That Time I Rang a Stranger’s Doorbell and Found Family (Part One)

Or… one of the times. I’ve actually done it twice.

As my best friend Catey says, “Only you would show up at random people’s houses in foreign villages and find out that you’re related to them!”

Both situations rank high among my favorite party stories of all time, but today you’re just getting the first one. It begins in the summer of 2000, when I was a fresh-faced (rising) senior in college, studying German at a Goethe Institut in lovely Prien am Chiemsee, Bavaria.

My maternal grandmother, who is the historian and genealogist of our family, was pressing me to visit the small German village from which one of my ancestors had come. He, a Hessian soldier named Johann Philip Fiege, was the great-great-great-(can’t remember how many ‘greats’)-grandfather of her husband, my grandfather.

Grandmom had discovered the name and general location of Johann’s home village in an old court record: The Hessian-soldier-turned-prisoner-of-war-turned-American had testified as a witness regarding some milling technology that he was familiar with from his home village of Oedelsheim, on the river Weser. (Obscure, right?)

That’s all we had to go on. I had no idea where this village was, other than that it was along the (long) Weser. And to be honest, I didn’t even recall where the Weser was. (WERMS, fellow German students, WERMS. All I knew was that the Weser was the first in the handy – literally – acronym of the five major rivers in Germany: Weser, Elbe, Rhein, Main, and… I forget.)

But I had some German friends! I had a few young German friends – Civis, for those of you who know what that means – who worked at my Institut. One of them helped me look up maps of the regions around the Weser so as to locate this random little place. (This was before the internet was what it is today. Obviously.) After what felt like forever, we finally found it: Oedelsheim looked like a pinprick. It was situated near the source of the river, in central Germany, about 45 minutes from the University city of Göttingen.

And I was in luck. (1) My grandmother so badly wanted me to visit Oedelsheim that she offered to buy this poor college student a train ticket to get there. (2) The German friend who had helped me locate the village was from a city not so far past it and he (Matthias) was about to head home for a weekend. He could accompany me part of the way. (3) I had another German friend, a girl I’d known when she was a high school exchange student living with friends of ours, who lived about an hour’s drive north of the place I sought. I could stay with her overnight.

(By the way, this friend, lovely Svenja, will guest post on my blog this coming Tuesday. Her post, like this one, will be part of my “Home to Me” blog hop. Svenja is still very much a German living in Germany, but she’ll write about the sense of home she found during her studies and visits in the United States.)

So it was set. One weekend I traveled with my Civi friend Matthias from Prien aaalll the way up to Hanover. There I met up with Svenja (and, ironically, the two American friends from my hometown with whom Svenja had lived in the U.S.) I stayed with one of her neighbors because Hotel Svenja was all booked up, and the four of us young ladies had a great time together. Early Sunday morning, I hopped on a train to head back down south. First stop: Göttingen.

When I arrived at the train station in Göttingen, I stowed my stuff, bought a local map, and walked up to the ticket counter with my finger on the Oedelsheim pinprick.

“I want to go here,” I said. In German.

(Allow me to note that this trip out of Bavaria was the first time I realized that – hey! – I could actually speak German! Bavarians are a proud people who tend to speak their strong Bavarian dialect – or at least a heavily-accented version of proper German – as a matter of course. So here was I, a month into my intensive studies and seven years into studying the language altogether, thinking that I couldn’t really speak German because I couldn’t make out what passersby were saying on the street. But all I needed to do was leave Bavaria! Up in central Germany, I was fine.)

Anyway. The woman working the ticket counter looked at me like I was crazy.

“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, that’s in the middle of nowhere. And we don’t have a train line to get you there anyway.”
“Just get me as close as you can. I’ll figure it out.”
“The closest station is three miles away.” (Distance provided in miles for the convenience of my American readers.)
“That’s okay; I walk three miles all the time. I’ll just walk it.”
“You cannot walk from here to here.”
“Yes, I can.”

Eyebrows raised, she sold me the ticket and emphasized the last return train of the day. If I didn’t catch it, I would be stuck.

So I found the right platform and boarded the train. And my memory might well have exaggerated things for me, but that was a rustic train. In contrast to the shiny, comfy German trains that I’d ridden through the rest of my summer in Germany, this one looms large in my mind as having been outfitted with nothing but wooden benches. And no doors. (Again, probably a gross exaggeration, a trick of my mind.) I know for sure that when I arrived at the station to which I was bound… there was no station. There was simply a concrete platform with a bench. I’d had to tell the conductor where I wanted to get off so that they didn’t pass it by. Now I understood why the ticket agent had been so reluctant to send me here.

But off the train, and off the platform I stepped into a pretty little village. I don’t remember seeing any people at all. I looked at my map and the street signs, got my bearings, and took off. I walked those three miles with a sense of wonder and a spring in my step: this was my homeland. (Well, one of them.) My ancestor might have walked these very roads more than two-hundred years before.

The landscape was beautiful – rolling green hills, fields, streams and woods – not unlike the central part of Maryland where my Hessian soldier ancestor ended up. I wondered whether the similarity helped him feel at home in America.

As my walk neared its end, I found myself up on a rise overlooking Oedelsheim. It took my breath away. Hundreds of red roofs sprawled outward (the village wasn’t as small as I’d assumed), a ribbon of blue river wound just beyond it, and gentle farmland and hills surrounded the lot.

These Walls - That Time I Rang A Strangers Doorbell and Found Family Pt 1 - 1

I was home. For the first time since Johann Philip had been loaded onto a ship and sent across the Atlantic, one of our family was back in the place from which it had come.

This concludes Part One of my story. Now I’ve got to get dinner in the crock pot, breakfast on the table, and boys out the door to the dentist’s office. Please come back later today for Part Two.


This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by yours truly. During the two weeks from Friday, November 13 through Thanksgiving Day, more than a dozen bloggers will share about what the concept of “home” means to them. “Home” can been elusive or steady. It can be found in unexpected places. It is sought and cherished and mourned. It is wrapped up in the people we love. As we turn our minds and hearts toward home at the beginning of this holiday season, please visit the following blogs to explore where/what/who is “Home to Me.”

November 13 – Julie @ These Walls
November 14 – Leslie @ Life in Every Limb
November 15 – Ashley @ Narrative Heiress
November 16 – Rita @ Open Window
November 17 – Svenja, guest posting @ These Walls
November 18 – Anna @ The Heart’s Overflow
November 19 – Debbie @ Saints 365
November 20 – Melissa @ Stories My Children Are Tired of Hearing
November 21 – Amanda @ In Earthen Vessels
November 22 – Daja and Kristina @ The Provision Room
November 23 – Emily @ Raising Barnes
November 24 – Annie @ Catholic Wife, Catholic Life
November 25 – Nell @ Whole Parenting Family
November 26 – Geena @ Love the Harringtons

These Walls - Home to Me

These Walls - That Time I Rang a Stranger's Doorbell And Found Family Pt 1

9 thoughts on “That Time I Rang a Stranger’s Doorbell and Found Family (Part One)

    • Thanks! (I hope to post Part Two soon — just needed a little separation after the attacks in Paris.)

      How exciting that you’re heading to Germany in the spring. You’ll love it! Also, it should (I think) be a great time to go if you love asparagus. The Germans go ga-ga for asparagus (“Spargel”) in the spring — you see it on most every menu. Enjoy!

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