BY WILL MARCUS
I’ve never had plans to go to Germany — I’ve been to Germany and that statement is still accurate. Due to some truly wild circumstances, a family friend spontaneously invited my mother and I to join her on a trip to Cologne that same night — an offer we enthusiastically accepted. Now, I was very excited to visit Cologne based on all I learned about it from my 10-minute Wikipedia page; I also just saw “In Bruges” so the idea of visiting such a medieval city tantalized me. Unfortunately, by “Cologne” our family friend must have meant “40 miles away from Cologne.” Our family friend brought us to “Bad Neuenahr.”
First things first, Bad Neuenahr is far from a city. The few locals that speak English referred to it as a “willage” (village?). It has a reputation as a retirement community and/or spa town — and I can confirm the validity of its reputation. I fear I am sounding ungrateful for this opportunity. That is not the case. I was just expecting a wholly different travel experience. So yes, I genuinely felt so blessed to have the opportunity to visit Germany, but the prospect of six days and nights in a place that offered absolutely nothing entertaining for a 20 year old American male was daunting. Especially because the circumstances of the of the trip meant that my mom and our generous family friend could not leave the old willage even for one day — so there I was, alone in a strange small town, in a foreign country, fighting to overcome a language barrier the size of King Kong.
So what is a red blooded 21-year-old male to do in this situation after hanging with the family by day? Find a watering hole, obviously. In the 10 minutes it took me to walk from one city limit to the other, I found the only bar in town: Osmans Stadtschänke, where I befriended my first German. I walked into the near-empty bar at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening and started talking to the barkeep, who I later discovered, was Osman. “Talking” is a loose term. I mean to say we were wildly gesticulating to each other as if we were playing one of the most desperate games of Charades the world has ever seen. After twenty minutes of this, the full list of English words I used were as follows: “hi, beer, I’m American, and Kosovo.” Ossman’s English vocabulary choices included, “American, G.I. Joe, and Kosovo.”
In short, very few clueless Americans ever visit Bad Neuenahr, and Ossman, who grew up in Kosovo, was just the right age to have a great respect for citizens of our fine country. For those of y’all who don’t know, U.S. Armed Forces and NATO launched a joint military intervention in Kosovo during the late ‘90s that Osman approved of. I didn’t know any of this at the time, however. At some point in our game of Charades, I started singing the National Anthem as a last ditch effort to convey that I was an American tourist. Once Osman understood where I was from, I’ve never felt so close to an individual I literally could not speak to in the slightest. From this point on, he referred to me as “G.I. Joe” and I was actually powerless to stop him. Osman gave me many free Kölsches, which is the city beer of nearby Cologne. As the night went on, Osman would point to me, yell “G.I. Joe!” and proceed to speak enthusiastic gibberish every time a customer came through the door. It wasn’t long before I became a pseudo-sensation among the Thursday night crowd — and it was positively overwhelming.
Imagine being surrounded by at least four people at all times who are wildly interested in you, and you can only communicate with them through a stupid phone application that (poorly) translates English to German. It was painful. Thankfully, Osman kept bringing me free beers, so I soon returned to the wild gesticulation method of communication. After an hour or two of Charades with Osman’s patrons, my savior strode in: Jonas. It took approximately five minutes from when Jonas entered the bar for him to become my both my translator and temporary best friend. Perhaps it was symptom of the impossible language barrier, but when Jonas walked up and addressed me with his highly questionable “Yo what’s up my American jabronie?” I might have actually shed a single tear of joy. Jonas was quite the character. He considered himself a modern poet, and actually told me that he was “born to rap hip-hop” — a sharp juxtaposition with his peacoat and horned rim eyeglasses. Regardless, once I had Jonas to break down the language barrier, everything changed. He took me under his wing and gave me a profound tour of the Bad Neuenahr social scene… within two days, all twelve young people in the willage treated me like an old friend. Honestly, I am still dumbfounded as to why everyone was as kind to me as they were. I’d like to just blame it on the wonderful disposition of the average German willager.
In a move that compounded my confusion to epic levels, Jonas invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with his family after knowing me for a total of two and half nights. His mother was a civil engineer, and his father was a chemistry professor. How those two raised a son who was fully dedicated to making it in the rap game simultaneously boggles my mind and makes a lot of sense. Once we arrived, Jonas proudly showed me his samurai sword collection and his parents answered by giving me a tour of the moonshine shed. Now I’m no authority on moonshine distilling equipment, but I am not surprised that a chemistry professor and civil engineer managed to build such a luxurious home-based moonshine distillery. At this point I have reached confusion critical mass, yet I was far from complaining about it. I realized at this point that I was in one of the most unique situations I will ever have. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that this family welcomed me with such open arms and made me feel so at home when I had literally just known their son for three days. If showing a stranger your illegal moonshine operation isn’t trust, I don’t know what is. I had one of the best New Year’s Eves of my life watching the abysmal German New Year’s Eve primetime TV show and drinking the “Vodka for good friends” out of a mason jar. It was the best first and last moonshine experience I could ever hope for.
After the family pregame, Jonas and I met up with the rest of his squad to attend the real New Year’s party in an old firehouse they had rented. When we got there, the Germans proudly showed me two wheelbarrows covered with a tarp behind the firehouse that were filled to the brim with bottles of hard liquor. At this point I didn’t even ask why. I had been bewildered for so long at this point that I felt no need to ask any further questions about anything else. The party itself was bisected by gender very much like a middle school dance and a cultural whirlwind. I was constantly surrounded by people who wanted to nothing more than to hear about my life in the U.S. and make me feel as comfortable as possible. Even though I was in a room filled with strangers that I could barely communicate with, I never once felt like an interloper, and that speaks to small-town German character.
The night ended with a drive back to the hotel by Jonas and his father. Jonas would have driven me but his father had to take over due to the aforementioned two wheelbarrows of hard liquor. I just remember careening down icy roads at unreasonable speeds with fog so thick that turning the high beams on only made things worse. I recall voicing my concerns for my life and limb — considering we were traveling at least 40 miles per hour without 10 feet of visibility in front of the car. All I got from Jonas was a soothing “Sven knows the way” and that I was “not a real cowboy” if I found his father’s driving scary. I’m embarrassed to admit that was enough to shut me up. I put my full trust in Sven, the moonshine distilling chemistry professor and he brought me back safe and sound. Clearly, he knew the way after all.
This is the point of this tale: If you ever find yourself in a foreign country without much on your agenda, profound adventure can and will find you if you make yourself available to it. Play charades with a strange barkeeper, try to talk to crowds of strangers using just your cell phone, talk to the aspiring hip-hop legend with the peacoat and horn rimmedmed glasses. People define a place; please don’t forget that when you dream of admiring the medieval architecture of Bruges like I did. If or when your adventure with the locals does start to gain momentum, remember: Just because you have no idea what’s going on does not mean you cannot cherish a moment and learn something about yourself. Also, realize that very few people can experience such a profound cultural immersion. You’ll soon find that the best benchmark for your understanding of a foreign group of people is the point where you realize that they are beyond your understanding, and that is okay.
Even if I’m still clueless about what makes the average German tic, I’ve learned more about people than any other period in my life, all while spending the majority of my time plagued by countless unanswered questions. I left Germany with a rejuvenated faith in humanity that has yet to fade in the slightest and a profound new belief in the power of human connection. I would prescribe a confusing cross-cultural journey to any human being dealing with a crisis of faith in their fellow man. Trust in Sven, he knows the way.
Will Marcus is a senior International Studies and political science double major from Austin, Texas. He is the Opinions Editor.