John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

Making The Scene in Germany

John Wilkins
September 28, 1967

Fellowship Year

Federal German Republic September 21, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

All The Best

We all “graduated” from our intensive on-the-scene German language course at the end of July, but I recall some of them with a nostalgia of almost the same hue as that surrounding school friends of more than a quarter-century ago. Recentness only sharpens the poignancy.

I keep wondering if — after her late-July letter to The States requesting a deferment of her psychology fellowship — the pretty and competent but reassuringly vulnerable girl of 22 from the Southwest was able to land a job of some kind here in Germany for a year, beginning in September. I wonder how the stubbornly patriotic 26-year-old doctoral candidate in international relations will make out when they test his German fluency at his American university this fall, and if he will win interest in the “notes toward a Vietnam solution” the two of us developed when we should have been memorizing participles. Did my 18-year-old American buddy (less than half my age) get to Leningrad by motorcycle in August and see that city which held his German uncle at bay in WW2, and how is he taking to the Jevvies at Notre Dame about now? Did a certain American girl manage to fulfill her August schedule by having an “affair” in Europe appropriate to what she had anticipated?

I wish them “all the best,” in the farewell words of our two British friends. (The sentimental British, who can’t stand sentimentality, had the right style at the end.)

There were 120 of us from 33 nations. The course was held in the “old, free, Hanseatic” city of Lűneburg, a day’s bicycle ride from the much larger Hanseatic cities of Hamburg and Lűbeck. Instruction was given by The Goethe Institute, which offers identical programs in 19 other West German cities, on a self supporting basis, as well as operating government-subsidized information centers in numerous major cities abroad.

We were divided into five grade levels. German was the only language spoken in class except during sub rosa mutual aid projects among compatriots. My class included two French-speaking Africans, an English-speaking African, three Latin Americans, two Thais, an Indonesian, a Turk, an Iranian, a Spaniard, a French-Swiss, a Canadian, and six Americans besides myself.

My purpose in boosting my German language fluency was to help prepare myself for a study of contemporary Germany. Naturally I wanted contact with Germans. And as for contact with fellow students at the Institute, it seemed at first that I would be more interested in non-Americans, especially as many were in my own age group, than in the youthful representation from my own country.

Well, it turned out that knowing many of these foreigners was indeed a good experience; it was revealing and frequently delightful; I learned much from them and made some good friends — but it is to a handful of young Americans that my thoughts keep turning.

Earlier in the year, on the eve of my first trip to Europe, I had realized in my own abstract kind of way that I would discover America, or a personal image of America, in Europe. That’s what the books said. But I did not realize that it would happen so fast or that the discovery would take place largely through the very obvious and unliterary process of meeting Americans.

BUT I was not the only student to discover America through these Americans.

There were three dining tables in the large room where most of us ate. From the start, many of the Americans ran away from one another at mealtime, salting the predominantly Afro-Asian table with white, easing into national and linguistic groups at another table. It was sheer pleasure to see the consequent friendships develop.

**Lunching North Americans on German Bike Trip.

**Massachusetts, Turkey, New York, Two from India.

Not that there weren’t problems. Especially frustrating was the double-language block. First came the big effort to speak German constantly. Then came the desire at day’s end to relax with friends, to communicate at a level not possible with basic German. If your friend spoke French but little English, and you knew little French, it was tough for both of you to hammer away at this second barrier when you wanted to say something of complexity. The more we tried to communicate with foreign students, the less energy we had for building our German. Out of weariness many of the students began fragmenting into their own language groups. It was then that most of the Americans got to know one another.

After spirited but short resistance, I accepted being cast as the Americans’ “pop” — sort of a mascot. I became a confidant, an unsure adviser, but received much more than I gave. If I grow old and that condition allows me to reflect on the experience of having been an American, the sharpest symbols of my awareness may well be the memory of their faces against the backdrop of a leaning, 600-year-old Gothic steeple, the sound of their accents and laughter and argument, the sound of Bach’s music filling a church where he himself had studied and performed.

…The girl from the Southwest was enthralled by Bach. The foreign relations doctoral candidate from the Midwest was not. Not that he downgraded serious music; he simply had found that it didn’t do anything for him. In the conducive German atmosphere he tried it a couple of more times but it didn’t take, so he dropped the whole thing without hard feelings. He also tried some of my ideas about Europe and America and the underdeveloped nations and Vietnam. He worked away at them, and I worked away at his ideas. For both of us, this was working against the grain, but after awhile we began drawing pleasure in the new shapes some of our opinions were taking. A few hours before train time we framed an approach to a solution for Vietnam. I leave the fitting and joining to him.

We went our ways at the beginning of August.

Most of the Africans, on stipends from the West German government, headed for one of the “residential people’s universities” for training in community planning or elementary school teaching.

Some of the Latin Americans, on stipends from German companies (banks, export-import companies, shippers, coffee buyers) entered company-training programs in Germany.

