Ach Du Lieber!

            Those of you who may have known me for some good amount of time might choose to recall that I have exhibited, at times, the general tendency to declare a level of expertise on subject matters well outside my scope with the basis of such being flimsy at best. The one that seems to have resonated with most and was frequently cited, was my claim to have been rock climbing in Germany. Miscreants will have you believe that I used this as firm evidence to support everything from my claim to know the best way to grow garlic or make minestrone soup. Jealous lies! In truth I used it only when climbing the Thunder Rocks at Alleghany and advising on the correct three point method. Since you are dying to know, dear munchkins, I will tell you the whole story of how I gained such wisdom at a tender age.

            As everyone knows, Buffalo and Dortmund are international sister cities. No one really knows the need for cities to partner up in this manner or how it came about. Well, they probably do, but I don’t feel like looking it up. In any case, this was fact and one of the programs to come out of this dubious arrangement was the Sister Cities summer exchange program. Through it, American youths would travel to Dortmund and reside with a German family for a month, after which the German student would come to Buffalo under the same arrangement. It was a good way to live in a foreign land cheaply and broaden one’s horizons. Spearheading the program was none other than Herr Savory, my high school German teacher. When I brought news of it home, my grandfather was tickled enough with the idea of me seeing the old sod that he helped my parents finance it.

            We filled out questionnaires so that they would pair us with German students of best fit. I was hoping of course for a little hot to trot Deutche chickie with a shelf like derrière, but apparently my answers indicated that a much better fit would be Heiner. My mother was quite flummoxed at the arrangement as Heiner’s bio indicated that he was 22, the only college student participating in the program, and that his favorite activity was hanging out at the Bier Gartens. She was worried of course that he would be a bad influence, which of course he was, but more on that later.

            There were several “get ta know ya” events before departure where we all met up and settled into one of two groups – the geeks and the assholes. I feel somewhere in between but ended up gravitating toward the nerd herd, as always was my inclination. Russ, the unacknowledged leader of the geek set, was often in conflict with the asshole ‘cool kids’ and thus managed to drag the rest of us in, assuring for plenty of awkward times when they forced us all together. Then one morning in early July we assembled in the parking lot of the old Thruway mall and bussed it up to Toronto where they have an international airport in more than just name.

            It was my first time on a plane and I enjoyed the experience, though after the second leg and a long bus trip, I was thoroughly exhausted and smelled of smoke, as Lufthansa in the 80’s still allowed, and encouraged, open smoking wherever one pleased. Our German families were there to pick us up and I was greeted by Herr and Frau Thiel (so close to Thies!), Georg the brother, and Heiner, my student. The parents spoke no English whatsoever, but Georg, a very cool cat, jumped right in as translator. Heiner, with a wooly blond fro, was cautiously polite. I was in a jet lagged daze when they brought me back to the family abode where Heiner still lived, along with Grossmutter upstairs, and they showed me to Georg’s old room which they made up for me.

            The house they occupied was built sometime in the mid to late Pleistocene period, though had been updated many time since. One of the recent upgrades was the addition of a shower, conveniently constructed from an old pantry that was directly in the living room. There was no place to change, so taking a shower meant descending the stairs in towel, greeting whoever was in the living room, and someone always was, entering the shower, then opening the door just enough to throw the towel out. It was uncomfortable arrangement so I avoided it as much as possible until someone would comment on the pervasive eau d’Wolf.

            Heiner was delighted by my presence as he had lived his 22 years as the smaller, less handsome, not as clever little brother to Georg. His first order of business was to teach me an enormously complex card game that made euchre look like War, and proceed to beat me at it until I refused to play any more. Next he taught me the one strategy game he was a master at: Muller (pronounced moo-lah), or known in English as ‘Nine-Man Morris’. His love of this game, by the way, extended all the way to Buffalo as he proceeded to teach it to my family and friends just so that he could beat them at it. Then came Knaus. The first game they played, Knaus won. Heiner took it as a fluke. Then Knaus won the second game and then the third. Heiner put the game away in a snit and we never saw it again.

