June 15: End of an era. Er, a week.

Ilulissat is stunning. Every time you turn a corner, you see another angle of a landscape that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The views change with the passing hours as the icebergs move slowly out into the bay and the sun moves around the sky, never falling below the horizon. I confess, I figured 24-hour sun was exciting because it’s unusual, but I wasn’t really sure what the big deal was. (This is kind of embarrassing.) Like, if it’s light at noon and it’s light at midnight, what’s so exciting about it being light? It’s always light. Right, but wrong. The midnight sun is really freaking cool. Because it’s at a different angle. Which makes everything look totally different. This now seems very obvious. And it is why I accidentally slept all morning on my first two or three days in Greenland and didn’t even feel bad about “wasting” precious time. If you’re not going to work or school, it really doesn’t matter which hours you’re awake, so you might as well choose the ones with the best light, right?

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It wasn’t hard for me to imagine how I’d pass four days in Ilulissat on my own. There are hiking trails, a few museums, and endless opportunities to sit in beautiful places and read a book. Or just stare. Like, in a non-creepy way. And I had some incredibly peaceful walks where I just took it all in: the coolness of the water and ice juxtaposed with the cheerfulness of the town’s brightly colored buildings. The burbling of the stream rushing down to the fjord mixed with chattering birds and howling sled dogs, and punctuated occasionally by the distant crack of an iceberg. There’s much to be said for solitude, especially in such a unique and enchanting place (and especially coming from a culture that seems to encourage spending as much time as possible WITH people DOING things).

But doing stuff with other people is fun too, and luckily for this solitary traveler, it wasn’t long before I’d struck up conversations with a few other hostel guests. A group of Austrian and German tourists invited me to share their delicious meal of fresh catfish (this is my most direct link to the original purpose of this blog – perks of having lived in Germany!). A French composer working on a Greenland-based project played me some nifty sound recordings of glaciers calving and air bubbling up to the surface when I let him use my computer. A New York-based Australian web designer on a sort of sabbatical took me out for a midnight hike to the ice fjord. Sounds like a great week – but that was just Tuesday, my first day in Ilulissat.

Highlight reel: After a long hike on Wednesday, my Aussie friend and I went to a bar where a Greenlandic couple invited us back to their home. They shared stories, photos, magic tricks, and three different kinds of fish with us, and were just generally incredibly kind, gracious hosts. I cannot say enough about how warm the people here are. (Obviously, use common sense about this stuff. Personally, as a young foreign woman, I would not choose to go to a bar here alone, but it doesn’t take away from the really amazing people in this town.)

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On Thursday, I was on my own, so I went to the art museum, where I met the lovely Danish man who runs it and a former artist-in-residence who lives about fifteen minutes away from my parents in the States. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. Then I took a short hike on my own to the most beautiful place in the world (disclaimer: in my experience, so far). I also cooked some amazing (frozen) peas and carrots that were expertly seasoned with salt and pepper. I’m waiting for my call from Paris.

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On Friday, I decided to check out the cultural museum, but ran right into the American artist I’d met the day before so we went and admired the icebergs together and talked about Greenland and home. My Austrian friends invited me for one last meal (fresh salmon this time) and while I was chatting with them, a mysterious group of guys appeared. They turned out to be Scandinavian fishermen, sort of. Apparently if you’re Scandinavian and young-ish, you can get hooked up with cool summer jobs like fishing in Greenland (no pun intended). Then you get to come into town for the weekend and attempt to not spend all of your earnings on overpriced Danish beers. At any rate, we hit it off over a football match and had an awesome weekend of hiking, dancing, football, and making good-natured fun of each other’s countries.

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 (window could be cleaner, but note the view from this bar…)

But now it’s Sunday and finally time for the shenanigans to come to an end. The fishermen are off, and I’m ready to do what I came for. I haven’t met my bosses yet, but I just had my first proper conversation with the other guy I’ll be working with. Similarly to every other person from the States whom I’ve met here, he’s originally from New York, went to high school like an hour away, and used to run past my house. Literally. Someone please cue that annoying “It’s a Small World” song…or maybe the Twilight Zone theme… At any rate, though, the first chapter is coming to a close and I’m ready for part 2 of this crazy trip.

