I spent the eleventh grade of my high school in the USA. At the time a couple classmates did similar trips, though most of them went to Canada. In total I have spend ten months there, it was an amazing time. I met many new people, got to speak the language much better and got so many new experiences.
The first part of this journey was a rather long organizational period. One cannot just book a flight to the USA and spend the school year there. The linchpin is the visa that one has to get, and this only gets issued when one booked with an exchange organization, which happened to be EF in my case. Of course this organization charges a square amount of money for is organizational process.
One has to write an application and state why one wants to go on this trip, that one is open to new experiences and the like. There are a couple of interview sessions that are done. I also believe that there was some basic English test, but I am not sure about that any more. Once I got accepted into the program, I started to meet other people who would be going to the trip at the same time as I was. EF also offered some sort of camp where one would be with other exchange students and could somehow prepare, but I did not book that.
At some point I had to write an application for a host family. The host families to a similar thing, they apply to EF to get an exchange student. One submits pictures, a few stories about hobbies and the like. Then a volunteer who lives somewhat close to the families will match the applications of the exchange students to the host families. I got matched to a family in Festus, Missouri.
After that was set, I needed to get a visa. Staying there for ten months required a J1 visa, for which I had to go to the consulate of the USA in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. It basically took all day to get all the paperwork done. Also I had a one-on-one interview with an employee of the embassy, I guess they wanted to verify that I am a nice guy.
The German health insurance does not cover anything in the USA, therefore I needed to have a private one. Additional I needed a liability insurance with obscenely high damage payout.
EF eventually booked my flight, starting from Düsseldorf (DUS).
For some reason I wanted to take an awful lot of stuff with me. Now, over ten years later, I would not take as much luggage. In fact it was even too much for two suitcases, so I had sent a huge box of stuff there before I boarded the plane.
On the arrival day I had to get up at around 05:00 in the morning. My parents brought be to Düsseldorf (DUS), we met a representative from EF. We checked in the luggage and then had a heartbreaking farewell. Sure, I had been away from home for a couple of weeks at a time, but ten months was quite a different prospect. Luckily I was somewhat occupied with the logistics of an intercontinental flight and the two transfers that I eventually managed to go through the security checkpoint and leave my parents and brother behind.
The first flight took me to München (MUC), which does not make much sense when you look at it on a map. But my flight to Chicago (ORD) went from there, and it likely was the cheapest flight that they could get me. Security checks were as usual, and the first flight was not particularly special.
In München I just stayed within the security area and went to the gate for my flight into the USA. It was in a special area where they asked me even more questions, like the whereabouts of my luggage, whether I have packed it all by myself, and so on. I got a little sticker for my passport which showed that I had passed this extra questioning.
For some reason the flight got delayed by two hours, that was some extra time sitting around the benches. Eventually we got to board the tremendously large plane. I think there were 3 + 4 + 3 seats per row and a sheer endless number of rows. The flight was scheduled to take around 7 hours if I recall correctly.
My parents had given me a little booklet for my carry on luggage. They told me to only open it when I am in the transatlantic plane. So I opened it one we were on cruising altitude and found that they have visited each of my friends and asked them to fill two pages with pictures and best wishes. It was amazing to read it, my parents really went to a lot of people to make this happen. At the same time I already felt a bit homesick by all those memories, it was not going to be easy all the way.
I managed to sleep on the plane, which turned out to be really good. I landed in Chicago (ORD) in the international terminal and first had to walk endless hallways towards the immigration. There I showed my passport and visa and needed to answer a couple of questions. They also took the fingerprints of my thumb and a picture. I was cleared and got to pick up my luggage. Handling to bags that can only be pulled behind me (two wheels) was a bit cumbersome. Luckily there was a conveyor belt for transfer luggage, so I got rid of the luggage right after customs.
Chicageo (ORD) has a train which you can take between the terminals, much like Frankfurt am Main (FRA) and Düsseldorf (DUS) have them. I took it to the right terminal where my flight to St. Louis (STL) would depart from. Due to the two hours of delay with the transatlantic flight I missed my connecting flight. So I have tried to contact my family in Germany and my host family there. In local time it was evening there, so the latter was not a big problem. For my family at home it was already midnight, but they did not mind staying up for this. Both had watched my flights in the internet, so they were all already aware and just glad that I was doing fine.
