Mar 19, 2018


I’m not sure why my German Penpal stopped talking to me. I can only speculate. I met Jenni on my Gap year. I was 18 and by sending a letter to the right person (my work experience boss at Villa Maria winery), I had landed a paid job on a French vineyard. We worked six days a week, those grapes won’t crush themselves! When the work whistle blew, my God I was lonesome. I realise now that at 18 I'd never spent time alone before, nor had I lived in the country. 
I would have dinner with the winemaker's elderly parents, because I didn't know how to cook or drive, and the closest supermarket was 30km away. 1998 was the year Bill and Monica scandal broke. The French word for a blow job is a 'pipe' (pronounced 'peep'), which our French teacher had taught us. I was delighted I could understand the conversation about Bill and Monica. Another time we were watching an animated weather forecast on tv. The old man of the vineyard muttered, 'I think he's a faggot' (the weather presenter), before shooting a withering gaze at me.
Imagine my delight when a class of 18 year-old German geography students turned up, to walk the chalky hills behind the Chateau. The hills are called les Dentelles (the Teeth), jutting out like jaws. I remember Lena of the long blonde hair asking if I wanted to take my shirt off, so she could give me a massage? She saw the scar on my hip. Who knew that bike brakes are on the other way round in Europe? I'd slammed on the front brake going downhill  and landed on some Swiss gravel. After a week of longing, the Germans left. One of them, Jenni, gave me her address and our correspondence began.
Jenni had been to New Zealand the previous year. Her host family was in Hamilton, but she'd only lasted a week. She was not impressed by the bunk room she slept in. After crying for a week, she caught a flight home. The only photos she had taken were documentary evidence of the bunk room, and a picture of the Civic on Queen Street. 
The winery I was working at had been run by the same family for 450 years. I had been making wine for two weeks. I didn't know how to do anything. The winemaker asked me what I was thinking about in the wine cellar once. 'The Germans,' I said. 'I miss the Germans.' He said, 'you know, you are Free!' My heart sank like sediment in the barrel.
A week later, in a sullen mood I left the Chateau for the night without telling anyone. A coworker had told me to stop fucking up the bottling line. I slept in the Teeth, where wild boar would very occasionally run out onto the path and a famous wind blows. I thought of myself as a young Crocodile Dundee. Alas in my strop, my open-air cry for help, I hadn't told anyone where I was going. The winemaker's mum had stayed up all night. When I returned at 8am for work, the winemaker fired me, and drove me to the train station. We weren't talking on the half-hour car ride, and at one point we picked up a hitchhiker, a 70 year-old woman. 'Don't you think hitchhiking is dangerous,' the winemaker asked her. 'Dangerous?! Crossing the road is dangerous!!', she said. I'd committed so many infractions at the Chateau. I once asked the winemaker if I could borrow a few stamps to send postcards to friends and fam? He hadn't realised I wanted stamps for forty postcards, from the loneliest 18 year-old in France. I once took three bottles from the cellar to send to a crush, and the winemaker was fucked off.
I got back to England, but landed in another isolated spot, in a small town near Bath. I kept writing to Jenni. Letters gave way to emails. My brain's pleasure centres would light up with every reply. I confided that I was having girl problems, in that I didn't know any. She said she was having boy problems with Fritz or Frank, whatever her boyfriend was called. After two months of dedicated correspondence she repeated her invitation for me to spend Christmas in Germany.
It all started because I couldn't sleep. I'd been working in a quiet café and would gorge myself on Espresso. I couldn't sleep till 4am and would wake up around noon. Jenni would wake me to go to high school with her, and I'd tell her I'd rather just sleep. The time I did go, I was with two of Jenni's male classmates in a room at the school. A phone started ringing and I picked it up and said 'Hello.' Someone said something in German and I said to Sebastian, 'It's for you...'
I felt weird that I was creeping around the house at 2 or 3am, needing a pee. The toilet had a German design, which features a shelf for your poop to land on. Probably loud to piss on. I reasoned that it would be better for me to pee into a glass bottle, than make my host family wonder why I was still awake. What I didn't realise was that I was then stuck with a bottle of pee in my room. I placed the half full bottle out the high window, into the garden. And completely forgot about it. 

Maybe things just went sour because I ate so much food over the three days of German feasting. Maybe it was because I gave Jenni a bottle of Jean-Paul Gaultier perfume for Christmas, which she unwrapped in front of her 6'6" boyfriend. She gave me a Beck CD, but Cher's 'Believe' was on every car stereo. Their Doberman would run toward me and sniff my crotch. I think it was the Bottle. There home was immaculate. I think they would have noticed a bottle of pee. 
When the family unit dropped me at the airport I gushed about their hospitality. They waved goodbye as I walked through the gates. 
I emailed Jenni when I got back to England and she'd cancelled her email account. The next Christmas I rang her in Germany. 'hi, it's me from New Zealand! I'm just calling to thank you for last Christm...' She hung up.
I've had many penpals since then, it's often the same story. From a distance, I can control your presentation, and not be grating. But when you meet, someone might overstay their welcome. Cultures will clash. I might pee in a bottle. Don't meet your heroes, don't meet up with your penpals.

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