Oh, I was shocked, alright; Or how I learned to drive a tractor, in German
(The continuing story of my experience in the International 4-H Youth Exchange program 20 years ago in Germany.)
I had been in Germany for just over 24 hours.
I was on my own and wishing I had packed a lot lighter as I struggled to pull my luggage off the train. I was glad, though, that no one seemed to understand the words I was using in English. If they had, I’m sure I would have been getting some dirty looks.
German trains are notorious for running on time. This is good and bad. Good in that you know that they will always, and I mean always, arrive and depart right on time. This is bad if you don’t have your act together and need that extra time.
I was really wishing I had a little extra time at this point. But I managed.
I met my host brother, Holgar, and his cousin, Stephanie, who spotted me easily enough and helped me lug my bags and pile them into their car. Then we went tearing across the German countryside, heading toward my first of seven host families. They lived just outside of the town of Weilburg in Heβen (Hessen), a scenic, old-style town on the banks of the Lahn River.
Just three days before, I was in Washington, D.C., at the National 4-H Center, and the one phrase they kept repeating was “culture shock.” That is, the shock of being in a different culture and unable to function even to the point you don’t want anything to do with the new culture.
I, however, loved the German culture (with a few exceptions that I’ll note from time to time). I felt that I had very little culture shock.
Nope, rather I had farming culture shock.
I have made it clear I am not a farmer. But I arrived at my first host family, the Gaths, and found myself on a dairy farm of around 230 acres and 50 milk cows. I tried to do what I could, though I did a great job at failing at that whole “up at 5:30 a.m. to milk the cows” thing.
In the end, most of my assistance came down to moving hay, feeding cows, sweeping and other basics. I couldn’t even drive a tractor. Yet.
That changed when I was taught by my host brother, Carsten, who was just a couple of years younger than I was.
I felt good that I was learning how to drive a tractor in a nice, new John Deere. I had always had a special fondness for them, as I had an aunt and uncle back home that used them on their farm, and they always got me the toy versions back when I was a lot younger. So that helped me feel a little better about this.
So, with my host brother giving me directions in broken English, I began to work out how to drive a tractor. Fortunately, we were in a very big, very wide-open field mowing hay. I eventually began to get the hang of it, though they never let me go solo. And I don’t blame them.
The fields themselves were several kilometers from the farm, and there’s nothing like a large tractor to block up the narrow, twisty, German roads. I let Carsten drive back to the house. It seemed to be the smart thing to do.
The Gaths probably had a tougher time as a host family as the ones that came later, due mainly to my lack of German. But they were patient and worked to help me learn the basics. Within a few days, I had please (bitte), thank you (danke), cup (tasse), most of the stuff on a table, and cough (husten) – I arrived with a really nasty cough. I could also get a good laugh as I tried out various German words. It was a couple of weeks before I could say the German word for castle (schloß) without getting a laugh.
Still, I fared as well as I could, thanks to the fact that my host brothers had all taken English since primary school. My host parents, though, did not speak English. To communicate with them, I had to point to a word in a German-English dictionary. Then they would point to a word in German. Then I would. And so on.
One day, just my host parents and I took a day-long drive down the Rhine Valley, with no one to translate. We “talked” by pointing at words in the dictionary, gesturing and a lot of shoulder shrugging. We had a great time and I absolutely loved that day.
The Gaths also took me to my first German beer fest. It should be noted that I don’t like beer. I don’t even like the smell of it. (I know – why did I go to Germany, then?)
It was still a great night, filled with traditional German dancing (very dangerous), great food (minus the sauerkraut), games, loads of laughter, and drinking. Lots of drinking.
The Gaths were first confused and concerned that I didn’t want to drink any beer. And they tried to sway me. However, since I was able to drive while over there, they quickly came to the conclusion that I would be the designated driver for the evening.
The evening came to an end eventually and we piled into the family car, with me at the wheel, and headed home. The problem was, the festival was several towns over, it was actually very early in the morning, and I wasn’t positive on how to get back.
No worries, though. I had an inebriated host brother there to give me directions. In German. To someone who still needed a German-English dictionary to communicate.
I’m still not sure how we made it back.
Weilburg, Heβen –