The next flight to St. Louis (STL) was scheduled six hours later, so I had to wait. I was on my feet for like 18 hours at that point, and I was really hungry. For some reason the McDonald's restaurant in the airport had closed at 22:00 local time, so I was just roaming around the airport trying to find something to eat.
This concourse is the one that I have stepped through so many times, and whenever I see it I get reminded of these agonizing long hours.
My flight to St. Louis (STL) was scheduled for like 23:30, written as "11:30 PM" on the boards. Eventually that one got delayed more and more, saying "12:30 AM". I thought that the this would actually mean 12:30 and I was in terror about this. Asking some official looking person about this I was informed that this is actually 00:30, so it was just one more hour of waiting. I think I was at my destination airport at around 03:30 or so. I was tired, hungry. And to make it worse one of my two bags was missing on the luggage belt. We filed a claim and drove off, the bag got delivered a few days later at 02:00. The huge car was overwhelming, but I was too tired to really notice.
My host parents took me to Denny's, a 24-hours breakfast franchise. It was around 05:00 and the whole parking lot was filled with police patrol cars. The diner itself was just like you know from US-American movies, the dishes as well. I had some turkey sandwich with more fries than I could ever eat. At their house I just fell into the bed. It had been a 33 hour day and I was completely exhausted.
I could not sleep in for too long though, I needed to go to the school and talk to the counselor about the classes that I wanted to take the day after.
From here on I will tell the story loosely grouped by subject instead of strictly chronologically.
At school I met a very nice counselor who selected the subjects of the following two semesters with me. There was plenty of choice with many subjects that would not be available in a German school. Additionally there are many different levels of subjects. So instead of having to select one of the three branches of German school (Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium), there is just a single high school where you can take whatever level of classes you want. And there are applied classes like welding and personal finance which should give a you a good head start into adult life.
This is what my class schedule looked like:
It was taken by a little shock that I voluntarily took physical education, but it turned out rather nice. I did not get much exercise otherwise, therefore it was nice to have.
The strange thing about an US-American school is that there is the exact same schedule every single day of the week. I quickly found this monotonous and wished to have a few more subjects on different days of the week.
The school hallways look just like one knows from the movies:
And during class time you are not allowed to talk there. You need to have a special hall pass in order to even go to the bathroom. I found this strangely strict and still do not get the point of this.
Also as in the movies I had a locker with a combination lock. It took me a while to figure out how it works, but then I was able to snap it open within a few seconds. You must not have used a lock with a key as the school employees have a master key for the combination locks such that they can search the lockers if needed.
There are security drills for everything that you can imagine:
- Active shooter
We regularly had these drills and had to know which part of the school to seek shelter at.
A cool occasion was giving a short presentation about my home country for a sixth grade class. The other exchange students from my high school presented their home countries as well. Later on we received letters from the kids in the class, sharing their thoughts. It was really nice and I think I have convinced a few of them to take a look at other countries in the world.
The exams in the school were usually automated ones. One would get a Scantron sheet which just had a matrix of numbers (the questions) and letters (the answers) on it. The exam came out of a computer which just generated a random selection of questions with a random permutation of the answers. One would just not write anything down on the actual exam but just tick the checkmarks on the strip. After the exam the teacher just passes the strip through the scanner, it gets graded instantly and you also get the corrected answers marked.
This way feedback was very quick, which I really liked. The downside is that there were just multiple-choice answers, which do not really train so much of the active eloquence that is needed when explaining things to other people.
Some of the exams were to be taken home and worked on at home. This was rather peculiar as you of course could use all your books or the internet to get it done. This is okay if the designed with that in mind. Even funnier were multi-day exams. As there is a fixed schedule each day, one could not do a multi-hour exam like one always does in Germany. Therefore the exams were just resumed on the next day. But you could read all the questions on the first day, remember them and do research at home.
There are lots of standardized tests like the ACT. And as these are the major admission factors for colleges, people were taking them dead serious. As I was heading for my Abitur in Germany, I did not need any of these tests.
Physics and chemistry classes
My physics and chemistry classes were with the same teacher, who also happened to be a college lecturer. His lessons were really great and also increased my desire to study physics after school.
