Life in Germany was interesting but a tad bit difficult, too. The German winter seemed to come out of nowhere and I was still dressing as if I were living in Florida! By December, I was sick and getting sicker but too absorbed with my new life to really care. I was also in need of a new host-family as the Bingiessers were headed off to who knows where for who knows what. My only concern was that I would not be sent to another family in Harbach or that I would be sent out of town to attend some other school.
On the day I got my answer, I was sitting inside of the school when a guy called Jens came up to me and said, “My God, you look horrible, Chris!”
Jens was dating a girl in my class called Regina. That is how I knew him.
“Why don’t you come to town with me and we will get a hot cup of coffee.”
I felt awful but got up and walked into town with Jens. On the way, he told me that he was breaking up with Regina. I said nothing, only listened. Regina was a very pretty girl but He said he’d lost interest in her. Unbelievably, it was I Regina ran to for comfort in the coming weeks after Jens dropped her.
On our return to school that day the snow began to fall and I could barely muster up the happiness I felt to finally experience a genuine white winter. The walk to town and back had only made me feel much worse andI began to notice how sick I really was. While sitting in the last course of the day, art class, I was called out to speak with someone. I was almost delirious with illness by now and I slowly made my way into the corridor to see who wanted to speak with me.
“Hello, Christopher. I’m Harry Hauser,” a man said.
He was about my height and spoke perfect English.
He went on, “My wife and I heard that you are looking for another host family for a little while and we would like to offer you our home.”
“Do you live here in Grunber,?” I asked quietly.
“You are very sick. Why are you even in school?” he asked, ignoring my question.
“We have a son who is attending his 12th year here. His name is Jornn. We are more than happy to have you with us, if you’d like. You should get right home today and try to get yourself packed. My wife is very anxious to meet you. I think we will come by the Bingiesser home on Sunday afternoon for you. Well that’s if you would want to be with us. It is all up to you.”
I couldn’t say No to him and didn’t want to, either.
“I would love to be with your family. Thank you so much,” I said.
He shook my hand and said, “I think you’re going to like living with us.”
He would not be wrong about that at all!
When I got home that day, Frau Bingiesser had already heard the news about the Hauser family and then explained to me why they were leaving.
“Herr Bingiesser is not well and it seems we are going to have to take him tohospital for a little while. We should be gone for about 3 months but we’ll be back. Then you come back to us,” she explained.
I was so exhausted and so sick I could barely stand up but made my way upstairs to my bedroom. I heard everything she said but was so out of it I just couldn’t care right then.
The next day I got up and began to pack and only packed about 80% of what I owned, under the impression that I would return. How wrong I was.
Saturday went by without much to remember but Sunday came and before I knew it, the Hausers pulled up into the driveway outside. I truly can hardly remember saying goodbye to everyone but I do remember Frau Bingiesser introducing herself to Harry and Mrs. Hauser and then whispering to my ear, “You are not returning to me, Chris. They said they are taking you to Spain. Just remember everything I taught you.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but I just said, “no. I’ll come back.”
Needless to say, that would be the last time I would spend any time within the Bingiesser home.
I was a tad nervous leaving with the Hausers but they were both very gracious and Frau Hauser, a petite attractive blonde lady in her early forties, turned around from the front seat to smile at me every once in a while.
While sitting in the backseat of the family sports car, I heard Frau Hauser say, “This child is sick, Harry.”
Once again, I was so sick I can remember very little of that first day with the Hausers. Frau Hauser showed me to my beautiful bedroom on the 3rd floor of their home and I stayed in bed for almost two weeks while Frau Hauser nursed me back to health.
Naturally, I was suffering from pneumoniabut had no earthly idea. I thought it was just another bad cold which I would get during Florida winters, as well.
During those days when Frau Hauser took care of me I got to know more about her, her home and family. Her name was Karin and she was a housewife. Herr Hauser or Harry was a few years older than she and they bought the large and “historical property” right before their son, Jorn, was born.
