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.
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.
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.
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!
On August 6th, I said goodbye to my family, got on a plane, and left basically everything I’ve known and called home for the last 16 years of my life. As terrifying as it initially was, it has already proven to be the best decision I’ve ever made.
I had a total of 12 hours from my departure from Minneapolis to my arrival in Vienna. My flights went well and I successfully made my short 1.5 hour connection in the CDG Paris airport with time to spare. In the days leading up to my departure, I began second guessing myself and all the decisions I had made that led me to where I was–packing my bags and saying goodbye for an entire year. However, the day I left and all throughout my flights I felt mostly at ease. I felt ready, prepared, and excited for the new adventure ahead of me. All of the uncertainties of the next year of my life that previously terrified me, I now saw as memories and adventures waiting to be made.
My second flight from Paris to Vienna was probably the longest 2 hours of my life. I had my travel journal out in the last hour, documenting the checkpoints that brought me closer and closer to my new home. At 11:18 AM, I looked out the plane window and saw the Alps, and then cried a little. At 11:26, I felt the first drop in altitude. At 11:40, I saw Vienna and got chills all over. The last thing I wrote in my journal before I landed was “My adventure begins now.” in German.
I had an initial struggle at baggage claim with my checked suitcase being broken, but I bought a trolley and wheeled more than my own weight past the “Welcome to Vienna” sign. I immediately saw the smiling faces of my host father and younger host brother Johannes. At the time my other host brother Max was on vacation in Portugal, and my host mother who is a flight attendant had a long distance flight to New York, so I met both of them later on. After the initial hugs and small talk about my flight and the bags, my host dad asked me if I wanted to see Vienna or go straight home and sleep. I slept for most of my international flight, and I was too excited to be tired anyways, so naturally I chose Vienna. We drove to the 1st district of Vienna, which is the center. My first time in Vienna felt so unreal. It was even better than the pictures. We stopped at an outside cafe for lunch, where I had my first meal in Austria: Wiener Schnitzel. Definitely one of my new favorites, and probably one of most Austrian meals possible. After that we got some Italian gelato and made the drive home, the three of us talking and singing to the songs on the radio. After only maybe 20 minutes, I was finally at my new home for the next year of my life. I live in a very small town called Seebarn, with a population of only 300. A few miles away from Seebarn is Korneuburg, a city of about 12,000 people. That is where I’ll be going to school.
My home is so beautiful. My bedroom is so big–it has a work area, a huge couch, a piano, a TV, and a staircase that leads up to a loft area that contains my floor bed and is quite literally Ashlyn-sized..My head just touches the ceiling when I stand up. The rest of the house is just as nice. In the basement there’s a sauna and wine cellar, which apparently are both normal in Austrian households. Outside there is a beautiful garden, terrace, trampoline, and pool. I think I tried to get situated by starting to unpack my suitcases, but I gave up and joined my host dad and brother in watching a soccer game (Go Rapid Wien!).
After Rapid won 4-1, the three of us took a walking tour of Seebarn, my small town. Directly next to my house is a beautiful trail that leads to a road of dozens of wine cellars, each separate little buildings. We visited my host family’s wine cellar. We took stairs that lead down to a dark, cool, underground cellar filled with bottles of wine. These wine cellars were built between the two world wars. It took only 45 minutes to walk through Seebarn before we made a full circle. I love Seebarn just as much as I love Vienna, even though they are so different from each other. It’s so nice to have 3 cities here that I can call home- The tiny but beautiful little Seebarn, the middle sized city of Korneuburg, and the huge city of Vienna. I’m getting a taste of three totally different environments and cultures with the different city sizes.
After our walk, we had a small dinner of bread (the food that I have found to be a recurring theme in this country) and I asked my host dad the First Night Questions, which are essentially just basic questions that exchange students ask their host families such as “what time is my curfew on weekends?” (which I guess happens to be 2 or 3 AM if you were wondering). Overall my first day in Austria was overwhelming but so great. I love my host family, my town, my house, and this beautiful country.
I have been so busy but I will try to post more soon about my language camp and my first week in Austria!
Liebe Grüße, Ashlyn
My name is Ashlyn Neader, and I am 16 years old. I’m from La Crosse, Wisconsin in the USA. When I was in middle school, I watched as my older brother got involved in Rotary and became an exchange student to Denmark through Rotary’s youth exchange program. I was immediately sold on doing the same thing as I watched all the beautiful ways his exchange year transformed him.
Now it’s my turn. I started the process in the fall of 2015. I went to the informational meetings, filled out my application, and passed two sets of interviews. In January, after my first Rotary get-together in Madison, I got the phone call that changed my life (while shopping at TJ Maxx, of all places!). This phone call told me the country I would be living in, since Rotary doesn’t allow you to simply pick a specific country. My Rotary club called and said “how does Austria sound?” I responded “it sounds great!”, then proceeded to cry of happiness in the middle of TJ Maxx.
Around 7 months later, it’s all finally beginning to feel real. I’m feeling so many different feelings at once, every day. I have only 4 days until I leave the US. I’m sad to say goodbye to my family, friends, cats,(honestly) and country. However, I’m excited to begin a new chapter of my life and explore the beautiful country of Austria.
I will use this blog to give updates on my exchange year in Austria. If you would like to get an email each time I add a new blog post, you may subscribe using the form below:
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