Saturday, August 25, 2007

Boys, Boys, Boys

I spent most of my teenage years anxiously avoiding Sin. Sin, unfortunately, lurks around every corner of a teenager’s life, so this anxiety existed in a constant uncomfortable tension with my equally strong desires for Popularity and a Boyfriend. (The means-end relationship varied between the two: sometimes I desired Popularity as a means of acquiring a Boyfriend, while at other times I was interested in a particular Boy primarily because he seemed like a suitable way to attain Popularity.)

My main method of Sin-avoidance was to stay away from parties. Parties, everyone knew, were hotbeds of illegal drinking, sex, drugs, and Sin of every variety. Avoiding parties was particularly easy given that I was never invited to any. It was a perfect balance between conviction on the one hand and lack of opportunity on the other.

All that changed when I turned seventeen. That year, our small-town hockey team won the Ontario Minor Hockey Association championship, spawning a season of parties to which I, as a small-town inhabitant who had warmed many a bench during the long winter hockey season, was duly invited. The most memorable of these was a party that seemed to be drawn straight from a John Hughes movie. The host was a fourth-string football player, a boy who was not popular himself but had access to all the popular people. By the time the night of the party rolled around, the rumour had spread throughout the whole school.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that I attended these parties in my capacity as an anthropologist. I came prepared to witness much sinful behaviour, and in a way I wasn’t disappointed. The party rapidly devolved into a frenzy of property-destruction: there was a bonfire in the back yard, and I looked on as some hooting revelers threw in various knick-knacks, including a hand-crafted pot-pourri wall-hanging made of braided wool and a few teaspoons of cinnamon and cloves gathered in squares of floral fabric. It struck me as astonishingly absurd that while our host’s mother was enjoying her vacation in Florida, some kid was taking it upon himself to burn this sad little piece of her kitchen décor.

The cops crashed the party at around eleven o’clock and the drunken masses fled to a wooded area behind the house, muffling squeals and giggles until the big searchlights retreated, at which point I heard someone whisper, “I wish the cops would chase us at every party!”

This party was everything I had expected parties to be: violent, illegal, and fun. What surprised me about the experience was the genial innocence of this ritual of law-breaking and teen rebellion. Despite all the vandalism and underage drinking, it was in essence a place of respite from the cutthroat politics of high school. The complicated social code of popularity was temporarily suspended; the only criteria that mattered were knowledge of the party’s whereabouts and willingness to attend. Once we crossed the threshold, anyone could talk to anyone; an atmosphere of friendly acceptance prevailed. In many ways, the school cafeteria was a far crueler hotbed of Sin than that party.

My season of party-going was short-lived. The simmering internal politics of my group of girlfriends boiled over a few weeks later, leaving me and my BFF firmly on the outside, temporarily stranded on the island of friendless teens. The following September found me choking down my peanut-butter sandwiches each day with Cornelia, the German exchange partner who had been selected for me based on my pre-party personality profile: I had indicated that weekly church attendance was “very important” and I had ranked “parties” last on my list of priorities, with “time at home with the family” as my top choice. As a result, I was saddled with a stern girl who scrupulously avoided any environment with loud music and insisted upon being home each Saturday night before ten.

Cornelia was like a caricature of the teenage misfit: she wore huge clunking green shoes and rolled the cuffs of her red pants so that a yellow Mickey Mouse pattern was revealed. “Not my favourite,” was her signature expression, one she used with a sulky expression whenever my mother served dinner. A week before she was due to return to Germany, she posted the date of “Cornelia’s Goodbye Party” on the chalkboard of all her classes, her idea of a subtle hint. At home, her favourite hobbies were ballroom dancing and participating in her local accordion orchestra.

To say that I was not eager to make my own trek to Cornelia-land would be an understatement. She stayed with my family from September through November, and I reluctantly flew to Germany at the beginning of March. What I didn’t realize was how perfect a foil Cornelia would make to the brand-new me I seized the opportunity to create as soon as I arrived in my new environment. By April I had settled into my made-in-Germany personality: I was a cuter, flirtier version of myself, both dumber and more rebellious than I was at home. It’s a very easy persona to assume when one is speaking a foreign language execrably. And it worked amazingly well: my diary is filled with the flirtations I carried on with multitudes of cute German boys, all of whom were generous with their attentions and none of whom ever tried to kiss me (much to my disappointment). I think I was protected by an uncrackable shell of innocence.

