Toasting Transatlantic Friendships

how a chance meeting in Vermont led to decades-long connect that transcends national identities

Jane Jeffries

It started 31 years ago with a cold shower in Vermont. That’s how we met Frank and Uli, two college-aged Germans who were traveling the U.S. The campground showers on the men’s side were not hot, so there was a series of short screams, commiserating, and camaraderie. My husband invited them to breakfast.

Of course, when guests found out that we are Americans, the conversations always turned to our president and the political turmoil in the U.S. Germans are not strangers to political turmoil, and the lessons from their history inform their present thinking.

My sister Jean benefited most from this friendship because she lived in New York City, where Europeans want to visit. We lived, well, in the middle of nowhere. In NYC, Uli thought they could sleep in the train station and found out that Port Authority (at least in the ’80s) was a very scary place. After a 2:30am call to my sister, Jean and her husband drove in to pick them up. They were grateful for the rescue: “Thank you for coming! We are very lucky to be alive!”

Over the past 30 years, the extended family visited my sister in New York (because, again, we’re not exactly a travel destination), and her family visited Germany several times. This year, the Germans were hosting a 50th birthday party – in a castle yet – so we decided to crash the party.

After 31 years, we saw Uli again and finally met his extended family: Waltraud, Annette, and a bunch of Ralphs. At the birthday bash, we also met Australians, Italians, and former East Germans. All because of a chance meeting in Vermont.

Of course, when guests found out that we are Americans, the conversations always turned to our president and the political turmoil in the U.S. Germans are not strangers to political turmoil, and the lessons from their history inform their present thinking. There wasn’t judgment as much as conversation about what is happening and what it might mean – for all of us.

We had long talks with all of them: about history, the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the state of the European Union. Worldwide, the patterns are similar, and similar issues are facing all of our countries. But always, always, we came back to the question of our personal responsibility in any of this.

When I considered that my father and father-in-law fought their country in World War II – and that my own uncle helped bomb Berlin – it was a wonder that we all sat together drinking beer and toasting our German-American friendship.

We never solved the world’s problems, but we continued to talk all the way to the train station. When we arrived, Ralph had this parting thought: “You know, there will always be politicians and presidents and people at the top trying to decide how things will be between us. But as we celebrate our friendship, we decide to live another way. Not in the trenches, but in conversation, with shared experience.” We can choose to live another way.

Maybe what we need right now is just a cold shower and a lot more camaraderie.

Jane Jeffries does technical writing for Micron Systems, Inc., but fills the rest of her time as a playwright. She is a member of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and the Dramatists Guild of America.

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