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Embracing roots: Exploring the German heritage of an English teacher

Humans of the Hawk Nest: English teacher Karin Cowger
Karin+Cowger+spending+time+with+former+exchange+student%2C+Elora%2C+while+on+vacation+in+Berlin%2C+Germany.
Jim Cowger
Karin Cowger spending time with former exchange student, Elora, while on vacation in Berlin, Germany.

On a train bound for Einbeck, Germany, passengers were surprised to find that the train had abruptly stopped. Moments later, a family traveling from East Germany was told they could not continue the trip from East Germany to Einbeck, located in West Germany.

To go from East to West Germany, the family needed to spend a certain amount of money and present the receipts to prove it. Because the family had spent their time in East Germany with family and friends and had their meals and sleeping arrangements already taken care of, they could not provide the receipts that they would need in order to continue.

That is when the father of the family asked for one of the suitcases.

Confused, his wife and daughter watched as he opened the case, removed a carton of American cigarettes, then left. Minutes later, the train began moving again. He had been smart enough to bribe the conductor, having given the conductor the case of well-received cigarettes.

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His daughter, Karin Cowger, was only six at the time but remembers this situation as rather unsurprising for the person she knew him to be.  

“He was a very charming man,” K. Cowger said. “People really liked being around him.”

At Ankeny High School, students know K. Cowger as a kind, supportive English teacher, but many may not know about her parents’ immigration to America from Germany, her experiences visiting Germany, and how German culture has influenced her life.

K. Cowger’s parents both came from Germany but from two different sides of the country.

“My mom and dad were both originally from the eastern side of Germany,” she explained. “But my mom’s family settled in Ramsdorf, and my dad settled in Einbeck after World War II.”

When she was 16, K. Cowger returned to Germany with her family on vacation. While spending time with family friends, she got to know a girl her age named Edith. During her time in Germany as a teenager, K. Cowger had the opportunity to attend school, try new German dishes, and experience other authentic parts of life in Germany with Edith.

“One of the best parts of travel is meeting up with wonderful people,” K. Cowger said.

Through the years, she had several other opportunities, both as a young adult and more recently, to visit Germany. On her last visit, she was able to meet up with a woman named Elora, a former Ankeny High  exchange student. She was able to visit some of the best local restaurants and sites on her most recent visit.

“Experiencing a completely different culture was one of the best parts [of travel],” K. Cowger said. “Traveling has helped me to learn that everybody has a different way of doing things, and that is okay!”

Aside from her travels to Germany, K. Cowger looks back on her childhood in the United States as one of her main experiences with German culture. Growing up, Cowger experienced elements of both American culture and German culture in her household. Her mother was a wonderful cook and made many German dishes.

“Her mom was the best cook I have ever met,” Jim Cowger, K. Cowger’s husband, agreed.

Cowger’s favorite meal that her mother made was Sauerbraten, a tender and flavorful meat, usually roast, marinated in red wine. She also enjoyed her mother’s German potato salad. K. Cowger never learned any of the recipes, as she was never very close with her mother.

“She was very difficult to impress,” K. Cowger explained. “It was very much her way, or you were doing it the wrong way.”

As she grew up, K. Cowger saw many tendencies of her German culture in herself.

“My dad was always shocked by the debt in America,” she said. “At first it seemed that everybody has a lot of money, but in reality, a lot of them were just in a lot of debt!”

K. Cowger explained that debt is viewed very poorly in Germany. In German culture, owing money for anything is to be avoided at all costs. Even today, she feels that this aspect of German culture has stuck with her. She finds that she tends to be careful about spending money and is especially concerned with not going into debt.

“It is not as if she [Karin Cowger] is cheap,” J. Cowger said. “She is not. She is extremely generous. But she will not borrow money.”

K. Cowger also explained that she cannot stand being late to anything, which is known to be a common practice in Germany. Science teacher and K. Cowger’s friend for over 20 years, Lori Bing, agrees that K. Cowger is always early to events or meetings.

“Certainly, I think, her German background influenced her. She is always on time. Absolutely always. If she says she is going to be somewhere or do something, she will,” Bing said.

As a teenager, K. Cowger remembers feeling different and isolated from other kids her age because her family was not like the families of her peers. Looking back now, however, she values the experiences she was able to have with German culture and sees it as a positive.

“When I was younger, I was embarrassed by my parents being so different from everyone else’s. But now, I am thankful to have had the experiences in both cultures,” Cowger said.

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About the Contributor
Ava Gifford, Staff Reporter
Ava Gifford is a Junior at Ankeny High School. She is involved in Key Club and writing sports stories for the Talon. Ava is involved as a leader in her youth group, enjoys photography, writes music, and plays the piano and guitar. One fun fact about Ava is that her favorite season is fall because she loves when the leaves start to change and when it’s time for apple cider.
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