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German teens invade Aspen

As a group of German high school students on a cultural visit walk into Aspen High School they are greeted with a shout from an Aspen High School student “uh, oh, here comes the Germans!”

The grown-ups around the group freeze, remembering a time of fear, distrust, and anger. The students, however, smile. “What’s up?” a German student answers. How quickly old tensions ease across generations.

This week a group of 10 students from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a German mountain town that became Aspen’s first sister city in 1966, are here as part of an exchange program. If you haven’t noticed them it’s understandable: Clothed in T-shirts and baggy pants, equipped with headphones and backpacks, they are indistinguishable from any other group of nervous, slightly out-of-place high-schoolers around town.



To hear them talk doesn’t give away much either. English is mandatory at their school in Garmisch, and once you get them started they talk with typical adolescent eagerness. “Did you see ‘The Simpsons’ last night?” one German student asks in English. “Nein,” another responds, “was it good?”

In April of this year, a group of Aspen High School students traveled over to Germany. They left two days before the Iraq war broke out. There was concern in the community about their reception in Germany, even their safety. The trip turned out to be a huge success.




“The experience could not have been better,” former AHS teacher and trip coordinator Chris Bonadies says. “We were treated with warmth and hospitality our entire time there.”

On the heels of this success, Bonadies and others from the Sister City program organized this return trip. The German students were chaperoned by two teachers and a parent. They have given a Power Point presentation about Garmisch to AHS students and parents, dined with the mayor, chopped wood for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, toured the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, and been guided through Smuggler mine.

For student Hannes Baier, however, the highlight was the trip to the Continental Divide at Independence Pass. “You know, if you pee on one side your piss goes to the Pacific, and if you pee on the other side it goes to the Atlantic,” he says gleefully.

Garmisch local Peter Krinninger, one of the chaperones for the trip, has acted this week as a tour guide for the students. Krinninger knows Aspen well ” he won the inaugural 24 hours of Aspen ski race in 1987.

“Two of my daughters are in the group,” Krinninger says. “I wanted to pass on my experiences here in Aspen to them, show them the similarities between Aspen and Garmisch, as well as the differences.”

For all but one of the students, this is their first visit to America. After a week in Aspen, there seems to be a consensus about the differences.

“Everything here is so big,” student Christoph Gertoskovitz says. “Huge cars, huge houses, huge hamburgers ” everything is bigger.”

“Oh yeah, interactions here are different,” Hannes Baier adds. “Everyone here is so open. No one in Germany would just come up and start talking to you like they do here.” As he says this, as if on cue, a group of giggly high school girls starting chatting to a Garmisch student next to him.

The students, who have been housed this week by families of AHS students, left Thursday morning for a three-day camping and hiking trip in Moab. Wednesday evening, their last night in town, they met with students from AHS to chat, mingle, and eat pizza. Aspen Coordinator Bonadies is delighted with how easily students from both sides interact.

“When I was in Germany on an exchange program in 1976, there was a big cultural gulf” he says. “I feel that gulf has closed right up. Garmisch is very similar to Aspen, a town that owes a lot to the Alpine heritage of mountain towns.

“What the students from both sides have learned is that living in a mountain town in Germany is not very different from living in a mountain town in America,” Bonadies concluded.

The Sister City program was founded by President Eisenhower in 1956 to promote international understanding so as to ease Cold War tensions. Today, as many talk of a growing rift between the United States and “Old Europe,” sister cities continues to play its part in promoting understanding.

“We may not like George Bush,” Peter Krinninger says, “but Germans like Americans. The two exchange trips between towns have demonstrated this.”

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]


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