Friday, July 24, 2009

Saying Goodbye in German: Fire up the Grill

For the first twenty-three years of my life I labored under the mistaken impression that the barbeque was a strictly American pastime. On some level I thought the rusty communal grill in the middle of a leafy State park was a fitting symbol of my country. Then I came to Germany. The grill is a staple of every social gathering, maybe even more central than it is in the land of the Stars and Stripes.

Every sunny day is a cherished event on the German social calendar, maybe because winters are so dark and seem to stretch on ad infinatum. And sunny days are best enjoyed with charcoal. Once semi-warm weather moves in, the grill rolls out and every opportunity is seized to get people together with raw meat and beer. Maybe Ohio State was the exception, but we never had department grill-outs on Tuesdays to celebrate a faculty member achieving tenure. In short, they like to grill and they do it a lot. Maybe I should have seen this coming. This is the country famous for metts and brats. They must cook them communally every now and then.

So, when the Fulbrighters in the western half of Germany started kicking around ideas for the 4th of July, we knew we were guaranteed a typical backyard grill-out. The park would have a grilling section, and we would be able to bring everything our overburdened limbs could carry. We just needed to bring some patriotism and maybe track down some pyrotechnics to make it a truly American affair. We also had to bring our goodbyes as everyone started winding down in Germany and started preparing for life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We decided to meet in Heidelberg, a beautiful city along the Necker River in Southwestern Germany. I was particularly excited to see the legendary castle and the river Mark Twain compared to the Mississippi. My ride to the city was made particularly exciting by the domestic dispute at the next table over from mine which started with hushed angry whisper and ended with the Bee Gees-look-alike husband receiving a full purse to the face. Somehow the woman across from me managed to nap and I managed to hide my shock.

Upon arrival, Ben lead a tour through the shopping and restaurant district which basically involved following a single, mile-long street. The town is hemmed in by its river and the hills that support the massive castle, leaving a narrow but lengthy sliver of land for some urban sprawl. At a Schwäbisch bar we met Erin and Elise. In our enthusiastic catch-up we never figured out what we were doing to prepare for the next day’s festivities. This lead to what may be my third ring of Hell: unplanned group shopping. We are Fulbright scholars though, so we were able to organize our menu and divide duties with relative ease, surrounded by fresh produce and frustrated German women picking up the weekend’s groceries.

We walked out with just enough beer and more than enough meat. Marty, Marco, Ben, and I hauled our party across the river to a municipal park on the bank just as lighting started to illuminate the sky with natural fireworks. (Side note: When you buy a crate of beer in Germany, you're getting twenty glass bottles. That is a lot of liquid and a lot of glass to haul any distance. I believe transporting these weighty cases of alcohol has lead directly to the necessity of the German car in a country that could function solely on its public transportation.) Marty and Marco stayed with our supplies while Ben and I hiked back to his apartment so I could prepare Skyline dip in his apartment’s oven before looping back again. Ben’s apartment was conveniently located exactly one thunderstorm’s walk from the park. I would spend the rest of the day trying to get my underwear to dry out without perpetuating any ugly stereotypes about my homeland.

Eventually the dip was packed in a cooler with Elise’s fresh hamburger patties, my shorts were sufficiently wrung, and the party could begin. The next eleven hours were spent on the banks of the Neckar, grilling, eating, drinking, talking, and throwing around a football. Every now and then Ben would cut in with a rousing chorus of God Bless America, or the Coast Guard’s Anthem. It was the most authentic 4th of July I’ve ever experienced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As the evening aged we started to say good-bye, promising to keep in touch as we each embark on the exciting lives as exhausted graduate students. I really have made some incredible friendships over the last year with people who will – unfortunately- be scattered across the lower 48. Of course, this dispersal provides a handy excuse to visit Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and college towns of the Midwest like West Lafayette, Champaign-Urbana, and Madison. A year ago, these people were just names on a spreadsheet that Fulbright sent along to my in-box. I knew I wanted to travel, and wondered if any of these people would climb a mountain with me, or take a weekend trip to the Iberian Peninsula, or join me in a cavernous beer hall. Turns out they would.

The next day Marco, Ben, and I rolled back upriver to Bonn, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the castle-lined corridor that leads home. When I got back, I began furiously puzzling my way through my project, acutely aware that I only had my precious fossils for a few more weeks.

During a short break from puzzling to get lunch, I ran into three other graduate students from the Institute. They invited me to join them at the Mensa where I explained I would be skipping town at the end of the month. They were shocked I was leaving “so soon! You just got here, yes?” Man, I know that feeling. “Well, we must say a proper goodbye. We must have a barbeque!” I was a little skeptical of this idea. Would enough people really show up to see me off? They waved off my thought and decided we should hold the party on the 23rd, before Dr. Martin left with his family for vacation.

So yesterday I brought a case of Pilsner and some sausages. The graduate students – Julia and Sandra – tracked down the picnic tables, dragged out the grill, and brought the charcoal. Then people actually started showing up bearing a variety of salads and plenty of meat to grill. We passed wine and beer around at 1PM on a Thursday and enjoyed a cake that Sandra had baked to see me off. Then they presented me with a t-shirt. The front has the scowl of Beethoven and proclaims “Beethovenstadt Bonn.” The back was signed by the well-wishers, and each name was accompanied by a doodle depicting their specialty so I won’t forget Sandra works on ancient horses and Vincent works on rodent teeth. Along with the shirt, I opened a card everyone signed which was tricked out with a limerick composed by a Belgian:

A young lad from Ohio came to Germany
To expand his knowledge on paleontology
He only stayed for a year
Did he learn enough, you might fear
I assure you, he is ready for that PhD degree!

Beautiful. Maybe a few extra syllables wedged in there then would normally be acceptable, but the intention of the poem is much more important. After all this attention I really wasn’t sure how to fully express my gratitude to a group of people who have tolerated my meager aptitude for German, and my staggering aptitude for stupid questions.

I realize I haven’t written very much about Bonn on this blog, but know that I really have felt welcome and comfortable as I toiled on a project that I barely understood until very recently. I feel like I’ve just rounded the corner of calling many of these students and professors “friends” and now I need to say goodbye. A goodbye best said with a barbeque. (Another side note: A party hosted by a separate someone is a rare event. Normally you are responsible for bringing your own cake, and orchestrating the logistics. This leads to dirty German/Hobbit comparisons. A party hosted by other graduate students was an incredible gift that I attempted to repay by editing their English abstracts.)

I hope you have had the chance to gather around a gas or charcoal grill with people you love to spend time with and don’t ever want to say goodbye to. Just don’t do that in a public place with open containers. That’s a privilege strictly reserved for us German grillers, thank you very much.



Michael said...

What wonderful goodbye gifts--I will have to see that t-shirt some day!

Sounds like you had a few train snafus after our departure, what with delays and domestic disputes :P It reminds me of the movie Before Sunrise, which if you have not seen already, I cannot recommend highly enough (be sure to watch that first, and not the sequel Before Sunset).

Matt said...

Before Sunrise has been on my list for a long time. Longer than my expectations of smooth sailing on public transportation. I can't complain about the domestic too much. It distracted the ticket agent from stopping at my seat. I was going to buy a ticket from him, but he scampered off as the family's daughter started to scream. He never came back and I got to the 'berg on the cheap.

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