Bridging the Gap
Ever since 10-year-old Hans Christoph Anders stood on his tiptoes to reach for the forbidden Stephen King novels at the top of his brother’s bookshelf, he has been obsessed with the tidy image of small-town America.
“It’s all in there,” he says. “The perfect town green, the busy public library, the general store where everyone meets and even the proverbial Main Street,” he explains. “There’s also the dark evil that creeps in from the outside, of course.”
Of course. But for Hans, the picturesque New England village is what stuck with him. “My future path to Middlebury College was sealed,” he adds.
Hans is an exchange student from Free University of Berlin (FU) in Germany, sponsored by the German Fulbright Commission and a special exchange agreement between Middlebury and FU. When the opportunity arose to attend Middlebury for one year, he didn’t hesitate. “I might have gone to California or New York, but I hoped for Middlebury. I wanted to see if the image I’d carried in my head for all those years was real. And what better place to find out than rural Vermont.”
As a North American studies major at FU, Hans was a natural fit for the International Thesis Forum—only in his case, his international topic would be right here in Vermont, making him somewhat of an anomaly amidst the other students presenting theses on topics such as Egyptian land reform, Bosnian fortune-tellers, and the herbivore male in Japan.
“I knew my focus would be on small New England villages and how they function, but I needed something specific to bring it all together, a hook of sorts,” Hans said, looking back now over the year-long process. “And I found just that in the bridge.”
The bridge that caught his attention was the Crown Point Bridge, which recently spanned Lake Champlain between Vermont and New York. It was demolished on December 28, 2009, with plans for replacement by the summer of 2011.
Hans, whose local host parents live in Addison, had first visited the bridge right before it was due to be closed last fall. He got a sense of the history of the bridge, which first opened in August of 1929, and immediately understood how its closing would affect a community that so relied on the interstate span for work, travel and, almost more importantly, emotional connection.
He and his host parents attended the first of many public meetings about the bridge closing and consequently came to know quite well the people who were directly involved—from historians and state officials to business owners and community activists. Everyone had a story to tell and all had reasons for wanting to be a part of the decision process.
Hans was fascinated with the many layers of connection people had to the bridge, but he felt that to truly use this event as the centerpiece for his thesis study, he would have to forge his own connection. Having missed out on being able to cross the bridge before it was closed, he was determined to somehow experience a crossing. “One night, my host family and I had just finished dinner at the Bridge Restaurant,” he recalled. “It was after the closing so the area around the bridge itself was pretty deserted—and barricaded as well. But I decided I might take the risk,” laughed Hans, a little nervously. “So my host dad gave me cover and I climbed around the ‘danger’ signs and ran to the center point of the bridge, touched the plaque that was still there from the first opening ceremony in 1929, then ran back. That was a pretty intense moment, maybe because of the risk or the emotion, but I felt like I had finally connected with the bridge. And that was the real starting point for me.”
<listen to Hans describe his forbidden trip onto the closed bridge
Hans immersed himself in everything having to do with the bridge for the last 80 years. He arranged interviews with as many people as he could, including the owner of the iconic Bridge Restaurant, several commuters who live in New York but work in Addison County, and members of the local band Atlantic Crossing, who wrote folksongs about the bridge.
“My research drew me into contact with so many different people, shaping my perspective of Addison County and what it means to live and work here,” said Hans. “Each day it seemed I pushed beyond the image I came here with to find the working reality of history and politics in action.”
His advisor, Professor of Environmental Studies and English & American Literatures John Elder says of Hans, “He is a remarkable young man. He came to Middlebury with this vision of what small-town America looks like and really wanted to better understand how things actually work, from both an historical and cultural perspective.”
“I had contacted Professor Elder even before I came,” admitted Hans. “I heard from a Middlebury student who was studying abroad in Germany about the course he taught last year, ‘Portrait of a Vermont Town,’ that focused on the nearby town of Starksboro as a model, and I knew he’d be ideal to work with. Luckily, he agreed.”
Elder recalls that he didn’t hesitate to take Hans on, and Hans is thankful. “It’s great to have someone who is so well connected here, and who is also willing to work with this quirky German student who comes here with this idyllic image of small-town living, and not much else.”
In looking back over his experience, one of the things Hans notes fondly is all the time he actually spent off campus. “It’s really easy,” he noted, “to stay in what seems like the Middlebury ‘bubble.’ You’ve got so many incredible amenities right here at your doorstep—great faculty, dorms, dining halls and classrooms, the fitness center, the museum. It’s all right here.” But his focus on the bridge got him off campus regularly for interviews and visits to other small towns in the area. “I always loved those long drives in my Zipcar from the College.”
Hans has finished his thesis, which he aptly titled “The Bridge and Me,” and is already looking ahead to summer, when he’ll continue his work and research as an intern with the Essex County Historical Society across the lake in New York. He’ll be involved in shaping the ongoing commemoration plans. “I will continue and expand on what I did in my thesis by working more intensely on the history of the bridge and its affect on the communities who rely on it.”
After that Hans will return to Germany, as part of his Fulbright, to share his small-town experiences with his fellow North American Studies majors back at Free University. He’ll complete his bachelor’s degree and plans also to pursue a master’s in North American history and politics to deepen and build on what he’s learned this year. He’s also met a girlfriend here at Middlebury, and she will return to Germany with him to visit. “And that, I think,” he said smiling, “may be the ultimate intercultural experience.”