In 1999 I was a terribly maladjusted, acne-riddled, socially-delinquent bowl-cutted high school freshman.
As I nervously made my way through the beginning of my first year of high school, I found myself deeply attracted to a World Geography class taught by an eccentric but deeply curious and fascinating man. Going to that class was like a much needed reprieve from reality. His classroom was a cluttered mess with flags and maps of the world, bas reliefs, posters of exotic locations, and and army of file cabinets anchored around the room like knowing sentinels, guarding the mysteries of the world, containing God only knows what. There were artifacts from all over the place- African masks, replicas of Mayan relics, and more knick knacks and tchotchkes than I had ever seen.
All of this encircled a giant table in the center of the room, overflowing with stacks of papers, maps, and charts. Mr. Crippen, my teacher, was a soldier of exploration. In his lectures he told us stories of spending time in Ghana, and of being locked down in his hotel in Nicaragua during a revolution in the late 1970’s. He told us of Tsetse flies and African sleeping sickness, and how sudden rainfalls in deserts cause drownings. We learned about the economics of bat guano. There wasn’t a lot of homework, but he did like to assign massive research projects and give comprehensive exams based on his lectures.
His field trips were legendary. He once took us to see traditional Chinese acrobats at a local University, and another time on a whirlwind weekend tour through the Amish country of Pennsylvania. He also ran an exchange program that partnered with a high school in Altenkirchen, Germany, and had done so for 25 years. After one such trip he asked me if I’d like to participate. I would spend three weeks during the summer living with a German family. This sounded amazing and my parents agreed.
Several months later, my dad and I drove up to the Baltimore-Washington Airport. I had $300 in travelers cheques for my spending money- which doesn’t sound like a lot but this was 1999. Debit cards weren’t prevalent but I didn’t even have a bank account. The Euro didn’t exist and the conversion rate was two Deutsch Marks to one dollar. Cell phones were around but not common- I certainly didn’t have one. I took five Kodak disposable cameras with me.
I found myself staying with a deeply sweet and kind German family. They lived in a small village called Raubach, in Rhineland-Palatinate, closer to the French border. On the way in from the airport, I noticed it wasn’t a place that was particularly on the way to anything. The autobahn wasn’t close by, and it wasn’t near any large cities, at least by American standards. There were lots of farming fields and surprisingly well-maintained dirt roads. Everything was a deep green. Norbert, the father, was some sort of soil and water engineer (at least that’s what I gathered from his limited English). Sibille, the mother, stayed at home and kept gorgeous gardens and an immaculate house, complete with a cranky goat in the backyard. I would spend most of my time with their two boys, Florian and Jonathan.
The first thing I noticed about Europe was the food. Everything was fresh and I found that I never had a mediocre meal. The family I lived with didn’t keep any junk food, save for some chocolate here and there. Breakfast the first day was soft boiled eggs, and laugenbrezel, a really delicious soft baked pretzel, and some type of sausage. There were so many sausages that I lost track. Their bread was bought in unsliced loaves from a nearby baker and they had a commercial grade slicer in their kitchen. We sat out in a bricked patio in the midst of flowers and vines.
Their house was narrow and three stories tall. The top floor was full of bookshelves and books, with a billiard table in the middle of the room. The middle floor was bedrooms and the bottom floor had the kitchen and common areas, complete with an immaculately furnished parlor that I never saw anyone go into.
They spoke almost no English and I spoke no German but they fed me really good food and took me on adventures and I was happy.
It was summertime. The boys were out of school and the family took me everywhere. We went to Koblenz, where the Rhine and the Mosel river met. We ate out at quaint little eateries in the country side. There was Doner kebab, a Turkish peasant food similar to Greek Gyros, served with a rich cucumber garlic sauce. I ate as much of this as I could.
They had more property than I was aware of. Not far from their house was a barn where they had two small horses, Nino and Nena. Sibille fed them large amounts of garlic- she said this helped keep flies and bugs away. I would help shovel horse manure and brush the horses.
There were large forests nearby, and on the weekends Norbert would take me riding through them. He would point out the elevated hunting blinds, which the locals used to hunt wild boar. They didn’t put saddles on the horses and I was told my legs would get stronger. From what I could tell they never did- I was sore the whole time I was there. We rode on old dirt trails, through the greenest woods I had ever seen that seemed to breathe an ancient and enchanted air. Sometimes Jonathan would come along riding his bike, and sometimes the family dog Taps would run along side us.
On one of our rides Norbert started telling me about an old place in the forest. His English wasn’t strong but I made out something about an intersection of magnetic fields in this spot. We rode out to this spot and Norbert asked me to go and stand there and close my eyes, which I did. It felt like someone was spinning me around. I opened my eyes, and closed them again. Still spinning. I looked at Norbert. He just smiled with an Old World twinkle in his eyes, and we rode back to the house.
We usually had four meals a day. Breakfast on the patio, followed by a midday dinner which was the large meal of the day. Norbert came home from work for this. There was an afternoon tea between three and four, but no tea was served. Instead Sibille made a rich cake and gave us coffee. There was a light supper in the evening usually sandwichy-type things or pizza. Norbert and Sibille liked wine- Norbert said his favorites were actually California wines. Florian sometimes snuck a beer.
There was also a lot of apple juice- they ordered it by the case. Soda was actually pretty expensive and it was never in the house. The apple juice was fresh and I drank a lot of it.
The funny thing was the only time anyone ever got made at me was when I brought a Coca-cola home. Sibille got really upset and started telling me it was bad for my teeth and bad for my skin. I didn’t come home with any more sodas.
The family had a hayfield which fed the horses throughout the winter. The hay would be cut and left in the field to dry. There was some drying when I got there. One day Florian told me we had to go bale the hay. We got onto a massive tractor fit with a rake attachment. Florian drove and I hung off the side. The rake attachment pushed the hay into neat little rows. Then we attached a baler to the back of the tractor and drove over the rows, which fed into the baler and spit out neat little bales of hay. Then Florian proceeded to take the tractor at full speed through town with me holding tightly.
After an extended joyride through town were went back to the barn to help Norbert and Jonathan load the bales into the barn.
I spent three weeks running around with this family and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. When it was time to leave, Sibille made sure I had a couple rounds of fresh goat cheese to take home (the cheese didn’t make it home- it was actually seized by customs). I never learned much German, but I learned a lot about this family and about myself.
Sometimes best way to experience a place or people is through what they eat. As I have found, speaking the language isn’t always important. This is the lesson of La Famiglua. This knife was built for lady who loves to cook and share that with her family. It was commissioned by her daughter.
We went with the top design, a German style knife:
When metal gets very hot it likes to warp. Here is a system for correcting that. It has to be done while the blade is still hot:
Removing the machine marks:
Many hours later:
For the bolster, I made some material from an old corduroy shirt:
Layered and smashed together with fiberglass resin: