Episode 297 – Cousins, Part 2 (4 Days)

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!

My grandfather Wilhelm and grandmother Emilie and their children. Not all lived to have children of their own. Circled are the four first cousins that met this weekend. (Neither the subsequent generations nor the children from my grandfather’s first marriage are shown)

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!)

A very small part of the Mandau family circa 1950. Front row: Oma Emilie and Opa Wilhelm. Back row: Aunt Lydia, Dad, Aunt Martha. This is the last family portrait before Dad and Martha left for Canada. My grandmother is just 60 in this picture – multiple children and years of wartime stress (plus, from everything I’ve heard, the stress of being my grandfather’s wife) made her look much older. My grandfather is 76; like my dad, he aged well. All my first cousins got the lush “Mandau hair”, as did my brother. I did not.

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.

DAY 1

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 route via train from Berlin to Verden (Aller). If all runs on time, it’s just over 3 hours via ICE including the 20 minute transfer in Hannover (German spelling). Driving the 354 km/220 miles via the most fuel efficient route would take 3 hours and 40 minutes.

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 was indescribably wonderful getting to spend time together. I think Helga was happy about it too.

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.

Top: the shaded front of the house, with the chestnut tree that Helga’s grandfather planted in 1894. There were originally 3 trees, one for each of his sons, but as the trees aged and the house expanded, only one was left.
Second: the back of the house. The centre section was expanded as Helga’s grandfather’s family grew. The yellow brick was the former cow stall. The peak further right (with the window in it) was once where pigs were kept. Third: behind and to the left of the yellow wing is the largest of the 2 former equipment sheds. Bottom: a small portion of the garden surrounding the second patio.

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.

Top L: the dining room with typical German style solid wood cabinetry.
Top R: the “main” patio. Bottom L: German breakfast on the patio. Manny goes to the bakery every morning for fresh bread and buns, but it’s only on weekends or when they have company for breakfast (which is often) that all the meats, fish, cheeses, preserves, spreads, fresh fruits, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs and multiple juices appear. Bottom R: one of Manny’s many green thumb projects: geraniums that he over-winters each year.

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!

Doris’ home. It, too, has additional buildings and holds a ton of history, although it has been thoroughly modernized inside.

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.

DAY 2

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.

Exterior of the Klimahaus.

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.

Ready, set, SHOP!

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.

Views from the top, including a U-Boat on display and available to tour.

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.

Just one vendor within the fish market, but he had a wide array of fresh and smoked fish – and weekly classes in fish-smoking available!

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.

Ted was making a grossed-out face at us (or maybe at the herring).
We were trying not to laugh.

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.

DAY 3

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.

Photo taken from the book compiled to celebrate the town’s 1050th anniversary in 1985. The sign in the photo was erected 50 years earlier (1935) for the town’s millenium celebration. The “Geest” in the town’s name refers to the mostly sandy terrain; on the other side of the Weser River is Holtum (Marsch), which as the name implies has a marshy terrain.

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.

Typical Holtum houses. The one at the top is the oldest in town, and looks pretty amazing for being built in 1819.
Many of the original homes have portions of psalms, bible verses, or prayers above their doors. This one asks God to take the house into his big hands and protect it from fire and all evils. It also has the names of the first owners, Herrmann and Maria Meiers, and the date it was completed: 6 May 1819.
On our walk around town we passed the bell tower, erected in 1891. The photo on the left from the original unveiling also comes from the town’s anniversary book. The bells still chime the hours, and even today are rung when someone in town dies, but the sirens at the top are new.

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.

That’s curry ketchup on the left – no grilled sausage in northern Germany is complete without it!

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.

DAY 4

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).

The baroque Rathaus (city hall) was built in 1730, and updated in 1875. There are written records of a city hall dating back to 1330 AD, but obviously no photos!
Views of Verden’s pedestrian mall, filled with shops, restaurants, statuary, gardens, and – most importantly – ice cream shops.

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.

The top bowl in the lower left photo contains Germany’s famous “Spaghetti Eis”: a mound of whipped cream, topped with vanilla ice cream extruded through a noodle press, topped with strawberry “tomato sauce” and white chocolate “Parmesan”. It’s Manny’s favourite. Bottom right is a close-up of Ted’s “After Eight” sundae, with vanilla and mint ice cream, chocolate sauce, After Eight mints, and Bailey’s liqueur.

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.

Top: the cathedral’s southeast facade. Bottom: the cathedral’s northeast side. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. The Dom is far too big and surrounded by far too many buildings to get these kind of shots from the street.)

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.

Ted was able to capture a sense of the light that fills the sanctuary. The tall stained glass windows and white and coral colours create an uplifting atmosphere. The large pipe organ pictured is a fairly recent addition, dating to 1850 AD, replacing the original 1487 AD instrument. There are also 2 smaller pipe organs used for regular Sunday services.

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.

One of the highlights of the cathedral’s interior courtyard is the “Stone Man”. Legend has it that it is one of the builders who stole funds from the church and was thrown into the wall, but as we learned from seeing similar stone men in France and Italy, this was a fairly common way in the Middle Ages for a building’s architect to memorialize himself within an important edifice.

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).

12 comments

  1. The pace of consumption of nice food and drink just about equals that on your Viking World Cruise! I’d never really thought of Germany as a nation of gourmets — or gourmands– have to revise that idea!

    Like

    • OMG.. German food (but especially the “Mehlspeisen” – anything baked, from bread to tortes) is quote wonderful, but the multicultural offerings were what surprised me. You can get literally ANYTHING! (In Austria, by comparison, the predominant non-local cuisine is Turkish, going back 400+ years)

      Like

  2. What an amazing experience. I know, I did the same reconnecting with family, over the years. My mom and I left from Bremerhaven as well, in 53, my grandparents following a year later. You brought back so many wonderful memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We enjoy your postings, especially while on the world cruise. We are going on the 2022/2023 world cruise. I see Vienna is your next stop. We lived there for 2 years so if you have any questions, we are happy to respond. Cheers, Barbara Peterson

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rose (and Ted), I so love following your journey. What an amazing experience visiting with family. Of course, family first, but oh, you’ve done such an amazing documentation of the food! I love your sense of adventure regarding all of the food — I’m afraid I might have to be in Ted’s corner on some of it though. Safe travels to you both.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is such a pleasure to follow your travels. Your (or Teds) photos are wonderful and I feel like I am right there with you. Continued safe travels and thank you for letting me share in this journey.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Rose Brooks Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s