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

Home to Me

Over the summer, a beautiful post by Laura Kelly Fanucci got me to thinking about the concept of “home.” She writes:

Right now I am home.

Sitting in the house that we own. Where we are raising our children. Where mail arrives daily bearing my name. Where we welcome family and entertain friends. Where I pull weeds and paint walls. Where my car pulls into the driveway and my shoes slip off in the doorway.

And I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

“Home” is something I’ve spent much of my life thinking about: Growing up in a state where my family has been for hundreds of years (and so having a strong sense of place), but in a part of the state where I had no family (and so feeling disconnected from that place). Moving out of the home in which I was raised. Watching the land around my family’s homes sprout housing developments. Trying to find something to call home as a young adult, when I had no immediate family to bind me to the communities in which Iived. Building a sense of home with my husband and then my children. Working to feel like my physical, legal home is one on an emotional level too.

(Overthink things much, Julie?)

So I wrote my own post on home, trying to process it all. When I shared it, I found that the topic resonated with people. Friends and readers had had similar experiences – or different experiences, but similar struggles in coming to terms with what “home” meant in their lives. A couple of friends even suggested that they would like to share their own stories.

I stewed on that thought, wondering how I could encourage others to share their stories of home – where they’ve found it, how they’ve sought it, or whatever else feels meaningful to them on the subject. A couple of months later, chatting with some connections I’ve made through blogging, I settled on the idea of a blog hop. That is, of a series that is shared by a number of bloggers, each of whom contributes one post on her own blog.

So that’s what we’re doing. Now. This here post is the introduction to the blog hop, which we’re calling “Home to Me.” During the two weeks from Friday, November 13 (tomorrow!) through Thanksgiving Day, more than a dozen bloggers will share about what the concept of “home” means to them.

They include women who have moved from home to home every couple of years and those who have said final goodbyes to homes in which they’ve spent their whole childhoods. One woman is actually raising her own children in the home in which she was raised. Some are figuring out how to raise their families in proximity to their hometowns, some far from them. One watched in wonder as her adopted children found home with her. A German friend of mine will write about the sense of home she found here in the United States while a foreign exchange student. I, in turn, will write about the sense of home I found in the small German village from which one of my ancestors came some two hundred years ago.

“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

The Immigration Question

Yesterday and today the U.S. Senate has been discussing immigration reform, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write up my thought process on the subject. This post is LONG, but immigration is a complicated issue and I think there’s been enough of distilling it into sound bites. I’m aiming for honest and thoughtful discussion on this blog. So you’re getting LONG on this subject.

I’m going to lay out my thought process in bullet points, because it would take me days to formulate my thoughts into a coherent essay. And, true-to-form, I don’t have days. I have stolen moments between meals and dishes and laundry and breaking up fights and pretending to be a “Mommy Wobot.”

So.

First, though the opinions below are my own, let me disclose that I worked on some immigration-related issues when I was a lobbyist. I represented the positions of the Catholic Church, which could (fairly, I think) be described as pro-immigrant. Second, let me acknowledge that this is most definitely one of those touchy issues. People bring very strong, personal opinions to the table. I get that. And I can empathize with many whose opinions conflict on the matter.

I found my work on immigration issues to be at once incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. More than any other issue I worked on, immigration seemed to bring out the anger, fear, and even hate in people. I had people yell and scream at me. I had them email hateful things to me. I had a guy blog (repeatedly) that I should be fired. But I also had people hug me and thank me. I encountered so many strong, brave, hard-working people with inspiring stories to tell. And I came to see immigration as a subject where there is real hope.

So here’s my own, personal thought process on the matter:

1)      People have always moved. (Diving right in to the looong view here.) Through all of human history, people have moved from place to place seeking food, better living conditions, and more freedom. They have fled famine, war, and persecution. They always will.

2)      People deserve a chance to protect and provide for themselves and their families. There are still plenty of places in the world where hunger and war abound. There are even more where corruption or drought or poor economic conditions stymie individuals’ abilities to provide their families with an adequate living. I would move to a different part of the world if doing so would protect my family and secure my future. You would too.

3)      Things change. My family has lived in my state for over 10 generations. The first ones came here in the 1630’s, the last came during the American Revolution. Other than being of Native American ancestry, I’m about as “native” as you can get. But in reality, my family lives in a very different place today than it did in the past. Our state has changed visibly since I was a child; it has changed dramatically since my parents were children. Not long ago, it was largely agrarian with a few long-settled, urban centers. It was the kind of place where the same handful of family names were seen, time and again, on businesses and place names and headstones.

Today it is mostly populated by people who came from someplace else. They came from different parts of the country and far-flung parts of the world. They drove massive development. They brought their own foods and languages and preferences and opinions. They are making this place their own. Never mind the families whose names still grace the towns and street signs. We have, in a sense, been relegated to the past.

But you know what? These newcomers became our friends and eventually, our family. (I, for one, married one of them.) They built businesses and gave us jobs. They brought their skills and came to work for us. In some communities they drove up costs to the point where we can no longer afford to live there. But they also drove growth in ways that have benefited us all.

