This morning, I hopped on a train to leave my home forever, and didn’t look back. I realized there was no sense in thinking too much about it. I boarded the train from Track 2 in Vallendar station to Koblenz as I had done so many times during the semester that it all felt routine.
I’ve moved around before, but it was almost always back and forth from the places I called home. Whenever I left, I knew I’d come back eventually. This time was different. I never expected to feel such at home in little quaint Vallendar, but I did. The truth of it never hit me so much as it did tonight, after I settled into my lodging for the night in Stuttgart that I’ll probably never see Vallendar again. And even if I do return, it wouldn’t be the same. I’ll just be passing through.
Something I’ve always struggled with is the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” Can it be more than one place? What if I don’t feel anything for anywhere? Germany made me realize I could do something about this, that I made the mistake of merely adapting to my surroundings, thinking it was enough, and never trying to belong. There is a difference. Feeling you belong makes the place home, wherever you are. Otherwise it is just an address, simply where you live. All my life, I’ve been trying to balance out the cultural differences, trying to awkwardly fit in to both. At some point, I knew as hard as I tried, I would always be a mixture of at least two worlds, but I always saw the glass as half-empty and not half-full.
Germany taught me many things, but the most powerful and simplest of one was the great difference a small change of mind can be. I wanted to be European. I wanted to thrive in this new surrounding. I came here with an open heart and mind, freed myself all my emotional baggage upon arrival — and it made all the difference. Germany became home for me because I WANTED it to be.
Part of the reasons to study abroad is the demonstration and experience that one is a global citizen. One must be empathetic towards different cultures and find strength and harmony through those differences, rather than dissonance.
I know I am blessed beyond measure to have three places in the world that I can call Home. Slowly, but surely, I’m emerging from my self-induced dissonance, and truly making an effort to make music out of my eclectic identity.
P.S. I’m coming home (back to Hawaii) on May 20, at which point I will have time to really process my life over the past few months and (hopefully) give a intelligible account.
Another thing I learned/saw in action: All things do happen in some sort of weird, great design; one just needs time to make the connections.
At one of the first socials we had at WHU where we got to meet the German students, we asked them, “Which city do you think is the most beautiful in Germany?”
Yes, it’s an unfair question, but we figured we’d get a nice variety of recommendations for future travel plans. We did get a quite a few answers (Munich, Cologne, Berlin, etc), but one city kept cropping up.
Which I was planning on going to anyway.
So when one of the 2nd semester Tauschies casually announced that she was planning on going to Heidelberg for a day the following Friday, I jumped at the opportunity.
We all met in the morning at the Vallendar Mitte bus stop to go to the Koblenz main train station. From there, we worked the logistics of splitting up into groups of 5 in order to get the Deutsche Bahn group discount. (*TIP for traveling via DB) We got a day pass ticket that involved a lot of transfers, but it only cost us 15 Euro each.
When we got to Heidelberg, we got off at what looked like the city center, but it looked nothing like the Heidelberg postcard pictures we saw when doing research online. (*ahem* research on traveling) Nevertheless, we took a light rail to see the Heidelberger Schloss – the iconic Heidelberg Castle. As most castles are, it was on the top of a hill, so it was quite a steep trek to the top. Especially since my boots were a bit big, and I was so not prepared for a hike. But when we reached the castle, it was absolutely beautiful, and this is what we saw:
And THIS is probably one of the most postcard-esque pictures I have taken.
Unfortunately, we had to pay to actually go in and see the ruins of the castle. I think it was 4 Euros, but I know it is 6 Euros to take the tram (round trip) and for entry into the Schloss. That way you don’t have to hike up that hill. But it’s a very scenic way to burn some calories!
At that point, I didn’t have much to burn because I was getting hungry. Some of us stayed back at the castle, but a dozen of us decided to head to the historic city center to find the university and get food. And that was when we saw the sun.
After being in Hawaii for so long and being so used to diving into shade under the trees, the sun had never looked better, shining over the quaint architecture and medieval ruins.
