Trips to Pfannkuh with Frau Menzel

By Circe Woessner

My childhood, to me, seems fairly unremarkable, compared to some of my other “Brat” friends’.  One of my friends lived in Ethiopia while Haile Selassie was leader; another had to flee Tehran during the hostage crises; another was born on a gasthaus table in a small German town…another was a supermodel in Egypt.

Watching the news now and seeing what today’s youth struggles with, my childhood seems almost magical. I don’t recall much bullying, school fights, teen pregnancy, or suicide—yes…we had some –we weren’t perfect—but overall, I loved going to school and hanging out with my friends.

What is unremarkable to some is extraordinary to others, so you decide—and if you are a brat, you might even relate.

Frau Elly Menzel and Circe Olson in Italy circa 1973

My folks worked for the overseas schools when I was born in 1962. We lived in France until I was six months old, and then my family moved to Washington DC. When I was four, my parents took jobs in Karlsruhe, Germany. My mom was a first grade teacher, my dad worked for the USDESEA Headquarters.

My early memories of Karlsruhe are fuzzy and pop into my mind in flashes: the first night at Doctor Mason’s house sleeping in his guest room full of carved African masks which scared me half to death. All those vacant eyes staring at me while I tried to sleep in a strange bed. His lion skin rug with the complete stuffed head attached, which I kept tripping over, his exotic wife, Sue, who smoked cigarettes and wore lots of makeup.

We soon moved into our new home on Rhode Island Street (Apartment 1-E) in Paul Revere Village, which was the Army housing area.

One day I was called into our kitchen. I had been playing somewhere—maybe outside—because I was grubby and sweaty—and I was introduced to an enormous lady.  I was holding a half-gnawed apple and she pointed at it and said, “Apfel” and I repeated it, “apfel” and so our 20-year relationship began.

Frau Menzel became more than a nanny to me.  She was a friend, a confidant, a mother, a grandmother, and a disciplinarian.   I loved her and she loved me.  She affectionately called me “Schatz” and Hexe (witch) and when she was frustrated with me she called me “Besen” (witches broom).  When she was totally excited, she’d forget my name completely and would run through all her children’s names—and grandkids– till she found mine. So I was often” Thomas, Frank, Peter, Berndt, Roswitta—Schatz!”

Because both my parents worked, and it was safe for me to walk the mile home by myself, Frau Menzel was home to meet me. Sometimes she’d walk to meet me halfway, but wherever she was, she was my constant.

Through her, I met lots of other German people.  She took me to the Pfannkuh’ grocery store, where she very often embarrassed me by regaling her friends with stories about our family—never mean—but highlighting the dinner parties,  the trips we went on with her, and horrors-above horrors—the whopping case of impetigo I had on my butt!

Pfannkuh Grocery Store, Circa 2000, photo courtesy of L. Cale

Trips to the Pfannkuh culminated with my getting a handful of gummy bears or a thick slice of baloney handed over the counter by a kindly store worker.  I only remember one lady’s name: Paula (pronounced Pow-la).

When Frau Menzel would spend the night with us, she’d go get her evening paper at the “Green Stand”, a small newsstand across from the Pfannkuh. I could get (if I promised not to tell my mother) a small box of Traubenzucker or a bar of Kinder Schokolade. (My mother frowned on sweets, but Frau Menzel thought they were okay in moderation.)

Most weekends my family traveled and many times, they took Frau Menzel with them. She and I had our own room and could do things that she and I wanted to do—without bothering the grown-ups—so we usually wandered the streets window shopping, going to children’s theater performances—in whatever the language happened to be—and we had our own full pension meals at the hotel.

I thought this was the way all kids were raised; I am sure Frau Menzel thought she was lucky.  I remember trips to Italy, Switzerland, Spain and France with Frau Menzel.  Everywhere she went, she collected tiny spoons—when she died, the collection came to us. There were lots and lots of them!

Everywhere we went, if I wanted an ice cream cone or a souvenir, I had to go buy it myself and speak the language of the country. Soon I was multilingual.

I was never a good student. I was creative, dreamy; fairly undisciplined.  I was younger than my classmates by at least a year—my birthday fell in late December—and by the time I graduated high school, I’d skipped two grades.

