The sun had only been up a few hours as Kestrel Smoot, occupational therapy major, stood surrounded by her friends. Even though she had only known them for four months, they had grown close from their experience together and this was how it all would end. “It was so sad. We just had this great moment together and everyone was super happy and super joyful,” Smoot said.
It was December, the temperature was 32 degrees, and some were contemplating whether this was a good idea. They had chosen a spot in the shade where a thin layer of ice could be seen creeping its way towards the middle of the lake. It was the same lake they had gone for a swim in during the summer. A local women stopped to watch the “crazy Americans.” No matter the spectators, a pact had been made, but Smoot wasn’t too worried. She was just there to be a body warmer. Her companions quickly changed their clothes and jumped in.
Their shrieks could be heard clear across the lake and drew more people to watch the college students as they came back out to dry off and take a picture on their last day together. “None of us wanted to say good-bye. We kept dragging the day out longer,” Smoot said.
Her interest in studying abroad was sparked during a tour of Maryville’s campus during her sophomore year of high school as the guide explained where she could go to get more information. Fate had it that it arose again during her freshman orientation at Maryville when she attended Dr. Harf’s talk on studying abroad. “I was like ‘Dad, I want to go,’” Smoot said.
She met again with Dr. Harf to pick out a destination and she decided on Berlin, Germany. She wanted somewhere that she could take all of her required general classes and possibly meet up with some friends and family members. Although conflicting schedules and language barriers prevented her from meeting up with anyone she knew, she wasn’t alone. “It gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of new friends,” Smoot said.
To prepare, she shopped, packed and learned how airports worked. “It was a little nerve-wracking because this was my first big trip and I had never been on a plane before. When I got on the plane, I was just super nervous because of course everyone was like ‘Plane rides are super scary.’ Once we got in the air, I was like, ‘This is cool, this is happening,’” Smoot said, but it didn’t really hit her until she flew over the Big Ben. “Wow, I’m obviously not in America anymore,” Smoot said.
After the unofficial Polar Plunge, they boarded the train to a restaurant called ‘Time for Bread’ (translated) to eat chocolate-covered cinnamon rolls. “That’s when it really hit me. This is going to be the last time I am going to say goodbye. Who knows if I’m going to see them again. There’s was that real moment of not knowing what’s going to happen,” Smoot said. At the end of the meal, they boarded the train that would drop each of them off, one or two at a time, until Smoot was the only one left.
Public transportation hadn’t always been so easy to navigate. Smoot was used to her life as a small-town girl from Sterling, Illinois, and got lost on her first day. “Going from a small town to a huge town was a big thing. I learned how to speak German really fast,” Smoot said. Before coming here, she had only known the basics of the local language from old textbooks that her neighbor helped teach her with.
Language was not the only challenge Smoot faced on her trip. All of the American students attended a class that helped them learn cultural differences, such as crossing your utensils to signal a bad meal or placing them parallel to compliment it and that you must signal waiters in restaurants to come to you. She also learned a few tricks on her own like how asking certain questions will get you a better discount.
Smoot experienced culture shock in the city. “Anywhere I went, it seemed anything I perceived was the complete opposite,” She recalled how on her first day she was surprised at all of the open bottles everywhere because they have open carry and how she at first described certain areas as ‘sketchy’ until she found out that artists had come purposefully to graffiti the walls and make it more artsy.
Her host family kept encouraging her to go out, telling her that there was more to experience. After two weeks she went out and discovered, “They were right!” Smoot said. When she wasn’t studying, she was out exploring. “I become more independent,” Smoot said. If you asked her for advice about travelling she would say, “It’s okay to go do things by yourself and not rely on people to go with you and do things with. If you don’t just try to go out and do things by yourself or go out by yourself, then you’re going to be stuck in one place and not experience things that you may not have seen before. That was a big thing for me,” Smoot said.
Some of the memorable moments for her were the concentration camp she visited for a school trip, Reichstag, and some of the telephone booths that had a double use.“Who knew a telephone booth could also be a disco booth?” Smoot said.“There was always something to do.” Nürnberg, Weima and Dresden were just a few of the places she visited.
Still in denial about her trip coming to an end, she looked out the window and watched as she passed by now familiar places she had been, reflecting on it all. “My favorite thing, I want to say everything, but realistically my favorite thing about Berlin was just how unexpectedly I fell in love with it,”
Through the window she could see Alexanderplatz where the T.V. tower is, stadtmitte where the konzerthaus and the Christmas market, Gendarmenmarkt took place in winter and many other places she had visited. “It was a good reflecting time though too, to see, look at all the stuff I was able to do… Having an overview of the train, I was able to look and see how much of the city I had grown to know, and how small it seemed now,” Smoot said.
Smoot still keeps in touch with the friends she made in Germany and they hope to return to Germany one day. She would like to keep up with her German and visit the parts of Germany she missed out on. “There’s so much to do. I feel like I did nothing,”
“It’s good to do research, but don’t be afraid to be spontaneous,” Smoot said.
All photos courtesy of Kestrel Smoot.