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Italian city cycling

As this research attests, bicyclists make better motorists than non-cyclists. That doesn’t surprise me. A lack of attention going at 15 mph can result in serious injury or death, so cyclists are at least more observant.

Attention is mandatory in Italy, from which I just returned, and there was a difference between drivers in the north and those in the south.20180919_175226

In Milan there seems to be a widely understood pecking order. Pedestrians are at the top. If motorists see you on the curb waiting to cross, they will stop. That differs from American drivers who seem to claim the right of way if you are not in the crosswalk; if they think they have a good chance of beating you to the open space, they will not yield. But what’s more astounding is that Italian motorists don’t seem upset about it. I saw no road rage in Milan.

Cyclists are next. Again, motorists yield to them patiently, though I could appreciate it if they were perturbed. While only one of all the cyclists I saw on the street ran a stop light, they read their cell phones while riding in the middle of downtown traffic. This 20180919_175601was true of all manner and ages of bike riders. Rather than take the middle of the lane, they tend to ride closer to the curb than I’d feel comfortable doing. But again, motorists seem tolerant and don’t pass unless it’s safe to do so.

Next in the pecking order are motor scooter drivers. They are insane, weaving in and out of traffic, often commandeering the lane going in the opposite direction. But again, I never saw a motorist get upset.

20180920_185713But I learned from a tour guide in Naples that scooter drivers pay dearly for the privilege. Insurance rates are high and about the same as they are for cars, according to the guide. And she confirmed what we witnessed: The rules are different in the southern part of Italy.

In Naples, pedestrians cross a street at their peril. Scooters are even more aggressive than in Milan. But again, motorists seem unfazed by them. I asked a taxi driver about it and he shrugged it off, saying they’re crazy but he seemed to carry no ill will.

This is just one guy’s reading of the traffic culture there. I couldn’t readily find statistics on accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians in those two cities.

20180919_174829Why are so many American motorists intolerant of cyclists and walkers? I don’t know the answer, but I have one theory. Americans take “individual liberty” to mean they are always first in the pecking order. Others be damned. We have lost the idea that we’re all in this together. And the idea that we should yield to anyone for any reason has been pretty much tossed in the trash bin.

The village on a hill

I had plenty of time to anticipate this day. The Italy trip with my brother Paul and wife Karla included first a few days in Milan, a week in the Lake Como region, and then a few days in Le Cinque Terra.

And then there was the seven-hour drive on October 2, 2018. We followed along the Adriatic coast and then turned inland toward the Molise region. Our destination was the village of Castelmauro signCastelmauro. We began to climb, more than I expected. And the roads in the final 10 kilometers were rough, including a couple of washed out sections. They were barely wide enough for two cars, but it didn’t matter as we had them to ourselves.

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Castelmauro, Italy, where my grandparents and generations of my maternal family have lived

At 6 p.m. we entered the 2300 ft. high town and immediately were taken with its medieval charm. I still have not found much history of Castelmauro, but I know it dates to the 11th century. As recently as the 1970s, its population was more than 6,000. Today, barely 1,000 people live there. But I wasn’t looking for its attractions or its history. I was searching for my own history.

A minute or two into the town, I saw a young woman walking who looked like Federica Mancini, the woman we had hired as our interpreter. “Federica? I asked. She was a bit startled, then said, “No. But I call her. She is my cousin.”

I had done as much online homework as I could. I had also sent about 30 letters to various Italians named Petta or Petti in the region, as there was always a mystery as to my grandparents’ surnames. They were similar but changed according to the census taker or forms they filed throughout their lives. Petta, Petti, Pitto, Pitti. (My grandparents Anglicized the name to Patti in the 1930s.)

I didn’t receive any response to my letters to the six Castelmauro Pettas, so with the help of an Italian speaking wine distributor in St. Pete named Andy Mezzari, I began calling them. At the home of Leonardo Petta, his daughter Rosaria answered. She had read the letter and was pretty sure we weren’t related. But she offered to help me find my family. Shortly before our trip, she sent me the birth records from the village archives for my grandparents Pasquale and Maria. They were both named Petta, answering the mystery.  (They were cousins, according to family rumors.) Rosaria also led us to Federica.

That evening we checked into our hotel, the Parc delle Stelle, a modern place a kilometer outside of town on a hill. It seemed out of place in this ancient town, but I learned the owners, with the land already in the family and experience running a trattoria, decided to open the hotel more as a wedding center than a hotel for the few Castelmauro tourists. We were the only guests, and the owner spoke English. I had also sent her an email asking if anyone on her staff might be a Petta. It turned out that, unless there is an event, they are the innkeepers, cooks, maids, etc. But she said I might be related to the Petta who runs the local gas station.

