When a parent who doesn’t speak German takes the kids to camp at Waldsee family week

I’m sure there are no dummies at Waldsee*, but I can guarantee you I felt like one upon arrival at German family week. Showing up at language immersion camp for the first time is no joke!

„Ich habe vor 20 Jahren deutsch gelernt“

More than twenty years ago, I took one academic year of German in college. I was hardly showing up without a clue, but neither am I a fluent speaker of Deutsch. Even straight out of an A grade in German 102, I wouldn’t have been ready for this. For a few minutes, it feels like running into an intellectual brick wall.

Then again, Waldsee is a celebration of one’s potential to learn a language as much as it is a shrine to language at its most pristine. These camps exist because students want to learn, and people want to communicate with each other.

„Wir sprechen jetzt Deutsch und… we’re going to like it!

The most challenging part of a six day immersion program in a language I’d merely dabbled with decades before was day one, hours one to three. Walking up to the registration table to present our camp “passports“ and check in brought me up short. I’m a smart cookie, but I felt like an idiot. What was anyone talking about? Exactly how far was I going to be carrying my enormous bag full of bedding and bug spray? Why was I here with these fiendish Teutophiles and how could I be expected to parent under these conditions?

By the time we made it to our bunkhouse, we’d carried our overstuffed suitcase up the wrong steps, finally found the right door, then the right floor, but I’d angry-whisper-yelled at my poor child more than once long before the bags were dumped on the bed. If you’d asked my opinion in that first hour, I’d have told a very different story about Waldsee in particular and language immersion in general than the one I’ll give you now. There might have been colorful language, in English, but I kept it under my breath so as not to spoil the immersion environment for others.

A lot of people wonder how much they could possibly learn in one week (six days, really) at Concordia Language Village’s family week, especially if the child is learning a language the parent never studied. Parents who hear about our trip to Waldsee are usually fascinated, but clearly hesitant to imagine themselves “back in school” learning a foreign language of all things.

Here’s my take for the parent who’s eager for their child to learn (or the parent of the eager child desperate to attend camp, but reluctant to go without parental support.)

Even if you don’t know one word of the target language, the staff will get you through the week and your kids will learn a lot. You will also have fun! If you are happy to be there, the experience will be joyful, regardless of German learned.

How much you actually learn is probably dependent upon your facility for languages (do you learn them easily?), the amount of effort you care to put in, and maybe the amount of parenting your own situation requires. If you bring a toddler or all six of your kids, you might nap more and study less! Either way, you can have a good time with your family and rest assured you are contributing to your child’s education. They will learn more—and more easily—than you do. You don’t have to know anything about your target language to make CLV family week worthwhile.

If you know you are heading to Waldsee, though, you will probably enjoy it a lot more if you take a stab at some self-study materials before camp. There are free language learning apps like Duolingo, free language learning software programs like Mango available from most public libraries, and lots of great recorded options like Pimsleur and Living Language to listen to in your car. (Both of these audio CD systems were also free from my local library.) Most of us won’t achieve fluency with these study aids, but even a brief grounding in the target language should reduce the shock and awe stage of immersion camp.

My experience, with modest background in German, a reasonably good ear for languages, and some preparation in the weeks before camp can best be expressed thusly:

We left camp, rode the bus to Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and embarrassed ourselves for the next several hours by continually addressing befuddled airport workers in German.

The effect lasted about a week in our home. Both of us were defaulting to beginning sentences in German, in spite of our relatively low level of speaking ability. From my perspective, that’s a learning success, for my child, and for the lifelong learner in me.

*Concordia Language Village (CLV) foreign language immersion summer camp for German in Bemidji, MN

Waldsee family week for parents: what to expect, with pictures!

This post will avoid almost everything that makes Waldsee really special (i.e., the German immersion experience) and instead focus on little details about the practicalities of daily life for a family in a summer camp environment. Knowing this stuff up front would have helped me plan and pack for my first Concordia Language Villages stay. I wrote more about my top concerns before first attending family week at Waldsee here.

