As you read this, Margaret and I are in Köln (Cologne), Germany, in our last full day in the country of my mother’s ancestors. It’s my second visit — the first was in 1984, when the Berlin Wall still stood. I’ve been back to Berlin on this trip, and then to Nordrhein-Westfalen, the state in Germany where I spent most of my time. I’m writing this well in advance so I can’t report on the trip now, but I will after we’re back. Meanwhile, please enjoy this memory of my 1984 trip, a combination of several posts that I wrote for its 30th anniversary in 2014.
I spent the summer I turned 17 in Germany. I was in an intensive language-immersion program through Indiana University that gave me a stunning command of the German language. In the first week or so after I returned to the United States I kept slipping back into speaking German without realizing it, and nobody could understand me. Even though I’ve had little call to speak German in 25 years and have forgotten a lot of vocabulary, when I encounter a native German speaker I can still have a conversation.
This was also an exchange program. I lived with a kind and patient family in Krefeld, a town in western Germany near the border with the Netherlands. Ulrich and Irene were my host parents, and Peter and Ulrike my teenage host brother and sister. They lived an upper-middle-class life. 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.
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.
It wasn’t all language instruction, as we did touristy things too. We visited cities all over western Germany and spent a week in Berlin. We toured castles, churches, and breweries, and took a boat tour down the Rhine River.
The trip was a defining time in my life. It gave me perspectives on the world that I would never have gotten otherwise. I had a lot of freedom there and learned both how to handle it and that I was inherently trustworthy with it.
Here’s a gallery of some of the best scenes from my trip.
I wasn’t much of a photographer in 1984, but I’m sure glad I have these photos now.
Germany was still divided in 1984. We could not know that in five years the Cold War would end, marked dramatically on our televisions by video of East Germans spilling over the Berlin Wall and through its checkpoints. We had all seen photos of it in our history books, of course, and maybe even in our German texts. We had heard the story of how the Wall went up “virtually overnight” to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. The whole concept of keeping the East Germans in seemed sad and silly, yet it happened half a world away and seemed remote. So I was unprepared for the Wall when I saw it that summer.
On this new trip to Germany, 39 years later, I’m deliberately visiting many of the places I visited in 1984 to see how it’s all changed.