After boatloads of tears, tons of screaming and more than a bit of haggling, I managed to convince my parents to allow me to spend my final year of high school in Germany as a foreign exchange student. They kept possession of my passport and plane ticket, though, which meant every time I was out of line in the summer before school started, I’d be told that ‘I’d better behave myself or the Germany trip was off!’
I’m sure my parents wish the Germany trip never happened as I developed a case of wanderlust in Germany that will never be sated. Never. I’ve spent more than half of my life living abroad and have no plans to return to my homeland except for visits.
It’s standard practice in Germany (and in the Netherlands for that matter) to go on a senior school trip. I wasn’t technically a senior as German college-prep high schools (gymnasiums) have thirteen years and I was in 12th grade. My exchange family wanted to ensure I got to go on a trip, though, and thus it was arranged I would go to Poland with the history class.
The trip to Poland was awesome. You’ll be reading more stories about it in future blog posts. Today, I’m focusing on our return journey. At the time, several decades ago, Germany was still divided into West and East Germany. As we took a bus on our trip, we had to pass through East Germany. On the way to Poland, it was no problem. On the way back, it was a bit of an adventure.
For those of you who haven’t crossed a border in the former Eastern Block, let me explain. First, you arrive at the border to discover half of the light bulbs in the world are being used to make sure the astronauts on the space station can see the border. It is shockingly bright when you’ve been passed out on a bus for several hours. Nothing looks good under lights that bright. Nothing. And now you join a line of vehicles which depending on the time of day can either crawl forward or come to a complete standstill.
I’ll admit I was a bit nervous at the border. First of all, I was the only person with an American passport. The rest were Germans. West Germans but still Germans. I, however, was holding the blue passport of the country most hated by those in the Eastern Block. Just as we were taught in school how horrible the Soviets were, so too were they taught that Americans were greedy capitalists who would sell their own souls for money and privilege.
My other concern was the sheer amount of alcohol this group of forty-something seventeen and eighteen-year-olds had managed to buy. The entire overhead compartment was lined from front to back on both sides with bottles. Every curve and corner the driver took caused the bottles to roll outward and then back inward. I was convinced I was going to get a head injury when a bottle of ‘fake’ Soviet champagne fell on my head. Now, I realize eighteen-year-olds can legally buy and drink alcohol. But the bus had a bunch of seventeen-year-olds in it as well. Would the border control call us out? (On a side note, I still have one of the bottles I bought then as the bottom of the bottle is imprinted with ‘Made in the USSR’ I couldn’t part with it.)
We finally managed to make our way to the front of the line. The kids sleeping in the aisle got up grumbling and made their way to seats. The teacher handed the border control officer our passports. While one guard took off with the passports (which nearly gave me a heart attack), another guard walked up and down the aisle. I may have peed a little at this point.
Luckily, fifteen minutes later we were on our way. Only we had another border to maneuver our way through. We’d only left Poland. Now, we needed to ‘enter’ East Germany. This control took little time and we were off.
At this point, it’s important you know that you needed a visa to enter East Germany. We didn’t have those visas. No, we had visas for Poland and were ‘allowed’ to travel on one major highway to make our way back to West Germany. But the toilet on the bus was broken. No one way were we going to make it the entire way across East Germany without stopping.
The bus driver stopped for fuel and the students climbed out to use the facilities. This caused the bus driver to scream at us. German is a terrifying language to be yelled at. Terrifying. The other students were way braver than me and ignored him. Good. I really had to pee at this point.
The lock on the toilet door looks something like this, except in German – obviously.
Now, we encountered our next problem. Toilets in most of Europe at the time required you to not only pay for them, but they had a box for payment attached to the handle. You couldn’t get into the actual toilet without paying. Of course, the payment required here was East German Marks of which we had none. You can’t just climb over and under to get into a stall. Nope, stall doors are from floor to ceiling. I don’t know how she managed it but on of the girls managed to get a door open. We all stood in line for the one toilet we now had access to.
Not nearly as scary looking in daylight!
The entire process took way too long. So long, in fact, that an East German police officer pulled over upon seeing the West German license plates and proceeded to shout and scream at us. I have no idea what he said. I was scared and thanking my lucky stars there was no liquid in my bladder at this point. The driver managed to calm him down and we all rushed into the bus and off we went. We didn’t stop until we reached West Germany.