Oberholz

Oberholz

The village of Oberholz, Switzerland, stands at 855 meters above sea level about 40 minutes by train from Zurich. The village rests almost exactly on the border between the Zurich canton and the canton of St. Gallen. The closest railroad connection is the village of Wald, which is situated below Oberholz and is reachable with a 15 minute bus ride. Oberholz consists of a few beautiful old farmhouses, a small chapel, a ski lift, and a restaurant. The landscape is that of beautiful rolling hills and forests, and on a clear day Lake Zurich is visible from the highest points. Far more alluring than the picturesque Swiss landscape and the friendly inhabitants, there is another fact that draws me to write about Oberholz- it is my ancient family home and the land of my ancestors. My name is Charles Overholt, and had my family line elected to remain in their homeland, I would have been born Karl Oberholzer.

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The first recorded settlers of this area, which is known in German as the “Grenzbereich”, or “border area”, were the Alemanni tribe. Archaeological records suggest that Oberholz and the entire border area were sparsely populated until at least the 7th century, but the Alemanni were living in the area from the 200s on. The Alemanni were a Germanic people who migrated south during the “Voelkerwanderung” (wandering of the peoples). These people, who moved south from northern Germany (and likely first moved south from Scandinavia before that), appear in recorded history around 213, when they first bumped into the Romans. When I say “bumped”, I really mean “clashed swords”. The impact of the Alemanni was so strongly felt in the Latin speaking world that the name continues to be used to this day in many countries when referring to Germany (Allemagne: French word for Germany). This “wandering of the peoples”, which is overlooked by nearly all but ancient historians, marks one of the most turbulent periods of European history. As Rome’s hold on power was already tottering, dozens of powerful Germanic tribes began pressing on her borders. The Vandals, Goths, Alemanni, etc. began a general migration south in search of new land, a better climate, and greater wealth. The incredible thing to consider about this time is that the Romans had little to no idea that these people groups even existed before they showed up on their borders in the hundreds of thousands. I could write on for ages about how the Romans fought and negotiated with these people, but that would only serve to derail the true purpose of this blog entry. Suffice it to say, the drama that ensued would be comparable to the entire population of Canada suddenly showing up out of nowhere and forcibly settling in New England- then you can understand a degree of the problem the Romans were trying to deal with. Talk about border control!

An increase in settlers came in the 11th and 12th centuries, when Oberholz was more or less established as a permanent settlement. The name “Oberholz” means “overwood” or “upperwood” when translated. Indeed, there is also a nearby village named “Niederholz” (lowerwood). As the names suggest, these two villages were still heavily forested when they were founded. Both of these areas were cleared of trees for settling and to provide wood for building in the nearby town of Wald, whose name ironically also means “Forest” in German. Located in a valley below Oberholz and Niederholz, Wald grew to be a relatively large settlement while Oberholz and Niederholz remained sparsely populated farming and woodcutting communities. Official mention of Oberholz is first seen in the 1300 and 1400s. In particular, a deed from 1390 located in the archive of Uznach contains an interest agreement between an Arnold Wissling and several farmers in Oberholz for 8 pounds per year on their farming debts (unsure of how this money translates, as it is not a British pound but rather Swiss). Other documents show that the family name “Oberholzer” was already in use by residents of Oberholz by the 1400s.

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The 1400 and 1500s saw an unstable period in the history of Oberholz. First came the “Old Zurich War” and then the Protestant Reformation. In the past, just as it is currently, Oberholz was always located on the border between competing factions. When the ruler of the area, Friedrich VII Count of Toggenburg, died in 1436 without a will or heir, both Zurich (a powerful, rich city) and Schwyz-Glarus (two Swiss cantons) claimed his lands. Among these lands were Oberholz, Wald, and the border area. Oberholz was claimed by both the Count of Grueningen and the Count of Uznach. A citizen meeting in Oberholz decided to back the claim of Schwyz-Glarus and the Count of Uznach, which was seen as less aristocratic and more likely to bestow freedom than Zurich. Zurich did not let this stand, however, and sent men to capture and imprison the leader of Oberholz. He was released only after the citizens had paid a heavy fine of 200 pounds (consider the 8 pounds per year paid earlier).  In a non-partisan attempt to resolve the land dispute, the city of Bern offered to act as a mediator between Zurich and Schwyz-Glarus. Zurich refused the summons and instead mobilized troops and began raiding across the borders of Schwyz and Glarus. Areas under the rule of the Count of Uznach, with whom Oberholz had allied itself, were raided and burned by troops from Zurich. Already on Zurich’s black list, the farmers of Oberholz armed themselves in expectation of a raid. To retaliate against Zurich for raids into their lands, the Count of Uznach sent troops from Uznaberg to raid lands allied to Zurich. Hitteberg, a small village neighboring Oberholz and a supporter of Zurich’s claim to the disputed lands, was attacked on November 5th, 1440. A farmhouse and a barn were burned and 110 cattle were taken. The troops withdrew on the same night. Eventually, Zurich formed an alliance with France and the Holy Roman Empire (the European super-powers of the time). Despite having friends in high places, the war went badly for Zurich as her allies were unwilling to commit large numbers of troops quickly. Rapperswill and Greifensee were captured by the Swiss Confederation (supporting Schwyz and Glarus). In Greifensee, all but two defenders were beheaded after the battle. Zurich was besieged but managed to fend off the attacks. In 1450, a peace agreement was worked out in favor of Schwyz-Glarus and the Swiss Confederation. Oberholz fell under the control of the Count of Uznach. Zurich was allowed back into the confederation (of which it had been a member before attacking its neighbors during the land disputes), but was forced to dissolve her alliances with France and the Holy Roman Empire.

