ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and
do not lean on your own understanding.”
(Prov 3:5)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In July of 1972 before my freshman year of college, I traveled with the Parkdale Senior High School symphony band around Europe. We played concerts and visited tourist sites, such as Saltzburg, Munich, and Venice. Our final destination was Vienna, Austria where we competed in a music festival and played our grand performance in Mozart Hall. Pretty much everywhere we visited, the French that I had studied in high school was useless and most people spoke German. So when I started college at Indiana University (IU) in September, I registered to study German.

German was an interesting language, in part, because it was very logical and a bit counter-cultural. Worried about whether my draft board would accept my application to be a conscientious objector status,[1] I also envisioned that I could immigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany to avoid Vietnam—a completely uninformed idea. Even though I had visited Germany, I knew really nothing about it nor how I would support myself if I went there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed studying German and modern German literature, and continued my studies until I decided to leave IU in 1974.

After leaving IU, my focus shifted to economics, which required catch up work also in mathematics, statistics, and computer science. My language study at Cornell University focused on learning Spanish and on gaining oral and reading competence in Spanish during my time in Puerto Rico. My focus did not return to German until I later realized that Cornell would not support me for continuing with doctoral studies.

My interest in things German was sparked again at Cornell because I had a close friend, Joachin, in the department of agricultural economics who was from Germany. We spent at lot of time together and, because of our friendship, he began dating a student living in my house on Elmwood Avenue. When I learned that my time at Cornell would end once I finished my thesis, he suggested that I apply for an exchange program that Cornell had with Universität Göttingen [2] in Germany—this was a pretty exotic idea because I was only one outside the German studies program to apply. Shortly before I left for Puerto Rico in 1977, my friend graduated and returned to Germany where he was killed in a motorcycle accident on the autobahn, which I learned on returning from Puerto Rico.

On my return, I wrote and defended my thesis, which was entitled: Dual Market Structures in the Food Economy of Puerto Rico (January 1979). The U.S. Census Bureau took an interest in this work and I was offered and accepted a full-time position in Washington D.C., presumably to head up the Census of Puerto Rico. This position was to start in the June of 1978, but one morning in May I received an unexpected call. When I picked up the telephone, a very German sounding voice asked: “do you want to go to Germany?” I responded: “when do you need to have an answer?” He asked again: “do you want to go to Germany?” I managed to convince him to let me call him back in the morning. In the meantime, I called my father who said that I should talk to my supervisor at the Census Bureau. When I spoke to my supervisor, he was emphatic—“take the fellowship; go to Germany!” So I accepted the fellowship—everyone else (six others) who had applied for the fellowship had turned them down, perhaps because of the way the question was posed!

The decision to study in Germany was a big deal, in part, because it bought me time to apply to other doctoral programs and, in part, because I had no idea what I was getting into. Universität Göttingen was in a small university town by that name and, at the time, I could find no map of Germany—at home or in the library—detailed enough to locate the town. When I received letters from the university, they were in German which I could not read well enough to understand. My parents recruited a German woman from Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, [3] who tutored me in the language, but she was too polite to be much help.

When I left for Germany, I did so totally on faith that I would be able to find the university once I arrived. My flight with Icelandic Airlines flew to Luxembourg where the station-master directed me to board the correct train to Göttingen. It took the entire day to travel to Göttingen which was to cause me some heartache because I intended to spend the night in the Göttingen youth hostel, which closed its doors a half hour before I arrived. The taxi driver who dropped me off had already left when I discovered the hostel door was locked so I found myself wandering around the neighborhood looking for help.

Help came in the form of a man attending a meeting in a nearby school—he wasn’t much interested in helping me out, but took me back to the hostel and, much to my embarrassment, started throwing pebbles at the director’s window. The director finally came down and let me in, where I joined the other residents in their evening meal. By then, it was about 8:30 p.m. and I was exhausted, but happy to have a place to spend the night.

In the morning, the director moved me from a bunk bed in the dormitory to a private bedroom. Almost immediately I was visited by a young man who worked as a janitor in the hostel. We tried without success to speak in German causing me great consternation, but then I discovered that he was not German, but Polish and he spoke passable English. He had come to me looking to get advice about finding a college to study at in the U.S.!

After my visit with the Polish student and breakfast, I set out to find the international student office. The office was not hard to find, but the director then informed me that I was a week late in arriving because university registration required that I  visit a number of government offices and a doctor’s office; I also needed to move into the dormitory. In other words, I had two weeks of work to do in one week, but first paperwork, paperwork, paperwork—Sei willkommen zu Deutschland!




You may also like

1 Comment

Leave a Reply