The property was, in fact, very large but it was also the home of a Nazi retiree during WWII.
Once I had gotten better, I got to know the family and property much better and I was able to roam around Grunberg, where they did, in fact, live and all was well with me.
Although Harry only spoke English with me, Karin and Jorn spoke very little English at all and only spoke to me in German. Actually, my host-brother, Jorn, spoke very little to me at any time. He just looked at me with disregard and ignored me most of the day. Jorn was quite unimpressed with me and found me silly and clueless. My Madonna posters and fashion magazines were uncomplicated and childish compared to his computer knowledge and his mathematical mind. While he wore the same thing every day, I liked to mix it up. Most German kids wore the same thing every single day and they were always clean, of course, but I was an American student. We just never wore the same thing to school every day. He found me insufferable! Plus, he noticed his mother gazing at me, a virtual stranger, with motherly love and that made him furious.
Karin was, unsurprisingly, very close to me and it was she who would make me sit down after school every day to read the local newspaper to strengthen my German. There was a television in the livingroom but it was rarely turned on until Monday nights when Karin allowed me to watch a music video show geared at teens, again to learn more German or Deutsch. Karin did very little outside of the home other than shop for the two men in her life. She had studied at a culinary school so she was a magnificent cook. I could tell that she probably felt loneliness being a housewife and I became a new and fascinating reason to give her life a little bit of a kick. Before too long she was roaming around the house with her walkman at her side, swaying to the music as she did her housework. She would go out to get her hair done and spend her down time reading fashion magazines. As she cooked and prepared meals for her family and sometimes for dinner parties with their friends, I would help her, ask questions and help her serve. She was in love, let me tell you! Her whole life changed when she met me but I guess that is what bringing an exchange student into your home can do for a host-family. I became Karin’s new best friend and she became my best friend and confidant, as well. Karin even decided to go back to school to study Latin.
As I became more comfortable around the Hauser family, I began to venture out more by myself and it was not only allowed but encouraged by Harry and Karin. Of course, I was never far away as I now lived just one block from town and it did not take long for locals to know who I was. It wasn’t every day someone of color traipsed through Grunberg. They knew who I was from what they had already heard about a black student attending school but they also knew the Hauser family well.
It did not take very long for me to forget about my old life in Harbach and just before the Christmas holidays, I began taking piano lessons with a lady who lived right across the street from my new family called Frau Pietsch. Jorn, a bona fide nerd, was sick of Frau Pietsch and the piano. The computer was Jorn’s first and only love so Harry and Karin asked me if I’d like to take his place and I heartily agreed.
When I was able to call mother and daddy back in Florida, I let them know that I was with a new family and that I think I would rather be with Karin and Harry. Mother spoke with Harry who explained why I was now with them and I know it caused mother some concern but Harry eased her and told her that he really didn’t think my few months with the Bingiessers was healthy and he and Karin would like for me to stay with them for the duration of my time in Europe.
“I would also like to ask your permission to take Chris to Spain with us for the spring break,” I heard Harry say to my mother.
Frau Bingiesser was right! I’m going to Spain!!
Christmas came and went without much fuss but one thing did happen and I noticed something else. First, the Christmas tree was lovely but because they used live candles on the real tree, I was quite nervous. The whole thing could have gone up in flames but it seemed to concern any of them at all!
Also, one evening while Jorn, Karin and I listened to the new albums gifted to Jorn and me, I wanted to have a little fun with my new host-brother. Karin sat on the couch knitting and smoking her only cigarette of the day, something she did each evening before bed, and Jorn stood at the stereo moving to the music. I slipped up behind him and turned the volume down while his Level 42 record played. Karin and I thought it was funny. I did it a couple of times but after the third time I tried to turn the volume down on the stereo, Jorn pushed me and I flew across the living room like a rag doll, landing on the floor with a thud.
I was stunned, speechless and a little shaken. Karin dropped her knitting materials and stood up and ran over to me and yelled, “Have you lost your mind, Jorn? You could have seriously hurt this child! Get out! Get out now and wait for your father in your room! Now, Jorn!”
As Karin comforted me, Jorn made his way out of the living room, the evening ending on a very sad note. I, too, went to my bedroom. I was fine but unhappy as I realized that I may not get to really have a cordial relationship with my new host-brother.
Before going to bed that evening, I was compelled to write mother a letter to let her know what happened. Soon enough, my mother called Harry what was going on and he promised her that he would not allow anything to happen to me and the matter was handled. He promised my mother that Jorn would never lay another hand on me and Harry was right. He did tell me, though, that he could hear someone in the background saying, “Kick his tail, Chris!” I knew it was my big brother, E. T. I told Harry that E. T. meant no harm, just concerned for my safety.
The Christmas break ended and it was back to school. January was as cold as ever but I didn’t mind. Karin had taught me how to layer in cold weather and for Christmas I was given new shoes and a coat to tackle any cold weather anywhere. I was able to walk to class in the mornings if I did not want to catch a ride with Harry. It was a beautiful experience knowing how to appreciate the cold and snowy weather.
The Hauser family turned out to be a gift from God as they kept me more entertained than the Bingiessers. Harry, a teacher but also a sculptor. He would get in from school and head down to the cellar with a large glass of white wine and would weld pieces of scrap metal into works of art. It was magnificent to see the finished products. We would go into Frankfurt to art galleries that featured Harry’s work.
Harry was also a political activist so I was able to attend my first and only political rally. Harry took us to a rally, also in Frankfurt, at a local university for a rally for the SPD party, one of a few different political parties in Germany. The experience was intense and thrilling and a lot of fun.
The view from my bedroom was quite spectacular, too. I could see the rolling hills and old homes darted throughout the landscape. Just below the hill from the house sat a small lake that had frozen over and kids were playing hockey and ice skating. Karin asked me if I’d like to try ice skating. I never said No so we walked down the hill and I tried to ice skate. The kids were trying desperately to help me stay on my feet but it was not going to happen. I could not balance my ankles in those ice skates!
Harry and Karin also took me skiing but the weather had turned to blizzard and the visibility was almost zero on the mountain. Unfortunately, that was the first and last time we tried to go skiing.
Then, it was time for our trip to Spain. School was going right along and I was doing well in my courses but as much as I had learned to love the winter weather, I was aching for a little bit of sunshine. My spirits needed to be lifted and the only thing that was going to help was a little sun. I was born in Florida! I was starting to wilt and sunshine was the only prescription.
The Christmas break was for three or four weeks during the German school year. Luckily, spring break was for two weeks and I would get to spend two weeks in Spain.
Really, there was little fuss getting to Spain from Germany. All we needed were our passports and our baggage and a few snacks and we were on our way.
Jorn did not want to go with us but Harry and Karin were weary of leaving him home alone for two weeks. One evening we had gone out to dinner without Jorn and when we returned home, Karin’s cat, Tomy, was cowering in the corner of the living room, a look of sheer terror on it’s little feline face and Jorn, was standing up, hair mussed, clothes disheveled face flushed bright red. Karin ran to her cat while Harry asked Jorn what the heck was going on and I just laughed. The entire scene was so crazy and I really thought Jorn, my host-brother was nuts! Jorn would terrorize that poor cat for absolutely no reason at all!By the way, just one more commentary on Jorn. One day, after walking home from school, the house was quiet and Karin was alone. Usually, everyone is around and getting ready for dinner but this time Karin sat in the kitchen all alone, finishing up dinner.
“Where is everyone?,” I asked.
This is how Karin responded, “Oh, Chris, child, you did not hear at school, I guess. Well, Jorn walked out of one of his courses today and in the corridor in front of students and instructors held his arm out and screamed, ‘Heil Hitler!’”
I was stunned and mortified!
