Germany has been calling to me my whole life. It began with the stories of my aunt and uncles who had spent a year or more of their lives there, learning the language and eating “good German food”. As a child I imagined round cheery people with plates of potatoes covered in cream before them sitting around a wooden table, laughing. What did I know about “good German food” except the way my father chuckled with amusement as he remembered how shocked his family was when his sister returned from Europe? In the way only a brother of any age could say it, he said, “she was HUGE!”
I had questions – my aunt went with the Intermenno Trainee Program? What is that? My uncles were PAX-boys? Who were they? Does everyone come back fat from Germany? The Mennonites come from there? – and received only partial answers or explanations that made little sense to my young brain. But I had heard the call. The whisper in those beginnings murmured family and origins.
When I was in fourth grade, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) left for then East Germany as part of her college schooling. Again the details were vague back then, but this immensely cool young woman whom I adored had chosen Germany. She wanted to learn the language and actually got to live there. I can almost hear my fourth-grade-self squealing “how cool!” And when that following year I sat riveted in front of the television, watching as individuals jumped over a wall shouting with joy, Germany took hold. I did not understand how two countries could suddenly become one and it was beyond me why exactly they celebrated with such release. But clearly this was history in the making, and in some weird way, I felt a part.
While almost everyone else was taking Spanish as their foreign language in high school, I sat with a tiny group of German diehards. One guy basically had no other choice because his mother was German; his best friend joined him. A girlfriend was there because her family had Dutch roots and German was the closest thing we had. Each of us had our reasons. Mine was to finally begin learning the language I already felt so attached to. Vividly I remember that first day of German class. I sat in the front row and before Frau could say anything at all, my hand shot up. “Why are all those words on the board capitalized? Those aren’t just new sentences. Are certain words always capitalized in German?” I’m not kidding. Frau was probably confused by my enthusiasm – was it genuine? It was, completely. It soon waned, however, as I realized learning a foreign language is tough and Frau and I butted heads. But I was proud of every phrase or word I learned.
Another memory: I’m a teenager at a friend’s cottage with my family. My cousin and her German husband are visiting from California. He wants to learn to water-ski, bobbing up and down in the water behind the boat. As my cousin yells instructions to him in German above the noise of the boat and the distance, words like water skis, hold, between knees ring out, and I understand. I understand.
Sarah Cedeño (on her blog copyright 1982) writes in her post “Matters of Space” (find the link here), “I asked what had changed in all this time? I urged them to consider how everything around us had changed. How can we not explore the space we live in? Even its past? … It’s probably the reason I’ve never left my hometown. I take the word “roots” literally.” As my Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines “roots”, “attachment, esp. to one’s place of origin,” Ms.Cedeño is right on with her logical consequence of staying in her hometown. Her town is where she began, her “place of origin”.
But is it possible to feel the tug of origin to a place we’ve never been? “Well, I’m on my way to Germany. My dream come true….my land of connection….my roots….the cause for me to about lose my lunch.” On May 28th, 1999 I obviously did. I had to leave my family, my mother tongue and country to find roots from before my time, but ones that seemed to call me home. I was not being up-rooted, but rather replanted.
By now I have discovered many answers to those questions from my childhood. The Intermenno Trainee Program with which my aunt came to Germany so many years ago was (unfortunately it no longer exists) a Mennonite cultural exchange opportunity that brought young North Americans to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands to become acquainted with some of the languages, cultures and lives of the Mennonite church in Europe. Its goal was to shape these young people into bridge builders between continents. Completely unaware of the coincident with my aunt, this was the program I chose to bring me to Germany. Years later when I found my aunt’s picture in the Intermenno archives, I felt a family root take hold.
When I first came to our little town, church members in their sixties would hear my maiden name and ask, “There was a PAX-boy here once with that name. Do you know him?” What a surprise – but really should I have been? – to learn it was my uncle whom I missed loving because of his early death. He was a PAX-boy, young North American men who were sent out all over the world as conscientious objectors in the 1950’s and ’60’s, who had helped build the Mennonite settlement in our town. My uncle had made an impact, especially because of his love and gift of music. And here, almost 25 years after his death, I feel I’ve come to know him a tiny bit and what’s more, been given the opportunity to carry on his legacy.
That call from long ago continues: seeing the farm where my mother’s ancestors lived and fled from because of their Anabaptist leanings; touching the memorial where another aunt’s father is remembered; discovering family lineage just up my German street to a French neighbor; beginning to understand the heritage of my Mennonite background.
When I arrived in Germany I came home. It was here that I needed to replant those roots I had been dragging about with me. It was certainly not my intention when I left my parents with my mother’s last bit of advice ringing in my ears, “Just don’t fall in love with a German!” The German certainly helped, but maybe I had already fallen in love with Germany.
“Coming home” doesn’t happen without a price. There is another side to being replanted. Read about it in Part Two of Replanted: Coming Home to a Foreign Place, coming soon.