Please excuse me for pictures recorded on an old iPad by an unskilled photographer. Hopefully a little bit of pictorial advice, however amateurish, will go a long way toward showing a newcomer what to expect.

Concordia Language Villages transportation

It’s about 215 miles, or 3 ½ hours of driving time, from Bemidji, MN to MSP (Minneapolis St.Paul International Airport.) Will you—or your child camper—be making this trek on an old yellow school bus?

Not in my experience! We rode in a comfortable, air conditioned charter bus from BJI (Bemidji Regional Airport) to camp, and again from camp to MSP. There was a staff member aboard responsible for paperwork and supervising the kids traveling alone, distinct from the professional driver. The bus even had seatbelts.

Where will we sleep?

As an adult with a health issues that sometimes affects my mobility, I was a little nervous about the sleeping arrangements. I went to summer camp, and some of the beds were  iffy even for a kid. I knew I wouldn’t have to climb into an upper bunk because I could insist my son do that if we were sharing one bunk bed, but everything else was a potentially miserable question mark.

CSV Waldsee bunkbed nook

Two sets of bunk beds in each of two walled nooks in Schwarzwaldhaus

The beds were fine. The mattresses were about six inches thick and covered in utilitarian but hygienic vinyl, and they were supported by solid wooden bunks that didn’t squeak, sway, or sag. I wouldn’t have said no to an egg crate topper, but the firm, simple bed didn’t cause me any pain. The provision of a reading lamp above every bunk was an unexpected luxury we sure didn’t enjoy at my childhood camps.

Privacy was provided, in our case, with a set of bed-sheet curtains hung to partition a set of four bunk beds in a walled nook. This space was entirely ours as a family of two, mother and son. There was another mom with two kids (one boy, one girl) staying upstairs in the same room. I felt I had total visual privacy for changing, and sufficient privacy overall for sleeping, but I do wear earplugs when I travel. We went to bed earlier than the family upstairs, and I hardly even knew they were there.

CSV Waldsee Schwarzwaldhaus sleeping room

Schwarzwaldhaus two story bunk room, shared by two small families

These arrangements will vary a lot based upon how many members are in your family and their genders. I didn’t go inside anyone else’s sleeping room, but I saw peeks of very different set-ups through open doors around camp. Definitely, some families had private rooms with doors, so inquire with CLV about your own situation if you have questions.

Will we have to bathe in the lake?

There is hot running water at Waldsee, and the facilities were adequate for parental hygiene. There were even electrical outlets near the sinks for those dependent upon electric hair-styling appliances or toothbrushes.

The showers are about as primitive as modern plumbing in America gets, but they are separate curtained enclosures. I recommend bringing shower shoes, though the facilities were quite clean for a summer camp.

CSV Waldsee bathroom4CSV Waldsee bathroom3

Where can I get my morning coffee?

This was a particularly terrifying unknown for me. Summer camp villagers don’t have access to the staff coffee corner in the dining hall, but family week parents do. I believe coffee was available at every meal, not just breakfast, but I’m a once a day drinker, so follow up with CLV if you need reassurance. Tea things were here, too, but they ran out of English Breakfast during our week, so bring your own if you’re tea dependent like me.

CSV Waldsee dining hall coffee1

In the dining hall, close enough to sneak back for another cup during announcements, if necessary

Another great perk unique to family week was an early riser’s cafe with fresh baked pastries available before breakfast. I do wake up early, and I prefer to have a cup of tea right away, though I’m comfortable waiting for breakfast proper. Rising at five o’clock then waiting several hours before caffeination to share Frühstück with hoards of Villagers bellowing cheerful songs would be painful. Thankfully, there was no need. Parents of young children who get up with the birds should also hear this with glad hearts. There were even German cartoons playing on a laptop at the cafe to distract the little ones.

CSV Waldsee morning cafe

Cafe seating is outdoors so bring a sweater. That’s the coffee machine by the wall and those red things on the counter are mugs, ready and waiting. No photos of the pastries because we were too busy eating them!

