I’m going to tell you a story that may seem to ramble at first, but stick with me, it will all make sense in the end.
In the summer of 1985 I traveled to (what was then known as) West Germany with fifteen other teenagers on a five-week exchange student trip. We flew from Rochester, to New York JFK, then to Frankfurt and one final flight to Düsseldorf where we met our host families.
We would only be with our hosts for a day before getting on a train to West Berlin.
For those who are a little rusty on their cold war geography, in 1985, Germany was still two separate countries:
- West Germany, which was a thriving, western, capitalist democracy
- East Germany, which was a desolate communist puppet of the Soviet Union
West Berlin was a little island of West Germany, more than 100 miles inside the borders of East Germany. Once the train crossed into East Germany, it did not stop until we crossed back into the democratic safety of West Berlin.
Although today it seems as absurd as women not being able to vote, back then the threat of communism was very real, and we all feared it… or at least as much as any sixteen-year-old American feared anything.
The gaggle of “Ugly Americans” arrived in West Berlin; sixteen teenagers and two teachers, neither of which had children. We were ready to take on the world, literally.
I bring up the fact that our two chaperons did not have kids, for the simple reason that parents develop an instinct for what teenagers are (or could possibly be) up to. It is far from a perfect sense, but it is real and essential for preventing disaster. These two had no such instinct… and just as a wild animal can sense fear, we all knew it.
We were in Berlin for a week, residing in a typical European “youth hostel.” The hostel resembled a college dorm, four to a room, bunk beds and spartan furnishings. To get five minutes of hot water you had to drop a Deutschmark in a coin slot between the sink and the shower. There was a security guard that monitored the door.
In 1985, the US dollar was very strong. In equivalent value, two Deutschmarks roughly added up to a dollar, but the exchange rate at the time was more than three marks to the dollar, effectively making the entire country 33% off for those carrying American Express traveler’s checks.
So, there we were, in the center of an international city, all full of piss-and-vinegar and holding functionally 33% more money than even our parents thought we had.
On the first day, we learned from others in the hostel that the night guard could be bribed to let us back in after curfew with nothing more than a pizza and a six-pack of Pepsi. I’m not going to name names, but there were definitely some evenings when American teenagers roamed the streets of Berlin while the chaperones assumed we were snug in our rooms. “They must be safe, there was a curfew and a guard, right?”
Adults without children assume way too much… about children.
One day, with the chaperones, we traveled through “Checkpoint Charlie” into East Berlin. The not-so-friendly communists greeted us with a map of a clearly marked “tourist area” that we were sternly instructed NOT to leave. The chaperones gave us a meeting time and place and sent us forth to explore.
We immediately boarded a train and headed out of the designated “tourist area.”
We saw all kinds of things that we weren’t supposed to see, but we kept a low profile and didn’t get into any trouble. We returned to the designated meeting point on time, and spoke not of our illicit adventures.
When crossing back into West Berlin, there were large signs clearly stating that any unused East German currency must be surrendered at the boarder. We ignored this because we were American teenagers and the rules clearly didn’t apply to us, right? I mean really, who just surrenders currency?
A few days later we returned to Düsseldorf where we would spend the next four weeks with our host families, going to school and generally exploring most of West Germany.
Our hosts were wonderful and very proud of their city and nation. We took trains and busses to castles, gardens and ancient walled cities. When in town we rode bicycles to more castles and more gardens and other points of interest.
One day after school we were scheduled to tour a local brewery.
Beer in Germany is a regional thing. Each city and the surrounding area has their own style of beer. For example in Cologne (Köln) they drink “kolsch” style beer, and in Munich (München) they drink “hefeweizen.” Individual breweries also supply bars and restaurants with glasses that bear the name and logo of their product.
The city of Düsseldorf where we living is famous for the “alt” style of beer. Literally translated it means “old beer,” but that designation has to do with the age of the brewing technique, not a lack of freshness in the beer itself. Click here to read all about it. The largest of the alt beer breweries is Schlösser Alt, and it was this brewery we were to tour.
We arrived on time and gathered in the lobby of the brewery building which was right in the center of the city. A friendly guide led us around the operation for maybe forty-five minutes, speaking to us entirely in German.
At the end, we were ushered into a tasting room where long tables had been set up for our group. At each place was a small plate with a dark brown roll, a piece of some kind (we had learned not to ask) of German sausage, and a small glass of the beer we had just seen being made.
In Germany, the drinking age for beer is essentially non-existent, so it was completely normal for them to serve beer to a group of teenagers.
We sat down, enjoyed the little snack and drank our beer. The glasses were beautifully decorated with the Schlösser Alt logo and adorned with a gold rim.
At this point in the trip, we felt invincible. We were comparatively “rich” in a foreign land, where we had flouted the rules of our teachers, the hostel and a communist government… and gotten away with it every time. To say that we thought our excrement didn’t stink would have been a gross understatement.
I am certain our parents would not have approved of our attitudes, but they were 3,700 miles away.
There we sat among the empty plates and glasses; those very cool and pretty little beer glasses. A few of us decided that we needed to take the glasses as souvenirs. I mean they gave them away to bars anyway, right?
The justification skills of a teenager are truly astonishing at times.
We proceeded to wrap the glasses in napkins, and stuff them into our bags, being ever so careful to do so apart from any prying eyes that might not approve. The event came to a close and we all rose to leave. We walked down a flight of stairs that led us back to the lobby where the adventure had begun.
The tour guide thanked us again for coming… and then it happened.
The tour guide reached behind a curtain and began handing every student visitor a little white box that contained the very thing we had just so carefully stolen, a brand new Schlösser Alt beer glass.
Oh man did we feel bad. We thought we owned the world and therefore it was ours to take as we saw fit, but then the very people from whom we had just stolen beer glasses were gracious enough to just give us one.
In that moment, the balloon of self-importance upon which I had been floating rapidly deflated, and I found myself sitting only with the scraps of my own shame.
A few of us talked about it later, and we had all basically experienced the same thing. We were the ugly Americans, and about that we were no longer proud.
As I have said before, the universe has a way of ultimately issuing justice, and two weeks later it did so by breaking both of my Schlösser Alt glasses in my suitcase.
From time to time, we are all tempted to take shortcuts and do questionable things when “nobody’s looking.” It is human nature as old as Adam and Eve. However, when you realize that even if nobody every finds out about what you did, YOU will always know, something I became painfully aware of one afternoon in 1985 in Düsseldorf.
I heard something a few weeks ago about giving kids guidance on what is okay to post on social media. It simply said, “Before you post, ask yourself… would my parents approve of it, and would my grandma understand it? Only if both answers are yes, is your post okay.”
Good advice I certainly could have used nearly three decades ago.
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.(Fate Appreciates Irony)