Tales from Abroad – Ella Napton

A series of unfortunate events led me to the J-Term trip that went on to change my life forever.

Last spring I signed up and committed to go on the J-Term trip to St. Maarten with the Education Department.

Being an education major made me extremely excited for the prospects of spending a J-Term on an island teaching.

All was well for the summer and into the beginning of the new school year. That is, until Hurricane Irma decided to show up.

In the early weeks of September 2017 Hurricane Irma all but destroyed much of the tiny island of St. Maarten.

Of course I was heartbroken, but I still held out hope that the trip would go on. But one day during my Exercise Physiology class I got an email informing me and every other trip participant that the trip was cancelled.

I was heartbroken. I was set on going abroad during the J-Term of 2018 and my hopes were dashed.

But the prospect of going abroad was reignited when I saw I had the option of transferring into another J-Term.

I had to make my decision quickly because logistics were being finalized for the trips.

I spent a whole ten minutes deciding between London and Germany before settling on Germany, mainly because I had never been before, was hosting an exchange student at the time, and was taking German.

Fast-forward a few months to the beginning of January and I found myself on a plane headed towards Bremen, Germany without knowing anyone in the seats around me well at all.

It was certainly an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone. When we touched down in Bremen the 22 students along with our chaperones Pat and Jim Branstad, stumbled from our bus to the hotel in a groggy state.

We had been traveling for nearly 12 hours and had to stay awake for another six per the instruction of Frau Branstad.

Immediately we were set loose and given free time. Because it was my first time in Germany and my German was quite limited, as was true for nearly every participant on the trip, I was overwhelmed quite quickly.

“We saw the Berlin Wall, talked to a former citizen of East Berlin, and ate our body weight in amazing food.”

Looking back, I realize that it was done intentionally by our instructors to get us used to the culture and language quickly. And it worked.

After a rocky start consisting of an interesting encounter with a waiter that became upset upon us only ordering one apple strudel, we found that the stereotype that Germans are stuck-up, rude, and cold to be very untrue.

We only had two days in Bremen, and it was certainly hard to leave. But what came next was what we figured would be the highlight of our trip: the host stay with local families in Ostfriesland.

But before we could start that particular adventure, we stopped in Bremerhafen at the German Emigration Center.

What was particularly interesting about this stop is that there was a room in the museum where one can research various emigrants and see if any of their family members left from this particular port (one of the biggest in Germany).

It was also a monumental day because the sun actually came out for a little while–a rarity in Germany. But what Germany lacks in sunshine it makes up in everything else.

After that excursion we drove, and napped, for hours until we reached Grossefehn.

I found myself with butterflies in my stomach (for the lack of a less cliche term) as I stepped off the bus to find my host parents.

My family has hosted two exchange students, one from Spain and one from Germany, but have never been on the other side of that experience.

Host parents, Volker and Renate, kept Ella entertained with their bright personalities and home-cooked meals.

Upon meeting my host parents I knew it would be a week I would never forget. My host dad, Volker, and my host mom, Renate, were full of personality right off the bat.

I was laughing during the first interaction and even more so upon getting home and having my first home-cooked meal in quite a while.

Throughout the week, my host parents became known as the funny/fun host parents and this certainly described my whole experience with them.

I never had one dull moment and I will forever be grateful for the experiences that homestay allowed me to have.

After a teary goodbye with Volker and Renate, we hopped on the bus for a long nine hours, many of which were spent napping. We got to Berlin later that night.

Right off the bat I felt the presence of Berlin. It was full of life, culture, and fun. Around every corner there was something new to explore and food to eat.

We spent the next seven days touring around what quickly became one of my favorite cities in the entire world (not that I have much of a list to work off of).

We saw the Berlin Wall, talked to a former citizen of East Berlin/Germany, and ate our body weight in amazing food. I kid you not, there was no food that did not make me want more.

Leaving Berlin was certainly not as hard as saying goodbye to my host parents–the hustle and bustle of a large (okay, huge) city can really beat someone down.

But it was still a hard goodbye, especially knowing we were on our way to the last week of the trip, and thus the end of our little Germany J-Term bubble that had formed over the past two and a half weeks.

We got a little tour of Rothenburg, a city dating back to the medieval ages that miraculously survived World War II, before heading to our final destination: Munich.

Munich was the defintion of “Germany” I thought of when asked before embarking on my trip. It is true when people say that Munich has Biergartens, lots of pretzels, and liters of beer.

We took a few day trips to surrounding areas during our time in Munich. On one of the days we took an excursion to Dachau, one of the most well-known concentration camps from the Hitler occupation of Germany, which was, of course, extremely sobering.

And on another day we took a day long excursion to the Alps and the Neuschwanstein Castle (the “Disney Castle”) with our wonderful tour guide Bodo.

We even got to stop on the side of the road in Austria to see the Alps up close. It was truly amazing.

And we ended our trip in true traveller fashion: by waking up before 6:30 a.m. and heading to the airport on a stomach full of coffee and bread.

The moment we touched down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and saw my family, I wanted to go back. Germany will forever be in my heart.