            True to his fact sheet, Heiner liked to hit the Bier Gartens pretty much every night and liked to drag me along with him. Although my parents signed a form saying I was not allowed to drink, being only 16 at the time, Heiner’s family completely disregarded it from day one. Nights at the Bier Gartens were not unpleasant as I would sit there with a giant tankard of Dortmunder Kroner Export, my favorite beer to this day, and listen to Heiner and his friends joke around in German and occasionally make fun of me, as I gathered by the looks in my direction followed by laughter. Oh, he would get his all right when the time came!

            Aside from being saddled with a jerk ass big brother type when the rest of the Americans got kids their age, including this one dullard who wound up with a total fox, the one downside of the trip was the food. The Germans are a real meat and potato race of people and most meals out consisted of wurst, brot, and kartofel – sausage, bread and potatoes. At least meals out were somewhat edible and when not being forced into some ‘authentic’ German Rathskeller of some historic value, the Americans gravitated toward good old Mikey D’s, which in Germany, also sold beer.

            On days I spent with the family – it was an on off thing, one day with the family, the next with some planned group activity – I was treated to Frau Thiel’s cooking skills, which were fairly non-existent. Breakfast consisted of a platter that was left out at all times and stocked with several kinds of incredibly dense breads, sausages with big old hunks lard in them, cheeses, marmalade, and a substance I was told was minced ham by Heiner, but later came to find was raw pork. The value of refrigeration was deeply discounted and this stuff Americans generally throw away if exposed to room temperature air for over an hour simply sat out until consumed. Every breakfast I prepared for the worst, though nothing ever happened.

            Lunch wasn’t much better really. Frau Thiel insisted on making me sandwiches out of the ultra dense pumpernickel with the consistency and taste of compressed sawdust. These were usually peanut butter or some suspicious “cold” cut from the breakfast tray. I found them inedible, and if we were on a group outing I would generally ditch them when Heiner wasn’t looking and get some fries. I lived on fries that trip. Dinner was a horrid affair as she would sit there watching me not eating the ghastly thing she prepared like watery mild soup with super fatty chunks of mystery meat or tired old boiled sausages. On one occasion I convinced them to let me grill as they had a BBQ out back. This time I was the villain, for when I came in with nice char broiled sausages all black, crisp and delicious the whole family was horrified. Apparently letting the skin break ‘contaminates’ the sausage making it inedible. Yeah, they kept a bowl of raw pork in the warm dining room eating out of it for a good week, but fainted at the sight of a properly cooked hotdog.

            On the days I spent with the Thiels, they seemed genuinely frustrated with what to do with me all day, so it seemed that at least on 8 or so occasions Mr Thiel, with sometimes Heiner and sometimes Georg, would pack up the car and we’d go auto touring in the Saurland. Form some reason he was under the impression that I had never seen countryside landscapes before and got a charge out of looking out the window at some fields and shit. These were tedious days indeed and lasted until the arrival of Bob, which if you hold on for one goddamn minute, I’ll get to. On one of these dreary days Mr. Thiel wasn’t feeling well and it was just Georg and I, and thus the point of this story.

            Georg gathered that looking out a car window was not my cup of tea, so planned a more interesting day. In the selfsame Saurland there once existed a gigantic underground cavern that collapsed back in prehistoric times leaving a large area full of humungous rocks jutting up out of the earth with seemingly bottomless gaps between them. This is where Georg took me to go rock climbing with no equipment or preparation of any kind, except for a word of caution to keep three points on the rock face at all times because falling into one of the gaps meant a slim to none recovery of your corpse. It was a thrilling experience, fraught with danger, and imbued me with the wisdom of the ages to give expert advice on any number of unrelated topics.

            Time with the Thiels, and Heiner in particular, became so much easier once Bob came to stay. Bob drew a German family who was childless and where both worked, leaving Bob to sit on his ass all day watching German television, which consisted of tennis, dubbed over Loony Tunes (was ist los, doc?), or, I’m not kidding, a German Western called Winneto. The Thiels, who were actually very good people, agreed to take Bob in and thus ease their daily burden to figure out to do with me. Once Bob came, the daily trips to the Saurland stopped and Bob and I generally roamed the streets of Dortmund looking for things to do.

