By Circe Woessner, DODDS Brat and UMMC Alumnus,
Growing up overseas and attending DoD schools and the University of Maryland, Munich Campus, meant that school field trips were a little more interesting than average. Sure, we had routine field trips like going to the zoo and to the bowling alley on post, but we also took class trips to the local “Schloss” (castle) and explored Roman ruins.
Sixth grade was my most outstanding elementary school year. The entire grade went on two week-long trips—“Schullandheim” in the early fall and a ski week in midwinter.
The German word, Schullandheim roughly translates to school-country-home, and is really a youth hostel or house where school groups go to study in the countryside. In our case, the youth hostel was in the Black Forest not too far from our Karlsruhe school.
For a week, we did outward-bound type activities, made new friends—in some cases—found our first crush—and learned a lot about team building and group dynamics. To this day, I remember a big ropes course, a pitch-black handholding group trek through the nighttime woods and a lot of ghost stories.
Ski week was in the Feldberg. We stayed at another youth hostel. I remember the breakfasts of hot fresh brotchen and bierschinken and rosehip tea. To this day, I can still recall the taste of the bitter, red tea and the cool, greasy, rubbery, delicious meat on a fresh, buttered roll. It is one of my most vivid taste-memories.
I learned to ski (sort of) that week. Having never been on skis, I had a bigger learning curve than some of my classmates, but by the end of the week, I could snowplow, turn and (most of the time) stop. I even took third in a “slalom”. Not bad for a pudgy, nonathletic kid.
In high school band camp was an international affair. Literally. I fell in love with a Canadian boy. (His dad was in the Canadian Forces stationed in Baden Baden.) The week-long band camp brought together Canadian, American and German high school students—strangers all—to live, study, practice and perform together. The intense week culminated in our giving a concert for parents, families and locals from the community.
We stayed in a youth hostel attached to a ruined castle tucked away in some remote woods near a small German town. I have no idea where we were, but I have some great memories of that time.
First of all, our bus driver was drunk. He stopped to have several beer breaks on the way up and back. His driving prowess both thrilled and terrified us as he zigzagged up the windy road to the youth hostel.
Second: no matter how remote we were, we still had the stamina to sneak out the hostel and trek into town to the local Gasthaus to get beer. We scaled up and down the steep outer walls in order to do this, when in hindsight, we probably could have gone down the stairs and out the front door while the chaperones weren’t looking.
I think we got most of our thrill from plotting our escape, rather than actually escaping. We were very resourceful, scouring the forest for a large stick (i.e. LOG) to stick into one of the many cracks in the crumbling 20-foot high wall. We helped each other out. Depending on our direction, the strongest would go up (or down) and the rest would either dangle and drop or clamber and be hoisted. It was a miracle none of us were killed or at least maimed. Once home, I counted 32 cuts and bruises on my body from being hauled over 500 year old battlements.
At the University of Maryland, Munich, I took a Prague study tour. As an American overseas, I didn’t feel Communism was applicable to me. In Prague I blithefully exchanged my deutschmarks and Marlboros on the black-market, never once considering it was actually against the law, and dangerous for me to follow strangers into a dark alley to bargain. Again, I survived unscathed, even as my black market partners melted into the darkness as police sirens wailed closer.
My black-marketed money got me cheap pivo (beer) and great Czech food, crystal glasses and silk comforters. It also got me Russian flags and awesome roast goose dinners with dumplings and cranberries.
My bus mates stashed their loot underneath the bus enroute back to Germany. Either I was wise beyond my years, or I had been tipped off, I like to think it was wisdom now—I rolled my silk comforter into a pillow case, and put my crystal into a backpack stored at my feet. When we crossed the border I pretended to be asleep.
The border guards insisted the cargo hold be emptied, and all the students pay “200% duty” for their purchases. With my eyes closed, I still learned a lot about passive resistance. As if by one voice, all the students told the guards just to keep the stuff—and nonplussed, the guards didn’t know what to do with the 70 plus silk comforters piled on the ground before them. They ended up telling us to get them back on the bus and get out of there. How could they explain all those goods to their superiors?
Circe Woessner (Right) in Egypt
In the early 80s, I took a study tour to Egypt. Although my parents were concerned about Middle Eastern politics, they let me go, and I arrived in Cairo, blissfully unaware that assassinations and intrigues were all around. I loved hot, dusty Cairo. We wandered through centuries old streets and marveled at the armed guards in every luxury hotel doorway. We rode donkeys and camels out to the pyramids and ate lamb spitted and cooking over the coals. Although we joked about coming down with something dreadful, we ate food purchased from street vendors with out mishap.
We attended a reception in a wealthy businessman’s condo and the next day walked through the worst slums imaginable. The contrast between modern Egypt and ancient Egypt and the gap between the haves and have-nots really became apparent on that trip.
There is something to be said about studying an ancient culture where it was actually born. Stepping into King Tut’s actual tomb is way cooler than seeing a traveling exhibit.
In the Balkans I felt the same euphoria. Walking through the beautiful towns of Split and Dubrovnik—some of the prettiest places I’ve been, I never could have imagined that within a decade, they’d be ravaged by war. In Istanbul I shopped in the bazaars, gawked at the Sultan’s Palace and tried to connect with God in the amazing mosques. We made friends wherever we went.
Now, I would ask more questions, read up on the history and culture. I would be cautious. I would miss spontaneous opportunities because I would not want to take risks or do something wrong.
As a 17 year American considering all of Europe “home”, it never occurred to me about political correctness or danger or food poisoning or any one of a million things an adult thinks of while traveling abroad.
I was comfortable in my skin and it never occurred to me that the world could be a bad place, which is why, one late night, when a couple of us were being chased by the Turkish police for violating curfew, it seemed to be a game—it never occurred to us that they were serious. We could have been shot.
We made it back to our hotel room, heated up some lovely greasy doughy bread on our radiator, spread it with feta, opened a bottle of local wine, and looked over the brightly lit city of Istanbul.
The schools “field trips” are what made schooling overseas so special—I can’t imagine there was a better education anywhere.