Germany

Summer, 1981

The thing I remember most about Germany in the summer of 1981 was the friendliness of the school kids. Groups of them seemed to be in all the youth hostels I stayed in during my backpack across Europe.

The friendliest batch were the schoolgirls I met in Trier. They saw me inking in my sign for the next day's hitchhike and descended upon me. They peppered me with questions about the United States, eager to practice their English. Then, they decided they each wanted an American pen pal. To my friends back home eventual dismay, I described each of them in detail, offering them up. As one of the girls picked each one, I duly gave away their addresses. A girl from Hamburg became my pen pal and we wrote for quite a few years.

Besides Trier with its Roman ruins, I spent nights in Saarbrucken, Mannheim, Weinheim, Karlsruhe, Ulm and Memminghem. I think the best was the three nights (the max you're supposed to stay in a hostel) in Weinheim. The Rhine-Neckar valley around Weinheim was dotted with castles. I picked up a regional map at the tourist office that showed each's location. I hiked to them all, exploring their grounds, reveling in their stark, weathered look. These were the first castles I'd seen. As a military history buff, I was captivated.

The youth hostel itself was nice, too. There were only four bunk beds per room. Each pair of rooms shared a shower, although both had sinks for washing up. There were ping pong tables, a "walk on" chessboard and numerous other amenities. The cost in deutsche marks translated to $5 a night, which included breakfast.

On a less positive note, I remember a hungry Sunday in Memminghem, in Bavaria. I'd lost track of the day of the week and didn't exchange enough for the weekend. So, I had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my last few marks. I walked to all the grocery stores, checking prices and figuring out how to get the most food for my money. Lunch and dinner were bread, butter and water. Some may laugh and say "what kind of vacation is that?" However, I feel that inside each of us there is a soul that determines what kind of person we are. Privation, hunger and hard times can HONE this soul, make it sharper, clearer. The medieval monks felt the same way and fasted regularly. Anyway, I awoke the next morning eager to break my fast at the hostel's breakfast. Despite having plenty of food left over, they would not let me have "seconds." Each guest was given his strictly prescribed portion. The knot of hunger would not be untied until that afternoon, in Austria, when the banks opened and I could exchange money and gorge myself.

The strict and precise character of the Germans and their penchant for following the rules to the letter left a sharp memory. It impressed on me that, though we may look the same, there are distinct cultural differences between ourselves and people of different countries. That said, I can add that it reminds me of a joke I heard in the youth hostels. If a driver comes to a red light at an intersection in the middle of the countryside, and no one is around for miles, does he wait for it turn green? The answer: An Irishmen will never wait, an Englishmen will half the time, and a German will ALWAYS wait.

That joke, and the memory of the friendly school kids and castles of Germany, has stayed with me forever.