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An unruly guest treated with love, not anger

I view most efforts to coerce people into doing a particular thing on a particular day with suspicion. Consider Christmas. It can be great, but I'm not sure little baby Jesus would need an Xbox. And why did President Ronald Reagan make June 25 National Catfish Day? Salmon tastes so much better.

It's the commercialization of commemoration, which is why I love Thanksgiving. There's no profit motive. You've got family and gluttony. That's it. And I like the nonprofit group StoryCorps' effort to wrest the day after Thanksgiving from Mammon with a National Day of Listening, an opportunity to share stories with those close to you. So, family, friends, and friends whom I have yet to meet, here's my story. It's about my most meaningful Thanksgiving meal to date, served far from home in a place that capitalizes "pilgrim" and every other noun.

When I was 17, I was awarded a scholarship that allowed me to spend my senior year of high school in Germany. I'd studied the language for a year before someone was willing to pay for an immersive linguistic and cultural experience. It was a free trip. I didn't need much convincing to pack my bags.

Just as I hoped, everything in my host country was new. The Germans know a few things about dough. They have Laugenstange, a delicious dark bread that's firm on the outside and moist on the inside. And in their drive for efficiency, they make the simplest things look both Spartan and luxurious; think Mercedes Benz garbage trucks.

I lived with a family of four outside of Hamburg: mom Connie; her husband Hannes, a teacher, sailor and history buff; and a 9-year-old genius named Julianne. The older daughter, Anna, was doing her own exchange year in Michigan while I stayed in her room.

The Wolframs were a warm, intelligent bunch. Almost from day one, dinner became a language lesson within a friendly verbal sparring match. But one evening, I took things too far. After some animated conversation at the table, Connie taunted me with a few playful little punches — nothing serious. But the punching led to grappling and the grappling to wrestling. Caught up in the moment, there on the living room floor in front of her husband and small daughter, I put Connie over my knee. I spanked my host mom. It was a real icebreaker initially, but there were consequences.

The sky in our part of northern Germany was more or less the same shade of gray from October through February. After a few months, I missed my American family desperately, and soon afterward, I learned that I was a small source of tension within my host family. By the time Hannes told me I should be more mindful of people's personal space and just more considerate in general, things had been brewing for a while. "I do not like it when you spank my wife." That's what he said. No man should ever have to utter those words, but I'd crossed a line and he needed to make that abundantly clear.

I was officially a home wrecker. The Wolframs would have been within their rights to ship me back to Baltimore. But they didn't. Instead, they took me with them on vacation in the Alps and sent me around the country to meet some of their best friends. Connie picked me up from basketball practice. Hannes took me with him on a boat tour of Holland. Basically, they treated me like a son.

Germans do not celebrate Thanksgiving. They have Oktoberfest. But Connie thought it might make me feel more at home, so on Thanksgiving evening, 1997, she made a feast just for me. There was turkey and cranberry sauce, and, if I recall correctly, rich, smooth mashed potatoes. How she knew what to prepare, I have no idea. There might have been a long-distance call involved. That meal was one of the gestures that made the Wolframs family to me in every way that matters, but it is still a source of confusion.

What kind of people welcome a stranger with questionable language skills into their home for an entire year, quirks and all, feed him, transport him, wash his clothes, then keep in touch long afterward? I can still say, "Thank you [Danke]," in German, but I can't fully explain that kind of generosity or imagine how I might repay it. It is a gentle but persistent burden, one that I will gladly carry my entire life.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column usually appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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