The next morning we met Federica and went to the municipio and met Giuseppi Petroniro (We may be related–my great grandmother was a Petroniro) who the mayor had assigned to help us find our relatives. He showed us not only our grandparents’ records, but the birth record for my grandmother’s father, Luigi Petta. He also identified another of Pasquale’s siblings I did not know about, Vincenzo. That would turn out to be a key piece of information.

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The original city wall of Castelmauro, a village that dates to the 11th century.

Federica was a godsend. Not only was her English good, but she seemed to know everyone in town and had their contact info. on her phone. After a walking tour that included the streets where my grandparents were born, we visited Antonietta Petta who was in her 80s but not related to us. Still, as Federica told her of our quest for our roots, she began to cry. Family is important to her. I wish she were part of mine.IMG_2925

(I learned on this trip that Italian women do not take the name of their husbands, though the children of the marriage, of course, do.)

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Both Italian and an ancient Croat language is spoken in Acquaviva Collecroce

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A street in Acquaviva Collecroce

We then went to the nearby village of Acquaviva Collecroce where my grandmother’s mother was born. Both Italian and an old Croat language are spoken there. When the Turks invaded Croatia, many fled across the Adriatic Sea and settled in Acquaviva. My grandmother once told me she spoke a little “Slavic,” obviously learning it from her mother, Aurora Mattiaccio. Federica knew someone in the town who had lived as a boy in Australia, a country with its own history of Italian immigrants. Rino spoke all three languages, was a history buff and loved researching families. He took us to the town office where a man working on what seemed to be a computer as old as the town found records for Aurora. Those records provided leads that Rino followed to trace that side of the family back another three generations!

It was now time to visit Maria Felicia at her gas station. We arrived at about 2:00 and still hadn’t had lunch. At the station café we had some pizza and beers, over which we explored the connection. She said her grandfather was Vincent, the brother I never knew my grandfather had until that morning. But she wasn’t sure we were related because she didn’t know any of Vincent’s siblings. Her daughter then said, “Let’s call Raffaele,” Maria Felicia’s 89-year old uncle living in Germany.

He said Maria Felicia and I couldn’t be related because Vincenzo only had three siblings, none of whom were Pasquale. But I pushed back, confident in the records I found and explained why Raffaele, born in 1929, might not know Pasquale and all eight of his brothers and sisters. The first two girls, born in the 1880s, died as infants, and Antonio and my grandfather left for America long before Raffaele was born. And not only did I find online records for my grandfather’s family, Rino pointed me to a website where I could find images of the actual handwritten birth records.

IMG_1338Federica translated the histories we told one another, I with my English and Mary Felicia and her daughters Serena and Monica with their Italian, wonderfully accented with all manner of hand waving. I think if Monica accidentally hit someone while talking, she’d exact serious damage. Serena then left to get Maria, one of Maria Felicia’s cousins. She joined the animated conversation and charades. They were still unsure, given Raffaele’s recollection, but I would have none it. “We’re related,” I said. “I want us to be.” So did they.

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From left my 2nd cousin, once removed, Monica Petta, her father, Maria Felicia, my second cousin, Karla, me, Maria Petta, another second cousin, Paul, Serena Petta, Monica’s sister.

We took pictures and I promised to send more information and pictures of the Pettas in America, though none of my relatives use the name. For some reason, some changed the name to Petti and, as I said, my mother’s family became Patti. I’ll also send digital images of the records that have been on a shelf for a century and a half just off the town square.

We had a little time left to visit Rosaria and her parents. They graciously offered us food before our drive to Naples, and we told them of what we learned. Again, more pictures. More cheek kisses. More smiles.

But not enough. I’m ready to go home again.

Left, Right, Center

Tom Edsall’s recent column, as always, is well researched and thoughtful but reinforces the idea that the Democrats must choose between “liberal” or “moderate” candidates. I disagree. The copy editor also chose a poor headline: “Should Democrats Embrace the Center or Abandon It?”

The problem is first, the definition: What is a liberal Democrat and what is a moderate one? Put another way, what is a centrist?

One Democrat supports abortion but with late-term restrictions, background gun checks but not an assault weapons ban. She also supports the Dreamers and a $15 minimum wage. Another supports unfettered abortion, a ban on all but long guns for hunting, a stricter immigration policy but no minimum wage increase. Which is the centrist? Can you vote for both or neither?

Edsall falls into the trap many do: He wants a clear battle of black vs. white, or in this case liberal vs. moderate. But Democrats need to escape this straight jacket. I happen to support a ban on high magazine semi-automatic guns. I support a woman’s right to choose. I support the Dreamers. I support transgender rights. But I can support a Democrat who is willing to raise taxes, consider dramatic changes in tax laws that engender a more level economic playing field and believes that healthcare costs must be dramatically reduced—even if that candidate doesn’t support a semi-automatic weapon ban, believes there should be some restrictions on late-term abortions, supports tighter immigration enforcement and believes transgenders should use a gender neutral bathroom.

