Twice in my life I have lived with a family of mine in Germany. The first time, I was a sixteen-year-old AFS exchange student who was assigned to Germany for my summer exchange experience. I had been hoping to go either to someplace “exotic,” in the eyes of a small town American girl, or someplace French-speaking, since I had just started to learn French in school. Perhaps the Ivory Coast would have been the ideal locale?
Instead, when the placement letter came it said I’d be going to Germany. I remember being a little disappointed, but figured anywhere would be an adventure compared to my own small town, and I quickly got to work trying to learn German. My tutor was a local college professor from Stuttgart whom I met with weekly for three months. I remember sitting in Victoria’s sun-filled kitchen drinking tea and learning to count, name animals, and conjugate common verbs in German. She suggested I label common objects at home with their German names, so our house was soon filled with little notes that said “das Fenster,” “der Tisch,” or “die Tür;” these labels adorned our windows, tables and doors for many months even after my return from Germany.
About a month before I was to leave, I found out my German host family was to be a farming family with three small children in a tiny town called Wahlbach, nestled between the Rhein and Mosel Rivers in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz. The match was quite the opposite of exotic. I would be exchanging my small-town life with three siblings who, until recently, had had lots of farm animals, in the midst of the upstate New York lake and wine district, for pretty much the same thing in Germany!
But the fact that my summer in Wahlbach was not exotic didn’t prevent it from being somewhat magical. I spent my time playing with and learning German from Yvonne and Martin who were about the same ages as Anya and Walter are now. I rode horses, put up hay, milked cows, collected eggs. I took long walks to explore the countryside; I played cards many evenings with my host-parents; I changed three-month-old Michael’s diapers and played with him on a blanket in the garden; I joked around with Opa and helped Oma weed her garden.
I learned enough German to have slow but meaningful conversations with my host parents Renate and Friedhelm. I met some kids my own age through AFS, a church youth-group, and three weeks in the local Gymnasium (high school). We took a few day trips to visit castles, the rivers, fairs and swimming holes. But the summer wasn’t about hanging out with teenagers like me or traveling around like a tourist. The summer was about getting to know what life is like for an actual family in an actual town in Germany, and to learn this on my own, without my “real” family navigating or interpreting.
And I learned that life there was incredibly similar to the life that I knew, and that was good and comforting. Despite being in a country far away, with a history that had fairly recently intersected so horrifically with the history of my own country, I realized that people are essentially the same all over the world. The everyday tasks of raising a family and earning a living are more-or-less universal.
At the end of the summer I didn’t want to go back home; my time in this tiny German town with this lovely family had been much too short. But the magic of that summer stayed with me. Despite living in many places where cows are abundant, the aroma of cows has always brought me back to Wahlbach, and when I smelled the dark, sourdough bread and tasted the rich, creamy yogurt here for the first time last August, I thought of Wahlbach as well. And when I began to learn German again, 25 years later, the sound of my host-family’s voices echoed in my head as I pronounced the words.
In addition to the sensory memories, gaining a view of the world as both a large and small planet, and the ability to navigate the complexities of cultural differences with both confidence and sensitivity, have served me well. Finally, I knew that when I brought my own family here, the best strategy would be to immerse ourselves in the life of people here, people and the institutions and routines they inhabit. Yes, seeing lots of art and architecture and sites has been magnificent, there is no denying that most of our trips have been highlights of this year. But, our time here has been defined by the everyday life of a family in Germany, just like my summer in Wahlbach.
After my summer with the Konrads in 1986, I visited them for a few days five years later, and then kept in touch via Christmas letters and occasional cards, but we hadn’t been in touch much over the last decade. When we came to Germany last summer, I knew I wanted to visit them, but I was afraid that they might not remember who I was, or that my summer with them hadn’t left much impression on their busy lives of raising children, growing up, and running a farm.
But when I sent them a Christmas card from Göttingen telling them that I was living here for the year with my family, Renate and Friedhelm responded that there was no question but that all five of us should come visit them. And in mid-April, when our mutual schedules finally allowed for a visit, I walked in their house and instantly the smells, tastes, sounds and sights of that summer came rushing back to me, like I was visiting one of my childhood homes whose rooms are etched distinctly in my mind. And on their wall of family photos was a picture of me from that summer, raking rows in a field with a view of tiny Wahlbach behind me. I may have only been there a few months, but I was part of their family story.