All this, then, is by way of a long introduction to a few excerpts from my German-exchange diary:

May 1, 1989
I can hardly write because my fingers are still frozen from riding my bicycle home at four in the morning from the “Tanz in den Mai,” a party held in a barn, the same place as the Easter Landjugendfest. Tonight was way more fun than the Easter party was, though. I went with Steffi, Kerstin, Yvonne, Claudia and a huge group of other kids from grade eleven. Cornelia stayed home. Ernst-Georg had told her that the Tanz in den Mai was the same as the Easter party except that people were rowdier and got drunk quicker, so she decided not to go.

It was like a rock concert – there was literally no room to move until about one-thirty when the early curfews had already left. I had no curfew, despite Cornelia’s efforts to get me one – she actually brought up the subject at the dinner table (I had been keeping a discreet silence on the subject). Papa rose gallantly to the occasion, however, and said that when I got home, that was when I had to be home.

I got separated from Steffi several times, but that didn’t matter because there were tons of other people I knew. I stood around for awhile talking with Michael, a good-looking guy from my math class – he promised to help me cheat if I had to write the math test next Saturday (a math test on Saturday!). Andreas (Horst-Rüdiger’s friend) came up to me just as we were leaving and said that he hadn’t seen me all evening (I hadn’t seen him either), and asked if I was going to Horst-Rüdiger’s birthday party on Friday (I am).

The big shocker of the evening was Steffi – I was separated from her for the earlier part of the evening, so I don’t know how much she had to drink, but when I finally found her (after being trampled several times on the dance floor looking for her – these Germans love slam dancing) she was hanging onto this gross guy with a mustache, and spent the rest of the night as closely attached to him as possible. I had an idea that Steffi had a better social life than Cornelia, but I didn’t think she was … the type to stand in the middle of a dance floor with two thousand people around her, with her tongue down the throat of some guy that she’s not even going out with (as far as I know).

May 5, 1989
We were at Horst-Rüdiger’s birthday party tonight from about five until nine-thirty, at which point Cornelia dragged me away with many warnings about how I have to get up tomorrow to write my exciting math test. I was having a good time. Ernst-Georg, Horst-Rüdiger, Markus, his girlfriend Ulrika, and Andreas were all there. That’s a grand total of four amazingly gorgeous guys, and just enough girls to go around. The best-looking one (Markus) was already very much taken, unfortunately. Actually, it’s not even that he’s so much better looking than the others, but boy oh boy, he’s got something. He came in, all dirty, sunburned and sweaty from work. He makes roofs.

Cornelia told me that before I arrived Markus was saying, jokingly, that if there’s a new girl around maybe it was about time to change girlfriends. She told him that my heart was occupied elsewhere (meaning Jeff). I forgot to ask whether she meant Jeff H. or Jeff D. – it could quite easily be either.

I’m beginning to feel really boy-crazy. At one point tonight the subject came up of what girls talk about when there aren’t any guys around. “Tell us,” Andreas pressed, but we either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell.

“They’ll talk about you tonight, Andreas,” Markus said at last, laughing. Cornelia, Gabriele and I burst into laughter, knowing full well that that was exactly what we planned to do; and it was, in fact, what we did do, undaunted, the moment we got home.

May 9, 1989
In my free period today I went to the reading room-type-place. Michael (from math class) was walking up the stairs ahead of me and asked me what I had next. Since we both had free periods, we went together. He flopped down on the couch, but I had homework, so I sat at the table. After an appropriate pause, Michael came and sat down beside me and helped me with my math homework (I’m afraid I pretended to be a bit dumber than I am). He’s very cute. He’s got brown hair, freckles, and a turned-up nose. He had a piece of paper with him, and he tore it up into little pieces, rolled them up and threw them all at me.

May 30, 1989
Here are all the people I talked to at the Schulfest disco:

GIRLS: Ayse, Conny, Silke, Silke #2 (both from my chemistry class), Steffi, Jessie, and Claudia from English class. (I know five Claudias: Floh, the one from accordion orchestra, the one that lives next door, the one from Godspell, and this one).

BOYS: (this one is more interesting)
1) Ernst-Georg – he and Horst-Rüdiger were both there. I wanted to see the band, but there were too many people in the way, so he propped me up on his shoulders, from which vantage point I could see everything, including Michael standing only a few feet away. I wish I knew if Michael liked me or not. It would make things much easier.

2) Andreas – yes, good old Andreas. I finally know how to spell his last name – because he gave me his card and told me to call him on Sunday (as if I would). He was a bit besoffen, and very friendly. We stood around talking on at least three occasions, and each time he came up to me he pinched my waist to make me jump (which I always obligingly did, with a little shriek). He’s tall, good-looking, smart, older, in every way perfect, so why is it that when he touches my face, I automatically pull back? From an objective point of view he’d be an amazing catch, but I am totally unattracted.

