Selim in Brainerd

More than „Just“ a Lifetime Experience - My amazing year as an exchange student in the United States

At the same time last year, I didnʼt know that the adventure I was going to experience would be as unique and special as it turned out to be. Now I am back in Switzerland after more than 9 months in Minnesota in the very north of the United States and I am more than sure that to be an exchange student overseas was one ofthe absolute best decisions Iʼve made in my life.

A year ago I was still waiting to be placed at a host family and as the time passed and it became August, I got desperate because still no family had been found for me. While the first other exchange students I had met at the Pre-Departure-Seminar already left for New York I was waiting at home and to distract myself from the insecurity I started writing a diary or journal. On August 2nd I received the first information about my host family and I was so happy to finally know where exactly I am going to be, and it was Brainerd in the state of Minnesota. I immediately started researching facts about my “new” home and I also got in touch with my host family over Skype.

After another few weeks at home I left Switzerland on the morning of the 28th on a plane headed to New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world. At the Newark International Airport our into-councilor picked us up and coach busses drove us into Manhattan. Unfortunately the “hotel” in New York, the YMCA was not really comfortable and the rooms very small, but still we all were super excited about the Big Apple. So I spent my very first days in America in its biggest city and together with exchange students from all over Europe I adjusted myself to speaking English more than German.

On September first I landed in Brainerd, a small city outin the country of Minnesota. My host family gave me a nice welcome and showed me around their huge house and property on a private lake 17 miles outside of town. I was very impressed by how big everything was, the bed, the house, the gallons of milk, and just the space they had. Before I fell asleep the first night I had already been out on the lake “tubing”, shot a compound bow and ridden in a “Gator” car.

The second day of my Minnesota experience, I spent with my host family on Mille Lacs Lake. I soon understood that Minnesotans loved to fish and hunt in many different ways from bow and arrow to spear and rod. I liked the lifestyle from the beginning and thought it was going to be easy to feel home there.

My first day of school was shortly after I met my host family. My school the Brainerd High School was pretty big. About 2,000 students from 9th through 12th grade walked around in the same building. People always came up to me and wanted to know who I am and where I am from so it was very easy to make new friends and to get to know the kids at the high school. I also made friends through the football team, whom I had practice with 2 hours after school every day. The days at school went by very quick and somehow I became really popular among the girls and boys at school. I was always busy during the first few weeks and I didnʼt have time to miss neither family nor friends.

But right around homecoming in the middle of October, my American life calmed down a little and I became homesick. Unfortunately my host mother too lost her father only a month after I arrived. After that terrible loss, tensions started to grow between her and me. I was more comfortable outside and away from home, so I took the chance on our small Minnesota Education Association holiday to go to a restaurant with one of my football friends and his clique. He introduced me to the delicious chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings and the night changed a lot in my (American) life.

A couple weeks after homecoming and Halloween, we had a family gathering for hunting-opener weekend. After the familydinner on Saturday I had a first date with a girl I met at Buffalo Wild Wings on Sunday. And while I really started liking that girl,things with my host mother and host sister too got worse every day and often we wouldnʼt talk to each other even if we were in the same room for a long time.The next weekend I had a second date and liked the girl even more. We had a Star Wars marathon together and for me the weekend was relaxed when I could spend most of the time away from my host family.

On the Sunday of that weekend I fell in love with an American girl and despite all the warnings of my exchange organization and the knowledge that I will have to leave some time I could not prevent myself from having those strong feelings for someone. It just happened and so I had an American girlfriend on the night of November 11th. The next couple weeks were very busy. My girlfriend had her first hockey game and I asked her to go to Christmas Ball with me and then we had our Thanksgiving together. Both of those days were amazing and on Thanksgiving I was once more impressed by all the good food Americans had to offer.

Soon after Thanksgiving, my relation with my host mother and sister got really bad and on the last days of November I had to contact my local representative that I needed a new host family. Fortunately after one week I spent with my girlfriendʼs family I could move in with a new host family, my best friendʼs family. Now I lived a lot closer to town and only 6 miles from school. My host father was art teacher at the high school that I knew already because he taught me how to craft beautiful pottery and my host brother was in football with me. My host mother I had met a few times before when I hung out at their house and she really liked me from the first day and got very close to me.

My German family had sent me a homemade Christmas calendar with German chocolate and very nice notes. It was surprising for me that there was no such custom in America. After I had only opened eight of the notes I had Christmas Ball. I t was a great experience too and lots of fun to go and dance with my girlfriend.

The next big event was Christmas. My host family took me on their trip up to the White Earth Indian Reservation where my host father, who has Indian blood in him, grew up. I met both his and my host motherʼs families, about 120 new faces in just 2 days! I had to do a lot of talking and explain over and over again where I am from and what the drinking age is in Germany (that was always the first question that was asked). Finally after two days of repeated answers we got back home to the town of Baxter.On the following day I celebrated Christmas with my girlfriend, too, and gave her a nice necklace that I had engraved with our names and the date when we came together.