She went on, “Harry boxed his ears and slapped him around like nothing I have ever seen before in my life! Harry is in the cellar coolling off and Jorn is in his room for the rest of the night. He may still be expelled from the school. Harry has to wait for the Headmaster’s phone call.”
I knew that even a mention of the name Hitler was uncomfortable for many Germans so I was not surprised by Harry’s actions. I was surprised, however, by Jorn. He just didn’t think! Being smart is fine but it doesn’t make one have common sense.
The trip to Spain was amazing and it was only a two day drive. We stopped in southern France for our overnight stay and would drive into Spain the next day. I was not able to see very much of France but was able to see some parts of it before dusk set in. Spain, on the other hand, was marvelously beautiful and so were the people. Harry and Karin had purchased a two bedroom condo on the beach in a little resort town called Las Mil Palmeras. Our neighbors were from all over Europe. The neighbors to the right of us were from Poland, across the street were families from Switzerland and England. Behind us, more Germans but Swedish and Finnish families, too. It was a beautiful little town and the Mediterranean was truly spectacular. I could walk out into the ocean for a third of a mile and the water would remain just above my hips. I made friends that I still communicate with to this very day.
Spain was old, old, old but its spirit was young and so were the people. All of them, happy and full of spirit themselves. The food was as wonderful as I’d expected and I did not want to leave.
Harry took us to Alicante, the largest city in southern Spain and just walking around was exhausting but I was able to just get eye-fulls of all around me. The buildings were ancient but still stood, withered and crooked from time but holding on with strength and defiance. The people were kind and happy to see us as we walked in and out of the little shops and eateries. Of course, I got many looks and nods of approval as many of them assumed right away that I was American. The kids would run up to me to grab onto me and ask for candy or just to hear me speak American English. Some of them would just offer me a flower they had just picked from a garden. I was taken aback at first but Harry and Karin told me it was okay and I just learned to go with the flow and take in the xperiences of this beautiful culture.
Las Mil Palmeras was quiet in the mornings but would begin to awaken by noon. Harry would go to the local shops and bring back a sack of freshly baked spanish bread and we would eat brunch on the front porch of the condo. Boiled eggs, apricot jam, cream cheese and prosciutto was always on the menu and I could not get enough of it.
We would go to the beach for a long while and return home for dinner. After dinner, the whole town would head to the promenade and sit for music and flamenco dances. Some would go into one of two little discos and others would dine at some of the local restaurants. It was truly relaxing and exactly what a vacation should be for everyone. Even Jorn and I got to know one another…well, a little. We would play tennis together but that was really the extent of our bonding.
The two week trip to Spain didn’t last very long and before I knew it, it was back to Grunberg for the rest of school before my return to America. The year would soon be up in July. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time was going by. My German was almost perfect by now and I got along well when I was alone. There was no uncertainty in me at all and I considered Germany home. One day, while practicing piano, I decided that I should probably check on the Bingiessers. I had not spoken with them since before the Christmas holidays and I did feel bad that I had not returned to them. I asked Harry and Karin if they would like to have Sunday coffee with the Bingiessers and they agreed that would be a nice gesture.
I called the Bingiessers and Herr Bingiesser picked up the phone. He was so happy to hear from me and told me how much he missed me.
“We really miss you being here, Chris. It’s so good to hear from you!,” he said.
I was happy to hear him say this so I responded, “It’s so good to hear you, too, Herr Bingiesser. How would you like for me to come over for coffee this Sunday? I will be with Harry and Karin Hauser.”
“That would be very nice. I will tell everyone and we will see you Sunday afternoon,” he said happily.
When Sunday came, Karin, Harry and I made our way to Harbach. I was a little nervous but not sure why and Karin said she also felt uneasy. Harry told us we would be fine and then we pulled into the Bingiesser driveway. I got out of the car and walked up to the door to ring the door bell. Karin and Harry stood behind me but close to the car.
Andreas came to the door and instead of inviting us into the house, said, “Chris, what do you want?”
