Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting Back To Normal...Hectic!

Wow, it's been over a month since the housing disaster. I guess that's a solid indication that things are going much more smoothly.

After spending 24 hours in a free-fall tailspin (I LOVE rollercoasters, but this ride made me ill!), things took a terrific turn for us all. As soon as the decision was made that Toby would be finding a new host family, one of his classmates immediately asked her parents if Toby could come live with them.

This was huge because it meant that Toby could stay at the same school, continue to hang out with the friends he had made, and even live in the same neighborhood. (His new host family lives only a couple of blocks from where he orginally stayed.)

On top of this we got further confirmation from AFS that they were certain Toby was fine, and that at best his original housing was just an extremely bad match. The reiterated that his host mother was simply unwilling to work with them or discuss any options other than Toby leaving...wow.

So, Toby is now staying with the Hertz family. His parents are Thorsten and Sabine, and he has 3 sisters, Vanessa, Romina, and Fiona. (I think I remember him saying that the eldest had just moved out.) If you want to drop him a line he's at L├╝ttkoppel 7, Ammersbek 22949, Germany.

He continues to struggle with several of his classes...the ones that depend on a solid command of German. He said he's getting by in his Physics and Math classes, but the others are still mostly a fog to him. Everyone we've talked with says it doesn't come gradually, but more like a light switch turning on. Toby agreed, saying that a friend who had been there for 6 months already told him that's how it happened for him.

Our latest project is working on college applications. Toby is applying to Canadian schools, all in Ontario, and the province has a centralized web site to facilitate this, which is a tremendous help. He's submitted all of his applications, and he's begun getting information from them. His choices are University of Toronto, York University, and University of Western Ontario. Our next challenge will be getting high school transcripts to these schools. We've mostly figured out how to do it, and we've enlisted the help of his guidance counselor here, but we have no clue yet how we're going to get his first term German grades sent along as well. It's unlikely that any of the schools will grant him early admission based only on his transcript through 11th grade, so we will have to figure this one out!

We sent his first care package this week, with clothes and goodies for him, as well as gifts for his family. We went with the USPS as our carrier...very good rates...we'll just have to see what the results are!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Houston, We Have a Problem!

The past 24 hours have been quite the rollercoaster. Yesterday afternoon my cell phone rang. I almost ignored it because the number displayed on caller-id made no sense at all. I answered it and found Toby on the other end. When I told him about how I almost answered and described the number, he said "yep, that's my number...well, probably not after today".

What?! My mind immediately starts racing ahead of any of the facts to follow. I slow myself down to listen to him. He's telling me that he is going to be changing families because his host mother doesn't like him. I dig for some specifics, but he's having a hard time giving me anything. I can't tell if he's uncomfortable talking about it, or if he really doesn't know what the problem is. He tells me they will try to keep him in the same area, but he will probably have to switch schools. My stomach turns.

I switch gears and ask about school. He says he's doing great in English. They're reading a novel (I've forgotten the title...imagine that!), and they don't spend time discussing metaphors and allegories, and other things that oh-so-annoyed him at school here. How about other classes? He admits to not really understanding anything that's going on, to the point of having just written a test in Physics that he guessed on based on the diagrams and math, and wrote about in English, hoping his teacher's command of our language would be poor enough to not catch whatever mistakes he made. Oy! In his other classes he says he zones out a lot, because it's too hard to stay focused on the teacher when he can't understand the lecture or conversation.

He says he understands his friends and others a little bit when they are speaking directly to him, but he still has very little German.

He sounds ok, but maybe a bit down. It's hard to tell with Toby sometimes, especially having just his voice to judge by. I offer up some nuggets of advice (hopefully useful, although I can't remember a word of what I said to him), tell him to hang in there, ask again several times if he's ok, and reminds him that we are here anytime night or day if he needs anything at all.

We've been on the phone for nearly 15 minutes now and he's in no hurry to hang up. This only makes it worse for me, seeing as how he pretty much never wants to talk on the phone. I finally tell him I need to get back to work and hang up the phone.

