Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Travel Bug: Finding My Roots, Part 2

Once I decided to go to Greece, it was full speed ahead. It was such an exciting decision and nothing was going to change my mind. I booked my flight, started planning the different cities I'd visit, and connected with hosts on AirBNB and Couchsurfing. Everything was happening quickly! My decision to go came near the end of September, and the trip was planned for early November. I could not wait.

One of the first people I told about my trip was my friend Cleo, in Germany. I visited her in Hannover during the summer I spent in Dublin, and she was incredibly supportive of travel. When I told her I was going to Greece, she even shared some tips with me to make planning easier. During one conversation (after I had all of my Couchsurfing and AirBNB hosts sorted), she stressed the point that I should Skype/write/email with them prior to my stay. We spoke in depth about her experience with the website, the amazing individuals she’d met, and the interesting hosts she'd had. Speaking with them prior to going was a no-brainer. And then Cleo started talking about our past plans to one day visit each other and how she wished she could see me again. And since I’d be in Europe anyway…

I must have snapped. It was a “throw caution to the wind” decision, and before I knew it, Cleo and I were talking about how I could fly into Germany to visit her first. From there, I could take a plane to Greece to continue my travels. It seemed insane. It seemed like an absolute dream. And then she said the magic words that lit a fire somewhere within me: 

“If you’re travelling to Greece to learn your culture, why don’t you do the same in Germany?”

 Cleo was right: this was exactly what I was doing in Greece, so I could absolutely do the same in Germany. After all, my siblings and I had connected with individuals on Facebook who were located in Germany and shared our last name (not a common name, either). I knew who they were: I’d even talked to them a few times and connected with their daughter and nephew. So why not? I sent my relatives in Germany a message while I was still chatting with Cleo. Part of me didn’t expect them to respond, part of me was nervous the moment I even mentioned visiting them, and part of me was oddly relieved when they did respond. I discussed the dates I was thinking of coming, and they were more than open to meeting me. In fact, they offered to let me stay with them if need be. And that was it. The plan was set: I'd go to visit Cleo and my family in Germany, then fly down to Athens and spend a week exploring Greece.
After another month of planning, the day finally came to leave for my trip. A coworker drove me to the airport, surprised that I had one carry-on for two weeks in Europe. After a nightmare of delays in Chicago and Munich, everything happened so quickly. I was in the Hannover airport. Cleo picked me up, and we were off to her little apartment in Braunschweig. 

It felt like a dream to be back in Germany with Cleo. We spent the entire first evening catching up, cozy in her apartment going through photos and showing each other "who's who" from our stories. We stayed up until nearly 3:00am. In the morning, she woke me up with a cup of coffee and had put together a lovely brunch for us in her kitchen. Then we packed up snacks and headed out to her studio. Cleo was studying architecture and had a project to work on, so we spent the afternoon building models and carving shapes out of foam. I was quite proud of myself for making an owl!
That evening, we met some of her friends out on the town for good drinks, snacks, and hookah. We didn't stay out too late as she had class the next morning, but I was exhausted and didn't mind turning in early. 

I woke up the next morning and relaxed over a cup of coffee while deciding what to do with my morning. I went exploring in Braunschweig, and found an Edeka and an Aldi after stopping for more coffee at a little cafe. I had told Cleo I'd have lunch ready when she got home from class, so I bought ingredients to make Greek salads (I may have been mildly excited for the next leg of my journey). It was entertaining to look at the different brands, snacks, teas, etc. at the grocery stores, and I wished I could have brought home a few of their giant advent calendars. They had one full of stuffed bears, several full of chocolate, and even one shaped like a semi-truck full of cans of Coca-Cola!

Cleo was soon home for lunch and we made plans to go to Prenzlauer Park that afternoon. The rest of the day flew by: roaming the park, touching base with my family (who I'd be visiting the next day!), and enjoying the cool, fall weather. 
That evening, we went to one of her friend's (Janni's) apartments for dinner, where we had a blast making vegetable curry. What started as an innocent “friends cooking dinner” quickly turned into a hilarious disaster. After cutting avocado and carrots, Janni handed us packages of chilis and onions to chop. Cleo’s eyes started watering as she sliced the peppers and though it claimed to be waterproof, my mascara was quickly running down my cheeks. The three of us could barely stand to be in the kitchen with the thick essence of onion and chili in the air. Janni even opened a window and let a blast of cold air in to try and diffuse its potency, but it didn’t seem to help. When he tried to close it, it seemed the window was jammed so Cleo stood up to help as well. By that point, we all started laughing, and whether it was just the time of the night or the slight effect of the beer, we couldn’t stop. If anyone had entered the kitchen, they would have certainly had quite the sight to see: three people with tears streaming down their faces, laughing so hard they could barely breathe, Cleo standing on a chair trying to shut the window, Janni with one hand also pushing down on the window, the other stirring the curry, and me with black mascara running down my cheeks, laughing and continuing to chop the vegetables. It was ridiculous chaos. We headed out on the town afterwards, where more friends joined. It was a night to remember.
The next morning, I hugged Cleo good-bye at the bus station and headed off to meet my family. It had been so good to see her, and I was so thankful for the time I got to spend with her during my trip. I knew we'd see each other again, so while it was hard to say good-bye, we were both optimistic it wouldn't be long until we were back together. 

