Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Stephanie and Gabriele Rico Memorial Nostalgia Tour

We prepared for our week-long memorial tour of Germany in true Spanish style by attending the Spanish Navy Ball the night before.  Held on the Juan Carlos I, a Spanish aircraft carrier, and lasting into the wee hours, we were not well-prepared (nor very awake!) for the neat and orderly Motherland where everyone goes to bed by 9:00 pm.

Ready for a 3 am rendezvous

Germany holds a special place in my heart.  Having lived there when I was 16 for a year, and again when I was 23, it feels intensely familiar…which amazes me.  I spent only two years there, but landing in the neat, orderly countryside of Memmingen and ordering at a bakery feels like coming home.  My German is still great after a couple of days, and hearing it spoken is as easy as English for me—unlike Spanish, which I still have to work at. 

Deutschland, Deutschland...

We drove straight to Stuttgart upon arrival, whisking efficiently along on the Autobahn to the house I lived in when I was 16.  Valerie Kral welcomed us with open arms, as always (I being one of her American daughters), and walking into the upstairs bedrooms where I lived 34 years ago smelled and felt exactly the same.  But this time I had Tia and Sasha with me, and reminisced about what it was like being 16 and living in a foreign country without my family. 

Me and my German (English!) mom

The next day we spent walking through Stuttgart, a lovely little city (home of Porsche and Mercedes!) tucked into a bowl-shaped valley.  Completely leveled during World War II, Stuttgarters rebuilt it stone by stone, down to the Altes und Neues Schloss (the two castles) in the center of the city.   My mother Gabriele lived here, too, in 1946, a malnourished 9-year-old without a mother living in a converted airplane hanger while my grandfather helped design dual-purpose furniture (one of his many pursuits).  Here began the connection between our family and the Krals!

This is how I got to school every day

Volker Kral (center) and my mom (on the right!), 1946

We ended up at the Waldorfschule, kids in hand, with me carrying on about what it was like to be a student there: some standout activities being spinning my own wool and then knitting a pillow covering, batiking, and creating a table in the woodshop which still lives at the Kral’s summer home.  We arrived at my cousin Tina’s house for dinner, which ended with violin and cello recitals by her very talented children (Sasha was so impressed she has vowed to take up cello). 

Click here to see the 100-cello orchestra Olga is part of

My very talented (and beautiful to boot) second-cousin-once-removed-and-around-the-corner, Olga Siebeck

The Waldorfschule Uhlandshöhe, where I went to school

Next on the tour was the university city of Tübingen, where I spent a year studying the German educational system.  We traveled to the student dorms where I’d spent lots of time drinking and wrecking the kitchen with my friend Janice; my kids were unimpressed.  We met my cousin/daughter Sophie, who is considering attending the university there, and rented a rowboat on the Neckar after a lovely lunch.   I recalled how my mom had visited me here in 1986, speaking accent-less German but with a 12-year-old’s vocabulary, which is when she immigrated and stopped speaking German as much as possible. 

Boating on the Neckar

Our base in southern Bavaria was Eichendorf, vacation home of Familie Kral and also replete with many memories—I stayed there my first summer in Germany, a memorable trip with Todd in 1986!, sailing on the Starnberger See with Oliver (again with Todd), and my mom and I visited in 1994, to name a few.  My Familie Kral has always treated me as their own kid, and Valerie handed me the keys yet again with her love. 

Beautiful Eichendorf

The next morning off we went to one of my most favorite places in all Germany—the deep south of Bavaria, home of crazy King Ludwig and his outrageous castles.  I had fond memories of riding the tram up the mountain with the Krals and hiking down to Neuschwanstein, the model for Disneyland’s castle and Ludwig’s final project before he got locked up in the insane asylum and then mysteriously drowned.  After touring nearby Hohenschwangau (a mere kilometer away, but hey, this castle belonged to his parents and wasn’t fancy enough for Ludwig), we took out a paddleboat and skinny-dipped into the gorgeous lake that fronts both castles. 

Bathing beauties

That afternoon we rode the Tegelbergbahn up the mountain and hiked down to Neuschwanstein in flip-flops, the locals watching with disapproving frowns.  The girls were troupers despite the blisters, Neuschwanstein didn’t fail to delight us, and it was just as beautiful—no, more beautiful—than I’d remembered, the steep drops and stunning vistas causing more stops than needed. 

Not recommended for flip-flops

We also discovered the Rodelbahn.  Open only in summer, and only on nice days (rain closes them, and Germany is rainy!), it’s a bit of a hunt to find these wild alpine slides.  The best one was the Bad Tolz Sommerrodelbahn, a looooooonnnnnggggg alpine slide that you can accelerate to dangerous levels (or even fly off the track, if that’s your thing). 

