You think you know a guy. I’ve known Elon Werner for a long time, and we’ve shared stories covering an endless variety of subjects, when both of us can basically enthrall each other with the things we’ve done, the people we’ve known, and the places we’ve been.
Then he comes along and springs this “pinch hit” blog on me. If I ever knew he’d spent a teenage year in Germany, and all around Europe, I guess I didn’t know the scope of it.
This story is amazing, but beyond the sheer breadth of it there is the background. This is the sort of thing that molds a young person. A lot of what I know about Elon today, is explained in this blog.
I’m a pseudo-adventurous sort. I’ve been to Cuba (when Americans were technically not allowed to do that) and to the heartland of Mexico, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, England (too many times to count) and Scotland. And then there are all the cruises and islands I’ve visited, including a trip into and out of the Panama Canal. But all of that was mostly structured or planned.
This story will blow your mind.
As for my new book, I’m still cranking. Fired off another chapter yesterday and will be starting a new one here in just a few hours. I’m getting to some really critical points in the story, and some really emotional moments as well. Not just for the characters, but for me. The old line is “Write what you know” so when I get to moments when either of my fictional guys are at a crossroads, or attaining a dream they’ve had since childhood, it gets to me. I hope it gets to you, too, when it’s done.
Back to work for me. Enjoy this incredible tale from Mr. Werner.
Thanks Elon! I appreciate you stepping up to this challenge.
Teenager in a Strange Land
In 1986 I did something that changed my life forever. I applied for and was selected as a Congress-Bundestag Scholarship recipient, which offered me the chance to study and live in West Germany during my junior year of high school. Fifty high school rising juniors and seniors were selected from across the country through a rigorous interview process, to represent the United States in this international exchange program. This was before The Wall came down in Berlin and the idea was to swap 50 students from each country to help them better understand global issues and diplomacy. There was no internet so international affairs and communications were still a slow process. We were not being groomed as spies, but the goal was to hopefully give all 100 students a better understanding of another culture.
It was an amazing success. First, I am closer to my 49 fellow CBIII scholars (our year was the third year of the program, so we were referred to as CBIII, and that’s pronounced CB-Three) than I am with any of my high school or college classmates or friends. There is something about being 16-17 years old and experiencing something so intense and personal that you have a hyper-deep relationship. Any one of my CBIII friends can call or email with just about any request and I would move heaven and earth to try and make it happen.
I was not fluent in German before I landed in Frankfurt in the fall of ’86. The group of us had spent a month at a language school prior to heading overseas but we spent more time goofing off like we were at an extended summer camp, rather than at an intense language academy.
We spent a couple days in Frankfurt and then we all hopped on trains to head to our various host families spread out over Germany. One by one, we all disembarked with hugs and tears shared one last time. I will never forget the feeling of realizing I was totally alone in a foreign country as the train pulled away from the platform and every single person I knew was rolling further and further away from me.
I met my host family on the platform eventually. They were about 30 minutes late and again, pre-cellphones, I just hung out hoping someone I had never met before, and only had one 4×6 photo of, would show up. The Geyers were a great family. I had two younger siblings Jens (12) and Silka (10) to get to know, which was a big change for me as an only child. We fell into a quick routine of bathroom sharing and bickering over nonsense issues.
The biggest crisis was my inability to speak German very well and their refusal to speak English to me. This was both a blessing and a curse. I picked up the language fairly quickly and found out that you could finally really consider yourself fluent when you dreamed in German and someone you know didn’t speak German was fluent in your dreams. I woke up with a start one night four months into my stay when one of my East Texas neighbors was speaking auf Deutsch in my dream.
High school in Germany was challenging. First of all, most of my teachers had no idea I was an American. Unlike in the United States when an exchange student shows up and becomes basically the most popular kid in school, German high schools just drop you in a bunch of classes and set you free. Secondly, my German was still getting up to speed so most of my instructors just thought I was dumb, confused, or maybe spaced out. After about two or three weeks they caught up to speed and began giving me some latitude on my lessons.
The reason it took a while is the eleventh grade in Germany is when you begin a revised schedule that includes Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes and Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday classes. Yes, you read that correctly. High school classes on Saturday. This was a much more collegiate type schedule which I actually really enjoyed versus the usual same 6-7 classes every-day-at-the-same-time sort of schedule I was used to in Texas. I didn’t mind school on Saturday since all classes were wrapped up by noon.
I was living in Duisburg, West Germany which was on the Rhine River and very industrial. It reminded me a lot of Pittsburgh with tons of steel mills and factories. It was constantly overcast and dreary. I was also in Germany during the coldest winter in 500 years. For a kid from Texas, the constant cold was brutal and made for some great stories, as I explained how in Texas it was over 100 degrees for two months of the year and rarely got below freezing. In Duisburg there was a stretch where I don’t think it got above 5 degrees Fahrenheit for two months. I quickly acclimated to the wearing of layers as well as the importance of scarves, gloves and stocking caps.