[Okay, actually, I’m at home now. Just suspend disbelief for a couple more posts!]

June 9th: Sjáumst aftur

Spoiler alert: I don’t speak Icelandic. But in its apparent quest to become the cutest/sassiest airline around, Icelandair helpfully wrote the translation for “see you soon” on my head cushion. It feels appropriate, because I’m planning to spend fewer than twelve hours in Reykjavik, but I’ll be seeing it again in just about two weeks. In the meantime, I’m off to Ilulissat, Greenland.

If you kind of squint mentally, it’s almost like “See you after,” and you start to think that you could probably understand Icelandic, but you quickly recognize how misguided this idea is.

If you kind of squint mentally, it’s almost like “See you after,” and you start to think that you could probably understand Icelandic, but you quickly recognize how misguided this idea is.

So, after months of dreaming and planning and packing (well, the packing happened last night…or this morning…), this is it. Four days of wandering around one of Greenland’s largest cities, with a whopping population of around 5,000 people, without a goal or a plan (or a friend), followed by twelve days of OCEANS. I’ll be meeting up with a small team from the States that’s been studying the Ilulissat glacier and Disko Bay for several years to join them for a survey of the bay and learn about their work.

Suffice it to say that I’m really excited, but also a little nervous about having everything I need (though more likely I’ve overpacked, as usual) and what I’m going to do during my unplanned days (okay, scratch that bit about planning in the last paragraph, too). Still, I’m sure there are enough hiking trails and books to keep me occupied for a few days in Greenland, and I’ll cross the Iceland bridge when I come to it.

Ready or not…!

“If you’re bored during your flight”…forget yoghurt. You can pass at least five minutes reading Icelandair’s sassy menu.

“If you’re bored during your flight”…forget yoghurt. You can pass at least five minutes reading Icelandair’s sassy menu.

hi from Iceland!

Surprise…the blog is back. Over the past couple months, I promised several different people that I would try to blog about my summer adventures. Unfortunately, the state (more specifically, the cost) of Greenlandic wi-fi has precluded much activity beyond quick emails to let my parents know I’m still alive over here. Or maybe I should say “fortunately” — leaving my little hyper-connected bubble for the first time in a long while has felt weirdly like a luxury.

But, true to my word, I’ve been saving blog posts on my computer along the way, and my hostel in Iceland, however has FREE (but dodgy) WI-FI. So, when I have some free time to wrestle with it, I’ll share the posts I’ve written (and hopefully write some new ones) for my relatives and anyone else who may still be following/stumble upon this site. Some will be backdated and some will be general. It will be more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Fill your boots!

home

“when was the last time you posted on it?”

“like a month before i left germany i think
which is weird to think about” 

“whoa
that’s kinda old”

I guess in internet terms, a year is a really long time. Honestly, in my-life terms, the past year seems like a really long time. I’m two weeks short of having been back in the states for a year, and once again, it’s been a year full of head-spinning changes and lots of growing up. And somehow, at no time during those fifty weeks did I ever manage to sit down and “finish” this blog, so here goes. I’m not sure who’s still around to read this, but that’s okay. This is more for me than anyone else.

Natalie and I recorded the above (very raw) video on our plane ride back, which is the best record I have of how I felt about leaving as it was happening — incredulous. Taking a slightly longer view, it felt weird and wrong to leave my life in Germany behind just as it had begun to feel natural; life in the U.S., meanwhile, felt unnervingly familiar. When the other 48 CBYXers and I arrived in Washington, D.C. and returned to spend a night in the very same hotel where we’d completed our orientation 10 months earlier, I think it’s safe to say that we had the entire emotional spectrum pretty well covered.
Some moments that stick out in my memory:
  • the combined shock of the humidity and the many American flags adorning the parking lot as we left Dulles airport
  • waking up early from the jet lag with my roommate and eating packaged German cake that she’d brought back on the floor of our hotel room with bad hotel-room coffee and reminiscing about the German love of Kaffe und Kuchen
  • the excitement seeing my parents for the first time after one of my friends told me that there was a woman who looked just like me in the lobby
  • breaking down that afternoon from the combined exhaustion of barely having slept in days; frustration at being at a campsite with more mosquitoes than I’d seen in a year and more luggage than I’d want to deal with at home, let alone in a tent; and just overall sadness and bewilderment
  • my mom laughing at my reaction to the newly-rediscovered phenomenon of doorknobs
  • the disconcerting feeling that ten months later, nothing had changed

I got to spend the following week with a gaggle of cousins and other relatives in Virginia, which was wonderful and prevented me from spending much time dwelling on anything. In fact, that was pretty much how my summer went. It felt like it moved at the pace of a pinball game, from Virginia to home to wisdom teeth removal to presenting to high schoolers about my exchange to visiting relatives to a friend visiting from Germany to touristy days in NYC to…college.  Right. About that.

I think Natalie said it best in the video I posted above…”I don’t think we’ll realize how much we’ve learned until we’re back in our old lives.” Admittedly, I didn’t spend a lot of time settling back into my old life, or a lot of time thinking about what my “new” life was going to be. I approached college with the fairly zen mindset of “well, I had to make all new friends last year, too, and this time they’ll at least speak English!” But it wasn’t until deep into my first semester that a conversation with a friend drove home how much my experience had really impacted me. In the important ways, I haven’t changed — my nail polish is still chipped, and I still talk about politics too much, and I still freak out about my sister (who is now as old as I was when I started this blog and an accomplished exchanger in her own right, just back from a year in India). And I still procrastinate blog posts with abandon.

But I am also so, so much less afraid. Less afraid to talk to new people. Less afraid to take risks. Heck, learning German even made me less afraid to speak Spanish. I came away from the year with a new family, new friends, a new language, a new home, and the knowledge that I had accomplished something remarkable. I wasn’t perfect, my year wasn’t perfect, but I made it mine, and I could do it again.

The interceding year has again been full of new people, new places, new experiences, and new lessons. Post-exchange Margaret is by no means a finished product. I’ve struggled with balancing my new life at Bowdoin and staying in touch with my German friends and family, and that ever-present question: what’s next? For now, it’s the 2012 Euro Cup, tutoring some professors’ son in German, fun books, visiting the fam, orienting a new group of CBYXers as they prepare for their own exchanges, my second year as a polar bear, and whatever else life throws at me. My hope at the moment is to return to Germany next summer to spend time with my host family, celebrate my class’s graduation, and hopefully complete some sort of internship in oceanography or climate research. And beyond that, anything could happen.

But one year later, I’m happy. I’m happy to have gone, happy to be back, and so grateful to everyone who has made New York, Germany, and Maine all home to me.

I want to especially make sure to say thanks to my host family for putting up with me and still teasing me and making me laugh every time we Skype, to my “Ami-family” for being so incredibly supportive of all my crazy dreams, and to “Svenja” for the comment she posted on my blog a couple of weeks ago, which made me smile real big.

And there you have it. The end, for now.

more about Berlin (in English, this time)

This post was supposed to be a change-up from the extremely high levels of German and introspection present in my last one.
…at least it’s in English?

I spent last Wednesday through Sunday at my End-of-Stay Camp in Berlin. If you’re thinking “End-of-WHAT?!” right now…well, join the club. My friend Natalie (my roommate from D.C.!) and I have been writing letters to each other all year, and we’d been hoping to meet up sometime. At one point, I think she wrote something to the tune of “I hope we can find a time before Berlin…” and I’m pretty sure I laughed…as if that was going to be a problem.

