastern Washington and worked with the new heifers. The year went by so fast and suddenly it was time to go home.
Thanks to the Hunt family and their constant support, my English improved very quickly. They corrected my grammar and helped me in school. They were there for me when I needed them. Somewhere along the way, family Hunt had become my family and Lindsay and Grace became my real sisters.
Even though it rained a lot, and sports practice was hard and I missed Germany, Washington state became a second home for me. At the end of the year, I couldn’t believe that it was already over. Time traveled so fast, so I was really happy that my parents offered that my host family could come back to Germany and visit us for a while.
Still, saying goodbye to all the nice people who I met during this year was hard. I was glad that my friends and teachers were able to help me improve my English skills.
Also I learned so much about the country, where I was born. When we traveled to Germany, it was like I never left.
View of the world
I’ve got a complete new view of the world. I learned so much in this year. It is great to have the chance to get to know other cultures. Also this year helped me to gain more independence.
After two great weeks in Germany together with my host family, it was time to say goodbye. On the way to the airport I remembered again all the good moments that my host family and I shared. One thing is certain, I will come back.
This year was one of the best experiences of my life. I thank the exchange programs for refusing me, so that I could meet such an amazing family, go to such a great school and live in such a nice community.
When you ever have the chance to do an exchange in another country, do it! It will be the best experience of your life.
Born in California, Lia Willenbrock lives in Höchenschwand, Germany. She recently returned to Germany after living with the Hunt family in Rosburg, Wash., and attending Naselle for one year.