Is there anything else you really want to know before you register for—or attend—Waldsee for the first time? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to help!

3 top tips to consider before attending Waldsee family week at Concordia Language Villages

My top three concerns before our first trip to Waldsee, and some advice for new family Villagers

Two years ago, I registered DS1 and myself for family week at Waldsee, the German language immersion camp at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, MN. For those who’ve never heard of it, CLV is a language-learning program put on by Concordia College. It is a highly regarded program, and there are few foreign language immersion options like it in the United States. They offer summer camps for kids in fifteen different languages and have done so in some form or another since 1961. Family week is one of the year-round additions to the program that allows adults to participate with their kids in this effective way of studying a foreign language.

Though I scoured the Internet in the spring of 2015, there was hardly any information available about the family sessions aside from official CLV content. I found enough camper reviews from kids and teens to take make an educated guess that this would be a good fit for us, but I registered with some trepidation.

I was very excited about the camp—and I can now recommend it highly!—but I’m not the sort to blindly trust the word of someone who’s trying to sell me something. I wanted to hear from parents who had actually made the trip to Waldsee with their offspring; I wanted to know what to expect, preferably from a mom like me. I took the plunge two years ago because DS1 is educated at home and it is hard to find great local options for studying German below the high school level. Waldsee is a great supplement to any German learning program, but perhaps uniquely valuable to autodidacts and others who learn without speaking partners.

We are returning to family week in 2017, this time adding DS2 to our party. Our time at Waldsee was so much fun, it seems unfair not to include the other kid, even though he’s never studied German before. I’m positive he will have a great time, and I really want to share the experience with him. Ideally, DH would join us, too. It seems wrong that he has to miss out on all the fun, but his vacation time is just too precious and Minnesota is too far afield.

Having dispensed with the exposition, here are a few reassurances that I wish I’d heard before my first trip to Waldsee.

1)    During family week, adults have plenty of fun options provided by the camp, but families are also free to spend their time as they choose.

In many ways, I’m a happy camper. I love cheesy camp songs. Though I’m an introvert, I love to be nestled up alongside, if slightly apart from, the cheerful camaraderie of others. My experience at Waldsee was just about perfect in this respect.

I was always aware of a fun activity I could join. I think something was on offer every waking minute of the day! The overall feeling at Waldsee is exhilarating and joyful.

I never felt like I was being forced or bullied into participating when I didn’t want to. Every activity was an opt-in.

In this vein, I also felt supported as a parent to allow my child to join in—or not. DS1 found a group of compatriots on the very first day, choosing most often to hang out with them for the rest of the week. This was a real shocker! DS1 is not a joiner, and I’d expected to be constantly nudging him into participation. Whether this was the magic of Waldsee or simple good luck, we’ll see when we return this year.

If my child had shown signs of over-socialization stress (introverts know what I mean), I would’ve pulled him out and taken him back to the cabin for some alone time. It was pretty obvious that the program allowed for it.

This is also a good place to mention that our party of two inveterate introverts felt we had sufficient privacy to unwind and recharge, even though we were sharing a room with one other family and a house with many others. Specifics of one’s personal space will vary depending upon who attends camp any given session, but we had curtains for physical privacy and enough space not to feel physically or aurally crowded.

2) Though the official policy is cautious, a family with some physical special needs can expect to enjoy Waldsee

We have some dietary needs that aren’t mainstream (but nothing life-threatening.) I was also diagnosed with a serious autoimmune condition in 2015. I was mildly concerned about having good food options, and I was pretty nervous about my own comfort and physical health at camp.

For food, my concerns were mostly unfounded. There was one meal where the kitchen assumed a lower lactose option (based on hard cheese) would be safe for my severely lactose-intolerant son, but they were able to give him the vegan option when I expressed concern that it wasn’t. He could’ve survived on bread and vegetables for one meal if it had been a bigger problem.

