A German Lesson

Brooklyn, seated in an electric wheelchair on a gravel path, faces a narrow river and German house
Not everything works out as we plan. When the unforeseen cut short Brooklyn's dreams to live abroad, she found the resilience to dream bigger.

Ask Brooklyn Hortenstine why she adores foreign languages so much and she will evoke the unique sensation that each language stirs in her. Of them all, German is her favorite: “It feels like cozy fall nights drinking hot chocolate in my sweaters. It feels like coming in from the cold and sitting in front of a fire. It feels like home.”

Brooklyn's definition of "home" has expanded in the last year. Although the 18-year-old hails from Clarksville, Tennessee, she has since embraced Germany as her second home.

Fernweh

A German word loosely translated to “distance pain,” describing the feeling of longing to be somewhere else; a kind of reverse homesickness.

There was once a time in Brooklyn’s life when the very idea of going abroad felt like finally coming inside from the cold. As a teen, after losing her father to cancer, Brooklyn sank into a deep depression that left her wondering who she was.

She remembered that it was her father’s dream to visit Germany, but he never did. “I wanted to do that in his legacy.”

The decision was a turning point in her recovery.

“Going abroad gave me something to work towards, and I knew that to be an exchange student I had to get better. I worked for a year to pull myself out of my depression before applying. Going abroad, in a way, was a key component to rebuilding myself.”

Wanderlust

A strong desire to travel

She had found the will to travel abroad, but could she find a way? Brooklyn has cerebral palsy and uses a combination of an electric wheelchair and a cane to get around. She didn’t know of any other students in wheelchairs who had gone abroad, and she began to have doubts about whether it could happen for her.

When a friend directed her to MIUSA, the organization was able to send her articles about international exchange alumni with similar disabilities as well as tips for bringing adaptive equipment abroad.

“This really eased some of my fears as well as concerns from my mother, and I eventually got her support to apply for a program.”

The program she ultimately selected for her journey to Germany was through Youth For Understanding (YFU), which places high school students with host families around the world.

When she received an email with her official acceptance, Brooklyn cried tears of joy on her couch. For months, nobody could say for sure whether a host family could be found for a student who uses a wheelchair, and her doubts had returned. But the acceptance meant there was one. YFU had found host homes with no steps and supplied one of the families with the funds to build a ramp in front of their home.

It was time to go.

Das gute Leben

The good life

During the beginning of her exchange, Brooklyn stayed with a family in Aachen and attended a language and orientation course with other YFU students in the city of Würselen.

“Those were some of the best weeks of my life. I am so blessed to have lived in such a wonderful area and made relationships with so many amazing people.”

Despite Germany’s reputation for being fast-paced, life seemed to go much slower in Brooklyn’s host city of Asendorf Harburg. She relished the peaceful quiet of Sundays, waking up to fresh Brötchen on the weekends, and taking day trips with her host family.

To explore her new home, Brooklyn’s family had purchased an electric wheelchair that could easily be folded up into most cars, but she found that she could hop aboard busses to just about anywhere. She also used a collapsible cane in her host home and took it with her when she went out into the city just in case shops had small steps up.

“Cobblestones and wheelchairs don’t always mix, but the views are always worth it.”

Sitzfleisch

Loosely translated to “sit or seat meat” - the ability to sit through and weather something incredibly hard.

The plan was to stay abroad for five months and then request an extension for the whole year.

Instead she got five weeks.

It was around that milepost when Brooklyn took a fall that resulted in a fractured leg, and after much deliberation, she decided to return home to Tennessee. “I learned the hard lesson that life doesn’t revolve around your plans.”

Although disappointed that she didn’t get to complete her program, Brooklyn didn’t feel sorry for herself.

“I do not look at this as a loss, for I have gained so much more through this experience, and I will never forget the blessings it has brought me.”

Still, she wondered what might have been. Turns out, she didn’t have to wonder long. Brooklyn had predicted that she would return to Germany in two or three years, and once again time was cut short, only now the hourglass was in her favor. She was back only two months later on holiday, living and day-tripping with a close friend and her family. She even had the chance to eat currywurst in the town of her ancestors. “All I felt was joy and gratefulness.”  

Heimweh

Homesickness; the opposite of Fernweh

Brooklyn's exchange hasn't ended, but it has taken a different form. YFU USA recruited Brooklyn to be a “digital diplomat” in their new Virtual Exchange Initiative. Through the program, Brooklyn is matched with students from around the world in virtual classrooms to discuss themes such as cultural identity and to work together on projects.

Brooklyn is also preparing for her freshman year at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, where she will major in German with a teaching license. It is her dream to teach other young people about the culture that holds so much value to her.

And, of course, she plans to study abroad as much as possible while in college – whatever those plans may look like.

“This year, I've left my heart between two countries. Germany follows me everywhere I go, and I never want to stop traveling.”