I'm in a daze; I can't think about anything work-related right now. My eyes are tearing up, I've got a huge lump in my throat. He's halfway around the world, having a miserable experience right now. I know he's hurting, even if he won't say it, and I can't do a damn thing to help.

Now my brain goes from zero to insanely-fast...what's wrong with that family, why don't they appreciate him? Why didn't Toby put more effort into learning more German before he left? Why did he choose Germany in the first place? And what about this beer-drinking he's been doing? Is he drinking to escape problems, and coming home drunk and disorderly? What if can't cut it at school? Is he going to fail? How did I let this happen?

I may have gotten something else accomplished before leaving for the day; I couldn't tell you. I get home to find that Judy had just spoken with an AFS liaison here in town. She suggests I call her too. I don't feel like talking to anyone, but it was damn good advice. The volunteer explains that this is not uncommon at all, and that they have a standard process to address it. An volunteer in that area sets up an appointment with the family, where family and student get to air grievances in an uncontested way, and then together create a contract of behavior that they all sign and can use if things start to become difficult again. If that doesn't work, AFS finds a new host family for the student. She adds that every year they have to re-host 30-40% of all exchange students. This is somewhat comforting, but still, why our kid? Everyone loves Toby. What's going on here?

Today I wake to find that Judy has written Toby an amazing e-mail, capturing everything I wanted to say but couldn't begin to find a way to say...how we love him and that he's a wonderful human being just the way he is, that he can surely work on finding ways to fit in, but never to sacrifice who he is. Just reading it makes me feel better. Now we just have to sit and wait.

Fortunately, I have a ridiculously busy day, so there's no time to think and worry and chastise myself any further. When I get home Judy tells me that Toby has already been moved to a "bridge" home with an AFS volunteer, while they work on finding him a new permanent placement. I'm curious why they apparently skipped the next step of their process, but also relieved, especially to hear that he sounded like himself on the phone when he called Judy with the news earlier. Then we pick up a message from the volunteer here, in which she conveys comments from the volunteer in Hamburg saying they have never dealt with a more difficult parent. Now I'm feeling better. Good thing I didn't listen to those voices telling me to doubt my son....and come to think of it, why didn't the parents ever write back to us, after we sent such a lovely note, and even went to the effort of asking a friend to write a summary of it in German for us? Seriously, it sounds like in the end this was a match made in hell, and that the parents may have had some unrealistic expectations in the first place.

A great lesson for all. Toby's already thinking about what he can do differently in his new home to make things smoother, and I'm coming to grips with the reality of him having to work through things like this (and making the decision when he's had enough to drink) on his own, with us as his cheering section, sounding board, and safe haven (at least emotionally) whenever he needs us. There's a decent chance he will be staying in the same area at the same school, which is a huge plus, as he has already made several friends.

Wow, who knew this was going to be so hard on me?!?!?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Adjusting to New Rhythms


Toby finished his language camp, and his final orientation, and started school this week. He's got a pretty full load, and it's all being taught in German, so he's struggling now to understand what is going on. I find myself trying to reach back to me teen years to imagine how I might feel then sitting in school all day literally not knowing what's going on. (I know I'd have no patience for it today!)

We've settled into a rhythm of mostly weekly calls. He calls usually in the late evening there (mid-afternoon here). We also get brief e-mails and messages on Facebook, and he's posted a couple of nice notes there and a slew of photos too. (For those of you who intentionally keep your distance from Facebook, I've got his posts copied on our website. I'll also put up a photo gallery soon.

And there are still those moments when we remember that Toby isn't there to "hang with Jer while Ian runs to temple to get Judy and Shar after hebrew school", or to help get the recycling out to the curb, or any of the dozens of other things we've come to take for granted. These realizations aren't unsettling, they just keep catching us off guard.

After talking with Toby today, Judy said "he already sounds different". I think I noticed something too, a slight feeling of greater independence is the best I can describe it. He sounds happy and adjusting well to his life there. Funny how that makes me feel terrific and just a bit sad at the same time. It's reassuring to feel that he's thriving (he's at a birthday party tonight with three friends!), being able to let go just a bit of that back-burner worrying that simmers there all night long.

