Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 10, 2011

One small sign

We had left Mölln in the northern part of Germany early in the day with an uncertain destination. Our immediate goal was to locate a place to spend a few nights east of Berlin. The ultimate objective was to visit the places in Silesia where husband Art's great-grandmother had lived.

In the remapping of Europe after World War II, Russian dictator Josef Stalin had driven the Germans from Silesia and made it part of Poland. Everything we had read said the conditions in the former German state were very poor, so Art decided to look for a place to stay on the German side of the border.

That trip was 20 years ago, give or take a few days and it didn't go as planned. When he, his mother Donna and I left the Autobahn east of Berlin and headed south for Storkow, we expected to see "Zimmer" - room - signs dotting the homes as we had become accustomed to seeing in the former West Germany. But we didn't find any. We had failed to consider the effects of almost 45 years of police-state rule. During that time, East Germans had not been allowed to have foreigners in their homes over night. All outsiders had to register with the authorities and stay at approved hotels. Reunited Germany was less than two years old and people do not quickly change habits ingrained over more than four decades.

We traveled east a short way where we found rooms at what appeared to be a new hotel, but the prices were extremely high. We decided to look elsewhere. The train station in Bad Saarow had rooms, but the thought of listening to the noise of passing trains caused us to veto that option.

Frustrated, Art suggested we head back to the Autobahn and try a different exit.

A disheartened trio, we headed north through the tiny village of Petersdorf to reconnect with the Autobahn. I think we all quietly worried that we were unlikely to have better luck elsewhere. But just as we were about to leave the village, I saw a small "Zimmer" sign next to the road.

Art piloted the car up the driveway and an 18-year-old youngster named Matthias came out to greet us. Not only did he have rooms, he spoke almost perfect English!

At that moment, I thought the most important thing was our plan had been salvaged. But later, I discovered something far more important had begun.

Our stay in Petersdorf was a very good one and led to us inviting Matthias' widowed mother Bärbel and a friend to spend the following Christmas with us. In 1993, Art and his Aunt Ione stayed with Matthias and Bärbel, and they visited places where Bärbel and her husband had taught school and had raised a family of four boys. Bärbel guided them to historical sites only those who grew up in the area knew about. They also met Günter - the man who would become Bärbel's second husband, although she didn't seem to notice then how he was courting her.

During a later trip, we met Arlette, who would become Matthias' life partner. In 1998, Matthias lived with us for several weeks, going to work with Art each day.

When Arlette's younger sister Nadja was looking for a host family as a high-school exchange student, we immediately said we'd be glad to have her. She joined us on our 2005 summer vacation in Wisconsin and stayed with us in Kansas until the following June. During that time, we made her our "adopted" daughter.

In the ensuing years, we've stayed with Bärbel and Günter in Nuremberg several times and they've introduced us to the wonders of that ancient city.

As the years flew by, Matthias and Arlette added two girls, Cassandra and Helena, to their family.

We later met Nadja's boyfriend Tim on one of our trips to Berlin. Nadja and Tim then joined us in Wisconsin and Kansas a couple of times, including last summer, when Nadja completed a requirement of her nursing degree program to work as a co-op student in a foreign country and Tim did a similar internship at Art's work.

We've also met Matthias' brothers, their families and other relatives, we've helped Bärbel celebrate her birthday a couple of times, and we've spent countless hours talking politics, family and history.

And all of this because of one small "Zimmer" sign!

Left, Bärbel and Günter in their garden in Nuremberg; right, daughter
Mariya, Art, daughter Katie, Bärbel, Mariya's partner Lacey and Günter.

Left, Nadja prepares our Thai take-out meal after our arrival in Berlin while Tim looks on;
right, Matthias, daughters Cassandra and Helena, Arlette, Gloria and Art dining near Petersdorf.

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