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   My alcoholic journey through life began with tottering steps when at the age of sixteen I traveled to West Germany. I would spend the next twelve months in one state of inebriation or another as an exchange student there. Until then, I had been a model student, a decent athlete with straight As, on course to receiving a full-ride athletic scholarship, believe it or not.

   Eventually, I’ll have to write about that year, about all the successes and failures, but for now permit me to tell you about my very first day with my host family, the Schwartzes.

   It was the summer of 1982 and our group of some twenty or thirty Americans from the west coast had just arrived in Frankfurt. After checking into a youth hostel, the more energetic of us headed promptly into town to do some sightseeing and exercise the new and inalienable right to consume alcohol. Before long, we found a kneipe in the old town with outdoor seating that served huge bierkrugs of alts and lagers and pilsners.

   Let me tell you, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

   But things just got better and better: a German man sitting at the neighboring table started to chat us up and as we talked he offered us our first shots of korn, a colorless spirit usually made from fermented rye (32% alc/vol). When in Rome . . .

   It is only by the grace of God that I did not vomit all the way back to the youth hostel like some of my fellow overachievers did.


   On the following day, we traveled by train to Hamburg, at the time Germany’s biggest city--West Berlin was still under the administration of the Allies--and were introduced to the families who would be hosting us during our month-long orientation and crash-course in the German language.

   The Schwartzes, a dowdy couple in their fifties, met me and took me to a restaurant where we waited for their “children”.

   “Children?” I said.

   “Yes, we have two daughters,” Frau Schwartz replied.

   Images of my two younger sisters--five and seven years my junior and still in elementary school--filled my mind, so it came as a quite a pleasant surprise when two beautiful young women walked through the door of the restaurant and sat down at our table.

   “These are our children,” Frau Schwartz said. “Sylvia and Regina.”

   “Es freut mich,” I said, using one of the few phrases I had learned from the man at the kneipe the night before.

   Sylvia was a beautiful, lithe seventeen-year-old with golden blonde hair that was pulled back into a long ponytail. Her sister was slightly shorter, somewhat chubby, but in all the right places, a wholesome girl with long brown hair, fifteen years of age.

   “It’s a pleasure to meet both of you,” I said again in English for good measure, a devilish smile spreading across my face. I think I'm going to like this homestay.

   Now that the girls had arrived, we walked to their home, which was only a few blocks away. It was a pleasant home in a leafy suburb north of downtown Hamburg.

   Sitting in the backyard, Herr Schwartz prepared a drink for me which he said was called “Alsterwasser”, or “Water of the Alster”. I knew that the Alster was a tributary of the River Elbe, which had been dammed nearly eight hundred years earlier such that it formed the two iconic lakes in the center of Hamburg, but I didn’t quite understand what it was that I was drinking.

   Alsterwasser, Herr Schwartz kindly explained by pouring me a second glass, was beer mixed with what the Germans called Limonade, a fizzy lemon-flavored drink similar to 7-UP. It would be years before I would know Alsterwasser by its more common name: shandy or shandygaff.

   Every now and then, when it’s too hot to drink beer straight, I make myself an Alsterwasser. Most recipes call for half-and-half, but I prefer to fill the glass only a third of the way with 7-UP (if I can ever find it) or Sprite and top the glass off with a lighter, less bitter Japanese beer, such as Asahi Super Dry or Orion Beer from Okinawa.

   As Herr Schwartz and I drank our Alsters, Sylvia said excitedly, “Look, look! There’s an ‘eagle’ in the garden!”

   I looked up at the trees and the sky above, but saw nothing.

   “An eagle? Where?”

   “There! There!” she said, pointing at the ground.

   Following her finger to the bottom of the wooden fence surrounding their garden, rather than finding a large bird of prey, I caught glimpse of a humble little hedgehog waddling among the roots of a tree. Hedgehogs, I learned, were known as igels in Germany.

   Drinking Alsterwasser in the garden with the Schwartz's lovely daughters, I knew I was in heaven. 



   Rate: ★★★★

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