Alexander Klein and Lena Appelbaum each had a few minutes to think about how America compared to Germany as they and their classmates toured the Portage Police station last week.

“The focus here is really on the school,” Lena said.

“A lot of sports,” Alexander said. “I love how the American school system integrates sports. In Germany you need to join a club.”

“You see everyone wearing Portage Warriors shirts. They make everyone feel like this is one community,” Lena added. Students in Germany tend to interact socially only with the students in their own grade levels.

“Here, it feels more like a team.”

Not everything is better in America, of course. In Germany, “everybody rides bikes to school.”

“Fast food,” Alexander quickly added to his list of noted differences. Americans love their fast food, and they seem to buy everything in bulk. Everything is bigger here, from the food to the front yards.

“This is the true American experience,” Alexander concluded.

Lena and Alexander were among 25 students from Staedtische Gymnasium in Guetersloh who arrived Oct. 17 in America. They’ll return home Nov. 7. The exchange program, established in 1975, occurs every other school year. The schools will switch roles in the spring, when Portage High School students travel to Germany to stay with the same students they’re now hosting. World Cup soccer will be underway at that time, something Portage students will be certain to notice.

“It’ll be four weeks of pure soccer when they come,” Alexander said.

The German students — most of them 16 or 17 years old — also toured the Portage fire station and city hall that day, and this week they’ll tour the state Capitol building in Madison. Other highlights of their exchange include boat tours in Wisconsin Dells, tours of Lambeau Field and the Oneida Nation Museum in Green Bay, and soon, they’ll provide presentations for elementary students throughout the Portage Community School District.

“They get a little bit of everything,” said Michelle Doherty, Portage High’s exchange coordinator. Doherty — a Portage High School graduate who went to Germany as a student in 1986 — is hosting Lena this year. Lena is paired with Doherty’s son, Matt, while Alexander is paired with Portage High student Dylan Casey. Students need to apply and interview for the program, as well as complete at least two levels of the German language.

“It’s personal to me,” Doherty said. “I’ve been involved for more than half of the program’s existence. The possibilities for them are endless. They get a glimpse of how they can fit outside of their world – outside of Portage or Guetersloh.

“The importance of that cannot be overstated.”

‘Very good tool’

“So who wants to do a demonstration for me?” Detective Lt. Keith Klafke asked the German students lined against a wall in the police station’s basement. Klafke held a Taser. It turned out his demonstration would involve a dummy, but they didn’t know that at the time.

“Right now I have five seconds,” he said after firing off the Taser, which contained 25 feet of wire coiled inside of it. Police officers don’t have a lot of time to secure the subject, he explained to the students, since the subject soon would be physically capable of rising and fighting an officer.

Using the Taser as a threat is usually all it takes, Klafke noted. Last year, Portage Police used Tasers only three times.

“When they see that red dot on their chest, they usually comply,” Chief Ken Manthey said, generating some laughs. Not long ago, Portage police encountered a woman who held a knife, he said, before officers used the Taser as a threat.

“She dropped the knife,” Manthey said. “It’s a very good tool.”

The people

Tours like the one at the police station often mean only as much as the people leading them, explained Stefanie Sundermann, exchange coordinator for Staedtische Gymnasium. The information shared often is secondary in importance.

In the police station, for example, the students seemed to respond as much or more to the personalities of Klafke and Manthey as to the facts they shared about firearms and Tasers. “They experience that the differences between the countries are not as big as they’re made out to be,” said Sundermann, who has been part of the Portage-Guetersloh exchange since 2010. “At a time when we experience so many worldwide crises, the experience that we’re all human and share human values I think is a very important experience for them.”

Lena and Alexander agreed that people define the experience. Asked how they might promote the exchange to their peers at home, both said they’d lead with the fact they’ll never forget the experience.

“You’ll find friendships that will last your whole life,” Alexander said.

“This is something you could never experience in another way,” Lena said. “It’s really cool to be part of this.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter