Anton and Erika Herovitsch during our reunion in Itter, Tirol in 2014
Sometimes you have to ask yourself. How exactly does the world work? It’s big and complex and humbling in its magnificence. But I’m not always sure how its supposed to work. Most of us probably feel this way sometimes, if not most times. Whenever I reflect on this, I remember the world works in harmony by virtue of the following:
- The presence of miracles in daily ordinary life, happening before our eyes often without us even noticing or paying close attention.
The recognition that the world is actually small when we are connected with the people who inhabit it.
- The presence of the Divine is abundant in certain special people on the planet who look out for us, guarding us against peril and pointing us to goodness and light. When we first meet them, we know they are somehow different.
- The presence and energy of love makes sense of all this as part of a grander design, given freely, at times randomly, but reverently and purposefully so as to move the world toward magnificence.
- At the end of the day, all we have is each other and our stories. When I think back to a time in my life when chaos reigned, I now see my life as a story told in a different light. It’s clear that things happen as they should and for good reason. Always. And when it’s not entirely certain this is the case, it’s because we don’t have the complete picture yet in total focus. So we keep asking and seeking.
When I was a junior in high school, my parents were both highly invested in my success. My mother, in particular, was really pushing me to excel in school. She installed corkboard on a wall in the kitchen, which she devoted to every report card and honor award my siblings and I received at school, so everyone who came over could see it in plain view. These are my kids. This is where their success begins out in the open for everyone to see.
She definitely had her sights on me, and wanted me to go to college. So whenever I was approached by my guidance counselor about signing up for ROTC, my mother would call the school. My son is not going to enlist, he’s going to college! And when he talked about the finances of college, because he knew there were five at home, she blew off his concerns and continued to press me. She kept saying to me, if you get the right grades, you will get into a great school, and somehow we will find a way.
That fall as I was completing my applications, our community announced plans to expand our Sister Cities exchange program in Tirol Austria. The prior year, in 1976, our town celebrated the bi-centennial by hosting a group of Austrians to stay among local host families. Our neighbor Mary Cote hosted one young couple, and when I went over to cut Mary’s grass that summer, she invited me over to meet them and practice my German. Anton and Erika Herovitsch were a lovely couple, both educators. Anton was a school administrator and Erika taught at the elementary school. They were encouraged to know some Americans were actually learning German in school– in their travels, they often found themselves clarifying for Americans that Austrians didn’t speak English as their primary language, and didn’t have any kangaroos. That was actually Australia. Moments like this make clear the importance of increasing global awareness. I’m not sure things are much different forty years later! We can know each other and understand each other better for sure by participating more broadly in the world. That much is unchanged and ever certain.
That fall, our community announced a program to select two students, a male and female, for a study abroad program in Tirol Austria. My mother encouraged me to apply (actually insisted when I really stop and think about it). She was at Hutzel Hospital in Detroit at the time, battling cancer. She thought it would be a terrific experience for me, and would help my chances for college admission. Secretly, she also knew deep down I needed some kind of larger experience to break me out of my introverted shell.
In the blink of an eye, sadly, my mother passed away that Christmas. So when I learned in February that I was selected for the program, I was in a complete quandary. I wasn’t entirely ecstatic. Did I really want to leave my family at this time, and go abroad 7,000 miles away to be in a foreign country with no one I really knew? My father never had any doubts. He insisted that this was an important opportunity, that it could be a critical addition to my college applications, and so I made arrangements to leave right after school ended.
As the time for my trip approached, I kept inquiring about my host family. This was in the days long before the Internet and Skype and I wanted simply to write them a letter and introduce myself. But nothing. I was told details would be forthcoming. The week before our trip, Manfred Heuser, my high school German teacher and the director of the exchange program, called my father to tell him the family that had intended to host me had decided at the last minute to back out. Manfred went on to say, he didn’t think this was a big problem, and he would find another family once we were touring with our group in Austria.
As a 17 year old, my doubts were building. I wasn’t sure this was the adventure I had signed up for! My father prodded me to stay the course, and shared that he had decided to visit me in Austria in late summer to check on me. That was a pretty big deal considering I had 4 other siblings at home. Knowing this, I decided to press ahead.
The prospect of finding a host family proved difficult in the three weeks we were touring Austria and Western Germany. On the night before our tour group was returning to America, Manfred approached me with a new plan. “I know this isn’t what we intended, but we are pretty confident we can line up a host family by the time school begins in 3 months. In the meantime, we can arrange for you to stay in a Youth Hostel for the rest of the summer. ”
I had, however, reached my 17 year old limit. This didn’t feel like what I had signed up for. I wasn’t sure about staying in a youth hostel alone with a two year command of German, and no one I knew. I went back to him the next day, and asked him if I could return home with the touring group instead. I was pretty sure my adventure abroad was over.
Manfred was clearly disappointed but understood. The next evening he took our touring group on its last excursion at Gasthof Roessl in the nearby town of Itter. As we were sitting down for dinner, a couple approached our table: “Ronnie Aus Amerika! Gruess Gott!”
How was it even possible that 7,000 miles from home I would run into someone who actually knew me??! It was Anton and Erika Herovitsch, Mary Cote’s Sister city visitors from the previous year! Manfred approached them about our touring group, and by the end of the evening came back to me with a new development. Anton and Erika had agreed to serve as my host family. Gottseidank!
I would like to say this was a storybook ending to my adventure — and it is– but it’s really a story that continues to unfold. Not surprisingly, I had the adventure of a lifetime with the Herovitsch family that year. Their three children– Marcus, Danielle and Christopher (“Stoffi”) became constant companions at school, and it was as if I had been adopted into an entirely new family half way across the world. Erika planned many of our weekends with hiking trips and excursions to all the surrounding towns in Tirol. Serene and idyllic towns like Kufstein, Woergl, Hopfgarten, Kitzbuhel and St. Johann.
I would also like to say that we kept up with each other perfectly in the 35 years that have since past, and in many ways we have, but life also happened along the way. Marcus came to spend the following summer with my family in Michigan. My father bought a motorhome earlier that year, and we travelled to California and Mexico with Marcus, a companion student from Austria, my siblings, my grandma Vicki and our terrier Popeye. Yes, Marcus had an exciting but entirely different adventure in the states, barreling across America camping out in close proximity with 8 other people and a dog. And yes, in many ways his adventure with my family does bear striking similarities to the trip chronicled in Chevy Chase’s Family Vacation movie! But that’s another story!
Danielle visited us in America on two occasions, and was on hand for our wedding in 1986 in Ohio. At other times though, our friendship has gone temporarily dormant owing simply to the sheer reality of raising our families and living different lives Galway across the globe. What I can’t really begin to explain, however, is how it came to pass that I never made it back to Austria in all our years of marriage and travel? This is a huge question given my extraordinary passion for Austria, and my deep love for its food, culture and history, as well as my charmed view of life there from the extraordinary time I had spent with the Herovitsch’s. I guess there is really only one answer. Life happens. After Kay and I married, we travelled on to see other places, other parts of the world. But Facebook re-connected all of us again in 2007, and we began planning a reunion.
In 2014, 37 years after my magical year with the Herovitsch Family, Kay and I returned to Itter. While I diligently practiced my German in the weeks leading up to the trip, one linguistic anxiety remained. How would I express real gratitude in a language over which I only have partial command? How would I express to Anton and Erika how they had literally changed the course of my life? How would I convey to them exactly what it meant to me that they took me into their home that summer and made me a part of their family? How would I share with Anton and Erika all the amazing life that had happened in the course of almost 40 years since we had seen each other? And how would I explain that in many ways, I didn’t ever really believe our friendship is a coincidence, but part of a larger more providential plan?
How did I find Erika in my life, to fill a maternal void literally months after my mother had passed?
Our reunion in Itter was unbelievable. I knew we were up for an incredible adventure when Anton first invited us on Facebook: “We would like you and your family to return to Austria. And when you come to Tirol, you must not reserve a hotel. We have your old bedroom prepared and waiting for you!”
Everyone of the Herovitsch children, and many of their children came in for our reunion. Erika cooked, remembering my favorite foods as if she had prepared them for me the previous Sunday.
Our language differences, and linguistic fluency point to something truly amazing. In life and in love there is a language that surpasses our own meager understanding. As we spent time together with Anton and Erika, the number of family connections unfolded. Not only had my life in Tirol with them inspired me to pursue a career in education instead of the law. I had also married into a family of educators just like them. David, my father in law and Anton, both retired administrators, spend their time now studying and performing classical music. When I spoke with Anton our first day, I explained that I wasn’t sure I had the presence of mind at 17 to express the sheer love and gratitude I have for him and Erika and their family. He replied: “You know we knew that, even back then. I remember one day, you had left your room a mess and Erika scolded you when you came home from school. The next day you left gymnasium at recess and went to the store to pick her up some chocolates and write an apology. Do you remember this? We do, and we knew then how you felt about being with us.”
When you think of Anton, think Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music– striking resemblance. Both are extremely accomplished, renaissance men of the arts and music, at times reserved and quite serious, ever punctual, but with an abiding integrity and extraordinary love of Austria and family. We made a pact that fall in Tirol in 2014, and vowed we wouldn’t let more that 2 or 3 years go by without seeing each other again on one continent or the other. With our two families and extended family on both continents, we agreed we have ample opportunities to connect again and more often.
We are keeping this promise. The youngest Herovitsch, Chris, and his wife Hazel visited America last fall, and we enjoyed another amazing Herovitsch reunion in Boston. Another story for another time. This week Kay and I are returning to Europe, first to spend a week in England with Chris and Hazel and their family, and then another week with Anton and Erika, and Marcus and Danielle and their families.
When I think about how it came to pass that I would come to meet this family, at such an unusual time in my life, half way across the world, and kindle a lifelong friendship, it is humbling. Our friendship is a reminder that the world is both vast and small, and smaller still when we connect with each other. When I shared with Erika that I was at a loss to explain my absence from Austria for over 35 years, she understood as only an extraordinary mother can. She shared with me, “When we were raising our children we recognized Itter was a small place. There are only 1,500 people in this town. And so after we moved here, Anton and I went out into the world, and travelled broadly, and encouraged our children to do the same. In doing so, Christopher went off to England to study and found a wife and ultimately moved there with his own family. Marcus and Danielle and their families have had these experiences as well. But we always remind them, this is ultimately the place to which you return. Itter is your home, and you always come back home. We knew this was true for you too, Ronnie. We always knew you would find your way back here.”
At one point, I asked David how all these experiences and coincidences should be taken as a whole. There were so many of them that had both brought and kept us close over many years after a nearly chance, random encounter. David has a Ph.D. In philosophy and logic. He answered my question with a question: “Isn’t that what faith is all about? Faith is intended to provide an explanation, and a foundation for understanding when the mere facts fail us.”
With that, I left the Herovitsch’s that day, promising to return again soon. I live the most blessed life imaginable, because today, once again, we are returning home.