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 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 in certain people on the planet who look out for us, guarding us against peril and pointing us to goodness and light.
- The presence and energy of love, given freely at times randomly, but reverently and purposefully 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.
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.
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, she continued to press 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 glad 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 made clear the importance of increasing global awareness. We can know each other and understand each other better for sure, making the world more habitable.
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.
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. 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 important, 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 were 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 intended to host me had decided to back out. Manfred went on to say, he didn’t think this was a 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 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 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 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, our Sister city visitors from the previous year! Manfred approached them about our touring group, and by the end of the evening came 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– 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 our weekends with hiking trips and excursions to all the surrounding towns in Tirol. Serene and idyllic towns like Kufstein, Woergl, Brixental, 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 happens. Marcus came to spend the following summer with my family in Michigan. My father bought a motorhome 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 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, our friendship has gone temporarily dormant owing simply to the sheer reality of raising our families and living different lives far apart. What I can’t really explain 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, its culture and my charmed view of life there from my extraordinary time with the Herovitsch’s. I guess there is 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 do I express gratitude in a language over which I only have partial command? How do I express to Anton and Erika how they literally changed my life? How do I convey to them what it meant to me that they took me into their home that summer and made me a part of their family? How do I share with Anton and Erika all that happened in the almost 40 years since we had seen each other? And how do I explain that in many ways, I don’t believe our friendship is a coincidence, but part of a larger more providential plan? How did I find Erika in my life, 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 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 fluency point to something truly amazing. In life and in love there is a language that surpasses our own understanding. As we spend time together with Anton and Erika, the number of family connections unfolded. Not only had my life with them in Tirol 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 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.”
Whenever I think of Anton, I think Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music– extremely accomplished, a renaissance man of the arts and music, at times reserved and quite serious, ever punctual, but with an abiding integrity and extraordinary love of 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 have ample opportunities to connect again and more often.
We are keeping this promise. 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 meet this family, at such an unusual time in my life, 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 said to 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 we went out into the world, and travelled, 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 remind them, this is always 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.”
I left that day, promising to return soon. I live the most blessed life because today, we are returning home again.