Here we go, one last time;
Or how to live outside of the books
One Guy’s Opinion
By Guy Thompson
I knew the drill.
It was the final day at family #6, the Mackeprangs. That meant packing the suitcases that still weighed too much. Taking a last photo or two. Driving to the train station. Waiting around on the platform. Saying reluctant goodbyes. And waiting until the last moment to get on the train.
Finally - leaving.
It was a drill that wasn’t much fun. But it had to be done with each family.
This time, I was off to my last host family of seven during my six months in Germany.
It was still exciting, nerve wracking, fun – all at once – to meet the new family. If anything, I found not knowing what kind of farm I would be on with each family the most nervous part of the change. And as we got out at the Höving’s farm, Chris sniffed the air and guessed this was a horse farm. No animals could be seen, so I shrugged and thought that would be a new one. I had, after all, been on dairy farms, vineyards, and even garden centers.
After I met my family, Chris and Melissa were whisked off to their families and, naturally, the first thing the Hövings did was give me a tour of the farm. There were no horses. There were, however, a lot of pigs and a barn full of steers.
It wasn’t long before I was into the rhythm of working with the Hövings on their farm just outside of Warendorf-Freckenhorst (the farm sat closer to Freckenhorst). The towns were about half an hour east from the city of Münster. The landscape was mainly farmland, dotted with scores of small towns.
As part of the family for the next three weeks, I got assigned a few “simple” tasks. One included feeding the steers twice a day. This involved bringing silage into the barn from outside with a tractor that had a bucket on the front. No problem. I can drive a tractor. Even in German.
Then I saw the maneuvering required. In a nut shell, once in the barn the tractor had to make a sharp left-hand turn, going up a small ramp, while simultaneously swinging the bucket through a gap between the stall and the ceiling that looked, to me, to be roughly a millimeter bigger than the bucket that had to fit through there.
I told my host brother Dirk, in a combination of German and English, that if he valued his barn, he would not let me drive the tractor through there. I gave various examples of how the barn might collapse if I was allowed to try this maneuver, each more graphic than the last.
He clearly valued his barn and each day drove in a few bucketfuls of silage for me to pitch into the stalls for the steers to eat. The barn remained standing.
My host mom also gave me a task to do each day that, in all my years, I never once would have guessed I would do. Distill schnapps. Wheat schnapps, in this case.
It was not unusual to find a still in barns around the country. A lot of the barns I visited back in August in the Black Forest had a still. The stills were regulated and sealed; the alcohol sold to whichever government agency handled that sort of thing.
I spent my afternoons watching the still, noting temperatures and pressures and, when necessary, turning little knobs. I realize now that “Distilling wheat schnapps” is really something I should have put on my resume when I returned to the U.S. and started looking for a job. I think that would have made me stand out in job interviews.
Some families took the opportunity to tackle a special project with an extra pair of hands (or legs) available. The Hövings not only utilized my presence, but called in a couple of Dirk’s friends to pitch in reroofing the main part of the barn. (This would have been the part destroyed had I been allowed to drive the tractor into it.)
German roofs aren’t lightweights, either. They use large, curved clay tiles that are held in place by their weight alone. Each tile weighs five pounds. So I found myself on top of a fairly high roof heaving these heavy tiles the length of the roof to (hopefully) land in a wagon.
Then there was putting the new tiles back onto the roof. A pallet of tiles would be lifted up onto a makeshift platform that consisted of wooden planks set across the top of a tall wagon and then we would start putting them in place.
This works great, as long as one American exchange student isn’t also standing on the planks. When this did occur, there was a loud CRACK and the American student and tiles alike went crashing into the bottom of the wagon. Fortunately, the American student landed on top of the tiles and not the other way around.
By the time I left, that barn had a nice, new roof that is still there today. At least, it appears so by looking on Google Earth.
Looking back, it seems that I did the least amount of traveling and sightseeing with the Hövings. This may have been actually a fact or I wrote less about where we went. Either way, I was fine with this.
The towns of Warendorf-Freckenhorst were little jewels in the German countryside. Freckenhorst had a wonderful town square that had a market on the weekend. We hit Münster and there was a terrific night at a town festival, despite the cold and rain of the evening.
Part of not traveling a lot was we were keeping busy on the farm. And really, I was still seeing a lot of Germany. I was seeing the small town and the lives of those that lived there.
In June, sitting in Frankfurt, looking at a map and not finding a lot of my host families’ towns because the towns were so small, I had been worried. At that point, I wanted to stay in big towns that had loads of cool things to see and do.
Berlin was certainly easy to find, and I am thrilled that I had the chance to explore such a historic and important city. Whole books are devoted to all of the amazing things to do in that city alone.
The other towns I lived in rarely, if ever, get mentioned in German guide books beyond a paragraph noting that you will pass through this town on your way to somewhere else that the writer of the guide book felt was more important. The guidebooks are, after all, telling you how to see the most stuff in the shortest amount of time.
But if you did that, you’d miss great little towns like Warendorf-Freckenhorst, or Weilburg, or Elsfleth, or Appenweier, or Fehmarn or Groβostheim. You’d even miss that peaceful suburb of Berlin.
After living in those towns, there’s one thing I don’t do. These days, 20 years later, when I meet an exchange student who is living with a family in LaGrange County, I don’t say “Oh, I’m so sorry you ended up in the middle of nowhere,” as I have heard so many say.
I know they’ll have an opportunity to go to Chicago, New York, maybe even Disneyworld. They’ll get to see some of those places that are in the guidebooks. Host families are great about making sure they see these places.
But exchange programs are not about following a travel guidebook. They’re not about sightseeing at famous places.
They’re really about getting to stay with families like the Gaths, the Höflichs, the Brudys, the Plutas, the Glüβen-Lürβens, the Mackeprangs and the Hövings.
Even if some of them live in towns that you can’t easily find on a map.
Clay roofing tiles: