It all started when I went to my first language exchange in school: 10 days in Toulouse. It was different, funny, friendly and impressive. My exchange partner was a boy with a migration background who lived with his mother, his sister and a small dog in a two-room apartment in one of the poorer quarters of Toulouse. In France, at the Lycée there were strict and often incomprehensible rules, as well as additional personnel, who insisted on their fulfilment. At school, many faces were colourful, quite different from the Catholic school in East Germany I frequented. The world in which our exchange partners lived was on the opposite side of the spectrum to what I was used to. We are four children who live in a family home in one of the richer neighbourhoods of our city. We have a garden, my mother was at home while we grew up, and we each had separate rooms. In school, there were only teachers. No additional personal to control us. Our worlds were very different. I am not sure we could have met any other way.
Two years later I went to France with the Programme Voltaire for six months. Again, I was able to discover a whole new world. This time, I lived in the countryside, the French holiday dream my parents showed us during summer. My host family lived on a farm in the province of southern France. We kids went to a boarding school in the next town (quite far away, actually). My host father produced honey, paté and rillette, drove to weekly markets and kept chickens and dogs. My guest mother was a translator and worked from home. I was the only one from my family that was able to look behind the scenes of the life which we marvelled at during many a holiday in France. They were invaluable experiences and a not always easy, but exciting time.
During my studies, five years later, I went to Italy for a year. I found the language beautiful and the culture fascinating. I wanted to live a real summer and experience a new country. After one year in Italy my Italian was almost non-existent and my English quite good. I had underestimated how it was to have a family that playfully corrects one's mistakes. As a European experience, this was incredibly diverse and exciting. Even today (7 years later), I keep in touch with the other foreign students, and I love the exchanges about our lifestyles, decisions, and attitudes. I prefer an evening in an international group over any alternative. There is little less amusing than a group of people trying to communicate beyond language and cultural barriers.
My connection to Italian culture is not nearly as strong as to French. Truly loving and understanding a different culture or a nation without cherry picking is not easy. It requires the 7 years of hated school work, the grammar lessons, the silly cooking events with "French crèpes" and the whole annoying stuff around that. All that is something that I have always, and to this day despised.
I have also learned that experiencing the other culture is possible without the appropriate language skills. Without excellent Italian knowledge I have understood that pasta carbonara is prepared without cream and additional fat (the cream is created through the union of the cheese and the egg yolk and the ham brings the taste, no salt necessary), that the relationship to food is mostly not about food but the celebration of food and company. I have learned why the shape of pasta is of importance and who Guiseppe Garibaldi is. I don't know everything about Italy. I will never be an expert, but that is ok. I don't need to be. There are other people who do it much better. What has happened, though, is that I can move around Italy, like it's my living room. Italy, like France and Germany, is one of the places I feel at home in, in spite of my bad language skills. If I have a clash with the locals on the street, I can assess whether my opponent simply has a bad day, or wants to hurt me. When, suddenly, the whole bus starts debating and arguing loudly, and it feels as if the bus will explode, I know that it's normality. Italians argue in public. Loud, passionate and often harmless.
I want more of these places in the world:
I want to continue to learn more languages (Russian, Spanish, Portuguese?)
Continue to experience and describe other cultures
Continue the personal exchange
Continue to tell stories of strangers and convey other realities of life
Continue to travel further
Further & more.
From November to the beginning of February, I will experience another kind of cultural exchange. I will be an Aupair in Finland. Has anyone of you Aupair experiences? Whether as a host or as an AuPair doesn't matter, both sides aren't easy. I'm curious!