Sunset over the Atlantic, sunrise over Europe and eight hours later, cousin week of the pilgrimage begins. Jefferey greets me with a huge smile at the Munich airport and we chat enthusiastically about our travel plans as we drive to Heidhausen, where he and Sabine live. We will spend a few days in Munich; we will visit his mother; I will travel to Stuttgart for a few days to visit Jennifer and her husband, Santhosh; and, then spend one final day in Munich before joining the group pilgrimage. Jefferey has planned everything down to the detail—even pre-booking my train trips to connect with others.
After a short rest, we have a wonderful brunch. The food is as amazing as I remember it. Jefferey is a great chef, using only fresh, organic and, always, a variety of ingredients. We can’t believe it has been 5 years since my last visit and we first met.
It was just five years ago that I met Jefferey for the first time. Well, sort of. I am told we met as babies or toddlers; but, we neither remember nor have photographic evidence of it.
So the short story of why I have cousins in Germany: My mother and Jefferey and Jennifer’s father are siblings. My mom is the youngest of eight children and Joe, 11 years older, was the third child in the family. After Joe graduated from high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Germany, and then married a woman who had grown up there. Their children, Jefferey and Jennifer, were born during the Vietnam War era—one stateside and the other at an American base in Germany. After Joe retired from the Air Force, the family settled in Heidi’s hometown of Neuburg an der Donau in Bavaria, Germany. Jefferey was 6, the same age as me, and Jennifer was just a baby.
My Uncle Joe would visit Nebraska every few years, but the cost of travel didn’t allow for his wife and children to join him. I only knew of Jefferey and Jennifer from Christmas card photos. The last time Joe visited, in 1994, Heidi and Jennifer joined him, but Jefferey did not. But finally, I had an opportunity to meet Jefferey when I planned to attend a group pilgrimage to Germany in 2014.
It was a pilgrimage itself to meet this family I knew very little or not at all. This second visit is an opportunity to deepen our relationship—and it does. I particularly enjoyed staying in the homes of Jefferey/Sabine and Jennifer/Santhosh, enjoying the wine and incredible food they cooked, looking through Uncle Joe’s keepsakes and the many interesting conversations about books, movies, art, politics, culture, politics, travel, politics (a LOT), family, music, food and cooking, business and marketing, the environment and climate change, beer and wine, our careers and so much more!
We saw many sights, which are memorable, yes, but, truly, the time spent getting to know each other was the most meaningful. There were connections made this trip that will carry us until we meet again.
Along with these special memories, I take home a priceless treasure….but I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning:
Sunday, June 9—After brunch, we do some sightseeing in Munich—a walking tour to Marienplatz including the English Garden, Isar River, St. Peter’s, Munich Museum and more.
And then SLEEP after 30 hours without!
Monday, June 10—We visited and hiked around Kloster Benedicktbeuren, the Basilica of St. Benedict, an abbey church built in the 1680s. The monastery, consecrated by St. Boniface, was founded in 725. In 1973, the former abbey church and now a parish church, was proclaimed a basilica minor. Beneath the main altar is an arm relic of St. Benedict, gifted by Charlemagne around 800, making it the third most significant place of Benedictine pilgrimage (other sites include Montecassino and St. Benoit-sur-Loire.)
And then beer!
Tuesday, June 11—Visited Aunt Heidi in Neuburg. We had Indian food at a restaurant, had a tour through the old town, went to the cemetery to see my Uncle Joe’s grave, and then relaxed on Heidi’s patio with coffee and cake. We shared memories from my last trip, got caught up on family goings-on, talked about the current political environment in the U.S. and around the world and about Joe’s last days, his experience serving in Vietnam, and how he remained interested in and with strong opinions about American politics.
The evening was a trip down memory lane going through old family photos, Joe’s high school yearbook, looking at school, Air Force and wartime memorabilia, and filling in the gaps of family history that one or the other of us did not know. We have so much we can learn from each other simply because our parents were siblings, but also because of the influence of very different cultural and educational environments. It is an evening I will cherish forever.
Wednesday, June 12—Today I am off to visit Jennifer and Santhosh in Tamm via Stuttgart for a few days. On the 2 ½ hour train ride, I continue to read The Soul of a Pilgrim. “One of the great gifs of travel is how it makes me focus on the things I choose to carry with me. Heavy baggage becomes a burden. The pilgrim doesn’t want to be weighed down…she seeks to carry only what is essential.”
This strikes me because I have reduced what I carry on the train from my large suitcase to a backpack with just the necessary clothes and toiletries needed for a few days…and since I’ve arrived I realize there are quite a few things in the big suitcase that I will carry around for two and half more weeks, that I will likely not use—such a metaphor for all that is carried that can be left behind or let go of.