That’s because for me, the most important issue in this country is the economic stagnation of the middle class and income inequality. And I think many Trump voters would agree. Offering solutions to the economic question has a great chance of minimizing the importance of many social issues with enough voters to provide Democrats with a comfortable margin of victory and a solid grasp on both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and in many cases, state governments, too.

Naysayers will argue that voters vote emotion, not financial interests. The failure you feel when you can’t send your kids to college is an emotion. The fear you won’t have enough for your old age is an emotion. Your despair that you can’t feed your kids is an emotion.

The challenge is encapsulating those messages for the rallies, fleshing out plans on candidate websites, and tying the costs with a direct source of income. Speak boldly, confidently, measuredly. Candidates also have to restore in voters the faith that government can help them. That may be the biggest challenge of all.

Regarding Coner Lamb’s recent win in a conservative Pennsylvania House district election, Edsall states, “Among Lamb’s constituents, cultural liberalism is, consequently, a liability — even fatal, electorally speaking.” Funny, Trump’s immoralism was not a problem for white evangelicals because they thought he would shake up things and represent their economic interests. Remember during the campaign, Trump was not clearly anti-abortion or anti-gay and he was clearly immoral.

Edsall also makes a statement that begs explanation: “Insofar as Democrats place a higher priority on purity than viability, they may be risking an indeterminate extension of the Trump era.” Really? And even if that were true, does that mean electoral defeat? It seems that the GOP has had tremendous electoral success by emphasizing purity over viability, too. It has now caused them governing problems, but not voting problems.

Democrats do need a big tent but not no tent. The congressional primary in Illinois pitted a renegade endorsed by several liberal groups against the incumbent Dan Lipinski. He apparently opposes abortion, marriage equality and Obamacare. The question I have is, what makes him a Democrat? If it is an aggressive economic reform agenda and I was in his district, I might need to calculate how successful he might be in thwarting Democrats on abortion, equality and healthcare vs. how likely a more liberal candidate can win the district. And in the general election, am I willing to allow the election of someone who opposes all that I support?

In Nebraska, the former Democratic congressman running for a House seat, Brad Ashford, “is to the right of many in the Democratic Party on abortion. He backs abortion rights but has said he’s open to some restrictions late in pregnancy.”

How many Democrats support abortion with no restrictions? What if in the future a test can reveal the color of a child’s eyes. Would they support a woman who wants to abort a child a week before it is due because she learned the child’s eyes were brown and not blue?

Meanwhile, according to the same Politico article, “progressives are taking solace in forcing Lipinski to the left on several issues, including immigration and the minimum wage.” Progressives, that’s progress!

Lamb says he’s personally opposed to abortion, but wants it to remain legal. That’s all we can ask. We’re electing him to be a legislator, not our pastor. He also clearly supports economic populist ideas that progressives want.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, “The president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, summed up the reasons why white people were about to vote for a Democrat here, hailing Lamb as ‘a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.’” I’ll take four out of six. (I don’t care about his fearing God.)

In think Jonathan Chait sums it up nicely in a New York Magazine article, “Republicans have used ethnonationalist themes for decades to sell voters on an unpopular economic agenda: Election messaging is all American flags, crime, and being tough on terrorism, while the policy agenda is about lax business regulation and regressive tax-cutting.

“This disconnect between politics and policy is Republicans’ weakest point. Their strategy can be hacked.”

Tim Ryan, who ran against Nancy Pelosi for speaker last year, may be trying to justify an overall move to the center by Democrats, but he’ right when he says in The Rolling Stone article, “that Lamb ‘embodies to me what the next iteration of the Democratic Party is going to look like. Veterans, working class, really representing people who are underemployed, who were maybe making some decent money 10-15 years ago but aren’t now.’” There are a lot non-veterans, upper middle class, economically secure voters who can get behind that message.

I am not trying to make the argument that  Dems need to be more “moderate” or “move to the center.” I think the message is more one of emphasis, not an either/or. I support abortion rights, gay rights, better race relations, immigrants, gun control and a higher minimum wage. But if I were a candidate that’s not what I’d lead with. The greatest challenge this country faces is income inequality. Once we fix that, some of those other issues become irrelevant in an election. Not for all voters, for sure, but enough to give the Democrats the chance to change this country for the better. I think that will also give more of those value voters a reason to have a conversation about their issues and compromise.

Who you calling a scaredy-cat?

20170914_184941Don’t let the photo fool you. I had the hard job.

My friend Greg just wanted to ride his bike in the mountains for the week. But when he saw Karla and I arguing about whether the TV antenna had to go on the roof, he forcefully stepped in. She was convinced we didn’t need to and didn’t want me up on the roof. I’d like to think it was because she loved me so much that she could bear the thought of anything happening to me. But Greg and I finally convinced her that on the roof was the only place we’d get good reception.