His teaching style was (and might still is) drastically different from the other teachers. He just gave us a book (Giancoli) and told us to study one chapter within some given time frame. His rationale was that this is the way learning works in college and that he wants to prepare us for exactly that. If we had questions, we could just ask. Otherwise we should do the exercises and see how we are doing. This way he had plenty of time discussing things in-depth with individual students while everyone else just silently worked at their own pace.
There were some lessons which were centralized. For instance once in chemistry we hooked up cut soda bottles to the gas taps, filled them with soap and made combustible gas bubbles from this.
Fortunately nobody got hurt and it was a lot of fun!
Then we had projects like building a cannon which can shoot tennis balls. This was the design of my group at some point:
It turned out that a simple slingshot was just the best one could do, and the pipe was completely useless.
One day we got a field trip to Six Flags. Allegedly there were vests fitted with acceleration sensors that we could wear while on rollercoasters to collect data. In class we would then analyze it and learn something about Newtonian mechanics. But to be honest, we just had a school organized trip to Six Flags!
Our class often participated in physics competitions. It is comparable to the German "Matheolympiade" where you solve hard problems in a certain time frame and then may pass into the next round with even harder problems. These field trips were always really fun. And our teacher always made the effort to buy us a bunch of food for the trips. The following is a shot of me sliding over the floor on a little hovercraft trying to toss balls onto target areas. This was about applying our knowledge of Galilee transforms.
Physical education in the USA seemed pretty similar to the one that I had in Germany. One difference is that everyone has to wear clothes in the school colors, I just bought the outfit from the school and was safe there.
During the four years of high school one has to collect a certain number of credits with physical education. Often people were reluctant to take these classes and did the bare minimum of them, suffering through the classes that they had to take. There were a bunch of people who were grossly out of shape, and the class took care not to hurt these people. I would say that physical education in Germany was more demanding than the one in the USA.
The cool thing was the variety that we had, we did dodge ball, running, softball, flag football. One softball game was exceptional: The coach was throwing as usual and it was my turn to bat. Somehow I managed to hit the coach right in the groin. Luckily it was a little off-center and he only gasped for a few seconds. I stood there frozen and in terror until he yelled that I shall run to the first base. He was not mad at me, in hindsight it turned out to be a funny situation.
In the spring I joined the golf team and went on various tournaments with the school. I was not particularly good and usually worsened the average for the team, but it was a lot of fun!
Football is the big kind of sports in the USA. Watching school teams play is actually quite fun because the skill spectrum is so broad that the game can suddenly change.
Military in the school
On to me curiously many occasions the military showed up in the school. This is something that I have never seen in Germany as they are prohibited from advertising in school. In the USA this is allowed, however. So every now and then one would find the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard in the lobby.
My physical education class would then also be run by the military. They brought some inflatable parkour for us to play with. Once they also had this classical thing with two oversized cotton swabs where you could fight against another classmate. During one of these occasions they also gave me a CD with a shooter game. I have never actually played it, but I presume that it was advertisement for the army in some sense.
There is the homecoming event where the football team comes home and has a game. Leading up to that is the "homecoming week" where people dress up every day. We had pajama day, hillbilly day, duct tape day, eighties days.
Then on the game day there was a parade with all school employees and some parents driving around:
Afterwards there was the game, and after that a dance in the school. It is not as large as Prom, but still.
As the school year finished up, there were many assemblies in the gymnasium, these look like this:
I also got my senior ring which contains my name, birth stone, flag, years and many other things that I could freely choose.
Then during the last weeks we had the "Battle of the Classes". There was a bunch of stuff going on, this is one of the scenes: The game of "musical chairs", just with cream pies. Whenever the music stops the person with the pie tosses it into his neighbor's face.
All in all a huge waste of food, but somewhat fun after all.
The end of the school year was the award assembly. Everyone who graduated got their high school diploma. As I only did the twelfth grade there and not the whole high school, I just got a certificate of attendance. But nevertheless I got to shake hands with the principal, the counselor and all my family and friends.
This is the certificate that I got:
At the time of my stay I was neither a vegetarian nor was I aware of any food allergies. This made things rather simple, though there were other issues.
Being raised in Germany I like bread very much. This was the hardest, as in school I usually pack a couple of sandwiches to get me through the day. My host family also had "bread", but I would call that just bread for toasting, sorry. And they gave me a rather strange look when I actually toasted it because it made the "bread" so dry. Other people gave me bewildered looks because I eat the "crust".
Taking "bread" to school just does not work when toasted. Right after toasting it becomes somewhat bearable, but when carried to school it becomes dry in an open container or soaked in a closed container. Not toasting it made it somewhat acceptable, but there is just no consistency to it. Biting into it will just squash it in your mouth.
Eventually I gave up on bringing bread to school on most days. Instead I carried loads of Cheez It crackers, which can be brought to school just fine.
The lunch in school was a strange experience as well. They had pizza every single day! There was a three day cycle to it. The first day it was not crispy at all, just a mellow consistency. On the second day it was fine. But then on the third day it was just too dark and crunchy. I presume that the pizza was delivered to the school every three days and then just successively warmed up.
In order to get some variety there were alternating side dishes like chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn, mozzarella sticks, mozzarella in a bun. Some tokenistic bowls of salad were available as well. The worst were packaged hamburgers and cheeseburgers that inhabited a heating tray. I once made the mistake of taking one and found that the cheese has tightly bonded with the meat and the bun. Perhaps it has been sitting there for days before I picked it.
Dinner with my family was awesome virtually every time. After a while I got into the rhythm of having the big meal in the evening, and then it was okay. We went out for dinner around every other day. There were so many fast food franchises to choose from, as well as restaurant chains. In rural USA there are almost no single restaurants, everything are chains run by teenagers.
One of the most over the top burgers that I had was at Jack in the Box, they have a "Bacon Sirloin Cheeseburger" which red onions and curly fries. It was a serious bun and an even more serious piece of steak instead of a patty.
People seemed to drink sodas most of the time. I was rather strange as I had water all the time. Since the tap water was chlorinated and had a strong taste to it, I can see why people were trying to put some corn starch syrup with flavors into that water. Sodas were usually sold in the 32 fl.oz. size (1 liter), sometimes twice that. But one does not actually drink that much soda, instead the cup is filled with crushed ice to the brim and the soda is just poured into the cracks. Once I did not take any ice and just one liter straight cola. I only managed to drink half of the cup and I was in agony from all the sweetness. Never again!
There are strong opinions about Dr. Pepper. I have tried it but do not like it. It just tastes like everything together and then even more sugar. Similarly with the hyped Oreo, which I did not find particularly fancy.
One of my favorites, however, were Crispy Creme doughnuts. We often got them fresh from the factory, still hot and with sticky icing. Incidentally they had a better consistency than the "bread" and I liked bringing them to school. Unfortunately I was not the only one who liked them very much, so even though we usually got a dozen per person, they quickly vanished from the kitchen.
Supermarkets in the USA are generally very large and spacey, this is a shot from Schnucks I believe:
Although everything is already larger in the USA, we went to an XXL restaurant in Illinois once. They had servings that were even ridiculous to the locals. For instance the stuffed mushrooms were four baseball sized ones. The nachos was a whole salad bowl. And my burger had 500 g of meat and was completely covered in fries on a large plate.
A cool fast food chain is White Castle, which serve rather small burgers. You usually get half a dozen per person.
Due to their size the relative amount of onion is high, and this makes them feared at parties.
Another classic is Taco Bell, there one usually eats tacos until one is completely filled up with ground meat, Bolognese sauce and all the other auxiliary stuff.
A highlight was frozen custard from Ted Drew's. They serve milk shakes which are so thick and cold that there are called "concrete" and served upside down. I had 500 g of banana split, which I was in no position to finish right there. They gave me a paper bag and some dry ice (frozen CO₂) to bring it home safely.
Although the USA ratified the SI system of units a while ago, it is not used anywhere except in science classes. It took me a while to learn all the so called "freedom units" and their conversion factors to the metric system. Especially temperature (°F vs. °C) and gas mileage (miles/gallon vs. liter/100 km) were challenging.
When I arrived the temperature was around 45 °C with an incredible high amount of humidity. All houses, stores and cars are cooled down to 20 °C, which is a huge drop in temperature. When I stepped outside, I was full of sweat within seconds, perhaps the dew point was above body temperature already. When going into a cooler area would make me really cold, and it did not take long for me to get sick from this.
In winter it got rather cold and we had a bunch of snow, sometimes like 15 cm of it. This felt really great because it was an honest cold winter, and not just this snow mud stuff I know from Bonn, Germany.
