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Bemidji Days MAG
Last July I was in an unfamiliar world. I knew where I was, even though I didn't understand anything. I knew what was happening, but still I felt like I didn't. A place known as Bemidji in northern Minnesota is home to dozens of language villages owned by Concordia College. I had enrolled in the German program at Waldsee, the German village. It was a spectacular place with splendid views of Turtle River Lake. The only problem was I was having second thoughts about spending a month there.
The village taught us our language through immersion. Once you enter the village, no English-related materials are allowed. I spoke very little German when I started, and when my parents and I drove through the beautiful countryside of Minnesota, I had no idea what to expect. At the village, we were greeted by several people who spoke fluent German. The words coming from their mouths were melodic and this sounded like a grand and descriptive language. My mother asked, "Do you have any idea what he is saying?" I was straining to find any word that sounded familiar, and finally heard schleppen. I knew this meant carry and figured out they wanted me to carry my bags to the dormitory. My dad announced, "This could be a long month, Patrick."
My first task was to go through customs and check in. Remember, everything was done in German. After being asked questions I had no hope of answering, the counselors went through my bags for English-language materials.
Next, I needed to pick a German name. The list included Franz, Karl and Werner ... and Patrick, which suited me just fine. After that, I was shown to my home for the next month, Unterammergau, named after a German city. It was two storeys and built like a German cottage, not ostentatious but still grand. I was assigned the lower floor with nine other boys. The beds were narrow and bunked. The house was nice on the outside but a bit dark and gloomy inside.
The sun was setting into a red-tinged sky and it was time for my parents to go home. I had been at camp before and had little worry about being homesick, but this time was different. When Dad whispered "Pat, it is time for us to leave," my heart sank, but all I could say was "See you in a month." Looking around, I noticed the clothes, signs and houses looked like nothing I had ever seen. I was truly alone for the first time in my life.
I roamed around the village and could hear some laughter and a faint punching every now and then. I followed the sound and found a group playing hacky sack. They were friendly and shared my fate; three of them were in my house. Cornelius was tall and thin with blond hair. He laughed easily and was always jovial. He bore an uncanny resemblance to my older brother. Raphael was shorter and spoke with a booming voice. Thomas was my height with a mischievous smile. The three of us became fast friends.
My other roommates included people who could be loud, obnoxious, nice, smart, funny and interesting, guaranteeing there would never be a dull moment. My counselors were David and Tobi, who stayed at our house, and wore shorts and shirts with words in German. They seemed nice, but since I couldn't understand what they were saying I wasn't sure.
The first few days were spent exploring the German language. First I had to take a test to see how much German I knew. I wasn't able to answer any of the questions so I was placed in the beginners group. This wasn't bad, since our teacher excitedly explained, "Even though you are in the lowest group, that doesn't mean that you will learn less than the other groups. In fact, our group will possibly be learning more than other groups." This was encouraging, and gradually we learned the basics.
Meals were a special treat. The smells of freshly baked strudel and rolls filled the cafeteria, reminding me of my grandmother's house at Christmas. The rich baked goods, heavy sauces, and tender sauerbraten were all tasty. I ate very well.
After a few days we could choose an activity and I picked soccer. We were taught German phrases for playing, but once we got on the field, the sound of foot against leg and people strategically moving the ball is the same in any language.
For the next two weeks little changed. I was alone in a foreign world. It was hard to tell if everyone felt that way, or just me. I wasn't homesick, just sick of being in camp. I participated in activities with Cornelius, Raphael and Thomas as much as possible, but we all felt lost and forlorn.
Then we had a free weekend, which meant we could go into Bemidji and be on our own. Bemidji was dreary and lackluster, like a ghost town on a rainy day. My friends and I decided to go to the only area in town that seemed populated, the mall. As we walked, we talked in English. What a relief to speak and understand the conversation! Cornelius sadly exclaimed, "I feel so ignorant here. I must be the only one who is lost." We all quickly pointed out that he seemed very knowledgeable and was not nearly as lost as we all were.
Cornelius explained, "You guys seem to know what to do, and can follow the conversations without a problem." That was when it hit us - we were all feeling isolated, lonely and intimidated. What a relief!
I exclaimed, "Maybe we are thinking about this in the wrong way. Maybe we aren't as ignorant about German life and culture as we think." We had all come a long way since the beginning of camp. We could follow directions, eat, go to class, play soccer and talk to other kids in German. We had made lasting friendships. "You know, I noticed recently that I am thinking in German," I gleefully told them. I think everyone in the group agreed, even though they did not want to admit it. That was the turning point for me. I had finally overcome feelings of ineptitude. I was learning German and I was with friends.
Then Thomas noticed an arcade and suddenly we were back in the English world. We all started to play a game and were having fun, but I was getting bored. For the first time, I actually wanted to be at the village.
For the two weeks before that outing, I'd wanted to be home. The trip to dreary Bemidji was a panacea for my problems. Suddenly I wanted to be at the village, speaking German and playing soccer. I finally found the inspiration I needed to learn German when I realized how much fun I was having.
In the next two weeks, I learned how to tell time and talk about the weather, opposites (hot and cold, wet and dry, et cetera). I knew I had something when I awoke one morning and realized I had dreamt in German.
Finally, the day came when I would be going home to see my family again. I was glad, but had learned to appreciate another culture. I had learned to make friends without using English. Most important, I learned something about myself - I can persevere when things are harsh. Bemidji is a world unknown, yet somewhat familiar.