Less than 24 hours after their plane touched down in Toledo, 14 German visitors found themselves squeezed into a roomful of American teens, dancing the hokey-pokey to a 45 rpm record.
They put their whole selves in and pulled their whole selves out, following the lead set by Whitmer High School principals, teachers, and German students who leapt, laughed, and wiggled alongside them. Up front, square-dance caller Harry Haywood did his best to herd the giggly group into lines and partners. The collective cluelessness was just enough to make it all work wonderfully.
The German teenagers and their two teachers arrived last week to get a taste of American culture, part of a student exchange program Whitmer High has run since 1989. On Sept. 24, their hosts held a reception for them at First Congregational Church in the Old West End, with a potluck dinner, “Wilkommen in Amerika” cakes, and a lively session of square and line dancing.
Jet lag was apparent on the visitors' faces, but they smiled on through the evening.
Their plane arrived late the night before at Toledo Express, and their 14 host families wandered about with their new charges, looking for restaurants open after midnight.
“I was hungry. We found a place for burgers,” 17-year-old Dominik Bley said in his best English.
“We had a little trouble with pickles,” said Anita Briggs, his host mom. “He knew about cheese, and tomato. But pickles? I'm afraid he never learned that word.”
Her son, Ryan, with three years of German study under his belt, came to the rescue.
“Still, I'm enjoying having him here,” Mrs. Briggs said. “I've never studied German, and my husband had one year of it, 18 years ago. This really makes me wish I'd taken a language in school. ... It's challenging. There's an awful lot of blank stares in my house these days, trying to get over that language barrier.”
Whitmer Principal Brad Faust got a big dose of German culture the first day, he said with a grin. Several of the visitors told him all about the Faust character of German folk tales, a man who sold his soul to the devil.
Dominik said his short time in The Land of the Free has been rewarding so far. The people here are friendly. The girls are nice. And the food is just fine.
“But then again, I'll eat anything,” he said auf Deutsch.
A day at Whitmer was a revelation, even as he struggled with fast-talking chatterers. Classes are fewer and less intense here, he said. And there was this odd “fire drill” thing.
The German students will stay two weeks in Toledo, attending classes by day, taking field trips on weekends, spending evenings and nights with local host families.
Their American cultural experience will include a hayride and bonfire, a river cruise, a trip to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, and all the phenomena that comprise a Whitmer High Homecoming Weekend.
On Tuesday, they'll make an overnight visit to Chicago to finish their trip. And next summer, their Whitmer student hosts will board a Frankfurt flight to make the exchange complete. The visitors are from Giessen, a college town in the Hessen region known as the hometown of Roentgen, the inventor of the X-ray. The Americans will visit museums, castles, historic cemeteries, and a fine old downtown church, said teacher Mirjam Sprenger.
But last week on Collingwood Avenue, it was All-American toe-tapping hokey-pokey. “This is very different from my home, but that's OK,” said 17-year-old Torben Dietrich. “I'm understanding most of what is said. I want to get to know this culture and way of life, and make some friends. Maybe someday I'll work with Americans.”
And that's what it's all about.