The Protestant Reformation hit Switzerland with full, bloody force between 1523 and 1526. In particular, the years of 1525-26 were the most brutal. When the violent clash of religion was over, the Protestant cause had come out on top in the area around the canton of Zurich. Wald converted to Protestantism in 1530, but Oberholz retained the Catholic faith. The ruling Count of Uznach, who was Catholic, expected his subjects to share his beliefs. The citizens of Oberholz had traditionally worshipped in Wald, which was now Protestant- yet again they were caught between rival factions. Catholics were banned from worshiping in Protestant Wald, and having no church in Oberholz forced the citizens to go elsewhere. Uznach was too far away to go on foot for church services, so the citizens of Oberholz formed a union with the Parish of Eschenbach. This union was never written down, but church records show citizens of Oberholz regularly attending services in Eschenbach from 1532 until 1802. Furthermore, the Catholics of Oberholz refused to carry their dead across Protestant ground on the way to the cemetery in Eschenbach, which greatly lengthened their trip. In 1706/7, the citizens of Oberholz built a small chapel “Dreifaltigkeitskapelle” (Trinity Chapel) in the middle of the village. On the 15th of March, 1707, the first services were held in the chapel. Never having more than 21 households during this period, it was difficult for the parishioners of Oberholz to afford a priest.  As a result of this, mass was largely held in Eschenbach while the chapel in Oberholz was used for prayer.

The after effects of the Protestant Reformation were far reaching. Entire dissertations and volumes have been published on this period that fail to adequately portray all of the conflicting sides, so here I will only do a short overview as it relates to family history. My family line was neither Protestant (in the sense of the term used at the time) nor Catholic. They were reformed and embraced the Protestant teachings, but they carried them a step farther- a radical step for the time. Early Protestants still believed in infant baptism as salvation from sin. My family and the other “Anabaptists” believed that a spoken confession and a second baptism was necessary. Since the child being baptized had no idea (realistically speaking) what was going on, they could not possibly have the free will required for a dedication to the Lord. Therefore, a second baptism, in the tradition of John the Baptist and Jesus, was deemed necessary for salvation in the eyes of the Anabaptists. I know this may not seem like a major point of contention now, especially to a modern-day Baptist, but at the time this thinking was heresy. Everyone hated the Anabaptists. The Protestants and Catholics would literally quit fighting each other to hunt down Anabaptist congregations together whenever they sprung up. Rulers who tolerated Anabaptists were few and far between. Despite Oberholz being officially Catholic, Anabaptist beliefs were tolerated for a time there, with believers traveling to Wald or other nearby towns to worship in secret. In the aftermath of the Thirty-Years War and a change in the ruler, this toleration evaporated and my family line moved north to Immelhaeuser Hof, Germany (near Sinsheim, which is in turn about 30 mins by train from Heidelberg). Before a complete generation had lived here, the ruler once again changed and the toleration evaporated once more. From here, they moved to the American colonies in 1709 to escape further religious persecution in Europe. Promises of religious toleration in William Penn’s colony (Pennsylvania) were quite alluring, and colonization agents (for lack of a better word) frequented areas of religious unrest hawking flyers and deeds for land in the New World. The family moved north, eventually departing from the Netherlands and arriving in America the same year. My line in America traces itself to Martin Oberholzer, who was born aboard ship on the way to America. Upon arrival in the colony, the family name was changed from Oberholzer to Overholt- possibly an anglicization of the German name or perhaps a mere spelling error or English interpretation of German pronunciation. From Martin, I am the 11th generation Overholt in America, the 12th from Germany, and the 13th or 14th from Switzerland.

When my father and I arrived in Oberholz in late February, 2013, the sensation was difficult to describe. In my heart it felt like I was coming home, yet realistically speaking I was arriving at a place that I had never visited- that no one in my line had lived in since the early 1600s. I had been in Zurich the day before, which is a large, bustling, but still beautiful city. Stepping off the train in Wald, I immediately knew that this area had a slower, more rural pace of life. It was cold there, very cold, and everything was snow bound. I had never seen more snow in my life, and darkness was just a few hours away. We briefly considered finding a place to spend the night in Wald and searching for Oberholz the following day, but we both decided against that. The bus system in Switzerland is the best I have seen in Europe. It took me about 20 seconds to figure out that a bus ran to a place called “Oberholz Abzweigung” (Oberholz Fork in the Road). We bought our bus passes and hopped on. We really had no idea where we were going or how to get there other than by following signs. We got off the bus at the stop and started taking pictures of everything, only later to discover that this was an intersection and that Oberholz was about a 15 minute walk away. Along this walk, we had to stop and take pictures of every sign that said “Oberholz” on it. My dad and I were both giddy from the excitement!

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I had no idea what Oberholz looked like, nor did my father aside from that he knew there was a small chapel in the middle, so we trudged through the snow following signs that said “Oberholz” until finally we came upon the village. We found the chapel and knew we were in the right place. I saw a small Gasthaus and heard people inside talking, but we decided to walk around and see the village first before I came back and started firing off questions to whoever was inside eating. There is a small ski lift in Oberholz, and it sounded like there was a party going on inside upstairs in the ski rental building. I briefly considered going up the steps and finding a long-lost cousin to introduce myself, but we wandered around a little longer. Eventually we came back to the Gasthaus. Something drew us there, of that I am now sure. We entered. On the right was a door with a sign that said “Oberholzstube” (Oberholz pub). Past this door was a family crest hanging on the wall- OUR family crest.

