In the CBYX program there are certain events we are expected to participate through throughout the year, those of which being; D.C. orientation, a month at language camp, a week at mid-year, a week in Berlin, and D.C. re-entry.
After leaving Hedersleben and saying goodbye to all my friends, we all went through four months without each other, learning our new host communities, expanding our German, and making new bonds. We've all learned from our new experiences and have grown, and during the time we all had to arrive in Köln for a week of mid-year, where we're either getting over our 'regression' phase or are currently in it.
For mid-year, all 50 participants from PI CBYX went to Köln, where we had a series of seminars about our struggles and overcoming them, went to some museums, and reunited with each other. This moment was a great time to reconnect, with all of us providing support for each other if we had problems, and coming out of our shells, embracing our personalities in English (since it's hard to express yourself when learning another language). It was cool to see everyone speaking German and switching between that and English.
A comment before heading into what all this hectic week entailed, I really needed this and had such an amazing time! Shout out to Tisch 7!
Arrival on Tuesday
On Tuesday, I went to school for art and geography before heading back home to pick up my stuff from home and head to the train towards Köln. When I arrived in Köln I was one of the last groups, but at least I didn't have a Verspätungen (late train), which almost everyone seemed to have this day. I met everyone in the back of the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), where as we all filed in we hugged each other and caught up on life. It was weird seeing everyone's German speaking ability, but it was really fun to reconnect with them!
After everyone in our group showed up we took the tram to the youth hostel, got checked in and picked our roommates before getting to unpack a little. I picked Vanessa, Angelina and Tasha as my roommates, and as soon as I walked into the hostel I immediately hugged all of Tisch 7. Then we had dinner, where we took too many helpings of pudding and had a welcome seminar. After the welcome seminar our big group of 50 was split into 25 for group A and 25 for group B. I was in group B.
We went outside and did an activity where you said your name, a verb and an adjective in German, and then everyone had to go around the whole circle repeating what everyone said before them until we had gone through everyone. We weren't really vibing with this activity, but we did with the other one. For the other activity, we played a rock, paper, scissors running game. After these two activities, we were given free time until our curfew at 23:00.
For free time Tisch 7 and I meet in my room and we had our secret Santa! We laid out all kinds of snacks, ranging from American to German, and threw all our gifts in a locker, pulling them out one by one, and the person opening their present got to guess who bought it for them. My secret Santa was Angelina, and she got me Animal Farm, a book bag, gummies, a postcard and a Milka chocolate bar. After everyone had guessed and figured out who was their secret Santa, we all wanted pictures of this moment, so we asked another CBYX-er to take our photo, but with that came 4-5 other people in our room. It got very warm and crowded and everyone was eating our food, but it was a fun time - and we got some really cool polaroid photos while we were at it!
Eventually, our mini party died down and everyone left, leaving my roommates and I alone. We caught up with each other's lives before bed and then went to sleep. I was very overwhelmed this day, especially because we've all grown from the last time we've seen each other. There was also the feeling I've had all year, where I feel like my German hasn't improved as much as others, which kinda made me sad. But at last, these feelings were abolished by the end of the week.
I woke up around 7:00 to get ready, and was ready earlier than 8:00 (when breakfast was) so I immediately heard complaining from Tasha that we needed to wake up later tomorrow. We ate breakfast, which was similar to Hedersleben but it didn't slap as hard. Then before our first activity, Darren had a dance party to German 'Let it Go' in my room. Afterwards, we had a warm up outside, where we played 'Ride that Pony', ninja and ran a bit before heading back inside. Then we split into our A and B groups and talked about problems we are currently facing, and then got in groups and found solutions for those said problems. Most problems revolved around the language and how hard it is to learn, but some were about how it's hard to make friends in Germany and teachers being a bit too strict on the exchange students (expecting them to be fluent and participate in everything even though it's difficult to).
After this first seminar we had some people from PI (Partnership International) come, and they asked us for feedback on what they can do better. After this we all got on the tram to the Hauptbahnhof, where we split for two or three hours of free time. Tasha, Vanessa, Darren and I took Alex to see the Kölner Dom, which was even prettier this time than all the other times I've seen it, because the sun was at the perfect place and all the light was streaming through the stained glass windows. Alex cried because it was so beautiful. Then, some of us got döner and the other few got bratwurst for lunch, before heading to Thalia, getting ice cream, boba, and Dunkin' Donuts, going to H&M, before heading back to our group meeting location.
From there we went to a museum that used to be an SS/Gestopo place. We were guided through it in four groups and it was in only German, so it was a bit frustrating for me because I couldn't understand everything he was saying. There was some English in the basement, where there were cells where they kept prisioners, and that hit the hardest out of everything, especially with the writings on the walls in all different languages.
