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A visitor from the Old Country

September 11, 2007|By MARTIN JOERG

"Austria? Where is that?"

"What language do they speak in Austria?"

"Oh yes, Austria that's where the kangaroos live."

These are just a few questions I was asked when I told Americans that I am an exchange-student from Austria, a country situated between Italy and Germany in the heart of Europe. Austria has many beautiful lakes, magnificent mountains and a lot of history.

But I don't blame Americans for not being well informed. Just so you know, we speak German in Austria, and, no, there are no kangaroos living in the fields. Kangaroos live in Australia.

I decided to go to the U.S. for six weeks this summer because I like the American way of life, the history of this country and its diverse landscape.

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America is not totally unknown to me because I lived in Niagara Falls, N.Y., for a few years when I was young. And since then I've been to the U.S. again. I spent four weeks in California with a host family last year, and because I had such a good experience there, I wanted to stay with another host family this year. So, I stayed with a wonderful family in Sharpsburg. I've been with family nearly six weeks now and I'm enjoying it very much.

I also got to meet some other people in my age. I thought there wouldn't be any dramatic differences between being a teenager in Austria and being one in the U.S. In some ways I was right. But there are some differences between these two countries.

One is definitely the school system. American high school starts later in the morning and lasts until about 3:30 p.m. Students in Austria go to school at 8 in the morning and usually leave at about 1 in the afternoon.

Another difference is that American high school students can choose most of their five or six subjects. High school students in Austria have about 13 subjects, and almost all of them are compulsory. We don't have all of them every day, though.

I also noticed that American students don't even have to go to public school. Your parents can home school you. In Austria, you have to attend a public school, no matter what.

Another thing that is different are laws about drinking and smoking. For instance, in Austria, you are allowed to smoke and drink at 16. And there are almost no restrictions for smokers. But to get your driver's license, you have to be at least 17. And compared with the U.S., the license is quite expensive. Charges and fees to get your license cost about $1,300 - a lot more than teenagers are charged in the U.S.

Freer at a young age

And finally there are a lot of differences concerning social matters. I always thought that American teenagers are spoiled compared to Austrians. But American kids don't have as many freedoms as Austrian teens have or as most European teenagers have. Many American teens are firmly tied to their families. It might not apply to all American teenagers, but the impression Austrians have is that American parents won't let go of their teenagers. They watch their kids' every step.

In Austria, youths enjoy more independence from their parents. We are not as much taken under our parents' wings as many teens in America are, because our parents assume that they can trust us. They raise us in a way to attain this objective. And they don't do that to get rid of us as soon as possible. They merely want to give us the freedoms that we need to be on our own feet.

Another topic that is new to me is religion. This was the strongest cultural shock of all when I arrived on Aug. 1. I'm Catholic, like most Austrians. But in Austria, church is very unpopular. Hardly any adults, let alone teenagers, go to church. My family and I go to church at Christmas and Easter, and then merely because of tradition. For other Austrian families I know, it is much the same. In America, my host family says grace before every meal and goes to church every Sunday. Neighbors invited me to a Christian youth group in Hagerstown. These were totally new to me.

The Christian Youth Club was the most amazing thing of all for me. I never could have imagined that religion is so popular among American teenagers. Some of them even try to follow the Ten Commandments. Really, this is very new to me, but not a bad experience to take back to Austria.

These were a few topics that distinguish the U.S. and Austria. Otherwise there are many things that are quite the same.

I am going back home this week. I will go to Austria richer - with many good experiences and lots of wonderful memories from my stay here in America.

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