Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 6, 2006

Small choices, big impact

We were on our first trip to the former East Germany in spring 1991. My husband Art, his mother Donna and I were on a family history mission to get information on Donna's Graetz ancestors in Poland.

Because the Berlin Wall had come down just a bit more than a year before, we figured lodging conditions in East Germany might still be somewhat "iffy." But it seemed likely the situation in Poland would be even "iffier." So we decided to see if we could find a place to stay far enough east in Germany to easily travel to the Polish villages where the Graetzes had lived.

We got off the Autobahn east of Berlin and drove south to Storkow. Finding no lodging, we drove north and east to Bad Saarow, a town where some of the homes and businesses appeared to have been recently remodeled, but others were in a state of disrepair. The town's location on Lake Saarow had made it a popular destination for East German officials and Red Army officers during East Germany's heyday as a Soviet satellite. We stopped at a nice-looking new hotel. It was too pricey for our budget.

We continued through town and discovered the train station had rooms to rent. It didn't seem so fancy.

That's an understatement!

The room we looked at was clean, but the only furnishings were a bed and a small night stand. The word "sterile" came to mind.

Then we thought, "Hmm, train station, trains going by all night, no sleep."

No go!

Art suggested we get in the car and head north back to the Autobahn. About a mile south of the junction, I noticed a small "pension" sign next to the road.

"Stop!" I yelled at Art.

He turned around so we could check out the sign again.

"Pension Haus Friederike," it said.

It was getting late and we figured it was worth a try. We drove up the driveway and I got out of the car. Most East Germans were still suspicious of strangers, averting their gaze. But I was met at the door by a friendly young man who seemed to be about 18 or 20 and who looked me directly in the eye. As a bonus, he spoke English!

His name was Matthias and he explained that he was running the bed and breakfast for his mother Bärbel, who was away visiting relatives. Bärbel's friend Heidrun and her son Mirko were helping Matthias with the B&B during the day while he was attending classes in Berlin.

We took two rooms and soon became friends with Heidrun, Mirko and Matthias, chatting with them at the end of each day when we returned from our adventures into Poland and the surrounding East German countryside.

We liked them so well, we invited Heidrun and Mirko to Kansas for the following Christmas. Heidrun asked if she could bring Bärbel along instead and we agreed. The two women helped us celebrate the holidays in Wisconsin and Kansas that year.

In 1993, Art and his Aunt Ione traveled to Germany and stayed at Haus Friederike. Then, in spring 1998, Matthias spent six weeks with us in Manhattan.

We returned to Germany with our daughters in 2001 and 2003, again enjoying the hospitality of our friends.

So when Matthias asked a year or so ago if we knew of anyone who might be interested in hosting his wife's younger sister for an academic year, we offered our home without hesitation. And that is how Nadja became the middle daughter in our trio of teenagers.

A random turn from the Autobahn to look for a place to stay, a hotel where the prices were just a bit high, a train station where the rooms were just a bit too sterile and a small sign on the side of the road - a change in any one of those and countless other small things and we wouldn't now be experiencing the joy of having Nadja in our home. Small decisions can indeed have a big impact.

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