3) I only saw Michael three times – once when I was on Ernst-George’s shoulders (he walked by and said hello), again a bit later (he elbowed me in the back by way of greeting, but as I was already talking to Heino he just continued on his way), and then lastly just before it ended. Andreas had both his hands on my face at that point and I was trying not to flinch (because I’m still trying to convince myself that I like him), and then suddenly there was Michael, just kind of looking at me.

4) Bernd (star of Godspell) – Cornelia said he had asked about me so I went up and said hi when I saw him and he lifted me right off the ground in a big bear hug, then put me down and kissed me (on the cheek), telling me how great I was in the “Macbeth murder mystery” skit [put on by the grade 12 English class for Schulfest]. That’s typical Bernd behaviour and he doesn’t mean a thing by it, but it’s fun.

5) Ralph – He came up at the end (I having just escaped the clutches of Andreas) and told me how tired he was. “Oh, you’re just like Cornelia,” I scoffed. He just looked at me very gravely. “Don’t you say such a thing,” he warned ominously, and then grabbed me under the arms, lifted me into the air, and shook me, while I screamed, of course. I always scream in those situations. I act like a real airhead, actually, but it seems to be working quite well.

6) Andreas #2 – he’s a guy from my English class, to whom I’d never spoken before tonight. He really seemed to have decided to try his luck with the Canadian girl, because he came up to me right out of the blue and started talking. He wants to be a journalist in war-torn countries. He likes heavy-metal music. He came to class drunk on Tuesday because it was his brother’s birthday. How do I like Germany? Is the school the same as in Canada? Blah, blah, blah. He’s really a good conversationalist, actually. Better than “Struby,” with whom I’m always falling into awkward silences. But not at all good-looking, though he’s popular enough. A whole group of guys came up after awhile, all of them about a foot taller than me, making what sounded like ribald jokes, and punching Andreas in the silly way guys are always punching each other to look cool. “They are betting,” explained Andreas in faulty English, “They make bets on whether I get you.”

Oh, yeah.


What strikes me when I read this diary is not only how false and contrived my German-exchange persona was, but also how I still have it in my back pocket. I whip it out from time to time, in situations where cuteness and helplessness seem to be called for. I still have certain mannerisms and traits that I invented in 1989, more or less consciously, to go along with my identity as “the Canadian girl.”


Alpha DogMa said...

What strikes me as interesting - and says so much about your presence of mind and strength of personality - is that you KNEW at age 17 that it was only a persona. Whereas when I adopted personas (and I'm so glad to know that I'm not the only person who 'experimented' like this), I began to believe that this was the real me, that I'd finally found my true self as I morphed into a Canuck version of Tracey Lords or a younger version of Maggie from Northern Exposure (for example).

flutter said...

You were just born to write, weren't you? You were an amazingly self aware 17 year old

Omaha Mama said...

I've put on many different personas both in adolesence and now. I pull them out, just as you described, when I feel they will serve me well.

I really enjoyed your flashback, what fun!

c4cara said...

Hello you, great to see you are still able to keep me away from what I should be doing.... sigh. Will do catch up read another day.

Kit said...

But you had a fun time and were able to experiment with personas safely far from home, so in no danger of getting stuck with them.

I wish I'd had the presence of mind to use my opportunities as a foreign exchange in the same way..I was a mostly silent observer, tongue-tied both by restricted language and shyness that I couldn't shake, a little breakaway from my home personality might have done me good!

niobe said...

After giving my imagination free rein for far too long, I finally realized that when you said "he makes roofs," what you really meant was nothing more or less than "he makes roofs."

bubandpie said...

AD - Tracey Lords, hahaha!

Niobe - Okay, now I'm snorting into my cereal. You guys crack me up. (And congratulations on making it to the end of such a long post! I was afraid nobody would read it.)

Veronica Mitchell said...

Wow. When I read your writing now, I see so many similarities between us (as do probably all your other readers), but then? Your 17-yr-old self and my 17-yr-old self wrote totally differently. Mine was all angst, pompous theological opinion or suicidal despair. I threw my teen journals away when I reread them and realized how bipolar I sounded.

But you wrote well even then. That one word "undaunted" got me - perfect perception and self-mockery.

Andrea said...

I think we had the same exchange partner. Only mine was named Cordula.

radical mama said...

It is striking how you well you wrote at such a young age. And your self-awareness! That is, I think, a rare gift.

slouching mom said...

