I spotted Lena right away. With stunned looks at the degree of my excitement, I ran up to my host sister, hugging her and her boyfriend, José. As we drove along the narrow road back to her house, I eyed all of the tiny brick houses, with gardens the color of olives lining the pebbled driveways and equally tiny red doors. Lena drove fast; after passing thirty pastures with brown cows roaming around, we arrived at her house.
Speaking no German, I used my hands to communicate my graciousness to Lena’s parents for having me in their house for the coming week. I felt exhausted; I had been traveling for hours hyped up on caffeine and lack of sleep. I quickly learned that, despite my neck pillow, planes do not support my ability to sleep. I was greeted with a meal that, to me, seemed the epitome of German food. The smell of potatoes and tomatoes stewing filled the house. I never found out what made that taste so delightfully good. Maybe it was my hunger, tiredness, or simply the magic of traveling to a new land. We ate this incredible baguette balanced between a crunchy crust and a super-soft inside from Lena’s brother’s bakery. I could have happily feasted on that alone for hours long after the stew was gone. And I did – for the next week.
I finally took a shower, warm water washing away that post-flight foul feeling one experiences while traveling. I only felt more tired, but Lena and José whisked me away off to some place that they told me in German…so helpful. Did I mention I have no knowledge of the German language? We ended up meeting Lena’s friends, Marcel and Kirsten, and drove off to Otterndorf, where a marathon had just concluded. There I got my first beer in Germany. The cold and heavily carbonated “Alster” slid down my throat. I had never tasted such delicious alcohol; it was a mixture of beer and Sprite that only hinted at the malted flavor rather than punctuating it. The rest of the trip, this was my go-to drink. We then left for the North Sea. The briny ocean air filled my lungs, making me shiver despite the down coat I wore. I did not see a body of water for about a mile. This was the Waddensee. For some lunar reason, the North Sea’s tide floats far from the shore so that one can literally walk on the sea floor. So this is what we did. José teased us with the tiny crabs still lying on the wet sand, abandoned by their precious water. We walked back to the boardwalk, and Kirsten and Marcel bought a hamburger and “pommes frites” (how fitting). Like little kids, we spun around on the Roundabout in the Playground. It was either the food or the laughter that made our stomachs hurt. The rest of that day faded into a state of dreaminess.
Waking up the following day, I felt alive again – replenished from the heavy blankets and European pillow Lena’s mother, Marianne, gave me to sleep with. After stopping at the bakery for a pastry Marianne described as something like a muesli croissant, we rushed to BBS Cuxhaven, the vocational school for the students of the exchange program. Everyone was dressed in their brigade, each representing the respective resorts or restaurants in which they interned. The Americans were expecting to participate in the preparation of lunch, but instead, we were greeted with a delightful meal created by the BBS students. This was a welcome alteration because, honestly, I did not trust myself with a knife after being so exhausted from the jet lag.
Our three-course meal commenced with a smooth pumpkin soup dolloped with crème fraîche and spiced pepitas. Next was a caramelized, but undoubtedly tender, portion of salmon served with rice pilaf and some sort of heavenly sauce. Lastly, we had a meal of a dessert: panna cotta, a quenelle of chocolate mousse, a slice of semi-freddo, all alongside a plum compote. Little did I know, this would be the way I would eat throughout the entire trip: large, decadent portions.
Each day ended with my fatigue – rather, the ability to absolutely collapse into bed. 2:45 am came with a vengeance for me. I practically fell into my clothes, brushed my teeth with my eyes closed, and, when on the way to Medem-Backerei-Weihe, I fell asleep. This would be a constant issue, this day in particular. The next day was better because I tore myself away from all of those nibbles (ahem, giant bites) of pastries I consumed.
Lena and I were able to miss work for the rest of the trip, instead to tour Bremen and Hamburg. Lena’s friend, Lisa, tagged along - her sweet character immediately drawing us together. Lena, Lisa, and I walked arm in arm through the Beck’s Brewery in Bremen, turning to each other with utter disgust at each whiff of stale beer. We then feasted (again) on bretzels and beer; I discovered this was a brilliant combination. Our tour guide led us far too quickly through the city, but luckily my trusty camera caught each image. Thankfully, Lena brought her car and we went shopping after all the students left for back home.
Hamburg was equally architecturally stunning. We strolled around the city, with no schedule dictating our whereabouts. The only tour we received that day was of the gorgeous Hotel Kempinsky, modeled after the Titanic. One day I hope to afford a night here. Lunch was a perfect occasion. We sat in an authentic Italian restaurant (which I found were very popular in Germany) and talked and ate and talked some more. I snuck bites of a chaperone, and American friend Corinne’s tiramisu and sipped my own perfect cappuccino. Ironically, this small Italian café was the impeccable conclusion in our trip to Germany.
The next morning I awoke with a terrible heartache. Before even leaving, I missed Lena and her family. I held on to her so tight before entering the bus to the airport, but promised I would be back soon…very soon. I cannot believe all of this happened to me. In this short week I made lifetime connections that changed my entire perspective of life. I see the world with no borders – nothing stopping us from the life we choose to live. I only hope that other people in my life can experience the same worldliness I have chosen to take part in. Daring oneself to take risks is not dangerous, but instead heart opening. So do it. Take risks.