One thing that really jumped out to me about living in Europe was how they viewed distances and traveling. If a trip was going to take over three hours one-way, whether by car or train, it was not a day trip. You spent the night or didn’t make the trip. I quickly debunked that idea by traveling all the time. Cologne and Dusseldorf were quick train rides to the south and I loved to just go check out the museums or the Cologne Cathedral. It was eye opening to see so much history so close together. I encouraged my German friends to come along and eventually they relented after I convinced them the world wouldn’t end if you spent five hours on a train in one day.
Traveling by train was and still is my favorite mode of transportation. In the year I lived in Germany I took train rides all over the country and visited France, Spain and Italy all by train. On one infamous trip to the south of France I took the train to Paris, then spent the day roaming the streets and museums. Remember I was sixteen at the time without a cell phone and I had no set plans on where I was sleeping.
At the end of a long and fun day in Paris I had a ticket on the high speed train from the north of France directly to the Southern coast, or so I thought. I quickly fell asleep in my car when a few hours later I was roused from slumber by a ticket-taker asking to see my billet. Quick side note: I don’t speak any French. The gentleman was very persistent with his urgent request for my billet! He finally shook a piece of paper in my face, shouted billet once more, and I realized he was checking tickets. Upon inspection of my ticket he immediately shook his head at me and said “Montpellier, non! Marseilles, oui!” He repeated this phrase three or four times pointing at me when he said Montpellier. After a comical Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine I realized the train was stopping shortly and half of the train was going to Marseille France and the other half was going to Montpellier. I was on the wrong section. I moved cars and made it to my destination without issue.
I slept in youth hostels mostly on my travels and occasionally I would sleep in train stations. I hitchhiked from the southern Germany to Frankfurt once. Different times. Youth hostels were the best because they were super cheap, usually pretty clean and they were filled with young adults from all over the world. Once, in Munich, I was in a hostel and had a conversation with a young French woman, an Italian young lady, and a guy from Canada. The guy from Canada knew French and the French woman knew Italian so there was a lot of translating and waiting for the punch lines during the conversation.
I wrote a ton of letters to my fellow CBIII friends in Germany as well as my parents and family back in the states. Thankfully I saved all the letters I received back and my family saved all the letters I wrote them. I think that is when my love of writing really began. I know it is when my love affair with getting physical mail really took off. There is something about reading a handwritten letter that included drawings or maps or doodles that just makes the experience that much richer. I dropped a letter to someone in the mail almost every day. Writing letters helped pass the time and allowed me to share the experiences with others. Some of my CBIII pals were lucky like me, and had a pretty good set up with their host families. A couple kids were placed with families that owned farms and they were immediately added to the workforce. It was truly a whole new experience for them.
As a group, the CBIII crew got together on two organized trips during our year abroad. We spent a long weekend in Bonn, the capital of West Germany. It feels like we met some very important diplomats and politicians but mostly I just remember reconnecting with my American friends and telling stories until the wee hours of the morning.
The other group trip was to West Berlin and that was an eye-opening experience. At the time, The Wall was still separating West Berlin from East Berlin, and West Berlin was a democratic island. The train ride there quickly showed off the stark differences between western civilization and Eastern Europe.
Once we got to West Berlin we took a number of guided tours including a trip to Checkpoint Charlie. We also took a day trip into East Berlin, which you could only visit during the day, no overnight visits, and we were told we were limited on where we could go. It was literally a whole new world. You could tell immediately how limited East Berlin was when it came to books, food and general supplies. They tried to put on a good face but you could see past the veneer pretty quickly.
A small group of friends and I took a street train to the furthest point away from the city center and just explored the area. Everyone was super nice and wanted to know all about America. We talked about how plentiful so many things were that we took for granted. At the end of the day we had one last meal and we left almost all of our American money with the owner of the restaurant. The food had been delicious and we gave him maybe $15 apiece in ones and fives. He started crying and thanked us for our generosity. We later found out that the money we gave him would possibly cover his families’ expenses for two or three months.
The beauty of the year I lived abroad is how it shaped how I grew up and matured once I got back home. I was truly a completely different person. When I left I was confident but not one to jump in the middle of a situation. I would have considered myself a caring person but I came back much more compassionate and aware of how other people might look like me, but have a completely different backstory.
As I said earlier I stay in touch with my CBIII friends much more than anyone else I grew up with or went to school with. We are an eclectic group of what I would consider over-achievers. They represent a host of entrepreneurs, business leaders, teachers, and a few farmers, but I think I am the only one that gravitated to a career in sports. It makes for fun times at the reunions, which we have had a handful of times, when I can talk about how my years in Germany set up for success with the Dallas Mavericks or NHRA Drag Racing.
Having the confidence to roll into unpredictable situations that are high stress as an adult doesn’t really hold a candle to being alone as a sixteen year old on a train station platform wondering if anyone is going to come pick you up in a foreign country.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.