The first stamp in our passports
CRAILSHEIM, Germany — After months of anticipation, on the morning my mom and I were to join a group of Worthington area people on a cultural exchange to our sister city in Crailsheim, Germany, we sat in our car with tears clouding our vision.
The tears weren’t shed out of fear for our journey — although we were both more nervous than we were perhaps willing to admit! The tears came after an unexpected email arrived in my inbox that morning. The note came from a relative we have never met, but one who shares a familial bond thousands of miles and the grand Atlantic Ocean cannot break.
Every lineage of my family tree traces back to relatives still living in Germany — in Emden on my dad’s side and Bremen on my mom’s. Both were located far north of our Crailsheim destination, but we held out hope of perhaps a meeting while we were there.
It wasn’t to be.
Neither Mathias (our great-grandfathers were Aielts brothers) nor Veronika (her grandfather and my great-grandfather Miller were brothers) could make the trek to meet us.
Veronika’s email on the morning of our departure told of the dresses she received from my grandmother — dresses once worn by my mother — after World War II.
“As a child after the war, when we were homeless and poor, I was the one with the pretty dresses — which means a lot to a little girl,” she wrote. “Unforgettable!”
It reminded me of the kind gesture our own community of Worthington made more than 60 years ago, sending shipments of clothing and shoes to the people of Crailsheim, Germany, after 90 percent of their town was destroyed in the war.
On July 31, 1947, Worthington became the first American city to adopt an “enemy town,” according to a newspaper article headlined, “Worthington makes peace with the Germans.”
To think that a simple gesture of goodwill oh-so-many years ago still hasn’t been forgotten — by people in both communities — and that a sister city relationship born after the bitterness of war can flourish yet today is nothing short of amazing.
And so, our journey to Crailsheim began.
Well, there was the three-hour bus ride to Minneapolis, a nearly three-hour flight to New York City, an eight-hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and finally another bus ride of nearly three hours before we reached our American flag-waving newfound friends in Crailsheim.
For my mom and me, it was a welcome neither of us had anticipated. For Lars Opaczek, the Crailsheim exchange student to Worthington this past year, it was a homecoming, and for Worthington teen Jessica Velasquez-Herrera, it was an introduction to her year-long stay in Crailsheim as the 2014-15 exchange student. It was also a homecoming of sorts for three others in our group — former exchange students to Crailsheim Cynda (Christopherson) Coleman, DiDi Christopherson and Brittany Berger.
There were nearly 40 of us in all — some who had been to Crailsheim a time or two or four, and others, like my mom and me, who were experiencing a trip abroad for the first time. We celebrated not just the opportunity to visit our sister city and the homeland of our ancestors, but also the first stamp in our passport.
With the exception of Mayor Alan Oberloh and his wife, Janice, and Bob Demuth Jr. and his daughter, Allison, we were all assigned to stay with host families for our eight days in the Crailsheim area. My mom and I stayed with the Sturms — Gerald and Silke, along with their 19-year-old daughter, Francesca, and 16-year-old daughter, Chiara — in the small village of Waldtann. The Sturms visited Worthington last summer as part of a contingent from Crailsheim. They also served as a host family for Worthington’s 2013-2014 exchange student to Crailsheim, Jaron Sternke.
Our first meal with the Sturms was spaghetti, shared over conversations about our lives and our families. We laughed over the Teddy Bear song Chiara recalled from her Kindergarten class and introduction to English; and “Mien hut der hat drie ecken” (My hat, it has three corners), which I learned in eighth-grade introductory German class at then-Worthington Area Junior High School nearly 30 years ago.
Always at the ready was Silke’s German-English translation dictionary. Together, Mom and I learned several new German words and the Sturms picked up more of the English slang. Near the end of our stay, the dictionary stayed at home. Said Silke, “We talk with our hands and our feet!”
One thing is for certain, laughter translates in any language, and there was certainly plenty of giggling during our stay.
Our itinerary for the week included group visits to Dinkelsbühl, tours of Queen Charlotte’s Cave and the Steiff teddy bear museum near Giengen as well as the Limeseum at Ruffenhoffen Roman Park. We helped celebrate the McKee Company’s grand opening and sculpture unveiling, and shared shots of Schnapps and Jaegermeister while visiting a bee information center at Leukershausen.
Sampling the cuisine
Although I don’t like beer and tend to stay away from alcohol entirely, as the saying goes — when in Germany, do as the Germans do. I tried beer direct from the cooling tank at Crailsheim’s Engel Brewery, I sampled apple Schnapps and raspberry liquor inside Shirle’s Schnapps cellar at Gerbertshofen and I tried my best — and failed — to finish off a half-liter of Radler, which our German friends kindly called “woman beer.”
Mostly, I ordered stilles wasser (pronounced schtill-ess vasser) or filled a water glass straight from the tap. Many Germans prefer their water with bubbles — or as they say, with gas.
As for the food, we traveled to Germany with a couple of suggestions. My dad, who was stationed in Germany in the Army in the 1950s, said we had to try the wiener schnitzel. Back then, it was made of veal. Today, all of the restaurants we stopped at serve a pork cutlet they call schnitzel.
My mom, who grew up enjoying her dad’s homemade blood sausage, went in search of the taste she remembered. At the McKee Company’s metzgerei (meat shop) we were given numerous samples of blutwurst, but none brought back the memories of home for mom. I mustered up enough courage for a taste — just as I had with the liverwurst served during a gathering with friends.
Perhaps the strangest dish I tried was, through translation, fresh plated aspic. The cook brought out plates with sliced beef hidden below a layer of a clear, salty, gelatinous substance.
And then there was the fresh bread. Every day our breakfast consisted of breads (my favorite was encased in sunflower and various other seeds) with cold meat, cheese, raspberry or blueberry jam or Nutella. Fresh-baked pretzels were also readily provided (we had our first taste on the bus ride from the Frankfurt airport to Crailsheim) and the Crailsheim Horaffens (pastries) were a special treat.
In the two weeks since I’ve returned home, I’ve been asked many times about my favorite part of the journey to Germany. I always struggle to come up with an answer.
The scenery was unlike anything you would see around here. The old churches I roamed through were incredibly large and ornate; the castles, the walled cities and cobblestone streets were to be admired; and the use of solar panels, greenhouses and even methane digesters showcased the innovations the Germans are using to provide for themselves.
While I enjoyed everything I saw and experienced during our brief visit to Germany, I’d have to say my favorite part of the trip was the people I met.
I returned with memories of Inge (hostess of Bruce and Beverly Kness) trying to explain the meat on blootz, which is similar to pizza. Inge slapped her thigh and exclaimed ham, and then pinched her tummy as we Americans tried to guess the appropriate word … bacon! This became a recurring joke through the remainder of our visit.
Another noteworthy experience occurred during our afternoon visit to the bee information center and apple orchard. There, we met a group of school children from Gomel, Belarus, whose families chose to stay in the region following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The families are poor and, as explained to us by our German hosts, the Crailsheim area has come to their aid much as Worthington did for Crailsheim after World War II.
Finally, on one of our last nights together, our Crailsheim host families gathered with us Americans at a small pub in Crailsheim for a Kneipensingen (pub sing-along). We were handed either German or English song lists when we arrived, and I quickly scanned the list to find John Denver’s “Country Roads.” The song had played on the radio on our bus ride from Frankfurt to Crailsheim …
“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong …”
If I could describe my visit to Germany in one word, it would be home. It felt like I had come home — to the country my great-grandparents left behind and to a host family’s home where my mom and I were welcomed as though we were long lost friends.
I’ve done a lot of traveling across these great United States, from California to Maine and from northern Minnesota to northern Texas. On each and every one of those journeys, I eagerly anticipated my return home. Yet during my stay in Germany, I never once felt the homesickness that fueled my return to Worthington on so many previous excursions.
In fact, if I’d had the time, I would have stayed a little longer and traveled the Autobahn northward to visit our relatives. Considering their close proximity to the North Sea, I might have even checked out a German lighthouse.