One happy camper

Browsing the vendor offerings at the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference, I wondered what I could possibly find that I’d be willing to carry home in my luggage. And then, there it was, a book I’d been trying to track down for eight years. In the introduction to the English edition, the translator Steven Rowan notes:

The Swan Song of the Cleveland Germans? The second edition of “Cleveland and Its Germans [1907]” can be scanned for symptoms of the ongoing process of assimilation which would receive a sudden shock of acceleration within a decade with the entry of the United States into World War I.

This statement is painfully true, especially given how strident the anti-German hysteria became in Ohio cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. As a consequence, German families changed their surnames to sound less German, German books were removed from libraries, the German language was no longer taught in schools. But even without the onset of WWI, the assimilation process was bound to continue. In that light, Rowan’s conclusion also resonated:

At this distance the death of German Cleveland has an inevitable and elegaic quality, but it also warns us of the costs of compulsory conformity in a mass society.

Hmm, food for thought. Anyhow, I’m happy to have the book for its biographies and write-ups, and it completes my collection.

What with the discovery of that book today, and the many great people I met and stories I heard, I’m one happy camper. After many hours inside, though, I felt a bit desperate for some greenery, so headed over for a walk on the grounds of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park. The greenery and serenity and silence were golden.

Maybe I saw them, maybe I didn’t

A visit to Minnesota German country is a visit to New Ulm, a lively festival town about an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. That’s what they tell me, anyhow — a surprising number of people, in fact, beginning first thing this morning during a chance encounter with a fellow customer at Panera, who recommended I visit New Ulm due to its unusually strong and entertaining German character. Then, all day while sitting at my vendor table at the International Germanic Genealogy Conference, quite a few roving genealogists extolled the virtues of New Ulm. One gentleman in particular went on for quite a while, about how New Ulm is known as the “Polka Capital of the Nation” and features the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. How the town erected a 102-foot tall statue in honor of the German victory over the Romans in … wait for it … 9 C.E. That’s right, folks, that long ago, 9 years after the death of Christ. Oh, and New Ulm has a Glockenspiel, and the August Schell Brewing Company.

Given all that salient detail, not one New Ulm enthusiast bothered to warn me about the four masked characters who came dancing through the vendor area late in the afternoon. I felt both attraction and revulsion at the sight of them (masks have always freaked me out). The two little girls who joined in the fun earned a gold star for bravery, in my opinion. It wasn’t until the dance was over and one of the masked figures handed me a button that I learned these were the Narren of New Ulm, “the relatives everyone has, but nobody wants to own.” Needless to say, I’m leaving the light on when I go to bed tonight.

First, why Minnesota?

First question, why is the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference (IGGP) being held in Minnesota? Sure, the state is centrally located and all, but somehow, I pictured a higher percentage of Germanic Americans in Wisconsin, say, or Iowa. Apparently, Minnesota is way up there, too. A May 2017 article at Midwest Weekend reports that Minnesota has around 38 percent, just under the 44 percent and 40 percent of Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively.

On the first full day of my visit here, I prowled around looking for German genealogy resources. Mostly, they turned out to be in Saint Paul, the sister of the Twin Cities and capital of Minnesota. First stop, the Germanic-American Institute (GAI). Located in the historic Summit Avenue neighborhood, the restored mansion (nine fireplaces!) is a terrific venue for programs such as a German language immersion school for kids, adult education programs and language clubs, and a German book library.

“What else is worth seeing in the area?” I asked when I stopped in the office, adding that I was hot on the trail of German American heritage sites in particular.

The office assistant looked at me quizzically, with a light furrow in her brow. “For the most part, they’re not singled out. I mean, the German American culture is pretty intertwined with the whole history of the town. But there is that restoration of murals in the Capitol Building. They were in the basement, it used to be a Rathskeller. You know about that?”

No I did not. A Rathskeller is a German term for a basement beer hall or restaurant. A beer hall at the State Capitol of Minnesota?  Enticing indeed. I resolved to make the Minnesota State Capitol Building my next stop, a drop dead gorgeous sandstone and marble structure. The building was so huge, and my mission so singular that upon entering, I went directly to the Information desk.

“I hear you’ve just opened a Rathskeller with murals in this building?” I said.

The info desk guy hesitated. “Well now, the Rathskeller’s always been there,” he said. “We’ve only recently restored it.” After pointing me in the right direction, he handed me a sheet with all the German mottoes now restored on the walls of the Rathskeller, just the way God, and the good German immigrants of Minnesota, intended. Mottoes like: “First do your duty, then drink and laugh.” And, “First test, then praise.” And, “As time flies we are nearing eternity.”

Sadly, the Rathskeller was empty of food and drink and hence, people; I dearly hope a convivial spirit will inspire Minnesota legislators in the future to talk through difficulties over a pint in that pleasant, tiled, daylit room from time to time. Meanwhile, I understand there is a restoration project going on for the oldest surviving lagerbier saloon in the Twin Cities, the Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, for which there is a Kickstarter campaign here.

I also made it to the Minnesota History Center Library, also in St. Paul, taking a brief hour to browse the wealth of genealogy and history resources in their holdings. However, I did not have a chance to get to the main event in town, for German genealogists, that is: the Germanic Genealogy Society’s library at Concordia University, which houses 2200 books and periodicals relating to German genealogy.

At the end of the day I was sharing with friends Katie and Sam about how beautiful Saint Paul, and its namesake church, both are. “Yeah, well, they used to call it something different–Pig’s Eye Landing,” Katie told me. “After a guy who had a tavern down on the river.” Surprisingly, that former name is not on the Germans. The name came from the French Canadian tavern owner, Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. Who knew?

The first ever International German Genealogy Conference by IGGP

I’m off on another adventure, attending the first ever International German Genealogy Conference in Minneapolis, MN. With almost 700 registrants, it’s one of those moments of anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect, but it ought to be fun.

And, I expect that no matter what else happens, there will be Bier.

Get your plaid on

It’s almost here — New York Tartan Week — held annually in New York City. This year the parade is on April 8, brought to you by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, the New York Caledonian Club, The American-Scottish Foundation and Clan Campbell.

A complete week of events is in store from March 31-April 9, with theater and clan gatherings and more.

This July in the Pacific Northwest, I’m looking forward to another Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering in Enumclaw. Dates to be announced soon.

Meanwhile, I’m having a marvelous time indulging myself, every so often, in episodes of the BBC series “Monarch of the Glen.” What a terrific cast of actors in an absolutely gorgeous setting. I’m hooked.

Enter to win at local book store(s)

Recently, I stumbled across the book The World in 1800, which drove home to me again how, by 1800, the world had changed radically — from local and regional, to global and international. Two centuries later, we’re reaping the benefits of international communication and trade worldwide like never before, but are also feeling the loss in our own backyards. Loss like of local economies and farms. Loss like the reality that I visit with friends all over the world via email more often than I visit my dear neighbor Chuck next door.

One center of community in our lives — the local bookstore — has often lost ground in this click-and-ship-on-demand era of shopping. My bookstore, Island Books, brings the local area together in so many ways, supporting book clubs and schools and readings, offering personal service and a world of excellent books to choose from.

So when James invited me to participate in Island Book’s Local Author Festival this weekend, Sunday, 2/26, 2:00-4:00 p.m., of course I said yes. It’s gonna be fun! Added bonus: All comers have the chance to enter to win a $50 gift certificate good on your next visit to the store. I look forward to meeting many book-loving customers, and … drum roll … to meeting these amazing local authors who’ll be there with me at the festival.

Marianne Lile, author of Stepmother: A Memoir
Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story
Rebecca Novelli, historical novelist, The Train to Orvieto
Ron Donovan, leadership expert and author of Wisdom of Doing Things Wrong
Rebecca Clio Gould, psychology and health author, The Multi-Orgasmic Diet
Martha Crites, mystery writer, Grave Disturbance
Phillip Rauls, music artist and photographer, The Rock Trenches
Leonide Martin, historical novelist, series “Mists of Palenque” about great Mayan Queens
Stephen Murphy, author of On the Edge: An Odyssey, a memoir
and moi, Claire Gebben, historical novelist, The Last of the Blacksmiths.