Oh, and did I mention the glorious pastries?
Of course, I succumbed and split a chocolate snowball (the little brown spheres at the top left corner of the picture) with two others. Chocolate on the outside surrounding some sort of angel food cake, with a chocolate-hazelnut creme center. It was divine.
We continued walking till we reached the river and the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, there was a hill where there are remnants of World War II history, a coliseum, and a monastery. The hill looked pretty steep, but the website promised us there would be “strategically placed benches along the trail.”
The story goes that we decided to go up the first part of the hill and see how we felt then whether or not we wanted to grab lunch after. More specifically after the first couple of benches or so. Fair enough.
Three minutes later of trekking up on a 50-degree incline of uneven cobblestone, I regretted it. So much. All we could think about was, “WHERE are those benches?!” Haha.
But when we reached the first bench (like a million years later), the view was amazing.
After climbing some more and asking some passerby who knew the hill better than we did, we surmised that the monastery and coliseum weren’t too far from where we were. So we decided to press on and find them before getting lunch.
The cobblestones disappeared and soon we were literally hiking through a forest on a dirt path. We were high enough to see the river wrapping around the hill and the sun beaming down on the little houses on the other side. It was perfect. The weather was warm, but cool enough to make the walk refreshing. In good time we saw a biker, who told us that both paths in the upcoming fork in the road would lead us to the monastery, which was close to the coliseum. We took the high way, the one that branched off and escalated above the path on the right. This hike was beautiful, scenic, and relatively easy considering this was completely spontaneous and unplanned and the fact none of us were in hiking attire.
“Relatively easy.” Or so we thought.
30 minutes later, when the trail started getting soft and muddy, and the trees were getting thicker, we realized we must have taken a wrong turn. The website said it would be 45 minutes from the bottom of the hill to the monastery, but even at the quick rate we were walking, we saw nothing, and it had been almost an hour since we crossed the bridge. Should we turn back? Keep going? Are we committed to finding this? When should we get lunch? But being the adventurers we are, we kept going.
At this point, I was EXTREMELY grateful for my previous decision of getting that snowball. Because that was the only thing keeping me moving.
Back in Vallendar, we knew the sun would start to set at around 4:30pm, so by 5:00, the sky would be nearly dark. None of us wanted to be stuck here at nightfall, so we decided to keep walking until a quarter before 3:00 to make sure we would be out of there by 4:00. We eventually turned back, and on our way downhill, we found the path we should have taken.
Which reminded me of: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.”
(credit, of course, goes to Robert Frost)
Even though we were tired, hungry, and unsuccessful in finding what we were looking for, it was one of the best hikes I’ve done, and it was totally worth it. Our little group bonded through our excursion, and we got lots of great views of Heidelberg we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. If I ever have the time (and proper hiking attire), I’m definitely coming back to find what we first set out to see. But that’s another story 🙂
I’ll conclude this post with one of my favorite pictures of all time (taken by yours truly)
Pronounced TOW-SHE (as in “towel” and the female pronoun)
That’s the WHU nickname for exchange students. I daresay I rather like it.
Most of my friends in Hawaii are wondering why in the world (haha, get it?) I had to leave home so early for Germany. That’s because our mandatory exchange student orientation was on January 3rd, which is practically the day after New Year’s for Hawaii.
So the night of the 2nd, a few of us Tauschies got seated at what we thought was a restaurant. Since we were a larger group, we had to bring an extra chair and moved around things a bit. But when we realized that it did not serve dinner food, we couldn’t stay and (rather unceremoniously) departed the place…right in the line of sight of the store owner. Oh dear.
Yeah. So the next morning, Cynthia and I walked down from Wildburg together and decided to redeem ourselves by purchasing our breakfast from that same bakery store. I had a chocolate croissant (chocolate inside). Warm and dee-lish. I like Starbucks, but it got nothin’ on this. Success.
