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Traveling Europe in a VW Bus


They did encourage me to travel.  I knew all these AFS kids from the year before in Florida that were in Sweden and France and Austria, and so what I would do is, I would go and visit these kids during the course of the year.  I would take off four or five days, and go.

Since I didn’t have any money, my [host] parents just said, “Why don’t you hitchhike?”



So I hitchhiked all over Europe at the age of seventeen, and then I turned eighteen while I was over there.  The bad news of that was Youth For Understanding found out and they tried to have me sent home on more than one occasion.  My German mother ran the interference on that.  She kept YFU at bay because I apparently broke quite a few rules that they didn’t like, one of which was hitchhiking.

Probably the biggest fiasco that I entangled myself with was at the end of the school year.  I had six weeks left of school and my German brother, who had lived with me the year before in Florida, lived in Stuttgart.  He was graduating, and so he bought a VW bus and he invited me to go on a trans-European bus tour.

VW Bus T1 "Fensterbus"

VW Bus T1 “Fensterbus” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I checked out with my family, and then with my school, and they said go for it, ’cause you know you don’t have many chances to do something like that.

So I hitchhiked down to Stuttgart, and we wound up going in a VW bus just like, you know, an old movie bus.  We went through southern Germany over into Austria, down into Italy, down into the Italian Riviera, up through the French Riviera, up through southern France.  We got to Paris.

In Paris, I was driving at four in the morning because I was the sober one, and I got hit broadside by a taxi.  It flipped the bus and we couldn’t get the bus fixed, so I had to hitchhike from Paris back to Hamburg to catch my flight.

What was funny about all this was, since this was my last month there, Youth For Understanding was calling, making travel arrangements, and they wanted to talk to me, and they found out from the school, “No, Dave’s not here.  He’s gone off for a six-week vacation.”

They finally figured out that I was out in a hippie van somewhere on the Riviera, so they revoked my ticket home.  I hitchhiked  back to Germany from Paris.  It took me two days.  I slept in a ditch.  I got back and my German mother mentioned something about, you know, there was some issue, but we’ll get it all straightened out at the airport tomorrow.

When I went to the airport the next day, the director of YFU came up to me and she just was not happy at all.  She gave me a big fat lecture in front of everybody.

It turns out they did revoke my ticket, and in the process of revoking the ticket, they had to go tell my family in Florida that I didn’t have a ticket, and that did not go over with my mom.  So they reinstated the ticket and I did get a ride home.

My German mother said, “Dave don’t worry , if you don’t have a ticket home, you can just stay here.”


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Do you really eat puppies for dinner?


Barbara Pape Kilkka with YFU host father

Barbara with her German host father


On the Fourth of July, I promised to make a secret American meal and holed up in the kitchen all afternoon. Little brother Schorsi kept pestering me about what I was making, and I finally told him, asking for a promise not to tell.

He looked at me horrified when I told him what we were going to have and asked if we really ate that in America. I assured him we did, all the time. When I brought out the fried chicken for dinner, he laughed in relief.

“Oh, haenchen, not hundchen.” (Chicken, not puppies.)

Just a typical and memorable pronunciation error for an exchange student!

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Americans Bullshit a Lot

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Oh, they ask the same questions like — it still shocks me, but I try to get over it — “Do Americans have silverware?”  And I heard that from my German mother, and she’s a very intelligent woman.  She’d never been in the United States, and it was kind of like, “Where did you come up with that concept?”   I don’t know, I don’t know.


I told this girl one time that Germans — and here I’m making a stereotype — they typically don’t bullshit a lot.


They don’t understand just pulling someone’s leg.  And so Tanya, the girl that I really got along with, asked me at school, with her little group of friends, she asked me, “What was the biggest difference between the United States and Germany?”


English: Pleiades Star Cluster

English: Pleiades Star Cluster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And I said, “Well, actually the biggest difference would kind of surprise you.  Over here in Germany, if you look up at night, do you see stars?  And she said “Yeah.”  I said, “Well, in Florida there are no stars.”  And she looked at me and she goes, “What do you mean there’s no stars?”   I said, “Well, we’re so far down on the Earth, the planet, we’re down like near the equator, that there’s no stars that low.  All the stars are above you.  That’s why when you look up you see stars.”


But it was like, for her, why would anyone lie?  And I found that to be a very common factor in Germany, that, yeah, you sit there, and you could bullshit all you want, and they’ll look at you like it’s the gospel truth.


They just don’t understand, you know, that Americans really bullshit a lot.







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We smelled to high hell

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So tell me about your last week there?

That was fun.  It was mostly last-minute celebrations.  School had let out by then, and I had some girlfriends that I was really close to.  Each of those groups threw me a little party.  The one group of friends that we had–we would always cook together– so they gave me a cookbook.  Don’t ask me why, but they signed my leg, lots and lots of writing all over my leg, like a cast but obviously no cast.

Bahnhof Steinebach

image of Bahnhof Steinebach by thomas mies (Flickr)

Another friend of mine, we had a nice Saturday afternoon and we all got together and we actually painted her room.  She gave us artistic license so we could put whatever we wanted on the wall.  We each had a little portion of wall canvas and put our own thing up there and it was kind of a fun thing.

