Back in 2011, I was given the opportunity to study abroad in Germany on a scholarship. It was my junior year of high school and I was 16. During the 10 months I was in Germany, I stayed with a host family in Loxstedt, which lies in the north of the country and very close to the North Sea. My experiences there were of course beyond helpful for my college study abroad, but really my life now in Tübingen is much different from the life I had then in Loxstedt. I think the biggest difference, which came with its wonderful advantages and also some frustrations, was living with an actually family. I am so thankful for my host family for all the comfort and hospitality they gave to me, as if it was easy to take in a random 16 year old girl. This Christmas, four and a half years since I left them in July 2012, I traveled all the way back up to the north to see them again.
I rode the train from Tübingen, located in the very southwest of Germany, to Loxstedt all the way in the northeast. The whole trip took about 10 hours including waiting time between trains, but when you are waiting to see people who you consider to be your 2nd family–people who you haven’t seen outside of a computer screen for years–the trip seems to drag on interminably. I am forever grateful that the train system keeps Germany so well connected that I was able to easily go from opposite sides of the country with no problems in less than a day.
My break from university was from December 21st to January 6th and I spent the whole time with my host family. About one third of people living in Tübingen are students so I expected the town to be a ghost town during the holidays. Many of the European exchange students had flown home for the break (even some US-Americans I know) and many other exchange students were using the break to travel a bit, so to stay at school would have been a lonely couple of weeks. I felt so lucky to have been able to spend the holidays with my host family and to see the German traditional celebrations.
My host family actually lives in a tiny village called Düring, which is mostly a cluster of homes and then lots of fields. There in the north, the land is completely flat (in contrast to the sometimes insane hills of the south) and the weather can be very rainy and overcast because we are so close to the sea. Lower-Saxony, the state my host family lives in, is also known for having plenty of farms and horse stables. One of the first things I did once I got situated at the house was to go visit my little sister’s horse. My host sister Lilly is 14 and very serious about all things horses and she is not the only one. When I was going to school in Loxstedt before, it seemed very common for girls to choose horseback riding as a hobby, whether they lived in the country or in the neighboring city, Bremerhaven.
On the 24th of December, my host dad and my little sister Jette (8) and I woke up at 7 AM to go the fisher’s harbor to gather fresh fish for our extended family brunch the next day. One of the perks of living near the coast is the delicious amount of fish we eat! It was necessary to go early on Christmas Eve because all establishments would be closing down for the next two days and we were expecting chaos anywhere selling food.
Later that day, we went to our local church for a Christmas service. It seemed like the whole town was there. It was so full to the brim and we were left standing. Upon returning home, we had coffee and homemade Rollkuchen, which is basically a very thin waffle rolled into a cylinder leaving you with a hole right down the middle for some whipped cream. Christmas Eve, or Heiligabend, is the main festive day so German kids don’t have to wait until the next morning to see if Santa arrived. After coffee and cake, we exchanged some gifts and then went next door to our grandparents’ house. At grandma and grandpa’s (Oma and Opa in German), we ate a traditional Northern German meal of sausages and potato salad along with some other dishes such as bacon wrapped apricots. After hanging out for a bit longer with the family, I went out with some friends from high school to this old dance club in another village, which is a Christmas Eve tradition in our area. This club is so old that even my host parents and host grandparents were there as teenagers.
On the next day, the “first Christmas day,” we had the extended family over to eat a glorious brunch consisting of German staples such as fresh bread rolls, lunch meats and cheeses, fish, and asparagus soup. The 26th, or the second day of Christmas, my host family and I went to a horse show in Bremen as part of my sisters’ Christmas presents.
The days that followed were relaxed and full of family time since my host sisters were on school break within the same dates as me. We just did normal things. We walked the dog, went sledding, watched movies. I was so happy to just slow down for a bit and to spend time with my host family.
I know that holidays can be a difficult time for exchange students and homesickness can peak now when they are missing traditional seasonal festivities, but having my German family made it all such a wonderful experience. Living with a family in Germany is how I was able to learn the language so fast, get a better accent, and learn fundamental German traditions. Living in student housing in Tübingen is more independent and I love it, but you get the chance to have a host family while studying abroad in Germany, you might want to consider it.