Deborah Marble Hubbard

When writing a piece of fiction, I am at liberty to send my heroine into the world, bending and shaping events to create a dramatic arc, without needing to worry about sticking to real-world facts. Writing a biographical account, however, requires me to refrain from telling whopping tales of daring-do and cleave to the truth. Let’s see if I can create a “Spannungsbogen”, like the arc of a bow before releasing an arrow, that delivers a worthy climax. Despite having to tell it like it was.

As heroic tales do, my story begins with a journey to a far-off, unexplored land. I set out neither to save the world nor a kidnapped prince, but I was, however, with the advantage of hindsight, venturing forth to rescue myself from an unknown post-college future. In 1972, unemployment was high, and as the owner of a pristine BA in German and modern European history from a small liberal arts college, my career chances were, to put it frankly, lousy. I had heard about Middlebury’s language program from a friend and sent away for information on their school of German in association with Mainz University. I read that the program was aimed primarily at training language teachers, something I did not intend to become. If anything, I thought of the usefulness of improving my fluency in German as a tool for reading primary sources when studying history.

The whole idea of going abroad was audacious to start with, since I had no funds to finance a year in Germany. But somehow, I managed to scrape together the necessary means with grants, loans and a cafeteria job, departing my safe haven on the first leg of this adventure that transported me to Middlebury, Vermont, and the six-week long German summer school. The first order of business was to sign a pledge, promising I would only speak German for the duration of the session. I took this obligation seriously and it turned into a great game. The morning classes, mainly in literature, as well as day-to-day conversations with fellow students and real-live, native German professors were a challenge that I enjoyed. Soon all my thought processes were up and running in German and I was continually trying to figure out in advance how to express what I wanted to say next.

Interaction with the teaching staff in the afternoons was great fun. The professors also stayed in the same residence hall as the students, and we played endless games of volleyball on the grass opposite the dorm. That is were I first registered Hellmuth Karasek, the theater and literary critic, and his son, Daniel. Not that I knew who he was. I didn’t have him for a class, but I remember chatting during the volleyball afternoons and being amazed that his son, who was around twelve, was allowed to smoke in front of his dad. Only later did I find out how famous Herr Karasek already was back in Germany. And Daniel, of course, is now a well-known theater director. Sorry about the name-dropping.

Thus, armed with six weeks of conversational German and an introduction to various literary greats, I boarded a rickety charter flight to Frankfurt in late September. My sister, Sue, reported much later that my mother was extremely upset about my leaving. Apparently, she cried and declared she knew I would never return home. But of course, I was only going for two semesters.

The initiation into the foreign world of Mainz and its university was a revelation, not unlike opening a wardrobe door and finding myself in Narnia. Minus the lion and the witch. At twenty-one, my only previous exposure to another country had been weekend jaunts as a teenager to Canada from my home in Buffalo. But Canada was not preparation for Europe.

So many things were mystifying. Getting around a completely foreign city on buses and trains, lugging groceries back to my room – an arm-lengthening experience. And that was just minor logistics. The Middlebury students were scattered all over the city, so it was hard to get to know them. Only a few lived on campus, as dorm space was a rare commodity. I initially lived in Budenheim, a train ride away. But gradually, when classes began, we came together as more of a community. Of course, it was much more important to meet the locals, see how they lived, and speak the language. The on-campus Feste were de rigueur. Who would want to miss the disco dancing and getting to know more people? After Christmas I was able to move to Mainz and it become much easier to socialize. The Mainzer Kolleg bar was the place to go.

Make no mistake though, despite an active social life, I took my studies very seriously.
Most general courses were lectures, Vorlesungen, in large halls, where there was virtually no interaction with the professors. For some of the lectures, Middlebury organized tutorials conducted by older German students who were very understanding of our struggles to express literary analysis in what was still for us an awkward foreign idiom. I vividly recall the tutor from the Goethe Vorlesung who was always considerate of our efforts to squeeze our thoughts into German. If he didn’t understand what we said, he would ask us to repeat it, with the generous pretext: “Ich habe dich akustisch nicht verstanden.” Thus, he granted us a second chance.

Despite my low-budget arrangements, I was able to go on two cheap student trips. The first was to Prague, my first and only foray into a country behind the Iron Curtain, over New Year 1972/73. Besides meeting students from other German universities on the same coach trip, we spoke with young Czechs in a tavern. One told of how he had hoped to study, too, but his involvement in the Prager Frühling of 1968 had banned him from admission to university.

In the break between the winter and summer semesters in February, I went skiing for the
very first time, traveling to Davos, Switzerland with a group of Middlebury students. Having written a paper in college on Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg, I was especially taken by the town. 

The next major event on the calendar was the Mainzer Fassenacht. Nothing could have
prepared me for the spectacle and craziness that ensued: Parades and parties and too much wine for days on end!

The two semesters went by in a flash, and I succeeded with tests and term papers; nothing
stood in the way of my MA degree. Meanwhile, there was a German boyfriend and an
opportunity to teach English as a foreign language at an evening school downtown. If I were to stay. What would be the harm in letting things take their course?

Forty-seven years later, I live with my English husband, one dog and three cats, in a small village in the Taunus Hills, about forty kilometers north of Mainz. It’s the place I have now called home for twenty-seven years. Our three grown children and two randchildren live nearby.

My Middlebury experience is, no doubt, too out of date to be of any practical relevance to students in 2019. But it may serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers that abound. As the maps in days of yore warned, in those unchartered waters, “There be dragons”. When you venture forth into new horizons, the unexpected might accost you, enchant you, and you just might never return home. But even if you do, you will not be the same person as the one who boarded that plane.

And what I most hate to admit is that my mother was right.

In 2012 I published The Peace Bridge, by D C Hubbard, in which I used my experiences studying with Middlebury in Mainz as a setting for a novel about an American Jewish girl in search of the truth about her German family’s past. In the last few years I have published several short stories in German in a variety of anthologies.

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