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German Hospitality MAG
This was the message: “You will be staying with the Flachmeier family. Your host-father is a businessman, and your host-mother is a teacher. Your host-brothers enjoy table tennis, hiking, and music.”
These people, who live in Lübbecke, a small town in northern Germany near the border with the Netherlands, will be my family for two weeks. This is all I know about them.
The night before Mom drove me to the airport, I received a second message that was more cordial but still cryptic:
This is your host-father, Klaus. We are very excited to have you visit us. You will enjoy your stay in Lübbecke.
When Klaus picked me up at the train station, I honestly thought he was there to kill me. The man towers over most, with an impressive stomach and a great bearded face topped with large glasses. He reminds me of Smokey the Bear. He is perpetually calm and speaks slowly in a low baritone that makes me want to take a nap. He is what culture books would describe as “typically German.” His ability to consume beer is prodigious, his wit unmatched, and his driving terrible. Klaus can be counted on to always have a plan and know what needs to be done to make that plan work with laser precision.
In stark contrast to her husband, “Super Cecil,” as she enjoys being called, is, to put it simply, nuts. The positive energy she radiates is infectious. When you are with “Super Cecil,” you cannot help but smile or feel giddy. She is never cranky or tired; she is either alert and joyous or asleep. Whether baking or cleaning, she bustles about her house with choppy strides at an alarming speed. Her brain works at a million miles an hour, moving the conversation from the weather to modern heating and plumbing in a single breath. As a language teacher who works with immigrants, she speaks German, English, French, and Arabic, and sometimes switches between all four as she talks to her family and me, a habit I find dizzying.
We proceed up the street. Though a fast walker, even I have to quicken my pace to keep up with Klaus's giant strides and Cecil's hasty scurrying. I fall into step with Richard and Roland, their sons. Richard is 20, tall and lanky. Roland is 17 and shorter (though still a head taller than me) but more muscular. Both love ska music, a catchy, feel-good combination of punk and reggae. On the walk, they grill me about my taste in music.
“Kennst du Mad Caddies?” Roland asks.
“Ja, ich kenne sie,” I respond, relieved that we've found common ground.
“Operation Ivy?” enquires Richard.
And so it goes all the way up the street. I ask where we're going.
Klaus responds, “zum Kaffeetrinken.”
Having never heard this word before, I'm bewildered (a feeling I'm getting used to). However, it does involve the word Kaffee, meaning coffee, and trinken meaning to drink. I therefore conclude that we're going someplace to drink coffee.
The family often spends Sunday evenings with Klaus's father in the comfortable and quiet house he built. Solar cells cover the south-facing roof, and the little house is surrounded by a high brick wall covered in grape and kiwi vines. His grass is kept short and the rows in his extensive flower and vegetable gardens are straight, watered, and tidy.
At Cecil's encouragement, I enter the sliding door into a cozy dining room. German homes seem to smell the same: a combination of cleaning products and home-baked bread. The scent is engrained in the walls and the hardwood floors and is present no matter where you are.
Unlike his son, Mr. Flachmeier is a small man who moves gracefully. His frame is thin, accentuated by hands covered with skin like wax paper. His large head is disproportionate to the rest of his frail body, and his large glasses magnify his dark eyes. He shakes hands with his son and grandsons and pecks Cecil on the cheek. He then extends a hand in greeting to me.
“Freue mich,” he says, nodding. I shake his hand while stammering an introduction, surprised at the strength of his grip.
“Ich heiﬂe Evan.”
“Das kenne ich schon. Wie gehts dir?”
Wie gehts dir means “how are you?” Germans are friendly and polite, especially with new acquaintances.
We sit at the kitchen table. The grandfather serves cake, a German cream topping called quark, and the tea and coffee. Then conversation begins, proceeding at a pace I am uncomfortable with. This is not the German I am familiar with.
Contrary to popular belief, German is not an abrasive language. It is spoken gently, each syllable lovingly and carefully produced by the tongue. German spoken hurriedly may be confused for incoherent mumbling.
Germans are great complainers (the verb is meckern) and lovers of checklists and schedules. They are industrious, honest (to the point of being blunt), thrifty, and orderly. Traits of punctuality, privacy, intelligence, and skill are greatly appreciated. All of these characteristics became apparent to me in between bites of coffee cake and sips of strong black tea with milk.
As the evening continues, we begin to recline in our chairs, our stomachs bursting. Even Klaus with his giant appetite declines the last piece of cake. A bottle of white wine is produced, and we venture outside to sit at a table and play rummy.
Cecil enthusiastically invites me on a tour of the garden. Like a child in a candy store, she hurries from row to row, sniffing and observing the progress. She clicks her tongue and murmurs to herself in Arabic. Born and raised in Lebanon, she moved to Germany when the civil war broke out in 1975 and met Klaus (who is now laughing boisterously at the table behind us) while she was in college.
Past impeccable rows of carrots and potatoes, Cecil proudly shows off snow peas and gingerly picks two, handing me one and loudly chomping the other. I say “Danke,” which elicits her signature toothy grin. A small weed catches her attention and she quickly dips to tear it out and hurl it at the compost pile. She stands and sighs with satisfaction, victorious.
The tour concludes with the grape vines and an explanation of the wine-making process, which her father-in-law claims to have perfected. We head back to the patio to witness the climax of the card game.
Klaus, being a brilliant tactician, has defeated everyone. Richard is a close second, reclining smugly in his chair while Mr. Flachmeier taunts Roland, who is trying not to appear irritated. The hour is growing late and we rise to leave. Mr. Flachmeier offers me his hand again. This time, he shakes it enthusiastically and flashes the straightest, whitest (real) teeth I have ever seen.
“Alles gute,” he tells me. (Good luck.)
Outside of the miniature Eden in the driveway, Roland produces a hacky sack from his pocket. Tossing his shaggy black hair out of his eyes, he gestures to Richard, who nods with a smile and steps forward. With the toe of his blue Adidas, Roland flicks the sack to his brother, who skillfully pops it four times with his foot, then moves up to his knees, stalls it on his left foot, and then gracefully flips it over to me. I manage to kick it awkwardly with the insole of my right foot before it flops to the pavement. I grin sheepishly and dig my hands into my pockets in embarrassment. Richard pops the sack up again, this time to catch it on his forehead.
“Es ist wirklich einfach,” Roland advises. “Fuss zum Fuss.”
Roland is right. Foot to foot. That's the secret to their game and that's how I will proceed through this experience. My time abroad will be great, I decide. And I will do everything in my power to ensure it is.
As Cecil leads us down the sidewalk, humming and laughing at some inside joke with herself, I hand myself over to the philosophy of foot to foot, day to day, and row to row.