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Opportunity for adventure: Eaton recalls his year as an exchange student in Germany

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The sister city relationship between Worthington and Crailsheim, Germany, was established in 1947, shortly after World War II ended. The citizens of Worthington sent much-needed clothing and other supplies to Crailsheim, which was 70 percent destroyed during the war.

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One of the enduring traditions that arose through this partnership has been an exchange program in which students from both cities spend a year living and studying in the other community. The program became an annual exchange in the mid-1960s and has continued ever since.

This story is the fifth in a periodic series that features some of the exchange students who have participated in the program and takes a look at the effect a year spent in a sister city had on their lives.

WORTHINGTON -- As soon as it was announced that he was the next student chosen to spend a year in Worthington's sister city, Crailsheim, Germany, Peter Eaton was assailed by a feeling of uncertainty.

"I remember specifically, when they made the announcement, just being mortified, kind of dumbfounded," he recalled. "My first reaction was I wasn't sure I really wanted to go. I hadn't really considered what I would do if I won."

That was more than 20 years ago, and despite his initial reservations, Peter became an exchange student and spent a year in Crailsheim. He's never had any regrets, although he might have speculated about what his life would have been like if he hadn't accepted the opportunity.

Peter, the son of Dr. David and Jennifer Eaton of Worthington, spent his junior year in high school in Germany, from 1984 to 1985. He was one of four candidates for the exchange program that year, drawn by the prospect of adventure. He realizes now that he didn't think the process through at the time.

"I remember wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to travel," Peter explained. "My brother would always take every opportunity to have some adventure, and I looked at it as a chance to have my own adventure. ... But here I was, 15 years old -- I didn't even have a driver's license -- and about to go to a place I had only read about. But I knew I'd be missing out if I didn't take that opportunity."

Peter had studied German for several years in District 518, but was far from fluent in the language. At first, he relied on the Germans' ability to speak English and spent a lot of time just listening, not participating, in conversations.

"Eventually, you get to the point where you'd better start learning the language," he said. "I think I had hoped to learn through osmosis, by just being there, but I finally did get a German book that I'd use to look up words, grammar. When you decide you want to speak it, you want to do it right. Every moment of the day is an opportunity to listen; being able to speak it was the last thing. I started reading German, then speaking it. After a certain amount of time, I made some really good friends, and that's when it took off for me. The ultimate was when I caught a German, a friend of mine, making a grammatical error. ... I must of, at some point, thought in German. Language acquisition is a difficult thing."

Peter stayed with four families during his exchange year, and each provided a unique perspective on the culture. The first family was that of Birgit Otte, the Crailsheimer who had just spent a year as an exchange student in Worthington.

"Her father, he didn't speak English very well, but he enjoyed playing pingpong, and so did I, so we played pingpong together. His English skills were about like my German skills, so we got along," Peter remembered. "By the time I went to the second family, I'd gotten wrapped up with other friends, so I didn't spend much time with them."

His stay with that second family was short-lived, when the father suffered a brain aneurysm and died very suddenly. Peter quickly moved on to his third family, who lived in a village about 10 miles outside Crailsheim. The family owned the local restaurant-pub, and Peter occasionally found himself manning the taps behind the bar.

"There were all these people coming in for their daily beer, and I got to know many of them," he said. "That was really what it was all about -- getting to know the people. There were older people who came in who had lived through World War II and would tell me stories."

Peter's final stay was in downtown Crailsheim, where the family owned the city's largest clothing store and resided above it.

"I had made lots of friends and was pretty independent, but I had nice families all around, and there was always someone about my age in the house," he said. "It was always tough moving to a new place."

Travel was also a priority, and Peter had opportunities to visit France, Italy, Austria and even England, where his grandmother lived, meeting up with his parents there.

"My mom was from Australila, and my dad was born in India, so travel has always been a big thing in my family. If you have the opportunity to travel, you should do it."

He saw Bruce Springsteen in concert twice -- in Frankfurt and Munich -- and ventured beyond the Berlin wall.

"They set me up with a group of retired people who were going to Berlin, so it was a bunch of 70-year-olds and me," Peter laughed. "I traveled across Eastern Germany with them."

The Worthington High School Choir paid a visit to Crailsheim during Peter's time there, giving him the opportunity to reconnect with his Worthington friends and show them the sights.

By the time Peter returned to Worthington, he'd stretched out his adventure to more than a year.

"Thirteen months and 17 days," he said. "I stayed for as long as I could. I'd made a great group of friends and had some wonderful experiences."

He came back feeling -- and looking -- very German.

"I had my tight German jeans, high-top sneakers, and my hair was short in the front, long in the back -- a German mullet," described Peter. "People in Worthington weren't wearing that stuff yet.

"I was very independent, which was difficult for my parents and me," he added.

Peter finished up his high school career at Worthington High School and attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. His knowledge of the German language allowed him to test out of two years of language study and influenced him to choose a major in international business, although he never pursued a career in that field.

"After college, I went to Colorado for two years, was a waiter and skiied, had some more fun," he admitted. "Eventually, I decided I'd better do something with my life, so I decided to become a science teacher, because it was something I really enjoyed when I was in high school."

After earning a science degree in Duluth, Peter taught in Mora, where he met his wife, Jami.

"We just got married 2½ years ago," he said. "She had just come back from Turkey, where she'd been teaching for two years, and the Mora school district hired her to teach reading. Now, we've moved to Rochester, and I'm in my second year of teaching there. I teach seventh-grade life science and 10th-grade biology."

Since his exchange student experience, Peter has only returned to Crailsheim once, and that was just six months after he left. This coming summer, he and Jami plan to finally venture there once again. He looks forward to reliving some fond memories, sharing the sights with Jami, introducing her to his friends there and brushing up on his German language skills.

"I haven't used it," he admitted. "I sometimes watch a German cable channel, but we'll see how I do when we go back."

Peter believes the time he spent in Germany, at such a impressionable age, has impacted his life well beyond his command of a foreign language.

"It just allows me to look at things from a different perspective, to know there's more than one right answer, that another person isn't wrong because they look at something differently," he said. "So much of the time, people only look at things from one point of view. It was a good experience, and I think, the more experiences you can get, the better."

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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