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We took lots of pictures! There was a song about Oberholz written in the Swiss dialect hanging on the wall. There were old pictures of Oberholz and old advertisements featuring the ski lift and a textile mill in Wald. We were inside for a good five minutes taking pictures of things, still unsure if this was a public building or a restaurant or what, when finally a lady came out of the kitchen and saw us standing there. My father had been pressuring me to introduce ourselves to strangers since we arrived, but having lived in the German speaking world for 7 months already, I understood the social differences and feared how aloof a random person could be when confronting Americans on a crusade to find their long lost ancestors. My fears were unfounded. The woman was Johanna Oberholzer. A relative. Then we met Jutta Oberholzer, another relative who was born in Hessen, where I am currently studying in Germany. Then we met Rosa Oberholzer, who is an amazing 94 year old lady and the oldest family member alive that I am aware of. We told them who we were and they were thrilled, but their surprise could not have been any greater than ours! They broke out their photo albums, showed us pictures of reunions, compared family history notes with dad, and invited us to eat dinner with them that very night. My father and I were both on the verge of tears. I know that for him, this was a dream come true. Here we were, in the middle of Europe with no idea what to expect. I had hoped merely to find Oberholz and get a few pictures. At the most I was hoping to run across someone with the same last name. Now, we were sitting down to dinner with family that was at least 13 generations separated, comparing notes and tracing the lines back to where they separated. And they were family. They were as kind and open as my grandparents or aunts and uncles. Even now it is difficult to recollect that day without evoking a spring of emotions. The kindness was overwhelming and I feel indebted to them for it. They booked and drove us to a hotel after dinner and picked us up the next morning to spend more time together. Never in my life had I felt more welcomed! I can only hope that one day they will come visit us in Maryland and I will be able to return the honor.

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My trip to Oberholz with my father was the most rewarding point of my Fulbright Grant in Germany. I recognize full well that without this scholarship, this trip would never have been a reality. The language skills and travel opportunities that I gained here enabled it to take place. In February 2012, I was just an average college student at an average University doing normal everyday things. In February 2013, I was touring Europe with my father checking off life goals and reconnecting with our ancestors by bridging a 400 year gap in history.  I am grateful beyond words that I received this opportunity and can say with absolute certainty that I will remember my time in Oberholz and the love and kindness we received there until the day that I die.

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Gott mit euch bis wir uns wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen!

Einst vor Gottes Thron wir stehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen!

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A Thought-provoking Encounter

A couple weekends ago while at a dance club in Heidelberg, an interesting encounter took place. An event like this has never happened to me before, and thus it warrants attention here. The story below is recited to the best of my memory, but I cannot swear to the truth of every detail provided to me. I decided to share it here in its entirety so that my readers can glean their own opinions. The moral of the story is what is important, and although the information provided here has no citations, I believe what I was told to be the truth.

While dancing with my friends Tom, Anna, and Marina, two guys approached us and started rummaging through our jackets. Tom and I previously had our jackets stolen, so fearful of a repeat, we had placed all of our jackets on a vacant chair near where we were dancing so that we could keep an eye on them the whole time. Never trust wardrobes in Germany unless they are behind a counter! Anyway, the girls were the first to notice, and when I looked over, one guy was holding my jacket. “Hey! Whoa!” I shouted. The girls were quick come between him and I, but when the guy (who was obviously drunk) got sassy with them, I stepped in. I asked him what was going on and he replied (in British accented English) that someone had stolen his jacket and he was looking for it- and that we should mind our own business. Sympathizing with this poor soul (someone had absconded with my jacket in Heidelberg barely a month before), I asked him what color it was and offered to help him find it. To this he responded in a confused tone, “So, do we have to fight now?” Somewhat taken aback by the meekness of his voice but the provocative content of his statement, I laughed, grabbed our coats, turned back to my friends, and chalked the odd behavior up to his drunkenness. He walked away with his friend and continued searching for his jacket.

Five or ten minutes later, I saw them again. This time, he was clutching his missing jacket. “I’m glad you found it! I’m still looking for mine.” I exclaimed. Probably regretting his earlier behavior, he held out his hand for me to shake and said, “I’m sorry. There’s a lot of evil in the world.” What followed is the typical German greeting, which I have been through a thousand times before- what is your name, where are you from, what do you study etc. In America, these questions and their corresponding answers occur over a larger conversation. In Germany, these questions are always posed up front before anything else is discussed. Perhaps it is some sort of screening process to decide if one descends from an area or studies a subject that makes them a suitable candidate for further conversation, but I can’t be sure. I’ve never been turned down for a conversation based on my answers, so I suppose it’s just how Germans talk. In any case, Friedrich, as I learned his name to be, was stunned and excited when he learned I was an American living in Marburg and studying German History. He was from Hessen as well (the state Marburg is in), but I can’t recall many of the other standard details he gave me. It had been a long night full of improbable mischief by this point.

