July 18, 2012

In Her Arms

People travel abroad for all kinds of reasons. To relax. To challenge preconceptions. For work. For warmth. For snow. For food. To learn. Make memories. Mix it up. Get out of comfort zones. For the thrill. For bragging rights. Because a place is extraordinary. Because it's beautiful. Because it's scary. Sometimes, simply for something different. Usually, though, people don't travel to feel at home.



When we crossed from Switzerland into Germany, the faintest outline of the Alps fading behind us, I listened as our local bus driver made a call on his cell phone. He spoke in a German dialect I would later understand as Swabian. All I knew then was that his words were full of an easier music, a rounded lightness. Lynn, our German teacher and my fellow chaperone, leaned over to me and whispered, "He just said, 'Germany has us in her arms again.'"

From that moment, something very specific about our trip changed. We were still and always foreigners in another land. We were reminded of our differentness constantly, by our shoes, the boys' baseball caps, our cravings for ketchup. But our bus pulled up into a school parking lot full of families--still strangers, but families with moms and dads and little brothers, all eager to incorporate us into their daily lives--and as the American students left with the German students, and as the American teachers were greeted by the German teachers, we were no longer travelers in the same way, and we felt something in our hearts open as door upon door was held wide for us.



For me, there was the car ride down side streets to "my apartment" in Carolin's vintage Mini Cooper; there was the way we talked immediately of London and college and husbands; the key she handed me, the welcome wine on the table, the space to unpack my things. There was Annette who, for the duration of my stay, lent me her purple bike with the beautiful basket. There was a guided trip to the local grocery store, a welcome dinner on a hill, a sweater given to me when I was cold, two little children who looked me shyly in the eyes and spoke their phrases of English, a whole night full of German flags clipped to car windows and flung over balconies and worn across chests in anticipation for the Euro Cup match that I would later watch in German, and though I wouldn't understand the announcer's words, I still somehow felt a part of things. I still cheered at the goals. I still pulled open my screenless windows at 11:00 pm and listened to the sound of incessant and jubilant honking throughout Lahr as Denmark's fooseball team fell to the Motherland. After, that first night, I pulled down the outdoor shades and slept for ten hours.

Travel, for me, is many things, but it has never been sleep. I woke the next morning astounded at my comfort, at my disregard for time passing like any other day. I made breakfast. I reopened the windows and listened to the songbirds flit across the garden.



The truth is I would have become lonely in the apartment had that Sunday been longer. I had a kitchen and a patio, and no students I had to look after, no museum I had to navigate, no bus I had to catch, and spaces that could have felt so easily like my Minnesota rooms except I knew that they weren't mine. That I wasn't home. That instead I was an ocean away from people who knew me. So when Heimfried and Ingrid, the couple who owned and lived above the apartment I was staying in and who were also retired English teachers, invited me up that night to share drinks and local maps and books and their genuine and generous spirits, I felt a bit like crying, so grateful was I for even their momentary friendship.

Throughout the three weeks I stayed in Lahr, though, these two became much more than an evening's company. They were under no obligation, yet they drove me to the train station, had me up to dinner, brought me to the market, lent me their carrot peeler, insisted I try some cake, shared their backyard garden, let me wash my laundry, helped me purchase tickets, taught me German phrases, drove us to the Black Forest and over the Rhine and into the Alsace, participated in countless conversations about their global travels and the German education system and the Green Party and the history of the region and American literature and their soon-to-be-a-father son; in short, showed so much compassion for a woman they couldn't have imagined just a few days before, that I simply fell in love with them. They felt, so quickly, like a kind of family.



I agreed to accompany Lynn and 27 students on this month of travel because Europe fascinates me, because I've found I learn best and most deeply through direct experience, and because I've always been hungry for the new. I believed that new meant new country, new city, new landmark, new language, new food. What I didn't anticipate was how these weeks with Germany's people--Carolin and Annette and Anita and Daniel and Danny and Nina and Sarah and Heimfried and Ingrid--how they would fundamentally change the way I thought about experiencing the world. Yes, it's still about place. Yes, it's about the sensory details that belong only right there. Believe me that I went on many solitary walks through the hills and marveled at the darkness of the woods, the particular brown of the needles on the forest's floor, the filtering light. The difference is that, after those walks, I hopped back on my borrowed bike--questions in my head for Heimfried, cherries in my basket for Ingrid--and pedaled toward a foreign place I treasured because it was full of people I had come to know.

21 comments:

  1. Photos taken at the Vogtsbauernhof, an open air museum near Gutach in the Black Forest that displays traditional old farm houses from as early as the 16th century. I never would have heard of this place, much less gone, without Heimfried. Beautiful!

    http://en.vogtsbauernhof.org/Walkaround/Map

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  2. Emily:

    Some of your photos wouldn't download for me, but your words spoke of the welcoming, warm reception you received from your German friends; the fondness and affection that grew so easily between you, nourished, of course by your own loving spirit.

    Richard

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    1. So thankful for that warm reception. This experience has stressed for me the value and importance of being an exemplary host. Making someone feel genuinely welcomed, I think, cannot be overrated.

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  3. I loved the photos and hearing about your experiences in your travels. It was so much better than checking into a hotel that could be anywhere.

    Thanks so much for sharing your words and images.

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    1. Exactly, Sandy. I've never really traveled abroad this way before, and if I ever have an option like this again, I will take it. Hotels can be beautiful and relaxing, but this turned out to be a home away from home.

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  4. Looking at the world, through your eyes and words, is almost as good as being there. Finding something resembling the comforts of home on a trip like this is remarkable. Thanks for sharing this!

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  5. i love when you wrote travel is about many things "but not sleep." i agree. when i am away from home i want to absorb everything i can and be able to take it back to maine with me. love your photos.

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    1. Hi Mignon,

      Yes, I have often felt impervious to that thing called "jet lag" simply because when I'm some place else--especially if it's very different or some where I've never been--I can hardly sleep any way because of the excitement. Maybe an Alaskan vacation in summer is a good idea for me... In any case, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  6. Wow, you nailed it with the light, especially in photos 2, 3, and 4 - beautiful shots, all of them, but those three I could look at forever. They leave me wanting to know more... thanks for posting them.

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    1. Ah, yes, the light. I was a bit obsessed. Thanks for noticing. :)

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  7. People and their kindnesses can change an experience entirely! Lovely pictures.(I visited this open-air museum many years ago...)

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    1. Really?! How fun. Heimfried had been there before, too, and he said some of the buildings were new, so I wonder how much has changed since you visited. And yes: generous, kind people. I hope to be that way throughout my life.

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  8. Compliments for your very nice blog,
    it's nice to read and the pictures are great.

    Greetings, Joop

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    1. Thank you, Joop! I like when text and photos compliment each other, so I'm happy you found that here.

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  9. I think it's one of the best feelings in the world to feel an instant (and sometimes unexplainable) connection and friendship with people and places!

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    1. Yes, it's almost... (I'm searching for the right word...magical, other-worldly...) tingly? Does that make sense? Some people find it sentimental, but I'm a believer in the "meant-to-be"ness of certain experiences. Much of this trip had that quality for me. Instant connection.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Eve!

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  10. Lovely! My fave is the third pic.

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    1. Yes, I loved the realization that people had actually worked there, that the saw dust filtering through the light was old, old, old.

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  11. What a lovely, thoughtful voice you have, Emily. I enjoyed sharing in the welcoming warmth you received in a foreign land. People make all the difference, don't they?

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    1. They do, Deborah. And thanks so much for stopping by and reading alone. I enjoy sharing stories!

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