Don't Let Your Exchange Year Pass You By

Authored by:
Marli W.

Marli W.

I can’t believe it’s been 2 months since I’ve gotten to my host family! It feels like longer than that and also not quite that long yet. I do feel at home here now. I have a routine, I’m familiar with the area, more or less, and I’ve gotten used to the differences between how my family does things and how my host family does things.

One thing that has been a struggle for me, though, is how much time I spend on my phone. During the two-week-long Herbstferien, too much of what I did was scroll through my phone. For hours a day, I was staring at a little backlit rectangle, not really doing much of anything.

In the moment, scrolling through Instagram or Facebook or watching whatever videos YouTube has recommended to you is fun! You’re entertained, and it’s a convenient distraction from whatever might be on your mind or whatever task you’re putting off.

After a while, though, I noticed that I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I was irritable, tired but not able to sleep, and I felt like I was missing out on something. Because I was. Here I am in Germany on the program I spent months working to get into, and I’m spending my time scrolling through Instagram, not even looking at each picture for more than a couple of seconds before leaving a like and moving on to the next post, and repeating this for hours in a row, sometimes switching between apps, but never putting the phone down for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

Being on your phone is much easier and safer than going out and doing something. It’s easier than going downstairs and starting a conversation with your host mom. It’s easier than calling up a friend and asking them to hang out. The more time I spent on my phone, the smaller and more confining my comfort zone got. So, I decided to do something about it. I installed this app a couple months before leaving called Moment, but I hadn’t really been using it until then. Essentially what it does is track how much time you’re spending on your phone and kicks you off when you meet the daily limit you’ve set for yourself by playing a really annoying high-pitched tone until you turn your phone off.

That has definitely helped. Another thing that really put things into perspective for me was a couple weekends ago when I went with my host mom to her choir’s annual retreat, and there was no WiFi where we were staying.

About an hour north of where I live, the retreat took place at a recreation-center-slash-church in Neue Oese. A couple hundred yards from the recreation center was a Protestant church built in the 1500s, and the entire area surrounded by trees in the peak of Autumn glory. When I wasn’t singing with the choir, I was going for walks and photographing the church and the trees and the falling leaves, or just sitting and listening to the ambient sounds, being present in the moment. I’d also brought a book with me that I’d gotten for my birthday, and I realized that I hadn’t read an actual, physical book in a long time— normally I use the Kindle app, and I never get very far before a notification pops up and I’ve tapped away from my book to Instagram. I used to read as many as 4 books a week when I was a kid before I got my first iPod Touch and discovered the Internet, and now I read maybe 5 books a year. I find that I really miss reading as much as I used to. I’ve ordered a couple more books on Amazon for when I finish this one.

In the evenings, my host mom and her friends would all gather with snacks and wine and talk for a few hours. Instead of distracting myself with my phone, I participated in the conversation when I understood enough of what they were saying, and when I couldn't I just sat and observed. One thing I’ve always liked about myself is that I’m not easily bored. Even if I’m not involved in what’s going on, I can always find some new diverting train of thought or idea to consider, and I usually feel like I’m being more productive when I’m literally just sitting and thinking than I do when I’m doing something on my phone.

After that weekend, I no longer felt as agitated as I had before I left. I was calmer, happier, and I was looking forward to the next week of school rather than dreading it. I found myself wondering why things couldn’t be like that more often. And of course, they can. All it takes is putting the phone down for a while. Just turn it off and go do something! Talk to people! Read a book! Go outside! You won’t find anything on your phone more worthwhile than any experience you can find when you go out into the real world and just do something. This is something I will have to continue to remind myself throughout my year here in Germany, as well as when I get back home, but it’s worth the effort. I’m not going to let my exchange pass me by because I was too busy checking my notifications.

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