Paintner asks, “As part of your pilgrimage, what are the things you want to carry with you and what are the things (both tangible and intangible) you can lay down for the season ahead?” I reflect on what needs to be released, specifically for this pilgrimage—anxiety from uncertainty and the desire for comfort and familiarity. This trip I have more confidence, the train station is familiar, so I have less anxiety or concern that I will get lost (like the last time when I accidentally boarded a bus instead of the train.) This preparedness and experience lead me to have more trust.
“Books can have a shadow side. They may lead us to believe that we need more information so we can feel complete,” Painter writes. I brought two books with me—one fiction and The Soul of a Pilgrim, but I am feeling that I do not want to put a story in my head other than the one I’m living. Just being silent and observing on the train is good. Conversation is not desired.
Jennifer and Santhosh, with a beautiful rose in hand, greet me at the train station. After an introduction to Stuttgart, we head to Tamm, a village just a few train stops away. Tamm is a smaller community with enchanting homes and streets, lots of nature and hiking trails. We head off on a hike to Hohenasperg, an ancient fortress and prison overlooking the town of Asperg. “It will take just 20 minutes or so,” Jennifer said. After an ambitious hike up a very steep hill, lots of sightseeing and a glass of wine, about two hours had passed. This is Jennifer!! She is the inspiration of one of my first SoulFully You blog posts, Sweat is Good, from my trip five years ago. The views from atop the hill (or small mountain) were amazing.
Just like my husband is the best cook in our house, the same goes for the guys here. Both Jefferey and Santhosh are culinary connoisseurs. Santhosh, who has lived most of his life in India, is a talented artist with both paint and food! He prepared dahl curry with a minimum of 25 ingredients—the best Indian food I’ve ever had for dinner!
Thursday, June 13—We visited Ludwigsburg Residence Palace and Garden, just a few towns away. We had an amazing day photographing and smelling every rose imaginable followed by a guided tour of the Palace. And, later in the evening, more delicious Indian food.
Friday, June 14—Today, I will take the train back to Munich in the late afternoon. Santhosh surprises me with a gift of one of his original watercolors. We titled it “The Song of Nature” by Santhosh B. Shivan—a special man, artist, and gift.
Jennifer, Santhosh and I do a little sightseeing first in Tamm and then near the train station in Stuttgart.
We walked down the same street we had a few days ago and passed by a church, the Domkirche St. Eberhard, when Jennifer abruptly stopped. “Do you want to go in there? It’s a very spiritual place,” she said. Santhosh agreed, saying that he had spent two hours there one afternoon.
It’s a small world!! While looking around the church, a gentleman starts talking to Jennifer. This is typical for Jennifer, to create conversation and make friends easily, but it turned out the man recognized Jennifer, Santhosh and me from photos I had shared of our travels! He and I had become acquainted on Facebook as Benedictine oblates (he rarely uses his photo so I hadn’t recognized him.) “Damian” introduced himself as an oblate of Ottobeuren in Germany!! We talked for some time, so enthusiastically we got the evil eye from people in the church and needed to move our conversation outside. What are the odds? Just the right time and place for a serendipitous meeting!! It was a delightful way to end the time with Jennifer and Santhosh, astonished with this miraculous encounter.
On the train ride back, I dive into my book once more. Paintner writes, “Anytime we have a desert experience in our lives, something is stripped away. It may be loss of possessions, loss of identity, or loss of a loved one. We are meant to feel grief over these events and to fully experience the pain that comes in these moments. This stripping away forces us to return to the essence of things. We are thrust into the arms of what is most sacred to us.”
This resonates with me—so much has changed in the past five years since my last trip, many changed relationships. I am all too aware that when we are stripped down to (what feels like) nothing or are confronted face-to-face with a reality that we had not envisioned, we experience grief. When we lose a cherished connection, or experience rejection, there is grief. But with time and surrender, joy comes in to fill up where loss has taken too much space. A loss, or the grief of loss, never goes away, but there is less time spent worrying about what was, less space for what feels absent. Instead, there is more space open to what blessings come forth.
For me, this pilgrimage with my cousins is that blessing, a new connection with family. It fills me with joy where the residue of grief was holding fast.
Saturday, June 15—One last day is spent in Munich after saying goodbye to Jennifer and Santhosh. Jefferey, Sabine and I visit the Marienplatz, Odeonsplatz, Residence, Frauenkirche and attend the celebration for Munich’s 861st birthday and the St. Benno(fest). We also enjoy the Bavarian specialty, weißwurst, white sausage as a final culinary farewell, and, of course, conversation that lasts late into the night.
(All quotes in italics from The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Christine Valters Paintner)