Making things click into place;
Or how I found the loneliest spot in Germany
It had been easy. Almost too easy.
And that should have been the little warning to me as I headed off to my third family in late July of 1992.
My first two families during my six-month stay in Germany, the Gaths and the Höflichs, had been an easy fit. We clicked.
It helped a lot that a couple members of each family spoke English far better than I spoke German.
It didn’t hurt, either, that my workload at the Gaths wasn’t too bad and working in a vineyard wasn’t physically challenging.
That changed as I arrived at the Brudy family in Appenweier-Nesselried, Baden-Württenberg, with my German language skills still lacking and my farm work résumé consisting of being able to drive a tractor. As long as it was in a wide open field.
The town, the Nesselried part of the paired towns, was small enough that it had to be joined by a hyphen to the next larger town over to keep from getting lost. It was little more than a road that curved a little as it headed somewhere else that it must have thought was more important. Another road joined this main street about halfway through the town, but quickly ran off over some hills and out of sight.
It was one of those towns on my list that I had to go out and buy a large, detailed road map of Germany to find. And even then, it wasn’t easy. It was less than 12 miles from the French border and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The Brudys lived on that one main road in Nesselreid, with a small barn and orchard out back. The rest of the farm, which seemed to consist mainly of different fruit orchards, was spread out around the town, necessitating travel to get to each, which wasn’t unusual for German farms.
As it turned out, all five of the Brudys spoke about as much English as I spoke German. It was time to warm up that German-English dictionary.
I can’t lie. I was a little depressed. After having the ability to overcome the language barrier by simply turning to another family member to translate, I had lost that safety net. My horrendous German grammar didn’t help, either. It’s one thing to know the words, but something else to be able to put them in the right order.
I was frustrated. And, to be honest, I could tell that they were, too. It made that “click” that happened with each family that much more difficult to achieve. And even when it did click, if it ever really did, it was a reluctant click that had been effortless with the first two families.
For the first time since arriving at a host family, I was having a hard time fitting in and being part of the family.
It didn’t help that my farming skills barely matched those of my 4-year-old host sister, Eva.
The Brudys worked hard. My host dad, Otto, also had an outside job on top of everything he did on his own farm.
It didn’t take long for parts of me to start failing like an East German Trabant.
I was in shape. I really was. I had just come off of nine years of running long distance. But that doesn’t help in farming. Rather, it only gave me the endurance to keep pushing when I should have known better.
First to fail was a shoulder. In very short order in one day, I went from picking up bales and tossing them onto a wagon to being up on the wagon pulling the bales up and stacking them to finally only being able to drive the tractor around the field. Fortunately, it was a wide-open field with no obstacles. I had wrenched something in my shoulder that made it (and me) nearly useless.
And it didn’t get any better. I did what I could, but I could tell that the Brudys had hoped for more.
At the same time, they took me places. Amazing places. The most scenic places I’ve been to. And that’s saying something.
The state of Baden-Würtenberg takes up the southwest corner of Germany, and contains the fabled Schwartzwald (Black Forest). The land ranged from lush green valleys to those mythical dark, thick forests covering mountains masquerading as hills.
We went to the majestic spa town of Baden-Baden, where, for the second time in my life, I couldn’t go into a casino.
We went to Freiburg and climbed up what is rightly billed as one of the most beautiful church spires in Europe.
We went to a small festival held inside a wonderfully old castle near Offenberg.
We had picnics in little shelters so tucked away I knew I could never find those spots again.
Best of all, Otto took me along as he worked his second job – going from farm to farm to register newborn calves and to gather milk production information for the government. While the work doesn’t sound very interesting, the scenery was incredible.
A typical trip would include driving up those dark forest hills on twisting gravel roads, passing few homes and rarely seeing other cars, to come out at the top, into the sunlight, and be met with a farm standing by itself on top of the world.
A typical home would have the cows staying in a lower-level “barn,” with the family’s home above that. As they were built into the side of a hill, the barn would open out at the back (think a walkout basement for cows), with the home’s door at ground level at the front.
These people welcomed us in, offered coffee and biscuits. We’d try, as best as we could, to have a conversation as Otto introduced me as his Gäst sohn (guest son).
I could only be envious of these folks, getting to live amongst such grand scenery.
It was also during this time that Otto took me to one of the rarest places in Germany – a spot high on top of one of the innumerable mountaintops, a single place that I could look out and see nothing but the lone farm I was standing in front of. The Black Forest rolled off in the distance all around, hiding other villages and farms. It was the loneliest, and most amazing, farm I had ever seen.
In a country as densely populated as Germany, this was a first for me.
Only over time have I seen the benefit of living in this tiny hamlet on the north edge of the Black Forest. I was likely the only American for kilometers around. This wasn’t a tourist town. It wasn’t a busy place. It wasn’t fancy and no one had any postcards of the town (or its road).
It was Germany. It was home to families that worked hard to make their living.
Staying at the Brudys forced me to work hard on my German. I could no longer rely on someone there to translate for me. It forced me to work hard to the point that my body wanted to throw in the towel. Thank goodness they had ibuprofen in Germany.
It was only later, after I got home and developed the rolls of slide film I had shot, that I saw what an amazing place I had been in and how generous the Brudys were in showing me as much of it as they could.
If I could go back and do it again, I would change one thing – I would make that click with the Brudys happen sooner and make it more solid.
And I would take a lot more film.