I was struck by all of the small things that hadn’t changed, but also by the obvious things that had. Of course the kids are grown, the baby whom I changed is now 26-years-old, but they each made arrangements to see me during my first, or then second, visit. Most of the cows and other animals are gone, as Friedhelm has drastically scaled back his farm operations, but a friendly dog and the lowing of the remaining cows from the barn still greeted us. Oma and Opa have passed away. A few houses have been built in the tiny town, the horizon is filled with windmills and the rooftops with solar panels.
Hearing my own children’s voices ringing through the house speaking German, seeing them look at the “Where’s Waldo” books I brought Yvonne and Martin in 1986, watching them excitedly help look after the cows and chickens or lend a hand in the kitchen, was poignant for me. The last time I was there, the children’s voices ringing through the house were those of my host siblings; now my own children from another country were echoing their sounds. My kids immediately felt at home with the Konrads, especially Anya and Walter, knowing that I’d once lived there, but also again surrounded by the fields, animals, and comfortable clutter of a truly lived-in home – all things they’ve missed this year.
During our first visit in mid-April, we spent the two days catching up and getting to know each other again. We ate, cooked, looked after the cows and played games. I met the adult versions of my host-brothers, and the kids enjoyed playing with the children of good friends of Renate and Friedhelm. Greta and Friedhelm and I took a long walk through the fields and woods where I’d wandered by foot and on horseback three decades ago.
When it was time to go, Anya and Walter were keen to stay, and for the next six weeks would beg me to let them go back. At the end of May, while Jason was giving lectures in Sweden, the kids and I returned to Wahlbach for two more days with the Konrads. This time we included a couple excursions to the Mittelalterisches Spectaculum in Oberwesel, a fabulous medieval festival set in a beautiful town on the Rhein River, and to Burg Eltz, a castle nestled in the hills above the Mosel River.
We went to the festival with the same friends we’d met on our first visit, so my kids had some other kids with whom to share the fun. Oberwesel is a well-preserved medieval town, an ideal setting for such a festival. After making our way through the crowds, we enjoyed watching the hundreds of costumed locals acting out life in medieval Germany, including the prevalent games, crafts, foods, revelry, and professions of the time. We climbed up to the top of the town’s old medieval wall to view the boats on the Rhein River, the grape groves on the surrounding hills, and Schönburg Castle on the hilltop above. That night the kids and their new friends stayed up well-past the late sunset to play and eat and grill Stockbrot in the garden, while the adults did more-or-less the same.
The next day, Friedhelm took Greta, Walter and me to Burg Eltz, while Anya stayed home to bake and play with my host-sister Yvonne and her adorable dog Toffee. Like in Paris during our visit to the Eifel Tower, Anya’s love of cooking and human interaction far outweighs her desire to see old buildings! Burg Eltz is many people’s favorite castle in all of Europe. It’s remained in the same family for 33 generations, and is nearly perfectly preserved, thanks in large part to the fact that it’s never been under attack. Greta, especially, enjoyed the official tour and then a look into the treasure exhibit, before the kids had fun skipping rocks and dipping their feet into the brook that runs beside the castle. When we got home, Anya treated us to muffins and a fantastic magic show that she and Yvonne had created.
The next day we had to again bid farewell, but not without having gained a renewed sense of a home and family in Wahlbach. Walter said that Wahlbach and the Konrad’s home was almost the best house in the world, second only to our house in tiny East Middlebury. All the kids were sad to say good-bye to the dogs and cows and fields, but comforted by the fact that soon they will be back in the similar environs of Vermont. I was especially happy to meet Yvonne again, with hopes of a continuing friendship as adults, and to reconnect with Renate and Friedhelm, who enabled me to gain a broader perspective on the world while being a part of their family so many summers ago.
I have often wondered what the impact of this year will be on my family, as well as the people we have met here. One year in the life of a family is ever so brief, as the years fly by while children grow up. But if my even briefer time in Germany three decades ago has left such a lasting impression on me and the family with whom I shared my time here, then I am certain that my family’s time here will engrave even deeper mutual memories. When I or my children or my grandchildren come to Göttingen several decades hence, perhaps there will be a picture of our family hanging on the wall of another family’s home, marking our contribution to the lives of others.
More pictures in the slide-show below: