Saturday, November 29, 2008
Helga Burger and her partner, Kristal
Last night, I stayed up late sewing the top of my laundry bag. By hand. I don't own a machine and when I did, it was my grandmother's old treadle, electrified, and I could never find needles for it. I was the only kid in junior high who dropped out of home ec when we got to sewing. I was absolutely bored with the idea of making a dirndl skirt back in 1965. My mother couldn't sew either, so she could have cared less that I dropped out of home ec. She was and is a woman whose favorite cookbook was Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book.
But why I was repairing my large laundry bag was that it had been a gift to me in the fall of 1978 from my friend Helga Burger in Germany. I had met Helga when I was a summer exchange student under the auspices of Youth for Understanding in 1969 in Offenbach. I had originally asked to be placed in France, because French was what I had studied in high school. I spoke no German. When word came that I had been placed instead in Germany, my mother said, "Well your forebears are German, you should be fine." So off I went to Germany without any German language skills or any further thought on the potential problems that might create, where I was to live with the Wade family.
Now life with the Wade family turned out to be not a box of chocolates. To begin with, just getting there involved a a harrowing all day trip on a train from Hamburg to Offenbach (because I had to be placed with a Catholic family, I had to be sent to the center south of Germany because there were no Catholic families to be found in northern Germany per YFU). The train from Hamburg was delayed en route 5 hours. I made it to Frankfurt without a clue as to how to transfer trains (thank you kind guardian angels) and then when I arrived at the train station in Offenbach, there Iwas no one waiting for me and I had no German money nor idea how to use a phone to call them--again saved by another guardian angel who made the call for me. Of course, while I was waiting for the Wades to arrive, several Turkish fellows tried to pick me up quite aggressively. I guess wearing bright yellow Villager shorts with an orange and yellow turtleneck top really made me stand out (once again, no one from YFU thought to advise on appropriate dress). The Turks were scaring the crap out of me when finally the Wades hove into view and stuck me in their car and drove off to their house.
Once arrived, I was informed by Herr and Frau Wade that they had agreed to host me because I could help their daughter, Marita, learn better English before she left in the fall of '69 for a year's exchange to an American high school. Now I was a fairly naive high school junior, who thought I had seen a lot, but it could not compare with their daughter, Marita. Marita was determined to break as many rules as she could. She drank, smoked cigarettes, bleached her long hair, wore slingback high heels with open toes, and most importantly, picked up American GIs at dances because they would buy her things and they were foreign, exotic to her.
So there I was, supposedly helping Marita learn English in a less exciting fashion. And then Frau Wade decided that I could do their ironing for them, as I wasn't pulling my own weight in the family (there were three younger boys who didn't do squat). On top of that Mrs. Wade had a nervous breakdown halfway through my visit which involved locking herself into her room and screaming at the top of her lungs for several hours, and throwing things. Herr Wade was the headmaster of a private boys' school and so most of this was tamped down because it would affect his standing in the community. The boys were a rude bunch, who talked back to their parents without reproach, chewed their food with their mouths open and were considered quite cute by their parents despite their obvious deficiencies in deportment.
My only out during this summer was when I would ride a bicycle to school with Marita to Hanau. Even though it was summer, school was still in session, and though I could not speak or read German, it was thought that somehow by osmosis, I could learn a bit. At school, I made friends with several other girls. Helga was one of them. I brought my 1969 high school yearbook to class and they poured over the pictures, marveling at high school life in America, the music, the weird sports that they didn't have. The girls, in particular would exclaim over one the photograph of one of my classmates at Defiance High School, Barry Schatz, because of his surname. We would spend lunches and breaks together giggling and talking about the boys in their class. It was difficult to communicate, because the osmosis was not working. But we made do with lots of laughter and giggling. Seeing these girls daily for the first month and a half of my visit, kept me centered and able to get through the difficult time I was experiencing with my host family. I can't remember at this late date what it was that drew Helga and I into a deeper friendship than the other girls, but after I returned from Germany we kept up a sporadic correspondence by mail over the years.
Then in 1978, I returned to Europe and enrolled at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel to obtain an LLM degree in international law. During the fall, I took a train to central Germany, where I met Helga and stayed at her apartment for a long weekend. We went to a Christmas fair in the town square and hiked out in the country, after a bit of a car ride to get there. Helga and I were still friends, but things were a bit different. For one thing, at one point during a party Helga hosted, while I was trying to make conversation with a group of women in Helga's kitchen (my German had not improved much in the intervening years), one of Helga's girlfriend's seemed a bit agitated, and at one point grabbed Helga by the crotch while we were talking. Later, in the room I was sleeping in, I was looking at Helga's record albums, and noted a complete collection of albums by a girl group called The Flying Lesbians, or something like that. I put two and two together, and at some point the three of us reached an uneasy truce when I made it clear that I was not angling for more than Helga's friendship, and we managed to salvage and spend a pretty decent weekend together.
As a parting gift, Helga, who worked for the German post office in Offenbach, gave me a large blue postal bag emblazoned with the Deutches Bundespost symbol in yellow, red, and black. I've kept it with me since. It has housed my dirty laundry from Brussels to KY to DC to Seattle for the past 30 years. It was sweet to sit and sew on it last night and remember a friendship that had sustained me through my first difficult time.