I had been communicating with Olivia, my host partner, for months before actually meeting her in person, which in and of itself is such a phenomenal thing to have the ability to do through today’s technology. So when we met in the Berlin Tegel airport, it was almost like we had known each other forever, and we immediately started chattering away about our plans for the coming weeks. While I hadn’t been talking with her parents, they greeted me from the very beginning like I was a part of their family, even though I did have trouble fitting my American-sized luggage into their Berlin-sized Fiat.
That’s one thing that interested me regarding the situation at hand. Whenever I had asked about other people’s experiences or thoughts about Germany, they had answered with the stereotypical response that Germans are cold and rude people, but I could not disagree more. Everyone I met in this beautiful country was so kind and hospitable, and most importantly truthful. If I was walking around with spinach in my teeth, they would tell me, and I would be very grateful (which does not always happen in America).
When living in Olivia’s home, I legitimately felt at home. I can be truthful in saying that not once while I was there did I feel homesick, and I think that can be attributed to the kindness that Olivia’s mom showed me. My fondest memory of staying with her was sitting around the breakfast table with Ariane shooing off the very hyper cats while I was struggling through saying, “Could you pass the butter?” or “Kannst du mir bitte die Butter geben?” She was patient with my German language skills, only making fun of them once or twice.
One of the biggest differences that I observed in Berlin was the high respect that everyone had for each others’ cultures and pasts. Berlin is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicity that aren’t necessarily all “German.” In fact, the majority of the neighborhood that I lived in was Turkish (which resulted in very delicious food options). At Albrecht-Duerer, the school that I attended, it was obvious that each student respected each others’ cultures and religions, and from what I could see there was no discrimination among students because of these qualities. And while of course they have had many learning experiences in the past dealing with this sort of thing, they also seem to respect that side of their past very differently than we do.
Instead of more or less pushing events that they are not proud of under the rug, German students talk about it and learned about it in a very constructive way.
I’ll never forget the day I sat in on a classroom that was talking about discrimination. First, the teacher asked the class, “What are ways that people can be discriminated,” and he wrote it all down on the board. The sophomores did not shy away from “difficult” pieces of discrimination; they talked in depth about all of them. Next, the teacher asked, “What can we do to stop this discrimination?” and then the students started listing very beneficial and enlightened ways that they could stop this discrimination from happening or stop it as it is happening. Not once did these teenagers make a joke or goof off while having this conversation, and that impressed me. If it had been in a sophomore-aged classroom in the United States, I’m sure there would have been at least a couple of giggles. They knew the enormity of what it meant to discriminate against people, and that resonated in me, and I think these conversations that they have are why they don’t have as much rampant bullying and just plain meanness in their school.
This awareness is one that I believe could be learned here in the United States. With a decrease in discrimination at school came a decrease in student stress and depression, which would be a very beneficial thing for American students. When talking to Olivia about how things like teenage suicides were becoming a saddening, almost yearly occurrence at my high school, she was shocked to hear these things, and I believe that their student support system is a direct causation of this stark contrast.
Even with this difference, it is also true that at the end of the day, it was apparent that while from two vastly difference places in the world, we are both teenage girls trying to live our lives to the fullest and happiest. It was interesting to see that we found very similar traits in each other, which caused our friendship to grow more than I ever thought possible.
In just a week or so, Olivia and her fellow Berliners are making the trip over the Atlantic Ocean to our beloved Kingsport. So if you see confused faces and hear German in your local Food City, that would be why.
Kristin Thorneloe, a Dobyns-Bennett High School senior, is spending time in the Times News newsroom this semester as part of a work-based learning program.