Tracing My Roots Down the Rhine

Part of the reason I wanted to go to Europe so badly, and take my mother, was to explore our German heritage.

Growing up in white, middle class suburbia, most of my friends felt no connection to their ancestral heritage, myself included. We were American. No one ever talked about their family backgrounds unless prompted by homework assignments.

This was unlike most of my American Chinese friends who all grew up attending ‘Chinese school’ on Saturdays and my American Japanese friends who all have a yukata hanging somewhere in their closets.

I may be ethnically German, but I certainly don’t have a dirndl hanging in my closest. The extent of celebrating our family’s heritage involved finding a pickle on our Christmas tree each year– a tradition which is still questionably German at best.

But secretly, or maybe not so secretly, I want a dirndl in my closet. I may not like beer, but I still want to associate myself as German. I wish more Americans would put an importance on keeping cultural traditions alive and celebrating family heritage.

It’s that yearning to feel a connection to my roots that brought us to the Rhineland in Germany this past summer.

Rhineland - June 2014

My great-grandmother was born in one of the small towns located along the Rhine before moving to the US. While I never had the privilege of meeting her, I still heard her stories, passed down from my mother to me.

Throughout my childhood, and even still today, her needleworks depicting her motherland decorated our family’s home. One in particular always stood out– a castle sitting high above the banks of a river.

With the help of other family members we dug up the old addresses of our ancestor’s homes. We made it our mission to find them.

Rhineland - June 2014

Arriving first in Boppard, another small town along the Rhine, we began our heritage journey. We set sail on a KD Rhine river cruise, and even though it was a drizzly day, the beauty of the Rhineland still shined through.

We passed small town after small town and castle after castle, each one more captivating than the next. Listening to stories of the ‘Cat and Mouse Castles’ and the Lorelei while sipping Rhine wine, not even the rain could spoil our day.

Rhineland - June 2014Rhineland - June 2014

Our day passes allowed us to hop on and off at different towns, but we had set our sights on only seeing one town, Bingen-Büdesheim, the town of my ancestors.

Just as we were approaching our port of call, we saw it. There, sitting high above the river, was the castle from the needlework, just as we had remembered it. 

Rhineland - June 2014
Rhineland - June 2014

Immediately we knew why she had chosen to stitch Rheinstein Castle in particular. It was so commanding and powerful, yet beautiful and one of the most complete castles we had seen along the Rhine. And even as we continued on to port we could still see the castle lingering in the background.

Disembarking in Bingen we were amazed at the size of the town. Suddenly, we knew this was going to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated.

And a challenge it was–

We asked a ticket attendant for help, but he claimed to not understand my mother’s German.

We finally found the bus we thought we needed, but it pulled away just as we approached and there wouldn’t be another one for over an hour.

We wandered and tried to find a taxi to hire, but being Sunday we saw not a single one.

Rhineland - June 2014

Bingen seemed like such a cute town, but we realized we were not as prepared as we needed to be.

Curveball after curveball, it started to seem impossible to find this house. And after dragging along our heavy luggage for almost two hours, we’d had enough. It was almost time for the next KD boat to arrive and we needed to catch it to go across the river to Rüdesheim.

I felt discouraged that we couldn’t find the houses, but I know I’ll be back. Next time I’ll book ahead to actually stay in the Bingen-Büdesheim area. Next time I’ll be more prepared to hunt down the houses.

But even if I don’t… even if I return again and still can’t find them, it’s okay. I’ve since realized I have no reference of what they even look like and honestly no connection to them.

But that castle on the other hand, at least I found it just as I had always remembered.

Rhineland - June 2014

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 Do you feel a connection to your heritage? Do you think it’s important to?

A special thanks to KD Rhine for providing us day passes to their river cruise so that we could explore our family’s heritage! All opinions however, are completely my own.

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4 Comments

  1. September 29, 2014 / 7:20 pm

    I grew up with a fairly strong connection to my family’s Irish roots (it’s always been a big part of who we are), which I am definitely thankful for. Although I’ve not yet been to Ireland, a visit is high on my list! I’ll need some time though, as I’ll want to visit the regions where my family goes back to, and of course spend time traveling around Ireland and spending time in Dublin.

    I love those photos of the castle! And I think it’s really cool that there’s the connection with the needlepoint (I like how you posted those side by side).

    • Beth Williams
      October 9, 2014 / 7:17 am

      Aw, I really hope you have the trip of your dreams to Ireland! That sounds like it would be a wonderful trip.

  2. September 27, 2014 / 11:14 pm

    Yes and no, to your question. I have Irish heritage, again waayy back to my great-great grandparents, but I feel little to no connection to Ireland in spite of it being right there, just across the sea.

    I have no German heritage….. but I do have a dirndl in my closet. It is amongst my favourite clothes- not that I ever wear it here, or anything, it’s just so beautiful!

    • Beth Williams
      September 29, 2014 / 11:57 am

      So jealous! I really wanted to buy one when we were in German, but on my gosh, the prices! I couldn’t believe how much they add up to be! If I go to Oktoberfest next year, I’ll certainly get one though!