When I moved into the apartment my host school had arranged for me, my flatmate, a German university student, was still on summer vacation. Upon opening the refrigerator, I found a bottle of Heinz ketchup and couple of cans of Budweiser. I winced, thinking to myself that here I was, wanting to immerse myself in German culture, yet living with an America-obsessed German.
I was travelling the weekend Kathi returned. Upon opening the refrigerator, she found a few containers of yogurt . . . and a bottle of Heinz ketchup and a couple of cans of Budweiser. She sighed, thinking to herself that the new American teaching assistant was obviously not too interested in immersing herself in German culture.
We eventually crossed paths, and, somewhat to my surprise, I really liked her. Over time, we became fast friends. We cooked together, took walks together, had long philosophical discussions over cups of tea. She invited me to go home with her for a weekend. I tried out some of my lesson plans on her. And the bottle of ketchup and the cans of beer remained in the refrigerator, untouched.
After a few months, one of us asked the other—we no longer remember who first broached the subject– if those items could be moved to make room for things we had bought to host a dinner party. As the realization dawned that they belonged to neither of us, there was complete silence. Then we burst out laughing, confessing to each other the sight-unseen impressions we had formed, based on the contents of the refrigerator. Turns out the ketchup and beer must have belonged to the previous flatmate, also an English teaching assistant, who had done most of her shopping/spent much of her time on the U.S. military base on the edge of town.
Kathi now lives in England and remains a close friend. We have visited each other sporadically and have continued those philosophical discussions via letters and email. And I have occasionally told the story of the ketchup and the beer to the study abroad students and future Fulbrighters I work with, to illustrate the importance of first impressions—and of being willing to let them go.
Cheryl Lochner-Wright – Fulbright to Germany 1986