Hosting a Foreign Exchange Family: A Step by Step Guide

Die Mannschaft*: They Came, They Saw, They Played Foosball

Recently, my family and I participated in an exchange program with a family from Aachen, Germany. While hosting an exchange family provides a convenient excuse to avoid unpleasant activities like parent-teacher conferences, going to the gym, and doing housework, it is a big commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. From the moment they arrive to the moment they depart, you are responsible for housing, feeding, and entertaining your international visitors. This means cooking, cleaning, and wearing pants almost all the time.

This commitment, while rewarding, is not for the faint of heart. Like any endeavor, success can be achieved through this simple formula: 75% preparation, 25% proper beverage consumption (equal parts strong coffee and red wine). Here are some tips and observations from my own recent experience to help you decide if this experience is for you.

*Die Mannschaft” is not a Hans and Frans anatomical reference, but the actual name of the German World Cup Team. A google search of this term reveals that it means “crew” or “team” in German. And so, in our household, our German crew became known as “Die Mannschaft,” as in “Only 3 more days until Die Mannschaft,” and “Die Mannschaft is going to rock this party!” etc. The nickname fizzled after the arrival of the Germans themselves, however, because nobody wanted to explain the meaning of “man shaft” in English and why it was funny.

Step 1- Preparation: How Do I Create the Illusion of Competence?

If you are participating in an organized exchange program through a local school or other organization, the planning will start months before the arrival date of your guests. It is never too early to start preparing a list of reasons you cannot attend these frequent meetings (family emergency, cougar attack, bunion surgery, etc). While your more conscientious friends attend the meetings and keep you informed of important decisions, you can use that time to obsessively de-clutter and reorganize your household space to accommodate your visitors. Be practical- moving the drum set into the spare bathroom may provide more living space for your guests, but may not be conducive to their good hygiene. Less considerate guests might “rage poop” in your snare drum.

Many innocent flowers were harmed in the making of these centerpieces.

Several weeks before your guests arrive, you will likely start to receive hundreds of emails a day from the other participants in the exchange. For example, one string may enumerate exactly how many family members will be attending the Steeplechase event, which family members they are, what kind of meats they prefer, and their zodiac signs. Carefully delete each email without reading them as all this unnecessary information may well make your head explode.

Be sure to continue to check your email regularly for Sign-up Genius lists for the many upcoming events. This way, you can quickly sign up for “7 GALLONS OF ORANGE JUICE” instead of getting stuck with “DECORATIONS” and consequently spending 4 hours arranging mums on your dining room table for the Welcome Breakfast.

Consider learning the language of your guests by attending classes or renting a CD or DVD from the library such as the one pictured here:

Ach du Lieber! Why is this kid so weird looking?
Ach du Lieber! Why is this kid so weird looking?

If you are too busy to attend classes, or are too put off by the DVD cover picture of the strange rodent haired boy and his zombie-eyed dog, there are alternative ways to expose your child to the German language. Weeks before the Germans arrived, several times a day, I would shriek “Zee Chermins arr Komink!” in a highly realistic German accent (derived from years of playing Castle Wolfenstein as a child). These shrill warning cries habituated my children to the unique cadence of fake German language, and may also have earned our family some special attention from the neighborhood watch.

Another good idea is to collect some pamphlets and information about your hometown (I suggest posing as a guest at a nearby hotel and stealing them from the lobby). You can then organize your materials thematically in an appropriately decorated 3-ring binder with plastic paper protectors, and bring it to a weekly meeting to share with the other participants. Although you may earn the admiring moniker of “binder lady” for the remainder of the exchange program, I think it’s better than “crazy shrieking lady.”

Looks like somebody is giving Binder Lady a run for her money, eh??
Looks like somebody is giving Binder Lady a run for her money, eh??

Next, as the arrival date (“G” Day) approaches, you may want to whip up some make-ahead meals to freeze. They will be expecting typical American fare, so be sure to cook with lots of hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, and ketchup. Auf wiedersehen, low cholesterol!”

Lastly, the day before your guests arrive, take care of all those last minute details. A small thing such as putting clean sheets on the spare bed can make your tired international travelers feel more at home. If in the process of putting clean sheets on the spare bed you realize you don’t have a spare bed, let alone a spare bedroom, don’t panic! You still have time to hold a “Hunger Games” style competition amongst your children to decide which budding Katniss gives up their room.

Step 2- Arrival: How Do I Welcome Die Mannschaft ?

Create a colorful and welcoming sign to hold up at the airport on the day your German guests arrive. If your son only gets halfway through stenciling “Willkommen” before losing interest and going off to have a basement pillow fight with his fellow fifth graders, you can always pick up a few balloons at the airport store to welcome your guests. Then, if your mannschaft is delayed in customs, your son can play the well-known game of “Hit the Balloon with your Head until it Detaches from its String and Floats up to the Airport Ceiling Causing a Minor Security Incident” while waiting at the gate. But, don’t worry! There is sure to be a creepy foreign guy there, who will offer to hoist a fifth grader onto his shoulders to retrieve the escaped balloon. Auf wiedersehen, childhood innocence!

When you finally find your Germans amid the throng of tall, fair, sensible-shoe wearing folk, give them a good old-fashioned American hug and handshake and get the hell out of there, in case that creepy guy comes back and tries to put one of your kids on his shoulders again.

Your Germans have likely been up for 24 hours, are exhausted, and will probably want to go home and relax. Do not allow them to do this. First, show them around your house and offer them some refreshments. Now is a good time to pull out some of those fried ketchup waffles that you whipped up last week. Next, insist on taking them to a local high school football game and point out the typical American highlights of the marching band, dance team, and cheerleaders. Our German 11 year old, Valentin, was so impressed by this experience that he passed out in the bleachers.

