I called home soon after my realization, and through many tears told my parents about my overwhelming emotions. They listened. They empathized. They left the decision up to me: Change my ticket and come home now (or very soon)…or stay.
I chose to stay. It was the hardest decision I had ever made.
Within a week of arriving in Koln I was enrolled at the local high school, introduced to the principal and all of my teachers, and given a bike to ride to school. School was a short bike ride from our apartment. Uncle Bill rode with me the first few times. I was on my own after that.
I did get lost a few times those first few weeks. The scariest part about this was not being able to speak German to ask for directions. When I would realize I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, my only option was to back track until I recognized my route and try again. Very quickly I learned to slow down and pay close attention to my surroundings. I also learned how to stay calm during those terror stricken moments of realizing I was in a big city in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and I had no freaking idea where I was.
Classes started early. I would set an alarm, and once winter came, rise while it was still dark outside, often leaving the apartment before I had seen or spoken to anyone. My cousin attended the high school too but she was a senior and her class schedule was so different than mine, we rarely crossed paths.
Most of the kids in my class spoke at least a few words of English. I think I was a novelty to them at first. They asked me many questions about life in America and would practice their English with me. But most of them quickly grew tired of trying to communicate with the girl who spoke no German and pretty much ignored me after that.
My classmates Laura, Nicole and Claudia were my saving grace. They were patient with me, kind to me, invited me into their circle. They practiced their English with me and helped me with my German. We became friends, in a weird broken English, broken German kinda way. And as time passed we began to hang out outside of school- they would come to my house, I would go to theirs, we would go shopping and to the movies. Laura and I saw Titanic three times in the movie theater. In German, of course. One of my last outings with Claudia was to a museum and cafe right on the river Rhine. I knew that day, staring out the window at the river, that it would be the last time she and I would explore the city together, as I left for the states not long after that.
There was one place that speaking English worked to my advantage and that was babysitting for the kids of the American families that attended the church where my aunt and uncle were missionaries. One family had two preschool aged children, a son and a daughter. They were in Germany for only a year so the children and their mother spoke little German. They lived in a small apartment in a modern high rise a few train stops from our apartment. I was thrilled to have some English speaking company, even if they were only three feet tall! And the unexpected income was amazing too. Our time in Germany only overlapped by a couple months, I was sad to see them go.
Another American family from church became my second family. They had three sons and had been in Europe for a long time because of the dad’s job. They lived in a large house about a half hour train ride outside of Koln. It had a large backyard and an attic bedroom that I slept in many times. Two of their boys were in elementary school and one was in preschool. We celebrated Thanksgiving at their house. Their home reminded me most of my home in SC, I was thankful for the comfort of being there so often. And for the deutschmarks they paid me to babysit their boys!
I also worked for my aunt cleaning offices and the stairwells of their apartment building the whole time I was living with them. The money from that went towards the extra expenses they incurred having another person living under their roof for five months. The work was not fun. Emptying ash trays and mopping floors and dusting desks has never been my idea of a good time. But exploring those office buildings felt like a glimpse into the life of German professionals, and that part fascinated me and made the work more bearable.
A couple weeks after I arrived in Koln my aunt and uncle traveled to America. I stayed with a family friend and fellow church goer, Trudy, during that time. Trudy was around my Oma’s age and had been friends with my mom’s family for decades. I had met her several times in the states when I was a child. She lived in a three room apartment and slept in a murphy bed in her dining room. My bed for that time was on a futon beside her. I stayed with Trudy during the height of my homesickness. She spoke some English. We would have hot tea and brochen in the afternoon when I got home from school then she would read and I would either read or work on the scrapbook I had brought with me from home. At night I would fantasize about my life as a grown-up until I fell asleep. I needed a story line to meditate on that was a million miles from where I was. I believed that by the time I was a grown-up I would never again experience homesickness or loneliness or insecurity. I created elaborate images in my head of my beautiful, confident, grown-up self. Those imaginings got me through my darkest moments.
I met God while staying with Trudy. Soon after going to stay with her I went for a walk and got lost. Lost for a long time. Long enough that I became desperate and completely filled with fear. I couldn’t remember her address and I still spoke no German. I had no idea how to save myself. I sat down on a bench after wandering around for too long and kind of lost myself inside myself for awhile. It was the loneliest I had ever been. I prayed that God would give me courage and help me find my way home. And he appeared beside me on that bench. He was Comfort. He was Strength. He was Warmth. His presence calmed my fears and gave me the courage to stand up. He walked me home and I nearly collapsed with relief when I arrived at Trudy’s door. He became my closest friend and greatest source of comfort after that day.
Perhaps it was He that turned things around for me. Because soon after that day my homesickness abated and I regained some of the confidence that it had stolen from me. I still missed my family with all my little heart but I reclaimed my sense of adventure and decided to embrace the people and the experiences that would be handed to me while I was so far from home.
I traveled to Camp Gemunden for a long weekend and to Schwarzwaldeckhaus in the Austrian Alps for a week in December. The brightest stars I have ever seen shine over Schwarzwaldeckhaus. There I met a woman who spoke five languages. Including English! Hers was a story I was eager to hear. We spent Christmas in Berlin with my cousin Tanja and another night at a family friend’s home over the Christmas holiday.
My Oma joined us a few weeks before Christmas. Her arrival was like a lifeline to home, she lived across the street from us in our little town in SC. She brought gifts and pictures and letters from my family and my friends back home. She and I would grocery shop at the little market near our apartment, explore downtown, take freezing cold walks and visit the Weihnachtsmarkt. One of our favorite stops was for McDonalds ice-cream that we would sit and eat in the sunshine in front of the Koln Dom. I moved into my cousin’s room when Oma arrived, Oma slept across the hall from us. By the time Oma arrived I had already become quite settled in my new life but having her there added a welcomed comfort to my heart.
One day, a few months into my European life, the German language opened itself up to me and suddenly I could understand what was being said by everyone around me. My vocabulary was still limited and speaking German never became as easy as understanding it but the structure of the language fell into place and that changed everything for me. Suddenly I could understand my friends and my teachers and the sermons at church. Not perfectly, and it helped if they spoke slowly, but it was like a new world had opened up to me and invited me in. And it was absolutely glorious.
And then February 9th arrived and I marked the last X on the countdown calendar I had created all the way back in September during my darkest moments of homesickness. I could hardly believe it. I was going home.
I left the states in September of 1997, a sheltered kid from a homeschooling family in Smalltown, USA. I had only known affection and support and connection until then. I had never traveled on my own, never crossed an ocean, never experienced loneliness.
I came home in February with a new language, my own faith, and an appreciation for family and connection that probably changed my life forever.
If you are looking for an experience that will make you reconsider everything you’ve ever known, teach you more than a thousand textbooks ever could and place you on benches that shatter your walls and invite you to plead for a Savior, I encourage you to try Europe. Or any other place that will rip you out of your comfort zone and into the potential for your best life.
I believe it is as they say:
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.