And yes, in what our president and most of his supporters would describe as the greatest country in the world, our infrastructure is so bad that a half million-dollar home in an affluent town has few options for television service. The one available is satellite but it’s costly and not efficient when you only live here part-time. There is no cable and the only internet service is 1.5Mbps download DSL. On par with dial-up. No cable and the alternative microwave service is limited by tower space, which is currently full and not signing up new customers.

So we are on the roof installing an antenna to get the major channels to supplement HBO, Netflix and other services we subscribe to. We just have to realize that with 1.5mbps download speeds, streaming a movie is a solitary affair. No multi-tasking allowed.

We’ll “we” are not on the roof, but Karla and Greg are. But like I said, I have the hard job of running the automatic channel scanning function on the TV to see what stations I get as they re-positioned the antenna. Back and forth I went scanning and re-scanning. It took a minute or two for each scan while those two just sat there on the roof waiting for my report, doing nothing.

As you can see, Greg apparently has no problems with height, as he leans over the edge to attach the cable to the soffit. And Karla is connecting the antenna. We literally had hand-to-hand combat to see who would get on the roof. She beat me. OK, I let her beat me. Heights are not my thing.

When we visited the Vatican years ago, we took the kids to the cupola atop St. Peters. They admired the view while I clung to the back wall as my shins sweated. Yes, shins can sweat all by themselves. All it takes is an intense fear of falling off the edge of anything more than six feet off the ground.

When we lived in Virginia, cleaning the gutters was a joint effort. I held the ladder and Karla climbed up to clean them out. The ones on the front of the house were hardest. They weren’t any higher or more difficult to get to, but they were in full view of the street where neighbors marveled at either my ability to get my wife to do the hard work or my cowardice. I think I know which.

Once in awhile I was brave, as when I installed Christmas lights on the upstairs dormers. They were high above terra firmer, maybe as much as 10 feet! The roof was steep, so I would lay the ladder along rooftop and gingerly climb it. It was like crossing the Grand Canyon on a rope bridge. I dare not look down, knowing that I would not likely survive the fall. I would die of a heart attack at the mere sight of the ground.

So here we are, my friend and my wife on the roof, while I hit “set up,” “antenna,” “channel scan,” “start.” It was tough work, but someone had to do it.

Our first bike trip and a visit “home”

If this piece becomes incoherent, I’ll blame it on fatigue. Today will likely be a 24-hour endurance trek. Up before 6 a.m. in Vienna, we fly to Frankfurt. After a two-and-a-half hour layover, we head for Denver. A two-hour train ride from the airport, another 20-minute drive home and our bodies will think it’s 2 a.m.

Fatigue is the recurring theme of this two-week vacation. Neither Karla, Paul or I slept well on the flight over. I hesitated to take Ambien and regretted it. But we muddled through the day and then slept 10 hours that night. Three days walking about Prague and a six-plus hour car trip to my ancestral home, six days biking in Czechia, Germany and Austria and another two days exploring Vienna has left us exhausted but wiser.

It seems that we yearn to “sleep in our own bed” not because we tire of the new experiences and exotic sites but that we cram them into every day. Next time, we’ve vowed to build in a few down days. We’ll sleep late, linger at cafes, take naps and eat light.

And no standing. That is most exhausting to me. My back and legs ache. After the walking tour of the Schünbrunn Palace, I knelt in front of a bench, lay my torso on the seat, and had Karla apply pressure to the back of my shoulder. I was a spectacle to passing tourists. A couple even offered help or inquired if I was OK.  I can bike all day, am OK walking, but can’t stand to stand.

Prague could never live up to my expectations but it’s beautiful with friendly people and most important, cheap beer. A full liter stein is less than $4. The Vltava River runs through the town crossed by many bridges. Fortunately, we were a mile or so south of the famous Charles Bridge. On one side is the tourist center of the town and the nearby old Jewish Center. Crowded and noisy, I’d never stay there.

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Paul and I with a fourth and third cousin in the home town of our great great great grandfather.

The trip to Wiehe, Germany, where we suspected our great great grandfather John was born was the highlight of this first portion of the trip. I’ve written more about it here: http://bit.ly/Wiehe.

The German highways are not unregulated race courses. But the drivers do not suffer fools, which are those who linger in the left lane. The max speed limit I saw was 130 kph, though many drivers exceeded that by 20-30 kph when passing. If you are in the left lane they will tailgate at a distance of a few feet until you move over, which happened to me when I was passing someone but at a much slower speed than the car that suddenly appeared from behind. Everyone does pull over. No one stays in the left lane. If only American drivers were so considerate.

Throughout our trip, drivers seemed far better than Americans. They drove fast, even in the city. But if you so much as approached a designated crosswalk, they will stop on a dime. Fines for not doing so can reach hundreds of Euros or Czech crowns. Motorists, walkers and the many cyclists seem to co-exist well. Pedestrians and bike riders alike patiently wait for the crossing signals

Prague’s buildings, spared bombing during World War II, are beautiful though many are defaced with graffiti. I heard no complaints about that, though it’s prevalent. We couldn’t tell if it was gang-related, though everyone assured us that the city is safe. Many of the streets are cobblestones with unusually wide seams between them that seemed to be regularly cleaned out. No dirt or debris built up between the stones. The seams were a half-inch wide and at least that deep. Almost all the sidewalks were mosaics of smaller stones about 2-inch square, sometimes aligned in intricate patterns and almost always with a clear delineation by stone pattern of street from sidewalk.

The tourist highlights were the palace and the Jewish quarters tour. The former is now a blur. I can’t seem to remember the particulars of opulence and its occupants. The Jewish quarters was another matter. The Jews suffered the usual oppression in Czechia for centuries. Walled in, the could not live elsewhere and had to wear yellow hats when they ventured outside the ghetto. In the early part of the 20th century (I believe), the entire neighborhood was razed, but not before one guy built a complete model of it. We visited four synagogues, one of which I think is the oldest operating one in the world.

The bike trip itself was not ideal, but we had a great time. We had one day of a steady rain that cut short the ride considerably. The day before was also a bit wet. And it was not a week of hard riding. I rode ahead a couple of times to get in 5-10 kilometers at a decent pace, but the rest of the time I smelled the daisies with the rest of the group. And that was OK. Virtually all the rides were on bike paths and the scenery was gorgeous. We covered no more than 35 miles in a day with two rest stops and a lunch. But it could have gone south. See: http://bit.ly/Kebike.

More important, it was a great group of people. All were Americans, all in their 60’s, save one older couple and a daughter traveling with her mother. Vermont Bike Tours seems to be a class act. The 4-star hotels and places where we ate as a group were well appointed and good food. The tour guides were very professional and shepherded us without hovering. We spent two nights each in Czeny Krumlov in Czechia, Passau in Germany and the Wachau Valley in Austria. Each town was picturesque and easy to navigate. We met at least one couple, from Houston, who I think we’ll see again as his father lives in Bradenton.

Two days in Vienna was plenty. Nice town with a rich history but lacks charm. Unlike Prague, it suffered heavy bombing in WWII.

Key to this trip was learning we could vacation for two weeks comfortably. We’ll probably try a longer trip in the future. Maybe cycling will be part of it. I think Karla’s experience with an e-bike may mean we can do something a little more challenging next time. But I’m OK with what we had.

I still think a month in Tuscany or Provence or somewhere in Bavaria with day trips, perhaps again to Wiehe and certainly to central Italy where my mother’s family is from, is a definite goal. But with plenty of down time.

 

 

Getting “chicked” by your wife

This bike trip from Prague to Vienna was not without risk, especially to my marriage.

Karla agreed to give it a try and even became enthusiastic as the departure approached. We picked one that was supposed to be easy. In St. Pete, we ride to restaurants, theatres and museums on our bikes, where it is pancake flat. And she had ridden a 20-mile ride with my bike club. She wasn’t worried.

Unfortunately, we went to Colorado in early July, and Karla was not about to ride in the mountains. So she did not, as the Vermont Bicycle Tour folks recommended, “train.” But that 20-mile ride convinced her she could handle this. Karla never lacks confidence, no matter how misplaced it occasionally may seem.

When we signed up for the trip, Karla declined the offer of an electric bike. My brother Paul, however, grabbed one as he had suffered a knee injury after we registered for the trip. They told him it would be much easier to switch to a regular bike from the e-bike rather than vice versa, as there was a limited supply.

The first day we rode just 8 miles to test the bikes and determine any needed fit adjustments. The route had one hill. Karla had to walk it. Paul motored up fine. But she didn’t panic; this was an “easy” biking vacation.

That night we were talking about the trip with some of our fellow travelers, and one of them mentioned that the trip was actually rated “easy to moderate.” Karla looked at me with a sightrly piqued expression. “You didn’t say anything about ‘moderate.’”

Yesterday, Karla walked up a couple of hills. The fine line between a challenge and a disaster might be breached. I tried pushing her up the hills, and I always stayed with her. Misrepresenting the ride was one thing. “Abandonment” would have found its way into the divorce papers.

One of guides, Peter, had mentioned earlier in the trip that there was an extra e-bike on the trailer. At lunch he suggested to Karla she might want to try it for the afternoon ride. Paul was loving his. After a couple of hills, Karla did not hesitate to accept the offer.

It took less than 60 seconds for her to realize this was a game changer. She had a big smile on her face. Early in the afternoon ride, I rode ahead to shoot a quick video of her and Paul coming down a hill. There they came. The two smiling e-bikers. After shooting the video clip, I mounted my bike to catch them.

I pedal. I pedaled harder. I hammered as best I could. They were nowhere in sight, I’m sure they were still smiling.

Finally, after a mile or two, I caught them. How quickly they forget. The thought of easing up for me never occurred to Karla.

Today, the e-bike proved invaluable but not just because of hills. It was 20 degrees cooler with a steady drizzle. We took a train to what proved to be, despite the weather, a beautiful national forest near the border of the Czech Republic – or as it is more recently known, Czechia, and Germany. We put on our layers and rain jackets. Fortunately, the guides had installed fenders on the road bikes, which meant that our backs didn’t get any wetter, if that was possible.

Karla and I were the last to leave the parking lot. Almost immediately, it started to rain harder. Karla became the mare who knew that she was headed back to the barn. We were on a bike path with only the occasional train track crossing to slow us down. I soon realized I was getting a workout. At the first hill, my heart rate was elevated. I stood on the pedals or downshifted to spin a high cadence—anything to stay close.

We caught a few riders, announced “on the left,” waved them goodbye. A little while later, the next group was in sight. Again, we paid our respects in passing and motored on. Another hill and I was at risk of getting dropped. Karla was sitting upright, pedaling an even cadence and pulling away, but she was not smiling. I dug deep. Fortunately, she had trouble with the map bag and had to stop. I caught her and then began to try to hold her wheel. It rained harder.

We made it to the mid-ride lunch stop. We settled in to what was described as a typical Bavarian beer garden, though obviously we huddled inside. Everyone grabbed a bowl of soup.

After lunch, Philip, the other guide, gave us our options. We could go on the rest of the ride, though he allowed that it was still raining and likely to get harder. And we would be on main roads with lots of traffic. Or we could shuttle to our hotel in Passau, which he described as a picturesque little town with lots of beer gardens. We could take warm showers and maybe a nap. Clearly, he was selling that option hard. We all opted for door number two.

And I avoided the ignominy of getting “chicked” by the broad on the e-bike.

She now wants to buy an e-bike for Colorado and ride with me on the hills. I think she’s getting this “chicked” thing. It’s her revenge for this “moderate” trip.

A trip home

For the past 45 years, I’ve from time to time researched my family’s history, not that it’s historic in any way. And it’s not so much that family roots bind me to something larger. In many ways, it’s about the hunt, the sleuthing to fill in history’s holes. I like the research, the discovery of information, the eureka moment when the past is crystal clear and personal.

It often comes by accident. My brother Rich found a random number on a document and on a hunch plugged it into a patent search engine. Up popped a patent my great great grandfather, John Griendling, received for an adjustable barber chair in the 1870’s. A few years ago another accident led me to an extraordinary yesterday.

Sites like Ancestry.com have made it much easier to conduct genealogical research. They review the original documents and write up the information in a digital record that is easily searched. But the original documents can provide extraordinary insights.

In the early part of the 20th century, census takers had come to the home of John’s daughter. John had immigrated to the U.S. in 1844 with a knapsack and a claim to be a cabinet maker. But Germany is a big place and proved to be a blockade to more research. During censuses of a still immigrant country, the government wanted to know where your parents were from. I had seen on previous censuses “Germany.” But on this particular one, the census taker made a correction that opened the door to yesterday’s extraordinary events.

I can imagine the conversation he had with Leina, my ancestor. “Where was your father from?”

“Wiehe,” she said

“I never heard of that country.”

“It’s a town in Germany.”

“Oh. That’s what I want, the country not the town.”

wiehe street

“Main” street in Wiehe, Germany

So he crossed out Wiehe and wrote in Germany. He didn’t erase it or obliterate it, but put a single line through it. Meaning I could see it on that photographed census sheet. Of course, I immediately looked up Wiehe and found that it was a hamlet in the Saxony area of Germany. I knew John had renounced his allegiance to the King of Saxony to become an American citizen. Was this his hometown?

As Karla and I had always wanted to see Prague, and I had convinced her to try a biking vacation, we selected a Vermont Bicycle Tour itinerary from Prague to Vienna. We spent a few days prior to visit Prague, and since Wiehe was less than four hours away by car, I decided to visit Wiehe.

I wrote the mayor and the head of the tiny historical society of Wiehe. They responded and invited me to visit them when I came to town.

We awoke early yesterday, plugged in Wiehe to the GPS and took a road trip. We got lost where the GPS failed us. We made a stupid decision to go to a McDonald’s on the way. It was on the other side of the road, and we discovered too late that we couldn’t return to the highway in the direction we were headed without backtracking several miles. And then within 5 km, the main road to Wiehe was closed for re-pavement. We had to drive what appeared to be an ox cart trail to come in from the other direction. We arrived about noon.

I had spent a sleepless night worrying about all the things that could go wrong with a once in a lifetime visit for which I only had a few hours to spare. Would we get lost? (Yes.) And when we arrived, would we receive a perfunctory welcome and not much insight into the family’s history?

Frau Dagmar Dittmar, burgermeister for Wiehe, was stout and loud and warm and gracious. But she spoke not a word of English. She got on the phone as we waited in her office and summoned the welcoming party: the town historian; the former pastor of the only church in town; a former English teacher who by her own admission was unqualified for the job—and two Gründlings, a woman of 74 and one of her nieces.

The history chief held in his hands a family tree chart. The former pastor, a long-handwritten piece of paper. They had done their homework. They had a portion of the family tree I was unaware of and a list of Gründlings born from about 1810 to 1854, among them August Gotthold Andreas Gründling, my great great grandfather, born in Wiehe April 29, 1811. (The earliest citing of my ancestor was on the ship manifest where he was referred to as Gotthold; he changed it to John by the 1860 census.) His godfather was another Gründling from Dresden, obviously a relation and now another avenue of investigation.

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The Grundling home in Wiehe, Germany

We spent an hour trying to communicate (the English teacher was right about her qualifications). Google Translate was cumbersome. But the excitement on both sides was palpable. Especially me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

They had obviously worked hard to make our visit productive. Their hospitality, though, was most appreciated. They walked us through the town. The old schoolhouse was now a museum. The church is big but modest, spruced up by plywood facades and painted walls. They took us to 77 Leopold–von-Ranke-Sraβe, the Gründling homestead. They seemed as happy to see us as we were them. They felt honored by our visit. We felt overwhelmed by their warmth. They made it feel like home.

All because of a clerical mistake.

 

 

Pine Lake, Minnesota, 2017

We spouses at family reunions, especially when we‘ve only met the people once some 26 years ago, are often looking around the room for something to distract us from conversations that have no context for us.

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Main St., Palisade, MN

We were in Aitkin, Minnesota, this weekend, commemorating the life of Irja Guinella Howe, nee Trast. She and my wife Karla’s mother Taimi were sisters. Irja outlived all her siblings, as many as a dozen when you count the ones who couldn’t survive the rough childhood on the dairy farm in nearby Palisade, a village then and now of just over 100 people. It was founded by migrating Finns who discovered that the flat terrain with rich soil and mosquitoes as large as starlings was much like their homeland. The entire town was a cooperative, a brand of socialism that they brought with them.

We gathered at Pine Lake, just south of Aitken, where the Howe family with all their cousins and the Leavelle/Trast clan would gather most summers. Taimi, with Karla, her sister Tanya and brother Jimmy, would drive from Dallas to Palisade, visit the grandparents and then settle into the Pine Lake cabin to find entertainment in the pre-digital era.

I listened to the stories, many like those we’ve all experienced with our cousins. When the cousins were young and went to the lake, there was simply too much undeveloped brain power and mischievousness for even a bevy of adults to manage. If no one drowns, all can be forgiven and laughed about decades later.

Karla had her own tales, like walking from the grandparents’ house, which was on the Mississippi River where it’s only about 30 yards wide and knee deep, to town to spend the 50 cents that was burning a hole in her pocket. Sometimes on the way back, the mailman would pull alongside and ask her if she wanted a ride home. He knew where everyone lived in town, even the visiting relatives. Today that act would get him arrested. Then, Karla accepted without hesitation.

Then there was the time Karla developed sharp stomach pains. The local doctor said it might be her appendix. Taimi, a nurse, wasn’t convinced, but said if she was to have them removed, it would be by a doctor at home. So off they went. Taimi drove straight through, a nearly 1,100-mile trip, before the interstate system and without air conditioning. As they crossed the Red River, Taimi commented, “We’ll, we’re in Texas. Almost home.” Karla’s pains ceased. Turned out, being a Daddy’s girl, she was just homesick.

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Karla by the Mississippi River on her grandparents’ farm in Palisade, MN

The old farmhouse and barn were razed long ago. The sauna, a staple of Finnish families, had collapsed. We examined it and took a brick that formed the floor to bring back. The Mississippi looked exactly as it did 60 years ago, Karla said.

As the others traded stories I tried to remember everyone’s name. They came from all over. Irja’s four children settled in Detroit, rural Wisconsin, the west coast of Australia and Ulm, Germany. The German boys live in Germany, Switzerland and Bangkok. And they had children who spoke several languages. You needed a scorecard and Google Translate.

At first on Friday, it was overwhelming. I wondered if they really wanted me there. I was another mouth to feed and a fish out of water they tried valiantly to include and save from boredom. The second generation at least I knew by name and vaguely remembered meeting them all those years ago. They third generation were all kids back then. And they now had children of their own, some of whom didn’t speak English—or more likely pretended not to so they wouldn’t need to talk to silly adults who tried to engage them.

