As the Founder of Language & Luxury™, I often reminisce about how I ever began traveling the world in the first place, discovering foreign cultures and learning languages.  I mean, I was like a lot of boys who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, literally 60 miles from the geographical center of the US and about as far from an international border as you can get.  In high school, I wanted to be popular, attractive, and a good athlete.  Although I was an “A” student, and always planned to go to university, I really didn’t want to be known as a “brainiac” and I had little desire to travel abroad or learn a foreign language.  Why would I? I thought, thinking like a typical American kid growing up in this part of the world. 

I was not at all exposed to foreign language or culture as a youngster.  Indeed, my family had been in the United States for centuries with no stories of immigrants nor other foreign ancestors.  But when I entered high school, I was required to choose one language from the short list of French, Spanish, and German.  My counselor recommended either French or German, as Spanish was considered the easiest of the options, and she mentioned that German was a language more related to mathematics, which was of interest to me.  So, the German language it was (and I never got an explanation about the relationship to mathematics!).

During my Freshman and Sophomore years we had an American who taught the German classes.  I think he had spent some time there in the military and did the best he could.  And I did well on the tests, but wasn’t really learning much spoken German other than the very basics.  I wasn’t terribly interested in it, ‘just a class that I had to survive. 

In Junior year, my high school brought in a new teacher for German who also taught Physical Education, and his name was Klaus Kollmai.  Now, Herr Kollmai was not a normal American guy, in fact, he wasn’t American at all, but rather came from Germany and had settled in Wichita sometime in his teenaged years.  I don’t recall from where in Germany he hailed, but it was definitely below the “ich-ish” line, as he always maintained that “I” in German was pronounced “ish” rather than “ich”, as I had been taught.  Not only was he German, but he shared a lot of stories about Germany and was an energetic and interesting instructor.  Years later he went on to coach soccer and became probably the most influential soccer person in Wichita, responsible for introducing “Fußball“ at the high school level and influencing generations of soccer players there.

Herr Kollmai was rather short, slight of build, but athletic, and he had a deep, booming voice that made him sound a lot tougher than he really was.   But he was a nice change from the nuns and Jesuits that taught there, nothing personal.  He was a guy’s guy to whom teenaged boys looked up, and it was because of him that I made my first venture outside of the U.S….and to Germany!  Herr Kollmai found a company coordinating trips to Europe for high school students and convinced me to join along with a few other students from our school.  The itinerary included three weeks of living in German-speaking destinations with another few days added on at both the beginning and end to visit Rome and London.  The year was 1976, the U.S. Centennial, I was 17, and my life would change forever.   

1976 – First Visit to Germany as a 17-year Old High School Student

The trip started out in Rome in the middle of summer during a heat wave; and I was sleepy, jetlagged and totally intimidated by the noise, traffic, crowded feeling of elbow to elbow Romans plus the added tourist volume.  It was a bit much, as this was easily the largest city I have ever visited, but the Roman sights certainly didn’t disappoint, and we were able to order cold beers from the sidewalk stands near the tourist sights.  It just doesn’t get any better than that for a 17-year-old from Wichita, Kansas!  But the next stop was going to leave a much more lasting impression on myself and others.

We made our way up to Austria near Salzburg, staying in a trade school dormitory in a charming little village called “Kuchl”, pop. 9,000. It was right up against the Alps, with the beautiful Salzach River  running through it, and close to the famous Golling “Wasserfall”, or Waterfall. This was our first chance to speak German as well as our first chance to sample good German (in this case, Austrian) food and, of course, beer.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but since our next two stops would be the large cities of Munich and Berlin, this was going to be the best and perhaps the last opportunity to make friends!  You can read about the friends we made in Kuchl and the follow up rendezvous that we had in “Life-Changing Moments and Lifelong Memories from Cultural Immersion” in the Language & Luxury™ “Magazine”.

The next stop for the group was Munich, and what a great city and fun experience being in the heart of Bavaria.  We spent a week here and loved it, especially with the warm, dry weather, and we made good use of the evenings, much to the disapproval of our youth hostel hosts. On our list of sights were the Frauenkirche Marienplatz, Nymphenburg Palace, the German Museum, English Gardens, Münchner Residenz, Olympic Park, and excursions out into the Bavarian Alps to see the famous castles of Linderhof, Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Herrenchiemsee, which were absolutely spectacular.  We also made a stop in Oberammergau, the town which pledged to commission the Passion of Christ plays every ten years after being spared by the plague in 1634.  The town was also known for its woodcarvings, and I purchased some small wooden souvenirs there that I took home to my mother as gifts.  Little did I know that I would be back eight years later for the 350-year celebration.

One of the highlights in Munich was visiting the world famous Hofbräuhaus for dinner and, well, beer!  Munich’s largest tourist attraction after the Oktoberfest is actually owned by the State of Bavaria.   The “Hofbräuhaus am Platzl” was the site of several of Hitler’s rallies around 1920, including the first meeting of Hitler and the National Socialists in the Festsaal, or Festival Room, on the third floor. 

