Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new Blog Carnival related article on my blog every month, so stay tuned!

I have traveled many places, had many unforgettable experiences and made many a cultural blunder that usually ended in my embarrassment, laughter and forgiveness. I have been asked to share my most memorable experience while traveling abroad. This question, much like what’s your favorite food, or book (for me at least, I am a voracious reader and eater), is a tricky one. I get asked the question and I sigh a heavy sigh, squint into the distance and of course my mind goes instantly blank. But once the fog recedes, one memory is left shinning in the bright sun reflecting off the Baltic sands of Warnemünde, Deutschland.

My initiation into traveling alone, staying with host families, and being abroad for a school year happened all at once (as it tends to) at the tender age of 17.  How did this happen you might ask? Well, my father had been a Rotarian all my life and growing up, we had hosted 6 students in our home over the years. They are my brothers and sisters. They are family.

But what would initially poses a teenager to leave home, friends and family for an entire school year to go live with strangers? The complete Unknown. Well, I knew my family was pretty awesome, so it made some sense they would want to stay with us, but to leave theirs!? I had to find out (I also wanted to make my father proud). I signed up for a year abroad in Germany. Rostock, Germany to be exact.

Leaving my parents at O’Hare airport was torture and many tears were shed, I was starting to regret my decision. The flight was nerve wracking (I even had to use the provided disposable bag because my nerves were so tense). And then the Berlin airport. No words to describe the pure terror I felt.

My host mother, father and brother were there to greet me. They had found a sign in the bin (a rather nice sign), stuck a paper with my name on it and welcomed me to Germany. Having dealt with some misplaced luggage and a two hour car ride later, we made it to Rostock. And then continued on twenty minutes to the resort town of Warnemünde on the Baltic.

We arrived at their very nice house with a huge garden, extended family waiting, affectionate dog and lots of food, none of which I could stomach at the time (it was nerves). During lunch, my host mother told me, in broken English, that the lived  only 15 minutes from a nice beach. They would like to take me there. My luggage being lost, I didn’t have a suit. I thought, it will still be nice to sit on the beach and maybe if I am daring I can go in my bra and undies. Maybe.

The family slipped on their flip- flops and threw towels over their shoulders. We headed out the door and walked down a lovely little alley betwixt two fields. As we reached the pines and the sandy cliff, my host mother turned to me. She looked up at me and then quickly aside “This is FKK strand” she stated looking at me expectantly. I took the age old smile-and-nod approach to hide my lack of comprehension. She smiled, looked a bit relieved and we continued down the steps to the beach.

The sun was shinning and a cool breeze relieved the hot air, but did nothing to cool the sand beneath my feet. I breathed a sigh of enjoyment. And then I looked around. Everyone. Was. Naked. The old man wearing a watch. Naked. The woman wearing her goggles and swim cap. Naked. And my host family standing next to me were efficiently stripping off their clothes. Soon to Be Naked. What was I, a Midwestern American girl, supposed to do??? I had never encountered this before. I had never thought I would encounter this. I stood, probably with my mouth hanging open, not knowing where to stare.

My host mother asked if I was going to go in the water with them. I did not. While they frolicked in the water, I sat on a beach towel, fully clothed, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I got home and called my mother, who I believe found the situation hilarious. I went again the next day in my swim suit with my host brother. Rather an anti-climactic ending I know,  but it is what it is. It was the first moment of many where I was uncomfortable and had to find a way to accept that discomfort, digest it and move on. I continued to go to that beach, alone, with friends or with family. It was a beautiful beach, the sand was white, the water was a lovely light blue-green and warm (during summer, once autumn hit- it became stormy, cold and a frothy, deep blue). I  became unaware that people were in the buff. I had conversations with other bathers about the weather, the time and whatever caught our fancy. While I never went nude, no one cared.

By the end of my time with them, I regretted not taking that first plunge. I still do.  Despite not bathing myself in their FKK (Frei Korper Kulture- Free Body Culture), I embraced them as my family and they embraced me as their daughter. I cried my eyes out when I left their house, called them bawling on my first Christmas away from them, and made a point of visiting the next time I made it to their neck of the woods. And hope to visit them again soon.

That experience has stayed with me and tends to out beat my other potentially more thrilling stories, because it was the first real culture shock I experienced. Es war der Hammer.