The day was a pretty full one. We started at 9:00AM and it was one information session and documentation preparation after another. We all lined up to submit our information disclosure agreements and health insurance documents to get our student cards that double as access keys to school facilities and IDs. As for residential permits, we had until Friday, January 10th (a week from that day) to register at the town hall a few steps away from campus. The town hall is a blocky, orange (peach?) colored building right behind the restaurant Die Traube [see photo gallery] on Hellenstrasse. It’s big, orange, and labeled “Rathaus.” You can’t miss it.
(If anyone is interested in knowing, the 5-month permit costs 50 Euro, and the 8-month permit [also requires an electronic application] is 100 Euro).
After figuring out the initial nuts and bolts and how to legally stay in Germany for the duration of the semester, we were schooled on how to register for classes. Unlike other exchange programs I’ve heard about, WHU students don’t register until the weekend before the first Monday of the semester. Some classes don’t open up until a few days, or even weeks later. Until the classes open up, we can “pre-book” the desired course, which places it on our personal calendar so we can check the class times in relation to other classes. This was extremely helpful because I found three classes that overlapped with each other before I officially registered for them. So so so so much less stressful than registering at UH Manoa. Here, most classes don’t have a cap, so students pretty much get all the classes they need and want.
Then came the German placement tests. There was an info session where the German teachers gave an overview of the program and encouraged everyone to take German. It’s all for free, and it won’t be held against you even if you fail the final exam (and therefore the course). For those interested, students can take the exam and be certified for a specific proficient level. There are four levels offered to exchange students: A1 (Beginning), A2 (Intermediate), B1 (Advanced), B2/C1 (Very Advanced). The teachers (all female, so “Lehrerinnen” or “Professorinnen”) stressed that the subsequent class/level assignment after the exams were only recommendations; we were free to choose any level we felt comfortable with.
Since I technically took three years of German, I decided to try out the placement exam and interview. I had little hopes for myself because my three years were discontinuous and I repeated first-year German when I entered college. On top of that, I never spoke it other than the few opportunities in class. As for my placement, I expected to be in A2 at best, but somehow I got B1! I know it’ll be a stretch, but I decided to go for it anyway, since I do intend on becoming literate and partially fluent in German. Fingers crossed that I’ll survive.
We did some more exploring and checking out facilities during our free time between the orientation and the evening activity. On our expedition to find the campus gym (in Building D), we got locked inside one of the glass buildings because the inside access key scan pad wouldn’t work, even though we were able to get in. We got out the back door, and it turns out the Gym building was pretty much right there, so it was a happy mistake!
We gathered at the main Burgplatz (which is like the main Quad, center of campus) at 7:00PM under the dark sky for our campus tour. Strange, I know. But most of the things to see were indoors, so it didn’t make much of a difference. The facilities are really quite excellent. Very much so, in fact. There is a chapel, Harry Potter-esque staircase, multi-story library, a large 24/7 gym, lots of study rooms, and modern lecture halls with seats that might be too comfortable!
At 8:00PM that evening, the welcoming student committee (called the Vallendar Integration Program, aka VIP) gave a rundown of Welcome Week. It sounds better and busier than anything I expected. I don’t know if I should go too in-depth, but let’s just say these kids really do know how to party. And they do it all the time. *winky-wink*
And the fun already began that night. After a late dinner of pizza, about 60 Tauschies went with the local kids to a club in Koblenz. I didn’t go, but I heard they had a good time.
CLUBBING TIP: Apparently there’s a coat charge (about 1 Euro) and an entrance overhead fee that you have to pay WHEN YOU LEAVE, not at the door, so you don’t realize you need to get charged. I heard it’s 7 Euro, but it might vary from club to club.
*Note of caution: While Vallendar is a safe town, it gets very dark very early, and it is super quiet. I almost got lost trying to find my way back to my dormitory from another location other than campus my first night because it was so dark and there were hardly any street lights. But it’s very small, so even if you’re not sure where you are, it won’t take you long to find your way. And you’ll know the place well soon enough.
(There is a duplicate post in my personal -other- blog. Still trying to get the hang of this. Sorry for the confusion!)
From the Home of the Brave, to the Fatherland, and back to the Motherland