Friday, March 22, 2024

Insight: A Mighty Rhine Time

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

As a child, I always dreamed of traveling around the world, seeing how other people lived and if the sun looked any different coming up on the other side of the world. In November 1977, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, I got to experience what it would be like to live in another country when I was assigned to serve at a location in Germany.

Ed Pierce, right, visited Oktoberfest in Munich,
Germany with some of his U.S. Air Force friends
in 1978. He was stationed in Germany from 1977
to 1979 just outside Frankfurt.
When I first arrived in Frankfurt and stepped outside the airport, a difference I noticed was the air smelled like vegetables. At that time, German sugar beet farms surrounded the Frankfurt airport, and it was beet harvesting season.

As I settled in to living in another country and didn’t speak German, subtle cultural differences quickly became apparent to me. About a week in, some of my Air Force co-workers stopped to buy lunch at a food truck along a highway. The menu featured several types of “wurst” sandwiches, different kinds of sausages on a hard roll and were accompanied by “pomme frites,” or what we know as French fries. The woman taking orders asked me in German something about my meal and not understanding a word she was saying, I smiled and nodded to her.

When my order was ready, I discovered the waitress had asked if I wanted mayonnaise on my French fries, a common custom there. I had to scrape it off my fries and it wouldn’t be the last time my inability to speak the language led to a surprise.

Several months later after renting an apartment in Frankfurt, I learned that on the other side of the wall to my living room was a pizza parlor. One evening I decided to order a pizza to bring home for dinner. The owner was Italian and spoke little German, but I pointed to the medium pepperoni pizza on the menu and paid him. I sat there while he prepared and cooked the pizza for me.

At some point, he said something in Italian to me and made a motion referring to the pizza slices. I thought he was asking me if I wanted my pizza sliced, so I smiled and nodded in agreement. When I opened the pizza box at home, I was shocked. Apparently, the pizza shop owner had asked if I wanted raw egg on my pizza, which is a popular pizza topping there.

At a local carnival, I purchased a box of popcorn and found that instead of salt, Germans prefer to sprinkle sugar on their popcorn.

When renting my apartment, I learned that the term “unfurnished” was a bit more extreme there than in the United States. When Germans describe an apartment as being “unfurnished,” it’s not only without furniture. “Unfurnished” there means without appliances such as a stove or even overhead light fixtures as there were just wires to hook light fixtures up to. I had to purchase at a department store a toilet seat and door handles. I had to buy a bottle of liquor for the “hausmeister” or apartment manager to obtain a small electric stove for me.

For $25 I bought a second-hand apartment-size refrigerator from an Air Force sergeant who lived in the apartment building but was returning to the U.S. later that week. I found that Germans do not use ice and cook all their meals fresh every day, so they do not have refrigerators in their residences. That goes for businesses and restaurants too. Beer on tap is room temperature and even soft drinks such as Coca Cola are served warm.

Trying to work the stove offered me lessons in the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit and made me appreciate that America did not convert to Celsius configurations for baking when it was proposed in the early 1970s.

Somebody gave me a television set and I tried to watch German drama programs, but the better offerings were shows imported from the U.S. and it was kind of funny to hear Telly Savalas as “Kojak” dubbed in German or William Shatner as Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” giving orders to the crew of the Starship Enterprise dubbed in German. My favorite German television show was the “Hit Parade” on Saturday nights. Many American musical acts appeared on that show, and I could understand what they were singing, although once an American performer named Ken Curtis was introduced and he sang entirely in German. After a minute or so of watching his performance, I realized that Ken Curtis was the actor who portrayed Festus Haggen on “Gunsmoke” on American television.

I loved strolling through outdoor markets in Frankfurt on the weekend and the aroma of fresh baked cakes and cookies during the Christmas season. One time I was amazed to see a pack of dogs sitting together on a sidewalk looking in the window of a shop as I approached. As I got closer, I found the dogs were sitting and looking in the window as a butcher hung meat cuts there. I thought it was a scene my grandfather might have witnessed as a child and now I was observing it too.

For me, living overseas made me grateful for the life we have here in America.

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