1984, a year usually associated with the dystopian novel of the same name, was anything but dystopian for 48 American college students.
It was the year Steve Jobs rolled out the first Macintosh computer, a box-like machine that had no memory built in. Total sales for cell phones were 7,000, up from 0 in 1983. Ghostbusters, starring Bill Murray, was the top grossing film. As a duet, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson topped the pop charts, as did a man from my home state of Minnesota, Prince. Ronald Reagan was reelected, and the Winter Olympics were held in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.
My 47 “classmates” and I were the pilot participants in a new program, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals.
Young and idealistic, we were wide open to what would come from the program that had chosen us, which had promised us each a year of school, work, family life, and adventure in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. The BRD, also known as West Germany.
A Visitor’s Introduction
Our language lessons and home stays began with the gaffes that mark a visitor’s introduction to a new country. Later we’d swap stories with CBYX friends, or write home (there was no email, and phone calls cost $3/minute). As when I asked my friend’s mother if I might use the bathroom. I knew every word I needed except the verb use. She waited patiently while I checked my Deutsch-Englisch dictionary. I found two possibilities, benutzen and verwenden, and chose verwenden. The woman laughed heartily, as I asked her if I could have the toilet and take it with me. Marcia, from Pennsylvania, arrived at her host family’s home on her first day, and the first thing they asked was if she’d like to dusch herself. And on it went for us all.
For our first two months, our group was situated in the idyllic town of Radolfzell am Bodensee, in the fruit belt of Southern Germany. In this place, we took intensive language instruction at the Carl Duisberg Zentrum. My home stay there was with a first generation Polish family, the Kalkowskis. Maria, known to us as Frau K., led my roommate Joel and me on a day-long walk deep into a forest. We went in with a basket of sandwiches and came back with piles of wild mushrooms. On our return, we crossed a long pasture where sheep were being herded by a man in a long black cape, wearing a wide-brim hat, and marking his steps with a seven-foot shepherd’s crook. Joel and I wondered if we landed in a different century as well as on another continent.
Homestays and Adventures
After Radolfzell, we all went our ways to our own cities and homestays. I spent the rest of my year in Amberg, in Northern Bavaria, where I attended the Fachoberschule and lived with the Wießner family. Edgar and Maria, my hosts, had one child, Jürg, who was in Ohio on the same program. They doted on me in a way I never before experienced. I spent the rest of the year in München, where I worked my internship at the luxurious Hilton, supervising kitchen staff. The personnel there hailed from 40 different countries, but of the 600 workers, I was the only American.
Most weekends were devoted to adventure, spurred on by a very strong dollar. Friends and I dressed in jacket and ties, blouses and skirts, and hitchhiked from Lake Constance to Zürich, where we heard the orchestra perform at the Tonhalle. Dressed as we were, we had no trouble getting rides. Train passes were a good deal, yet for fewer Deutschmarks than a one-way ticket to Stuttgart, you could buy a used bicycle, fill your backpack with cheese, bread, and beer, and pedal to Salzburg, staying at youth hostels along the way.
This was a common pattern for the first year CBYXers: total immersion in our spread-out villages, at our homestays and in our schools and internships. With our limited language skills, some isolation and loneliness were inevitable. Some weekends we stayed put and pushed through. Other weekends we rode the trains to one another’s cities, finding comfort in English, and American familiarity.
For our mid-year meeting, we traveled to Berlin. Berlin had the Kurfürstendamm, Europe’s Broadway, a flash point of trendy clubs, avante-garde design, and haute commerce that stood in contrast to the carefully propped and bland economy on the other side of the Wall.
Our group took a three-hour tour of the East, but it was barely a taste. We spent the first hour just getting in — “Ausweiskontrolle” (passport check). Once through the checkpoint, we gawked and were gawked at. They clearly found us strange. We looked back at them in similar wonder — are they free at all? Are they happy? If we wanted to talk to them, would they want to talk to us too? Or are they so supervised that it’s impossible?
After our return to the United States, my friend Cary would earn her Ph.D. in German and become a professor. John from Detroit, with BMW robotics on his resumé, would become a highly sought-after engineer here. Harmon became a successful financial advisor. He still goes back to Germany and visits his host family, and they visit him in California. I graduated college, and have enjoyed successive careers as a social worker, teacher, and photographer. As a teacher, I incorporated German into every part of my curriculum, from grades one through twelve.
Our group has lost each other, for the most part. We didn’t have the internet to stay connected, and now many names are hard to find online. We all have the memories and experiences of CBYX Year One. None of us will ever forget the day we met and our flight from Newark to Brussels. Our pilot flew through a thunderhead, and the plane was struck by lightning. Fortunately, it was not an omen for the year to come. Year One of the CBYX was a great success for us all, and it continues to this day.
The Congress-Bundestag Young Exchange was established in 1983 by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag to strengthen ties between Germany and the United States through citizen diplomacy. The CBYX for Young Professionals annually provides 75 Americans and 75 Germans, between the ages of 18-24, the opportunity to spend one year in each other’s countries, studying, interning, and living with hosts on a cultural immersion program.