“We are here for coffee. I talked to Herr Bingiesser,” I said. And then I could hear Frau Bingiesser from her perch in the kitchen scream that she did not want to see me or “those Hausers, either!”
As I stood there, I then heard Herr Bingiesser begin to yell as Karin and Harry begin to uncomfortably make their way to the car and call me to them. I stood there, stunned that this was actually happening. Andreas, well aware of his mother, just said, “Chris, you all should go. Don’t come back.” And he shut the door. Karin called to me and Harry just said, “Chris, don’t worry about it. We will go.”
As we got into the car we could still hear Frau Bingiesser yelling at the top of her lungs. We drove away and that was the last time I would visit Harbach or see the Bingiessers. Karin was mortified, of course, as this has never happened to her and that kind of behaviour was unheard of in polite society. As a matter of fact, she talked about it for the rest of the day, shaking her head and saying over and over to Harry and me, “Did you see how that rude cow refused us? Has that woman lost her mind?”
As June approached, I wondered what I would get to do for my 17th birthday. I had been to Spain already and Harry and the Bingiessers had taken me all over middle and southern Germany. I had gone to Munich earlier in the year with a friend of Harry. I had already spent time with some of the local Educational Foundation students who lived in the local area, also. I wanted a party. Traveling more was unnecessary. Harry agreed that a birthday party was well-deserved because of my hard work in school and my “humble spirit”. He made up the invitations and he allowed me to pass them out to some of my classmates in school. He also told me more good news for my birthday.
“We are taking you back to Spain for a little while before you return to America. That and your party are your gifts from Karin and me.”
The birthday party was a wonderful last night with all of my friends and they made sure I would never forget them with the wonderful gifts they bought me. Harry and Karin grilled steaks and the champagne and beer flowed. I, was not a drinker so I stuck to the soda pop but my friends, responsible teenagers only drank very little. By the way, ever eaten organic beef? It will literally melt in your mouth!
Our last hoorah in Spain lasted for 3 ½ weeks and it was without Jorn. Harry and Karin allowed him to remain in Germany alone as he became 18 between the spring and summer break. He was thrilled and trust me, so was I. I had my own bedroom in Spain and now when I hung out with other teens in Spain, Jorn couldn’t frighten them away. Yes, really.
Spain was as lovely as ever and the locals remembered me, too. It was nice and we had another birthday celebration for me as Karin’s birthday was just one day after mine. Harry and Karin invited their friends in Las Mil Palmeras and they allowed me to invite some of my local friends and we had a big dinner outside, right on the street and everyone, about 30 people from various cultures around the world, broke bread together in harmony to celebrate Karin’s and my birthday.
Driving back to Germany after our summer break was bittersweet for each of us for different reasons and before too long it was time for me to leave this magnificent country and loving culture. I was sad but ready to see my mother and family. I realized that I had, naturally, accumulated much more than I came to Europe with and there was no way it would all fit into my luggage. Harry and Karin told me not to worry because they would ship it all and I would get it soon after my arrival back in the states.
July 17, 1987 I got up early, got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. Karin and Harry were already having coffee and eating toast when Harry asked, “Chris, do you have your passport?”
I had it right on me and we were soon on our way to the Frankfurt International Airport. It seemed so strange? Had I really already been in Germany for a year? Had I really experienced all of this in just one year? Had I done everything I was supposed to do? I learned fluent Deutsch. I kept a journal and I even kept up with the articles I was writing for the local Bristol newspaper at home in Florida. Was there anything missing? I said goodbye to my friends and my teachers. I said goodbye to Frau Pietsch and told her I’d keep up with my piano lessons. That was it. I had fulfilled my requirements as an exchange student with EF and it was time to go home.
The airport filled up quickly with many of the students I had studied with at language camp. Each one of us was going home a little different in appearance and different on the inside, too.
I said my goodbyes to Harry and Jorn but saying goodbye to Karin was a bit more difficult. She was so special to me and was my mother for 8 months and she took the part seriously. As all of the passengers began to board the plane, I hugged Karin goodbye and she would not let go of my hand. I can’t remember what I told Karin but, reluctantly, she let my hand go and she began to cry as I waved them all goodbye.
