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Staying home during these COVID-19 times has been tough for most people, but imagine experiencing the pandemic four thousand kilometres away from home.
That’s the situation high schooler Luis Muehlbauer of Germany found himself in two months ago, when the health crisis brought the world to a standstill.
The 16-year-old from Bad Münder, in the rural German district of Hameln-Pyrmont, came to St. John’s in September of last year as part of an international exchange student program. However, due to the pandemic, he’s had to spend most of his visit here in lockdown.
“It certainly wasn’t something anyone expected,” he told The Telegram Friday. “But my host family has been great and it’s still been a great experience.”
Growing up in a small town with a population of 8,000, Luis had always wanted to study abroad and wanted to travel to Canada for its natural beauty and welcoming ways. He had several options, but after researching several schools, he decided to attend Holy Heart of Mary High School because of its impressive music program.
“Music has always been a big part of my life,” said Luis, an accomplished violinist, pianist and vocalist, who was a member of the Hanover boys’ choir.
He had never heard of Newfoundland, but read plenty of positive things. It didn’t take long after arriving for him to realize it was all true and he immediately loved it.
“It has a good vibe,” he said. “I love the natural beauty, and the people are just so friendly.”
It was a difficult year to visit — first with Snowmageddon and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’d never been in a real snowstorm, so I was a bit shocked,” he said. “But I was actually happy to see the snow. I love snow. I miss it home. We used to get some snow, but (in recent years), we haven’t gotten much. Last winter, we didn’t get any.”
He and two other exchange students — one from Italy and the other from Brazil — who had been staying with the same host family all went outside to enjoy it.
When the pandemic spread throughout the world, Luis could have returned home, as his two fellow exchange students did, but he decided to stay.
“I wanted to stay to finish the year. If I was home, I would’ve been in the same situation (having to stay home and practice social distancing), but I felt I was safer here,” said Luis, whose home country has been hard hit by COVID-19.
He’s been keeping busy with online schoolwork and music practice.
“I don’t mind in some ways,” said Luis, who rented a keyboard during his stay. “It’s helped me personally grow through — get better organized and working on your own.”
When he’s not working, he goes for a run or hike to take in the sights.
The climate is much different than what he’s used to, as is the food.
“We eat more pasta than people do here,” he said. “But I’ve tried moose and I like it.”
While he’s fluent in English, understanding the Newfoundland accent was a little tricky.
“I was really hard to understand my host father at first,” he said, laughing. “But most people speak pretty clearly.”
Despite all the shutdowns this year, Luis said he’s having fun and is learning a lot.
“It’s been a blast,” he said. “I miss my family, but this has really taught me that you have to be independent. You can’t rely on your parents all the time.”
He will return to Germany June 30 and in a few years, he said, he will consider returning to attend Memorial University, which also has a good music program.
Denise Ward, Luis’s host mother, said she and her husband, Chris Ward, will miss Luis when he goes.
“It seemed this year so many things went wrong, from the snow to COVID-19. I feel bad, but Luis has been really good. He could adjust to any situation,” said Ward, a mother of four grown children, whose family has been student exchange hosts since 2004. “We treat him like one of our own.
“He keeps busy and we never have to tend on him. He bakes and cooks. It was my birthday yesterday and he even made me a cake.”
Since it’s Luis’s 17th birthday on Monday, she said, “This time I’ll have a cake for him.”