Two nights before I left, they had a party.  Steinebach is a real small town on a lake, and we all got together late in the evening and had a little fire by the lake.  They dared me to jump in and we all jumped in the lake and it was dark and scary.  We were covered with smoke and soot and everything else.

We got out of the water and we’re having our sausages over the fire and drinking our wine or whatever.

At the end of the night, a very long evening, we decided it was time to head back home.   We we got on our bikes–me and Helena and another friend of ours–and we’re riding our bikes back to the house.  It’s pretty late, and we pass an orange Mercedes, which is the same car as my host parents drove, and the car slowed down…and we slowed down…because we thought it was my host parents.

We looked into the car and it was these two men, and we flipped out.  We got so scared and we started to ride our bikes really really fast away, and they did kind of a u-turn, and kind of were following after us, and of course that just sent us into a huge panic.  We saw a farm house and we jumped off our bikes and ran through the yard.  Of course it was pitch black outside, and there’s a huge pile, like a little hill in the yard, and so we run smack into this hill and climb over it, and we get to the door and we’re like, there’s a car chasing us, help, help us!

I can’t even imagine what we looked like!  We were covered in soot, we had been in the lake, and what we had run through was a pile of manure!

Manure. Czech countryside

Image via Wikipedia – not the real pile of manure!

This is a rural little town and the farmer was…you know, I can’t even imagine what his thoughts were.  There were these three young women, we smelled to high hell, and the look on his face, though, was priceless.  So we gave him the phone number of my host parents and he called them and they came and got us.

We went back the next day and got the bikes.  I remember when I walked into the bathroom my host mom was like, “Oh…my…god, you wreak!”  We had been sweating.  “Please don’t take a shower yet, you’re gonna get a cold, and your mother is going to think that I didn’t take good care of you while you were here.”

And I was like, I have to take a shower, and I jumped into the shower and got all clean.  I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, oh my god, I cannot imagine what those people thought of us as we were banging on the door.  Of course I did catch a cold and she would not let up about that.  She was like I told you…  So that was the culminating event.

It was certainly memorable!

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Tampons and Tempo tissues


English: Tempo facial tissues Deutsch: Packung...


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You know, here you ask someone for a Kleenex, and Kleenex really is a brand name.  It’s a facial tissue, or whatever you want to call it.

Well, in Germany the brand name is Tempo.  So one time I was in the bathroom towards the beginning of my stay.  The bathrooms, by the way, were really interesting.  I mean, here they’re all clean and well kept; the bathrooms there were, like, crazy.  If you were going to bathroom on Monday or Tuesday you better bring your own toilet paper, ’cause by the end of the week there is definitely none left in the bathroom.

And there was graffiti everywhere.  The school itself wasn’t like that, but the bathrooms were. It was really weird.  I didn’t know until the end of the year that the upper classmen had their own bathroom.

So it was usual, when you went to the bathroom, that some people might ask you if you had any Kleenexes.  But the first time someone asked me, they’re like, hey, do you have a Tempo?  And I thought, of course, that she was talking about a tampon.  It was so embarrassing.

I thank God to this day that I didn’t have one, because can you imagine her face if I would have pulled out a tampon and she really was asking me for a Tempo tissue?

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War Games in West Berlin

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This image was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir a...
Image via Wikipedia

I would hang out with friends in town after school and drink beer, smoke cigarettes and chat, whether one day it would be the Cold War, or what we would do if the Warsaw Pact attacks.

We weren’t that far from the border of East Germany, and we had a military base just outside of town.

My first week there was quite an experience because we were having war games going off.  I was lying in bed and there was shaking and bombs exploding and flares going off in the distance, and I came flying downstairs.

Bomben?  Bombs?”

“Oh, we forgot to tell you, there’s a military base and they’re just having war games.”

I got to appreciate more of that whole interaction with the Cold War, that we would have war games in there.  The Brits would come –we were in the British Zone–and their tanks would every so often drive through town.  Americans would come up for NATO maneuvers every so often and drive their Abrams [tanks] through town.  Depending on the size and scope of the games, they would have the Air Forces come in and do dry bombing runs.  What they would do is, they would come in over the base, but turn and loop back around and just skirt the border and get everybody agitated over there, and every time they did that it was an inside joke on this side of the border that we would stir the pot a little bit and see what happens.

Signage at Checkpoint Charlie

Image by edwin.11 via Flickr

It was just a brinkmanship game being played.  The Cold War was much more real at that point there.  We would discuss it and what if it came to war would you fight with East Germans.  “Yeah, if they shoot at me I’ll shoot back.  They’re the enemy.  They’re Germans, yes we speak the same language, but we’re different countries,” and they seemed very accepting of that, very Westward looking.

The whole EC at that point was 20 years old but still developing, still in it’s infancy as far as pan-Western European understanding and cooperation.  Spain and Portugal had just gotten in and that was a big shock to European economy.  Just as big as letting the former Eastern Bloc countries in recent years.

There’s actually some excitement among some of my friends, they can go and work now anywhere from Spain to Sweden.  How cool is that? I don’t need a passport!  That whole concept of not needing these documents anymore.

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