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Reflections on Fall Semester Abroad
Posted 01/31/2013 10:00AM

By Mercedes McMahon ’14

“Ich bin Amerikanerin.”
“Wirklich? Mann merkt es nicht.“

The above conversation translates roughly:
“I’m American.”
“Really, it isn’t noticeable."

I can safely say that this conversation was one of the happiest moments of my entire time in Germany. It was almost as if my “real life” had been put on hold and my “new life” could be measured entirely in small successes like this one. Every bus ride that got me where I wanted to go, every person who didn’t switch to English as soon as I opened my mouth (and they’re rare now) and every time a complicated grammatical concept translated easily to natural speech, was one more gold star on my imaginary chart of successes.

The Rhinefalls, the first place HMS student Mercedes McMahon '14 visited when she spent a semester abroad in Germany.

I don’t remember exactly what I was expecting my overseas experience to be like, but I do remember the first thought that popped into my head as I stepped off the plane at Zurich airport. I had been flying all night and just entered the airport, when I noticed a large sign in German with a French translation underneath it. I read it fairly easily — all it did was direct people to the shuttles that take them to the baggage claim area. But, all I could think was, “Oh no, my Spanish is going to be a disaster after this trip!” After that, everything else hit me and I realized that I was almost 4,000 miles away from home in a foreign country. And here I was worrying about being out of practice with my Spanish when I got home! It suddenly sank in that I wasn’t going home for 118 days. Even the idea of “home” seemed unbearably far away at that moment.

Now that I am nearing the end of this journey, I can tell you that the experience has been paradoxically too short and too long at the same time. The day I arrived feels like yesterday, but my first day of school here feels like it was years ago. My life in Germany is measured in successes and moments. All of the other stuff in the middle is a bit of a blur. 

As I write this in December, I will be on plane returning to the US in only 14 days. I am honestly not sure how I feel about this. It will be wonderful to be HOME for the first time in four months, to see people, sleep in my own bed and return to my life — because it is, after all, my life in a way that is simply not the same here. However, I have finally carved out a place for myself in this no longer quite so foreign country. It was not easy. In fact, at times, it seemed impossibly difficult. But, I have built myself a life here. It is made from all the precious moments saved in my memory: the first conversation I had in which I didn’t have to ask how to say something, the time that someone asked me for directions, and all of the moments that I just fit into this strange world effortlessly. I can only assume that this life will be put on hold when I return to the US in two weeks, suspended indefinitely until the day when I return. And I will return. I have the feeling that Germany isn’t quite done with me and I am certainly not done with Germany.

This article was originally published in High Notes, Winter 2013.

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