This is about the time I was sent to Germany for 6 months. I was a 16 year old with bad German. I was the only one in my group who could speak any. My group would point to me on the airplane as someone who could help translate for an Oma that was having some language issues on the plane.
I went to Gymnasium (college tracked high school) at Neudorf Gymnasium in Duisburg, Germany.
I'm a poor planner. I've always been a pretty poor planner. I try. No, really. I try to plan things. Generally, that doesn't work out so well.
When I was in 7th grade, I had the option of which language I would choose the following year. This was 1982, so there was some interest in Asian languages, but not much in suburban Seattle.
There was French, Spanish, German. Somehow, I don't recall how, I was aware of a German exchange program that had been going on for 15 years or so. This program was operated out of the high school I would be attending.
I decided, planned!, that I would take German, because I would go on this exchange.
It was really a poorly thought out plan. There was no way I was going to be able to take an exchange student in my home. None. I didn't have any way of paying for such a trip. I mean, I was begging people in my neighborhood for work, I was delivering papers...
Home Was a Roof and a Bed
My home wasn't much of a home. It was a house in a great area with a fabulous view, but we only got it because of the social security death benefits from my Mother. It was a piece of crud, and the basement had places where the concrete was torn up, but it was never repaired. My Dad was a "convenience hippy." I use that term to describe him, because he wasn't all that excited about any sort of social change. He just liked the easy access to drugs, girls, and the ability to continue slacking his way through this part of his life.
The Exchange Program
We sang choruses of "Oh du schöne Schnitzelbank" through my junior high years. I may have learned a few things, but language instruction in the US has always seemed like something that we do in a completely half assed manner. There was, at the time, very little opportunity to even speak a second language in the US.
When the time came to make the move to high school, I started taking German. High school started in the 10th grade for me. Officially, 9th grade is on my transcripts, but the building didn't hold the 9th graders. The German teacher went simply by the name "Frau." This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and she was a former East German citizen. As a high school asshole, I wasn't ever really interested in asking her about her story. Instead, I just made life a little hard on her. I mean, really hard on her.
When I was still 14, I began working in a 4 star restaurant as a bus boy/dishwasher/prep cook. I made pretty good money for a grubby teen. I was able to buy a bass guitar that I still own and play. I was able to buy a nice stereo system. I was doing okay. I guess I would come to school looking like shit, because she told me about it later.
She would travel every Summer to Germany in order to visit the host families. She was very careful about how she matched the students up with host families. As I mentioned earlier, my family life wasn't really conducive to having someone stay with me. In hindsight, she made the best choice ever.
So when 11th grade came near, I probably told her that I wanted to go. She took one look at my home, and decided that was a non starter. I'm sure my Dad played it up a bit, because if there was one thing he wanted less than the two kids he already had to pay to take care of, it was the possibility of a third kid.
Frau is still alive. I saw her at her 90th birthday party. She is the human equivalent of those little dogs with little legs who are joyful, yet somehow retain their ability to strike fear. She was probably about 4'10", and she was the perfect roundness for her shortness.
One thing to remember about me personally is that I lost my mother at a very young age. What that means in this context is that when I would travel to Germany for 6 months of high school, it would likely be the first time I lived with a complete family that had any sort of harmony. The harmony would be different than I expected, because the home where I would stay had two bedrooms for the parents. There was no animosity, I just think they preferred to sleep in separate rooms.
Duisburg is in the Ruhrgebiet. It was historically a manufacturing and coal mining area. It was then the largest inland port in Germany. It's a little bit like those rust belt areas in the US. It was historically a blue collar population, and they were proud of the many ways in which they showed their blue collarness.
Many of my friends who traveled to Germany stayed with families in which there was a doctor or other professional in the house. My exchange parents were decidedly middle class. They lived in a multi-story apartment complex, in an apartment that was basically one entry way with 6 rooms surrounding it. Two of the rooms were the bathroom and the kitchen. There was a yard that held a massive stone ping pong table. The Father would putaway about a six pack of Beck's, and a pack of smokes a day.
Frau made an amazing choice for me. The family, the area... everything was perfect. My host Mother was an elementary school teacher, and she spoke with the deliberate cadence of someone who speaks frequently with children. I think her particular patience with me while we spoke was one of the best things that happened for my German language learning.
After about a month, I traveled on a ski trip for Easter. I returned speaking German that was the envy of all of my classmates. It just clicked. In order to learn a language, you have to determine the rhythm of that language.
Ruhrpott- The Curious language of the region
The language spoken in this part of Germany is very characteristic. Think about the pride that many blue collar areas have in the rough and tumble nature of their language. I have a specific dictionary with many of the different words that are unique to just the city of Duisburg.
One of the very first things I was taught- How to order Pommes frites (fries) properly. Einmal pommes rot/weiss.
"Buh, eh, wat soll dat, den?!" In order to really sound German, you have to master the interjections. There are numerous interjections that fit into sentences as sort of rhythm keepers. And, while Germany may have some of the longest words you can imagine, (Sicherheitsmassnahme), there is also the ability to express a complex thought in nothing more than a grunt. "Na?" could mean a lot of things. It's really just the word, "well?"
A good example of an interjection that keeps the rhythm of the sentence is "denn." "Wie heisst du?" just means "What are you called?" But it's very common for Germans to interject the word "denn" in there for no reason, apparently than to keep the sentence sounding coherent. "Wie heisst denn du?" Instead of three, short and choppy single syllables, it becomes a more rhythmic statement.
I was also taught the (in)correct way to say "Das" and "Was." It's common in Germany to replace the S on the end of Das und Was with a T, but in Duisburg it's a thing.
When I would later visit Hamburg, I would be told by my friend's exchange family that I "was learning the worst German in all of Germany."
I thought it was fucking awesome. I still think it is. My exchange student is a doctor, but he wants to be an actor. He has been told that it's not possible to copy "Ruhrpöttisch." Yet, when he visited me recently, he was all happy that he could come here to the US and find someone who speaks like he does.
I think anyone should do an exchange program, but I have been constantly reminded of what a great experience it was for me. Why was it so great for me?
Well, I learned to speak a language, even though the language is nearly useless in this world anymore. I rarely get to speak German with anyone.
When I was at Frau's birthday party, I stood up to speak in front of the others who had come to celebrate the 30+ years that she ran her own personal exchange program. I tried not to cry, but I couldn't avoid it.
I told her that I wanted to thank her for the experience, because it was the only time that I was able to live in a "real family." A family where the parents were interested in their kids education, where they had matching silverware, and a family where someone cooked dinner every night.
I know that those aren't the only things that make a family, but like many kids who are 16, I was preoccupied with the things I didn't have. It was an amazing thing for me to be able to spend that 6 months with a family that was there for each other.
The way our family is now.