From the Vault: Berlin Wall

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.

Sylvia, not hiking in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton.

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.

Photo by Apostolos Vamvouras on Unsplash

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.

43 thoughts on “From the Vault: Berlin Wall

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  1. So glad for that PS because my lingering question was about your dog! (I would have been livid if someone had done that to one of my pets.)

    She sounds like a real brat. I doubt she’s typical of German teens, but what a terrible experience. I am sure American teens can be just as obnoxious, but I sure hope they’d be more respectful when living with a host family.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s troubling—because indifference to animals can be a sign of indifference to other people as well. And she certainly exhibited that as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like she lied about her age and was really a 14 valley girl with a really good reason her parents shipped he away.
    We sponsored a refugee family from Cambodia in the 70s. The father, Hang Chai was a cook. I came home from high school one day and he had prepared a family meal using Tyrells red label dog food from the cupboard and some Kamloops trout I had recently caught on a pack trip. He chopped the entire fish into cubes, fins, bones and all and fried it on the stove top.
    They would also discard their tp in the bathroom trash vs flushing. Never take anything for granted when hosting!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. LOL. I hope you weren’t expected to join them for dinner! Oh jeez, that’s funny. Living with total strangers from another culture is truly an eye-opening experience. I’m sure I would seem rather strange to some people, but hopefully I could manage to not be rude.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In Panama we had a lot of backpacker travelers wander our way and to the hostels, from France, Belgium, and Germany. The locals called them down-winders, for you would always slowly adjust the conversation so they were down wind of you.
        Most of them did speak multiple languages though. That is impressive to me.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Sounds like it…my friend hosted a student from Brazil at her rather nice waterfront acreage home. The student was from a very wealthy family and couldn’t believe that her host family didnt have a chauffeur to drive her and a maid. Lol

        Liked by 2 people

  3. What a story! It goes to show that no act of kindness goes unpunished, says cynical me. What a difficult situation to be in, even if it was temporary. I admire you for not tossing Sylvia out on her butt.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my, I can’t imagine how that would have gone over. It did surprise me how ungrateful some people can be. I really tried hard to go out of my way to show her the region to the best of my ability at the time.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoyed reading your anecdote immensely. To think you weren’t compensated in any way is incredible. We hosted Japanese students who attended language courses at the local university. Our children really enjoyed the experience. We did get an allowance to cover food and incidentals. I gave up when I went back to full time work as it was very time consuming. You were so lucky to pass your guest on to the other hosts for the second week.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, those other hosts really saved my bacon. They had more resources (and a sort-of farm at any rate) than I had, so it worked out. Plus, the two Germans could converse in their own language which helped them feel less like fish out of water.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good to see you Eilene.

    I’m glad you ended with the PS because I was about to ask you about your dog. As for their lack of concern about it? No, just no. You are much more graceful and kind than me.

    At least you got a really cool parting gift though. A piece of the Berlin Wall for some heels? You won the trade!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you for the kind words. I am not someone who understands people who don’t like animals. And yeah, the bit of Berlin Wall is kinda cool. The heels would have undoubtedly ended up at the thrift store, as it was well past the opportune moment to implant them in the ex’s skull.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s kind of hilarious that she berated YOU, rather than the other way around! And I agree with Sorryless, a trade of heels for a bit of wall is a bargain. Plus you got a great story out of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The girl expected to be on a farm, yet go to a disco, that’s hilarious! Your friend’s organization should also have a share of the blame, giving no clear guidelines and providing no compensation. I am so happy your dog was rescued and treated well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It sounds like an absolutely awful experience, but it did make me laugh! I’m glad your dog made it back safely! I have a very similar looking chunk of “genuine” wall attached to a magnet that I bought in Berlin years ago, though having seen the quantity of magnets for sale and the size of the wall, I find its authenticity highly dubious.

    Liked by 1 person

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