My worst-ever Fourth of July

Don’t get me wrong. I love Independence day. The weather is always beautiful and the fireworks blow me away.

This year’s (1997) celebration was no exception. Kevin, Katherine and I went to my church’s Pancake Breakfast, then watched 90 minutes of the Redwood City parade (the largest July 4th parade west of the Mississippi, thank you very much). That afternoon, Kevin and I hooked up with his buddy and watched fireworks from Pier 39. There were fireworks that looked like smiley faces! We walked all the way back from Pier 39 to Kevin’s apartment on the other side of Nob Hill.

It was a fabulous day. So fabulous, that it nearly made up for the worst Fourth of July I ever hope to have.

The year was 1988, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, when I was an exchange student to (then) West Germany.

I’d been in the country for a couple of weeks, long enough for my initial gut-wrenching homesickness to have subsided, and was determined to enjoy this day of American patriotism.

At Gymnasium (high school) after homeroom, we walked to history class. I had not met that teacher yet and anticipated a brief report about the U.S.A.’s butt-kicking founding fathers and mothers.

My enthusiasm waned as the teacher stared at me, grunted “who are you” to me auf Deustch, and instructed me to have a seat toward the front, and spent the next hour and 15 minutes regaling us about the Motherland’s history of strip mining.

If she saw me rolling my eyes, she didn’t let it interrupt her repetitive guttural drone.

The only break was when a note got passed to me. It was from Martina, my overly-enthusiastic and as a result annoying-as-hell German classmate. She wrote to ask if I’d like to attend the high school’s production of “Unsere kleine Stadt.”

Sure, what the heck.


I met Martina that evening and she immediately began telling me about her dream boy, Gustav*. She showed me a dime-store four-photos-for-2DM picture of him, his hair blurred across his face, and told me her starry-eyed German equivalent of “I want to be his personal doormat until the end of time.”

This was not going to be an enjoyable evening.

That fact was reinforced when we entered the theater and I received a program. “Unsere kleine Stadt,” von Thornton Wilder.

“Our Town”! We’re seeing “Our Town” in German tonight.

“Our Town” was one of the few plays I’d neither performed nor seen in my illustrious childrens theater career. To this day, I don’t know the meaning of a single thing I heard that night. Actually, that’s a lie — I didn’t understand anything on the stage. I definitely understood Martina’s every pining word about Herr Gustav Dreamycakes, who incidentally sat five rows in front of us and nearly managed to elude her desperate attempts to get closer to him, except when they met at intermission and he refused to say any more than “hey Fraulein” to her.

I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life.

Once the show finally ended (what was that thing with all those people sitting mutely in their chairs, anyway?), I pulled a Gustav and begged off spending the rest of the evening with Martina, escaping her bovine lovesick gaze.

Once I finally arrived at the home of my host family, I dropped my things in my room and went into the family room, where my host mother greeted me with, “Oh, the Americans blew up an Iranian airbus and now there might be a war.”

“Goodnight, I’m going to bed.”

*Name changed to protect him if he ever finds this page

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