An interesting fact about my first visit to Germany in 1976 was that it was only 30 years after the end of WWII.  Now, I didn’t understand the significance at the time, but most of the adults with whom we interacted, teachers, bus drivers, youth hostel managers, etc., were mostly of age during the war; and, although they didn’t talk about it much, the recent war and subsequent discovery of the Holocaust were certainly underlying themes in German life.  I would go so far to say that Germany has become a much different place, several generations later, at least in terms of dealing with the war and the Holocaust.

Berlin was our next stop, and what a fascinating place that was.  I’m sure that we had studied about the unique location of Berlin in school, but the reality of the Cold War certainly manifested itself during our time in Berlin.  In West Berlin, it was about all we could do to grasp the realities of history and how the West Berliners were living on a virtual island in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany, linked to the West by only aircraft and a couple autobahns that where heavily guarded by the East Germans.  I remember making our way to “Bernaur Strasse”, where there were several viewing platforms from which you could see over the wall. On the west side, there was the city and even graffiti right up to and on the wall, but on the east side there was some 1000 ft. of leveled ground that was guarded by the East German soldiers.  In a surreal moment, several rabbits came out and scampered around, playing and gnawing on the green grass; had they been humans, they would have been shot.  Several of us were fighting back tears.

We also traveled by subway several times, part of which actually ran beneath East Berlin.  The subway stations in those parts were dark and abandoned except for the armed guards patrolling there.  During the Cold War, it was difficult to get people to move to Berlin given its precarious location.  In fact, the population declined from a high of 3.3 million in 1950 to around 3 million until reunification began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The population surged to 3.5 million in just a few years and has been increasing steadily ever since, with many young people moving to Berlin from all over the world.

The sights in Berlin at that time were spread between the east and west sides, and fortunately we were able to visit both sides.  The Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Lindon Street, Checkpoint Charlie and Friedrichstrassen, Karl-Marx-Alee, the Reichstag Building and the many museums such as the Dahlem Museum with its Rembrandts and other masterpieces, the Pergamon, Altes Museum and many others.  And, visible from all over Berlin, the DDR’s Television Tower that I recall always reflected the sun in the form of a cross, something that irked the East German state to no end!  Oh, and one more masterpiece, the ubiquitous Trabant, the car mass produced in East Germany from 1957 to 1990.

Our last stop was London for a few days.  We were excited to be there and excited to be going home, yet we were also sad to have to part ways with our new friends for the past month.  The experience of being in a foreign country, my first, was enthralling to me; and, even though my German didn’t improve drastically, I did have my moments where I was on my own and completed simple transactions, like buying gifts – and beer – completely in German.  You can read about my first foreign language transaction in the same article noted above in our “Magazine”.

1979 – Second Visit to Germany as a 20-year Old University Student

The next German experience was another study-abroad program during the summer after my Sophomore year in college.  This was a different kind of tour, as we were to be based for a six-week period of time in one German town and live with guest families.  The first week, before reaching our destination and meeting out guest families, involved some sightseeing in southern Germany.  We started in Trier on the Mosel River, then to Rothenberg on the Tauber, then to Bavaria, were we visited Dachau, Linderhof Castle, Ulm, Munster, the Audi plant, the Schiller Museum and the Kemberg Monastery. 

From there it was straight north to the town of Eutin in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, which is situated just to the north of Hamburg and reaching up to the Danish border, the most northern part of Germany.  Eutin was relatively close to the North Sea port of Kiel and not far from Lubeck, which was right at the East German border.   Eutin is a town of less than 20,000 but very beautiful, green, and with the Eutin Castle and surrounding gardens forming the backdrop to my daily walks to school!

I was 20 years-old at the time, and when it was time for me to meet my guest family, I was shocked to be met by a twenty-something petit, beautiful, blond German woman, who I learned was my guest mother.  Now, keep in mind that my German was not very good at that time, but I did try to make conversation.  I quickly learned that her husband was in a graduate program in Kiel, but that he actually had an apartment there and didn’t come home to Eutin.  Uh-oh, I thought, I’ve arrived in a guest family in the middle of a crisis! 

But fortunately, I was wrong, and the husband did come home to visit and everything was on the up and up!  But it was interesting at first to say the least!  It wasn’t the typical German family I had in mind at all, but rather I was met by a blonde bombshell!!!  We all became good friends and the time I spent with them was warm and memorable, and I learned quite a lot of German.

The other students and I befriended the guest families, many of whom also had teenaged kids.  There were a lot of house parties, outdoor parties, and plenty of free time to sample the delicious baked goods and, of course, all of the popular local beers, wines, and other libation.  We all had classes for several hours a day, four days out of the week, to allow for side trips on the weekends, and we had a wonderful time and became good friends.  On this trip we really did get more of a chance to practice and improve our German, although, given our ages and the amount of time we spent with other students, the improvement was still incremental and not total by any means.  But we did become much more comfortable in the German culture and more adept at using the language.  For me, I still had another chapter left in my personal German story.

