Torben Schiele was at the precipice of one of an American teenager’s milestone events when the coronavirus pandemic called him home — a rude imposition on the St. Bernard Prep School senior that threatened to derail his goal of obtaining a U.S. driver’s license — an American rite of passage if ever there was one.
When St. Bernard sent students home this spring, Torben left for Germany, leaving behind his hopes of sticking around long enough to take his driver’s test in Alabama. For him, it was more than just a sentimental loss: “In Germany, you have to spend so much money to go through so much driver training before you can test, and from the math that I’ve done in my head, it ends up costing somewhere close to $3,000 in U.S. money,” he explained.
After an extraordinary series of mishaps and near-misses — including a van accident while touring on an Austrian student excursion, as well as paperwork glitches and customs encounters that nearly kept him in Europe through the summer — Torben managed to make it back to Cullman under the State Department’s COVID-19 rules for students holding an F-1 visa. And when he returned to his host family, his mission was clear: get to the DMV — and get that license.
“After all that’s happened, it’s really amazing how it worked out,” said Katrina Kennedy, herself a mom to St. Bernard student Josh Kennedy and the hostess who’d already welcomed Torben into her home for his senior year. “We’ve been blessed by angels that he was able to make it back here. He’s an amazing young man, and it’s really fitting that, in the end, he got to come back to us and get his driver’s license.”
Germany may be famous for its auto culture — a culture that holds drivers to a much higher standard as a barrier to on-ramp entry onto the Autobahn. But Torben, who’d already made previous trips to the U.S. with his father and has seen his share of the country, from California to Florida to various parts of the Deep South, said he feels at ease on American roads.
“We just got back from Huntsville today,” he said Wednesday, waiting at the Kennedy home on the eve of his flight back to Germany for friends to come over for a farewell party. “I drove some, and it’s comfortable. I really enjoy it, and it doesn’t feel like a challenge. It’s a great feeling of freedom.”
Torben and Josh took turns at the controls of Katrina’s car for that trip, and she wasn’t along for the ride. That’s just fine with her, though. The car’s a Mercedes C300, and she bears a sort of providential pride in knowing that Torben’s first taste of American highways came behind the wheel of a car that feels, to him, like home.
“I think it’s perfect,” she laughed. “He gets his driver’s license in the U.S., and then there he is, just like it’s nothing, driving around in a German car. It’s like it was meant to happen.”