My First Week in Austria and Language Camp

Ok folks…get comfortable, because I accidentally made this a little long. Apologies.

I think the first week of exchange is probably one of the craziest, weirdest, scariest, and emotional weeks one can imagine. You’re thrown into a completely new and different house, family, country, and language while being jet-lagged. The first week was filled with adjustment and lots of learning basic rules and customs that are automatic in my house at home but different in a house across the world. (For example, where I put my dirty clothes and how to open the windows.) During the first few days, I sometimes woke up disoriented in the morning not knowing where I was, because the ceiling above me was not the one I’d seen every morning for as long as I could remember. I sometimes found myself standing around awkwardly, feeling out of place in my own (new) home. Every once in a while, even still, it hits me in waves that this whole thing is real and that I’m living 7,700 miles away from La Crosse, Wisconsin for a year. The adjustment time was sometimes overwhelming but after a week, things started to feel less foreign.

The "beach" on the Traunsee

The “beach” on the Traunsee

On my first full day in Austria, I explored Vienna with my host brother and drank my first Almdudler (An Austrian soft drink with herbs, similar to ginger ale but better). In my first week in Austria, I met my host mom and older host brother Maxi, went to a movie theater in Vienna(the main character in the movie was from Wisconsin), sat near the former Chancellor of Austria at a cafe, kissed a llama, got ran over by a Segway, met my host grandparents, biked through my town, and went to a small festival in my city. By the end of my first week, I was sad to say goodbye to my host family and leave my home for two weeks to go to language camp.

Language camp took place in Altmünster, a small town of about 10,000 people in the state of Upper Austria. This was about a two or three hour drive from my city. Our language camp was at a boarding school, so I lived, ate, and learned in the same building for a couple weeks. The area surrounding the boarding school was so beautiful. The school was situated on a small mountain. Right next to the boarding school was a beautiful castle and a forest. It was only a 5 minute walk down the hill through the forest to reach the main part of the city, which is on Lake Traunsee. It was another 5 minute walk to reach the “beach”, which didn’t have sand but a large open grass area, volleyball courts, ice cream stands, lakeside bars, and large docks. The Traunsee itself was filled with swans and sailboats, and it faced the most beautiful mountain, called the Traunstein. It was really so beautiful, and we all spent lots of time at this “beach” during our free time.

Immediately upon everyone’s arrival to the boarding school, we (the exchange students from all around the world who are on exchange to Austria) started congregating and talking about the differences we noticed between our home countries and Austria.  Some topics of conversation were “Why is the toilet in a separate room as the rest of the bathroom?”,  “Why  isn’t there a trash can in the toilet room?”, “Why is water so expensive?”, “I’ve eaten more bread since I got to Austria than I have in my whole life put together. Is it just me?” and “Does anyone else miss having ice in their drinks?”.  It was so nice to talk with groups of other exchange students who were feeling the same thing that I was feeling. The same culture shock, the same confusion, and the same excitement.

All of the Rotary Exchange Students at language camp

All of the Rotary Exchange Students at language camp

In all there were 44 exchange students at the language camp.  We’re from the US, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Colombia, and France. Once everyone arrived, we were given some quick rules for the camp, then split into two groups – one group of people who knew zero German(about half of the us), and the other half who knew a bit already.  After that, the latter group was interviewed by our to-be language teachers in German, in order for them to gauge our language skills and place us accordingly.  The interview was terrifying but I think mine went well! The next day, we were sorted into our classes and formed a routine:

We woke up every morning at 7, in order to get to breakfast by 7:30. We ate breakfast in the cafeteria, a floor below the girl’s dorms. We then had class until lunch, and after lunch we had only an hour and a half more of class, and then we were let out for the day.  At this time we were free to walk around Altmünster, go to the beach, take a nap…basically anything we wanted to do. Since the weather was so beautiful (75° to 80° every day), I usually went to the lake with friends to swim or tan, and sometimes we went to a beach bar and drank an Almdudler while admiring the beautiful view of the lake, the mountain, and the cute boys playing volleyball in the courts. We ate dinner at 6:00 and had a mandatory study hour at 8 every day, where we worked on the homework we’d gotten in class that day. At 9:00 every night we had a snack of semmel, which is Austrian bread.  We had to be in our rooms at 10:00, but usually I stayed up later with the 3 other girls who roomed with me, and we talked together long into the nights about anything and everything.  I’ve never gotten so close with a group of people so fast.

Each day was pretty much the same on the weekdays.  We got up at the same time, ate our meals at the same time, and survived 6 hours of learning German. The German class itself wasn’t actually terrible. My teacher, Roland, was an English professor at the University of Vienna, and, since I was placed in the highest German class, spoke slow but fluent German with us the entire time. I never spoke much German at all in my German class in the US, so the course was good for me because Roland made us speak only German. At the end of the 2 weeks, we had to take a final examination. I think my German improved a lot throughout the German course, and my final examination confirmed that.
On the weekend, the entire group made an excursion to Hallstatt (That’s the city you always see when you look up “Austria” on Google Images) and on another day we all went hiking up a mountain. We always had events on the weekend-Rotary always kept us busy.

Me swimming in the Traunsee with the Traunstein in the background

Me swimming in the Traunsee with the Traunstein in the background

Some highlights of language camp included:

  • Making dozens of new friends from all over the world
  • Buying Almdudler from the nearby grocery store 2 liters at a time and drinking it every night out of wine glasses with Emma Fairchild while having deep conversations
  • Eating Turkish Kebabs at a nearby restaurant and making friends with the Turk who owned the place
  • Swimming topless because this is Austria and it’s completely normal and legal here
  • Learning traditional Austrian songs and dances
  • Attending a local Rotary meeting
  • Seeing the Alps for the first time during the trip to Hallstatt (I almost cried)
  • Seeing the Europe’s oldest wooden staircase inside a salt mine in Hallstatt (3,000 years old)
  • Going to a thrift store in the town next to Altmünster and buying “The Polar Express” chapter book in German for only 2 Euro
  • Chugging 2 liters of Almdudler with Emma while reciting all 50 states and every president of the United States for the talent show
  • Eating Semmel several times every day

Like all wonderful things, language camp felt slow at the beginning, but time passed by so fast at the end. I imagine this is how my exchange as a whole will also play out Despite how lovely the entire camp was, by the end I was excited to go home, because I was beginning to miss my host family and also alone-time. Overall, I loved language camp! It was a beautiful 2 weeks and I love my new exchange family!

I will update soon about how school is going!

xx Ashlyn

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