A friendship forged in high school has developed into a sort of pen pal relationship for a young local grad and a former German exchange student, except that instead of sending letters to each other overseas, the friends send themselves in person.
Molly Buhr, of Detroit Lakes, has done quite a bit of traveling since graduating from Frazee High School in 2016, with many of those travels motivated by her close friendship with former exchange student, Josi Hirsch, who stayed with her family during her junior year.
“We got along well during that year,” said Buhr, “and then Josi ended up coming back for my sister’s wedding the summer after she had been here.”
That visit strengthened their bond even further, and the two decided to make an effort to stay in touch — not only through phone, email and social media, but also face-to-face.
Since then, the friends have bounced back-and-forth across the big blue sea to see each other, at least once a year. First, Buhr and her sister traveled to France to meet up with Hirsch in Paris; then, the following summer, Hirsch returned to Minnesota again. In 2018, Buhr traveled solo to Germany for a 10-day stay, and this coming December, Hirsch will be coming back here again for yet another visit.
It’s a challenge for the two college students to find the time and money to travel overseas, Buhr admitted. They’re often broke, and have to work hard at saving up for expensive plane tickets and other travel costs. There are long red-eye flights to endure, coupled with just-as-long layovers.
But, Buhr said, it's all worth it.
“It can be hard to keep in touch in-between travels, because of the different time zones, so we have to make the effort,” she said. “It’s been good to try and ... make that relationship last, and try to appreciate each other in our own environments. I think that’s really strengthened our relationship.”
Since Hirsch got to know all about Buhr’s life, friends, interests and daily routines during her year here, it was important to Buhr that she be able to do the same for Hirsch by spending some time in Hirsch’s domain. She wanted to be surrounded by her friend’s friends, family and home environment.
“She kind of stepped into my life for a year … Now, she’s shown me some things that helped mold her into a person,” Buhr said. “Being able to go and see her home, after she had shared my home; getting to see her high school, her dog, and her parents. I learned a lot about her ... It’s cool to see those comparisons of everyday life, versus just doing touristy things.”
While Buhr was in Germany for those 10 days, she spent the majority of her time in Hirsch’s hometown near Bremen, a city of about half a million people in northern Germany, not far from Hamburg. She stayed with Hirsch’s family, enjoying their friendly company, home-cooked meals, and expertise about the local area.
She got to see the German countryside there, which is one of her favorite things to do when traveling. Visiting big cities and seeing famous sites is fun, she said, but, “I enjoy seeing the countryside. I feel like you get a better picture of the roots of the place that you’re in.”
She saw some old classic German brick barns with wood and stucco on the upper levels, for example, and toured ancient German palaces. She also rode horseback around the Hirsch family home (both she and Hirsch are enthusiastic equestrians, riding Western style when they’re in the U.S. and English style in Germany).
The two also ventured into southern parts of Germany to see some of the more classic tourist sites, and spent a memorable night in the coastal city of Heiligenhafen, on the Baltic Sea, where they went sailing — a first for Buhr.
“One part about Germany that was really cool was being able to see the differences between (Hirsh’s) hometown near Bremen — it was very green and had rolling farmland similar to Minnesota — and the sea. That was very sunny, with white sand and sea grass,” Buhr recalled. “I didn’t really even know that Germany had white, sandy beaches.”
“Heiligenhafen was just a really cool atmosphere,” she added. “It was just really unexpected and really laid-back.”
Buhr said she prefers slower-paced travel experiences, where she can immerse herself in the everyday life of another culture. She prefers to walk rather than drive, for example, so she can feel the ground beneath her feet, smell the smells, hear the sounds and interact with the people.
In her past few years of travel, she’s learned that, more than anything, the experiences are best when shared with a friend.
“I’m usually the type that wants to get out and explore — see new things and hike, etc. — and this (traveling to see Hirsch) has reminded me to stop and appreciate the people I am there with,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned from traveling, is it’s about the people you’re with, and maintaining those relationships.”
Buhr is in nursing school at Concordia College in Moorhead. Hirsch is studying for a business degree in Germany. The two plan to keep traveling together in the future, as often as their pocketbooks allow, Buhr said: “We’re comfortable traveling together, because we’ve lived together like sisters.”