Darren Paredes of Rio Rancho is not having a typical sophomore year of high school. He is spending it in Germany.
The 15-year-old departed in August and spent the first month at a monastery in Hedersleben, a small town in eastern Germany. There, Paredes and other participants in the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) learning the German language and adapting to the culture.
“Who’s speaking German in New Mexico?” Paredes said. “Out of the blue, this exchange program came up and I said, ‘Oh, I really want to do that. It doesn’t require any language experience before, so I applied.”
When he was accepted, he attempted to learn German on his own with Duolingo but didn’t get very far. Then came the lessons in Hedersleben. Those days, he said, could get long, running three to six hours, depending on the day. “It was definitely very intense. Some days it was three hours of language learning, which itself is really hard because it’s this new language and having to do that for three hours straight is hard for the brain. Then other days it was six hours.
“I learned a lot through that. Obviously, I didn’t learn everything. Even when I got to my high school and my host family, I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in German, and I am still uncomfortable with German, but I can now speak conversationally.”
Now in his host city of Hilden, about 15 miles south of Dusseledorf, Paredes continues to work on his language skills. The popularity of the English language there is both a blessing and a challenge.
“I think the thing with Germany — and all of Europe — is that English is super important. I think specifically western Europe, where I am now, they start learning English from a really early age, so most people are conversational with English,” he said. “It’s very nice, but it’s also really hard because a big part of the program is learning German. It’s really hard to stay in German when everybody knows English so well.”
Paredes was first introduced to the program through his interest in international affairs. He was involved in Model UN and working with the Santa Fe Council of International Relations and its youth program. An email from them about the program piqued his interest.
CBYX is done through the State Department and is fully funded jointly with Congress and the German Bundestag (Parliament).
“I didn’t really think I was going to get in,” he said. “I did some research and I thought it seemed like a very hard scholarship to get. I was like, ‘I just might as well apply and see where it takes me.’ And I applied and it took me to Germany.”
The program covers all the costs, he said: the month of living at the exchange camp, the language camp, day-to-day cost of living with the host family, travel to Germany and travel to Washington, D.C., at the start and conclusion of the program.
It also offers a chance to meet a variety of politicians. “We met with the mayor of Bonn and two politicians from Germany’s far, far right and far left party at the same time,” Paredes said. “That was really interesting because we heard them debate. It’s interesting because the far left is definitely a lot further than our American left. I think, just in general, in Europe and most other countries, the left is more left and the right is more left as well. I think America is a little bit more conservative.
“They spoke with each other, I think, a little bit more respectfully than we would see in America, like at presidential debates,” he added, noting that they joked by comparing themselves to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to humor the American students. “I think it was a lot more civilized than you would see in America.”
Participants also get to meet with their representatives in the German Bundestag and, upon their return to Washington, D.C., with Congressional representatives.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Paredes said. “I think the program is just very well-rounded. The whole mission, I guess, is to make youth ambassadors. That’s what they like to call us.”
Germany vs. America
While being so far away from home for a year can seem daunting for someone so young, Paredes is working to balance exploring his host country while maintaining contact with friends and family in Rio Rancho.
“It’s kind of tricky with family because you have to balance it out. Too much communication, and you definitely have homesickness, and it amplifies that a little bit,” he said. “But, you also want to know what’s going on and you want to talk to them, still be a part of the family.
“I thought it was going to be a little bit more difficult,” he continued. “I feel like I’m one of the younger ones in the program, but my personality is very independent, so I haven’t had very much struggle with that.”
But there are still difficult moments for him. “It’s hard when you see people around having family-type relationships and interactions and you don’t really have that,” Paredes said. “But I think every day, as you get acclimated to the culture and every day that I’m with my host family or in with my people in school, I get closer to them, and so it kind of mirrors how things are in the U.S. a little better and easier.”
Life with his host family is also quite different. At home in Rio Rancho, Paredes said he has five brothers and sisters, two of whom are out of the house. “There’s always something going on in my house. It’s always busy in the U.S.,” he said. In Germany, it’s just him, his host parents and a host brother. There’s also an older host sister who has left the house. “It’s just three people in the house, and usually I don’t think everybody’s here because everybody has their own little thing to do,” he said.
“Germans definitely have a lot more free time,” Paredes noted. “One day, my host brother was just making jams and jellies, and I was like, ‘OK, I would never do that in the U.S.’ I don’t know anybody who has done that and they’re not, like, my grandma. It’s very interesting because the entire dynamic is different and it’s a lot quieter.”
When asked about why Germans seem to have so much more free time, Paredes attributed it to shorter work days and school schedules. He said his high school classes are structured more like college classes, so he’s not in school as much, “Which for me, I don’t like because I like having … the structure in America, but I think they do have a lot more time here for doing things and just living.”
Exploring the culture
One of the things Paredes in enjoying the most about his time in Germany is the independence he’s found and using that to explore the cities of Germany.
“My favorite thing with every city I go to is I visit every church, basically. I see a church and I’ll go inside of it because they all have some type of unique history,” he said.
He also enjoys the ease of getting around. “I really like that I can travel around super easily and independently in Germany,” he said. “I think that’s really hard in America, because everything is really far away, especially at the age that I am; I didn’t have my driver’s license.
“Here in Germany, you know, they have the German railroad system and they have really walkable cities. That’s completely a life-changer because it’s so much freedom.”
Paredes is also enjoying learning the history overseas.
“Cities in Europe are extremely historically important, and there’s a lot of history in them,” he said. “New Mexico is its own thing. We have our own history that is so different than European history, so it has been a a lot different than what I would see in New Mexico.”
While Paredes didn’t make it to any Oktoberfest celebrations last fall, he is looking forward to Carnival celebrations next month.
“[Oktoberfest] is not in my part of Germany, but Carnival is coming up, which is like Mardi Gras, so that’s very exciting because Dusseldorf and Cologne are very big cities for Carnival,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m going to Spain with my host family for the actual Carnival celebrations, but I do get so see some of the parades and antics.
“I’m excited for Spain. I’m excited for the sun,” he said of his upcoming trip, noting that while the temperatures are similar to New Mexico this time of year, there’s a lot of rain and the atmosphere is very gray. “That’s something that’s worse. Not having the sun is very depressing,” he said. But, Paredes said, there is plenty of green. “I mean, there’s a reason it’s always raining. It’s so green and very different from New Mexico. I have the best view and the best backyard because it’s covered in moss. It’s also a lot more green and a lot less hilly where I am. Where I live right now there’s no hills. I get so happy when I see a hill.”
One thing Paredes noted about his interactions with Germans is their worldliness. While on the surface they may seem rougher than Americans, they are actually sweet and nice once you get to know them. “As an American, I think you can always find a friend somewhere. Somebody is interested in you, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re from this place.’ Even if you’re a new student in America, people are interested in you,” he said. “And Germans are interested in you as an exchange student, but they’re not necessarily going to come up to you and talk and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s it like in America?’ Because it’s just a different culture. It’s not as upfront about everything.”
He also noted how much more well-traveled the Germans he’s encountered seem to be. “I think my host family, they’ve seen more of the U.S. than I have. They’ve been to the Four Corners area and Utah and all of those national parks,” he said. “My host dad was an exchange student in Wyoming for a year. My host brother last year was an exchange student in Colorado, so they’ve been all over the U.S. and I’ve barely seen anything in New Mexico. I’m making a list of things that I need to see when I get back or need to do — very American things I need to do that I haven’t done.”