Goethe Intern #3 Americans are Fans of Germany

Keith with German book
Keith with one of his German books. | © Lara Hansen

There is one thing that I have already been able to confirm during my time here: Americans really are fans of Germany. There are numerous beer gardens advertising Bavarian weisswurst sausages and pretzels. Chunks of the Berlin Wall are scattered all over the city. Even some of the Bundesliga soccer matches are broadcast live.
 

Consequently, most people here associate Germany with Hofbräu beer, Berlin, and the Bundesliga soccer league. When I tell them about where I come from, a region with endless dikes, fresh fish sandwiches, and Flensburger beer, they prick up their ears in surprise – this is a totally unfamiliar version of Germany. I can even greet people here with a friendly “Moin” without provoking any suspicious glances. After all, in the local southern drawl the word “morning” comes out sounding pretty similar to our North German Moin. That said, the people of Washington tend to exhibit a certain exuberance that is not typical for a North Frisian. A curt North German “‘Tschuldigung” (“sorry”) becomes a far more expansive “I’m so sorry, are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help you?” – quite a culture shock.

My host Nancy, however, is not nearly this exuberant and displays a cool North German detachment. That’s perhaps because she does, in fact, have North German ancestors. Her grandfather, whose last name was originally Muhlmeister, set off in 1890 on the long journey from Oldenburg to New York while her father and the rest of the family immigrated in the early 20th century to rejoin their father in New Jersey. One day, Nancy would like to travel to Northern Germany to explore her own roots. Nothing south of Hanover interests her. “My people are in the north,” says Nancy. Being a student from the far north of Germany, I am like a piece of living history in her house. This is not the only reason why she is hosting me, though. She also wanted to have a bit of fun and liven up the dreary month of February, which is just as rainy and snowy as it is back home, though not nearly as windy.

Keith, a war veteran and a good friend of Nancy, also invites German culture into his home by hosting interns. Though he does not have any German roots himself, he does have a very special relationship with Germany. Born and raised in a village in South Carolina, his first trip overseas was to Ansbach, Germany as a veteran at the tender age of 23. So what was his initial impression? “Good beer and very good food.” But there is one thing he will never forget: as a member of the artillery unit at the Berlin Wall, he witnessed the collapse of the Wall firsthand. “It was crazy. Everyone ran onto the highway, complete strangers hugged each other, and there was an incredible sense of euphoria in the air. I never again saw or experienced anything like it,” he recalls, visibly moved.

A few years later, from 1995 to 1998, he ended up back in Germany, this time in Worms. During that trip, he made his way to Northern Germany for the first time, specifically to Hamburg. “The people were so tall,” laughs Keith. What’s more, he was finally able to swap Bavarian sausage for fresh fish. Being a Southerner, fish was something he had missed, so Hamburg turned out to offer some very welcome culinary relief. Keith hopes this won’t be his last visit to Germany. When he retires and can leave his current job at an IT company, he would like to spend at least five years living in Germany and attending college, ideally studying history. He is certainly ambitious in his pursuit of this dream; he reads German history books, listens to audiobooks, and watches the German news program Tagesschau daily. If he keeps on like this, it is not unlikely that he will soon be studying history at a German university. Until then, I will continue to familiarize Keith and Nancy with the North Frisian culture so that they find it just as natural to say “Moin” as they do “hello“ – hopefully, they will make a stop in the far north on their next visit to Germany.