I have no first cousins on my mom’s side of the family, since she was an only child. I also have no second cousins on that side of the family, since my mom’s parents were also both only children. My maternal great-grandparents had siblings, but I’ve lost touch with the very few third cousins that I knew as a child. (Note to self: Bergs, Esterles, and Holzapfels fall into that category).
On my dad’s side of the family, it’s a whole different story. Where I don’t know my first or second cousins, it’s because there are just … so … many of them spread all around North America and Europe. The paternal side of my dad’s family tree prints out 18 letter-size pages wide, even if I use a teeny tiny font!
My dad (b 1929 d 2006) was the youngest in his family, with 9 full siblings (same mother and father) and another 9 half-siblings (same father, different mother). That makes for the potential for a LOT of first cousins. My paternal grandfather was one of 11 children, and my grandmother one of 10. That makes for a whole lot more second cousins!
The number of cousins I can say that I actually “know” are just a handful. My cousin Helga, the family historian, knows more cousins in Canada than I do and keeps a lengthy list of birth dates as each family grows.
My own list, below, has only three family groupings:
(1) My first cousins Eleanor and Gilbert, in Ontario, Canada – the children of my dad’s next oldest sibling, my Aunt Martha (b 1927)
(2)my first cousins Helga and Doris, with whom I spent last weekend – the children of my dad’s second nearest sibling, my Aunt Lydia (b 1924 d 2019). That makes Helga’s adult sons and Doris’ adult children my first cousins once removed.
(3) My second cousins Marita and Grant, also in Ontario – the children of my father’s first cousin (who was named Wilhelm just like dad!)
This weekend, I also got to see my first cousin Ingrid and her daughters (more first cousins once removed). Ingrid and her brother Richard were the children of my Aunt Irma (b 1913 d 1970). Ingrid’s adult grandchildren (my first cousins twice removed – isn’t this fun?) and 2 great-grandchildren (yup – first cousins three times removed) also joined us for dinner.
All that family tree stuff aside, it was a weekend for lots of food, lots of drinks and toasts, lots of talk and reminiscing about our parents’ generation, lots of getting reacquainted, and even a little bit of tourism.This is a fun group of people, whose love for each other shines through. It’s a privilege to be part of their circle.
We left Berlin just before noon on Friday aboard the high speed ICE (InterCityExpress) train to Hannover, where we transferred onto a regional DeutscheBahn train to Verden-an-der-Aller. We’ve been reading other travellers’ frustrating airport stories, and are feeling really grateful to be travelling by train. Although crowding and delays can certainly be issues on trains too, train stations are just somehow way less stressful than airports, maybe because it’s easier to hop the next train than to reschedule a flight.
Our train trip, however, was not totally uneventful. While we left the main train station in Berlin right on time, there was some kind of issue in the last train car that required emptying it and detaching it two stations further along, that delayed us by just enough that we could not make our Hannover connection. The DeutscheBahn app on my phone immediately confirmed the problem and showed me the available alternate connections, so we were able to catch the next available train from Hannover to Verden and arrive at our destination only about half an hour later than originally anticipated AND forewarn Helga and Manny of our delay. Pretty impressive really.
We were picked up at the train station in Verden and taken to Helga and Manny’s home in Holtum (Geest), where fresh coffee and Helga’s absolutely decadent meringue-topped lemon cheesecake awaited us. (It took us 3 blissful days of coffee breaks to completely devour that cake.)
It’s a whole other world here, with homes originally built as small individual family farms, complete with courtyards and attached animal and food/grain storage shelters. Helga and Manny’s home (which came to them through Helga’s paternal grandfather) has for many decades no longer had “housing” for cows and pigs – those areas completely renovated. The 1860’s core of their house was always a residence; the original cow stalls became a second family apartment, the original pigsty a third, and a modern (1930-ish) addition expanded the centre as the family gradually gave up being farmers and butchers and turned by the current generation to banking, electronics, and retail. There remains a distant connection to farming through one of Helga’s sons who sources the meats, sausage, cheeses, and breads for a large Bremen-based supermarket chain.
At any rate, those lovely apartments combine to create a spacious multi-generational home in which extended family can live comfortably and semi-independently.
The single common kitchen and dining room that seats 10 create the home’s heart.
Before Helga retired, their home also housed the village’s credit union; that room is now a second smaller dining room.
Now that my aunt Lydia is no longer alive, and Helga & Manny’s sons grown and gone, it’s a huge house for just two people, but they entertain extensively, and it is wonderful being their houseguests and having a a suite to ourselves!
In addition to the sprawling house there’s still a multi-vehicle garage, a garden “shed” that redefines the concept, a standalone “hall” in which large neighbourhood parties can be held, and an auxiliary equipment garage that until recently housed the village’s firetrucks!
