And 16-year-old Calgary teen set to spend three months in Germany

The friendship started at the airport.

Fifteen-year-old Joscha Hanel was exhausted after a long flight from Germany to Calgary, and was on the lookout for his new host family with whom he would spend nearly four months in a program that would integrate him into Canadian culture.

He spotted a teenager his age wearing a red T-shirt and flashing an enormous smile, holding up a paper that read, tellingly, “Welcome Joscha Hanel.”

Beneath his name, however, was a photo of a different boy their age.

“He had a photo of Justin Bieber,” Hanel said, speaking over Skype from Bürgstadt, Germany. “He saw on Facebook that I hated Justin Bieber. So I knew right away he was a funny guy.”

That funny guy was 16-year-old Mikhail Ortlieb. He joined the student exchange program with an interest in other cultures and language. His teachers in high school noticed his natural affinity for German.

“I want to be more open to other cultures and people,” Ortlieb said. “I’ve never been east of Medicine Hat. I’m excited to see the world differently.”

Ortlieb will spend the next two months with Hanel’s family in Bürgstadt, a small town of 5,000 in Germany.

Mikhail’s father, Ivan Ortlieb, is excited for his son’s opportunity.

“I don’t know if he has any idea of how this is going to expand his world,” Ivan said.

The vastness of Canada’s nature and wilderness were eye-opening to Hanel. Shortly after arriving in Calgary, the Ortliebs took Hanel on a trip from Calgary to Vancouver, after which Hanel remarked that he had just driven the equivalent of his whole country, plus Austria, then back again.

In his travels across Canada, Hanel had numerous first-time experiences. He caught a fish on the Bow River, saw the mountains in Banff, and observed a mother grizzly and her cubs in Kananaskis. Even the vastness of the prairie was shocking to him due to the congestion and lack of open space in Germany.Joscha Hanel (left) and Mikhail Orlieb (right) smile wide during Hanel’s nearly four month visit to Canada as part of a student exchange program.
Photo courtesy of Brenda Ortlieb

The social differences between the two cultures were immediately apparent to Mikhail when Joscha arrived last August. The two were very different in personality – Mikhail being athletic and outgoing, and Hanel being reserved and respectful.

“He was very straight-forward and very direct,” Mikhail said. “One time I said, ‘Hey, Joscha, want to go see a movie tonight?’ and he would be like, ‘No, tonight I would like to stay home and play videogames.’”

Despite the difference in personality, Hanel quickly became part of the Ortlieb family.

“Maybe we didn’t have the same interests,” Mikhail said, “but I still loved him like a little brother.”

Brenda Ortlieb, Mikhail’s mother, said that Hanel really came out of his shell over the months he spent in Canada. “He was such a nice, polite young man. He definitely relaxed as time went on. He was just a delight to have in our home.”

Part of the exchange program meant that Hanel spent three months going to Mikhail’s high school. It didn’t take him long to make an impact there.

“He came from a really small town and he was always a shy kid, but after a while he joined the volleyball team and found friends,” Mikhail said.

“By the time he left, there were lots of people who just loved the kid. People were going, ‘I’m gonna miss you so much. I love you. I hope we can see each other later.’”

Hanel said that this trip to Canada definitely would not be his last. “I’m going to try to go back, as good as I can,” he said. “Don’t know when. But I’d definitely like to see my friends from school and my family there.”

Mikhail is set to have a similar experience when he arrives in Bürgstadt at the beginning of March, but Hanel will always be special to the whole Ortlieb family.

“He really became part of the family,” Ivan said. “He was such a kind student and so very grateful. We knew we would miss him.”

jdryden@cjournal.ca