This meeting had been more than a year in the making.
In February 2013, I found out about the Columbus-Löhne Exchange program, an opportunity to stay with a host family in our sister city in northwestern Germany and to travel in central Europe.
By the time we arrived in Germany in early June, my host sister, Sina, and I had already met via email, Facebook and even Skype. Still, after more than two days of travel and weather delays, it was a relief to finally meet in person.
She and the other host students and their families greeted our bus at the advanced high school in Löhne. That first evening was, not surprisingly, stressful for all of us, as I haltingly introduced myself in my first-year-German vocabulary.
However, my host family also spoke English well, so we found a common language, and their patience enabled me to practice my German as much as possible.
In the next few days, we became close friends, just by attending school, cooking meals, eating dinner and walking Sina’s dog through the beautiful countryside together.
Especially with my host sister and my host mother, I was able to talk for hours about many aspects of our cultures — from clothing to cooking, religion to relationships, history to hopes for the future.
Friendships quickly developed throughout the network of host and exchange students, noted Maren Böhm, a German host student.
“I was really surprised that it was so easy to connect with everyone even though we come from different countries and speak different languages,” she said.
Amelia Shaw, a chaperone on the trip and past exchange student, learned of the burden of guilt that many Germans still carry for World War II during her travels.
More than 80 years ago, a poor mother embroidered a picture for a bakery owner in Nazi Germany who had given her free bread when none could be found. The baker was German; the mother was Jewish. Despite losing her bakery in the war, the baker preserved the gift and, to this day, the simple symbol of the Jewish mother’s gratitude is humbly displayed in the home of the baker’s granddaughter.
It was this story that the granddaughter shared with her American guest through the Columbus-Löhne Exchange.
German students must visit at least one concentration camp; they must learn about the Nazis’ crimes in school; there are countless museums and memorials in Germany and abroad, all designed to make sure that history is never forgotten and never repeated.
Our group experienced firsthand the mind-numbing power the Dachau Concentration Camp. Exchange student and Columbus North High School senior Tyler Johnson remembered it as an unexpected experience.
“I kind of thought what it would be like,” he said. “Once you get there it is all surreal, and you are walking through the past.”
Germans once felt sensitive and ashamed of their recent history but now discuss it freely with visitors.
Luann Davis, a chaperone who has now visited Germany three times in the past 36 years, has noted that shift. She said people will more openly talk about the Holocaust now.
“In 1978 people didn’t want to talk about it at all,” she said. “In 2006 I broached the subject of World War II, and people were more positive about discussing it.”
Today, Germany builds on thousands of years of rich, multifaceted history and culture as a foundation for a conscientious modern society. Some efforts are related to acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity, like youth programs in cities that bring teenagers of different backgrounds together, while others center on preserving the Earth.
In Löhne, we met the mayor at City Hall and talked about the city’s impressive environmental efforts. Solar panels and windmills were seen on every hill and field, and on the roofs of many homes. Air-conditioning was nowhere to be found, neither in homes nor in schools nor in hotels.
On tour, we were able to see even more clearly the history that had created modern Europe, like the Berlin Wall.
“The Berlin Wall was really inspiring, seeing the artists’ work and symbolism put into the wall. I was not expecting that at all. I had seen pictures and read about it, but seeing it in person was a lot different,” Columbus North High School senior and exchange student Madeline Wilson said.
The exchange exposed us to the whole European experience.
For exchange student Sylvia Hornback, it was her first time on a plane. For others, it meant trying new food, playing Kegeln (German bowling), attending public viewings for the FIFA World Cup, learning traditional Bavarian dances or swimming in a mountain-fed lake in Switzerland on a free afternoon.
Exchange student Chloe Jorgensen, who will be going into her junior year at Columbus North, saw this aspect as the highlight of the journey.
“I think going somewhere that you haven’t been before makes you go out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Being able to be flexible and go with whatever is happening has really made it a whole lot more fun.”
On my last morning in Löhne, Sina got up before dawn to make a pancake breakfast. The house smelled amazing. As I sat down to eat, she gave me a red, spiral-bound journal.
“I know you like to write,” she said.
Inside, she had written recipes we had made together, some of her favorite quotes and a poem about true friendship. Sometimes, there is no way, no language, to say, “Thank you.”