The conversation took a dramatic step forward when he mentioned there were a lot of leftists, commies, and anarchists in Marburg. I responded in a disgusted tone, “Yeah I know… it’s very different from home. The SPD (far left German political party) just had a march the other day. They looked like a pack of damn hippies wandering through the streets shouting their ridiculous slogans- down with Germany and whatnot.” Upon realizing that my political views coincided with his, or at the very least that I also disliked the agitators on extreme left, Friedrich completely regained his composure and said, “I often wonder what my Grandfather would think of these people today- people who take money from the government but then protest against it and wish to overthrow it.” He then went on to tell me a very long story about his Grandfather, which I am about to summarize. I also included some facts he did not provide to make the story flow better.

His Grandfather was born in Breslau, Germany, and like essentially every German male of that generation, he fought in the Second World War. He was a member of the Grossdeutschland Division- an elite division of the German Army, where he served as an artillery observer. His experience in the war occurred entirely on the Eastern Front, which was in itself the bloodiest struggle of all time. He was 20 years old at the battle of Kursk in 1943, when his best friend was decapitated by shell fragments as he crouched next to him in a trench. In June 1944, the German Army Group Center was crushed by a major Soviet offensive. 600,000 men were killed, wounded or missing within two months- more than the combined American casualties of the entire war. Army Group North was forced back into the Baltic countries, where his division was trapped at Memel, a German port on the Baltic. Memel had been German since the Teutonic Knights conquered it from the local pagans in the 12-1300s. It was taken away by the Allies after World War One and given to Lithuania. At Memel in 1944, the surrounded Germans were supplied from the sea while they fought off Russian attempts to crush their pocket. Another soldier of the Grossdeutschland Division wrote a book in which he talked about the horrors of this battle (Guy Sajer, “The Forgotten Soldier”). During the final Russian assault, which broke through the German defenses, Friedrich’s Grandfather was in the forward trenches acting as an artillery observer. He called down the final German barrage before the artillery position was overrun. He was badly wounded in the leg during the escape and passed out, but was rescued by medical personnel. He was taken to the hospital, which was overflowing with wounded men, and left for dead. He was thrown into the basement where the dead bodies were kept and awoke there sometime later. He cried out for help until someone finally came down and retrieved him. At this point, the Russians were in the city and closing in on the harbor where the final German troops were boarding ships to leave. An orderly loaded him onto the last truck to leave the hospital. On the way to the airstrip, where the final planes loaded with wounded men were preparing to leave, he begged the driver to slow down because the jarring bumping of the truck was causing his leg unbearable pain. The driver insisted that they had to keep up speed because these were the last flights out, but he did slow down slightly. It turns out that this decrease in speed probably saved both of their lives, because the planes and the men inside them were destroyed by Russian artillery as they waited to take off. Finally, by a miracle, they found a spot on the final ship that was leaving Memel and made it back to Germany.

As fantastic as this story sounds, I have read many others like it. These battles were so destructive and claimed so many lives that those who escaped alive did so only by some miracle.

Only months after Memel fell, Germany surrendered. Friedrich’s Grandfather, crippled by his leg wound, would never walk again. He only managed to regain a degree of mobility with crutches in the 1960s. His home, Breslau, which had been German for centuries, was taken away from Germany by the Allies and given to Poland. “Imagine how you would feel.” Friedrich implored me. “Homeless, crippled, defeated, and faced with the reality of what the Nazis had been doing behind your back at Auschwitz.” His Grandfather had been away at the front for over two years without leave and claimed to have no idea at all of the extermination camps. I will not be judge and jury over this statement, but I will say that his statement deserves consideration. When you are fighting for your life for two years, you probably do not have the time or the means to keep tabs on government secrets. Of course, not everyone who has used the “I had no idea about Auschwitz” excuse is telling the truth, but in the case of a frontline soldier fighting on the most dangerous battlefields hundreds of miles away from the gas chambers, I can understand how he could have been unaware.

 

“At least when Americans fight,” Friedrich said, “They always are on the good side. They can look back and say they were right. Imagine the series Band of Brothers, except losing every battle and everyone dying- that was my Grandfather’s war. There was no glory or honor. Everyone considers German soldiers villains. He fought for his country just as everyone else fought for theirs, but when it was all over, he had nothing. His youth had been destroyed, his body was broken, and his home was gone. When you look at Germany and Europe today- never again- never again will we fight like this. I am glad that you and I will never have to go through such a thing, but when you write about German History, think of this.”

With that statement, Friedrich shook my hand again, gathered up his friend (who had been talking sweet nonsense to the girls while I was otherwise engaged), and left. I didn’t really dwell too much that night on what he had told me, but a few days later I turned it all over in my mind. What a blessing it is to live in this age of European peace and unity (relative). Had I been born a mere two generations ago, I would be here as a soldier rather than as a student. The friends I have made here would be my enemies- what an impossible thought! As I walk through cities like Frankfurt and Hamburg, I think of the horrible bombings that took place there. Men much like myself, even younger perhaps, flying the planes above and manning the flak cannons below trying to kill each other. If things had been different, if our generations had been switched, would they not have loved living in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship as I do? Would they not have enjoyed touring the old cities and dancing in clubs as I have done? Would they not have rather studied the humanities than the art of war? I think of the lives cut short and the opportunities and dreams that will never be realized. Could there have been a man who, had he not fallen in battle, would have one day discovered a cure for cancer?

