Monday December 2—after flying overnight we landed in Brusseles at 8:30 and slipped through Customs heading downstairs to the train station to buy our tickets for the next day. We rushed around and found our shuttle to hotel(it only ran until 9:30). Taking a shower and a nap under a thick European comforter refreshed us. Bundling up for overcast and 40s weather we walked 4 km and shopped at a supermarket(say grocery store and they don’t know what you mean). Appearing on the right where we walked stood construction of a huge NATO building shaped like a coliseum with windows. We had arrived in Europe.
Tuesday December 3—took train to Ghent/Sint Pietes and onto to Hansbeke/ Nevele area north of Brussels. It surprised me to see the integration of farms with residential areas as the train moved through the rolling hills. We knew it was the country as we stepped off the train and the smell of manure smacked us in the nose. As we waited for a ride to bed and breakfast we saw a farmers’ market attended by people about our age or older on heavy bikes with baskets.
Arriving at the bed and breakfast room we both sat in two stuffed chairs and snoozed and saying, “Isn’t it nice to do nothing.” Afternoon we walked an hour around the farming area finding old brick barns and two story brick houses with greenhouse structures behind them. One plant grew peppers hydroponically. We saw horses, cows, chickens, rabbits and dark sheep that ran from us. Water stood in fields where corn stalks lay from this year’s harvest. We observed rich black soil.
The bed and breakfast used to be a mushroom operation for 50 years until cheap Eastern European immigrant labor closed the business. Jon Paul and his partner Isabelle spent 5 years transforming the warehouse into a bed and breakfast. Fine woodworking, beautiful tile work, handmade tables and a brick ceiling in the dining area impressed us.
After a trip to the supermarket and a home cooked meal of local chicken and vegetable soup, we talked a long time with a man about our age from the area. He was a metal expert by profession who worked in plants in the States and in Europe. This day we found our way from Brussels to Nevele and Steehoven, the bed and breakfast.
Wednesday, December 4—-walking 15 minutes from bed and breakfast in a sprinkling rain we visited Mycelia—the company where Pete has bought mushroom cultures for 15 years. Magda Verfaillie, a botany major started the business in her basement in l985 and now is in her fourth location with plans for expansion. Her facility primarily creates spawn. Spawn is the medium that mushrooms grow on. The spawn blocks are about the size of a basketball. The company sells spawn blocks to mushrooms growers all over Europe. Pete only had email and phone contact with Mycelia. It was good to meet face to face. Magda gave us a tour of the facility.
We wiled away the rest of the day walking the country roads and writing, reading and resting in our room. I could see cows out the window as I wrote. It was such good respite. On our walk with another day of overcast and 40s we saw winter gardens of humongous cabbage, kale and onions and one long road made of granite cobblestone. Meeting Magda Verfaillie and touring her Mycelia facility furfilled Pete’s dream.
Thursday December 5—this was our big travel day taking 4 trains from Hansbeke/Nevele area to Ghent/Sint Pietes to Brussels Midi to Frankfurt to Stuttgart. On train to Frankfurt in our reserved seats within a glass cubicle, we shared space with a public radio journalist on her way to interview a fellow from Zimbabwe who immigrated to Europe. There were 5 of us who had an intense discussion on immigration. Pete talked about his grandparents coming from Italy. I talked about why I wanted to visit Germany and how my great grandparents immigrated in 1889. One young German Polish fellow talked about his grandmother and father losing their farm to Poland when parts of Germany were given to Poland after the war. His family evidently immigrated to Germany. It struck me a number of times how WWII still effects many German lives so strongly today.
Afternoon we made it to our tiny room on the hill above the city in Stuttgart. It felt good to get inside and get warmed up for a bit. Stuttgart reminded me of San Francisco with low mountains covered with houses. A large section of the downtown is off limit to cars. We saw grassy areas, a manmade lake, statues, government buildings and museums and lots of stores and eateries with a mall in between but no cars. We headed down to Rewe supermarket for food and ran into the Christmas Market. How enchanting with carol singing, anise smell, bright colored lights, fresh brockwurst and hot beer, wine and fruit drinks for sale. Hearing the police sirens in Stuttgart felt iery because it sounded like the SS from World War II. We had made the train trip from Belgium to Germany.
Friday December 6—took the train to Oberndorf south of Stuttgart. This train we almost missed because it changed gates at last minute and they announced it in German which we didn’t catch. One young Oriental German speaking lady I had asked about train alerted us and we all ran and made it just in time as the train pulled out. Seeing the countryside was a treat—rolling hills similar to SW Virginia and WNC. Many big old simply made brick houses without overhangs on roof. Once in Oberndorf we found a taxi to Roetenberg. On the way over the mountain it was snowing heavy but luckily not freezing. Roetenberg is the town where my Grandma Dreiling’s father, Jacob Woessner came from. The taxi dropped us off at the only church, Evangelical Kirche. Since there was a funeral the church was open. I got to talk with a lady who spoke a bit of English and with my bit of German we communicated. She knew the family Woessner and showed me the board at the back of the church with men from church who died in WWI and WWII. There were three Woessners.
Walking around the village a young German lady saw us and asked in perfect English if we were tourists. She told us about a pottery gallery with a Christmas room. “Go and ask for Christmas room.” This pottery couple work in clay right in the gallery that is open 3 days a week. We experienced the Christmas room and it was magical. Big and little pottery balls with cut outs and candles inside illuminating them in a dark room. There were clay elephants, mice and Indian men with serapes. Also fresh oranges covered with cloves. I bought a mug for my daily tea to remember this little village in the mountains of Germany.
We finished our visit eating at the Gashof, where they also spoke very little English. But we managed to communicate and ate tasty salads with everything pickled—carrots, red and green cabbage, cauliflower—except the lettuce and meat. I had shrimp with mine. Pete had pasta and pork with his. Today I satisfied my dream to visit my ancestor’s village in Germany.
Saturday December 7—our last day in Stuttgart. I went to visit the State Library to meet lady who I’d been in email contact for family research. She had some hand-outs for me. She didn’t find a lot but referred me to further sources. I planned to go to Archive Center but it was closed. I have a contact to be in touch with later.
Since I had more free time that I thought we went to Staatsgallerie, a museum full of European artists and sculptors. As we walked in I spotted Blue Horses of Franco Marc and a Feningher Kirche. We saw Klee, Miro, Rubens, Rodin, Dali, Piscarro, Gauguin, Picasso, Modigliana, Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Chagall and more all under one roof. Taking in Stuggart enriched our day.
So our week was packed full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and encounters opening a life not in touch with us before. Once a friend told me her Dad who took his family out West a lot said, You take a trip 3 times—once in the planning, second in the actual trip and third remembering your trip. I carry a movie to play of our time in Belgium and German that keeps popping up to entertain me.
photos taken by Pete Whelihan and Carol Dreiling