Step 3- Finding Common Ground: Getting Comfortable With Die Mannschaft

By Day 2, you will probably be in full-blown panic mode, as you realize that you have two strangers living with you for the next week. Your panic may lead you to believe that every the time they are speaking their language, they are probably talking about how small and messy your house is, how nonsensical American football is and how disgusting your ketchup waffles were. Of course, you are just being paranoid! Our German visitors, Clemens and Valentin were kind, mild-mannered, and requested seconds of our fried ketchup waffles. In fact, after a few days, we realized we had so much in common they started to feel like an extension of our family. For example:

1. MIDDLE SCHOOL ANGST: Both Clemens and I have 13 year old sons in with first names starting with “J.” and who are afflicted with the unfortunate condition of adolescence, or in Clemens words, “puberty brain confusion.”

2. THE SIMPSONS: We learned early on that our families shared an appreciation/obsession with The Simpsons. It turns out that watching Homer make his “space-age, out of this world moon waffle,” is funny in any language, so evenings were spent enjoying the antics of the hilarious four-fingered folk and their satirical take on American culture.

3. AMBASSADOR OF FOOS: The intercultural value of Foosball cannot be overestimated, as we found out when our Foosball table became the center of social activity in the house. Danny learned his one and only German phrase at the Foosball (or “Kicker’ in German) table: “Gut Gemacht!” or, “Good Job!,” There was a lot of “Gut Gemacht-ing” in the house that week, as fathers, sons, and even my daughter relished this non-verbal game of skill and eye-hand coordination. Occasionally, even I was honored to be called up to handicap Danny and give the other team a fighting chance.

4. THE HOUND: Our dog is the least appreciated pet in the us. Valentin fell in love with our sweet-natured golden retriever, probably because Bingo never ate his throw pillows or shoes or led him on a merry, poop-filled chase through the neighbor’s backyard. We tried to convince Clemens and Valentin to take Bingo with them when they returned to Germany, but Clemens thought that a barking suitcase might arouse the suspicions of the Customs officials. Particularly after “Balloongate.”

Step 4- Activities:  Die Manschaft is Here, Now What Do I Do?

Your Germans have arrived safely and you have successfully developed an intercultural camaraderie- Congratulations! However, you can’t just sit around on your laurels all day playing Foosball and watching the Simpsons (although your 10 year old son may strongly disagree with you). Many exchange programs will encourage you to take your Germans along with you on your daily activities to experience authentic American life. However, your visitors probably didn’t spend thousands of dollars in airfare to watch your son’s flag football game and ride shotgun while you take the dog to the vet; chances are your guests want to see some of the sights. Here are some suggestions:

Die Mannschaft at the National Aquarium in Baltimore
Die Mannschaft and friends at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

AQUARIUMS: According to our Clemens (who is a college professor and thus likely a reliable source), aquariums are illegal in Germany for ethical reasons, so many Germans may be interested in viewing some of the verboten fish in captivity. The National Aquarium in Baltimore was a big hit with many of our German visitors, and we all thought the aquatic creatures looked pretty happy (except for the sand sharks, which looked mostly hungry.)

MUSEUMS: If you live near Washington DC, there are a plethora of places to visit, and lucky for you and your guests, most of them are FREE. Looking at insects/paintings/airplanes for hours makes people (especially your children) both hungry and acquisitive, so be warned that your savings on admission will be offset by the hundreds of dollars you will shell out in the cafeteria and gift shop.

TOURS: Most cities, even the lame ones like Milwaukee, have some kind of tour, be it historical, ghostly, beer, or duck. We took our Germans on an evening ghost tour of Old Town Alexandria, and they seemed to enjoy it. Although we didn’t see any actual ghosts, perhaps due to the pouring rain, we all agreed that it was better than Milwaukee.

PARTIES: Some participants in your exchange program may be kind (and/or insane) enough to invite everyone over for a potluck meal or dessert. This gives the adults a chance to mingle while the children create a “Lord of the Flies” scenario in the basement and engage in meaningful forms of nonverbal communication such as pelting each other with small plastic balls. On the final day, our exchange program went all out and rented a local hall for a Halloween-themed farewell party, where we and our German friends enjoyed the musical stylings of Rick James and quaffed pitchers of beer, while the children pelted each other with rolls of toilet paper.

Step 5- Departure: Life Without Die Mannschaft

Last photo op before Die Mannschaft takes to the skies!
Last photo op before Die Mannschaft takes to the skies!

Finally, the day will come when it’s time to say goodbye to your visitors.  You will be sorry to see them go, not only because you got attached to them during their brief stay, but also because their departure means facing the 5 foot high piles of laundry, stacks of dirty dishes, and colonies of ants that have surely infested your home during the past week. If you are lucky, like us, your wonderful intercultural experience will be followed by a five day weekend, allowing you to recuperate, walk around the house in your underwear, and do laundry.

A Final Thought

I hope these tips have been instructive for you in your decision to host a German (or other international) family! We were so grateful to have had an educational and intercultural experience with some truly wonderful people, since surely Germany, like America, has its fair share of asshats. Possibly, exporting asshats is as verboten in Germany as keeping fish in captivity? Or, maybe we just got very lucky. Either way, we are looking forward to playing foosball and watching the Simpsons with our new friends when we travel to Germany in the spring!

Gut Gemacht, Boys!
Gut Gemacht, Boys!