Oktoberfest, one of the biggest, most extensive, annual parties in the world, is a staple of the Bavarian region of Germany. It inspires much smaller celebrations of German culture – food, traditional clothing and lots of beer-drinking – in sundry spots in the United States.
“Fun fact: All the stereotypes of Germany come from Bavaria – the lederhosen, Oktoberfest,” said Abigail Poland, who spent 24 days in Germany this summer as part of a cultural-exchange program.
Poland, a 15-year-old junior at Maricopa High School, is only two generations separated from Bavaria herself. Her grandmother, Gudrun von Kampen, emigrated to the United States alone at the age of 16 in 1950 after helping her family rebuild their bombed-out home.
“There are so many stereotypes with Germany, and there are a lot of misunderstandings because of everything that happened in the past,” Poland said. “That’s not what Germany is. World War II was one terrible period in German history, and German culture is so much richer and so much more amazing than that.”
Poland, who lives in Maricopa Meadows, studied two years of German at MHS and then took the National German Exam. She scored in the top 10 percentile, making her a gold medalist and qualifying her to apply for the Study Trip Award provided by the German Foreign Office and its Pedagogical Exchange Service. Winners stay with a host family, attend classes at a local high school and experience cultural field trips.
“The application process is, you answer a few questions, some in English, some in German, and you write a letter to a potential host family in German,” Poland said. “Then you have an interview in German – well, part in German. They were really forgiving. Because I was so nervous, a lot of mine was in English.”
She was one of 44 American students chosen for the Study Trip Award through American Association of Teachers of German. The program paid for her roundtrip flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Aschaffenburg in northeast Bavaria.
“I was so shocked and overwhelmed and so grateful that I had the opportunity,” she said.
Though “blessed with better-than-average, self-selected students,” MHS German instructor McKay Jones said, “it’s no exaggeration to say that Abby is a once-in-a-generation student. Motivation, attitude, ambition, love of languages – she’s just really enthusiastic. I think that’s one of the reasons she was selected. That really came across.”
Her grandmother, who now lives in Mesa, was one of the reasons Poland wanted to study German in the first place and why she was particularly excited about the trip.
“Her family was too poor. They weren’t able to feed all their kids and pay all their bills. There was an aunt that lived in America that my grandma didn’t really know and later found out that she wasn’t the nicest aunt. She said, ‘Send Gudrun to me, and I’ll take care of her.’ So, when she was 16, she came over and made a life for herself.”
But her grandmother was never chatty about the past.
“I’ve grown up my whole life visiting her very frequently, and she’s never even told me,” Poland said.
“She’s a very happy person, and obviously talking about your country being destroyed and being bombed and being homeless, and all that happening to her, she just never talked about it,” said Leah Poland, who is Abigail’s mother and Gudrun’s daughter. “I didn’t even hear the story until I was in junior high.”
Just earning a trip to Germany was not a guarantee Abigail would have the opportunity to travel to her family’s old haunts.
“I told her, ‘They’re not obligated to drive you all over the place,’ but her host family was amazing,” Leah Poland said. “They drove her twice more than an hour away to visit my uncle in an old folks’ home. He has no other living family. He was so happy to see her.”
Abigail previously had worn her grandmother’s dirndl, a traditional peasant dress that shows up frequently at Munich’s Oktoberfest. She wanted to purchase one but found them too expensive – “hundreds of euros” – but her uncle helped her acquire one.
Her uncle was also a treasure trove, sharing family stories and giving Abigail a huge box of family photos.
What’s more, her host family drove her two and a half hours to visit the home where her grandmother grew up, a home that was in the family for generations before being sold in the 1980s when her great-grandmother passed away.
“Even when I just mentioned visiting her house, my oma [grandmother] told me two new stories we’d never heard before,” Abigail Poland said.
Her host family was comprised of a mother, two sisters and, for part of the time, the mother’s “life partner.”
“I noticed right off the bat the feeling was different,” Poland said. “I felt like there was so much less pressure. A lot of people think Germans are cold, but I think Germans are chill. They are so much more open and talk about their feelings. It’s OK if you’re not happy and smiling and saying ‘Oh, I’m doing great’ all the time. The German stereotype is that Germans have no feelings, but I felt like it was the exact opposite, that Germans were very open with their feelings.”
Her hosts also got her to come out of her nervous-foreigner shell.
“Here, I make a lot of jokes,” she said. “In Germany I wasn’t comfortable because I didn’t know what the humor was. I didn’t know if it was going to go badly. But I remember a conversation I had with my host-sister, and she was like, ‘Just try. What’s it going to hurt if you try?’ That changed a lot of things for me.”
She traveled with a group of other foreign students to Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin. She hung out with her host-sisters and their friends. She couldn’t always follow conversational details but knew the gist.
“Her German when she got back just blew me away,” Jones said. “It was basically a month of immersion.”
“You can see how language mirrors culture,” Poland said. “In English, there’s a lot of ambiguity. In German, the words are what they mean. It’s very straightforward and real in the same way the people are straightforward and real.”
Jones said the program is Germany’s investment in the future. “They want the German programs in the U.S. to stay vibrant, and there aren’t very many of them, especially in the Southwest.”
She gained a sense of independence that may have taken longer to obtain without the experience. The youngest of the five children of Leah and Matthew Poland, Abigail had never flown before she boarded the plane from Phoenix to the East Coast.
“I learned to not be afraid,” she said. I had adults and other people around to help me, but it was like I was completely alone. I learned how to do stuff for myself. And I learned to get over my fears. On the planes I was absolutely terrified on takeoffs and landings on the way there. I was sitting in the middle and on the aisle, which was good. Anytime I would look out the window, I was like, ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ On the way home I had a window seat, and I wasn’t terrified. I was leaning into the window. It was so interesting to me to see that difference.”
Poland’s experience realized the goals of the program and showed why the German government sets its sights on foreign teenagers. For her, the experience wasn’t about lederhosen or oompah bands or bier steins or anything else that might celebrate the German culture in an Oktoberfest kind of way.
“I want to raise cultural awareness, not just of German culture but of cultures around the world,” Poland said. “One culture is not more valid than another, and neither is a language, and neither is a people. I learned so much in Germany. I’m ready to take on the world, and I have so many opportunities now.”
This story appears in the October issue of InMaricopa.