Festus is located right in the middle of the weather influence from Canada and the south of the USA. This means that a slight shift in balance can lead to a 20 °C drop in temperature. We once went to the movies in shirts on a scorching day and got back to an unpleasant cold outside three hours later.
Cars and driving
My host parents had cars that I still consider huge. Compared to the other people these were just average. He had a Ford F-150 pickup with a 6.0 liter V8 engine, she had a Ford Expedition with a "small" 4.6 liter V8 engine. Either car seemed way overpowered, especially given the general speed limits on the highways.
The driving age is 16 years, you can get your permit with 15 and start learning to drive. I also got a permit, one just has to read a little booklet with the traffic rules and pass a 25 question multiple-choice test. This was easily done and I could just start driving my host parents car on the condition that an experienced driver was on the passenger seat. Compared to Germany this sounds lax, but nothing happened. Well, except that I completely misjudged the torque of that 4.6 liter engine and spun up some gravel on my first takeoff.
This permit was also my picture ID and I did not have to carry my passport around any more. One could do a driving test six months after starting with the permit, but the insurance on the cars would not have covered me driving alone, so I did not really pursue getting an actual license.
The host family lived further away from the little city of Festus than most of my classmates. Normally that would mean that I would have to drive to them. As I did not have a license they either had to pick me up or my host parents drive me there. They did an awful lot of driving me around, but I still could not regularly stay for after-school events.
The school bus only drives once in the morning and once after school. I missed it on a few occasions, and then you are just stuck. Either a parent or older sibling brings you to school, otherwise you sit at home and miss a day in school.
Most teenagers had a car, I was the oldest person on the bus with 17 years. Curiously the teenagers need the car to go to their side job (usually at some restaurant) and they need the side job to finance their car. In a region where there is absolutely no public transportation besides the school bus and bikes are unheard of, this unfortunately makes a lot of sense.
Winter tires are required in Germany during the cold months. Where I was in the USA this was rather unheard of. They had the infamous all season tires, which were actually just embellished summer tires. So to no surprise in winter with snow it got too dangerous to drive. But they did not want to invest into winter tires because they all have four wheel drive on their trucks. But still it was too dangerous to drive. As a corollary the school bus did not drive either, and therefore there was a full week where there was no school. These free days got subtracted from the spring break later on. Friends who lived close by called and picked me up with their four wheeler. We then spend the snow days destroying their yard.
Television seemed to be more important in the USA than in Germany. Perhaps it was just my family, but most people have huge flat screen televisions and either cable or satellite service. There were around 400 channels on DirecTV (a satellite provider), but much less great content on there.
In most households there was a TV running all the time, just such that it is not so silent. I do not have a such problem with silence and found it rather peculiar to have hear a TV even in the night. This was part of the cultural shock that eventually culminated after I had been there for a couple of weeks.
The density of commercials in US-American television is terrifying. In Germany you usually have 20 minutes of actual show and then 10 minutes of commercial. This is a decent break to actually do something else, like getting snacks. In the USA it is rather 10 minutes of actual show and then 5 minutes of commercials. Every time you have a fade-to-black in such a show, a commercial follows in the USA! This quickly made TV rather hard to bear for me. Once I got back to Germany I just could not stand watching live linear TV any more and I just quit it.
In rural Germany you have a hard time finding one broadband company, yet alone multiple ones. Within the cities you usually have the choice between both DSL and DOCSIS. In the rural USA where I lived, we had neither. The house is about a mile away from the closest DOCSIS connection, and company would not put up a cable for a few houses.
Therefore we just had a dial-up connection at the time. This also meant that the landline connection (still regularly used at the time) was blocked for the time being. Fortunately they had an unlimited plan such that one could attempt to download stuff over night.
With 56 kbit/s of connection speed downloading larger things was a pain. This also included updates for Windows XP and also stuff like an iTunes update. The downloads took so long that often they just aborted for any reason and you had to start again.
Most of the time we drove to some coffee shop and used the free WLAN there. These had nice connection speeds at the price of having to be driven there.
Mobile internet was not a thing at the time, so this was no alternative back then. Also cellular plans are curious in the USA. You pay for being called on your cell phone, but you only pay the landline rate when calling another cell phone. As you cannot see from the phone number whether it is landline or cellular, this is only fair.
