Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cultural exchange

When I was Rapunzel's age, I spent a month in Munich on a cultural exchange trip. Our German partner students came to Boston for a month in the summer of 1977, and we went to Munich the summer of 1978. At the time, I was amazed my parents were willing to spend the money (the then-enormous sum of $600, about $2,200 in today's dollars); now, as a mother, I am amazed they were willing to let a 16 year old roam around a foreign city mostly on her own (yes, we had chaperones and supervised activities, but we also had some unsupervised time to ourselves, and we made the most of it).

This is the only one of my slides from Munich I've scanned...
I don't recall what building this was.
The trip was sponsored by the Goethe Institute for the purpose of cultural exchange (the fact that I learned more German in 30 days than I had in 2 years in school was merely a side benefit). And I do think the most lasting impact it had on me was cultural. But on a different scale than I think the Institute had in mind. The organizers planned trips to art museums and historical sites, churches and architectural sights. We took ourselves to beer gardens and movie theaters, department stores and restaurants. The German students wept for the death of Elvis while they were here, and wanted nothing more than to buy American blue jeans. The American students marveled at the lack of drinking age there, and drank like fish (if you ordered a "beer" there with no qualifiers, you got a liter stein). And we noticed smaller, more personal things. We learned that it was just as offensive to use the formal form of address in German with someone you knew well as it was to use the informal with a stranger.

We learned that while meticulous about their public spaces, Germans were far less obsessive than Americans about personal cleanliness (which, let's face it, Americans are fairly compulsive about). My host family would have been horrified if I'd showered daily, considering that a profligate use of water (and I discovered that not only would the world not end if I did not, but that my dry skin would actually thank me for it. As a result, it's a habit that's stuck ever since, and now you know my literally dirty secret - I don't shower every day!) Nor did they do laundry nearly as often as we do, wearing garments multiple times before washing them, another habit that has stuck. One thing I could not embrace was their practice of ironing their pajamas and jeans every day, even if they had been worn...

But the Germans were very conscious of their public face, on scales both large and small. One of the things that astonished the American students on a daily basis was the immaculate cleanliness of their subways and other public spaces. You could have eaten off the floor in their subway stations. I grew up in Boston, and trust me, you don't even want to STEP on the floor of Boston's subway stations, lest something vile make its way through your shoes, which stick repulsively to the floor. The substances that cause that do not bear thinking about.

But this attention to their public face went beyond the floors of their subways. They took us to the Olympic Park, and while I was oblivious at the time, I am in hindsight astounded that they made no mention, a mere 6 years after the fact, of the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics on that very site. I think in their mind, it was a blot on their culture that they did not want to draw attention to.

More glaring was the complete absence on the itinerary of a trip to Dachau, which is only about 45 minutes from Munich by subway. So appalled were two of my American friends and I that we played hooky from one of the art museums and took the train to Dachau ourselves. My host family was not enthusiastic. I tried to explain that I didn't judge them for this black period in German history - after all, they weren't personally the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, and indeed, most Germans at the time were guilty only of looking the other way out of fear of their own lives. How can I know I would have done differently? And much of the rest of the world looked away too, with possibly less excuse. So it was important to us (me, and my friends Lyz and Scott) not to look away. We had nothing more to fear than offending our hosts. So we went, and it was surprisingly banal. Perhaps evil is always banal up close; I don't know. But I'm glad we went.

So yes, I took away a lot of cultural enlightenment from my trip to Munich, some trivial, some deeply meaningful, little of it of the art-and-architecture sort the organizers had in mind. I can only hope that Rapunzel and The Nerd get a similar experience out of our trip to Europe - that the experience transcends the sights and activities and opens their eyes and hearts to the realization that the world is a much bigger and varied place than our little corner of North Carolina.

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