University graduates from Asia and the Middle East went on to German universities for advanced study in engineering, medicine or one of the physical sciences.

But most of the Americans, having acquired language credits that now are on their college records, scattered out of Lűneburg for three or four weeks of vacation in Europe before flying westward with the sun.

For about $320 they had received eight weeks of excellent instruction, 30 hours a week, plus a room in an apartment or private home, plus most of their meals and some field trips.

Upon their arrival early in June some of them had been a bit bewildered and out of breath, perhaps a bit disappointed, having seen little of Europe aside from an airport or two and the North German Plain framed by a train window. No Eiffel Tower, no changing of The Guard, no Parthenon, not even a Berlin Wall or a Hilton Hotel. Here they were in what is supposedly the “least interesting, least friendly” section of the “most American” nation of Europe.

In truth, the city’s “attractions” did not throw themselves at us and neither did the people. But both revealed themselves in their own good time. Reports of splendid experiences began coming in…“Gosh, I stood staring at the Rathaus and suddenly I realized I was in Europe.” Then came accounts of courtesies by German neighbors, invitations to dinner and to sightseeing trips. And then the course ended…The Americans wrenched themselves away from one another, from their foreign friends, their German friends, this German city which belatedly had become a part of them; and they headed for Munich and Vienna, or Rome and Florence, or Paris and London, or Copenhagen and Stockholm, clutching their “Student Guide to Europe,” — some of them with rucksacks and U.S.A. hitch-hiker signs, most of them with very little money but with their “hole card,” the return ticket to The States.

Some Scenes Left In My Memory by the Americans and Their Friends:

  1. It is late in the course. Each day for the past two weeks a different student in my class has delivered a short lecture in German about his own part of the world. American presentations have stimulated many questions from the class, most of them dealing with specifics on standard of living and cost of education.

    And now, a very dark West African with very white teeth, which have frequently been shown in contagious laughter, takes the floor. He is popular; the class anticipates some hilarious moments…He draws a map of his small country, gives some population statistics, and describes life in remote villages, but his voice drops and slows; he has stopped grinning. Now he just stands there, arms by his side, and looks at the class.

    He says a word: “Schule” (school); he repeats it and tries to give us some idea of the teacher shortage but gives up and shakes his head. Then, in a tremendous effort, as if trying to break through a jungle thicket, he flings his arms wide and says in a low voice but with great emphasis: “Viele Probleme…Viele Probleme” (many problems).

    He stands there, almost overcome; and I, two months later, now visualize him there, standing there all alone in the gap between the society he was born into and the societies he has just seen and learned about as a young man. Suddenly a Swiss girl and a young man from Virginia are clapping. Now we are all clapping, clapping: this we can do. And now he gives us his smile.

  2. It is earlier, first day of the course. The student body is seated before the school staff. The names and nations of students are being called and each one stands and is applauded. The Africans have already been in Lűneburg two months taking the introductory course. They are sitting pretty much by themselves among the newcomers, with reserved expressions. Now an African’s name is called; he springs up, waves both hands and clasps them above his head, bows and smiles, and then sits. So also with most of the other Africans.

    (Subsequent friendships with some of them cast a bit of light for me on the above scene. Warmth and responsiveness characterize many Africans; a sharply different cultural environment can cause them real distress. They feel stifled and act aloof until good will is beamed at them; then they blossom. Most of our Africans, I think, spent considerable time wondering if various forms of behavior they encountered in Lűneburg were calculated affronts, unthinking rudeness, or just “German.”

    (“When someone says good morning to someone and smiles upon him, the whole world is made beautiful,” a man from Kenya told me. “Do you do this in America? Here in Lűneburg we Africans thought at first that the Germans were being cold to us alone, but now we think they are that way to themselves. It is sad.”

    (The Africans rather enjoyed being stared at by children, but not by adults. The similarity of the entirely proper word “Niger” with the word “n…..” caused some distress. I defended the Germans on that one, but when it came to a complaint that German barbers “will not, or can not” cut African hair properly, I assured him that Americans bore a similar grief.)

  3. Our bus stops at the Elbe River near the village of Bleckede and we all pile out to peer through the mist into East Germany. It is open, green, windy, wildfowl country. Perhaps it would not be so beautifully wild if it weren’t for the border, which depresses local economic life.

    “But why is it here?”

    The question is asked by one of the youngest Americans, an intelligent girl whose interests, however, are far removed from history and politics. She simply cannot understand why the watchtowers and armed guards are there.

    Her British companion gives her the answer: “because the Germans lost the war.”

    She nods vaguely.

    (By this time some of the Americans had been to Berlin — both zones — and seen the uglier and more dramatic Berlin Wall. I would say that the majority of the Americans had a fair or good basic knowledge of the wartime and subsequent events leading to the division of Germany and the rise of The Curtain, and that very, very few of that number were crusading anti-Communist types or members of the far left, old or new. Among the reminder, the completely unpolitical or uninformed students were balanced by students who had specialized in fields that dealt with the German problem in some detail.