“I love you,” I yelled as I walked down the ramp to board. I was sad but happy, too, and could not wait to get back to America. My year in Germany had come to an end.
Back home in good old United States of America, my family was wating for me at the Tallahassee Regional Airport. I was darker from the Spanish sun and my hair was now an afro and I had put on some pounds but my family knew who I was right away, of course. I had so much to show them and tell them but I was tired and just glad to be home.
I wasn’t going to write about this but I will tell you about my trip to Santa Barbara, California to visit the Educational Foundation for Foreign Study headquarters.
After being home and even starting my senior year back in Liberty County High School, I got an invitation from EF to visit California one weekend to talk about my successful year in Germany. I would meet the EF staff and other scholarship students who had also just returned from a year in various countries in Europe. I was so excited because I had never been to California and I just knew that I was going to get to see Olivia Newton-John once I’d gotten there.
My mother drove me to the Tallahassee airport in September of 1987 for my trip to California. Before boarding the plane she slipped $100 bill into my pocket and told me to have a good time. “I hope you get to see Olivia or Christie Brinkley. Tell them I said Hello,” my mother said. I kissed Mrs. Adeline goodbye and I was on my way to Cali. My connecting flight was in Atlanta and the layover was not very long before the flight to LAX in Los Angeles was ready to board.
I was seated in the front of the plane in coach and next to me sat an older gentleman, Italian, quiet and polite. We watched the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” and only chatted little throughout the long flight. Once we had landed in Los Angeles, the man said we would walk to baggage claim together and I agreed. We got our bags and he and I both walked outside to wait for our rides. EF had told me that I would be picked up on time and not to worry so I didn’t. As the older gentleman and I stood outside in the breezy California night, the palmtrees swaying in the breeze we noticed a long shiny white limousine pull up in front of the line of people waiting for rides.
The white limo caused quite a stir and as it made its way down the street it began to slow as it got closer to the older gentleman and me. My heart began to race and I couldn’t imagine who could be inside that limo. Who was it? Everyone around us was having fits to find out who was in that limo! Then the limo stopped and it stopped right in front of the older man and me. Was it Olivia Newton-John, finally rescuing me to take me back to her Malibu mansion? Could it be? Was it?
The back door of the sparkling limousine slowly opened and out stepped a shiny white shoe which connected to a white pair of pants and then another white leg stepped out of the limo and there in front of us stood…could it be, was it…Kojak! It was Kojak, Telly Savalas, dressed all in white, his bald head and a bright red lollipop sitting inside his lips. He made his way right to me and as my heart beat faster, Kojak stepped onto the sidewalk and grabbed the older gentleman next to me!
“I’m sure you’re tired. Everything is ready for you back at the mansion, even the pool,” Telly Savalas told he older man.
“Have a nice night,” the older gentleman said to me and Kojak smiled and nodded at me and they were gone, the shiny white limo with the sparkling tinted windows slowly rolled away, leaving everyone standing there in fits of screams and sheer joy at their celebrity sighting.
The weekend in Santa Barbara was great but Telly Savalas was my only celebrity sighting that weekend. No Olivia and no Christie Brinkley. I would have to tell my mother that only Kojak showed up for me.
I shared my newspaper articles with the EF staff and the other exchange students and they showed us a good time as well. I was thankful to them for allowing me the amazing experience and grateful for the scholarship.
That was my trip to Germany, kids. Could the weather have helped trigger something in my DNA that would later cause me to suffer from Sarcoidosis? I may never know that answer but had I known that the trip would eventually cause me to lose my sight, I have a feeling I still would have made the trip.
Thanks for reading. I know this entry was much longer than the rest but it was time to finish this four parter. Hope you enjoy and you will be hearing from me soon enough. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet me @ChrisDThomas70.
Many blessings to each one of you!