A week later I was ice fishing on Mille Lacs. Only three months after I caught Walleyes there with a rod, I rode out on the lake in a car! The entire lake was frozen over. My girlfriend, her brother and Dad and me all rode their new snowmobiles on the lake, which was another amazing day, only one out of many unique experiences. The winter in the North was cold! I faced temperatures of less than -30°C for several days in a row but in the end it made me feel tough and strong that eventually I could go outside in a t-shirt when it was 0 degrees. Ice fishing in the winter is probably even more popular than summer fishing and my host father was and is really into any kind of fishing. He is also one of the greatest fish decoy carvers in the world and has won the world championship before. He took me out on a lake one morning and I speared my first Northern Pike. It was really thrilling to sit there in a dark house starring into the freezing cold water and suddenly a big fish chases by the rectangular whole in the ice. But I got my first fish! A 32-inch pike, or as we call it “Hecht”.

While the school breaks besides summer break are really short in America, we always had holidays between the breaks. After Christmas and New Yearʼs Eve, the next holiday was Valentineʼs Day, which I celebrated for the first time in my life. Of course I spent the day after school with my girlfriend and she bought me the same necklace with the engraving on it that I gave her for Christmas. We loved each other more and more every day and we also developed an extremely strong bond between each other.

But since not only her but also my host mother, in a different way, loved me alot, I always had to do time management to split my time after school between the two women. To make both of them happy at the same time was probably the most challenging part of my American life. My host mother and me got really close through frequent coffee chats at Caribou or Starbucks.

Over the spring months from March to June, the family and me made some trips to North Dakota, Grand Forks to look at the university, to the twin cities Minneapolis and St. Paul, Duluth on Lake Superior and the Itasca national park where the Mississippi headwaters are. First my local coordinator took me and my girlfriend down to Minneapolis to see the Mall of America, the biggest shopping center on the entire continent with more than 750 stores. A little later we made a trip to the Target Center with our school. The school basketball team made it to the state championship and got to play on the Timberwolvesʼs court. Over spring break we were in North Dakota where everything was still frozen and cold. Also I got to work ona 1958 Chevrolet truck with my girlfriendʼs dad. We put on new brakes! Later into spring I heard from many people that it was one of the longest winters in ages! In April,my girlfriendʼs family took me down to the cities for a NHL hockey game. Our team the Minnesota Wild played against the Columbus Blue Jackets and we sadly lost after overtime and shoot-out.

About a week after the Wild game, our school had Prom night, the last big dance for the seniors. But because the schoolʼs gym was not big enough for all grades, mygirlfriend couldnʼt come so we had our own Prom and went down to St. Cloud by ourselves. Even though we couldnʼt dance it was a great day.

May went by super fast and we could only do two trips one to Duluth and one to Itasca. Another night I went to the dirt track south of town where my girlfriendʼs brother drove his racecar that night. Since the weather got a little better and warmer, my host brother and me could play baseball outside and my girlfriend took me golfing a couple times. Every Tuesday night after school we had a date at Buffalo Wild Wings, a tradition to celebrate the place where we first met.

The day of my departure was coming closer and we all were getting into a sad mood. We knew that the day would come when we have to say goodbye, or lets say:“see you soon.” Slowly we started preparing ourselves for it. I met my local coordinator once again a couple weeks before I had to leave and we talked about the departure and readjusting back home. When him, my host mom and me were all sitting on the deck in the backyard he said thank you and that he had had exchange students before that had a girlfriend, but never a romance like my girlfriend and me shared. It was clear that our relationship would continue after I went back.

But before the hardest part of the whole story came, all Seniors in Brainerd High School had a reason to party! It was Graduation! In a very formal and beautiful ceremony me and all the other exchange students at the school, got to wear the hat with the tassel and gown and to “Walk the Line” with the Seniors and we received our Certificate of Attendance. It was especially amazing because my host father read my name to the audience. But just like every other American he struggled with my lastname! Often enough I got told that our “ch” sounds hurt their vocal cords and that it is such an ugly sound just as if we were spitting. After the ceremony at the high school we had my girlfriendʼs family over for a slice of cake and a drink. We sat around a bonfire outside at the fireplace and the night sky was crystal clear.

I could only stay one week into summer break and once school was done I tried to spend as much time as possible with my girlfriend and also my host family. A couple times I hung out with my best friend too and we always had a good time together. The last week was over way too fast and the day had come that I had to say “see you soon”. In the early morning of June 7th I said “see you soon” to my girlfriend,it was not easy to leave her behind but we knew that we are both ready to take on the difficulties of a long distance relationship. Then at the airport I said “see yousoon” to my host parents. I waved until I was around the corner and into the plane.After a short flight and a 4-hour layover in Chicago, I left the United States for Germany at 7.45 at night.

I couldnʼt sleep on the plane, therefore I looked outside the window and for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way! The beautiful, amazing and absolutely fantastic look of the Milky Way together with the stars over the Atlantic was theperfect last sentence in my diary about this unique experience. My time as an American student was over, but what lasted and will hopefully last forever is a lovestory between two teenagers from two different worlds that found each other and are planning their future together. And no matter what will happen, I will forever have a family across the Atlantic Ocean, and to know that people from all over the world love you, is a most satisfying feeling! My time in America was not “just” a lifetime experience; […] in the end it was a life changing experience!

…to be continued.

*Update 2016: Still happy in love :)