My 6 hour visit to Germany’s Insel Föhr, that special little island where my paternal grandparents were born

Posted by Paul Braren on Dec 31 2014 (updated on Nov 12 2015) in
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    I was fortunate enough to be chosen to help with a VMware-related software project in Germany from September 18th to October 18th, 2014. Weekday work at IBM’s European Storage Competence Center (ESCC) in Mainz was challenging and rewarding. On weekends, I was free to roam about the continent, on my own time and dime, mostly in tiny stick-shift rental cars.

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    I drove about 2,200 miles / 3,600 kilometers in all, including a trip up to Insel Föhr, in the North Sea area of Germany, right near the border with Denmark. It was a challenging yet wonderful adventure that included trains (DB goes up to 200mph/321kph), underpowered but efficient automobiles (mostly Autobahn), and even a ferry. For this heritage side-trip, I was all alone, but I used my 5GB prepaid nano-SIM data to tie my family together remotely that sunny Saturday, using a lot of WhatsApp, Skype, and Facetime. Even though we were 6 time zones and 4,000 miles apart, thanks to technology, we felt closer than ever. Even just 3 years ago, this trip would not have been the same.

    It was an honor to be the first in my family to get back to Germany in about 35 years. While everything looked a bit smaller, the 6 hour experience was every bit as magical as that special summer. A brief, direct glimpse back at my childhood, and my ancestors before me. All thanks to lucky timing (a 3 day German holiday weekend), weather (68°F/20°C), and opportunity.

    Here's the story as I told it to my family in an email, with pictures added later. It went out mere hours after I (barely) got myself to and from that special island where my paternal grandparents, Boy and Tilly Braren, were born. Yes, the place my last name Braren is from, with church records dating back hundreds of years.


    October 5, 2014

    Dear [Extended Family Members, including my parents, Carl and Irene Braren]:

    I'm very happy to share the news with you that I was able to get myself to Insel Föhr yesterday, for 6 wonderful hours of site-seeing, and a few magical moments connecting with my ancestors. It wasn't easy getting there, but it was so very worth it.

    Right now, I’m writing this email on my disconnected laptop, sitting in a tiny hotel room in Walsrode, Germany. It’s about an hour south of Hamburg, a stop-over on my way back to Mainz, near Frankfurt. I’m eager to get this email sent while the sights and sounds are fresh in my mind, from just yesterday. It’s admittedly hastily composed, as I race against time, since check-out time is in under an hour, and there’s very poor internet for only one device per visitor, on my cell only. Photo albums will just have to be shared later.

    Wait a minute, you are likely wondering, why am I in Germany in the first place?

    Let's rewind a bit.  Returning from time off from work back in late August, after helping move our youngest off to college, I found a surprising email awaiting me. It was an opportunity to work at IBM's impressive labs in Mainz Germany for a month, on a fully-funded residency, helping with some technical writing about challenging computer stuff. Sign me up! September 18th to Oct 18th, the dates were set. With some convincing, my management approved.

    I immediately reached out to see if anybody in my family could somehow join me, even if just for a portion of month. With only 3 weeks notice. Only my Mom was able to join me, so back on September 18th, it was off to Newark Airport for Bestemom and I, for an overnight Lufthansa flight to Munich, arriving 3 days before I had to report for work.

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    At the top of Germany, Zugspitze is 9,718 feet

    We began with 2 days of incredible landscapes and numerous “the hills are alive” moments. We made it to the very highest peak in Germany, the Zugspitze, and stayed at a very lovely hotel in Leutasch Austria, near Mittenwald Germany. We then headed back right to the heart of Munich, just as Oktoberfest parades were beginning, literally marching right past our hotel room. Wow, the costumes, the music, it all sure brought back memories. We even snuck in trips to an enormous castle, and Hofbrauhaus.

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    Leutasch, Austria

    The most memorable moment was seeing the apartment where the young Braren family lived for 3 years, right in Munich. Well, just Holly and Bobby. That visit to the the early 1960s was Magic Moment #1.

    It was a wonderful time we shared, Bestemom and I. Incredible sights, and fond memories. She can tell the story of those days far better than I. I actually only stayed in Munich for a night, and Bestemom stayed behind for 4 more days, with her iPhone enabled for calls and internet, site-seeing, and visiting museums for free, as a docent. She returned safely last week, right to Bradley Airport, with Bestedad awaiting her return, flowers in hand.

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    This is the backyard view from my Atrium Apartments, Finthen / Mainz, Germany

    As our time together ended, I drove myself up to Mainz alone, back on Sunday, October 21st. What should have been a 4 hour Autobahn joy was more like 6 hours of drenching rain and traffic, but I was ready for work on Monday. Turns out I'm working with a guy from Sweden actually, and another colleague from Chicago, his first time in Europe. He and his wife were so amazed at the photos I had taken from Bavaria and the Alps that they made the same trip that next weekend.