    (There at Bleckede, the problem was discussed by knots of Americans. I wasn’t terribly impressed by any single commentary, but I got a strange kind of thrill out of listening to the variety. The uninhibited, unideological give-and-take must have been noticed by many students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, some of whom leaned toward Russia or China.

    (A foreign student would have had a wide choice of American opinions to argue with if he had so wished. There was the direct reaction of the young, non-political types, that prison bars are sickening, that any government, which has to pen up its citizens, is sick. There was the opinion that America should not have “backed down” at Yalta and Potsdam and when the Berlin Wall was built. There was the opinion that it was a darned good thing to keep the Germans divided — and the opinion that they had been divided long enough, that they had to be reunified. There was talk of a status quo, which made sense for the peace of the world. Certainly there are people in addition to Americans who are accustomed to speak freely, but America had the biggest representation of this tradition at Bleckede at that moment, and to me their thoughtful voices were the very sound of democracy.)

  4. It is the Fourth of July. An American girl’s landlady has invited the American students to a Fourth of July party that night. During the day, “Americans” comes to include both continents; Canadians, Central Americans, South Americans make funny hats. Then the British, the Turks — the friends of all the Americans are invited. But most of the foreigners realize there isn’t sufficient room for everyone, so they politely decline and leave the festivities to the Americans and their closest neighbors. The party is big and happy and hemispheric. I am convinced that every student felt “wanted” at America’s big party — or that practically everyone did — whether he was there or not. Though I was not able to attend, to me it was a Fourth with a glory of sorts.
  5. In June there is widespread satisfaction among the American students over the Israeli victory. A Jewish youth (who, incidentally, made numerous German friends in Lűneburg) is especially interested and elated. But one day he is missing from the English-speaking huddle over the newspapers. I spot him on a bench talking with a middle-aged Egyptian of strong opinions. They do this on and off for a couple of weeks. One day it is noticed that they both are smiling.


Upstairs Border

East German Border

Old Lűbeck…

  1. News of the Newark and Detroit riots slashes some of the Americans like a knife. Reading of the American tragedies in a foreign paper somehow adds a twist to the blade. With tact, African friends seek interpretation of the events. They listen as Americans first place symbols like the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws into the past tense and then describe America’s massive urban problem as something vastly different. I believe that partially by these explanations but primarily by their own attitudes the Americans continue to hold the good will of most of the Africans.
  2. A Canadian and the foreign relations doctoral candidate from the Midwest are sitting with me at a table in a neighborhood taproom. We join forces with some beered-up Germans of about my own age, one of whom — after several more beers — asks if I am a CIA agent keeping my eye on the students.

    “That’s a good question,” I reply.

    “It’s not a good question,” interjects the American, more annoyed with me than with the German.

For about a half hour my compatriot and I go through one of our customary go-arounds, with scarcely a word from the presumably fascinated Germans and the Canadian. I explain to the American that I had used the wrong word; I had meant that the German had asked a natural question or a fair question, rather than a good one. The German had the idea that the Goethe Institute was all college students; consequently my age seemed out of place. I had also displayed a probing interest in “all-German” problems and a bit of pushiness regarding the Nazi period. It was natural, I tell the American, for the German to take a burn and for the CIA, which had been much in the news, to pop into his mind. The American concedes but then denounces Americans who are overly apologetic about their nation’s policies; and I concede.

(The nature of many of our discussions with Germans took on such a pattern that I customarily greeted this American with, “Was denken Sie an Hitler?” To which he would reply, “Was denken Sie an Vietnam?” Indeed, for some of us in this season to probe the conscience of a German in regard to his forbearance of the Nazis is to conduct an internal dialog concerning the role of protest in a democracy. My American friend kept stressing to me the need to be constructive and to present alternatives in regard to Vietnam. Those two words can be pretty breezy, but he gave all suggestions his solemn attention, and I’m glad he plans to become what he calls “just a bureaucrat.”)

At the end of August I had reason to drive from Germany to the Luxemburg airport, which, though it is international, has the atmosphere of a county airport in The States. As I grew close I kept my eye open for hitchhiking Americans I had known at Lűneburg, because the low-rate Icelandic Airlines, flying between New York, Iceland and Luxemburg with no silly frills, is much favored by students. I saw none of my friends, but at the airport some of their flavor returned.

Four Americans with rucksacks and a Canadian who was flaked out on the grass beside them were on the standby list for New York. One had a loaf of bread and a wine bottle with water. They had spent two nights sleeping on benches in the airport. Two others, who had spent the night in the Luxemburg Youth Hostel, showed up. One had a dollar — plus his ticket to Los Angeles. They were polite, intelligent; they looked like campers, not what are called beatniks.

Europe, they said, had been great. They were glad they had done it while they had the chance. But America was home.

Received in New York September 28, 1967.