I’ve never had the courage to go back to the small wine-making town where I spent my most lonely, peculiar and rewarding year as a Rotary Youth Exchange student 14 years ago.

It’s not because I don’t have fond memories of Alzey; I do, especially of the big-hearted and patient host families who put up with my idiocy as I bumbled my way through the year. It’s more to do with how I remember myself at that time. I was a gigantic loser, and memory has only sharpened this fact. The tender age of seventeen is cruel enough in a country where you actually speak the language and understand the culture. It just gets worse elsewhere.

I haven’t forgotten the days when I wandered around the freezing village alone, killing time until I could go home because I was useless at school. I had, in total, twelve friends – eight were other exchange students who lived in different cities and the remaining were host-siblings who had no choice but to be friends with me. I skipped class like a fiend because I couldn’t understand anything anyways. To top it off, I got fat because I visited the bakery an average of two times a day, stuffing my face with brezeln (pretzels) and käse laugen (cheese buns). Most of this ended up on my face, sadly, giving a look that was akin to Jabba the Hutt.

I was basically a toddler: clueless, slightly mute, with my host family leading me around from place to place without having any idea about what was going on. I reached new heights in the art forms of loneliness and ostracization, covered up with the veneer of pride and stubbornness.

I remember early on, my first host mother, Ute, asking me why I couldn’t be more like their last exchange student, Michelle.

“Michelle was so passionate!” she said, maneuvering the grey minivan in traffic on route to school at some insane speed. “She would always try so hard. Her German was much better than yours.”

I grew to hate Michelle – how outgoing she must have been, how she mastered German in mere months whereas I slogged along, sounding like a 3-year-old with a terrible memory and a speech impediment. Everything came easily for Michelle whereas I made every cultural misstep, screw-up and failure in the book.

And yet, so predictably, as it has happened with thousands of exchange students before, and will happen thousands of times again, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Many months in, something clicked in my brain. Something changed.

I started writing my diary in German, adding in the English words or phrases I didn’t know, such as the gut-cringing phrase, “oh my god, can you say electric eye contact” in response to a boy I had a crush on. I started dreaming in German. And yes, while I might have only still had twelve friends, we grew close and continue to be to this day. I still was carrying an extra 20 pounds but sometimes, for just a while,  it’s really fun to eat everything you want. And then go back for seconds. And thirds. I moved to another host family, one who accepted me for who I was, loser-like behavior and all, and I still get a bit weepy when I think of how they rescued me, and with that, my year.

School got better, too. I switched classes and grades: I attended English with the grade 13 class, History with the grade 10 class and German with the grade 5 class across the street, still somewhat advanced for me. How they laughed at me in the beginning. How I laughed with them later.

I stopped sulking and started enjoying life again.

As I left Germany a year later, sobbing and wearing a ridiculous Rotary Club navy blazer covered in thousands of pins, the customs officer asked me why I was so sad.

“You lived in Alzey? That’s not that great a place,” he said, smiling.

I had no words. I couldn’t tell him about how I had gone from feeling like the most awful person on the face of the planet to feeling like I belonged somewhere. I couldn’t put into words just how much I didn’t want to go home. The transformation from feeling so horribly sad to feeling so incredibly content - all in the space of twelve months - is one that is difficult to explain to anyone, let alone a customs agent.

Reflecting back on it, it was by far the best year of my life. It was also the worst year of my life. And yes, as far as the clichés go, it changed my life for the better.

I’ve gone back to Germany dozens of times since my exchange - my best friend now lives there and it’s a frequent stopover hub en route to somewhere. Yet, every single time, I always think to myself, “Should I go back to Alzey? Should I go back to remember how I felt back then?”

And somehow, just somehow, I talk myself out of it.