Twenty years ago today, I passed out.
Strange that I could recall that, isn’t it?
It was strange then, too, especially since all I could hear upon coming to was everyone speaking in German.
This was the third time I had ever passed out and, I’m glad to say, the last time for the past 20 years. The other two were from shock due to injuries. This one was, technically, due to blood loss.
I say technically because it was only blood loss from a blood test. Not really that much blood was lost, to be honest. But still, it was apparently enough to put me on the floor for a few seconds and when I came to, all I could hear was German.
True, I was in a doctor’s office in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, so that would explain the German.
I was also fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight that had resulted in very little sleep and a lot of walking with luggage through the Frankfort airport, on buses, up streets and finally into a hotel. I was dead tired, probably dehydrated, and a little woozy to start with.
The blood test, done in order to get a visa to stay in Germany for six months, was that straw that broke me.
It wasn’t a great start, but it was six months that remain to this day as the best six-month period of my life.
In 1992, I was one of several International 4-H Youth Exchange, or IFYE for short, participants that traveled around the globe to live with families and to learn about other cultures. The IFYE acronym was often translated by us as “I’m the fool you expected,” a sentiment we sometimes lived up to.
I was out of college, so I wasn’t technically an exchange “student.” Just an exchangee, meaning I didn’t have to go to school while I was there. At that point, I really thought I had had enough school for a while, anyway.
There were three of us assigned to Germany, Chris from Colorado, Melissa from Illinois, and myself (from Ohio at the time.) We spent a day in Frankfort getting the paperwork all set for our stay, seeing a few sights, passing out (just me – they were fine), and trying to find the towns we would be staying in on a map.
Unlike the exchange programs we’re used to over here, this one had us moving to a different family every 2½ to three weeks, totaling seven families over six months. We would be in the same state, starting with Heβen (Hessen), but each with a different family. In all but a few cases, we were far enough apart that we didn’t get together.
The first problem that came up was that we couldn’t find all of our towns on the map we had. It was a tourism map that showed a lot of towns, but most of the ones listed on our sheets weren’t among them. At the time, we didn’t take this as a good sign.
Rather, it was a little alarming. Having grown up in a small Ohio town that didn’t always appear on maps, I had that “Oh, no, not a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere” feeling.
My first town was, fortunately, featured on the map, so I was off to a good start.
Also at first, the three of us were disappointed we weren’t going to be close to each other. We’d only met four days before during orientation at the National 4-H Center near Washington, D.C. And now, four days later, the three of us were the only thing we had in common. Why break up the act?
But the contact person from the Landjügen (young farmers) program had given us our travel directions, and I was on a different train than Chris and Melissa.
Those who know me may detect two potential issues with the above narrative.
First, I am not a farmer. I have lived near farms. I have visited farms. I stayed overnight with cousins who lived on farms. I, though, am not a farmer. As the program was set up through the young farmers program, all of our families were going to be in ag-related businesses in some fashion. This was going to get interesting in a hurry.
Second issue, I was heading out on my own and had more pieces of luggage than German words. I knew gesundheit, Achtung and Kindergarten. Not exactly a comprehensive grasp of the language.
Regardless, the second morning in Germany, I split with Chris and Melissa, found the train, boarded it and headed west to meet my first host family. The only information I had was their family name, town and phone number. No idea of kids, the type of farm, or anything else. It was one of the biggest steps into the “unknown” that I had ever taken.
I was also worried as I approached the station how they were going to know who I was.
Turns out I didn’t have to worry. I was the only one to get off at that stop with that much luggage. I was pretty easy to spot.
I also discovered something else. I didn’t have any jet lag, which I contribute to passing out, because once I was up off that doctor’s office floor, I was fine. But I don’t think that method will ever catch on.
(As I look back at my time in Germany 20 years ago, I plan to share some of those experiences with you over the next few weeks. I hope you don’t mind.)