By Eilene Lyon
The “From the Vault” series features an artifact or family photo from my collection to illustrate a tale from my distant past.
Bridging the East-West divide has never been a simple matter. It’s complicated further when the two sides have been handed entirely different sets of expectations. My tale begins when a friend asked me for a favor…
Jill requested that I host a young woman from East Germany in a cultural exchange program during the summer of 1990. I would provide her with lodging for two weeks and opportunities to learn about our part of the U.S. Cool, I thought.
Whatever organization Jill represented, they did not give hosts any orientation or written instructions. If they had, I would have politely declined.
I had recently purchased a small house on 1.7 acres outside of town. I was working long hours in order to make not only my regular house payments, but also a couple balloon payments, repayment on a loan from my grandmother, and car payments. I had a dog, a couple cats, and no savings.
I did have a spare bedroom and could arrange to take a little time off work to show her the sights. Sylvia arrived on the appointed day, a blond-haired, blue-eyed 22-year-old. She wasn’t shy and showed only mild trepidation at moving in with me for 14 days. Her English was passable, a good thing, because the only German word I knew was “Gesundheit!”
Let the cultural exchange begin!
Sylvia would not drink beverages with ice, because cold drinks were bad for digestion. Bathing on a daily basis was absolutely verboten. When I recommended we go hiking in the beautiful San Juan Mountains, she told me she couldn’t hike because she had a goiter due to a lack of fresh fish and iodized salt in her diet.
I was skeptical, seeing no evidence of a goiter, and not understanding how it could affect her ability to walk on a trail. Later events supported my suspicions.
In addition to a tour of Durango and the surrounding area, I took Sylvia on a multi-day trip to Red River and Santa Fe, New Mexico. What Sylvia really wanted to do, more than anything, was go to discos. “Durango” and “Disco” do not belong in the same sentence. A friend of mine in Santa Fe did manage to find a night club for us.
Once back home, a couple hosting Edward, another East German, called to invite me and Sylvia to the rodeo. So we all spent an evening together watching bull riders and mutton-bustin’ tykes. Sylvia and Edward struck up a friendship and began spending time together while I worked.
The next day they decided to walk to town, one huge hill and several miles away. They never noticed my dog following them. I came home to discover they had returned from their excursion, but the dog had not. They acted completely unconcerned and didn’t understand why I was upset.
I agreed to give Edward a ride back to his host home. He took the injunction on daily baths to extreme. Had someone tossed a week-old roadkill carcass in the back seat? I literally had to drive with the window wide open, occasionally leaning my head out, canine-style, to gulp some fresh air.
When we got back to my house, Sylvia let me have it with both barrels, but not for that.
She had paid substantial money for this trip to America and been guaranteed certain things: A. She was to be hosted on a farm (how farms and discos went together, I couldn’t fathom) and, B. Her host was to provide her with three prepared meals a day, every day. I clearly fell short on both counts. (Liberal access to my cupboards and fridge failed to suffice.)
Note, I received not one dime of compensation. Everything I supplied came out of my virtually empty pockets. I contacted Jill about the clear discrepancy between what Sylvia had been promised and what I was able to deliver. My relief and gratitude were genuine when Edward’s host family agreed to take Sylvia for the second week of her stay.
Before she left, we completed one last cultural exchange and parted on good terms. She gave me this “certified” piece of the Berlin Wall. I gave her a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes, foisted on me by a deservedly EX boyfriend, and which disco-loving Sylvia clearly coveted. No gift could have pleased her more.
P.S. A lovely couple rescued my dog, took her on a wonderful hike in the wilderness, and reported her to the Humane Society. I got her back the next day, no worse for the adventure. Thank goodness she didn’t get run over on the highway – a very real possibility. I, on the other hand, was an emotional wreck.