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Transit and Arrivals

By Evva Fenja Parsons | Published: October 5, 2021

Fenja standing on the top of a wooded mountain
Fenja near Freiburg, Germany

I collected my backpack at the baggage carousel, hefted my carry-on, and promptly regretted bringing two of the three books that tugged at my right deltoid. I had forty minutes to get a COVID test and get on a train to Freiburg. It took 35 minutes and some doubling back to locate the test station at which I had booked an appointment and I, predictably, missed my train.

I’ve lived in Germany twice since graduating high school and am comfortable and fluid in the language, but still feel the lag of readjusting when I visit. I am confused by the airport signage. I must retune my ears to the variety of accents and mumbles, and I feel like I am culturally stubbing my toes as I take longer to pay with coins or show my paper vaccination card. As I navigated that mild discomfort, my shoulders and fingers buzzed with hope and excitement for this fellowship year (and from an exorbitant amount of cure-jet-lag-coffee). I know that these nine months I will depart from the familiar and known, both geographically and linguistically.

Pondering in nature in Germany

But first, a visit to my host family, with whom I had lived six years previously. There I could slip into the family’s daily rhythm and revel in the familiarity of the utterly mundane: knowing the kitchen, reveling in the views from the slowest regional train – the Bummelzug - that had been my commute, and laughing with my host family.

I boarded my next train ten days later to ride to Bologna, Italy where I am spending three weeks working on a small organic farm. The ride promised Swiss mountain views and good company, as I was with Ulli, a friend from a semester abroad in Germany during college. We rode through rain and thunderstorms for the entire tour through Switzerland, arriving in Italy to a double rainbow.

Our second good omen came two transfers later as we leaned against the baggage rack and watched the glowing harvest moon rise. The full moon corroborated our pregnant expectation – and I was ready to accept anything as a sign that I was about to spend a wonderful month learning Italian, harvesting grapes and laughing and eating with a welcoming family.

a vinyard outside of Bologna
Valentina's vinyard outside Bologna

The next morning, with enough Italian knowledge to ask my host to repeat herself and to declare anything beautiful, I harvested grapes across from Valentina. She runs a small farm outside of Bologna and offers room and board in exchange for help in her vineyards through WOOF. We exchanged conversation of small things (where I’m from) and big things (what I want to do in the world) in a linguistic jumble that testifies to her endless patience as I teach my mouth how to hold Italian. As we harvested, sticky grape juice slid down my forearms and my back was warm in the sun. I ate some grapes as we moved down the row (quality control) and the bursts of sweetness sat on my tongue alongside this foreign language. I am comfortable harvesting, having spent the last year working on a 20-acre vegetable farm at a Camphill village. After a few hours, Valentina told her friend to call off the backup help she had arranged in case I hadn’t been up to the task. I was pleased with the vouch and conscious of that small familiarity of a harvest rhythm tucked into an experience of unfamiliarities.

A waterfall hike in Italy

Each orientation at Concordia Language Villages, we counselors become participants new to a Village language during hour-long teaching exchanges. We get to practice teaching our target language to a group of practice campers and, more importantly, we get to practice the overwhelm of immersion in an unfamiliar language. After I learned how to ask for someone to pass me water in Italian at dinner with Valentina and her family, I recounted the story of how I learned that sentence in Russian during a teaching exchange in 2014. They were impressed as I taught them how to ask for bread and laughed about how I had almost cried at that lunch. (Being able to joke about myself has proven an invaluable skill at dinner tables where my language skills lag far behind my co-diners. I thank my family for the well-developed teasing abilities.)

The language learning practice at the Villages hasn’t only given me good anecdotes, though. In living and working in an immersion camp, I spend my summers communicating across language barriers and learning from my coworkers and campers. I practice not-knowing when a camper asks me about vocabulary that we have to look up together and when I hear about what my co-counselors do outside of our shared camp life. I teach participants about things that are unfamiliar to them but more importantly, I teach them how to be thoughtful and respectful when confronted with not-knowing and the unfamiliar, whatever it is. Those are some of the skills that I seek to develop in myself during this fellowship. 

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