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Reflections on Germany: Family connections make foreign land feel like home

Bryan and Beth enjoy an al fresco supper in the garden of sister's Heidi's apartment in Munich.

MUNICH, Germany -- The sight of intricately tiled rooftops. The sound of barking seals drifting up from the zoo. The taste of a freshly baked pretzel smothered with homemade preserves. The smell of beer being brewed in gigantic copper kettles. The touch of being hugged by a sister I haven't seen in more than 30 years.

Those are the sensory memories that still linger a month after returning from 10 days spent in Germany -- mostly Munich with brief sojourns to Worthington's sister city of Crailsheim and across the border to Salzburg, Austria. Ten days may seem like a long vacation by American standards, but it really isn't time to travel very far abroad. But that's just a reason to go back again.

Hubby Bryan and I had talked about going to Germany for years. I had been once before, as a high school student on the first Worthington-Crailsheim choir exchange more than 30 years ago. Bryan had never been, but as a home brewer has a great interest in German culture. For both of us, Germany is the land of our ancestors -- we each claim three grandparents of German heritage. And a few years ago, we hosted a member of Crailsheim's Burgewache Band and became fast friends with our guest Andy, a trumpet player.

But the trip might have been a bit more personal for me because of my family's previous connections with Crailsheim. When I was just 6 years old, an exchange student came to live with my family. Heidi became my second big sister and forged a strong connection with our family. There have been long stretches of time over the years when we haven't been in touch, but she's still always been my sister. Additionally, my family has ties to Crailsheim through friends made during the choir exchange and because my parents were actively involved in the Worthington-Crailsheim partnership since the early days of their marriage.

When we finally resolved to buy the trans-Atlantic plane tickets, we first contacted sister Heidi, who offered a place to stay in Munich as well as her much-appreciated guide services. Since she lives in a one-bedroom apartment, Heidi turned it over to us and moved to the home of a friend who lives nearby. The apartment, located on the bluff above the Isar River and the Munich Zoo (the source of the barking seals), is in a lovely residential area, but not far from restaurants and shopping. Walking and biking paths are located out the back door, meandering along the riverside.

Heidi and I had not seen each other or talked for more than three decades, but we immediately recognized each other as Bryan and I emerged from customs and wasted little time in catching up. She and Bryan also hit it off, so we were a congenial threesome for the duration of our stay.

"I felt like I've known her for years, too," remarked Bryan upon our return home.

As a journalist who has interviewed a number of travelers over the years, I often ask people about their favorite part of their trip, or favorite food, or favorite sight. But I can't begin to pinpoint such highlights from this particular journey, because it was so much more about people than it was about places.

Yes, we did a bit of sightseeing. Heidi dropped us off in Munich city center, where we stood in the Marienplatz to witness the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, did a bit of shopping and ate lunch in the courtyard of the famed Hofbrauhaus. We took a guided day trip, via train, to Salzburg, Austria, and visited locations made famous in "The Sound of Music" and the birthplace of Mozart. With Andy and his wife, Heidi, we strolled the streets of Rothenburg and purchased a Christmas ornament in the famed Kathe Wohlfahrt store.

Because of our beer interests, we toured the Paulaner brewery, although due to a stomach bug that I had passed along, Bryan unfortunately wasn't up to sampling any beers. On one of our final days -- a beautiful, warm day -- sister Heidi drove us to Tergernsee, a lake resort area in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich.

But it will be the non-touristy moments that I will cherish the most. We spent three days in the Crailsheim vicinity, first one night at the Post Faber Hotel with Heidi before going to stay with Andy and his family in a nearby village.

While in Crailsheim, we visited places I recalled from 30 years prior, such as Heidi's family home and the Johanneskirche (the church that was one of the few buildings to survive World War II bombing), where our high school choir sang. We briefly reconnected with friends Ulrike and Coco from the choir exchange, who brought along newspaper clippings of our previous time together. With Heidi, we also stopped at the cemeteries where her grandparents, father and brother are buried, and tasted the wares at her hometown butcher and bakery.

Then Heidi returned to Munich and left us in Andy's care. He and wife Heidi and their three children, Friederike "Freddy" (11), Henriette "Jette" (5) and Justus (4) share a home with Andy's parents, Siegfried and Hella, in the village of Rot Am See. His sister and family live next door, so we were welcomed into a truly multigenerational extended family.

For our first meal there, Hella made rouladen (stuffed meat rolls) in a spicy gravy and spatzle, noodles cut by hand from a wooden board into the simmering water. Unfortunately, although it was probably the best meal we had on the trip, I wasn't able to truly appreciate it due to the aforementioned stomach flu. We would enjoy many fine meals and good conversation around their big table during our stay, even though the youngest children and grandparents spoke no English. But we managed to communicate in many other ways.

Although our time there was short, by the time we departed Rot Am See, we had become dearly attached to our German family, especially the children, who supplied us with photographs and drawings to hang on our Worthington refrigerator.

Departing from Nurnberg, we took the ICE train, which reached a speed of 300 kph -- 186 miles per hour! -- to Munich and were impressed by the efficiency of the European train system and the bustle of the stations. Once again in Heidi's care, Bryan and I spent our last few days trying to cram in as many experiences as possible. We dined on wonderful Bavarian fare in restaurants off the beaten tourist path, bought up bags of chocolate in a neighborhood grocery store and spent evenings sipping wine or beer in the garden.

And all too soon, we were boarding a plane bound for the United States. But Bryan and I left small parts of our hearts in Germany, and know we will have to go back to retrieve them.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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