Germany, Vienna, and Back Home


It’s not that I love traveling. I always thought I’d be one of those people whose insistent wanderlust would lead them to new places, never letting them completely settle down. But it’s not that I love the newness of traveling, or the unfamiliarity or change in schedules. I just fell in love with so many places, I was always returning home.

The latest home I’ve found was completely unexpected. My family and I took an incredible riverboat cruise through much of Germany, and a few other cities along the route. In every stop and different city, I tried desperately to feel connected to my German heritage. This was a culture my grandmother had grown up amidst; eating the food cooked by her mother who would speak the language with her parents.

We were lucky enough to have my grandmother with us on the trip. Well, really, we basically forced her to come. As an eighty-five year old sassy broad who’s biggest pet peeves include airports and imposing on other people, she was reluctant to come until we got her on the eight-hour plane ride to Amsterdam.

Through the bustling German markets, beer gardens, and pretzel filled hofbrauhauses, I wanted so badly to feel that this was another home, if not the home. I adored my grandmother more than anything in the world, and I wanted desperately to know her in all the things that she was, all the things that she came from.

But still, every town felt foreign to me. It’s not like in Paris where I knew the city, even though I’d ever been there before. It wasn’t like Florence or Rome where I could sit in one spot for hours and never tire of the people, the colors, the smells. Germany felt foreign, different, and unlike me. The language sounded angry, the food was usually delicious, but grew tiresome and gave me stomach pains.

Don’t be mistaken, I loved every sight I saw and enjoyed every day spent in Germany. But you feel a certain emptiness when you expect, or hope, to feel a belonging at a place that you feel nothing for at all besides admiration.

After all, this was supposed to be my heritage. I had finally gone to the home of the culture my grandmother was surrounded by. She lived her whole life in Cincinnati, which is dominated by German culture. She knew the basic words and had a childhood story for each new food we encountered in the traditional German restaurants. This is what she knew best, outside of little Cincinnati. And I hoped I’d know it too.

We left Germany to enter the last few cities of our European adventure. My family will never tire from traveling, no matter how long we’re gone. They had the same excitement for the next city as they did two weeks before when the cruise boat set sail. But I could tell my grandmother was at least a little disappointed to see Germany go. Her favorite stops were the small German towns, which were everything you’d imagine, like they were scooped out of a postcard.

I was disappointed I couldn’t feel that connection to my grandmother. I couldn’t understand her hominess in Germany any more than she could understand anyone’s distaste for Jack Daniels.

 From the moment I stepped foot on the Vienna pavement, I knew it. This was home. I hadn’t pictured the Austrian city to look at all like it did. To me, it looked like Paris, only with grander buildings and gold encrusted into architecture like it was stone. The food was adventurous and anything but consistent. Shops and sidewalk cafes lined every street, and every major designer claimed real estate in the 1st floor of gorgeous buildings in a square unlike I had every seen. Casual cathedrals were scattered throughout the shops, each with it’s own intricate artwork covering the walls and ceilings on the inside. I tried to take pictures, but pictures didn’t do it justice. A camera couldn’t have captured the real impressiveness anyway; the je ne sais quoi that I felt in the streets of Paris, the squares of Italy, and now, here. Vienna, Austria; a place that was more myself than I had felt in weeks. 

My grandmother is an extremely gracious, hilarious, and munificent person. The kind of person you’d hope you could be, if only you knew how to be it. She loved that I loved Vienna, and she loved it too. But I knew her favorite would always be Germany, where she smelled her mothers cooking and heard the familiar language and music she had always loved. I felt that I had missed my chance to relate to her.

But it was only after the trip was over and we were back home in rainy Chicago that I realized there’s more connection between my grandmother and me than I had ever realized.

She’ll always understand my love and passion for clothing unlike anyone else in my family. She knows it’s not out of materialism, but out of artistic adoration. For years I’ve chronicled my shame of this love I have for fashion in my column. But something my grandmother casually said has always stuck with me, and is the reason I do not feel any more shame. “You and I, we like nice things. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

We weren’t talking about my “love for nice things”, and she wasn’t just trying to make me feel better. This is how she is with everything. She relates all of my traits to her, all of my interests to hers. Every boy problem I’ve had, every story she tells, she relates us together, as if her and I are the same. And I know this is a talent of hers she can use with anybody. She makes everyone feel welcomed and relatable and good about themselves. But in these moments, I feel in my heart that whatever her soul is made of, I have a little bit of that in me too.

I find “homes” in cities that are not in her heritage or culture, and not even connected to her at all. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t my home. She’s been my home before I ever traveled anywhere at all. She is the woman I get my eye color, face shape, and sociability from. We may have preferred different stops along the Rhine River, and even different countries to visit. But we both returned home to places we had never been. 

I’ve learned that family is even beyond bloodline, something you feel and know when you see little pieces of yourself in another person. That’s more of a home to me than any place I’ve ever been in my life. 

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