An obnoxious marketing trick is that they do not show your prepaid balance in USD but rather in minutes of cellular calls. This way you lose track of the actual money you are spending. And text messages also cost you "minutes".
Parents day, mother's day, ...
The greeting card industry seems rather strong in the USA, there is not only mother's day and father's day. You have a grandparents' day, a parents' day. And on valentine's day you not only give a card to your special someone that you love romantically, but everyone you love (like parents, siblings, ...).
The local stores usually have an isle full of these cards, and I cannot even recall how many cards I have given and received.
In the course of the ten months I got sick a few times, nothing serious. It was very interesting to see how this is handled. I had a severe cold once, and my host parents gave me some Wicks NyQuil. It is an amazing combination of medicine that helps against the actual cold, some pain relievers and something that makes one sleep. I somehow did not completely understand that during the day one should rather take DayQuil which does not have the sleepiness component in it. But I just slept like 22 hours a day, and the cold was gone rather quickly this way.
Generally I have the impression that more potent medicine was given out for relatively menial illnesses.
Trips and events
My amazing host family took me on many trips and events, I will list a few here to give you an impression of the things that we did.
In the first week we went to an airfield where they had a bunch of balloons lined up. There was some pre-show stuff going on, exhibits to look at. Later at dark they fired up the balloons and let them glow.
We went an hour drive south to the Elephant Rocks and walked around in that park. Being really hot we did not last very long, but it was a nice trip!
We went to see a show my the US Air Force. Before the show we could take a look at various exhibits by the army. There were a bunch of weapons being shown, I guess to present strength to the people and also recruiting for the military. The most peculiar thing was a soldier lifting a little boy in front of a machine gun. Sure, it feels cool and all. But I think that is too much.
Eventually they had the planes up, and the show was fascinating!
The Anheuser Busch brewery used to deliver their beer with Clydesdales, a very large bred of horses. The brewery has a dedicated farm in St. Louis which feels just like a zoo. Also they show various old brewery equipment and some real horses.
My host family lives close to St. Louis. Naturally we did a few trips there. The most famous signs likely is the Gateway Arch:
It is shaped like a cosine hyperbolicus function. The elevator up actually has cylindrical cars that rotate as one rises up into the arch.
The old city courthouse can be seen nicely from the arch. In front of the courthouse you can see the Arch.
The most fun trip was to the City Museum. This is basically a giant playground for teenagers and adults made from junk and welds. We had a blast climbing around the various parts of it.
We have also been at Union Station. This is a rather large shopping place.
Pumpkin patch and Halloween
In October we naturally went to buy pumpkins for Halloween. There are Pumpkin Patches everywhere with lots of them laying around.
We then prepared them for our Halloween party later on. My host mom used a kitchen knife, my host dad just used his electric jigsaw. We had a fun time!
Then for the actual party we had a bonfire. And it was not just a little one but one made up from several palettes. It was so ridiculously large that you could not even cook sausages on a three meter stick.
St. Louis Rams football
The local EF organizer's husband had regular tickets for the St. Rams football games. His wife could not make it, so he asked around the exchange students and I got to go to the game.
We only had tickets rather high up on the bleachers, so we did not get that view right from the start. Later on the Rams started to lose and their fans started leaving. We moved up to the front and got a much better view.
I actually found professional football really boring. Football has the following cycle:
- Players lining up
- Whistle, attacking team throws the football and ties to gain some ground
- Defenders tackle all the attackers within few meters and few seconds
- Whistle, game pauses
If the attacking team did not manage to gain 10 yards within a couple of cycles, the teams change roles. Until then the attackers can try to gain the ground. In the case that the attacker with the ball manages to break through the defenses he/she can score a touchdown.
With high school football the touchdowns happen every now and then, the defense is not perfect and the tackling does not always work. Unexpected things happen and make this rather nice to watch. But the professionals are too good at defense and virtually nothing happens. And they take ages to get ready into their perfect positions such that almost no time passes.
Another ridiculous detail is the person with the bright orange glove. Whenever there are commercials in live TV, the players are asked to wait such that the people on the screens do not miss much of the action. Being in the stadium and having to wait to for a TV commercial break to finish was obnoxious.
The coolest part about the game actually was to drive in a Honda S2000!
At the end of November we spend a vacation in Branson in the south-west of Missouri. It is a miniature Las Vegas, with lots of motels, casinos and other attractions like a Titanic museum.
