Sitting on the seaside cliffs in the Icelandic town of Keflavik waiting for my connecting flight to whisk me back to the world of the real, I have the chance to reflect on my experiences in Germany and Europe. This is my first time alone in a country and somehow feels like my first time alone ever. I learned how to be alone these past six months, and how to like it. I spent time in churches alone in Marburg sometimes. I would pray. I’m not religious but it just felt right. I would ask God or something what I was supposed to do with my life, for the guidance to be on the right path, for some sign that my impact in this world will be greater than me. I guess it was a time for me to reflect just for me, not for a letter to someone or a Facebook post; just a time to be. It was peaceful and sad and reassuring. I figure at least I am asking the right questions, at least I am asking the questions everyone asks: “Why are we here?”. But sitting on the coast with the chilly sea breeze brushing me with goosebumps while the sun at the same time warms my face in this small fishing town in Iceland, that doesn’t seem to matter. It is a question we have to answer for ourselves. No one is there to tell us what to do or how to live our lives, we just have to do what feels right for us. Being alone always helps me realize how much I do because of other people, and not because of me. Not that this is a bad thing –we are social creatures– I just start to reflect on the ways our fears shape us to be the kind of people we think other people want us to be. I think what I have most taken away from my time here is my appreciation for being alone. I enjoyed lunch today alone at a table at a restaurant. I was amazed by the sympathetic stares –the kind I had always given to every person I have seen travelling or eating alone– and I don’t care. I want to be alone. I want to travel alone, to feel whole and not lonely or lacking in doing so. I love people. I love family, and friends, and romance, and growing up in a family of twelve never really afforded me time to be alone. I had a twin by my side all 21 years; even in Germany she was there. I was afraid of being alone. I am alone for the first time in my life, really alone, and it feels sweet and warm and real. I feel real.
I feel like I need to offer up some cliche about my time here in Germany. I need to say something about how much I have developed as a person and the way I am going to change the world because of the things I have seen and done. And it’s not that those things aren’t true, I just feel guilty. I feel like I am supposed to be using this opportunity for something more than self-development. I feel like I am supposed to be doing more. I also know that this is just the first step. I would not be prepared at this point in my life to go on some altruistic mission. I need to learn how to be alone. I need this development period to become more aware of the ways I can be a positive influence in the world. I need to learn about myself and my capacities, and to develop the kind of empathy this experience has begun to give me. I need to shake the American/white saviour complex that compels so many young adults to go on a weeklong volunteer mission to *insert third-world country here* to take pictures of themselves with children and feel better about themselves. I want to work in a way that will actually make an impact in this world, but I know that takes the humility to know that I might not make an impact, and that it might not be my place to try to help where I am not needed. I need the humility of being a foreigner and I need to know that I am not the solution to the problems in this world. All I can do is try. I want to do so much more than just be sitting on the steps next to the University alongside the river and living in a dorm doing what I would be doing in the US, just in a different setting. But this is the first step. This is the beginning.
A big point of frustration for me in Germany was the education system. I assumed that by going to a country so similar to the United States like Germany, I would be having a very similar experience as what I had in the U.S. What I realized while there is that even the smallest differences can feel very frustrating and confusing. I have spent the last 16 years of my life being shaped into the proper student for a very specific kind of education system. Every step of the way, I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew how to cite a paper properly, how to format an academic paper, what voices to use and what not to use, I knew how to study for tests and to be the right kind of student for the system, and I was good at it. Coming to Germany and to not “fit” into the system was indeed a frustrating experience on top of trying to act like having every single class in German was normal. It did become normal, but at first, everything felt wrong. I did not take the system seriously because it did not fit into my idea of what a university “should” be like. I was not used to having a session for each class only once a week, I was not used to finding reading material on my own and not having assignments but just suggestions, I wanted the guidance of a structured American college course. It was a transition that required adjusting and learning, and eventually I did get used to it the way it was. I learned to like the independence and lack of constant supervision and deadlines. The students had more responsibility, and they were not babied. Although this proved a challenge for my concentration and self-motivation, thus causing more frustration, I learned to understand that there are flaws in our system and the way we prepare students for the world, as there are in Germany. There is no one way to educate or to learn, and now I want to know more about how school and education systems can look. I want to know how they teach in Africa, in Bali, in Peru. I want to know that school does not need to have a strict structure and that there are more ways to learn through a school system. After learning so much about other people and their lives and other cultures, I know that the education system we have does not prepare us for the real world. No one on the street asked me to fill in their definite articles with the proper case and gender. All those worksheets did not teach me how to have a conversation with someone, all those quizzes were not in a format that prepared me to answer questions at the doctor’s office. There is no multiple choice section in life. Everything is a learning experience, and we need to take them as they come and learn from the people we meet and from our experiences. The most valuable lessons cannot be found in a textbook.