When I was 19 years old, I boarded a plane with a rack full of test tubes and flew off to Germany to work in a research lab for the summer. I was so nervous that I was literally shaking. Nervous from seeing my parents’ sad faces as I walked through security at the Minneapolis airport and headed off into the bustling chaos. Nervous from carrying bacteria in various tubes and vials (pre-9/11 this wasn’t questioned even though the tubes filled my backpack) and nervous that the bacteria might not grow once I reached the lab in Germany. Nervous to fly across an ocean for the first time. Nervous to travel to a country where I barely spoke the language. Nervous to be cut off from all of my family and friends for several weeks (I wouldn’t have a cell phone until almost ten years later). But still, I went.
One weekend that summer I made arrangements to visit my relatives that lived near Stuttgart, a two hour train trip from Ladenburg, where I was living. My great grandmother’s sister, Tante Louisa, and her daughter Flora, lived in a small apartment down a small street in a town called Schorndorf. When I got off the train, Flora greeted me and we went to a nearby cafe for dinner. She spoke very little English, and I spoke very little German but along with some passionate charades, we were able to communicate rather effectively. Dinner ended abruptly when Flora started waving her hands and grabbing my arm to run to the train platform. She shoved in several coins and got our tickets and we raced to the last train of the evening, just as the sun was setting.
We arrived at her little apartment where Tante Louisa greeted me with a surprisingly strong embrace for a woman in her late 80s. Flora led me to the guest room upstairs, and showed me the bathroom with a short shallow tub. She placed a towel on the edge of the tub and motioned for me to use it for a bath, before she turned to close the door behind her. I stared at the closed door, then at the empty tub, then shrugged my shoulders. A hot bath might feel good after the long day.
I filled the tiny tub with hot steaming water and sat down to feel the heat rise up around me. I bent my knees and closed my eyes as I slid down to rest my head on the bottom of the tub. The hot water filled my ears and quieted the space in my head that was feeling the effects of everything foreign. I took a deep breath and then felt a hand on my knee. I sat up straight and opened my eyes wide in surprise. Flora was telling me to hurry and come with her. She grabbed the towel and wrapped it around my dripping body as she took me by the hand and had me follow her. She led me to the small balcony that overlooked the Schwartzvald or Black Forest in the distance. Flora was pointing at the moon, which was rising just above the dark hills. I nodded in confusion as I stared at them both, these old women standing in their cotton floor-length nightgowns with lace trim, looking like aged children. Before I knew what was happening, Flora grabbed a harmonica and began to play loudly. She said it was her song to the moon, and Tanta Louisa began to sing. I sat down on the wooden chair across the small table from Louisa, wondering if this was all a dream. The moon rising was eerily peaceful, and the harmonica serenade seemed fitting.
When Flora was done playing, and Tante Louisa was done singing, they turned to me and told me to go to bed. So I went.
The next morning, Flora’s sister, Lilo came to visit and Flora served tea. We talked of the relatives in the US, as well as the history of our family, which were Germans who emigrated to Russia for the rich farmland and a better life. When the politics changed, however, the families were scattered as some made their way back to Germany, some to the US and Canada, some to South America, and some (as was the case with several of Tante Louisa’s brothers) were sent to Siberia never to be heard from again.
As we talked and sipped our tea, Flora told stories of her many travels. She had just returned from Turkey, which is where she had gotten the tea we were drinking. She placed square gelled fruit candies with white powdered sugar on top on a little plate in front of me and said they were from Turkey as well. Tante Louisa then took my hand in hers and looked me in the eye with a seriousness I hadn’t seen in her before and said, “Wir sind wandernde menschen.” We are wandering people. I nodded in understanding and agreement. “Alle Personen,” she said and waved vaguely to all of us at the table. All people. All people are wandering people. Then she tapped her chest and said,”Die Reise beginnt im Inneren.” The journey begins inside.
At the time I sat there drinking tea with relatives that I had seen for the first time (and would not see again), I wondered how it was that Flora could travel the world alone. How she could choose a destination on the map and make arrangements to lead her own solo exploration. I would not have imagined that I would grow into those same shoes twenty years later. I didn’t know that that first trip would leave me with a gnawing ache to see more of the world, meet more people, sing more songs to the moon. I didn’t know that I would be looking ahead to a solo trip to another homeland all these years later.
Now, I’m facing my solo adventure to Norway and Sweden. An unexpected place to be calling my homeland since I was raised as having the solid identity of a German. Growing up, Germans made fun of the Norwegians. Norwegians made fun of the Swedes. Everyone made fun of the Irish. It’s what people do when the whole town is otherwise indistinguishable. Then, thanks to DNA technology, my family learned that we aren’t just German. We are, in fact, also Norwegian. And Swedish. And yes, even a little bit Irish (maybe as is everyone). While it is now clear that my family has a rather mutt-like background, and entirely plausible given the movement of tribes of people, it was also a bit of an identity crisis to realize that the Norwegians that the Germans poked fun at were also my people. My family stood on both sides of the joke and hadn’t realized it. I believe we could laugh regardless.
And so I am packing my bags to head off to a homeland vacant of family (as far as I know) but rich in my own history. I will explore the cities and the countryside. I will meet the people. I may even sing a song to the moon. And with me, I will take the memories of that one odd and endearing summer when I met the women of my family who told me the truth about myself: we are wandering people. So let’s go then.