The property, too, is significant, with a large vegetable garden, a greenhouse for tomatoes and cucumbers, and a landscaped flower and evergreen garden. There are two large patios – one off the main apartment suite, and the other off the kitchen. The latter is where we breakfasted amid the flowers, and enjoyed our long evening conversations over drinks.
After our cake and coffee and a quick settle in with our suitcase, we headed to Doris’ house, which is another beautiful semi-rural homestead, this time in the thriving village of Winkeldorf, population 400.
There we got to spend time getting to know one of my youngest cousins, Doris’ granddaughter, a vivacious 3-1/2 year old who was fascinated by Ted not speaking German, and immediately demanded English translations for words. I’m not sure how much good “ENGLISH!” (yelled at top volume), “beautiful”, “ten”, “toys”, and “abracadabra” will ultimately benefit her, but she sure seemed eager to learn!
Dinner was grilled bratwurst and pasta salad made with fresh vegetables and herbs from Doris’ own garden, plus German beer of course (and, much to my surprise, some pretty tasty German red wine!).
We ended our evening back at Helga’s kitchen table, talking and drinking Sekt long after the guys had retired to bed. There’s so much to talk about, and so many hugs to catch up on.
Never one to allow her guests to miss out on an interesting opportunity, Helga drove us into Bremerhaven, which is the North Sea port from which my parents emigrated to Canada. Bremerhaven translates to “Bremen’s harbour”, however it is distinct from the city of Bremen, which is not itself on the sea.
There is an emigration museum there (Der Auswanderer Museum), but it focuses more on pre-WWII emigration, and is similar enough to Pier 21 in Halifax that we chose instead to visit the Klimahaus (Climate House), a huge interactive experience that allows participants to take a trip around the world, beginning in Bremerhaven and continuing along the 8th line of longitude (turning into the 172nd line after crossing the South Pole) visiting the various climates that occur on that line.
It’s a much more interesting concept than circling the earth along a line of latitude, since the climates on a longitudinal line are so very different. The walk-through exhibit begins with a stroll along the rail line from Bremerhaven to Switzerland, then further on via “ship” to Niger, Cameroon, Antarctica, Samoa, and Alaska before transitting the top of the world back to Bremerhaven. En route, you experience mountain air, desert heat, dense rainforest, ice and cold, tropical humidity, and even walk “through” a glacier. There are terrariums, pools, and aquariums with live animals native to each stop on the journey, and lots of flora. In addition, at each stop you can “meet” a family that lives there, through audio recordings, videos, and artifacts. Each family’s members talk about their customs and traditions, but also about the ways in which their climate has changed in the past 20-30 years and the effects of those changes on their way of life. It’s informative – and sobering. Klimahaus Bremerhaven: Home
The Klimahaus is attached to a really lovely (and not yet busy before noon) outlet shopping centre with a great selection of European brands. Unfortunately, our tightly packed suitcases do not allow for shopping sprees…. but …. I was travelling with a pair of blue flip-flops that were ready to be replaced (they’ve done their 250+ km of walking), so I replaced them with a sturdy pair of Rieker walking sandals, at half their Canadian retail price.
Shopping in Germany, however brief, absolutely cannot be done without a break for “Eis” (a term used for both ice cream and gelato), and who am I to break with tradition? Cones of smooth rich gelato were happily consumed by all.
We also took the elevator to the viewing platform at the top of Sail City, where from 90 metres/295 feet above sea level we got a panoramic view of the harbour and city, as well as out to where the Weser joins the North Sea.
Our next stop was the massive Bremerhaven fish market, where in addition to buying vast quantities of fresh fish for Doris (sadly not yet retired and at work instead of with us) we also had a quick snack. Woman cannot live on Eis alone.
Two out of three of us enjoyed “fish buns”, available as ready-to-go snacks with every kind of imaginable North Sea fish. We both chose totally yummy Bismark herring garnished with fresh onion, lettuce, and a generous slice of sour pickle on a crusty bun. You could probably have guessed who didn’t eat one.
Then it was time to head back to Holtum for dinner with Helga’s eldest son, his wife, and my newest cousin, their 5 month old daughter. We headed back the same way we’d come to Bremerhaven, via one of Germany’s many Autobahns, the famous “no speed limit” highways.
It turns out that the need for speed may be a family trait. Certainly my dad loved to drive fast. I do, and so does Helga. We flew along at between 130 and 140 kph (80-87 mph), being passed by those who like to drive even faster, until we hit the marked “slow zones” where the maximum speed is 120 kph/75 mph. Slow is clearly a relative concept.
The day was rounded out by another delicious dinner (Helga’s baked Greek gyro casserole), another late night of conversation and Sekt, and more hugs. It’s good to be here.