1984 & 85 – Summers in Germany as a mid-20’s Tour Manager

After finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas and before starting graduate school, my “Wanderlust” got the best of me and I signed up to work as a tour manager for an upscale tour operator based in Lawrence, Kansas.  I spent a total of five years in the mid-1980’s working in the travel business, traveling to meet my next tour group, and leading them through their sightseeing experience.  Luckily, in my third and fourth years, 1984 and 1985, I spent the summers in Germany leading two-and three-week tours, traveling throughout West Germany and even into East Germany and East Berlin once more.

There was a huge uptake in travel from the U.S. to Germany in those years, primarily because the U.S. Dollar was worth 3.5 German Marks, as was the currency at the time, and the power of the dollar went a long way.  But there was another reason, and that was that 1984 marked the 350th anniversary of the start of the Oberammergau Passion Plays, and so instead of presenting the plays every 10th year as was the custom, there was an addition year and a great deal of publicity surrounding it.  In 1984, any tour that came close to Germany would make a several day pilgrimage to Oberammergau to take in the play.  For our group it was part of the three-week tour that started in Frankfurt, with a stay in Heidelberg, Rothenberg, Munich, Oberammergau, Nuremberg, and then into East Germany for one night in Dresden and one night in East Berlin before crossing into West Berlin.  The tour then proceeded through the countryside of East Germany to Hamburg and then finished up the last night in Frankfurt before the flight back.

This time, since I returned to Germany not as a student but working in the travel business, I was not with the American tourists the entire time but rather spent a lot of time with the locals.  My pals, the German bus drivers, kept me entertained while the rest of the group was exploring, packing their bags, or already in bed.  I also started getting to know German wines much better, as the hotels and restaurants typically included our drinks with meals as complementary, and, well, it was time for me to learn about wines! 

Spending time with the locals was particularly common in East Germany.  There due to the somewhat depressed economy, the people had a lot more free time on their hands!   The local tour guides in Dresden and East Berlin were well-educated and very curious about the world outside of the Eastern Bloc as they were only allowed to travel within the Bloc.  We spent a lot of quality time together in the evenings and during breaks in our daily sightseeing schedule.

One interaction I’ll never forget happened in an East Berlin hotel.  I recall going to the bar, meeting the bartender, and answering, when asked, that I was from California.  He reached under the bar and took out a bottle of Meissen Wine, which is a pretty good white wine from the region near Dresden. He told me, “I’ll probably never be able to travel to California, so I’ll give you this German wine in exchange for a bottle of California wine.” I agreed, and the next trip I brought him a nice bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Little did we know that in five years the wall would be toppled, and reunification would begin.  

I also learned a lot more about German society, since I was technically an adult, in my mid-20’s, and I was with adults, so the discussions went well beyond beer and parties.  For example, the educational system is much different than in the U.S., and most likely wouldn’t be accepted here.  But it tends to better reflect the needs and interests of the students and gives them an educational path to a career, even if it is in the trades.  For example,  German children attend primary school for four years, at the end of which the decision is made on how to continue their education. The secondary school system is divided into the Hauptschule, for less academic students, the Realschule, for intermediary students, the Gymnasium, for academic students (although it sounds like sports to us!), and the Gesamtschule,  which combines all education types.

The Hauptschule ends after the 9th grade with the Hauptschulabschluss certificate, the Realschule after the 10th grade with the Realschulabschluss certificate. After that, young people can either start some form of vocational training or continue schooling. The Gymnasium ends after the 12th or 13th grade with the Abitur certificate, the entitlement to study at a university. 

With respect to vocational training, there is a close alliance between the Federal Government, the states, and companies that are eager to provide young people with training in nationally recognized occupations, which is then documented by means of a certificate issued by a chamber of industry and commerce or chamber of crafts and trades.  There are currently some 330 occupations requiring formal training in Germany.  Employer organizations and trade unions are the drivers when it comes to updating and creating new training regulations and occupational profiles or modernizing further training regulations.

As a result, training, testing and certificates are standardized in all industries throughout the country. This ensures that all apprentices receive the same training regardless of region and company. Moreover, employers have trust in these certificates as they provide evidence of what an individual knows and is able to do.  I remember one of my bus drivers detailing the amount of training, much of which the trainee pays, and the very strict process of several years by which one finally finds themselves behind the wheel of a bus with people, having first to drive various sizes of vehicles and without anyone riding along.

There is also a great deal of cooperation between the government and business in the German economy, resulting in the world’s fourth largest economy from a nation with approximately 83 million inhabitants.  Germany is also a leading exporter, even though it is not considered at all a low-wage country, but rather they tend to specialize in technical, precision, and high-performance product exports. 

Spending the two summers in Germany in the mid-‘80’s was not only educational and life-changing, but I actually became quite fluent in German!  My time in Germany has been minimal since, returning only a few times to Berlin since reunification.  My language journey continued, though, turning to Spanish, then Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and a few others, but it was my experience in Germany and with learning German that really influenced my career in international business (I decided to get an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management), my personal language learning journey, and the experience in immersion language learning that inspired me to launch Language & Luxury™.  But it all began in Germany!