Imagine the feeling of the the warmth of a fuzzy blanket under the soft orange glow of an old flashlight in a dark living room, cozy in your refuge from the bullets of rain and sharp cracks of violent thunder outside. It’s ten o’clock at night, the power is out, and none of you can sleep. You, your host mom, and your host sister are all huddled together on the gray leather couch. Your host sister jumps every time the living room is illuminated by a bright flash of lightning, nervous from the anticipation of a loud thunderclap that is about to follow. It’s the perfect opportunity to tell ghost stories, and you have two really good ones up your sleeve. You tell your horrific tales, and succeed in absolutely horrifying your host sister. She clings to your arm in terror and you can’t help but grow a little warm inside knowing that your host sister, a mere stranger just months before, seeks comfort in you.
Now it’s your host mom’s turn. With a sinister glint in her eyes she tells the story of a gruesome murder that took place in her very hometown in the former Soviet Germany. As the story unfolds and the horror worsens, you suddenly become very glad that you’re not alone on this stormy night. You and your host sister cling to each other, shrieking as a bright shock of thunder and lightning shakes the whole house.
If there was ever a time during my exchange year that I remember most vividly, it would be this moment with my host family, sharing a fuzzy brown duvet with my host sister and realizing how close I had grown to them in the midst of the cacophony of the storm.
Nearly three years later, when I look back at my year abroad, it’s a little overwhelming to think how a family of strangers took me into their home and cared for me like one of their own. And all they expected from me was for me to care, too.
Rachel Andresen founded Youth For Understanding upon the idea that it’s hard to hate a country and its people if you’ve lived there. This mindset perfectly captures the sanctity of the cultural exchange. What makes a country a country is not its government, its laws, or its politics. What makes a country a country is its people. And if you get to know a country’s people and get the chance to live alongside them, you’ll never be able to think badly of that country, no matter your beliefs about its politics or government.
My time in Germany couldn’t have proven that any better.