Driving to Dittweiler | Trip to Europe

And then it was Saturday morning. Just like that it was time to leave the condo at Gemünd. We didn't talk about it, but I'm sure we all must have been thinking of how quickly our week in Europe had flown by. Last night and then today, each of us had been squeezing our posessions and new acquisitions into our luggage.

It had clouded up and was raining off and on. We had our final breakfast of left-over food that we had bought so many days before. Even though I was fighting a gout attack, I was the first to get my luggage and guitar wrestled down the two floors of stairs and stacked in the front hallway. One of Tom's small suitcases was so pathetically packed full, it was almost too heavy to lug. He had bought a lot of books at some place. The strangely designed fold out couch was now put back in place.

We headed out for Trier, via several country roads and at least two autobahn switches. It was bittersweet leaving Gemünd, as attractive a resort town as its sister city, Schleiden, six kilometers away was common. From Schleiden we took 258 thru Blankenheim to 257. And, once again, there were the usual assortment of slow moving farm vehicles on the windey, two-lane roads. At 257 we drove past Ulmen and took A1 to Trier. Tom had made it clear several times that he would like to visit Trier. He told us that it was one of the oldest cities in Europe, and of many historical points of interest there. He kept bringing the topic up in typical fashion: "It sure would be nice to see Trier!"

I, on the other hand, was very focused at getting down to Dittweiler. I had called Heinrich Becker the night before, and he had very clear expectations that we would be there close to noon. The trip down was at least three hours long. And so, when Tom would reiterate his semi-plea, I would say something like, "We're not even getting any place near Trier," We're supposed to meet Heinrich at noon," or "I don't want to wrestle with city traffic at this point."

However, the day before, I had failed to get more money converted to Deutche Marks, and Vicki and Tom were also quite low on spendable German cash. I kept discussing this situation with Vicki, how it was Saturday and the banks might not be open in a small town, how everything locks up tight as a drum on Sunday in this part of Germany. The closer we got to Trier, the more logical it seemed to me that we would at least stop and try to get some money changed. It was really quite comic, because as I reluctantly inched towards this decision, Tom began to get more and more gleeful about the prospect of getting to be in Trier. Now he was on to the Porta Nigra, the black gate, which was a well-known Trierian landmark. "It sure would be good to see the Porta Nigra," he kept saying. "No," I would reply firmly, "we're only going to go to a bank and change our money."

We got off the autobahn and began our side trip to Trier. It turned out there was a river running down to Trier, and one main highway that ran along it. We were in kind of a wide funnel that led in the direction of our destination. We passed a Burger King on the right. We kept looking for a bank. Finally, Tom got out a couple of times and asked directions. The second time he got in the car with a jubilant tone. "He says that the bank is down there, just beyond the Porta Nigra." Fortunately for us all, I had matured enough since our college days not to get into resisting Tom, now that his fervent wish seemed to be materializing. In fact, I was kind of enjoying it. "We're going to see the Porta Nigra, we're going to see the Porta Nigra," Tom chanted, mentally clicking his heels together.

I managed to park our loyal steed, the Opel station wagon, on a sidewalk in view of the Black Gate, and it certainly was black with centuries of grime. In order to get to the area where the bank was, we had to cross under the street in front of the Porta Nigra. It was really like going down into a subway. We came out on the other side into a plaza leading down one of the long, open shopping streets that we had seen so often in Europe. And there was our bank. Tom and Vicki got into one long line, and I in another one. I felt that same twinge of excitement that I had been feeling about the prospect of conducting this business exchange in another language by myself. The process was actually quite drawn out, apparently lengthened by the use of American Express Travelers Checques. The clerk had to fill out an extensive form, and also did so in his best German handwriting.

At last we had our money, too much it would turn out. But we didn't feel that we could take the time to explore the plaza. It was now after noon. We piled back into the car. I drove into a driveway beside my parking place which led to a parking area for a condo development, turned the car around and headed back in the direction we came from. As we neared the Burger King, we all agreed, at my suggestion, to have lunch there. I pulled left across the traffic and into a stall facing the building.

