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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Short and Sweet
In the middle of my year as an exchange student in Germany -- 1986-1987 -- everyone in our Youth For Understanding got to spend several days processing at a hostel-like site in Bavaria. Then, after being joined by one of our host siblings, we all headed to Berlin for several days of education-minded tourism, including a day on the other side of the wall.

I made some good friends in that short period of time and dearly wish that I hadn't lost their contact information so soon after my return to the States. Three of them stand out:
• Rod, from Chicago, who wore a flannel shirt as his overcoat no matter how cold it was. He taught me that the line in REM's "Driver 8" about the power lines with "floaters" wasn't surrealism. And he liked The Edge from U2. But he was open to more edgy things of punk nature as well. In the short time we spent together, I made him into my expert on music, submitting my ill-informed opinions to his critical judgment.

• Cassie, from Canberra in Australia, who put up with my cluelessness both during the Berlin trip and afterwards, when we met up twice in Heidelberg, where she was staying. Had I been a little more tuned in to the possibility of possibility, she might have ended up being more than a good friend. She got pregnant at one point in the spring -- a real no-no for an exchange student -- and had to leave the country to find a more abortion-friendly climate. I found her name on the internet a few years back -- she was apparently doing journalism in the early 2000s -- but the trail had gone cold.

• Lena, from Denmark, who charmed me in all sorts of ways. She wore a pink down jacket. And her hair, come to think of it, was red. Once, while riding on the U-Bahn in Berlin with her, Rod, and Cassie, our courage fortified by the cheap vodka we kept adding to our McDonald's cups of orange juice, she decided that the girls should kiss the boys. Although it was what I wanted more than anything, the anti-social reflexes I'd developed after years of being the outcast at a small private school took over and I quietly flipped out, refusing to come out of my shell. At least Rod got kissed. Afterwards, both Lena and Cassie decided I must be gay and made it clear how understanding they would be if that were the case. It was hard to explain what had really happened, even to myself.
I started thinking about Rod, Cassie, and Lena just now as my thoughts drifted to more recent experiences I've had with people who were in my life rather briefly, yet made an impression on me out of proportion to the duration of their acquaintance. I like to hold on to things. But, when I think about how much I learned in the time I was with those three, I have to confront the possibility that quality may not only be a substitute for quantity, but also compromised by it.

That line of thinking made me recall an exchange-year experience Lena related to me when I went to visit her after the Berlin trip. She explained that she was perplexed because she'd slept with a guy -- "the way you do in Denmark" -- and then found that he regarded that encounter as the entry into a contract. He brought her flowers, wrote her letters, and otherwise sought to please her, but also expected signs of commitment in return. "Germans are so conservative. In Denmark we have sex all the time, like at a party or something, and it's no big deal. I wish he'd get it through his head that the night we spent together only meant what it meant that night."

Being an awkward and frighteningly innocent representative of a culture that then, as now, makes even Germany look like a paradise for libertines, I was both captivated and disturbed by Lena's lack of affect as she told the story. Looking back on her words with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that they were probably meant to sound more offhanded than the feelings that inspired her to utter them. Still, it was clear from other stories she told that her Denmark -- she was an urban girl -- was a lot more "advanced" than the Germany she experienced, much less the United States.

I realize now that I've clung to the idea of progress woven into her story even as it has become threadbare with use. But now I'm finding a new way to grasp it. Maybe the real lesson wasn't about the relative state of enlightenment in different cultures, but the fact that the times we spend together only mean what they mean before we part.

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