            The other excellent thing about Bob being there was that I now had an ally against Heiner. We quickly found that we could make fun of him by simply speaking in slang, which he was unable to follow. Watching his face scrunch up as he tried to figure out in what manner we were teasing him was priceless and only served to increase our laughter. Frau Thiel would beam as we exclaimed that the hunk of sausage on our plates was “the absolute worst!” as she felt we were simply declaring it absolute sausage. Evenings at the Bier Garten were better as well because now I finally had someone to talk to.

            On group days, things were hit or miss. One some days we would have spectacular outings like boat trips down the Rhine or visit some castle where Charlemagne once rubbed one out. Other days were less exciting and consisted of tours of an automotive plant or a bauxite mine; probably one of the least interesting mined substances you can imagine. On one of these outings Russ, Bob, Gary, Evil and I found a shop that sold tee shirts advertising the Soviet Union and East Germany, both of which still appeared to be going strong. What made them so delightful was that the Germans found them horribly offensive to the degree that turned them into daily wear for us.

            Russ, bless his dork ass hide, also managed to acquire a genuine pair of lederhosen which he looked absolutely ridiculous in. He insisted on wearing these around on occasion which infuriated the German family he was staying with to the degree that they began to shop him around for someone else to take him in. There were no buyers, even the Thiels, who had their hands full already with two rebel jokers already. Russ, pleased with the effect his outfit, the equivalent of one of the Germans coming over and wearing around Puritan garb with big buckle shoes to the local Denny’s, took to wearing it as often as he pleased, including the plane ride home.

            The best trip of all was the opportunity to go to East Berlin when such a thing still existed. On the bus ride through East Germany to the walled city, it was a popular undertaking for everyone to read George Orwell’s classic ‘Animal Farm’ as the bus driver, an ugly character we dubbed Dr. Friendlybones, played the soundtrack to ‘Dirty Dancing’ over and over. Before going through Checkpoint Charlie we were treated to the obligatory Berlin Wall museum which gave a full history and some stories of people who got shot trying to make it across. Apparently the Wall originated as the Berlin Line of Masking Tape, a la Brady Bunch, which proved to be somewhat less effective than the follow on project. We were debriefed before going through. Do not smuggle currency back, do not wander outside the permitted area, do not do the ‘Heil Hitler’ sign at the Russian guards, and do not under any circumstances feed the locals or they will try to follow you home. The end of the brief was given with a ray of hope that perhaps even as soon as 50 years hence, but certainly not before, the Wall would be a thing of the past. This was 1988.

            I wore my East German tee and Russ his Russian one, though we were informed this was a poor choice of wardrobe. We found this to be correct as the East Germans, less full of patriotic pride than one would think and bitterly resentful of the Russian presence, gave us evil stares and even went so far as to call Russ a ‘bitch’. East Berlin was as dreary as one would expect. There still existed bombed out buildings from WWII and very little to spend our currency on. I got a cola from a street vendor and found it three shades more horrendous than even Tab. We went to the finest restaurant they had and ordered big steaks all round; grade Q meat if that, full of fat, gristle and very little flavor. The sides were even worse as we discovered they even found a way to fuck up baked potatoes. Here was the thing, we had to change over 50 marks worth of currency to cross over and were not allowed to bring any of it back. At the end, we gave away whatever we had left to beggars by the checkpoint that lived off of this rule, though I managed to sneak back a few coins in my shoe.

            After a month away, coming back to America was fantastic! It was a long flight back, and a seemingly longer bus trip back from Toronto. The whole bus load of folks actually broke out into the national anthem, albeit poorly sung, as we approached the border. Even better, the Germans were not to follow for another few days, allowing us to get reaclimated without them. This of course gave me some time to plan out a little payback for Heiner and all his bully big brother tricks.