As I listened to Irja’s three boys, Gary, Mike and Dan, and daughter Jenny talk, they had obviously processed their grief about their mom. She had died a year ago, and having lived a century, most of it in good health and indomitable spirit, there was little regret. She had expressed a readiness to join her beloved Clark who had died nearly 30 years ago.

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Pine Lake, south of Aitken, MN

What they were having a tougher time processing was knowing that they would never again see the farmstead in Palisade, as the cousin who had inherited it was now 75 and ready to settle in San Antonio. They would likely never return to Pine Lake. They would never gather along its shores, watch the summer sunset and listen to the loons standing guard.

Saturday began with the memorial service. A couple of family members sang songs, one of which was “Everything Must Change,” a 1974 tune first recorded by Quincy Jones. It seemed fitting. The pastor at the small white clapboard chapel did his best to keep it upbeat with a few well-worn but appreciated jokes. One of the German boys, who had served as both video documentarian of the weekend and the chief cook and bottle washer, presented a video of his grandmother. It was a loving tribute to a woman who loved life and laughed often. The last section featured her speaking, singing and laughing on camera and finally as the group left whatever event he was recording, she looked at the camera, waved, and said, “Auf wiedersehen.”

A few us of went to the nearby cemetery where Clark lay. They had dug a small hole for Irja’s urn. Prayers were said. She was laid to rest and covered with dirt. I’m not religious, but rituals serve their purpose. They validate our journey from dust to dust and comfort those who carbon atoms are still fighting to survive.

We went back to the cabin, and poured whiskey, beer and wine. The sun had a few hours left, but it wouldn’t be enough. This would almost certainly be their last sunset at the lake, or in Minnesota, period.

But they had a plan. They would meet to celebrate milestone birthdays of two of the third generation, number 40 for one and for the oldest of that generation, a 50th. They wouldn’t have Pine Lake. They wouldn’t see the land where their mother’s parents saw Finland. But they would meet where maybe they could plant a flag that would hold a similar special meaning, Rottnest Island off Perth, Australia, where Gary settled and his three daughters live nearby. If that didn’t work, maybe the next year it would be Ulm.

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Pine Lake, south of Aitken, MN

I found myself warmed by this family. I loved seeing how important this place was to them, but also how their time together validated the ties that bind. Karla is part of that family, I’m not, yet I gained much. Before we left, I thanked them and told them how much I enjoyed seeing them bond again.

Not everything must change. Some things will endure.

The day the Garmin died

This just goes to show you. If you observe the golden rule, pay it all forward, and stop beating your wife, good things will happen.

My Garmin died the other day. For those of you unfamiliar with a it, a Garmin cyclocomputer records everything about your bike ride: speed, distance, time, heart rate, power wattage, cadence and all manner of averages and maximums. Without it, you can’t record your ride on Strava, the ride app. (Well, you can, but the phone app provides limited data.) And if it doesn’t appear on Strava, as they say, it didn’t happen.

Saturday morning the screen froze. The problem seemed to be the “enter” button wasn’t working. Which meant I couldn’t even factory reset it. I had to ride without it. Which meant, I couldn’t know whether I was having a good time. Very disconcerting.

Being the weekend, I couldn’t even call Garmin support after the ride. They’re closed. What are those guys thinking? You would think, cyclists being a generally neurotic bunch, they’d have a 24-hour hotline to prevent us from hurting ourselves in these situations.

I stared at the frozen screen. It couldn’t stay that way, I thought. It would certainly drain the battery. By Sunday morning, it did. But the “enter” button did not have that familiar soft click to it. I was able to power it up, though that took hours, leaving me in a distressed state of fear, uncertainty and doubt while it rejuvenated itself. Yet, even after it was fully charged, the “enter” button still didn’t work. So I really couldn’t do much. It was still an expensive paperweight, a light one at that.

On Sunday’s ride, still no data. How much power was I generating? What was my cadence? Was my heart still beating? Same thing this morning. I would occasionally ask they guy riding next to me, “How fast we going?” He was cruel, “Slow,” he said.

Coming back to the house and my paperweight, I tried one more time. I powered it up. I was contemplating opening the back. My technical abilities are minimal. Which is to say, none. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I got the back off. So I tried the enter button one more time.

It worked! The click is back! I could change screens. I could see averages, maximums, wattage, heart beats. I was alive! I took it for a test ride, and it worked flawlessly.

Maybe this is temporary. Maybe it’s just playing with me. But I didn’t do a thing but hope and pray. And my Garmin is back.

Maybe being such a kind and wonderful guy pays dividends. Even my friends assure me that’s not the case. Maybe it was just dumb luck.

Chicken Marsala

Just so you know, I make the best Chicken Marsala. My brother Paul thinks so. And I’m now convinced. I, of course, use mushrooms. And I don’t like mushrooms, though I’m coming around. Just as long as they’re on Chicken (or Veal) Marsala. That’s all you need to know.