“What do you remember about the American army in Germany?” Francesca asked. “A lot, because I´m German“ , I said.
But when I searched my brain for memories, I found only black-and-white moving pictures: GIs jumping out of jeeps and giving chewing gum to gangs of children in rags. Blond girls with braids holding C.A.R.E-parcels and laughing. Relief bombers flying food to Berlin. John F. Kennedy saying “I´m a Berliner”.
I looked at Francesca, shocked, because for the first time I realized, that I didn´t have any first hand experience. “Your father is the first American associated to the army I ever spoke to.“ When I grew up in the 60ies, the only soldiers I knew were French and the only French I knew were soldiers. When, after World War 2, the USA, Great Britain, France and Russia divided Germany into four sectors, France got Baden and Baden got the French—again. The last time, Napoleon´s army stayed for seven years. It enriched the local dialects with French expressions and the local genepool with dark eyes.
This time, the occupation lasted 40 years. When the French left in the 1990ies, every village in Baden had a twin village in France, children at elementary shool learned French as second language and my taste in men was set.
When nuns founded the catholic all-girls convent school I went to, they didn´t suspect that two hundred years later, a French officers mass would be just one street away. There, behind closed yellow curtains, I found what I longed for to meet, but wasn´t supposed to: men. Sometimes, after school, l would sneak over with a friend and have a drink at the officers bar. There they were, in olive uniforms on oldfashioned sofas, their kepi, the typical round French army cap, beside them on the formica table, a jug of Pernod in front. Slender men, not much taller than I, with walnut eyes and olive skin. I would watch them pour the alcohol into a glass, add some water and see the liquid turn from clear to milky white. This seemed to be French magic, a symbol for wild adventures and secret lives. German Schnapps never changes. If they can do this, what else can they do? I would sip my drink and imagine myself as Simone de Beauvoir meeting Jean Paul Sartre in a clandestine Parisian bar during the war. At school I managed to read Voltaire in French, but when one of the men tried to talk to me, I just giggled and blushed. Later, at home, with my friend Elisabeth, I would practice saying “Voulez vous couchez avec moi?“ and discuss what we would do if we were asked in reality—which never happened.
The first time I realized that other armies existed beside the French, a tremendous noise shook the air. The next second a triangular plane vanished behind the mountains. A Starfighter had broken the sound barrier. My father told me the story of the two American pilots who ejected out of their crashing plane just above our remote valley and how he found one of them, caught in tree branches, badly burnt.
Apart from this story, there was no first hand experience with the American army in my family. After the war, my father grew up in the French occupation sector, my mother in the English, to where her family had fled from the Russian army. By general understanding, those living in the American sector were considered lucky and were envied by everybody. The Americans could afford to be generous. GIs gave chewing gums, coffee and cigarettes and their government the Marshall plan to rebuild the German industry.
Everybody loved the Americans, but nobody knew them. When I left home, I often lived in towns strongly connected to the American army. In Kaiserslautern, I passed an American army housing complex every time I went to town. In Stuttgart, it was the European Headquarters of the US Army I passed. In Frankfurt I listened to AFN radio from morning to night. But the Americans seemed to live in a different universe. I never met one in a bar, at the local swimming pool, in the cinema or at the supermarket.
Nevertheless, America never was far away. Since the late 60ies, when TV established itself once and for all in German living rooms, I lived immersed in American culture. One of my earliest memories is the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy. As a child, I adored Flipper, Black Beauty and Lassie. As a teenager, I watched Doris Day and Rock Hudson share pyjamas and crossed, in my dreams, the American southwest to the sound of „Born to be wild alive“. Dallas, Denver, Starsky & Hutch, Miami Vice, Colombo or Bonanza—you name them, I know them.
Even when I met my first real-life American as late as 1992, it felt more like a movie than real life.
But this is another story.