Nov 28, 2017
My 2016-2017 Fulbright ETA year in Dresden was filled with the typical clichés of an education abroad experience: language and cultural immersion, numerous receipts for discount flight and bus companies, and the intense friendships so essential to making a home away from home. Yet if there was one person who influenced my experience more than any other, it was the one person who wasn’t there for most of my ten months—Robert, from whom I rented my room. My first inkling of what was to come arrived with an email responding to "Fulbright Recipient Urgently Seeks Room in Dresden": "Hello, Sarah, what a funny coincidence; I am a German Fulbright grant recipient and will be teaching in the USA for the same period you would be in Germany. Would you like to take over my room while I’m gone?"
Somehow, in the vast chaos that is wg-gesucht.de, two Fulbrighters had managed to cross paths. I must admit, I was immediately relieved because Fulbright vets applicants so thoroughly, that there was a significantly smaller chance that this stranger from the internet was one of those people your mom warns you about. Texts quickly became Skype interviews, emails to the leasing agent, and finally, a signed contract, all without having ever seen the apartment or my future roommates in person. I felt a bit apprehensive about this, but could not shake the feeling that I had stumbled across a risk worth taking. Robert was to leave for the United States about three weeks prior to my arrival, so we wouldn’t be able to meet. This was frustrating, as I still felt like I had a thousand unanswered questions for him. But a few days before my departure, I texted Fabian and Janko, my future roommates, to verify when I would arrive by taxi at the apartment. They replied: “Nonsense! We’ll pick you up from the airport, you’ll be needing help with your luggage.” I was surprised and extremely touched. It was a small gesture that I will never forget, because I was no longer diving into the unknown—there was someone waiting for me on the other side.
Two tired but enthusiastic German boys dragged my suitcases home and marked my arrival with a traditional German breakfast. We made awkward chit chat (it is, after all, still a bit odd to decide to live with people you met on the internet) and were clearing up afterwards when Fabi reminded Janko to leave my food shelf clear. I mumbled something about not wanting to impose. Janko turned and said to me straight on: "Sarah, you pay rent here, that means this is your WG too, and you’ll have your own equal space." Exhausted and grateful, I texted Robert before I slept off the jetlag in his bed: "I made it. I have a great feeling about this. Thank you."
Weeks churned by while I settled into home and job, desperately trying to build connections in this new city. Slowly but surely, my roommates and I began to move from acquaintances to best friends. Homemade chocolate chip cookies may have helped the process. All the while, Robert and I continued to message back and forth, swapping stories about now-mutual friends, about navigating cultural miscommunications, and about how we hoped Fulbright would help us attain our "next steps" in our academic and professional lives. It was unique for us to have this mutual understanding about the duality of living in another cultural context.
We were halfway through our Fulbright time when one of our friends, along with Robert’s mother, headed to the US to travel around the Northeast and see the small town in Indiana where Robert had landed. Since their journey involved crossing through Detroit, they decided to take my advice to visit my parents in nearby Ann Arbor, MI. It was very strange to receive texts and pictures from inside my house from someone whom I had still never actually met in person—yet I was absolutely thrilled that my parents could pay back even a small portion of the hospitality they had extended to me.
Suddenly it was May, and Robert was headed back to Germany. We would have one month overlap upon his return, but Robert said I was welcome to stay through the end of June, as he had summer travel and work plans anyway. However, the condition of my retention of the room was that I would attend a music festival with him and all of our mutual friends as a sort of last hurrah, and so that we could share at least one adventure from our incredible Fulbright year together. We all had a great time, wrapping up the long weekend of dancing and camping only a little worse for the wear with a few sunburns and a healthy coating of dirt.
As we loaded up the cars, Robert offered for us to swing by his parents’ house, only 20 minutes away. I said that as long as his mother wouldn’t judge me by how I smelled after 5 days of not showering, I’d be happy to go. I arrived at Robert’s home to a homecooked meal and a warm hug from his mother, thanking me again for having my parents host them in the US. It struck me that I was standing in the childhood room of someone who had done the exact same thing in my home. We were ultimately just two random people who’d met completely by accident on a house-hunting website, only to complete a true exchange of culture, language, friends, and Heimat. It was a powerful moment that stood out not because of its grandiosity, but because of its authenticity.
June seemed to acquire an unwelcome velocity and the last days were slipping through my fingers when Fabi, Robert and Janko came to me one evening with a cardboard tube. Confused (and perhaps a little tipsy after a few end-of-Fulbright libations), I opened the package. Inside was a poster, a map of Dresden made out of the names of each Stadtteil, with our corner of Friedrichstadt in bold. They told me that they were so happy to have had me in Dresden that they wanted to give me a map so I could always find my way back. I could not hold back my tears.
Senator J. William Fulbright wanted to create a scholarship program for the ‘promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.' While the academic aspect of Fulbright is crucial to the free-flow of knowledge and ideas, I believe that I most actualized Senator Fulbright’s vision by concentrating on his passion for good will, which implies trust, respect, understanding, building bridges and connecting. Robert and I realized that our duty as recipients did not just begin on the first day teaching in the classroom, but the second we became part of Senator Fulbright’s legacy. I think we honored the Fulbright mission well: we took a chance on each other, exchanged our cultures and lives, and cemented international friendships that I am confident will last a lifetime.
A few days after I got home, Robert asked me how I was doing. I said I was doing alright, but still confused to be waking up in the USA and not in "…your room? My room? Whose is it even anymore?"
Robert replied, "Our room."
Sarah Heineken is a 2016-2017 grantee of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2015 with a BA, majoring in German Studies and minoring in Economics and International Studies. Since returning from Fulbright, she has embarked on a Master's Degree at Bowling Green State University in the MA in Cross-Cultural and International Education program. She hopes to return to Germany next summer to conduct research for her Master's thesis.