    For me, I knew in the back of my mind that the long trip north to Föhr would be not easily accomplished, if at all. It’s a whopping 940 miles round trip from here in Mainz: goo.gl/maps/W3sW9

    That’s about 9 hours of driving alone, each way. Nevermind the construction.

    My only chance was a long weekend. Luck would have it that last Friday was some sort of German holiday. This last minute surprise meant the opportunity suddenly went through my mind again, as we were dismissed at noon on Friday, October 3rd. So I rushed back to my hotel room, did a quick weather check, and yes, the outlook was 68°F and sunny on Saturday, and miserable on Sunday (today).

    The stars were aligning. I quickly found a hotel online, a little north of Hamburg, and booked it. From there on, I sort of winged it, as far as how to get myself there.

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    Rendsburg, Germany

    I took my Hertz rental car to Frankfurt (stick shift), turned it in, then headed up to Hamburg on the high speed DB train. That's when things starting to go a little sideways on me. Because of the holiday, this meant that Hertz at the Hamburg train station was closed.  So I'd have to get from the train station to Hamburg Airport Hertz desk, to pick-up another car. That wound up taking about 2 hours, for a mere 12 mile journey that involved another train and a cab. Despite Hertz telling me there'd be plenty of cars to choose from, instead, I was blessed with the last one left that late at night:  a huge 8 seat van. It was either that, or sleep in the airport. I chose the huge van. I then finally made it to Rendsburg, shortly after midnight.

    Saturday, I looked into ferry times, and the next one I could reasonably make would be at 10:40am, from Dagebüll. Off I went, about 90 minutes from Rendsburg to the dock. Then things got a little dicey again, as the clerk explained she needed my vehicle’s papers. Of course, no problem, I handed her my

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    The dock at Dagebüll, Germany.

    Hertz rental agreement. She looked them over, then explained what she really needed was the vehicle’s length, in meters. I had no idea. She then got out a little rubber wheel measuring device, and walked the length of my van, with the many vacationer families watching us, from their small cars in the long queue behind me. At this point, I was seriously wondering if I would even be allowed on board. So close, yet so far, with the sight of Föhr in the distance.

    A few minutes later, she explained she'd have to charge me roughly double the going rate, and that I needed to choose my return ferry right then and there, on the same day. Otherwise, the cost would double. I happily chose the last ferry of the same Saturday, 6:40pm, leaving me about 6 hours on the island, relieved I was on my way to the awaiting boat.  Yeah, any chances of trying to stay over on Föhr somewhere had evaporated. But knowing the weather was poor Sunday anyway was some consolation.

    Arriving at Wyk at 12:30am, the search was on.

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    I found Oldsum!

    Set the iPhone GPS to Oldsum, drove around and around a few times, and took some windmill photos.

    Beautiful. Cows watch me, passing by, again and again. I then decided to head off to the beaches to the north, seeing the Dyke with many sheep, but not the ocean or the birds. Alas, I was blocked by some locked gates.  That’s ok, I knew there were other beaches to explore.

    So I returned to the windmill at Oldsum, and parked at the side of a rural road. I opened the back hatch, and sat myself comfortable in the back.  It felt a bit like a tailgating party of one, but soon to be joined by my family, virtually. Yes, the cellular internet actually worked there, bringing us a lot closer together.

    I actually made the surprise Facetime video call to Bdad and Bmom at around 2pm my time, which was only about 8am their time. Was a fun call to make, with them both completely surprised I had made the trip to Föhr, and seeing live video of the windmill behind me as I explained. Magic Moment #2!

    Flute-Hohe-landmark-home-in-Oldsum-Insel-Fohr-Germany-by-B-Rickmers-1973
    Flute Höhe landmark home in Oldsum, Insel Föhr, Germany - by B. Rickmers, 1973

    After a brief bit of figuring out how to guide me on Bmom’s iPad (using Find Friends), we found the house! I spotting the Flute Höhe sign as I drove, while on a phone call with them.  It was so cool.

    The connection dropped, as I found a spot to park at the nearby (closed on Saturday) bakery. That’s fine, I had many pictures to take, as I walked around the area, trying to not look too out of place. Two things immediately struck me:  how overgrown the lawn had become, and how the whole place looked so much smaller. Yes, to my eyes and brain, everything was about 1/3 smaller than I recalled. Of course that makes sense, since I was only 11 on my last trip to Föhr, when I had the opportunity to spend a month with Oma and Opa.

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    That's 11 year old me

    It was great to finally see the house again, as I took video of the very same garage where my duck Benji picked flies off the window sills. And that post at the end of the driveway, where my 11 year old self leaned proudly, the picture fading in a photo album back home, but the memories more vivid for me now than ever. Magic Moment #3.

    As I walked back to the yard where the tour buses pass by, I discovered the little tourist stop marker, indicating the historical significance of the Flute Höhe sign.

    I called my folks again from a few blocks away were cellular worked again, and they guided me about 4 short blocks over to [Aunt]’s home. She wasn’t home (there was mail in her mailbox), so I left off a card.

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    Süderende cemetery

    Time to head off toward the southeastern shoreline, but spotted a church along the way. Calling my folks again, they explained that yes, that was the church cemetery to visit, in Süderende. So I turned and headed straight there, and quickly spotted the Braren name, all over the place.

    Wow. Found Broder Braren, Lorenz Braren, and many Rickmers, and other familiar names.  Took a bunch of photos, fast, knowing I had less than 2 hours before my last ferry of the day departed.

    Off to the beach.  I slowly drove down an extremely narrow but paved road, parking where it simply ended.  Didn’t want to risk getting caught in sand.  I spotted many smiling bicyclists nearby. Some distant seagulls, circling about. What a wonderful sight the beach was, such a grand vista, with the dunes, the grasses, the seaweed and shells, and the bird footprints. The second I opened the door, the breeze brought the smells, and the vivid memories, right back to me.

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    Low tide at Utersum beach

    Tide was quite low, but there was far too much distance (and lack of time) to allow me to get anywhere near Amrum.  I did get one foot wet though, on purpose. Yes, the air was mild, but the water cold. I grabbed a couple of shells, and took some more amazing photos. I then just stood there and just stared. Magic Moment #4.

    Time to sprint back to the van. I proceeded to back up, and back up, and back up. Yes, a full quarter mile, driving in reverse. Perhaps that’s why the locals were smiling, as they wondered about my fate, should I be unable to drive a huge van backwards, for great distances. Yes, there were no turn-arounds or parking lots. Not a problem.

    That was about it I thought to myself, as I headed back to Wyk. But realizing how close by Oldsum still was, I couldn't resist one more chance to swing by. One more shot at seeing if anybody was home, back at the Oma and Opa house, or [Aunt]'s house. Neither were.

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    This is a common type of home, on Insel Föhr

    Just as I began to leave, an older farmer across the street from [Aunt]'s house saw me. I walked over to him and struck up a conversation, showing him a photo of the house as it was in the 1970s, on my iPhone screen, speaking the name Boy Braren. That’s all it took, he immediately understood, saying ya ya, and repeating “Boy Braren” himself, then mentioning [Aunt] as well. I used Google Translator on my phone to politely ask him to say hello to her for me. He nodded, and asked if I was staying overnight. I showed him my ticket back to Dagebüll in an hour, and he understood. We nodded as we said our goodbyes, since he still had pails in both hands the entire time we spoke. Note that I got a little video of part of my chat with him, which I will be sharing.

    Looking back, it turns out that he was only person on the entire island that I got to speak to actually, during my entire 6 hours there. It was Magic Moment #5.

    So it was back to Wyk for me, stopping very briefly here and there to take some more lovely thatched roof home and windmill pictures, as the buildings were bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun along the way. It was heartening to see new construction that looked exactly like the old construction, with the same attention to craftsmanship.

    What a sad feeling as the ferry pulled away from the shore. Seeing the beauty of the setting sun, and the circling seagulls around me, and the many families around me waving their goodbyes, Magic Moment #6.

    It’s 11:59pm now, and I just got back to my hotel in Mainz about an hour ago. With internet for my laptop, I’m able to finish up this email before it’s tomorrow, adding a few photos and maps, including this route map of all the spots I visited on Insel Föhr: goo.gl/maps/bIpCn

    What a great blessing to finally be able to send this email to all of you. By next weekend or so, I’ll have a more thorough photo album ready to share.

    Have a wonderful week, everybody!

    Love,
    Paul


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    Headed back to the mainland, right at sunset, so sad to say goodbye

    TinkerTry frequently covers storage related topics. Really it's about saving signficant memories. I've got some novel ways to archive data for my family that I'll be writing about in 2015. To be safely kept for my children and extended family, for generations to come.

    Without funding from the IBM Redbooks Residency, and my virtualization articles at TinkerTry, this entire trip would not have happened. I'm very grateful that it all worked out. I even had a small TinkerTry fan meetup in a solar powered home in Rotterdam, 12 feet below sea level. I even got to see Gutenberg's works in Mainz. One could argue that this whole information sharing "thing" started with his first publication, 560 years ago.
    [Nov 12 2015 edit - This new IBM video about Redbooks seems very appropriate to insert here]

    Here's most of the places I visited, with hotels and restaurants listed in these Google Maps links:

    This was an amazing month for me that I want to share with you, hopefully capturing some of the magic in these photos: