What would I say if you asked me what it was like to study abroad in Germany? I’d give you the answer that I give everyone. I’d say it was amazing, life-changing, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. If I were being especially honest that day, I’d also throw in that it was challenging and at times uncomfortable, and that “the best decision I’ve ever made” is a designation only given in the idealistic glow of retrospection. Yet, idealistic or not, it’s the truth. How ironic that the best place to decide on your feelings about study abroad is at home, and the best time is after it’s over with, when all of the pieces of the puzzle are there, ready to be assembled. Instead of pieces of a jigsaw I have memories, little moments that together build the picture of three and a half months of living, studying, and adventuring in a foreign land. It is only at the very end that you have enough pieces to realize what the picture will be, which is why it was only in the final weeks of my time in Freiburg that I noticed how much I had grown and how much my understanding of the world had changed for the better. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, my transformation happened “slowly, then all at once.”
When people ask me about study abroad, I get to show them the beautiful picture that was painstakingly assembled over the course of a semester, but my favorite questions are the ones that ask me to present a single piece. “What was your favorite moment?” “What is the most beautiful thing you saw?” “What do you miss the most?” These are the prompts that tug on my soul. I do not miss the girl I was before going to Germany because I love who I am now, because overall I grew so much. But the single moments that together created this equilibrium are a whirlwind of emotions—devastating homesickness, profound elation, and everything in between. My favorites are those moments that elicit nostalgia, the breathtaking, delicate mix of sorrow and joy that grips my heart so tightly that I am briefly transported back to a time and place that I never ever want to forget. I remember drinking glühwein with my friends at a Christmas market in the Black Forest. Colored lights shine from all around, illuminating the hillside pines and mountain streams and reflecting off the icy contours of fluffy snowflakes as they dance in the grey sky, only to alight on my skin and disappear forever. I remember a late-night walk when I wandered into a farm field after dusk and gazed in awe at the colors of a full moon’s light breaching the thin veil of clouds overhead, fully aware of the tininess of myself and my city in a vast universe of possibilities, and comforted by the knowledge that a family thousands of miles away would see the same moon and stars in only a few hours’ time. I remember a moment of silence while sitting in the pew of the Freiburg cathedral, lost in its resounding echoes, gaping ceilings, and the realization that something so old and so beautiful was inspired by faith and had survived the ravages of war and multiple centuries. I remember leaning against a railing in the tram, contentedly watching familiar scenery pass by; remember a friend linking her arm with mine so we could walk side by side, a friend who was nearer to me halfway across the globe than she is back in America; remember philosophical conversations with new friends over cafeteria food and tearful goodbyes during a week when every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… would be my last in Germany.
I might be more sad if I weren’t sure that every end was a new beginning, that leaving Germany meant the person I had become would be stepping foot in America for the first time, going back to my home university for the first time, seeing everything I’ve seen before but with new eyes. The possibilities are endless. If you looked at the portrait of this girl that was puzzled together from the pieces of a semester of transformation you would see someone more resilient, more self-aware, more outgoing, and more spontaneous. If you looked closer at the pieces of the picture being painted of my time now, you’d see conversations had about the benefits of universal healthcare experienced firsthand, moments in the grocery store putting local organic produce in the cart, pauses at the recycling bin to properly sort waste, and occasionally, the confused looks on the faces of those to whom I’ve accidentally said “bitte” or “danke” instead of please and thank you. These new memories are the building blocks of my next portrait, this time of a girl returned home. I have no idea yet what puzzle these pieces will form, but I’m excited to find out.
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Hi there! My name is Isabel Pineo and I am coming to you this semester from Freiburg im Breisgau, a charming city in the Black Forest of sunny southern Germany. The official reason I’m here: to learn about environmental studies in a culture and urban setting known for its emphasis on sustainability. Unofficial reason: to eat amazing food, go on lots of hikes, meet fascinating people both local and foreign, and to focus on putting my physical and mental health first. I guess you could say that I’m searching for answers to the question of what it means to live rightly in the world, for the Earth and for ourselves. Since most of us have been asking that question for a very long time, I’ll be sure to update you on all the answers I find as the semester progresses!