This Burger King was actually quite large and rather attractive. It had a spiral staircase to the upstairs, where extra dining space and the rest rooms were. We got the usual fries, cokes and burgers, except I had a Big Fish and hot tea. A Turkish family of brothers apparently managed this site. I noticed that the Turkish guy that waited on me had a bad cough, and at one point he had a coughing fit as he ran off to the back of the restaurant. There were also a group of young girls that were being terribly noisy in a corner of the restaurant. It also seemed to me that there were the usual supply of attractive young men and women in the place. We ate our food, shooing away a few flies. After I went to the rest room, we left.

The night before, I had finally managed to learn how to call the phone number that Heinrich Becker had sent me by e-mail to America. Heinrich had said that he would meet us at the Waldmohr Rest Stop on A6. As we left Trier we had to pick up A62 (E422) to Landstuhl A6 (E50) to Saar. It was all very complicated, but by now the three of us had become an effective, if sometimes testy, navigational team. It was an interesting process. Tom would often assert that he knew exactly the way to go. Sometimes he was right, sometimes he wasn't. Vicki, on the other hand, was great and a real seargent at making sure directions or the map was followed. What I would often do that I think added to our success was to not drive too far before checking out our new direction against some supposed landmark or sign. That saved us a couple of times from wasting too much time.

We were at the Waldmohr rest stop. I called Heinrich, and told him to meet us. We stopped in and bought some beverages. Heinrich arrived in a forest green Volkswagen. We were delighted to meet him and he seemed pleased to meet us. Heinrich's English and Tom's German were excellent, and our communication got off on the right foot. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we followed Heinrich to Dittweiler.

On the way there, I reflected on how we had met. A year or so before our trip, I had been at the Marietta Genealogical Library doing some family research. One of our main reasons for this trip, at least as far as I was concerned, was to visit some of the many little German Dörfen that I knew were birthplaces for my great great grandparents on my mother's side of the family. I asked a German genealogy expert, Ernest Thode, who works in that library if there were any people in Germany I could contact while over there. Without hesitation, he gave me the mailing address of Heinrich Becker. I had written Heinrich a letter explaining the purpose of our visit, and he had kindly offered to meet with us. As it turned out, he not only met with us, but provided us with a guided tour of our ancestral homeland.

Heinrich drove us around Dittweiler, showing us a restaurant and inn (to the left), the bed and breakfast where we would stay for two days (to the right), his own home, and then back to the bed and breakfast. He introduced us to our landlady and then advised us that we were to come over to his house for barbecue that evening. Our rooms were very nice. There was one room with two single beds, where Vicki and I slept, and a TV room with a foldout couch where Tom slept. There was an entire kitchen, where breakfast was served and a lovely sun porch that overlooked the town and valley. We got our things unloaded, settled down for some naps.

One other site that Heinrich showed us was a memorial to the American astronaut by the name of Ross. He explained to us that Ross also proudly proclaimed his Dittweiler ancestry. The memorial was in the town meeting hall, a new, attractively appointed building. Here you can see Tom examining the memorial as Heinrich looks on. Then it was time for our visit to dinner with Heinrich and his wife Erika.


On the way to Heinrich and Erika's house, which was just down the street from our bed and breakfast, he pointed out the house of his oldest son, who was also out barbecueing for the evening. His two beautiful, blond little granddaughters came running over to see him. They were four and six years old. Later we would watch them coyly play in the Beckers' back yard.

At the Becker's house, we were introduced to Hennrich's lovely wife, Erika. She has been studying English for several winters now. We were taken to their living room, where we sat on heavy, dark wood overstuffed furniture surrounding a coffee table. There, Heinrich showed us their guest book. It contained several entries for like-minded travellers, whom Heinrich had assisted in their search for ancestory or the beauty of these small German towns. On the left side of each pair of pages were pictures that Heinrich had snapped of his guests, and on the left side were appreciative messages of thanks and gratitude from his many guests. Included in this list were several names I recognized. Astronaut Ross was there, on two separate occasions. Also there was a picture of Barbara Gearhart Matt and her husband. Barbara was the one who had published a translation of the Berg Church records from Washington Co., Ohio. These records were originally written in German fraktur script and contain the names and many facts about nearly all of my mother's German ancestors. We were handed the guest book and instructed to inscribe our thoughts and sentiments in it, to be returned the next day.

