German party sparks travelers’ feelings of home

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 10:53 p.m.
Old friends Ellery Alhaus (left) and Arne Gloe (right) say goodbye after Gloe led the cyclists out of Hamburg on bicycle.  LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Old friends Ellery Alhaus (left) and Arne Gloe (right) say goodbye after Gloe led the cyclists out of Hamburg on bicycle. LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Anke Gloe (pictured above) sits amidst her closest family and friends who tell stories and make toasts throughout the evening. Amidst both tears and laughter, she prepares to move out of her home, a lengthy process just as difficult as preparing for a long trip.  LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Anke Gloe (pictured above) sits amidst her closest family and friends who tell stories and make toasts throughout the evening. Amidst both tears and laughter, she prepares to move out of her home, a lengthy process just as difficult as preparing for a long trip. LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Several women at the party don paper cup hats. After traveling extensively, and meeting so many different people, the world seems like a nicer place after all. LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Several women at the party don paper cup hats. After traveling extensively, and meeting so many different people, the world seems like a nicer place after all. LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Neighbors and friends sing songs to commemorate the end of an era as the mother of one German family moves out of the old family home after 35 years. The singers hold vegetables in their hands. At the end of each chorus, one singer places a vegetable in a large pot meant for making soups. The act symbolizes all of the memories, not just material items, that the family will bring with them when they leave.  LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO
Neighbors and friends sing songs to commemorate the end of an era as the mother of one German family moves out of the old family home after 35 years. The singers hold vegetables in their hands. At the end of each chorus, one singer places a vegetable in a large pot meant for making soups. The act symbolizes all of the memories, not just material items, that the family will bring with them when they leave. LEVI BRIDGES PHOTO

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

A jovial crowd of Germans stands before me singing in a large dining room. The rich tones of their voices fill the spacious room with song. An older woman sits in a chair between the singers. She smiles so brightly that she positively beams.

From the Pacific coast of Asia, we have traveled 7,500 miles to Western Europe. My riding partner Ellery and I are currently cycling around the Alps through the flat lands of northern Germany. After six days of riding, we reached the city of Hamburg. There, Ellery has a very good German friend named Arne who he met during college while studying for a semester in South Africa.

For several days, Arne has graciously invited us into his apartment where we enjoyed the rare luxury of having a kitchen to cook in and place to do laundry for free.

That night we have taken a train outside of Hamburg to the small town where Arne grew up. His mother Anke meets us at the train station. With her two children long since moved out, Anke is selling the old family home and moving into a smaller apartment across town. This evening, she has invited friends and family to the old house for a big goodbye party.

When we arrive at Arne’s house, a lively group of family and friends has already assembled inside. Merriment is in the air and the din of excited conversation and laughter can be heard outside in the driveway. Entering the house, a jubilant old woman offers us a hearty bowl of beef stew and a beer.

Anke’s house is a beautiful old home with high ceilings and warm hardwood floors. Much of the furniture, appliances, and small decorative objects that give identity to a home have already been moved out into the new apartment. The house might seem stripped of its character, but the sound of close friends socializing fills it with that intimate “lived in” feeling that takes decades to create.

After several hours, singing begins in the dining room. Ellery and I enter to see what is happening and find a beaming Anke sitting in a chair in the room’s center. Friends and family encircling her hold sheet music and sing. Throughout the evening, I have curiously observed quirky Germans running around holding carrots, cucumbers, broccoli and other vegetables. I now see that these vegetable-bearing folk are singers. They hold their vegetables while singing, and, after each verse, one singer steps forth and places a vegetable in a large soup pot next to Anke with a comic air.

Ellery and I sway back and forth with the Germans who periodically erupt into laughter. After several verses, we join in humming the chorus with the others. Because neither Ellery nor I speak German, the significance of the song and its humor are lost to us.

“The soup is like a symbol,” Arne explains after the song ends, “the vegetables in the soup pot represent the meaningful moments and memories we carry with us when we move away.”

For the past seven months, I have lived like a nomad and carried my home on a bicycle. Only recently have I felt the first pangs of desiring to stop moving each day, live in one place and sleep in the same bed each night. When I look around Anke’s house, I realize how special it is to have a home.

In a sense, travelers are homeless creatures. And memories of the places we briefly inhabit are often carried simply as images in cameras. Watching Anke move about her house, I see vividly how our connection with the places we live in is more intimate and meaningful than with places we just pass through. We carry our memories of places where we lived internally. They float in our heads like vegetables in a warm stew.

Nevertheless, it is possible there are some things about the world which only a nomad can believe.

After the singing, Ellery and I talk with some younger Germans who speak English. They are eager to hear about our trip.

“So you really rode a bicycle across Siberia?” They ask. “Were the people all right? Did you get robbed?”

“The people were amazing,” I respond. “Very friendly and helpful.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have expected that,” they say, “I would imagine that you would have met thieves.”

People almost always voice concerns about robbers when they imagine riding a bicycle across Russia. I have trouble comprehending why now.

Across thousands of miles, we have met countless wonderful people who have helped, fed and invited us into their homes. When traveling, we throw ourselves into many hypothetically dangerous situations. But over time, traveling has taught me an important truth: that people are generally good. After months on the road and putting yourself in harm’s way, one soon sees that robbers and ax murderers are a minority. The earth is populated with good well-intentioned people.

That night I am surer of this than ever. As the party winds down, the crowd moves into the kitchen. There Anke and several old women have taken paper plates and wear them as hats. They dance around the room placing the silly hats on each guest’s head. We form a massive conga line and parade through the entire house singing and saying goodbye to each room.

“Thank you for inviting me into your beautiful home,” I tell Anke the next morning hoping she can understand a tiny bit of English.

After traveling for so long, I find myself tiring of dirty clothes and dreaming of stopping and one day making my own home somewhere. But for the meantime, my experiences with people along the way inspire me to continue.

They also remind me of the important things I have learned while traveling: that folks everywhere like to have fun and the earth is made of many kind and amazing people. When I begin to create a home one day, those are the vegetables I will bring in my soup.

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