Stories Told

Everyday life, half a world away

Originally published 1 August 2014. The summer I turned 17, I lived with a very nice family in Krefeld, Germany. I was on an exchange program through Indiana University that aimed to immerse me in the German language so that I could increase my fluency. It worked; by the time I came back to the United States I was dreaming in German, and for several days I kept slipping back into speaking German without realizing it, and nobody could understand me! But here, I want to remember the everyday life I got to live while I was there.

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My home that summer

Ulrich and Irene were my host parents, and Peter and Ulrike 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. Instead, I was able to 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 well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries, 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 anyway, because public transportation is extensive and it will get you home. Anyway, I was so drunk 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.

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31 thoughts on “Everyday life, half a world away

  1. That sounds like an amazing experience. We have neighbors who hosted a German exchange student for a year. They hosted a girl the age of their daughter and had a great time. They remain close with her, who is a young adult no.

    I took Latin for a couple of years but there were no such opportunities – the state of time travel being what it is. :)

    • I have read that it was first imported into the US in the mid-1980s, but I never saw it on any store shelf in Indiana until at least the mid-1990s, maybe as late as 2000.

      • From what I can tell (and taste!), the USA Nutella is an Americanized version of the real product, meaning, as usual, sweeter, less intense flavor, and, possibly (gross!) some corn syrup? The USA version has fewer hazelnuts.

        For unknown reason, food products for the USA market are often screwed up. Just compare European and USA butter, chocolate, fruit preserves, beer, biscuits, salami, croissants, tarts (fruit pies, not the other type of tart, although theirs are better, too).

        • I haven’t eaten Nutella in years, but when I first had it in the US it matched my memories. Maybe they’ve changed it since?

  2. A lovely and sad story. I’d like to see a lot of the people I’ve lost contact with over the years. And I wish I had been more interested in photography when I was younger.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Love this story, and it brings up a couple of things for me. I was in high-school from ’68 to ’72, and took two years of German, Milwaukee being a highly Germanic based community. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have most certainly taken Spanish, but 40 years later, I found myself in Heidelberg working in Europe with a lighting crew for a big job, and was amazed that after a few days, my highly rusty German started coming back! Just goes to show you those brain cells can rise to the occasion, and no education is wasted!

    BTW, back then, you couldn’t get into a state college like the University of Wisconsin without having taken a language component in high-school. My Father spoke fluent Polish and Russian, and both my parents promoted the idea of staying with a second language, as a way to exercise your brain and increase your value in the work place. I envy my LatinX pals that speak both fluent Spanish and really concise English, and I don’t understand where this nationalistic attitude comes from in the U.S. that’s anti-alt languages? It’s the large amount of uneducated among us trying to bring us down to their level. I remember two Latina women working for me in Indianapolis that told me in a different part of the company, when they talked with each other in Spanish, old white people would yell at them to stop in because they “were in America now”; an idea I find hilarious having grown up in Chicago and Milwaukee in neighborhoods where the people in the shops did business in German or Polish, and sometimes even French!

    This also brings up the memories of the time my parents had a French exchange student from Paris staying with them. We had to laugh, he had no idea he couldn’t some how hop mass transportation and be on the south side of Chicago to go to the blues clubs, from Milwaukee, it was only 90 miles away! We had to explain both the lack of decent mass transportation in the U.S. to him, but also the crime level of the south side of Chicago! Having been to Europe multiple times, I can only say most of them are living a far better life than most of the people I know in the U.S.

    • Even in my time, it was necessary to have at least 2 years of foreign language to get into college. It’s why I took one in the first place. I took German because I couldn’t stand the sound of French, Latin seemed useless, and my father thought he knew Spanish and I worried that if I took it he’d drill me at the dinner table every night. German was the safe option for me, and then it turned out I loved it.

    • Andy, you wrote, “It’s the large amount of uneducated among us trying to bring us down to their level.” They have succeeded! We have been on a race to the bottom for 2 decades, and it dramatically accelerated in the 2017-2020 period.

      I, too, needed a foreign language before being accepted to college. Of course that was considered being part of what an educated person knew.

  4. I saw the thumbnail my first thought was “somewhere lower rhineland” and I was right ;-) Such a typical middle class house and such a typical West German middle class life. Great that you could experience this time and thanks for sharing it again.

    Btw. you can still drink beer (and wine) from the age of 16. Drivers license is 18+ though. But you can get a license for motor scooter at age 16 which many young Germans in rural areas do. But in cities…public transport is just much more convenient….I am 41 and I don’t even have a license…never needed one in Berlin.

    • When I was in Berlin the public transportation was very good. I wouldn’t want a car there! Public transportation was good in Krefeld, too, and I went everywhere on it. But a car was useful in certain situations.

  5. I was an exchange student in Germany around the same time (1986). I was 16 and stayed with a family in Heidenheim. I have a journal from that trip, but haven’t looked at it in many many years. I’ve kept in touch with my host family over the years, and about three years ago my family and I traveled to Germany and visited with them. I enjoyed your post – you’ve inspired me to get out my old travel journal and relive fond memories.

  6. As part of my work for Philips (Electronics – not Petroleum!) I have visited their factory in Krefeld a few times. Less of a culture shock for me perhaps as the city is not too far over the border from the centre of Philips business in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands), a city with which I had become very familiar during my time with the company. Took me a while to appreciate German beer too, but in my case that was more because of the stiff competition from the local(-ish) Belgian breweries …

    • I remember going into the Netherlands once on our trip, to Venlo. Looks like that’s right between Eindhoven and Krefeld. I didn’t know there was a Philips factory in Krefeld!

      • The factory was producing tv tuners – maybe it isn’t there any more – my visits to Krefeld were all in the 90s. Belgium on the other hand I still visit whenever possible (ie pandemic and Brexit permitting!) – they have local beers that easily surpass the stuff that gets exported.

  7. Susan Menking says:

    Loved your story! I moved to Germany in 1968, with a German husband, new baby and what belongings we’d gained through wedding presents. Lived in Hamburg for 5 years, but returned to the States when couldn’t find what we were looking for in our medical careers. I LOVE Hamburg! Beautiful city of canals, parks, historical areas, museums, culture, music, swans….I took the kids everywhere by U-Bahn, on my bike, in the car. Every day was an adventure, including living in a 4th floor walk-up apartment, where I schlepped groceries, two toddlers, and the bike up to the apartment! My German became fluent through watching TV, reading the Hamburger Abendblatt, conversing with next door neighbor and other friends, as well as a host of relatives. My husband passed away in 2016, but our family relationship is strong, with 2 sisters-in-law, a brother-in-law, 7 nieces and nephews with their spouses, and 11 grand-nieces and nephews, with whom my daughters and I are in continuous contact through Whats App, email, and phone. Likewise husband’s first cousins and their families, as well as his best friends from the gymnasium and medical school. We returned often–about 16 times in the past 48 years, and it has been a disappointment to have had the current pandemic prevent my travel last year and so far this year also. So glad you had the experience of living abroad–it really allows looking at our own culture with different eyes, seeing the deficiencies as well as advantages. One thing–everyone has solar on their homes for the past several years, and wind turbines are providing am amazing amount of power. The seamless transportation system, going from airports to train or bus, to city U-Bahn or bus to deliver one to any place within a few blocks is amazing! However, when we arrived in 1973 into the harbor of New York City I cried as I saw our Lady Liberty standing there–I was “home” again…but I still have another “home” in my heart, where so many beloved people are, whom I also long to see. My one regret on our return was finding no Quark, no Nutella, and no Malzbier! At least Nutella is here, and some funny sorts of fake beers, but still no Quark–just “Huttenkaese”–cottage cheese. Am still waiting for it!

  8. “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 anyway, because public transportation is extensive and it will get you home. ”

    Man, so true.

    I remember a time when drunk driving was somewhat socially acceptable in the US. I came of drinking age just as that acceptability faded, but heard the tales of “cops would just drive you home if you were too drunk” from older dudes in places I worked at. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving definitely helped to move the needle away from social acceptance. But there was never any associated push to make it so that you could go out and enjoy yourselves with alcohol and not worry about the getting home part. People were still going to go out to drink. Unless you live in a place like New York, most public transit systems end their service before last call at bars. If there was better and later transit drunk driving could be a thing of the past.

    • I remember the initial push against drunk driving. Before that we all snickered over it.

      It was surprisingly freeing in Germany to realize I never had to worry about how I would get home. I could always count on the streetcar!

  9. Outstanding story Jim! What an incredible experience this must have been for anyone but especially a young guy from the Midwest. I took college Spanish but there’s no way I could have survived an exchange program like this.

    • Doing this program gave me the strong itch to get out of my parents’ house. My senior year of high school followed this program and I spent a lot of it quite blue, ready to fly on my own!

  10. Great story….probably the one thing that I really liked about Facebook was the ability to renew contact with friends from my youth that I had long since lost touch with….although I am not sure if that really balances out the very negative aspects of social media ;)

  11. Bruce Cunningham says:

    Mention of Krefeld brought back memories of my time living there in Stresemannstr as a teenager in the ’60s (my father was in the (British) military).

    I have fond memories of Gleumes. For many years I kept one of their beer mats which bering the slogan “Wä Kri-ewel sätt, dä janz bestemmt, dat Lagerbier van Gleumes mennt.”. Yes, I did learn some Kri-ewelsch, the local dialect

    One thig that fasinated me was that the Krefeld trams (“streetcars”) were meter gauge, except one service (Linie K) that ran to Düsseldorf that was standard gauge so one track down Ostwall had dual gauge.

    Drinking beer at age 16. . . In 1963 it was 14! (or at any age if accompanied by parents).

    I was planning to re-visit the city last year, but the pandemic squashed that idea. maybe next year?

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