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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

A Year as a YFU Exchange Student in Germany


Guest post from YFU Alum, Bill Fleming.

The 1977/78 school year as a YFU exchange student in Germany was a great experience. I recommend it as an excellent way for you to go see and understand the world.

My German host family lived in a village near Cologne in the Rhineland. All around were flat fields full of sugar beets. The father was a banker, who as a junior high student did night duty in WWII on an anti-aircraft battery shooting down English bombers. The mother was a pre-school teacher for children with learning disabilities. My host brother, Christian, put together a bicycle made from spare parts that I rode to school in the next town. One day, the front wheel fell off and I went flying. Not every German product is perfect.

Gymnasium (German high school) was good. You stay with the same kids all day and the teachers come and go. Math was the same as American college prep. In literature, we read Faust, Dantons Tod and a bunch of other plays. In philosophy, we read Plato and St. Augustine. In English, we read Macbeth and Mark Twain (The Awful German Language). Lots of reading. The French teacher really loved her subject. For sports, I did swimming and finally learned to jump off the high dive head first. The school asked me to put on a play with the 7th graders.

Food was simple. One hot meal a day. The other meals were Graubrot (farmers bread) with sausage and cheese. You couldn’t cut into the new loaf until the old one was completely gone so I gained everyone’s everlasting thanks by volunteering to eat the last stale slice.

My sister, Beate, played the cello. There was a piano downstairs and after banging away at it for a few months she came to think that my playing really wasn’t all that annoying. There were a half dozen wooden Blockfloete (recorders) and we played Baroque songs together.

My family also had an ancient farmhouse in a small village in the mountainous Westerwald in Hessen (as in Hessian soldiers) where we spent many weekends. Hiking around the mountains I learned how to read a map. Pretty soon, Germans were asking me to read the map. One of my best memories is hiking through the high forest in a hushed snowfall at dusk from Beilstein in Nassau (as in William of Nassau) to Mengerskirchen. It was a world without color. The tree trunks were black and the ground, sky, and air were all white.

Christian and I took bike trips down the Moselle and Lahn rivers (same bike), staying at youth hostels. For Easter, the family went to our district’s sister town in Brittany, France, with a bunch of other Germans. They thought my French must be really good because there wasn’t a trace of a German accent in it.

The senior class trip was to Prague in Czechoslovakia, still communist. It is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. Our guide was Kafka’s niece. I still have the $1.50 receipt from a police fine for walking along the trolley tracks at night.

YFU organized trips to Helmstedt on the old East/West German border and Berlin where I was invited to touch the keys of Mozart’s cembalo. We also went into East Berlin for a day and saw the Babylonian Gates.

The YFU experience is an open invitation to you. The opportunities are there. It is up to you to make the most of it. Today I live in Tokyo as an international businessman with my Japanese wife and our four kids along with a lot of pets. The exchange student experience can inform and direct your life in all sorts of unanticipated ways.