Peter Shelton

An American Abroad

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on June 13, 2013

The summer started off on two wrong feet.

My eight weeks abroad with the American Field Service was taking me to Germany. I hadn’t studied German in high school; I’d taken French. I wanted to go to France. Or, failing that, to Mauritius, where they spoke French and a gorgeous, turquoise, left point break curled across the reef. I’d seen the pictures in Surfer magazine.

But the venerable international exchange program didn’t care if you’d had any experience in a language. One girl on the boat with us – yes, we took a boat, the SS Seven Seas, across the pond from New York – was sent to a host family in Afghanistan, for crying out loud. In fact, they flattered us: You are the best and brightest; you should be able to handle knowing absolutely zero German. Living with a family there, tongue-tied, mute, will be an even more expansive challenge, an even greater success on your return.

The other wrong foot involved the fact that I was pretty sure I was in love. With surfing, yes. I’d taken up the sport three summers before when I was 14, and I was just getting the hang of it, riding goofy-foot on the wave closest to our Southern California home, getting “surfers’ knots” on my knees from paddling, getting up to the nose now and then. At 17, I could finally drive myself, and a friend, to the beach with our heavy, 10-foot boards in the back of my dad’s pickup. It seemed a cruel twist of fate to leave just as the weather, and the water, were warming up.

And I was pretty sure I was in love with Linda Stilgenbauer. She tolerated me. She might even have liked me a little bit. But she was one of those girls who developed early – she was a knockout in her bikini – and, because of it, because of the attention, I guess, and the hormones, she mostly hung out with older boys. Rough boys, who spun her around and flung her down on the sand. And she laughed and came back for more.

I sort of hoped that she’d eventually come around to my gentle and true, intellectually superior affections, maybe even that summer. The idea had stirred in me, but here I was instead in Heilbronn-am-Neckar, Baden-Württemburg, West Germany, where the sun broke through the cloud cover maybe three times all summer, in a second-story flat, with Mutti and Vati and Jürgen, their petulant, paste-white son.

These were not bad people; they were good people. Their older daughter Christine was at that very moment an AFS exchange student in Birmingham, Alabama. She came back with a charming Southern drawl. They adored America. Mutti did, anyway; Vati hardly said a word the whole time I was there. She gave Americans credit for saving their lives after the war. They were starving, she told me. They were lucky to find a potato. And then, despite the fact that American bombers had flattened their cities, even bombed the hospital where Mutti worked as a nurse, these same Americans had fed them. Had helped them back on their feet and rebuilt their country. She was eternally grateful. Hosting an American high school student was the least she could do.

Jürgen, who was a year younger than me, was still in school. Christine wasn’t due back from Birmingham until my last week in Heilbronn. Vati, when he wasn’t down at the European Ford dealership selling Fords that didn’t look anything like the Fords I knew, was planted in front of the television watching Fußball. So, Mutti doted on me.

She’d seen on my AFS application that my nickname was Pete. And, since all letters are pronounced in German, she called me “Petey.” As in, “You finish it up, Petey.” Vati came home every day for lunch, the big meal of the day. Mutti would always cook enough for four or five people, often with rich Spaetzle, and Kuchen for dessert, and insist I eat whatever was left unfinished (“You finish it up, Petey.”) – as if I were a starving war refugee. When I came home at the end of August, my sister Wendy took one look and said, “Wow, you’re fat and white.”

And thus my summer became a study in homesickness. AFS headquarters had encouraged us to bring something along to show our host families what life was like back home. I took a copy of Surfer magazine, but of course it backfired. Mutti looked at the pictures of surfers leaning into bottom turns and said, “But why have they photos of them falling down chosen?” Mutti had spent a year in England as a nanny before the war, and her English was really quite good. And, natch, gazing at pictures of tanned, half-naked Californians only deepened my gloom.

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