You have to understand that, before most of us go on exchange, we spend a varying amount of time trying to find out about others’ experiences so that we’ll have an idea of what to expect. (In fact, you, dear reader, may well be a future exchange student yourself, in which case I wish you the very best.) And you have to understand that I’d heard about a million times how FAST exchange goes by. You have to understand that I took it to heart, I really did…but you also have to understand that it is sometimes impossible to believe. And for all that I tried to convince myself that this year was going to go by too quickly, End-of-Stay camp always seemed impossibly distant, even abstract, pretty much right up until I got on the train on Wednesday morning.

More than eight hours after leaving home, I arrived in Berlin unsure how to feel: was I finally there, or more like already? What was it going to be like, seeing all those people who had just been Facebook pictures (if even that) since our hurried goodbyes in the Frankfurt airport nearly nine months ago?

Answer to the second question: AWESOME.

When you have a group of fifty people, you can’t all be best friends. And even if all fifty of you are Americans stuck in a hotel waiting to go to Germany, you’re not necessarily going to have much in common. But nine months later, it’s a whole different story.

We did some really cool things. We:

saw the sites,

the New Yorkers in our group in front of the Brandenburger Tor

fulfilled our ambassadorial duties,

CBYXers with the American ambassador (photo stolen from Abby -- click-through to her blog!)

saw history in person,

die Berliner Mauer

made our own history,

Exchange Students Against Nuclear Power!

stopped to smell the roses,

Sorrel had a great idea!

ate delicious Indian food,

Dani knew this place and it was AMAZING (also Abby's photo)

and were just generally, without a doubt, tourists,

Zoriana takes pictures of the Berliner Dom

but the coolest part was probably how much we bonded as a group. It was really neat, being able to sit down next to people with whom I’d never before exchanged much more than a “hey, I’m Margaret” and then just talk to them until we ran out of time or got interrupted. There were things during the weekend that didn’t go perfectly, but by the end when we had to give our Betreuers (the amazing former exchange students who were in charge of the camp) feedback, I couldn’t even think of any complaints. I just wanted to hug everyone.

I came away from the camp with a lot of good: I finally got to see Berlin, and it’s an amazing feeling to know that forty-nine other exchange students have got your back.

But it also left me with the mixed feeling of knowing that my stay is, in fact, coming to an end. Berlin is behind me, and time is barreling toward the next stop: Frankfurt am Main airport. Realizing, by which I mean truly understanding for the first time, that I have fewer than forty days left here, was terrifying, which I think was sometimes evident in my face, based on the number of times during the weekend I was asked if I was okay. But at the same time, it was necessary and positive, because I am going to live the heck out of these last six five weeks.

As usual, this post is too long and too feelingsy, but I think I need to give up on saying that the next one will be better. Mal schauen! 😉

a letter to the CBYXers

Meine liebe ,,PPPlers”,

ich wünsche, ich hätte die Wörter um euch zu sagen, genau wie viel ihr mir bedeutet. Weil ich letztendlich die Chance nicht hatte, es dem Bundestag oder der Botschaft oder sogar euch in Berlin zu sagen, werde ich es jetzt versuchen.

Wenn ich komplett ehrlich bin, meine Rückblicke an unsere Orientierung in Washington, D.C. bringen mir nicht nur positive Erinnerungen. Wie ich mich daran erinnere, war uns oft langweilig, und ich fühlte mich ungeduldig und durcheinander. Ich lernte nicht besonders viele Leute kennen, und ich zeigte mich nicht immer so freundlich und begeistert wie ich hätte wollen. Ich wollte D.C. verlassen und mit meinem Austausch so bald wie möglich anfangen.

Wie einige Monate alles ändern können.

Wie ihr wisst, ich hatte geplant, am Freitag einen kurzen Vortrag zu machen, aber am Donnerstagabend veränderte ich meine ganze Rede. Ich hatte was bemerkt, worüber ich vorher hätte nicht schreiben können, und zwar, wie viel wir gewachsen waren. Und vor allem freut es mich, dass wir alle zusammen wuchsen.

Als wir uns letzten Mittwoch wieder traf, erkannte ich fast alle von euch, aber unser damaliges Verhältnis ist mit dem jetzigen nicht zu vergleichen. Wir kamen in D.C. als sehr unterschiedliche einzelne Menschen an, aber wir verließen Berlin am Sonntag als eine Familie. Ich kann mich gar nicht erinnern an noch so eine Gruppe wie wir — groß genug, dass wir nicht alle einander gut kennen könnte, aber trotzdem mit so vielen Gemeinsamkeiten, dass jeder von uns mit jedem anderen sitzen und ein gutes (sogar tiefes) Gespräch halten könnte.

Irgendwie ist es schon Juni, also genießt eure letzte Wochen. Es werden traurige und schwierige Tage sein, wenn wir uns wieder sehen, aber jetzt wissen wir, dass wir alle einander haben werden. Wir werden einander trösten, unser gemeinsam Trauer und Freude teilen. Wir werden, zumindest noch einmal, einfach für einander da sein.

Ich habe so ein großes Glück, dass ich euch alle meine Freunde nennen kann. Ich hoffe mit meinem ganzen Herzen, dass wir unsere Verbindungen zueinander und zu Deutschland nie vergessen werden. Ich habe euch alle, meine schöne PPP-Familie, so sehr lieb.

Bis dann,
Margaret

Nä, wat wor dat dann fröher en superjeile Zick

If you’re reading the title of this post in utter confusion, don’t worry — most Germans would feel the same way. About a million years ago, back in September or so, I posted about my first trip to Cologne and was amused by the idea of Kölsch, the dialect spoken in Cologne, actually being its own language. To be fair, to my very green ears, most German that wasn’t spoken at a speed of about five words per minute sounded like total gibberish, so the finer differences between Hochdeutsch and Kölsch were totally lost on me at that point. But by February when I started brushing up on my Karnevalslieder, it was very clear that the latter was a whole different animal. And in March came Karneval!

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Karneval officially begins every year on the eleventh of November at 11:11 AM (I bet it’s going to be an extra big deal this year on 11/11/11!), takes a break over the Christmas holidays and starts up again sometime in January or February. I went to the Galasitzung in my village in February, and no, I will not tell you what my costume was. It was pretty fun, I got to know some of the people in my village better, and it whetted my appetite for the Straßenkarneval, which is the part that happens in March.

Of course, after looking forward to this all year, I got Achilles tendonitis the week before and spent the first day of Karneval, and spent Weiberfastnacht (Karneval Thursday) on the couch. The happy part of this is that I got to be at home while my host parents and their friend Susanne got ready to go out, and it was a very festive mood!

 

Pretty spiffy costumes, eh? That Friday, my friend Kate (the one who lives in Stuttgart) showed up, since, unlike mine, her region isn’t particularly well known for its great Karneval celebrations. We did some exploring around the town where I go to school, baked chocolate chip cookies, played lots of card/board games with Mona, aaand experienced Karneval in Cologne twice!

The highlight of Karneval is Rosenmontag, or “Rose Monday.” We got up early so that we would have a good place from which to watch the parade. Luckily, Gaby and Tobi have friends with a shop right along the route, so we got to stand outside of it and always had a place to go inside and warm up if necessary, which it was, since the parade is around five hours long.

We wore different costumes on Monday, except for Tobi, the eternal knight. I am a meadow, in case you’re wondering.

Since we got there so early, we had lots of time to roam the streets and take pictures with people with interesting costumes! (I stole a bunch of these from Kate, since they were pretty much all on her camera.)

Even more impressive than the many creative costumes were the floats during the parade. Many of them made political statements, like this one, a protest against the proposed “Stuttgart 21” train station. They were really amazing!

After Kate left on Monday night, Karneval was still not quite over. On Tuesday, my Dorf put on its own parade! Tobi and I went to watch Gabi and the other angels here in the village. I have no good photos from the parade, but here’s one of my favorites, the lovely Andrea, at the “after-party.”

Unfortunately, am Aschermittwoch war alles vorbei. (On Ash Wednesday, it was all over!) And of course, that’s all a good two months ago now. But I can look back and say, nä, wat wor dat dann fröher en superjeile Zick. A very loose translation: good times!