After the museum we returned to the hostel for dinner, and then had another seminar where we talked about what we did in our free time that day - if we liked Köln, and then we went over the museum, summing up our thoughts and the history of the place. Then we were told that we had free time, and we could actually venture out in Köln, as long as we were back 30 minutes before curfew. So, I ventured out with Darren, Angelina and Tasha to show them the lock bridge. While taking photos another group of CBYX-ers came walking towards us, and we eventually joined together. While on the bridge, a large group of people ran over the bridge, celebrating and gave Darren a rose. Then we headed back to the tram where we took E18 instead of 18, because we thought there was no difference - apparently, there was a difference... We sat on the train, blissfully unaware, and when the train car was empty we even did some pull-ups, but then we realized we were on the wrong train. So, we panicked a bit and got off at the next stop, with Andy figuring out what train we had to get on to get to the hostel. He figured it out and we got on another train, stopped in Ebertplatz, and then got on another train, making it back one minute late.
When we got to the hostel we gave Vanessa the 411 on our night, and had another roommate talk before bed. As much as it sucked in the moment to be lost, after every time we realize it was actually very fun and we enjoyed it. And we also got a lot of polaroid photos.
On Thursday I woke up later, as per Tasha's request - waking up at 7:30 instead. We went to breakfast, then went outside, got counted and left to board the tram towards the Hauptbahnhof. While on the tram there was something on the tracks, and we had to stop for a few minutes, turn off the tram and the lights and then we could go again. This caused us to be late to our train, so we had to sprint out of the tram entrance to our train, but we ended up missing it anyway. So, we had to wait 30 more minutes for the next train, and piled ourselves on there, sitting for around 35 minutes before we arrived in Bonn.
There, we walked to the building that the Bürgermeisterin works in and had a chance to ask her questions and learn more about what she does. She also gave us apple juice, and we were grateful. She spoke in only German and pretty much everyone asked her questions in German as well. I'll admit that during this time I learned that I can speak much better German than I give myself credit for, I just haven't been challenged or spoken to in German that much.
After our meeting we were given free time, so Angelina, Vanessa, Darren, Tasha and I went in search of finding food. We ate döner and then went to the Harbio store, which was nothing short of perfection. When walking into the store it was like a childhood dream come to reality - it was amazing. There was literally any and every kind of gummy that could be dreamt of, and all of it was surprisingly cheap. I got gummy cupcakes for my dad, a keychain and Germany landmark gummies.
Then we saw a cathedral, and while the rest of our friends got boba, Tasha and I went to a tea shop before meeting back up with everyone. I got a strawberry milk tea, which I actually liked, and we all just sat around talking for maybe a half an hour to an hour. After this I walked with Tasha to the Beethoven museum, and while she explored it I ate in a cafe. Then we headed to the train to get to the Haus der Geschichte (House of History), and we almost went the wrong direction, but luckily we caught ourselves and managed to get there on time.
At the Haus der Geschitche we were given a link to the audio guide, and went throughout the museum on our own. It went over German history from both East and West from after World War II. Experiement CBYX people were also there but they were split into little groups and had a personal guide showing them around, speaking in only German. For PI, the audio guides had the choice of German or English, but most people chose English so they could understand everything. The most interesting part of the museum for me were the parts about climate change and the political parties at the end of the exhibit. An impactful moment for me was when I walked into this black box, and it was just silent with photos of the book burnings, Auschwitz, and the piles of bodies.
After the museum we all bought postcards or soveniers, and then took the train back to the Hauptbahnhof, hoping on the tram to the hostel. Then we had a seminar where we talked about the Bürgermesiterin, the museum, and our free time in Bonn. After that we had free time until curfew, and because I was so tired from the day, I decided not to go anywhere. I sat with Angelina, Darren, Vanessa and Tasha in our room and we talked about our first impressions of each other - everyone basically thought I didn't like them when we first met, which is something I'm used to hearing. Then we all pulled out our calendars and schedules to figure out days to stay the night at each others places, before we headed to bed.
I woke up again around 7:30 and then had breakfast with my roommates. Today was just a seminar day where we stayed at the hostel, so the first thing we did was warm ups. Our first warm up was a relay game where we had to complete exercises and whoever finished first won, and the second warm up was a game of telephone. My group lost, and my exercise was to do three front rolls, which really hurt my neck and was embarrassing.
Our first seminar of the day split us into groups of three or four and we were given scenieros about possible conflicts we would face with our host family, at school, etc. Then we had to act out the sceniero and the solution. After this we had some CBYX people come over to talk to us, where they gave us information about our grading sheets we needed by the end of the month, families visiting and the Berlin end-of-the-year seminar. Then we had lunch and were released for a few hours of free time if we didn't have an appointment with PI to talk about any problems we might be facing. At this point in my exchange year, I've been doing really well - my host family is great, I've made good friends, I've traveled a lot - the only thing would be that I always felt behind in my German.
So, for free time, I went with Darren, Vanessa, and Tasha to the Kölner Dom to show it to Angelina. We took a ton of photos outside, and it was even snowing so we had a bit of fun and it was really pretty. After going inside and showing Angelina the Dom, we went in into an American sweet shop, where I found American syrup, which I bought because in two weeks I would be making my host family pancakes! After the sweet shop I went to H&M with Vanessa. Then we all got fries and donuts before heading back to the hostel.
