Building New Roots

A beautiful wooden plate, finely painted in the German naïve style, lay for weeks gathering dust in the charity shop where I used to work back in the UK. I pondered whether to buy it, but Mattie and I were in the middle of the emigration process and I could not imagine how something so German would fit into a south Texas home. In the end, I decided the plate was too lovely to be taken back to the charity storehouse, along with all the other unsold items, and my plate now lounges somewhere in my container in Houston.
During a recent trip to the Hill Country, I learned that most of the 19th century pioneers who settled in this region between Austin and San Antonio, hailed from central and northern Germany. Mike, Mattie and I were travelling along a remote, undulating road and I spotted a row of mailboxes. I looked around but could hardly see the houses tucked far back from the roadside, hidden by trees. A little later and another set of mailboxes appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The mailboxes are exactly the same as the one at the bottom of our front garden, which Mattie likes to empty every day. That letter from Mum, or a parcel for Mattie, are always a treat. How different it would have been for those early German settlers; and as we continued our drive I wondered how they felt having to leave their homeland knowing they would never return, and building a home and community from scratch in a region that was not only extremely isolated but rife with warring Comanche Indians.
The Sunday before Mattie and I left for the US, the vicar at our local church spoke about the importance of roots. ‘You’re losing your roots,’ he announced to me after the service. ‘I can build new roots,’ I replied, and he agreed. But does one ever lose one’s roots? In comparison to those early Germans, Mattie and I were lucky: we left the UK knowing we would see family and friends within the year and could call home whenever we wished. I brought a clutch of favourite photos, too. Photography had barely been invented when the Germans arrived in the Hill Country. They had been told they were coming to good farming land and instead found themselves on shallow, rocky soil, sandwiched between high plains and desert. But they buckled down and set to, building orderly, efficient farms, and churches, houses and shops that would not look out of place in an elegant Duesseldorf suburb today. The German language is still prevalent: ‘Willkommen’ is written on the sign that greets you at Fredericksburg; in Boerne, the main street is called ‘Hauptstrasse’, and shops have German names. For better or worse, German cuisine has penetrated the Tex-Mex menu via the Wurst. And the hand organ, which has a surprisingly melodic and haunting sound, is played by south Texas rock bands and Mexican Mariachi bands alike. Though when I saw a poster advertising an Oompah band, I decided that was one to miss …

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