Tuesday, June 22, 2010
I went on a student exchange with a group called Youth for Understanding, We flew from Detroit into Hamburg, but because my parents insisted that I be placed with a Catholic family, I was put on a train to Offenbach in central Germany. Most of northern Germany was/is Protestant and the group had to go south, to Offenbach, a town next to Frankfurt in central Germany, to find a Catholic family willing to take a US student for 3 months.
The train, at first seemed to make good speed, but by the time it arrived in Frankfurt it was five hours behind, and verging on night. I had to change trains in Frankfurt to Offenbach and I didn't speak any German. Luckily several Germans on the platform became aware of my plight and when I mistakenly boarded the wrong train, they all exclaimed loudly, "Nein!!" and pointed me to the train going to Offenbach. I got off in Offenbach and no family was, of course, waiting for me. Again, another stranger saw my distress and came to my rescue, phoning the family for me (at least I had their phone number). So after thanking my good Samaritan, I waited. Now, even though this was 1969, the counterculture had not come to Defiance, Ohio. Neither had a basic understanding of the differences in dress between small town USA and Germany. I was dressed in some of my preppy best summer clothes: a pair of yellow Villager shorts and a yellow and orange striped turtleneck top. What I didn't know was that shorts, at that time in Germany, were socially reserved for young men wearing lederhosen and that I was, in most Germans' eyes, very oddly dressed (to put it mildly). This started to become clear to me, when two Turkish men tried to strike up a conversation with me. When I responded in English that I didn't understand them, one of them said, "You from America? Do you know my brother in New York City?"
I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, only that it didn't feel right, as they edged closer to me. Luckily at about this time, my host family, the Wades showed up and the Turkish men took off. The Wades drove me to their home in Offenbach, a newer three story townhome and I met their three younger sons and their oldest, a daughter, Marita, who was coming to the US in the fall for a year in an American high school. They wanted me to help tutor her in English so that she made a smoother transition. But she was way ahead of me in lots of things other than English. Most of which, I am not sure her folks knew about. Turns out, she had been going to the USO club in the city, to meet and pick up GI's. She smoked cigarettes behind her parents' back (which seemed so wonderfully rebellious to me at the time).
I never went to the USO club--that was too scary with guys that were way older than me. But on the night of summer solstice, the Wades took Marita and I (at her request) to an outdoor dance for teens held somewhere in Offenbach. Marita was going to surreptitiously meet her latest GI conquest, and I was left on my own. Attired again in Villager--but this was a dress thank goodness--I still must've stuck out like a sore thumb. A young fellow named Paul came by and chatted with me and we danced (fast dances! which my male classmates at Defiance High School never did) and he promised to call on me. I remember the night was almost balmy (which seems fantastic given that it is in the 50's today in Seattle) and there was a gorgeous full moon. It was very romantic.
You would have thought that with such a promising start, this acquaintanceship would have blossomed into a lovely summer romance. Twas not to be. True to his word, Paul did call and a time was set up for him to come and meet the Wades so they could vet him. They met him and approved, and it was agreed that we would go out to a park the next Sunday. Offenbach and Frankfurt didn't have much in the way of older buildings as they had all been destroyed by World War II. Neither city seemed to have the charm of many European cities that I had read about in National Geographic, so I was looking forward to visiting something different from the unending series of apartments and businesses that made up my early days in Germany. Something with a bit of Old World charm.
Paul came by at the appointed hour, picked me up and we took the bus to a very large, lovely park where we wandered around the well cared for and very clean paths, exchanged pleasantries and ate ice cream. Unfortunately, during our walk, things started going downhill for me as I developed severe case of Montezuma's revenge. Walking increasingly became difficult, and I was in pain trying to hold it together. I finally blurted out, "Wo ist die Damen?" You see, I had viewed a restroom sign at the airport with that name on it and thought that meant ladies' room. Of course, it simply meant "ladies," so took a fair bit of time (at least it seemed that way to me, as I struggled not to make a public incident in a very clean park) to get poor Paul to understand what I was asking.
Once he understood my distress, we walked interminably to a restaurant in the park, where I was pointed to the restroom and finally was able to relieve myself. At the expense of the small European toilet. It plugged up, and when I went to flush it, using the overhead chain, it overflowed. There was a scrub brush, not a plunger, in the restroom and I tried to use it to make things better, only succeeding in making them terribly worse. I finally fled the restroom in shame and somehow we made it back to the Wade's after a very long bus ride with my intestines gurgling rebelliously all the way. After that, I found that I could not bear to see Paul again. It simply was too much to be reminded to the horror from the park and what he must have thought of me. I was such a ninny, but that was then and this was now.
So each solstice I remember Paul and the full moon that romantic night, and try not to think of the second act in that very short play.