So come on down this Sunday to Island Books, it’ll do us all a world of good.

When you can’t go to Scotland …

I didn’t have the good fortune to travel to Scotland this summer, but a couple of experiences brought Scotland to me.

img_2998-1One was a spirit tasting on Whidbey Island, courtesy of Glaswegian Colin Campbell, owner of Cadée Distillery.

The vodka, gin, rye whiskey and bourbon tasted great, but with its signature flavors — Intrigue Gin infused with botanicals, Deceptivus Bourbon finished in 20-year-old port barrels, and a newly released spicy smooth Cascadia Rye — Cadée Distillery has upped its game. Truly superb.

Colin Campbell loves drawing parallels between his “Isle of Whidbey” and Scotland (“We have gray days and so does Scotland. We have whiskey and Scotland has whisky”) and stubbornly insists the accent, despite his thick Glaswegian brogue, is ours. A tasting at Cadée Distillery, 8912 Highway 525, Clinton, Washington, just off the Whidbey Mukilteo ferry, is highly recommended. Cadée spirits can also be found locally at Bev Mo and Whole Foods and Safeway, to name a few.

highland-games-introThe other Scottish-flavored treat was a day in Enumclaw, spent at the Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering. I’ll write another post soon about the games and the sights. Plenty to enjoy, including this introduction to the day as we waited in line to purchase our tickets just outside the gate.

When you can’t go to Scotland, such diversions are the next best thing.

Immigration today


A pedestrian crosses the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the morning of July 8, 2016 .

I have researched and written about 19th century immigration, but this time I’m talking about immigration in the here and now. Last July while visiting a friend in New York City, I was invited by her friend Judge Bloom to attend a Naturalization ceremony at Brooklyn Courthouse.

The Naturalization was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. When I arrived at 10:50, the Brooklyn Ceremonial Courtroom was standing room only. I wasn’t family — they sat in the benches off to one side. But I wasn’t being naturalized, either. I just wasn’t sure where to go. As I stood at the back surveying the crowd, two gentlemen in the last row cordially motioned me over and squeezed apart to make room.

The minutes ticked by, and the judge did not appear. To pass the time, I talked quietly with the men who’d offered me a seat, one from Bangladesh, the other from India. We shared our experiences and knowledge and hopes. The Bengali gentleman told me he is passionate about political science, and the gentleman from India said he preaches at Sikh temples all around the U.S. and in Canada. They both seemed impressed, even excited, that an American-born citizen would choose to attend the Naturalization.

After a long fifteen minutes, Judge Bloom appeared, saying she had just come from criminal court, and always looked forward to doing Naturalization ceremonies because it was the one moment in her week when people looked happy to see her. She opened her proceedings with startling statistics. The Brooklyn Courthouse conducted four such Naturalizations per week, hence admitted some 50,000 new citizens to the U.S. annually, making it the second busiest courthouse for naturalizations in the nation. Each ceremony generally involved people from 70-75 different countries.

Next, Judge Bloom led the gathering in the Oath of Allegiance. In advance of the reading of the Oath, it was stressed several times that every single person had to have the Oath of Allegiance out, paper visible in hand, and be reading from it out loud. When it came time to begin, since I was sitting in the “naturalization” section, everyone around me took out their paper, stood, and raised their right hand.

A bit awkwardly, I stood, too. A quick glance up front indicated clerks scanning the crowd to be sure everyone was participating, but I had no paper with an oath on it. So, trying not to call attention to myself, I did my best to fake it. I raised my right hand in a gesture of allegiance and repeated the oath, and even pretended to hold a piece of paper because they’d made such a big deal out of that. I felt a bit silly, like a baseball player in the team line-up mouthing the words of the National Anthem for the benefit of TV cameras. The oath concluded, we were all proclaimed U.S. citizens and welcomed to the United States. At that moment, I felt an irrational swell of joy.

That could have been the end, but after we were all seated again, Judge Bloom proceeded to read out the country of origin of every immigrant and asked each to stand and be applauded. The judge spoke then, about the Preamble to the Constitution with its emphasis on liberty, about the importance of voting (and paying taxes), and about the importance of being faithful now to the U.S., but also remembering one’s customs and language of origin. She stressed supporting children, hence the future, in every way possible, especially with regard to their education.

Sitting there listening, I marveled at how citizens rights and liberty are a big part of what have lured people to the U.S. all along. Even in light of this country’s many shortcomings. Even in light of racial divisions, class inequities, and a reckless lack of gun regulation, people still come. In what other country, I wondered, are Naturalizations so prevalent and diverse? And how can we as citizens make the U.S.’s founding principles of rights, justice, and liberty endure?

Judge Bloom ended by encouraging the new citizens to participate fully in their new country, especially by getting to know their neighbors, to express who they are and show curiosity about others. Afterward, in the back row, I congratulated the two brand new U.S. citizens flanking me on either side. They each handed me a business card, and I shared mine with them, and we wished each other well.

I left feeling more than a little inspired. These immigrants had welcomed me, a native-born American, into their fold, a little something called leading by example. I treasured the gift of their presence.

Getting the most out of writing conferences

It’s almost summer, and writing conference season is in full swing. As a past presenter at Write on the Sound (WOTS), I’m pleased to be the guest blogger this week for the WOTS blog on the subject of “Getting the Most out of Writing Conferences.” The Write on the Sound Conference will be held this fall, September 30-October 2 in Edmonds, WA, and they’ve just posted their conference schedule (see link above).

Speaking of which, here are links to regional writing conferences on the docket this summer and fall:

June 23-15, 2016: Chuckanut Writers Conference at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA

July 28-31, 2016:
Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle, WA

August 12-14, 2016: Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR

October 20-23, 2016: Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Surrey (Vancouver), BC, Canada

November 4-6, 2016:
Kaua’i Writers Festival in Hawaii.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Wine-tasting with wine princesses

Freinsheim wine princess Anne II

Freinsheim wine princess Anne II

Before arriving in Freinsheim, my cousin Matthias emailed the plans for April 2. “We have tickets for a wine-tasting with the wine princesses from 2-7 Saturday.”

What could this be? Celebrity princesses holding court behind a wine-tasting counter, pouring out sips from jewel-tinted bottles of wine? Not exactly. Here’s how it worked.

The Urlaubsregion Freinsheim (think chamber of commerce, German-style) organizes a wine-tasting to five different villages in and around the region, guided by the wine princesses from each of five villages. Each princess introduces two wines unique to her village. In our case, the tour included: a Riesling and a dry Weisburgunder in Weisenheim am Sand, Viognier and Grauburgunder in Erpolzheim, Chardonnay and Rose in Herxheim, Auxerrois and Cuvée in Weisenheim am Berg, and white and red Spätburgunders (Pinot Noirs) in Freinsheim.

But pictures say it best.

We meet the wine princesses.

We meet the wine princesses.


We hike to our first wine-tasting, in a forest park at Weisenheim am Sand.


The wine princesses introduce the vintage and wine-maker.

2016 wine-tasting 3

We sample our first vintage.

2016 wine-tasting 1

We board the bus for the next village.


We hike to a pleasant garden among the vineyards.

2016 wine-tasting 4

The wine princess introduces the wine and wine-maker.

2016 wine-tasting 5

Zum wohl!


Inside the bus.

2016 wine-tasting 6

Next stop, the Herxheim am Berg Schlossgarten.

2016 wine-tasting 7

Back on the bus …

2016 wine-tasting 8

… for Weisenheim am Berg …


… and finish up in Freinsheim.

Viel Spaß!

Viel Spaß!