What horrors the wars of the 20th century in Europe have been! I can vividly recall the bombed cathedral in Hamburg- only the spire remains as a memorial to those who died in the war. Yet now, it seems impossible for such things to ever occur again. Germany, and Europe in general, are so international. The flag of the European Union waves next to the German flag. There are people here from all over the world, and everyone is so friendly. I’ve made friends with Italians, Russians, Germans, French, Israelis, Palestinians, South Americans, and people from every corner of the earth.   When I see the relationships between these different groups, I am convinced that the horrors of the 20th century will never be repeated so long as these ties of friendship remain. It was our mistrust and mutual misunderstanding of one another that plunged the world into war. Of course absolutist governments and competing ideologies pitted us against one another, but the average farm boy was the same whether he was born in Russia, Germany, America, France, or anywhere else in the world. He had the same dreams and the same hopes for a better life than the one he was born into.

That is why I now firmly believe that the globalization and integration of the world is a good thing- an advancement on the path of human civilization. Perhaps it results in a loss of local identity, but that is a small price to pay in return for peace, cooperation, and a greater sense of universal purpose. Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that everyone feels the way I do, or that I or anyone else can bring these people around by facts or logic. Some people will always resist this change. I am fairly certain, however, that the course the world is on will soon relegate extreme nationalists and isolationists to the minority. I hope that 100, 500, or even 1,000 years from now, history books will look back on the 21st century as the time when mankind finally started coming together rather than fighting amongst themselves. I pray that we will never vainly fight each other again at the behest of tyrants and despots as Friedrich’s Grandfather and his generation did.

 

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Thanksgiving in Marburg: An American Holiday Abroad

As our first major holiday abroad, Thanksgiving weighed heavily on the minds of all Fulbrighters in Germany. Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is undoubtedly the most family oriented (next to Christmas perhaps) and the most American. Having no comparable holiday of their own, Germans are relatively unaware of Thanksgiving customs or the significance it holds for Americans. Unlike Christmas in Germany, which appears to be an even bigger deal than it is back home, there is no general celebration for Thanksgiving at all. As ardent supporters of over eating and celebrating whenever the opportunity arises, my friends and I decided that this holiday could not pass without being duly honored!

For those of us who participated in the 6 week language course in Marburg, planning for Thanksgiving began back in September. Even before we all parted ways, it was more or less agreed that some effort should be made to reunite in Marburg to celebrate the holiday together. Why Marburg? Well, logistically, it is centrally located in Germany, which meant a relatively short trip for all those other than the ones living Bavaria or along the North Sea/ Baltic Coast. Furthermore, we were already familiar with the city and the area. However, I think there was a deeper aspect to this choice. During the six weeks we were all here together, this city took on a home-like feeling. In the absence of our families and homes, new bonds were forged to satisfy that insatiable human need for camaraderie and support. Raphael Peter, our fearless supervisor during our language course, became a father figure to many- or at least a “bro”. The other Fulbrighters became our brothers and sisters. In essence, I believe that for many, coming back to Marburg was as close to going “home for the holidays” as we could have gone without a plane ticket.

Having recently acquired an apartment in Marburg, it was my pleasure and honor to host the festivities. Much to the chagrin of those who helped me carry my furniture across the town, in the span of a few feverish weeks of work, my apartment went from unfurnished to 100% ready to host guests. Pictures of home and memories in Germany adorned the walls, a couch sat ready to hold guests, and a kitchen awaited the mess we were about to create. And so, my work as host completed, I waited- passing the actual holiday on Thursday with other Americans living in Marburg. With different work schedules and commitments, the party was set for Saturday night. On Friday night, the vanguard arrived. On Saturday morning, the main column.

There was no turkey (they don’t really sell that here), but every other aspect was there! My now famous “Marburg Mix” stir fry, bread, chicken, deviled eggs, plenty to drink…

There was even this stuff- some dangerous and unpredictable mixture of meat, vegetables, and mashed potatoes, which stuck on everything like glue but tasted delicious when it was hot. Not so much the next morning…

All in all, this was a Thanksgiving I will always remember- 10 people standing in the kitchen trying to cook simultaneously, Soham running amok, Joe knocking pictures off the wall, my deviled eggs finally turning out right, standing around toasting and recalling our favorite memories from Marburg, sallying forth at 2 am to go dancing with Tom and Brian- all are memories that I will never forget! Just as it felt strange this year to celebrate without my family, so too will it feel strange next year when I celebrate without all of my Fulbright friends. I have been immeasurably blessed with a great experience and great friendships here in Germany, and that is something to truly be thankful for.

“To Custer and the Seventh Cavalry! The heroes of Little Big Horn!”

Three Months In: Memories of Home, Reflections on Life in Germany, and other Random Thoughts

 

Of my regrets here in Germany, my failure to adequately keep up with this blog is my greatest (and likely only!) one. This blog began as a way for me to keep in touch with those at home who did not have a Facebook, as well as a vessel for conveying deeper thoughts that simply do not fit in well amidst the teeming list of petty status updates and ridiculous staged photos that Facebook has devolved into. It has been well-nigh two months since I have posted a single word here. That does not mean I have been inactive- rather the reverse is true. In these last two months I have visited Hamburg, Weimar, Munich twice for Oktoberfest, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Essen, Bochum, Cologne, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt about a dozen times, and a host of smaller cities. I intend to write about all of these places eventually and post pictures here– perhaps in a great “German Cities that Charles Likes” tour guide– but at the moment, I am in the mood to write about something deeper.