At heart, I am a rural, small-town girl. I love my family, I am interested in our history, and the biggest part of me wants to live in a place where both are obviously present. It wants to live amongst people who share my values and my tastes. That’s just how I’m built. But things change. The old kind of community of my fantasies (and my family’s past) isn’t here anymore. I can let that frustrate and sadden me, or I can find the good in the way things have become. I choose to seek out the silver linings. I choose to cultivate that part of myself that rejoices in new experiences.

Yes, immigration will change our country. It has many times over. And yes, I can understand how that is an uncomfortable, even frightening prospect for some people. Sometimes I feel it too. But things change. At the end of the day, we can’t stop change from happening. We can only control how we react to it.

4)      Laws change. The United States is a nation of immigrants. All of our ancestors, at some point or another, came here from someplace else. The vast majority came in the past 200 years. It seems to me that most of us have this idea that our own families arrived in careful consideration of American immigration law. That they waited their turn and filed all the proper applications and did everything By The Books. But that’s just not the case. The kind of complicated immigration system we have today is a product of the past few decades. Until the 1920’s, American immigration was wide-open to almost all Europeans. Nearly everyone who arrived at Ellis Island was approved for entry. In the wake of World War I, immigration laws became more restrictive. Later, they became much more complicated.

Today, immigrants gain legal entry to the United States in three primary ways: (1) through the sponsorship of a close family member, (2) through the sponsorship of an employer, and (3) through the Diversity Lottery, which is designed to favor immigration from countries less well-represented in the first two avenues. People from countries that send a lot of emigrants to the United States via family or employer sponsorship are ineligible to apply for the Diversity Lottery. In 2013, people from the following countries are NOT eligible to apply for the Diversity Lottery: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.

So if I’m from England or Canada or Mexico or the Philippines and I don’t have a close family member or a prospective employer in the United States to sponsor my immigration, I can’t go. There is no line to wait in. There is no application to fill out. There is no such thing as “legal” immigration for me.

This is entirely different from the system under which my ancestors – and most Americans’ – came to the United States. Our ancestors had wide-open ports or lines at Ellis Island. They had a chance to seek their fortune in an entirely new land with no one to depend upon other than themselves. That system simply cannot be equated to today’s.

To inject a little humor here, I’ll add that when I used to testify on immigration matters, I would tell legislators (truthfully) that my last ancestor to arrive in America was a Hessian soldier paid to fight against the Americans in the War of Independence. And I’d quip, “How much more illegal can you get than that?”

5)      Families matter. It is right that people can sponsor close family members to immigrate into the United States. But the system should be better at ensuring that sponsorship actually results in a successful and timely family reunification. As it is, the immigration system is so backlogged that reunification can take years. It can take five years for a legal permanent resident to bring his or her spouse or minor child into the country. It can take twenty years for a U.S. citizen to bring his or her adult sibling here. (Here is an interesting story about efforts to bring over the adult children of Filipino veterans who fought for the U.S. Armed Services in World War II.)

The family is the most fundamental unit of society. It’s just basic human decency to allow spouses, siblings, and parents/children to be together. Can you imagine having to live without your spouse or small child for five years? Your siblings or adult children for a decade or even two?

6)      Skills matter. It is also right that employers can sponsor workers who will bring vital skills and knowledge to their companies. There should be more of this. There should also be more opportunities for entrepreneurs to come and establish their own businesses in this country. The United States’ success has, in large part, been due to our entrepreneurial spirit and our culture of encouraging ingenuity and innovation. We should unabashedly pursue the immigration of people who will feed that spirit and culture.

7)      The labor market doesn’t lie. When millions of people can come into the United States and find work despite their legal ineligibility to do so, it is proof that the labor market can support them. At the same time, it is understandable that low-skilled Americans would be fearful of competition from an influx of similarly-skilled immigrant workers. I have sympathy for those in that position. But I am also hopeful that higher numbers of legal workers would encourage more entrepreneurial activity, more business, and better opportunities for all.

8)      Long borders will never be 100% secure. The U.S. border with Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long – just about equal to the length of the East Coast. It goes through deserts and rivers, remote areas and urban ones. And that’s just the Mexican border. Undoubtedly, border security can be improved. Even just fully-funding current programs would help. But insisting that immigration reform wait on complete border security is another way of saying reform should never happen.

9)      We should encourage immigrants to invest themselves in this country. I want people living in the United States to feel like they have a stake in its success. I want people to feel a connection to their communities. I want them to work hard, start businesses, pay taxes, buy houses, volunteer, report crimes, and help their neighbors. We encourage investment when we enable families to be together, when we bring people out of the shadows of illegal immigration, and when we provide people with an opportunity to someday become citizens. It is a terrible idea to legalize a person’s immigration status without providing them a path to citizenship. That sends the message, “We want your labor, but we don’t want you.”

So.

That’s my thought process on the matter. (Or most of it. As long as this post is, I’m sure I’m still forgetting some important points.) In sum, I’m in favor of immigration reform. But not just that – I’m in favor of more immigration. I understand why some oppose it and I’m sympathetic to their concerns. But that (the above) is where I am on the matter. Where are you?