Family week makes this a bit easier than standard sleep-away camp weeks at CLV because we retained the option to keep well-wrapped/sealed personal food with us in our cabin. I had safe, supplementary food that we never needed, but it gave me peace of mind to know my son would never go hungry. Food from home would be considered contraband during sleep-away camp weeks, and it would be confiscated upon arrival.

As far as my concerns about staying comfortable as an adult with health problems staying at a kids’ summer camp, everything worked out pretty well. I never felt pressured to join an activity that would cause me physical problems. The bunk beds, while far from luxurious, were comfortable enough that I could sleep using standard bedding. Sharing a bunk with a family member made this easier since I could insist DS1 sleep on the top. There are days where climbing a ladder is simply out of the question for me.

If your family requires medication, consider bringing a suitable locking container for it. During family week, you keep and dispense your own family’s medications. Because there are no locks on the doors, I kept all of my pills locked up in a medication bag and secured in my suitcase all of the time. I never felt that my belongings were in any way compromised, but I didn’t want to risk a child getting into my medication and being poisoned.

We are making some different choices for our second stay at Waldsee, primarily due to my physical needs. The biggest change is driving to Minnesota instead of flying. My one major discomfort during the 2015 family week could have been alleviated with camping equipment I already own. The thing I missed most was a cushioned chair with a back. At camp, you sit on hard wooden benches most of the time. Young backs and bones manage this very well, but my arthritis made it painful. I was only really comfortable at Waldsee lying down in my bunk. This time, I’m going to pack a folding camping chair to use in my cabin and possibly also at longer activity sessions.

I had a lot of concerns about what would happen if my condition flared at camp. Upon arrival, many of these fears were allayed. Our T-Mobile and Verizon wireless phones both worked in the parking lot, so we weren’t cut off from communication with family or physicians. The drive from Bemidji wasn’t too long, and the road was in good condition. It seemed likely that expert help could arrive quickly if needed. The camp buildings were mostly pretty refined structures. These weren’t the very primitive cabins of my childhood Camp Fire experience. Mosquitoes were mostly outside, the furniture was of sturdy household quality, and I could flip on an electric lamp if I needed to find my way at night.

3) The best way to arrive and depart Bemidji, MN

In 2015, we flew into Bemidji (BJI), flew out of Minneapolis (MSP), and we used CLV transportation options (charter bus) to get between Waldsee and the airports. The transportation staff was professional and everything went as planned, but one lesson learned is that you lose too much time from the last day of a short week by flying out of MSP. You leave camp before breakfast to make the multi-hours drive to Minneapolis. If you are paying to attend this moderately expensive camp, make the most of it and enjoy every hour you’ve paid for!

Flying into Bemidji was easy, and I suspect that flying out would have been equally satisfactory. We arrived Sunday and stayed overnight at a hotel to acclimate to the time zone before camp, and also to give me a comfortable night’s rest before what I feared would be a week of roughing it. The hotel night was pleasant, but I would only suggest it if it saves you a fortune on airfare to or from BJI. Some of the local hotels have free laundry facilities that might make an overnight before heading home very productive.

The biggest issue with flying to and from camp is the quantity of stuff you can carry by plane. We rented a set of bedding from CLV so we could check only one suitcase for the trip. The bedding was adequate, but bringing my own from home will make me more comfortable this year. If you fly, I’d suggest paying the airline fees to check a second bag full of bedding over renting linens.

A great deal more can be said about who might enjoy the Concordia Language Villages experience and how much one can learn in a week, and I intend to expand upon this in future posts. For now, I’m beginning with the few points that gave me the most angst as I planned my first visit to Waldsee, and offering the advice I think a newcomer should hear first.

Have you ever attended—or considered attending—family week at CLV? Feel free to share your best advice, or ask your most burning questions, in the comments!

Here’s a link to another mom’s blog series about attending family week at the CLV Russian site, Lesnoe Ozero. I was looking for exactly this information back in 2015.

Here’s my next installment in what I’ll call Waldsee family week for dummies, this time with more pictures.