            Heiner arrived a few days later and we set him up in my attic bedroom in the twin bed across the room from me, actually the hottest corner of place, and directly under the bird cage that housed Henry, my ill tempered parakeet who liked to fling seeds out of the cage all night at whoever occupied that bed. It was a hotter summer than most, and Heiner being a rather stout fellow, felt it much more than I did, a very skinny teen. To maximize his discomfort I took to closing the skylight at night if I suspected rain and unplugged the fan for ‘noise reasons’ in the middle of the night. I was just fine with the heat build up, but on more than one occasion Heiner became so overheated that he would rush down in the morning, beet red and encrusted with birdseed, and dive into the pool to bring his body temperature below the three digit mark.

            Where Heiner subjected me to his daily Bier Garten outings with his douchebag friends, I subjected him to daily bike rides with Jeff to Collector’s Inn where we would spend hours upon hours discussing the finer points of ‘Invasion’ with Jim or Kevin as Heiner stood by bored to tears. This was usually followed up by a trip to Watson’s for vanilla cokes, which he found to be a terrible substitution for his beloved beer. Finally he took to eschewing me completely and followed my mother around the house all day, something she didn’t appreciate. Heiner, you see, tended to be argumentative and would actually do things like attempt to correct your English. On more than one occasion he would rush upstairs to grab his dictionary or text book to prove his point, then come slumping back down with the claim he couldn’t find it.

            One week I was granted complete relief from him as one of the families was making a trip to DC in order to show their student around. They invited Heiner to come along and we talked him into it, despite the fact that he had a bad cold and didn’t really want to go. Heiner, in retrospect probably a functional alcoholic, made sure to have a case of beer with him for the journey. He was completely dismayed, however, when we brought him to the family’s house and they announced to all gathered there that “Heiner brought beer! Who wants one?” and he saw his store immediately depleted before the trip was even underway. I was secretly delighted when I found out his trip went terribly. First he was too sick to enjoy. Second, the family turned out extremely cheap (as was Heiner!) and shafted him at every opportunity. While the whole group occupied one hotel room, they stuck Heiner with half the bill. At dinner they would order expensive entrees while he would go frugal, but then divide the check evenly. We all got quite a chuckle out of his bitter recounting of things when he got back.

            All in all, he wasn’t a bad guy and we did have fun showing him around and such for the most part. My mother also hooked him up with the single niece of her friend, which got him out of my hair even more. The visit ended on good terms and we kept in touch often enough they he came back a year later, though specifically to visit my parents, and not so much me. Over the years we eventually lost all contact, and although I have tried to Google his name, all the pages that come up are in German, which I never quite got the knack for despite having rock climbed there

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2 Responses

  1. Once again Paul ruins someone’s joy, if for no other reason than he can. As per usual when this happens, since I am smart enough to always stay on Paul’s good side, I say kudos to Paul! Give it to the old country. This may seem traitorous given the similar name and the common German heritage, but if you think that you have not paid enough attention to Paul’s retributive attitude. Go back and read again, it is required, or forever be wary of the angry Mouse.

    I do not like German food. My condolences.

    True be finally told, I called ahead to inform my sister German family to ruin your trip. After you left they returned to their daily routine of hot dogs, fries, hot girls, and beer.

    Was there a velvet rope surrounding the Charlemagne one?

    Who is Evil?

    How do you fuck up a baked potato? You should have followed Dan’s rule and ordered a salami sandwich with a pickle. “IT is pretty hard t fuck up a salami sandwich, short of not including the pickle.” But I suppose the same thing applied to baked potatoes, which are the simplest thing to “cook” short of hot water or an egg.

    What a glutton for punishment if he came back the next year.

  2. Evil was this guy. I think his real name was Pete or something, but we all called him ‘Evil’ which he did not like, encouraging us all the more.

    A baked potato can be fucked up by using really old potatoes. The kind you find in that drawer in the fridge at the bottom, all wrinkled up and shit. They had nothing so extravagant as salami or pickles. The “steak” was one of those weird looking cuts of meat with a shiny innertube of greasy white fat around the perimeter and penetrating the center. I had questions as to whether is was really beef or actually donkey or howler monkey or something.

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