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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Camera Reviews

Keystone XR308

I regret buying this camera. But I was 15, I was about to spend a summer in Germany, and I needed a camera I could count on. I wanted it to have electronic flash and telephoto. I also wanted to carry it easily, either in a pants pocket or in a small pouch attached to my belt. The Keystone XR308 was the only camera I found that checked those boxes within my tiny budget.

Keystone XR308 camera
Image credit:

The Keystone XR308 turned out to be terrible, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was a step up from the awful 126 camera I had been using, and I was happy to have it. I don’t have it anymore, though. It went away in 2003 with the about 150 other cameras that comprised my first collection. But here’s a bathroom-mirror selfie that shows it in my hands. I didn’t stop to think how the flash would ruin the photo!

The XR308 takes 110 film, which was still popular in 1984. There’s not much to the camera. Its lens is probably plastic, set in a simple leaf shutter. It has a preset aperture and shutter speed, adequate for decent exposure with plenty of depth of field in a wide range of daylight, optimized for the ISO 100 and 200 films of the day. When you turned on the flash, it made that whistling sound flashes used to make while they charged. The green light atop the camera would glow when the flash was ready.

I took several cartridges of Kodak color film with me to Germany, but it wasn’t nearly enough and I bought film there, too: Porst (the big German camera brand at the time) and Fuji because they were cheaper. Here is some of my exchange group at the Cologne Cathedral.

A couple buddies and I walked the 533 steps to the top of the cathedral’s right spire, where we could see for miles.

Softness. That’s the defining characteristic of photos from the XR308. That and graininess, which is enhanced in these scans I made on my el cheapo Wolverine Super F2D digitizer. It takes 110 natively; my flatbed scanner does not. Here’s the Berlin Wall, which was five years away from falling.

I made the best choice in camera I could, but I still wish I could have chosen better. Soft, grainy photos are better than no photos, however, and I have photos that record some incredible memories. Here’s a rare scene: of the Brandenburg Gate from inside East Berlin. I stood as close as the barricades would allow; from here to the gate was a no-man’s land. If I had stepped over I could have been shot without warning.

The XR308’s telephoto lens turned out to be terrible. It was a piece of cheap plastic that yielded even softer photos than the regular lens. Have a look; here’s a telephoto shot from the same location as the photo above.

Ooh, ooh, here’s a photo I probably shouldn’t have taken. It might have been trouble had I been spotted by officials. It’s an East German military parade in front of the Neue Wache.

Here’s another good memory: my first beer. My group toured the Rhenania Alt brewery in Krefeld, the town in which we lived. Thankfully, I didn’t photographically record my first drunk, which also happened this day. I probably had only three beers, but as a first-timer that was probably one beer too many.

I got to record the day I met my German pen pal, Annette. We’d corresponded for about five years already on the day her family drove her up from Frankenthal to meet me.

It also let me capture all the places we visited and the people I traveled with. Here’s Rolf in his Birkenstocks looking down the business end of a cannon at Krefeld’s Linn Castle.

The XR308 remained my regular camera when I returned to Indiana. I owned a hundred or more old cameras by this time, but none of them had that useful built-in flash. Here’s a photo of me with some high-school friends in our mathematics classroom. Check out the barrel distortion this photo reveals.

Oh, let’s stroll down memory lane for a minute. Here’s my dad. He loved to play video games! We had a bunch of game cartridges for our Commodore 64. I’d also laboriously type in the source code for games from the various computing magazines of the day. I learned some useful coding tricks from that, and my dad got more games to play. Dad’s about 45 here, which is younger than I am now.

Here’s mom banging away at the typewriter in the kitchen, where her desk was. My brother used to sweet-talk Mom into typing his essays for school. I typed my own. Yes, I still feel superior.

I took the Keystone XR308 to college. Here’s my friend Michael in my dorm room. I didn’t know then that we’d stay good friends for decades. I can’t imagine us ever not being friends.

My roommate and I painted the room ourselves, by the way. We were both Beatles fans, so we painted up the old Beatles logo. Our work remained for about 25 years.

The last photos from my Keystone XR308 are from 1986. Here’s a photo I made from the roof of my dorm showing part of campus. (See more of them here.)

From that summer, here’s my first car, a 1975 Ford Pinto. I call it mine, but it really belonged to my aunt Betty. I worked for the courier service she owned, and she let me drive it home at night. Here’s its story.

My mom rescued me from this crappy camera that Christmas when she bought me a 35mm point and shoot, a Kodak VR35 K40 (review here). It was terrific; the sharpness of my photographs improved dramatically.

Oh, to have dramatically better photos from Germany! I should probably get over myself and just be grateful I have photos from this era at all.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Film Photography

Captured: You are now leaving West Berlin

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

It was hard to go far in Berlin in 1984 without the Wall hemming you in or blocking your way. My tour group followed it across the heart of the city to the Brandenburg Gate, which in those days stood just inside East Berlin. The white railing was the actual border between east and west; the space between it and the wall was kind of a no-man’s land. The sign reads, ominously, “Attention: You are now leaving West Berlin.”

The wall was covered with graffiti no matter where I saw it, meaning many brave or crazy souls were willing to walk into no-man’s land to leave their mark. The graffiti is gone because the Wall is gone. Thank God.

I spent a week in Berlin; I was but 16. It left an indelible mark on me. Read about it.

Film Photography

Captured: Inside the Olympic stadium

Inside the Olympic Stadium

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an exchange trip with other Hoosier high-school German students. While the trip’s purpose was to immerse us in the German language and culture, we did travel around Germany a little. We spent most of a week in Berlin seeing the sights, including a stop at the Olympic stadium. In 1931, Berlin was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics. An existing stadium was going to be used for the Games, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they saw the excellent propaganda opportunity the Games offered them. Wanting everything associated with the Games to be tip top, Adolf Hitler ordered this grand new stadium built. Amazingly, it survived World War II almost entirely unscathed.

This image from inside the stadium is actually three photographs. My lousy 110 camera made fuzzy images, but it was the best I could afford and I made the most of it. I made a habit of shooting large scenes as sequential overlapping photos so that I could lay the prints out in the same order to see the whole. It worked, but the results were a bit wonky. I could not have imagined that 25 years later I’d be able to digitize them and use sophisticated software to make seamless panoramic images of them.

This image is best viewed large.

You might also like to see my photos of the Berlin Wall and East Berlin.