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Articles > March, 01, 2010

Death to Student Exchange Trips? Ich glaub’ nicht

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My friends thought I was pretty twisted. Why the hell did I want to leave our cosy Dorset secondary school to spend a week living with disgruntled, barrel-chested Bavarian students? Their reactions were diverse and numerous, ranging from apathy, to a suspicion towards the merits of such excursions. In fact, it seemed there was an air of reluctance hanging heavily on their minds – as if the student exchange was finally in its death throes. The number of students who would be joining me had dropped steadily from ten, to five, to zero. Venturing into Bavaria with a group of like-minded students and teachers was daunting enough, but this meant I had to do it alone. Most disturbing of all was the warning I received from a solemn photography student, who seemed to have confused the regional Dirndl and Lederhosen of Bavaria with latex fetish costumes.

Such poisonous xenophobia did nothing to waiver my interest in experiencing the trials and satisfactions of an alien culture, but more significantly, I have never been stupid enough to turn down an opportunity to escape England. The air reeked of bureaucracy, and school teachers nationwide were concerned about new CRB checks for host families. Although set in place with noble intentions, they threatened to engulf student exchanges in a swamp of red tape. I wanted a bite of the exchange cherry while it was still ripe – and surely the erosion of values and moral decay would have been allayed somewhat, in a region filled with brightly coloured beer tents and jolly old Lumberjacks?

I soon found myself staggering off the plane into a completely unfamiliar country, armed with nothing but a head full of clumsy phrases to beat off any freaks. Herr Jobst, my surrogate father for the week’s exchange, was parked outside the airport, chain smoking Haus-Bergmans. My linguistically crippled conversation with him went something like this:
James: Hello. My name is James. I have not slept for eighteen hours. I like you.
Herr Jobst: James? Great to meet you! Flight went OK? I hope those damn stewards didn’t (incomprehensible Bavarian slang). Get in the car – want a cigarette?
James: Yes please. You are a nice man.
Herr Jobst: Good. I’m glad you do. Non-smokers creep me out.

My guest family were exceptionally friendly and generous, and always ready to inundate my sleep deprived little brain with Bavarian culture. I spend most days at the Realschule helping the freckled and bespectacled darlings of class 12B to prepare vocabulary for an Oral. Mostly, they had a ball getting their heads around the deviant sequences of logic in the English language- but a handful of feisty stragglers only showed interest in learning the names of a few out-there sex acts.

One Saturday morning, recovering from the carnage that Festbier had wrought on my feeble English liver, my exchange partner agreed to take me to the local Spa for free- so long as I ceased to entertain her father’s stereotypes of the English. Alas, I could no longer wear my salmon coloured dressing gown and smoke my pipe on the balcony. Crestfallen indeed.

Never before have so many strange and exotic facilities been offered at such a tiny establishment. It stretched from hot/cold plunges, steam rooms, massage parlours, sun beds and several types of Jacuzzi, to garish flumes for the hyperactive and grotesque children. By Jove, I exclaimed a few hours into our pamper-fest, there’s an outside sauna-garden! Top drawer. This too was included in the price but my exchange partner was highly reluctant to join me. Bewildered, I stepped alone into the sauna-garden and promptly fought back a cardiac arrest.

Dear Franziska obviously assumed that the sight of over a hundred very old and very naked Bavarians, milling around happily in the midday sun, would throw me into an orgy of horror and teeth gnashing. In fact, what amazed me more than their pale naked bodies was their sheer friendliness and patience, as I stumbled through my text-book phrases and obliterated their language in the process. I even drank beer with one of them while we discussed Oktoberfest, infamous the world over for its excessive pleasure seeking and sinister ‘hydration tents’, in which one can sometimes hear the languid moans of the Bierleichen. These hapless fools drink for days on end and pass out from sheer dehydration, exhaustion, and, of course, chronic intoxication. The word “Oktoberfest” alone fills conservative parents with a nameless dread.

When I finally returned from Bavaria, my friends’ reaction to the student exchange was disappointing. ‘Folly!’ They cried. ‘What kind of sick changes has that hellhole brought about in you?’ ‘Fools!’ I retorted. ‘Oh, the Lederhosen! Oh, the lush open forests and casual drinking of Beer! Oh, the Weisswurst and its tasty, succulent goodness! Oh, the sauna-gardens and their naked free inhabitants! Oh, the scent of wood smoke mingled with cheap cigarettes! You fools! You don’t know what you have missed. You fools.’

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  1. Charley

    James you have a wonderful turn of phrase and a very expressive style, well done! I went to the Westphalia region of Germany for my exchange some 7 years ago now and had an absolutely amazing time wandering around Muenster and Cologne it was so good infact and I loved Muenster so much I dragged my mother and my sister there that summer for our holidays… and they loved it too. Germany gets a bad rep it really doesn’t deserve when most of the people there are wonderfully friendly and incredibly obliging (and very forgiving of English people mutilating their language lol). Exchange trips are a wonderful opportunity to experience life in a foreign country in a way you simply can’t do from a hotel or B&B and as such they are invaluable and should be encouraged (indeed in my 6th form spending a week working abroad was pretty much compulsory for anyone taking a language)

  2. Chloe

    I really enjoyed reading this article, I would have loved to do a foreign exchange in school or college. For Uni I would have needed to have continued German to degree level to go to Germany. Maybe I’ll still get to go one day. I hear there’s a European volunteer scheme..

  3. James Rothwell

    Thanks very much for the feedback – it’s wonderful to know that people agree with the general sentiments of the article, and are equally frustrated with the ongoing marginalization of cultural exchanges. Here’s to many more years of drinking beer, speaking Die Sprach/ La Langue / Whatever and broadening one’s horizons.

  4. Alex Kirri

    This truly is a fantastic article. Beyond the extraordinary command of the English language that James Rothwell seems to have, he has captured the essence of exchange trips in this piece. A huge fan of foreign exchange trips myself, this must be the first article that I’ve ever read that truly describes the way that I feel when participating in these culturally enlightening opportunities! Alex Kirri

  5. Fay

    I think these exchanges are a great idea. Just last month, I went to Spain as part of my school/sixth form’s exchange system. I thought I was going to have a bad time since I did not get on with my exchange too well when they came over here for a week, but I am now wanting to go back! I learnt a lot more about the Spanish culture and my speaking has improved. There should be more encouragement from teachers and others who have been on them in the past

  6. Caroline

    I think it’s follish of anyone who doesn’t want to experience life outside of their own culture. Your friends were cleary too afraid to make the effort of learning about the country of which the lanuage you’re studying orginates from. This is proof that our views of other countries don’t necessary fit.

  7. loopylazz

    I really agree with this, I am going on an exchange to China in july and only 9 students are going. (Its actually cheap for a 2 week stay in china!) My friends think it’s strange that I want to go there. Thinking there will be scary communist people and horrible food. As for me I can’t wait~