“When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy in the company of strangers, in the quiet of the railroad station running scared.” Paul Simon’s timeless words ring true for me. This year in Germany marks the first time in my life I have ever left home for more than a few days, the first time in my life I have ever lived alone- the first time leaving the shelter of a loving family to seek fame, fortune, and love as a man rather than as a son. It has been quite the experience to say the least. Granted, I am fully (mostly) supported by German and American taxpayers who fund the Fulbright Scholarship, but there is little true assistance anyone can give to help someone through their  first time on their own aside from the usual words of support and encouragement. In my case, this was more than enough. Perhaps there is something innate that allows certain people to pick up their lives and start over somewhere new without serious hindrance or hardship. If this is so, if this “flying solo gene” exists, then I have certainly inherited it. Far from my fears of homesickness and loneliness, I have been blessed with many newfound friendships and non-stop excitement.

Regardless of my nearly perpetual bliss in Germany, I often think of my home. Certainly all those away from the nest on their first flight experience this. However, I have noticed that as time rolls onward, my memories of home become ever more blurred around the edges. Furthermore, my recollection of home is overlapping with my present existence in Marburg- particularly when it comes to buildings, nature, and landmarks. The cold, swift waters of the Lahn have supplanted the muddy droning of the Pocomoke in my memory. When I look out my apartment window and see the beautiful Landgraf Schloss upon the central hill of Marburg, it is difficult for me to recall the fields outside of my bedroom window back home. Day by day, this place becomes more familiar to me. The Elizabeth Church is as familiar as the Pocomoke Walmart back home now (albeit much more majestic). Sometimes, I could imagine living here for the rest of my life. I can speak the language. I look the part. I more or less fit in without raising suspicion.

I often daydream of my return back to the Eastern Shore. Of course, all is glorious and rosy in my mind- the world traveler comes home into the loving company of his friends and family, a tremendous welcome home party during the warm summer night, swimming in the ocean again, midnight sing-alongs in the barn with my friends- but I wonder, who will I be when at long last I pass through the doorway of the house I grew up in? Older and wiser to be sure, but in which ways, discernible only to those who have known me for the last 23 years, will I have changed?

When I left home, many aspects of my life were in a state of upheaval. A two and a half year relationship had just ended in an inexcusably disgraceful display of selfishness and indifference. My Grandfather, the role model of my life, was hospitalized recovering from open heart surgery. My best friend, brother through thick and thin, was leaving for Afghanistan in less than a year. These things weighed heavily on my mind as I prepared to leave. Would my Grandfather still be there when at last I returned, or will I not see him again until I reach the other shore? Would my friend make it through the war? Would I ever find true love to expunge the awful memory of the ridiculous charade I had endured for the past months? Had I not been embarking upon the adventure of a lifetime- an adventure which I had worked, fought, and sacrificed tirelessly to earn the honor of participating in- I fear these worries would have consumed me. And yet, as the plane lifted off and the landscape below disappeared under the clouds, I felt my spirit lift as well. I thought of the pride and love my family and friends felt for me. I thought of the opportunities that were about to open up in my life. I thought of the great experiences ahead and limitless possibilities that awaited me- and my worries disappeared. I placed the fate of my loved ones in God’s hands and at last came to peace with the unknown.

The longer that I am here, the more accustomed I become to German life. Although many things initially struck me as different- vehement recycling, lack of steak, walking everywhere- these things now seem commonplace. I habitually collect bottles for the coveted Pfand (deposit). My day feels incomplete if I walk less than 3 or 4 miles. I find myself adopting the German mentality more and more, at least with my interactions with people. No one waves to strangers they pass on the streets here or says “good morning” when they pass on the stairs going to work. Initially, it was difficult to suspend common courtesies like these, but then one day it dawned on me that Germans simply don’t act that way. Rather than appear as a foreigner or that creepy fellow who always tries talking with you at the bus stop, I learned to hold my tongue. Now, I am almost relieved when a stranger sits down next to me on the bus and I am not expected to say hello or wish them a good evening.

And so I find myself trying to fit in and acclimate to Germany, yet still clinging to that which defined me as an individual back home. At least I have my accent, which all of the Fulbrighters immediately picked up on. Apparently I sound funny. This was news to me. In fact, in the absence of American television, which constantly reinforced proper pronunciation, I believe my Eastern Shore accent has become worse- or maybe it is better- depending on which side of the Chesapeake you were born on.

Being an American abroad has been a truly fun experience. Despite what many people think back home, Americans are not universally reviled. Europeans aren’t all jealous of our houses, pick-up trucks, and light beer. Of course, the typical stereotypes persist- we destroy the environment and are way too patriotic- but these are almost offered as a joke. In the next sentence, the curious European inquires- “Romney or Obama?”, or quips, “God! I love cheeseburgers!” Germans in particular are very hesitant to say anything negative about any country other than their own- lest the shadow of their own dark past be invoked. American culture dominates this land to a surprising extent. Our music is everywhere, and not just the crappy modern stuff. The good ole’ songs are still playing here. I frequently hear hits from the 50s and 60s at restaurants and in shopping malls, and I was even once in a Johnny Cash themed bar in Frankfurt. It is strange, actually, how Germans picked up on parts of American culture that we in the land of the free have long since moved on from. Lucky Strike cigarettes, no doubt brought here en masse by our GIs back in WWII, are advertised everywhere. Who has ever seen them back home? Coca Cola, of course, is abundant.  Chuck Taylors are everywhere. Germans are always trying to get ahold of uncensored American video games. How I met your Mother, The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, and SpongeBob Squarepants run on TV constantly.