Push forward to accelerate!!

After the Schlösse and the Rodelbahn, we headed for the house I stayed at when I first arrived in Germany 34 years ago.  My mom sent me—barely 16—off to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, with two huge suitcases, a phone number, and instructions to “get on the train to Rosenheim if no one meets you at the airport” (which no one did).  And so I changed money and made my way from Frankfurt airport (huge!) to the Frankfurt main train terminal, to München when I had to change trains yet again, to Rosenheim, where the most difficult part was figuring out the phone system to call Mamu, an old (89 years old!) artist friend of the family.  I lived at Mamu’s house for three weeks while waiting for Familie Kral to get back from their vacation, wandering the lush Bavarian countryside and eating up all of Mamu’s delicious milk chocolate. 

Me at Mamu's with a farmer friend, 1980

Her house sits across the street from a large set of farmhouses and barns (the major occupation in the Bavarian countryside) and across the driveway from an old Kinderheim (orphanage).  My grandfather knew Mamu’s son professionally, and when he was searching for a place for his motherless children in the post-war confusion, Mamu agreed to step in.  My grandfather, a 1920’s race pilot and a German rocket scientist (I am not kidding!) became the handyman at the orphanage, and his children became either inmates or workers. 
Robert Lusser, race pilot, rocket scientist, handyman, inventor

When we arrived in Friesing, Mamu’s granddaughter, Flori, just happened to be staying at Mamu’s house, which is now their vacation home.  We sat outside in the warm sunshine surrounded by Mamu’s sculptures, and I read from my mom’s memoir.  Although we were sitting in the most beautiful part of Germany imaginable, my mom remembered the lice and scabies and hunger that tormented her.  She remembered the loneliness, and the enormity of the surrounding mountains, and the sleeplessness from all those little orphans crying, and the smell of pee from the night buckets, but mostly she remembered the itching and scratching until her skin bled and became infected.  “That was interesting…” said Flori’s husband, “…most people remember how great it was to be here.”  But they understood.

What's not to love about the Bavarian Alps?

The climax of our trip was my first-ever visit to the Stöttnerhof, the farmhouse where my grandmother was killed, and the church and grave where she was buried in the nearby town of Bernau.  The church was easiest to find (directions to the Stöttnerhof were something like, “Go out of town towards the mountains and watch for the hill to rise, then look for the set of houses on the left…”) and we found my grandmother’s grave quickly, a well-tended but weathered stone with blooming flowers surrounding it.  Tia and Sasha watered them, and we visited the simple church.

Hildegard Fichter Lusser, 1903-1945

We also found the Stöttnerhof following the directions of an older gentleman, also tending a grave, who happened to know all about the bombing that killed my grandmother.  The Stöttnerhof is now a set of vacation cottages within a small working dairy farm, complete with trout ponds, Shetland ponies, and geese.  Gabi, the farmer’s wife, and Alois the farmer took a fair portion of their morning to show us around, including the 20+ bomb craters that are still visible (two of them created the trout ponds).  There is a lovely memorial commemorating the complete destruction of the farmhouse (which of course has also been completely rebuilt by the tüchtig Germans) and my grandmother’s death.

The farmhouse where my grandparents both honeymooned and met with great doom

If you look closely you can see the airplane, the farmhouse on fire--and my grandmother, dead in the foreground.

We ended our vacation with an afternoon in München, looking for my favorite church (never did find it) and listening to the most amazing street show of Bach’s organ concertos played on—accordians!  I was fascinated.  

Baroque churches--my favorite
Click here to hear and see the "organ" concerto.

Then we headed back to Eichendorf to enjoy our last two days (despite the mosquitoes, which were voracious due to the springtime floods) and swim in the Starnbergersee once again.   Germany, you hold a piece of my history—and my heart.


  1. Thank you for sharing all of this. What a beautiful, poignant family journey.

  2. Hi from your Dutch cousin. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, but I must say phrasing like 'what's not to love about' chills me slightly. There is plenty not to love about this 'guilty landscape' (quoting Primo Levi) and I do hope you give a fair historical account of all aspects of the life and work of your grandfather and the circumstances and reasons of the bombing of Hilde to your children. X, Natasha

    1. Hi Natasha! See my Robert Lusser blog. It was a great trip with Suzi, and very interesting to hear all the different perspectives. And we heard the story about when Robert Lusser visited Gusse and Bayer! Lots to learn here. xo Steph


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