Very interesting stuff, B&P! Have you read the childhood diaries of Anais Nin? I think the compilation is called "Linotte."

Your 17-year-old voice reminds me of hers.

Karen said...

please, please, write a romance, it would be such fun, so Georgette Heyer set in the late 80s early 90s, please, for me?

Suz said...

I went to Amsterdam at 16 and kept a travel diary as well, although I've been reluctant to look at it again. I remember being pretty confused at that age and not really comfortable in my own skin. Bravo to you for having the courage to go back and look into this time.

andrea from the fishbowl said...

Your teenage observations blow me away. What keen observations! I have been meaning to dig out my old diaries, but I'm afraid they're going to be really obtuse.
"He's cute!"
"She's a bitch!"
"I'm in loooooooove!"


I live in fear someone is going to find them.

theflyingmum said...

As a German exchange student myself (during high school student in the early 80's - in fact a quite similar exchange to yours...)
I too found it easy to drop my goody-goody home persona. My first experience getting DRUNK was followed by walking in a parade the next morning with a hangover. That would just never have happened back home.

bubandpie said...

I should probably acknowledge that by the time I went to Germany I had turned 18. My 18-year-old self would be loving all these compliments on her writing!

And Veronica - I had my share of theological reflections as well - but I'm too embarrassed to post those (even my exhibitionism has its limits).

painted maypole said...

I'm glad to know that your journals were also filled with boys, boys, boys. You jut wrote about them much more elegantly than I did. Mine were more like "I passed X in the hallway, and I think he looked at me. why oh why is he dating that skank? I'm just as cute as she is." sigh. I would burn them, but someday when MQ is a lovesick teenager I want to remember what it was like, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I think we all have a bit of that person in our back pocket. a friend of mine played really dumb at her temp job so that they wouldn't expect much out of her, but she's probably one of the smartest and most hardworking people I know.

Emily said...

That was the most interesting 17 year old diary I have ever read. And, I am glad for you that you had that experience. Going to a new place is supposed to give you a chance to try out a new persona -- especially at 17!

Catherine said...

I'm still trying to figure out why we couldn't have gone to high school together. I even use the phrase "I went mostly as an anthropologist" quite frequently . *sigh*

Lawyer Mama said...

I agree with AD. It's amazing that you KNEW it was a persona. I did something similar at about the same age. When, in fact, I moved to Germany for 2 years. But it wasn't conscious at all and it took me awhile to realize that that wasn't me.

Great journal, B&P!

Aliki2006 said...

I applaud your self-awareness at 17, too. Amazing.

Ally said...

I can't believe you 1) were such a good writer, even at 17; and 2) kept this diary safe until now. What a gift, on both counts!

And honestly, I'd like to get me some green shoes and red pants with mickey mouse lining...maybe you could ask Cornelia for her source...

Janet said...

I always found the cafeteria so much more toxic than the parties, too.

I loved this! "B&P: The Teenage Edition."

PS: Congratulations on celebrating seven!

NotSoSage said...

I haven't read this whole post yet, but I had a bit of a shock because my first thought was, "She knew Sin way back then? Weird."

Oh, Sin! Like, sin, Sin. Not Cinnamon Gurl, Sin. Cool. Okay.

Julie Pippert said...

That's a fantastic reminiscence of youth. I recall very similar thinking. I even recall being aware of turning it up or down a few notches and clicking in and out of certain personas as the situation required. I wonder---had we crossed paths---if it would have been wary sniffing or tails wagging LOL.

Beck said...

"Avoiding parties was particularly easy given that I was never invited to any."
Oh, me too. I didn't want a boyfriend because I wanted to be popular (although I DID) - I wanted a boyfriend because of The Sex.

AnneK said...

That was fun reading! My question is what would your list look like now? What kind of exchange girl do you think you would you end up with?

Mommy-Like Days said...

Ernst-Georg and Horst-Rüdiger: tee hee!!! I haven't heard those names in years!!!
And Cordelia, not even ranking parties. . .

winslow1204 said...

Thanks for sharing your experieinces with us!

bren j. said...

Sigh. I've always wanted to do that. Tell me you have more diary entries to post!

TrudyJ said...

"Avoiding parties was particularly easy given that I was never invited to any. It was a perfect balance between conviction on the one hand and lack of opportunity on the other."

The whole post was great, but I just have to say that these two sentences were stellar -- probably because, sadly, I wish I had written them myself!!

Susanne said...

Bub, you took me on a time traveling ride. "Landjugendfest" shudder.

I think everybody should have a party persona too. And if you have to speak a foreign language all the time you even feel a little dumber on the inside.