Reflecting on My Life at Home and in Southern Germany

February 5, 2023

When we travel far from home, sometimes things seem so unfamiliar and exotic, and we are transported into another world. Other times, there are just enough familiarities that we feel immediately comfortable.

In the fall of 2022, I made a trip to southern Germany to visit family members who had moved there and found several situations that were just different enough to be particularly exciting and memorable.

My daughter Sonya was my guide, and she created delightful experiences like early morning walks in the forest with the neighbor’s pug, Karl Heinz, visiting art and food fairs in the surrounding villages, paddle boarding on Lake Constance, climbing hundreds of steps to towers and castles, taking a ferry to the flower island of Mainau, and sharing a summer campfire dinner with friends.

These special experiences were notable because they were similar to experiences I have had at home, but with a distinctive difference. If I had joined a commercial tour, I’m sure I would have seen many interesting places, but no tour would have been so tailored to my past and present experiences as what Sonya organized.

Back home, I walk on the American River Trail almost every day, and there were times when I rode my bicycle. Since Sonya and her husband Paul moved to Germany, they have been enjoying their proximity to the walking and biking trails that go around the lake and through nearby towns and forests. In fact, they used their bikes as their primary mode of transportation for many months. Sonya wanted to share the experience of exploring by bike instead of a car. Since she knew I was no longer comfortable riding a bike myself, she borrowed a cargo e-bike from friends and was able to give me rides in it. At first, I was very skeptical, but as I became more confident, I started to enjoy it. When we zoomed down the bike path, I held on for dear life. Sonya, shouted, “Don’t worry. Germans follow rules.” She was right. Unlike my experience at home, where walkers meander in the middle of the path, German children and adults stay in their lane. We had no near-misses. When people smiled at me, I was embarrassed, but Sonya assured me, they were wishing they were the ones enjoying the ride.

At home in Fair Oaks, many young people visit me to discuss their future goals throughout the year. We have deep conversations about their dreams and hopes, and I like to follow them as they pursue the next steps in their education and careers, and celebrate their achievements.

This is also the case when I travel. Such a situation arose during my trip to Germany when I met a young pianist, Gevorg Matinyan. Friends invited us to a piano concert and I had no idea what to expect. When their young friend from Armenia began to play, I forgot the uncomfortable chair and the intense summer heat in the hall. I was transfixed. Who is this young man and what are his dreams?

I learned that Gevorg is studying music in Germany, but the war that began in Armenia in 2020 has been a challenge and his family has lost friends and relatives and suffered economic insecurity. Now fighting has resumed, and Gevorg has been called to serve. Fortunately, Gevorg, along with a few other artists from Armenia, were exempted from military service for two years. However, to extend the exemption and continue his studies in Germany, he has to compete and win in top international competitions. Gevorg has played in concerts and festivals throughout Europe, winning prizes. However, now he is under tremendous pressure with the military service hanging over his head to achieve even more and greater acknowledgment. During several visits with Gevorg, I was able to learn more about his musical passion and the feelings he has when he plays particular pieces. When I look at this talented young man with his magical hands, I wonder what his future will be. I will follow his journey and hope he will be able to achieve his hopes and dreams.  You can listen to part of a recent concert he played in Überlingen, Germany here: Gevorg Matinyan – YouTube

Not only do I enjoy the connections with young people who are planning and dreaming of their futures, but I also like to highlight those who have chosen to use unique skills to enhance their community.

At home, my stepson Jim is a firefighter, as was his grandfather. Many times he cannot join us for holidays because he is helping people deal with fires or medical emergencies. Every December, the West Sacramento Fire Department Association organizes the Santa Run, collecting food donations for the local food bank. They drive the fire trucks through different city neighborhoods every night for about ten days. It’s a long-standing, much-beloved tradition, and “Santa’s” schedule and route are posted online ahead of time. A reserve firetruck is decorated with lights and a sleigh, and a “firefighter Santa” sits on top as the truck slowly makes its way through a neighborhood. Holiday music and the truck siren alert people that Santa is coming. Off-duty firefighters, their families, and local high schoolers hand out candy canes and collect food donations. It’s a very sweet tradition. Some neighbors have a driveway party, gathering with friends by a fire pit, waiting for Santa, or little kids deliver their letters to Santa as he passes by. My grandson Mike has participated in that event for many years too.

In southern Germany, my granddaughter, Katherine (pictured above with mom Sonya, dad Paul and me), is studying engineering, and she and her partner Niclas are volunteer firefighters. Along with other events that their fire department organizes, they put on an annual festival for the children and people of the town to simply celebrate and enjoy themselves. They cook and serve food as well as set up children’s games with firefighting themes, activities, and live music. I got to experience this event during my trip and particularly loved one game where the children push hard on a fire hose to try to put out a fake fire in a wooden house. Children gather for pony rides, and when the pond was full, they used to joust on canoes. Katherine gave us a tour of the new top-of-the-line fire truck and fire station built by the town for their beloved firefighters, and she particularly appreciated that the city recognized the needs of the female firefighters and built a separate bathroom and changing room for them. In between times of study and answering fire department calls, Katherine also works in an organic farm restaurant serving a variety of traditional German foods using local produce. The apples, pears, plums, and other fruits and vegetables that are grown here are sent all over Germany, and the area is also known worldwide for growing the best hops for beer production.

Back at home in the Sacramento Valley, many fruits and vegetables are grown for households and shops too (almonds, oranges, tomatoes, rice, etc). Vineyards have begun to be established in the foothills of the valley. In California, the most well-known are the grand vineyards of the Napa Valley, about two hours away. I love driving through that area alongside the hills lined with grapevines and French-inspired chalets welcoming visitors for wine tasting. The hilly slopes of Lake Constance are also full of vineyards. I’m not a wine drinker, but in this area, you can’t help but notice and be interested in the different kinds of wine grown in the region. I was told that the wine there is lighter with a less intense flavor than California wines.

On my last night in this area, we were invited to a surprise by a friend of Paul and Sonya. He wouldn’t give us specifics, but said “Dress warmly and don’t eat before coming.” Sonya and Katherine wore their dirndl dresses, and we all put on fancy hats with our outfits. Peter led us through the vineyard which he manages, explaining the varieties of grapes and the wine made from them. I was fascinated and realized I had never before paid much attention to grapes.

After walking for a while, we ended up next to the little white tower (see photos below) that we had admired so many times, wondering what it must be like inside. Peter’s wife met us there and we were invited to enter the tower where we had to climb a narrow wooden ladder to the top floor. There before us, the table was set with crystal, platters of food, and flowers. For the next four hours, Peter described each kind of wine and served a sampling. He said, “You don’t have to finish each sample. Just flick what is left outside the window.”

As the evening progressed, we shared stories, laughed a lot, and admired the remarkable views of the lake and mountains. As the sky changed from sunset to dark, we knew it was time to say goodbye after an unforgettable evening. At home in California, I always enjoyed the vineyards because they create such a beautiful photographic setting, but now I have a different feeling about them.

The experiences in southern Germany re-awakened a feeling I had in earlier travels in my life. We live in different places and speak different languages, but when we experience each other in our daily lives, we affirm that we are all one family with similar needs and hopes. I carried these experiences back to Sacramento as a special treasure and look forward to my next adventure in southern Germany.