When 17-year-old Helge Elsner returns to Lubeck, Germany, next week, he’ll take back a portrait of Elvis for his father, a baseball cap for his brother, and a “Jurassic Park” poster for himself.
He’ll also take a new friend, 19-year-old Michael Wood of Trentwood.
Wood, a recent graduate of East Valley High School, is Spokane’s 1997 student ambassador to Lubeck. As sister cities, Spokane and Lubeck have a relationship designed to increase cultural understanding. Part of that involves exchanging young people, known as ambassadors, for part of each year.
This year, the Spokane-Lubeck Sister City Association could find only one local family willing to host a German student. Originally, Michael’s parents planned to host Helge while Helge’s parents hosted Michael. Fortunately, a change in plans meant the two young men could spend their exchange periods together, and learn from each other.
Helge arrived in Spokane on June 3. Today, he and Michael will travel to Lubeck, where they’ll stay for five months. Both young men will return to the United States to celebrate Christmas.
“It’s really been quite an experience,” said Kathy Wood, Michael’s mother. “Helge’s lifestyle and ours are very different.”
For example, Helge isn’t used to “playing” so much. Germans, he said, are much less consumed by having fun and being entertained.
“(In Germany), you work during the week,” Helge said. Weekends are for fun and people spend less money on entertainment. He was shocked to learn that middle-class people here spend $5,000 on a toy such as a Jet Ski.
The Woods have introduced Helge to laser tag, paintball, horseback riding, ATVs and a variety of other activities. They’ve taken him to Seattle and California. They’ve also taught him about eating in the car.
“It would be a miracle to eat in a car (in Germany),” Helge said. Using the floor as a garbage can or the back seat to store junk also is taboo, he said.
“Our cars look like new,” he said.
At 17, Helge is not yet old enough to drive legally in Germany. Teens there must wait until they’re 18.
But drinking alcohol is allowed at 16.
“I don’t know any alcoholics,” Helge said, adding that teens seem to be more responsible about drinking in Germany. He also believes teens are more responsible and less casual about sex. He was surprised to see pregnant teenagers during the two days he spent with Michael at East Valley High School.
“It would be a scandal (in Germany),” he said.
Students in Germany are required to learn two foreign languages, starting at age 10. Helge chose English and Latin. He will return to school in the fall, and Michael will attend classes also.
Both teens look forward to the next phase of their adventure together.
As first-time host parents, Dick and Kathy Wood feel the experience has opened their eyes.
“It’s a joy to see things that are new or different to Helge,” Kathy said. “I’ve learned a great deal from the experience.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
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