The trip from Braunschweig to my family went much less smoothly than planned. To make a very long story short, I got off the bus at the wrong stop, missed my train, and was over an hour late arriving to the Bahnhof in their town. It was incredible to finally meet them in person. 

I met so many wonderful people in a very short period of time. Jürgen and Elvira picked me up from the train station and greeted me with hugs and "Thank God!"s after my mishap with the train. Maybe I was overthinking things, but I couldn't help but notice certain similarities between Jürgen and members of my family, both in appearance and in mannerisms. There was no doubt we were family! We talked about everything on the drive: my family in Michigan, their family in Germany, the relatives they'd connected with on Facebook, and how my trip was going so far. We stopped at Edeka on the drive to their house to get ingredients for dinner (they were making Blumenkohlgratin - a cheesy cauliflower dish) and were soon pulling into the driveway. I felt like I was dreaming.
Their house was beautiful, nestled on a hill surrounded by other beautiful houses and tons of trees. Once inside, I was welcomed into the kitchen where Elvira prepared coffee and Kekse (delicious little cookies) for us to snack on while we continued talking. Jürgen's father Christian - who lived next door - came over with a family history book, and we were soon poring over the lineage to see if we could find the connecting point. Another distant cousin, joined who was part German, part Hungarian came to visit as well, and I was surprised to learn that he hadn't seen these relatives in months. (Apparently they were excited to see an one of 'the Americans'!) Christian knew that there was a member of the family who had left Germany (and landed in Minnesota, where much of my family lives) to pursue better opportunities, but weren't sure who or when. I was interested to learn that there are more of us in the United States now than in Germany, but was so thankful for the chance to go and visit them. Sitting at a table with 'family' that hasn't been connected in over 100 years is indescribably. But there we were, talking like it had just been yesterday.

I met their kids (my cousins?) and we made awkward introductions. Then we spent the next hour or so discussing politics (they were fascinated with Trump), discussing cultural differences, and even trying my uncle's homemade beer. Rote Erde was a light beer he made right in town it was absolutely delicious (if you ever go to Germany, be sure to try it!). Elvira called her kids into the kitchen and dinner was served. We spent quite some time enjoying the Blumenkohlgratin, further discussing our family history and the city where ‘our family’ began. They were convinced that they would be able to find the proper records somewhere in town and said they would also reach out to my aunt (with the Ancestry account) for any lost information. The time simply flew by. I learned about their experience with American culture (they’d once visited New York and attended a Broadway performance), I heard all about one cousin's apprenticeship in the dairy industry, another's adventures in England with her soccer team, and yet another's time abroad. They asked me about my aunts and uncles, and all sorts of questions about my niece and nephew (whose pictures had been posted on Facebook by my siblings). It felt so exciting and oddly normal to be there with all of them, as if it were just another typical family gathering with my relatives back in the U.S.. No one could have ever guessed that it was the first time we’d ever met. I almost forgot myself!
My train had originally been scheduled to leave at 7:00pm, but Jürgen and Elvira asked if I’d like to  stay a bit longer since our time had already been cut short. After all, we were having such a nice time enjoying great beer, great food, and excellent conversation. They also thought it might be better for them to drive me back to Cleo rather than trust my not-so-phenomenal train station skills. So I stayed until 9:00pm before we decided we should leave, as it was nearly a two hours’ drive to Hannover. Cleo told me she was now visiting her parents there, and since we’d be going to the Hannover airport the next day I should just meet her at their house. My family and I finished our dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, and took a few photographs to remember the evening. Then I reluctantly said my ‘goodbye’s and Jürgen and I were back in the car, heading off to Hannover.

We talked a bit on the way, listening to classic American rock music (Jürgen’s favorite). I tried to stay awake to no avail. I was so tired: it had been a very long, very eventful day and the hum of the motor lulled me to sleep. Jürgen woke me up when we arrived at Cleo’s parents’ house and walked with me to the door to meet her. Then he gave me a hug, wished me viel Glück on my upcoming adventure in Greece, and assured me I would see them again.

There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I would.


  1. You are so brave! I don't think I could meet complete strangers by myself. What an experience!

    1. I was nervous, but so excited to meet them! It helped that we'd spoken quite a bit through Facebook prior to actually meeting in person. :)


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