Monday, February 18

Studying abroad

Tomorrow marks my third full week back in the United States after five months abroad in Munich. Thankfully, the transition back has gone remarkably well. Jet lag was not an issue, and neither was homework, a bit of a surprise since I returned a week after classes at Gonzaga had already started. Of course, catching up and getting settled back into life in America has kept me busy and reconnecting with friends even more so. The result of this is that I have spent little time reflecting back on my months in Europe, and this bothers me. Five months in a foreign land, surrounded by a largely alien language, different culture and apart from most everything I was familiar with? Kind of a big deal, I think. Now is the time to start taking that on, a time to begin considering what those months meant to me, how they changed me.

But first things first. Why did I go? Looking back now, it seems kind of inevitable and as though I never made the conscious decision to trade Gonzaga for Ludwig-Maximilian-Universit├Ąt for a semester. It begins with my choice to take German as my foreign language requirement at Gonzaga. When my application asked what languages I was interested in, I checked German even though I had studied French for four years in high school. My grandparents emigrated in the '60's, and I thought it might be nice to be able to speak with them in their native tongue and those relatives (e.g. all of them) who stayed behind. From that point on, there was no detour on my path to Munich. By the beginning of my sophomore year, it was already time to start considering whether I wanted to study abroad. Why not? A goodly number of my friends were taking advantage of the chance, and I thought it might be fun. There was never any doubt in my mind that a German-speaking country would be my destination since to wimp out on Oxford or something would be an affront to my two years of study, and once the Munich program was suggested by my German instructor, I never looked at another program. Like I wrote earlier, there was no deliberate thought on the subject at any point. The pieces all just fell into line. Perhaps this should worry me, such a light approach to a major matter, but I have come around to agreeing with Mary Schmich. "Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's." The amount I do not expect and cannot prepare for will always trump that which I can. No use worrying about it too much.

What was I looking for in this experience? Still not quite sure on that one. To get better at German for sure, but the language does not play any specific role in my future plans, as fluid as they are now. To see Europe and its great cities, too, but no plans were made before my departure at the end of August, everything arranged across the ocean. Certainly not to advance on my path to a Journalism major. Did not even take a media studies class over there. Mostly, I think, I was looking to get shook up. I was comfortable at Gonzaga, and it was time to see what happened when I threw myself into a situation I was not quite prepared for (God knows two years of college German is not enough to get by), break myself off from the familiar and watch the consequences. Cheated on that one a bit. A friend from Gonzaga participated in the same program, and we hung out a good deal, even more after the Internet in my room went down.

This is a big subject, and this is only a small part of the experience. I will, undoubtedly, write still more on it. For now, though, the only way I am going to get through it all is piece by piece.

And here is the first of those pieces. To be blunt, my academic education in Munich was not of the highest caliber. Ultimately, I learned German. All of my classes, barring the independent study of Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," were held in German, and the academics were not that rigorous, except my term papers. Two classes were devoted solely to the language. Anything I learned from History of Germany Since 1945 came from reading the texts because the first half of the three-hour classes were student presentations on the assigned readings and the second half was the instructor waiting for us to ask questions on them. Weltreligionen im Religionunterricht was fun, but what was taught about the major world religions I generally already knew from earlier readings. Theorie und Praxis der Zen-Meditation was quite literally an hour of meditation preceded by the reading of a koan and a little yoga.

It is a good thing then that there is more to education than what you learn from books and lectures. I planned my own trips in their entirety and (far more difficult and resulting in failure far more often) planned for the arrival of friends. I learned a little of art simply by visiting as many galleries and museums as I could stomach and got better at meeting new people and accepting hospitality. These are all good things for sure, life lessons after a style, but they dwarf in comparison to the big one.

From the onset, I knew I would only spend a single semester in Germany, and I lived every day with that awareness. I was living in Munich on borrowed time, and I knew it. If an opportunity presented itself, I took it because these chances were not going to crop up again. For as much as I despise Harris' The End of Faith, he does make one decent metaphor. We are all living with an incurable disease that will knock us dead and off this mortal coil, and we do not know when. That is life. I just faced that on a smaller scale in Europe but was graced with the knowledge of when it would all end. Now I want to live my life that way. To go out and do something worth remembering and not pass up an opportunity for something new. Quit using homework as an excuse not to spend time with friends and stop spending hours asking "So, what do you want to do?" instead of doing something.

For that alone, I am euphoric I spent that time across the ocean. Really, it is not any sort of great revelation. Good grief, Tim McGraw sang "Live Like You Were Dying." To actually experience it, though, is something else.

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