Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2013 8:00 am
MAIN-TAUNUS-KREIS — The Loudoun County exchange students have spent much of this week touring ancient castles, churches and parliament buildings, as well as getting in the holiday spirit with daily stops at the famous Christmas markets that rise up from the cobblestone streets in almost every German town this time of year.
The students are in Germany for two weeks through the George C. Marshall International Center’s Student Partnership Exchange Program. Last week, they spent their days at job sites throughout the county, and this week, their itinerary has included stops in Heidelberg, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt.
When asked about their favorite part of their trip so far, the overwhelming response from the 19 Loudoun students has been the frequent stops at the Christmas markets, a tradition that dates back several hundred years. Booths decorated with lights and garland have popped up in the heart of every town inMain-Taunus-Kreis in the last week, and most are manned with local merchants selling gifts handcrafted in Germany.
“I went more than wild,” Freedom sophomore Jamie Reardon said of her trips to what’s called in German,Weihnachtsmarkts. She bought jewelry, a music box and ornaments and had each purchase engraved with the recipients’ name. “I’ve spent all my money at the Christmas markets. I love them.”
Most stroll through the market with regional treats in hand, such as spiced almonds, sausages, roasted chestnuts, gingerbread and lots and lots of chocolate. The confection that makes German a favorite vacation stop is sold in every form imaginable, truffles, bars, advent calendars, eggs with a toy inside and even in the shape of wrenches and other tools for those looking for the perfect gift for Dad.
“Yesterday, I went chocolate shopping,” Melika Salarfar said with a laugh, noting the 25 euro she spent on chocolate will make perfect stocking stuffers for her family. “The chocolate is just so good here.”
Between stops at the markets, the Loudoun students and German students toured the Hessen state parliament Monday. Sitting around a large conference table with leaders from the state department of education, the students were invited to talk about the pros and cons of the educational systems in the United States and Germany.
The Loudoun students were surprised to hear home-schooling is illegal in the European country, and that by fifth grade students are separated into three different tracks—a more academic program designed to prepare students for college, and vocational programs that prepare students for specific career fields that do not require a college degree.
Tuesday, the Loudoun students got to see the college preparatory schools—called gymnasiums—for themselves when they tagged along with German students to their classes.
Dominion High School students Aly Kamis and Alena Titova said they were impressed by the language programs in the schools. Students are required to begin taking a foreign language by fourth grade and in high school are required to take a second or, in some schools, a third foreign language.
“Their language courses are much more comprehensive,” Alena said. “I’ve taken French for five years, and I still have a hard time speaking it.”
The German students have more freedom, both in school and out of school, Aly noted. They can leave the school campus during a 45-minute lunch, while Loudoun County high school students are required to stay on campus during their 30-minute lunch break.
“Students have much more independence here in general, and I think a lot of that is because they have so much public transportation,” Aly said. “In the U.S., we have to rely on our parents to go anywhere.”
“I love it here,” Alena added. “Everyone is hospitable and very welcoming. If I could learn German, I would love to live here.”
The George C. Marshall International Center is working to give more Loudoun high students the opportunity to travel abroad. This year, about 34 students applied for the exchange program, more than any other year, and 19 students were selected for the Germany trip and 11 for the trip to Vienna, Austria.
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