An Alien at Home

Kalvin from Australia, Winter Semester 2020/2021

I am writing this while flying over the blue water and golden beaches of my homeland, thinking about the time I bicycled through a blizzard in Andorra. I had lost my beanie and couldn’t feel my ears, so I wrapped a sweater around my head as I flew down a cartoonishly winding mountainside with three meters of visibility, until the sweater slipped over my eyes and I crashed into a roadside ditch (and thankfully not over the cliff). I remember dragging myself back to the road and beginning to ride again, noticing a funny wobble – my back wheel bent total out of shape. And there I was, my bike broken, no idea what the local language even was. Bonjour, aide? Por favor?

My name is Kalvin Mitchell, and I was an Australian who lived and studies at RheinAhrCampus in Germany for fourteen months.

Growth is difficult to notice. Before arriving in Germany, I didn’t know exactly what awaited me, but I felt stuck at home. Stuck in my social life and ability to make new friend or meet people that interested me. Stuck in my career prospects, where the thought of spending my life in the small region I grew up in made my spirit wilt.

Have you ever felt that life could be brighter, or there was a reality you could step into - beyond your imagination - that you could only know once you arrived? I felt like that, and at some point on the 21 hour flight to Cologne, I dumped my identity and personality into the Atlantic so I could step onto the cobbled streets of Germany with a blank slate.

My first day, I met the person who would become my best friend. We left the office together, and as we were walking along the Rhein to meet another newly arrived exchange student, he explained how our internship at RAC worked. He said, here, you’re an adult - take initiative and jump at projects before you’re asked.

The next day, during clean-up excursion on the river Rhein, I noticed the department needed a photographer for the event, so I slipped the camera over my neck before anyone asked. My boss just said, okay, I guess Kalvin is photographer, and shrugged. At first, felt like it was a noose around me neck. It was the best mistake I ever made.

Being photographer meant I talked to every exchange student and was forced to make a strong impression with a little charisma and leadership. Can you stand here? Yes, a little to the right! I made people laugh for a good picture by telling jokes. I kept conversation going so they stopped looking at the camera and the photos were more organic. That was never me back home. I couldn’t believe by the end of the first week I had a reputation as being talkative, friendly and outgoing. That was never me.

And that’s how things went, I built a new identity by taking risks. Over the next year, I tried my hand at managing our department’s Facebook page. I created a start-up company with my fellow exchange students, organized a social event for refugees, and eventually became the leader of the podcast team. Outside of the workplace, I bicycled around Europe for a month in winter, sleeping on the mountainside in Switzerland, or staying with strangers in Italy, Andorra and France. I even found a job at a German juice company and helped them build their English website. Now, I have more good friends overseas than in Australia. It was true, that idea that life could be bigger and better.

But right now, the cabin doors have opened and the tropical heart of Queensland, Australia, is pulling me back to reality. The life I built over the past year and a half is behind me and I don’t know how to feel, mostly stumbling between sadness and wonder, thinking, “did I really do all of those things?”

I’m going to be honest, going home sucks. Moving back in with your parents after living by your own decisions and wit sucks. I was never homesick overseas, but I can already feel the reverse culture-shock and a host of fears creeping up on me. Will I stay the person I’ve become? Can I make a life at home as fulling as my exchange? Will slip back into the shy person I was?

But now, when I catalog my assortment of emotions and memories from Germany, I notice regret is missing. I tried out everything that scared me. Often I failed; often I succeeded. But I seldom think, I wish I had of done that.

Here are two takeaways:

First, if you have an opportunity to live overseas and don't, I think you're an idiot.

Second, tread your time there like a playground and try your hand at as many things as possible.

Bye for now,