In the eyes of many younger Germans, being an American is cool. This was made embarrassingly clear to me while I was attending the Stuttgart version of Oktoberfest with my Fulbright friends. The four or five of us guys were there with a friend, his German girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s three friends. From nowhere, a group of guys comes over and starts speaking very badly accented English to the German girls. Confused as to why German guys would speak to German girls in English first rather than their native tongue, we inquired about their approach. The answer we received was, “Veeee aren’t Germans, veeee are Amerikans.” Well, I felt sorry for them. If there was any group of people in the Beer Tent that evening who could discern if someone was truly American or not, it was our group! Confronted with the truth that they were frauds and we were the real deal, they half-heartedly admitted that their game plan for finding girls that night was to pretend to be American, because girls found that more exotic. Definitely one of my fondest, albeit perplexing, memories from Germany. I neglected to ask them if anyone had ever fallen for their American posing. I will probably live to regret that.

Although whimsical moments like the event in Stuttgart remind me that my nation is still the greatest on earth, or at least the most appealing to foreign women, there are still many new things to adjust to in Germany. I have gotten used to a lot here- some things easier than others. Like all people, I also take things that were once new and unique for granted and ordinary once the luster has worn off. I am now accustomed to meeting beautiful blonde girls- immaculately, identically, well dressed in their high boots, scarves, and overcoats- as they pass and exchange wistful glances with me whilst smoking their cigarettes. Such types simply do not exist at home! What a shock it was at first. Women’s fashion here is extraordinary, at least in the opinion of a 23 year old guy. They all take pride in their appearance, probably a little too much pride, but who is going to put beauty on trial? Not me, at least, not at this point in my life.

I hardly think twice now when I see the blind walking down the street with their canes, listening carefully for the beeping traffic signals telling them it is safe to cross the street. There is a large school for the blind and handicapped here, and they do a tremendous job helping these people live independent, productive lives. Having never lived in a city before, much less one with large blind population, I remember how I used to watch with apprehension as they would approach the roadside, cane tapping out ahead. I was abjectly terrified that someone would walk out in front of a car while I stood there helplessly. I kept the words in the back of my throat, ready to scream out my warning at a moment’s notice- “Warte! Ein Auto kommt!!” Yet it never happened. They are probably safer than I am as I walk about town texting. I am even getting used to seeing castles and beautiful architecture everywhere- so much so that I have largely lost the instinct to pull out my camera and shoot away at them.

Germany truly is a great country. The people here are hardworking yet fun loving. Their history is filled with some of the highest achievements mankind has accomplished, as well as some of the lowest points humanity has fallen to. Since the Second World War, Germany has made a tremendous turnaround. Militarism, associated with Germanic peoples since the Romans first encountered them over 2000 years ago, is totally gone here. Nationalism, the major factor in German politics since the mid-1800s, has been reduced to fringe parties. Coming from a country that is greatly nationalistic (and also rather militaristic), the political differences between here and home are immense. Germans are generally opposed to violence in any from- I haven’t even seen kids fighting. Despite all the beer that flowed during my two trips to Oktoberfest and Stuttgart, I never once saw a fight. If that many drunken people were assembled back home, you would have a battle royale. Actually, there was a fight in the bathroom at Oktoberfest when an old guy punched an Asian tourist- after which he was immediately condemned by all the Germans for his violent behavior.

Nonetheless, despite my wonderful environment and my ability to adjust, there are some things about home I deeply miss- things I struggle to do without. Camaraderie amongst my friends stands foremost in my mind. Of course I have made many friends here, even some who will remain life-long friends, but the reassurance of always having Ken, Phil, Greg, Ryan, Daniel etc. nearby is lacking. I have so many good memories of these guys- always there, always loyal, forever trustworthy in a way that no girlfriend could ever match. I very much look forward to the day that we are all reunited again shooting paintballs at each other in the woods behind Ryan’s farm or picking up clams in the bay. Laughing, living, and creating new memories together.

Ah the bay! How do I even begin to describe how much I resent leaving her!? Such a large part of my life has revolved around the body of water separating Assateague from the mainland- I can’t even begin to describe it other than by stating that it is a part of me. It is in my blood. My lungs have been blessed by the salt air of the Chincoteague Bay, and there is no removing it. In German, there is a word for this connection between a man and the land he was raised in. The word is “Heimat”. The closest English translation is “homeland”, but this word totally fails to capture the emotion behind “Heimat”. To briefly describe the word in terms an English speaker can understand, a “Heimat” is a place that a man can leave- but the “Heimat” never leaves him. It is always there in his soul, beckoning for him to return. And thus, I too will return to my Heimat one day. Immeasurably greater than when I left, I pray, yet still I will return to where I began. To my beloved friends and family I will return, and though life will doubtlessly draw me away again, the Eastern Shore will always remain my Heimat, and it will always call me back home.

Update #3 Castle Waldeck and the Edersee

The last few weeks have been full of nonstop action and have left me with very little time to sit down and write. Today, I intend to remedy my lack of communication! For our first group tour as Fulbrighters, we took a bus to the resort destination of the Edersee.

