Cigarettes in Kaiserslautern
I received a Facebook message on April 1, 2013 from a stranger named Kevin Fuchs.
"Hey Andy. Is your grandma called Helga and is she native German? Greets Kevin."
I noticed the unread message more than a year and a half later on September 7, 2014. Immediately, I asked my dad if this could be a relative of my “Oma” (grandmother) Helga, who fled the rubble of post-war Germany for America on Thanksgiving Day, 1959.
I had just begun my application for UB's “Germany: Foreign Reporting in Berlin for winter 2015. Maybe, I thought, I could find this relative and some sort of connection to the culture, the family and the stories my grandmother left behind. I never imagined, however, that a pack of cigarettes would solidify a bond lost for more than 16 years.
Imagine searching for your cousin that you haven’t seen since you were 7 years old. You’re in a foreign airport and don’t speak the language. Then realization strikes: You forgot to exchange phone numbers via Facebook. This was me.
But after wondering Frankfurt’s airport for twenty minutes and studying Kevin’s profile picture, I finally became reacquainted with my long lost cousin.
As a teenager I habitually listened to 50 cent; I wore my red and blue-laced G-unit sneakers with pride. So when Kevin turned on “Stunt 101” in his purple BMW, I knew him and I would get along. It amazed me how well he spoke English; we discussed business ideas ranging from restaurants to merchandising companies as we raced across the autobahn at 220 kilometers per hour (136 miles per hour). I explained my previous entrepreneurial endeavors and current positions as digital producer for The Spectrum and graphic designer at the Student Assoication, and he passionately described a necklace company he plans to launch with his girlfriend, Angelica, and her mother. Later we analyzed American and German politics, sports and other differentiations of marketing and life. It was just like home.
Except for the smoking.
In between each meal, snack or coffee, my cousin and his friends would spark a cigarette inside Fillippo’s, the Italian restaurant owned by Angelica and her family. As someone who’s never smoked other than the occasional drunk stogie at the Steer, I found this enticing.
During daylight the spot to smoke was the backroom, a private lounge sealed off from the main dining area. But once guests cleared out around 11 p.m., Fillippo’s transformed into a playground for puffing. How could I not conform? Smoking was the medium that brought everyone together. It provoked conversation and merriment, and I wanted to unify. One by one, I indulged.
Carcinogenic compounds entering my body and duck breast Carpaccio on my plate; a bond was formed amongst the haze. Despite the harsh pronunciation of the German accent (C’s, V’s and W’s), I quickly learned how similar I was to my newfound friends and family. They referenced “Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden,” “David Beckham” and “shopping in New York City.”
Enzo, Angelica’s brother, spoke about his own Italian restaurant in Mallorca, Spain. Michaela, Kevin’s mother, gave a tour of the medical practice she owns and advice on future business opportunities. Klause, my Oma Helga’s brother, drove Kevin and I through the countryside toward Hambach Castle, where the German flag was first flown in 1832. Werner, Kevin’s grandfather, described being relocated to Czechoslovakia due to the bombing of Kaiserslautern in 1944. As a 10-year-old boy, he and three friends embarked on a 6-month journey back to Germany, helping wounded soldiers along the way. Everyone had a story.
If you’re an entrepreneur seeking inspiration, traveling the world is my advice to you. Life is about expanding your horizons. Venture out of your comfort zone – you never know what connections you’ll discover.