The thin line of text atop my computer screen reminded me of a birthday. It was a realization that went down like a horse pill.
Today, my grandfather would have been 92.
He passed away as I was frantically flying home from Thailand, my work trip cut short due to his declining health. As I was suspended above the South Pacific—poorly timing my first viewing of The Descendants—he received the rare opportunity to die at an old age, surrounded by family, with a smile on his face. I missed it, but that’s okay. I’ve been saying cautious and thoughtful goodbyes since I went on Semester at Sea, a trip on which I feared he would forget me.
I know that the date of June 4th is to blame for my vivid dreams last night, but I’ve been in the mindset of looking back since my arrival to Berlin. The corner of my eye frequently catches a replica from my grandparents’ wardrobe, which isn’t that surprising since they probably picked up those signature items on trips here. It could be me projecting their images because they recently passed or because Grandpa worked here in the 60s.
It could also be because this is the first foreign country in a while where I can feel a deeper sense of belonging. In China, Ecuador, and Thailand, I felt like a visitor and often an unwelcome one, regardless of my language acquisition or the warm hospitality received. Though I still get some awful stares for breaking j-walking and cycling unspoken norms, I don’t have the sense of being an intruder in Germany.
This weekend was especially conducive to retrospection, as I took one of our students across the country to trace her family history. We chatted a lot about genealogy and identity, organically noting this term’s focuses on memory and legacy in the humanities classes. I’ve only just found relevance in my lineage to my identity, and though I went to assist her investigation and documentation, the trip also resurfaced family thoughts of my own.
I jokingly call myself an American mutt. Thanks to my grandmother’s extensive genealogy work, I know that I’m related to a Mayflower passenger and a vast mix of European cultures: Scottish, German, English, French, etc. My cousins and I used to go on “mystery trips” with Grandma through the Midwest to trace American and family history, but I never really felt a visceral connection to the past until I went to Scotland in 2009. I melded with the many sharp, honest, and hilarious people I met. The primordial beauty of the highlands conjured a magnetic pull, making me despise the tour bus that shuttled me everywhere. I could envision a lifestyle for myself that organically intertwined with the world I was visiting. Of course, I was further encouraged to make this connection when I learned I was 41 generations from the House of Alpin, a family that ruled northern Scotland starting in 843.
I interviewed this weekend travel buddy of mine after our return from southern Germany. One thing that stood out from her revelations was her response to my question: has Germany’s significance for you changed?
It’s always been a strange thought for me that I’m a quarter German. It has never felt real for me. This trip has made me appreciate family history and that it’s good to know where you come from—to understand the past as well as where you’re going.
This isn’t the first utterance by man of this kind in history. These thoughts are in song lyrics, biographies, movies, and likely every medium of human expression in existence. For some reason, coming along with her on this search for family history set the stage for this reflection to penetrate my consciousness. This trip is what led me to spending my morning off with a large jug of iced coffee and wiki pages of distant relatives.
Together, we walked the central marketplace in Karlsruhe, the lane of her grandfather’s childhood home, the main street where her great-grandfather held a law practice, and the sidewalk where her relatives’ stumble stones now exist. She saw original buildings and reconstructions, searching for personal relevance in all. A connection didn’t always happen, but the collective journey asserted the importance of retrospection in order to sort out today’s thoughts. It carried the air of a pilgrimage. She added another factor to the contemplation of her identity.
I was right beside her—filming the whole thing and contemplating my own confused foundation for this American life.
I’m not sure if it was my age or the distance traveled that made me look at Scotland the way I did in 2009. Similarly, I’m not sure if the recent passing of my grandfather has resulted in this connection to Germany. We place significance on dates, people, places, and so on in order to do what? To figure out what’s important under the usually salient mental layer of insignificant debris? To feel something other than what arises from the doldrums of rhythmic life? To feel ‘at home’ when the concept of home is fuzzy and undefined?
I look at “JUNE 4, 2012″ with weepy eyes and Germany with outstretched hands because I’m human and we all desire a sense of belonging. The great irony is that I continue to displace myself from where I literally belong only to contemplate this question time and time again. However, conceptual travelers know that ‘belonging’ is not always as clear as birthplace and family. It may well be for me (TBD), but I think I’ve added depth to my sense of identity by visiting the lands where my DNA once developed. The questions that arise feel maturative and eventually settling.
Once you reach those patches of earth, you might then wonder about the significance of original structures, your connection to the climate and terrain, or the ability of anyone to connect with ghosts of the past. Regardless of your conclusions, something happens internally that’s difficult to initiate in any other instance or geographic location. This weekend, this birthday, and these months in Germany have taught me as much.