During the day it looks a bit mellow:
We have been at the Butterfly Palace which is a large garden with roof where there are lots of butterflies to look at.
Also we have been at the Dixie Stampede which is a huge horse show with accompanying dinner.
My host family also took me to the restaurant with a rising table. It is just another restaurant, except that the table rises ever so slowly until you have to notice it. You get a membership certificate that vouches for you experience this prank:
While we were still in Branson people started putting up Christmas lights. As one knows from the movies there are lots of them. You could buy actual size reindeer made from mesh and little lights everywhere. And in Branson they had them lined up on a street and you could just watch all the lights from the comfort of your own car:
The Zoo in St. Louis also had various lights put up for the visitors:
And in the city of St. Louis you would find a view like the following in virtually every street:
Back in Festus we started to get some serious snow:
For weeks we had been shopping for Christmas gifts. Whenever we thought that we had one gift per person, we saw something cute for somebody, bought it, and then were uneven again. This lead to several such rounds of shopping until there there 95 gifts for six people. I have never seen so many Christmas gifts!
And there were several expensive gifts as well, so it certainly was not a cheap Christmas at all!
Dirtbikes and fourwheelers
Being away from a large city also has it advantages. Most of my friends had really fun stuff to drive around the fields and woods. We made great use of it during the warm days and the ones with snow. For instance this 250 cm³ four wheeler:
A mate from school actually had an ARGO which we took out on his birthday. It is a six wheeled all terrain vehicle which can also swim on water. We had a blast during the night on his father's field. Going with like 45 km/h we suddenly had a huge bow wave as we crashed into a little pond that formed in the field from all the rain. My clothes were completely full of mud, my host mom asked me to enter the house from the garage and put all the clothes into the bathtub.
Somebody else had a 325 cm³ four wheeler. The thing on the front is a hunting rifle holder, in case you were wondering. They did some LARP in their very backyard and used that to bring all the food and equipment there.
On some other day we were playing airsoft and used that to get everyone deep into the woods. It is very fun to drive, and I learned to use a clutch with these things.
Another friend and his brother had one of these little motorcycles each. These were also fun to drive around the yard.
My family took me to Monster Jam, a monster truck show in the Anheuser Busch stadium, the one where I was previously with the football game. They had a course with lots of junk cars set up. In various successions they had little carts, dirt bikes, junk race cars and of course monster trucks.
The following shows Massive Destruction finishing up the camper:
St. Louis Cardinals baseball
Towards the end of my stay with the family they took me to a game of the Cardinals, the local baseball team. This was more fun to watch than the football game. From physical education in high school I already played this game myself and knew how hard it is to hit the ball with the bat.
Most of the time the thrower would throw such that the batter either rejected the ball or hit it. There was no such struggling as I had myself. Sometimes the team out in the field did not manage to catch and return the baseball quickly enough and players managed to cover a few bases.
Somebody knew somebody at a radio station and so I ended up with tickets for the Aussie Floyd in some great St. Louis concert hall.
The show started in a very dark room with only one bright green laser shooting diagonally through it. They started by plucking only the bass, it was modulated on the laser. After this amazing start there was a great concert, I really enjoyed that!
Boarding the plane back to Germany after all this amazing time with my host family and new friends was not easy. Yet I was really looking forward to seeing my family again. Farewell becomes hard when you start having multiple homes in your life.
It took me around three months to really get into the flow of speaking English all day. Although I had English in school for six years, I had a hard time understanding everything at first. Most locals had no concept of a person not knowing all the words or having a problem with the speed. Most initially treated me like a deaf person, speaking louder but not more slowly or more clearly. It always took a bit of explaining that they should speak more slowly and try to use simpler words. After just a few weeks I had my first dream in English. Also I started to think in English. Even now, over 10 years after this trip, I can still think in English. At this point I do not really care whether I am talking German or English. This might be the biggest benefit of this journey.
A few weeks into my stay the culture shock hit me as promised by the organization and other people who have been there. Eating other food is fine for a few days, but all these differences eat up cognitive power in your brain. Eventually this is exhausted and the open mindset shatters and culture shock and homesickness sets in. The organization recommended calling home only once per month such that one really gets a traction with the local people. This has been hard but was a solid advice. I connected to the local people really well and would be disappointed if I did not have done so.