Here at Smart Poodle Publishing, we most enjoy interviewing interesting people of all sorts. Today we are talking to Gemma Sokol, a 17-year-old high school senior from Los Angeles, who shares with us her unique experiences of living abroad as a young child.
Were you born in the US?
Yes, I was born in Los Angeles, but moved to Frankfurt, Germany at the age of 2.
Why did your family move abroad?
My Dad got a job in Frankfurt while working for CitiGroup, and the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Did you attend English-speaking schools in Germany?
I was little, so I went to a bi-lingual Montessori school, where I became fluent in German. My parents took German classes too, so we could all learn together and speak it at home.
You were very young when you lived there, but do you have any special memories of Frankfurt?
Yes. There is a big shopping mall called NordWestZentrum with a spectacular glass ceiling, and in that mall was a cool post office. As a little girl, it was a really special treat to go shopping and then mail packages back to the states at that post office. The indoor swimming pools in Frankfurt are some of the best I’ve ever visited!
How old were you when you left Germany?
We moved to London when I was five and a half and stayed there for six and a half years.
What were the British schools like?
My parents had me switch schools a few times to find the best one for me. One private school I went to had required church services, and we sang hymns. It was a good learning experience, because my family is Jewish, and I had never been exposed to church before. In order to go to secondary school, there is a very long application process. You have to sit for exams, write essays and fill out long and involved applications. It is very competitive and somewhat stressful. But I made it through the process, and it was all worth it!
Gemma and her brother, Coleman, in London
Are the academics different in Britain than they are in the US?
In British schools, students learn foreign languages early. I took French from third through sixth grade. Then in sixth grade, I took German and Latin. Throughout my British education, religious studies were part of the curriculum giving me the opportunity to learn about a lot of religions different from my own. The schools took us on field trips to a wide variety of houses of of worship almost every 2 weeks for educational purposes. It was fascinating to learn about so many fascinating religions this way. I wish American schools did this as well.
So would you say the academics are better in Britain or just different?
Both. For example, in fifth grade, we took a trip to the Isle of White, and in sixth grade we went via ferry and bus to France, where we stayed and explored for 8 days. It was an amazing trip! I’d have to say the academic opportunities are better there. The education is very career driven. You must know what you want to study before you graduate from secondary school; college placement is geared toward specific career paths from day one. Students take exit exams in so many subjects and have to pass all of them in order to graduate and go to college.
Are there any other differences?
The overall environment is different in British schools. They do not have school spirit like we do in the US. I’d describe it by saying it is not as interactive as American schools.
Was it hard to make friends in your schools?
Luckily I’m outgoing and make friends fairly easily, no matter where I am. But every school I’ve been to has one thing in common; there are plenty of cliques. Kids everywhere just want to fit in.
How did you like British cuisine?
Because England has a large Indian population, there are countless Indian restaurants in, and around, London. Our favorite restaurant was family owned, serving Indian cuisine, located just around the corner from our house. There really wasn’t any food I did not like in London.
There are over 200 museums in London. Did you have a favorite?
My favorite is the British Museum. The Ancient Egypt exhibit is the best!
How did you feel about coming back to USA?
I was excited to go back to L.A,, with the thrill of Hollywood and the movie stars. I was only 12-years-old when I came back to this country so I had quite a strong a British accent. But it drew so much attention, and I constantly got so many comments that I made an effort to change it. It took me under a year to lose that accent, though it’s still here inside me. We had to rent an apartment for a while when we came back to the U.S., and I missed the spacious, multi-level house we had in England. But more than anything, I really missed the small town feeling of Europe, with local shops and cafes right around the corner and great public transportation.
Where have you traveled other than Germany, Britain and France?
I’ve been to over 31 countries. I have to say my favorite city in the world is Venice. Even though there are so many tourists there, it is a magical place. I love that there are no cars, there’s so much art, the architecture is phenomenal, and the food is incredible. I also love watching how Venetian glass is made. When I see films shot in Venice I think, “I’ve stood right there!”
What is the most exotic place you’ve been?
Cyprus is a most unusual place. It is extremely dry and also rather barren in parts, but there are many resorts, ancient ruins and groves of olives trees. It’s also not easy to cross the border into Turkey, and we were advised against it because we were staying on the Greek side and the two countries are in territorial conflict.
Gemma on a recent trip to Paris
How did living abroad change your life?
I have had so much exposure to so many different cultures. I couldn’t possibly have that experience if I had not lived overseas. I have great respect for different ways of life, cultural traditions, religions, laws and history.
You are getting ready to graduate from high school and go to college. Do you know what you would like to study there?
I’m looking into studying communications, art or cultural studies.
So do you feel that your multi cultural education gives you an advantage over other students who have not had opportunities to travel?
Yes. I believe the best way to learn is to experience things firsthand. I have learned to appreciate different ways of life, and being open to those ways – though very different from ours – makes life much richer and education much broader. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to experience so many diverse places in the world and meet people from so many unique cultures. That experience really shaped me into who I am today.
What advice would you give to another student who may be getting ready to live abroad?
No matter how different the culture may be in a foreign country, there are people you will meet who have something common with you. You will quickly acclimate to the different environment and learn the cultural traditions there. The people will be just as interested in getting to know you as you are in getting to know them. Visit all the top attractions, try the local food and learn the language, because this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Take advantage of all your experience has to offer, and you won’t have any regrets.
Gemma, thank you for sharing your experiences abroad with our readers. It isn’t often that one learns of life as an Expat from a young person’s perspective. Best of luck to you in college. I’m confident your unique cultural experiences will open many doors for you, and your future will be filled with more travel and adventure. Please keep in touch!