Today was to be our big Cousinentreffen (cousins’ reunion), which would take place with “grillen” (barbecuing) at my cousin Anya’s house in Scharnhorst, about 15 minutes by car from Holtum.
Before that, we had a free morning to take a stroll around Holtum and its large “moor” area, which is partially farmland (lots of corn, a few cows and horses) and partially protected green space.
Holtum (Geest) has grown since we were last here 6 years ago – there are now about 830 inhabitants (up from 800) and with the 8 new senior-oriented elevator-accessible apartments being built, there could be 846 by our next visit!
The town was founded in the year 935 AD and, with the exception of the period just after WWII when there was a huge influx of German refugees from East Prussia needing housing AND the British Army had a regiment stationed here, the population has remained relatively constant for over 1000 years.
What remains fascinating to me is that most of the homes in the village are still original (renovated inside, of course): red brick, steep tiled roofs, decorative wooden framing, and consistent styles. Most of the homes in the village date from the 1800’s, but when new ones are built, they generally keep to the same muted paint colours and exterior decoration.
It’s a charming vibrant village. In the post-war 1940’s and 50’s it must have been a hive of activity.
After our walk we “needed” cake and coffee, but then it was off to Anya’s house. This house is much the same style as in Holtum, given that it is in the same county, but is a single building, having always been a residence as opposed to a farm. The upper level, instead of being the more traditional attic space, contains family bedrooms.
We ate grilled sausages of many kinds, grilled marinated pork chops and chicken, potato and pasta salads, homemade tzatziki, and garlic bread – all washed down with beers and Radlers (a beer/lemonade combo that is the ubiquitous drink of summer), and we visited.
More cousins seemed to arrive all the time. I think in total we were 3 first cousins with spouses, 2 first cousins once removed plus one spouse, 7 first cousins twice removed (one with spouse), and 2 first cousins three times removed (the youngest just 4 months old), for a total of 19.
So what does Ted do during all this German reunion activity? Well…. interestingly, all the eldest generation of first cousins here are female, and talkers, so there are an equal number of male spouses sitting around drinking beer, trying to avoid getting a headache from the non-stop chatter surrounding them.
None of those German spouses speak English though, and Ted doesn’t speak German, but one of my younger female cousins speaks fluent English (with a British accent, since her late husband was a Brit, born in Cambridge, whom she met when he was stationed in Germany with the British military), so Ted had someone with whom to talk, at least on this day of our visit. Of course, he had lots of photography to keep him busy as well.
I don’t share pictures of our younger social-media reluctant family members, at their request, so there’s no group photo. Ted did however manage to capture a photo of at least one of the storks passing through the back yard.
You can already guess how our last full day in Holtum ended. Manny and Ted gave up and headed to bed, while Helga and I sat in the kitchen talking (yes, and drinking Sekt) until 2 a.m.
Our train back to Berlin wasn’t until 14:30, so we had ample time for another of Manny’s hearty breakfasts plus a walk around Verden (Aller) before boarding.
Verden (Aller – the name in parentheses identifies this as Verden on the Aller River, distinct from any other Verden in Germany) is the administrative centre of the district of Verden, in the state of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). The town is famous for the massacre of Saxons that occurred there in 782 AD, committed on the orders of Charlemagne, for its cathedral, and for its horse breeding. For many years, it was also the headquarters of the British 1st Armoured Division, who were the occupying force when my father and his family arrived in the area as refugees from Southeast Prussia (the area around Warsaw which is now Poland).
Getting enough Eis in one’s diet can be a real challenge, so it is of the utmost importance to stop for a rest and sundaes whenever the chance presents itself.
Well fuelled, we headed for the town’s famous cathedral. Although the Verden Dom (Dom = Cathedral) began as a Catholic Church, it has been Evangelical Lutheran since the 1568 Reformation. It is the oldest Gothic church of its kind in all of Germany, the original church here having been established in 814 AD, with the first stone basilica built between 1018-1031 AD. That building went up in flames in 1268, during a territorial war.
The actual oldest church (not specifically Gothic) in Germany is the Trier Cathedral. Wikipedia credits Magdeburg as the oldest Gothic church, but it was only established in 937 AD, although construction of the grand cathedral edifice began in 1209 AD. We passed that cathedral on the train – it has typically dark rather gloomy looking twin Gothic spires, whereas Verden, while smaller, is also much brighter.
The construction of the current High Gothic church in Verden took 200 years, from 1290 AD to 1490 AD, maintaining a surprisingly cohesive design given the lengthy construction period. There were repairs after a hurricane in 1737, and interior furnishing changes in 1829, but my cousins still simply say they attend the oldest Gothic church in Germany.
Two-thirty came all too soon, and we had to say our farewells, but rather than Auf Wiedersehen (until we see each other again), Helga and I chose “bis bald” (until soon).