And yet, there's that little tug that let's those voices pipe up, asking why he would be happier there than here. Of course we know it's a completely unfair comparison, and that it has no reflection on the life we've made here...and yet those voices still pipe up as if they delight in annoying us and sowing doubt.

I've had these thoughts running around in my head for a week or so, second-guessing how I've done as a step-father to Toby for the past 7 years. Did I do enough for him? with him? Did I genuinely find interest in his life and the things that delight him? Those voices keep bringing up archery.

Yeah, archery. Right after becoming a Bar Mitzvah, Toby wanted to buy a nice bow and some arrows and take up archery. I did research, consulted a friend, and when out and purchased him some terrific equipment. Despite zinging his forearm with the arrow shafts several times, he seemed to really like it. But finding a place to shoot was a challenge. This bow would put an arrow straight through those straw bales that the put up over at Lake Calhoun! And somehow, we just never seemed to find or make the time to get out and do it. Time past, and he stopped asking, and I never knew if he just lost interest or lost the energy to keep asking me.

Maybe one day we'll talk about that. Until then, I listen to him laughing on the phone, look at his smiling face in his photos, and read about all the things he's doing, and I tell the voices to go bother someone else.
Toby's host family, the Gudrun's

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Settling In

Things are settling back to normal here, and from the sound of it, for Toby too. Sharon has stopped asking if we're going to be depressed all year, perhaps because we're not both moping around, or maybe because we took her to Ikea to scope out new bedroom furniture.

Sharon is still envious of Toby's bedroom there, even after he explained that the bed is in a loft, not a second floor, and that he bumps his head on the ceiling all the time moving around up there!

Good news for Toby is that his family has a computer, and a flat rate internet access plan. (Apparently, it's common in some European countries to have metered access...so goes the story of an AFS student from a previous year who consumed his family's monthly allocation of internet access in his first several days there...yikes!) We're hoping to see photos from him soon, but probably not for a couple of weeks.

I said before he was starting a language camp for two days. I mis-heard him; it's for two weeks. Guess that makes sense. I mean how much could somebody learn in two days anyway?

He's also already made contact with someone associated with an Ultimate team in Hamburg, and is working out logistics for getting into town for practices. (It's about a 45-50minute trip for him each way.)

Rabbi Offner (our rabbi) made contact with a reform/liberal rabbi in the Hamburg area, and he offered to have Toby come with him for High Holidays services. Because the communities of reform/liberal Jews are very small there, he travels to several communities. It should be fun!

The last thing on my list to worry about was his visa. He needed to wait and apply there, which he has now done...according to him, he got his visa at the rathaus (loosely translates to city hall). He said it's the first of many forms he needs to fill out for things like his bahn-card for the train, etc.

Oh yeah, it sounds like his younger brother scored by having Toby there. He's taking English as a language course in school this year. Can't hurt to have a brother who's fluent, eh?

Ok, so maybe things aren't quite "normal", as I'm obviously still thinking about this that and the other thing for him (and maybe still worrying just a bit too), but I'm definitely heading that way. It's funny. I find myself worrying, but not quite about him. Here's an example. I was thinking the other night what I imagined would be going through my head right after arriving, something along the lines of "oh #*$@! what have I gotten myself into...what was I thinking? I didn't understand a thing they said all evening...how am I going to get by..." etc. I think I would be terrified, but too proud to admit it. Here's the weird part. I'm not really projecting any of that on Toby. I don't imagine he's experiencing that, or at least not like I would. I can see him being mildly amused at my concern and fear, and somewhat puzzled about why it would be a big deal.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Meet The Parents!

After an eight hour wait in the airport, and a four hour journey by train, Toby met his new host family and settled into his new home in Ammersbek. His parents are Ralf and Gudrun, and he has a brother Kester, who is 14. They also have a dog named Sunny.

Toby described the area as not quite suburban, but not quite small town either. ("You drive for two minutes and you're surrounded by farms, then two more minutes and you're into the next town/village/suburb.") He says the house is a similar size to ours, but it sounds like his room is much cooler. It has two levels; on the first he has a sofa, table, and TV, and then above is a loft with his bed and dresser and such.

