Travel Column: Finding A Home Away From Home

I had been in Germany for a month before I moved in with a host family. I had already labored to order sandwiches, coughed up euros for public rest rooms and sweated my way through intensive German. However, these struggles seem small in comparison to what this past week was like. It was hard, but it was enormously colorful.

Ute Mücke was my host mother. She welcomed me into her apartment that was a 10 minute walk from my classes. Ute is a nurse, and has the quiet, caring demeanor of one. The first thing she did was give me a tour of the small flat, and I tried my best to engage with her in German. However, my German is limited, and small talk is not something Germans are keen on. It is very strange to them that Americans are always asking “How are you?” and always expecting “Good!” as the response. Quickly, we began talking about politics, religion and family.

Ute was fascinated with my family lineage. She is completely German, and so are most of her friends and neighbors. As is wonderfully common in our country, I am a mix of things: my parents are Irish, Italian, Lithuanian and French. I explained that my last name is actually Italian, but doesn’t sound so because it was Americanized a few generations ago. Ute revealed that her last name literally means “mosquito” – I was living with Ms. Mosquito! How whimsical.

Eating with Ute was a learning experience. Germans traditionally eat a hot lunch, and a cold dinner. When I was first asked what I wanted to drink for dinner, I replied “Wasser.” Ute looked at me strangely, and said “Nein, Tee! Okay?” At that moment, I knew I was to eat what was in front of me. Most always, that was delicious: fresh bread, many different kinds of cheese, raw vegetables and fruit. Sometimes, though, there was something in front of me that I did not care to eat, but I had to. I dislike hard-boiled eggs, and I was served one at every single meal. I must admit that at one point, I slipped the egg into my sock to dispose of it privately later.

There were some things that I couldn’t quite run from. I learned that Germans were very open with their bodies and sexuality. I was spending time with Ute, her son and her grandson when we decided to visit the local zoo. Ute promptly began changing – in front of the three of us and an open window. No one seemed to think anything of it. My classmates had similar experiences. One was completely naked in the bathroom when her host mother walked in and asked if she wanted an apple or a banana for breakfast. Another showed their host family a picture of the group of us and was asked if anyone was sleeping together on the trip. Though these experiences were uncomfortable, they made me think about the way our culture confronts the human body. Which, most of the time, is with shame and ignorance.

At the end of my homestay, I looked around at Ute’s little flat and realized how very thankful I was for her. She opened her doors to a stranger, and fed me like her own (even if that meant hard-boiled eggs). Living with a host family makes you understand that even in a different house, in a different country, with a different language, it is still just living.

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