For our next seminar we sat in a circle with our A or B group and anything that was said in the circle would not leave the room or go to PI. This basically turned into a rant about Germany, about anything frustrating, sad, weird, funny, homesickness - anything and everything. We talked about racism in Germany, Abendbrot (evening bread), German school, the German stare, etc. It was a safe space and was my favorite activity - it was great for everyone to vent their feelings out and know that others feel the same way.
After the criticism circle we had dinner and then attended one last seminar, where we got into groups of three or four and talked about what it means, and what traits and actions a youth ambassador does. Afterwards we discussed it as a group and then some of us stayed back to listen to this Bundestag guy. We got the opportunity to ask him questions. At night we had another roommate talk and I facetimed my grandma to meet my roommates and Darren.
For our last full day at mid-year we did a warm up in our A and B groups, of which mine was musical chairs. We started with around 20ish people and as it got down to it, I won against Elias, pulling the chair away from him last minute. A great victory and memory from mid-year. Afterwards I was very dizzy...
Our first seminar was about what our remaining goals for this year are, in relation to our host family, school, friends, language, and other. We made our own small groups and then discussed as a big group. My goals were to speak and learn more German (I have a goal of being able to read 'A Court of Thorns and Roses' in German on the plane ride back to the United States), and to participate in things more, for example; classes at school, host family activities.
After this session we moved into a debate relating to the German coal mine that's demolishing a city. There were chairs on two sides of the room, one side meant yes and the other side meant no. We were asked questions and then had to pick a side, and we couldn't be in the middle. We did this activity in English since it would be easier. Our first question was, 'Is it morally right to break the law for justice', and there was one person on the no side and everyone else on the yes side. One yes person switched to no, but overall this debate got very heated and passionate quickly - we were all very frustrated. The next question was more equally divided, it was, 'Is it okay to hurt a police officer in the name of justice'. This was equally as passionate.
Then we broke for lunch, and had some free time, so I did some blogging and talked with my roommates. After free time we all got together to discuss the differences between die Linke and the AfD, since we would have a representative from each political party come to debate and answer questions. We all came up with questions, then took a photo with the men and watched the debate - which was interesting to say the least. Mikela started strong, asking the AfD member why when she walks past their building to go to school in her city, their people yell at her and tell her to go back to her country. He swerved the question. Both candidates had tension between each other and rolled their eyes or made faces at each other. A fun-ish moment was when someone asked about what defines family and what that definition is in relation to the LGBTQ+ community, and the AfD guy was against same-sex marriage, and basically said, 'What is community', so that quickly became a meme between all of us. After they left they really didn't acknowledge each other, thank each other or say goodbye, so we talked about the debate amongst ourselves.
After dinner we had a final seminar where we were shown the photos submited to the photo challenge we did this week, gave feedback to PI about what they could do better with mid-year or what we liked, and then we had a talent show. A group of people sang and that was really it. Then we moved into a dance party where we all swayed to 'Country Road, Take Me Home' and some other songs.
But, I left a bit early with Tasha, Darren, Vanessa and Angelina to go to the Hauptbahnhof to get snacks and then take more photos on the bridge, as well as make a few TikToks. We acted very loud and American that night, but all was okay, sometimes you get to fulfill the sterotypes. We returned home by curfew and then went to our room with Darren and passed around an empty Coke Cola bottle, aka 'the talking bottle', and just ranted or said anything we needed to get off our minds - like boy issues, host family issues, etc. We didn't go to bed until around 1:00 a.m.
Leaving on Sunday
I slept in later this day, arriving late to breakfast and then finishing packing and putting all my sheets in the bins for the hostel. After cleaning up our room, we returned the keys, got our tram tickets for our groups of five, and then said goodbye to the teamers. This wasn't as sad as language camp, but the familiarity of each other really helped us out and provided a comfort during this part of the year. We all hugged each other and said our goodbyes before going on the tram to the Hauptbahnhof. There, we got snacks before heading back home.
When I got 'home', it felt really good to unpack everything, have my own room and be back to something more familiar, but I did really miss my friends. We're all comfortable in English, and our personalities shine the best that way, so our connections are more stable then ones we've made with our German friends. It was nice to see all of them, make new memories, and just know we're all going through the same things - we've got someone there that understands...
During this time in our exchange year we're either in our regression phase, where we hate Germany and are frustrated by everything and want to go home, or have just gotten over it and feel at home in Germany. By reconnecting at mid-year we're able to express any concerns with others and just reconnect our bonds that we established at language camp. It's interesting to see, because we've all grown in this period of time, so some of our friend groups have changed and our personalities have differed a bit from the start of the year. Personally for me, this was a great time to reflect over the past few months and gave me more motivation about the next upcoming months.