The Edersee is a man made lake which was created when the Eder river was dammed up during the early 1900s. The Eder frequently overflowed during the spring thaw and caused many problems for local farmers. A series of bridges were constructed around the turn of the century to aid locals in crossing the swollen river, but interest from the Prussian government in using the Eder as a reservoir for the Wesser river took priority over the local inhabitants. The Prussians wanted to damn up the Eder and release water as required to keep the Wesser river navigable by ships year round. Three villages were once located where the waters of the Edersee now rest. Two of these villages were able to move uphill, but one had to be totally relocated. The remains of the houses are still visible underwater when the water level is low, and one of the stone bridges constructed during the late 1800s is visible above the surface when water is released from the damn in October.  The dam was bombed by the British in the Second World war with considerable loss of life to the inhabitants downstream. The goal of the bombing was to impede river traffic heading towards the war material production center of Kassel. Despite the damage to the dam, the Germans quickly rebuilt it with forced laborers and production continued.

Above the Edersee, Waldeck castle sits on a hill.

The castle has a typically dark history from Medieval Times- witch burning, torture chambers, dank dungeons, but perhaps the most memorable story from the castle is that of the castle well. Two prisoners were offered their freedom in exchange for digging a deep well in the castle. The feat took them twenty years, during which time they were not allowed outside of the room they were digging the well in. Upon completion and earning their freedom, one prisoner died from a heart attack due to the excitement. The other ran outside and was blinded by the light of the sun, which he had not seen in twenty years. During our tour of the castle, the tour guide poured a bucket of water into the well. It took about 15 seconds to hit the bottom.

Update from Germany #2- Food, Hiking, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Turm

It’s been about a week since my last update from Germany. Time has flown! I can hardly believe I have been away for this long- it seems like I was just getting on the plane yesterday morning. Language classes are in full swing, and a lot of information is being packed into a short amount of time. All in all, my experience continues to be tremendous. Yesterday, a group of about a dozen Fulbrighters (myself included) took a 40 minute hike up behind our dorm to the “Kaiser Wilhelm Turm” (tower). The tower was started by a citizen’s initiative in the mid 1800s and was finally completed in 1890 on the anniversary of the Battle of Sedan (Franco-Prussian War). The tower was named in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm, the King of Prussia at the time of the battle and the Emperor who united Germany in 1871. At night, the tower is illuminated in the shape of a cross and is easily visible from Marburg and the surrounding countryside.

The hike was peaceful and relaxing, but the ground was somewhat rocky and I seemed to trip over even the slightest stone in my path. Next to the tower is a small cafe, but a short walk away is a much larger (and much more expensive) Beer Garden where you can buy traditional German food.

The view from the Beer Garden, situated on a hill overlooking all of Marburg, was to die for.

There was also this fat, friendly cat, who we affectionately named “Bringo”.

Nature is much friendlier here than on the Eastern Shore. If you can stand the hills and rocks, you can enjoy a walk through the woods at any time of year without having to fight off droves of mosquitoes or ticks.

Update from Germany #1- Flying, Marburg, Landmarks, and Hindenburg’s Tomb

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This has been my first real opportunity to update this blog since I landed in Frankfurt am Main. Let me start off by saying that the Fulbright has been an incredible experience so far! The flight over (my first time on a plane) was incredible- we flew over Ireland and England at dawn and the land below was absolutely beautiful. Despite being jet lagged out of my living mind, I somehow managed to run the gamut of trains between the airport and my final destination, the city of Marburg. I met a guy from Japan on one of these trains who was visiting his parents who worked in Germany. He spoke broken English, but was very eager to know about America and the reason I was in Germany.

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On the train ride over, I spent the full time gazing about and hoping to see something extraordinary. To be quite honest, aside from the rolling hills, the German countryside looked much like my home. There were tractors working in the fields and hay bales freshly piled along the wayside. Visually, the Marburg Railroad Station left a bit to be desired compared to Frankfurt, but it was small enough to avoid getting lost in. Raphael, the somewhat younger than expected coordinator of Fulbrighters in Marburg, picked me up and took me to the dorms- where I immediately fell asleep. Upon waking up, my rumbling stomach compelled me to venture forth into the city in search of German food. With the castle on the hill as my landmark, I wandered down from the dorms until I found a 24 hour restaurant called “Fiona’s”. After eating my fill of German sausage, bread, spicy Parmesean sauce, and zucchini, I climbed my way back up to the dorms for sleep.

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Marburg is a breathtaking city- both visually and physically! For one accustomed to the flat marshes and fields of the Eastern Shore, constantly climbing hills and 500 year old stairways to get from one place to another does not come naturally. Despite this, I have toured the city several times and am growing accustomed to the aching in my shins. It is definitely worth it to see the 11th century St. Elizabeth’s church and the impressive Landgraf Castle.

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Of particular interest to me at the church was the grave of Paul Von Hindenburg- former president of Germany and hero of World War 1. To my surprise, Hindenburg’s grave was given no special attention. The first time I entered the church I walked right by and didn’t even realize what it was. Unlike the graves of American war heroes I have seen (John Paul Jones etc), Hindenburg’s tomb was a dark corner without so much as his name upon the wall to notify those who passed by. There was not even a flag to adorn the tomb of this man who devoted his life to Germany. It was sad to see how time treats great men. A mere 90 years ago he was adorned as the greatest German since Frederick the Great– the physical embodiment of the nation and its struggle against overwhelming odds. Yet today, his tomb sits in a dark, lonely corner- unappreciated and unremembered by all save a few aware of its meaning.

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