After a short time, Heinrich moved us outside to the backyard. In the picture, you can see Heinrich and Erika in front of the beautiful pool area they have created. In the direction of the camera is where we were to set this evening. This structure is hard to describe, because I have seen nothing like it in the U.S.A. It was a building about the size of a narrow garage. It was covered, but the side facing the garden was open. There was a table which could seat six or so. Behind the table in the wall was built in a barbecue pit. I asked Heinrich if this were built because it frequently rained in this area, and he said that that was the reason. We were able to sit there while Heinrich cooked barbecued pork steaks. Erika brought out delicious potato salad, slaw with apples and cabbage and bread to compliment the meal. We also had some pickles.

Heinrich served us beer. He explained that German Pilsner is a much finer beer than you can usually get in the U.S.A. It has an initial bitter taste, but is very light and good and satisfying. I have learned from this experience. Just the other day, I went to a Mexican restaurant and ordered a beer called "Dos Equuis." (That may not be spelled right.) I read on the bottle where it was made by a man who was an expert in brewing German pilsners. And sure enough, its taste was indeed similar to the Pilsner that Heinrich had provided.

I wish I had a tape recording of that evening. But of course, that would not have been proper. However, it was so delighful, and we were all so greatful for the Beckers' hospitality. They, seemingly, were just as delighted to meet us. We found out about the Beckers work and family, their travels and plans, the ways of Dittweiler, and such things. Tom, as usual, was his sociable self and said a lot of things in German. I had begun to develop a technique of communication that I thought worked very well. I could understand a lot of what was being said, Vicki not at all. So every once and a while, if there was a lot of "German flying around," I would jump in and try to speak it myself, or ask Tom if what I thought was being said really was the topic of conversation.

One of the highlights of the evening was when Heinrich broke out the Apfelschnaps. He explained to us that, unlike in the U.S.A., Germans were allowed to have their own schnapps distilled. So every year, a typical german thing is to distil your own mash at home. When it is of the right consistency and maturation, it is taken to a local distillery. There they measure it and certify that it is of sufficient quality to be made into liquor. Then they bottle it for the customer. (Actually, I'm not sure now whether it is distilled before or after it is taken to the distillery. At any rate, the Apfelschnaps were delicious, and Tom had a few shots of it. Wow! It was 80 proof. Unfortunately, I could just take a small taste, because I was "guarding my toe" from an earlier gout attack.

We left that evening for our bed and breakfast feeling very warm-hearted to our German benefactors. They had been wonderful ambassadors of good will for their Rhineland-Pfalz. We could see that life in this sleepy village was sometimes lively too. There were still the sounds of the festivity of barbecues at several points along the street as we walked back to our bed and breakfast.

One more fascinating story that is worth telling is this. A few years ago, my brother, Tom, gave me a book that had been published for the 675th Jubilee Celebration of the Kohlbachtal ( "The valley of the creek where coals were found".) One of the articles in that slick magazine was by none other than Heinrich Becker, and was entitled "The Forgotten Sons and Daughters of Dittweiler." In this article was told the tale of German ancestors who had settled the Highland Ridge area of Washington Co. in Marietta, Ohio, just a few miles north of Pleasant Ridge, where the Noes, Fickeisens, Buertels and Zimmers of my own past settled from 1840 to 1870. I had cherished that article and, laboriously, paragraph by paragraph, each night for an hour before going to sleep, I translated it in to English. Then I published it on the Internet. As Heinrich Becker and I were getting to know each other over our e-mail conversations, I suddenly remembered that article. I knew it had to be the same person, and sure enough, it was. Perhaps it's not so surprising, given that Heinrich and Erika have both visited the Washington Co. area, but somehow, it still does seem a bit miraculous to me.

Our next day was to be just as exciting, when Heinrich, Erika, and their friends, the Peifers, would spend the whole day showing us our ancestral birthplaces.

We "Smell the Blood of our Ancestors" | Trip to Europe

Created by Jim Andris, Sept. 9, 2000.