Stories Told

Everyday life, half a world away

I’ve written at length this week about the big things that affected me in Germany. I’ve saved the best for last: the everyday family life I enjoyed.

PICT0668 sm
My home that summer

Ulrich (OOL-rick) and Irene (ee-RAY-nuh) were my host parents, and Peter (PAY-ter) and Ulrike (ool-REE-kuh) my teenaged host brother and sister. They lived what I see now was an upper-middle-class life in Krefeld. Row houses were the rule, and almost everybody shared walls with their neighbors on both sides. It was a sign of status that their house was attached to a neighboring house on only one side, and even then, only via a garage wall.

They were a good family that loved each other. They lived a low-key life centered around each other and their home. The family ate two and sometimes three meals a day together. Freshly baked rolls were delivered every morning for breakfast, and cheeses and hard sausages and Nutella came out every morning to top them. Irene thought for sure that as an American I’d want a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, and bought box after box for me. I never had the heart to tell her I’d rather have rolls and Nutella! That chocolate-flavored nut spread was such a sugar-laden pleasure! It would be 20 more years before you could buy it in the States.

The main meal of the day was at about 1:30. Ulrich came home from work to eat with his family. Dinners were usually meat, vegetable, and boiled potatoes with a thin brown gravy. I never got tired of those boiled potatoes – they were outstandingly delicious! I don’t know what the Germans do to grow such flavorful potatoes. No American tubers can touch them. Ulrich went back to work after dinner and so missed afternoon coffee and sometimes even the evening meal. There was usually some sort of sweet or pastry at afternoon coffee, and that summer it frequently featured strawberries. Evening meal came at about 7 and usually consisted of an open-faced sandwich of hard sausage. It was nice to have such a light supper; it made it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.

After Ulrich made it home in the evening, it was his habit to offer me a beer. I’d never had beer before, so out of anxiety I declined. Later I did come to enjoy German beer, but by then it had become almost a game between us: he’d offer, I’d decline, and he’d sigh. I hope he knew we were both playing! On my last evening in their home, I did have a beer with Ulrich, and he seemed delighted.

Irene kept a lovely and spotless home. She was home anytime I was, and was always up for a conversation. I think that my German skills improved mostly through conversation with Irene, who wasn’t shy about gently correcting poor pronunciation, untangling my garbled grammar, and feeding me words I didn’t know. I liked to run errands with her around Krefeld in her car, an itty bitty Citroën Visa, easily the smallest car I’ve ever been in.

I spent a fair amount of time with Peter, who was about my age. The family had hosted several other Indiana teenagers in past years, but they all had been girls. That year the family specifically requested a young man and they got me. I think Peter secretly wished I had been more athletic, as he liked to play soccer and I just couldn’t keep up. But I did show him a thing or two on the family’s home computer. His sister Ulrike was kind and friendly, but a couple years older and involved in her own world.

Krefeld streetcar
Krefeld streetcar

The family had few rules for me, the most important of which by far was to enter the house quietly late at night so I wouldn’t wake them up. I was free to run around with my friends in the exchange program. Public transportation was outstanding and I could get anywhere I wanted to go in Krefeld on the streetcar. I rode it to school every weekday and also downtown where I would meet friends. We’d walk through the train station or Horten, a department store. We’d stop at an ice-cream stand, or step into a fast-food joint for pommes (french fries). Once we took part in a tournament for the board game Risk. The Germans who played seemed astonished that not only could these kids from Indiana play the game, but we spoke their language and reasonably well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes (GLOY-miss) brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries at the time, Gleumes and Rhenania, but I liked Gleumes a little bit better. We all toured the Rhenania brewery, though, and at the end we were invited to sample their brews. That was the first time I drank beer, and because I had no idea what I was doing I got good and bombed. But the streetcar stop was on the corner, so there was no need to drive. The Germans are onto something: you can drink beer in public starting at age 16, but you can’t get your driver’s license until you’re 18. You learn how to handle your beer before you learn to drive! And when you’ve had a little too much, there’s no need to drive, because the extensive public transportation will get you home. Anyway, I was so tipsy after my brewery tour that I missed my stop and got to tour Krefeld by electric rail while I sobered up.

Another time we walked into a random pub in Düsseldorf where they made their beer on the premises. The brewpub concept is hot in the States now, but the whole idea was a revelation to me in 1984. We sat down and the bartender produced beers for all of us without us asking. They made one kind of beer, so if you were there, that’s what you got! I turned the cardboard beer coaster over just to look at it, and found it covered in penciled tick marks. The bartender quickly chided me (in German): “The last fellow drank that many beers and that’s how I kept track. Unless you want to pay for all that, lay that coaster down with the unmarked side up!” That last fellow could put away an impressive amount of beer!

I wish I had more photographs of simple times with friends and my host family. I didn’t know how to compose a candid shot then and I was simply too anxious to ask people to pose. I have a handful of candid shots but that’s all. I cling to them, especially as during college I lost contact with the other students who made the trip with me, and shortly after college contact with my host family petered out. It’s been 25 years since I last saw or corresponded with any of them.

But my memories remain. Such good memories. Such a remarkable trip that tangibly shaped who I would become.

Last updated on 17 February 2020 by Jim Grey

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10 thoughts on “Everyday life, half a world away

  1. Christopher Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing with us this week I have enjoyed reading all your posts about your Germany trip. Mabe your host or friends have internet access and are reading this blog and may get in touch again , that would be nice.

  2. hmunro says:

    What wonderful memories, Jim! I, too, have long since lost touch with the family that housed and fed me in Germany when I was 16 (Nutella for breakfast — every day!). But the memories of their kindness and quiet sense of humor remain, as do the cultural lessons. I only wish every American kid had the same opportunity we did …

    • One of my fondest memories of Germany was waking up to freshly baked, just-delivered rolls and smearing Nutella on them.

      I’m gluten-free now, so that would be right out. But at least I can buy Nutella at the grocery now!

  3. Shirley says:

    Thanks for posting this blog! Even for me, living in The Netherlands and having Germany as a neighbor all my life, this provices new insights. That Ulrich came home for the warm meal of the day during lunch, is something that in The Netherlands of 1984 was rare. Only those who were working near their homes and could more or less fill in their hours as they wanted sometimes did this. The hot meal of the day was dinner. In Germany to these days you can still buy your “Abendbrötchen” at the supermarket if you don’t want to make it yourself. That Nutella was only introduced in the USA 20 years later baffles me. I always thought it was an American invention.
    I’m with Christopher: Peter and Ulrike might be contacted on Facebook. Wouldn’t it be nice to get in touch with them again?

    • Shirley, Ulrich was an engineer, and I get the sense that he had some flexibility in his work schedule.

      Krefeld is near enough to the border with the Netherlands that we got TV from there. The Germans dubbed the English-language shows they aired but at that time TV from the Netherlands was subtitled. It felt weird to hear the dubbed versions of shows I knew so I watched a lot of Dutch TV!

      I have tried to find my host family online but they do not appear to participate in social media. On a search today, I find that Ulrich and Irene still live in the same house, so perhaps an old-fashioned letter would reach them.

  4. Lone Primate says:

    Genuinely heart-warming, Jim. You make me with I’d been there. Then again, I took about a month’s worth of high school German before switching to Latin, and over the years, convinced myself that “Wie heissen Sie?” and “Wie heisst du?” meant “how are you?”. The picture of wandering up and down the streets of West Berlin asking strangers “What’s your name, what’s your name?” isn’t a pretty one. :) I would have done better visiting ancient Rome. “Salve, Caecilio! Mercator es!”

    Twenty-five years isn’t all that long, really. There’s a good chance those folks still live there. With the net, you could probably easily recover the address. You could always send a letter “to the occupants of” and see what you hear back. You might even make new friends in lieu of. :)

    • Heh, I took a year of Latin in the midst of my four years of German in high school.

      It looks like the family still lives in the same house, as long as the info on the sketchy-looking German telephone-book sites is correct. I dunno, after 30 years…

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