On the train ride from Frankfurt, Toby was joined by Eva Wolf, who is writing and directing a documentary film about cultural exchange in Germany, focusing on AFS students. (Hmm, I'm absolutely certain her pitch to the film company was far more compelling than my lame description!) He said it went fine (that is his adjective of choice for everything that isn't amazing or horrible), and mentioned that he almost walked off with the lapel mic she had him wear, a fair indication that he was at ease with the whole thing...y'know, fine.

He's got a German language camp for the next two days...hopefully the bit of prep work he did over the summer will help him get more out of it. His parents speak a little, but not much, English. His brother Kester speaks more.

I think now I can sleep better, knowing he's got someone looking out for him...OMG, did I cause my parents this much stress everytime I took off somewhere?

In Country

Thursday I was a complete wreck, and then Friday Judy crumbled...or maybe she just got hit with a 24-hour bug...I'm no doctor so I havent' a clue...I just knew I needed to get back home right away...we survived, and by dinner time everyone was feeling fine.

Toby's trip to JFK was uneventful. He did meet up with another exchange student traveling on his same flight from Minneapolis, a girl we had met at the first orientation in the Spring. The orientation in New York kept them busy into the evening, and Toby crashed after that. (A future trip to New York will be needed to take in the sites there...of course, they were staying at a hotel right by the airport, so a walk around the neighborhood wasn't offering many tempations anyway!)

The flight to Frankfurt was long enough to take in one of the movies he ripped to his iPod. We got to say a brief hello (and put some cash on his debit card!) around 1am local time (he was at a pay phone with a long line behind him!). He had a Tom Hanks in The Terminal (called Frankfurt Airport City...I kid you not!) day ahead of him, waiting for his train north, which wasn't coming for another 8 hours! (Thus, the urgent need for cash...you really gotta love a global ATM network...I sit at my computer and instantly transfer US dollars to his debit card from mine, and he can then withdraw Euros from the ATM next to him in the Frankfurt airport...how ever did we survive as children of my generation!?)

No update on the movie crew yet...apparently they were meeting him for the train ride north. Hmm, I forgot to ask him what journaling he did on the flight. Eva (the director) asked him to write down his thoughts and feelings about the upcoming year...so, she'll get a little schooling in working with Toby too!

Sharon continues to look at us like we're just slightly nuts...well, just slightly more nuts than she usually sees. We're spending some time with her on things she wants/needs today, reminding ourselves that with everything leading up to Toby leaving, she's been getting the short end of the stick.

We were struggling about how to talk with Jeremiah about Toby's journey. He really missed Tob/Shar this summer when they were at camp. Turns out we should worry a heckuva lot less. He was having dinner at Lucas' house the other night, and Adam asked him if he was going to miss Toby. Jer said "yes, but he's coming back!" Adam replied, "but, it's going to be a long time", and Jer said "well, not that long!" Ah, my little Zen master.

I'll post an update tonight after he gets to his family in Ammersbek.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Day One: Toby Leaves Minneapolis

I knew Judy was going to take it hard. (He is her firstborn and will always be her baby.) I saw that Toby was handling it pretty much like he does most things in life. (Just taking it in stride, nothin' to get worked up about.) But I was completely unprepared for how it was hitting me. Maybe I can chalk some of it up to sleep deprivation (we were up past midnight, and got up just after 4am), but I'm feeling really sad, and missing him terribly already. Anytime I think about it at all, I get choked up. (Of course I tear up at mushy McD's commercials too.)

He's in New York today, meeting up with other AFSers from all over the US, heading to various destinations in Europe. They have a 24 hour orientation, and then Toby gets on a flight late tomorrow afternoon for Frankfurt, Germany. He then travels (car? bus? train?) north to his new home in Ammersbek, just north of Hamburg.

He'll have company on his trip north. During his stay in Germany, he will one of the subjects of a documentary being filmed there about cultural exchange via programs like AFS. The director will be meeting him and travelling with him to document his first meeting with his host family. (More about the film in a later post.)

We're in awe of him, and his courage to take on this adventure and challenge, and can hardly wait to hear about how it all unfolds. So, I decided to set this up, and record my observations, recollections, hopes, reactions, and impressions of this wonderful journey (external and internal) he's taken on.