My teachers were frustrated by my lack of detail—except in reading and creative writing; my desk was always overflowing with papers, wrappers, sketches and broken crayons. When my 4th grade teacher referred to me as “Pigpen” in an act of defiance, I stormed out of the classroom, slamming the door. Once in the hallway, I realized I had no place to go, so I sat on the floor and cried.

I was not in the “in crowd” in high school, but I was tolerated and allowed to hang out with everyone.  By this time I was already two years younger than most of my classmates, and so I became sort of a pet to some of the upper-class girls.

I don’t remember much fighting or bullying—anything negative we’d do would reflect on our father’s careers (at that time, most of the military and USDESEA families had the father as sponsor.) We all lived in fear of a phone call or letter from the Post Commander, which would end our dad’s career or reduce him in rank—and we’d be sent back to the US in disgrace.

Once, my dad got a letter from the Post Commander saying that I had 32 overdue library books, and boy, that got his attention. He restricted me from the library for 6 months!

Except for Frau Menzel’s friends and family, I didn’t have much interaction with German kids.  Very few American kids did—life revolved around the American schools and the post activities.

For a while I took ballet at the AYA (American Youth Association) a youth center on post.  Eventually Miss Jones decided I was too advanced for any of her classes. (I was already on toe.) So she referred me to her Aunt’s  school on the Economy.

Frau Bormann’s ballet school was a totally different experience. The German kids were serious about their dance, resentful of me and unfriendly to me, I was not as good as they were. Our cultures collided.  (I wonder if any of it had to do with their parents and WWII and the Occupation?) I soon left the ballet school—and ballet—forever.

Later the AYA was changed to the Dependent Youth Association (DYA) as the military figured out that many dependent children were not US citizens.

We did have mandatory “Host Nation” curriculum at our school, so from Kindergarten through 12th grade I took German.  We learned stories, songs, and culture in the elementary grades and struggled through literature and grammar in high school.

I was lucky, as Frau Menzel who only spoke to me in German was raising me. I was unlucky because she spoke to me in her slangy dialect and she rarely corrected my grammar. (In fact my college German teacher told me in a very haughty tone that I spoke, “Farmer German”.) I spent years unlearning my childhood.

Because my family worked for the school system, we did not move much. In the 16 years at Karlsruhe, we only moved from Paul Revere Village to an apartment on the Economy. My military friends moved every three years, so I was constantly losing and making friends—only they were moving and I was staying.

Because of whatever military mission there was in Karlsruhe, my friends kept rotating back—Carmen was with me during elementary school, then moved, then came back in 8th grade and then, again, for our junior and senior year.

By the time I graduated from high school, I’d probably been to 20 countries and about 30 states.

It was only natural that I’d spend two years at the University of Maryland, Munich Campus, instead of going Stateside to college. (I was 16 and my folks wanted me close by and a lot of my friends were going there as well.)

So we all headed down to Munich to continue our Education on yet another Military Post—this one reconstructed from a Nazi installation during the Hitler years.

Our dorms were old barracks and dormitories for factory workers, our classrooms were above the commissary and kaserne movie theater, our teachers were international and eclectic—and Munich was our playground.

What an education I got in the two years I was there!

Some of my teachers had been Nazis or Resistance fighters, others came from Poland or France–some of my teachers were US and Canadian expats—all fascinating and all totally dedicated to molding and expanding our young minds.

We had study tours to Egypt, Morocco, Berlin, Regensburg, Verdun, Dachau, Prague, Istanbul, and Dubrovnik—an unbelievably rich way to learn the lessons history offered to us.

We learned first hand about the black-market and communism. We appreciated the rich cultures that we explored. We saw the effects of martial law. We grew enormously.

(Years later I was compelled to tell the story of the University of Maryland and tracked down and interviewed 150 college alums to create two volumes, Bavarian Crème and Noch Eins.)

Once I left Europe and moved back to the states, I had a hard time adjusting—I longed to go back “home”.  My former Munich alum and husband wanted to go back to Europe too, so he joined the Army, where we spent another 20 years crisscrossing the globe—not an unusual phenomenon at all—but that’s a different story for another time.

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