“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Herb and I first met our German son-in-law’s parents about eight years ago. They were visiting California for the first time, and we had driven to Los Angeles to meet them for lunch. Mark’s father speaks a tiny bit of English, and my German consists of danke, guten morgen and auf wiedersehen.
Despite the lack of a common language – and with translation help from Mark and Andrew – we had a delightful visit. I had googled how to say, “you have a wonderful son,” practicing the phrase until I could recite it with some semblance of confidence. Mark’s mother’s eyes filled with tears as she smiled, and I imagined what she might be thinking. We were two mothers whose adult children had found each other in this crazy big world, and we were happy to have this new family as part of our lives.
Now we were finally meeting again. This time in their country, in their hometown of Hannover. We headed out early from Hamburg for the two-hour drive south. With plans to tour city attractions before spending time with Mark’s family, we wanted to make the most of the day.
Hannover is the largest city as well as the capital of the German state of Lower Saxony. Founded along the Leine River in the medieval 13th century, the city now has a population of 540,000. I was eager to see where Mark had spent his childhood and early adult years and to put the pieces together of all the references and places he has talked about since we met.
There was no question about where he wanted to take us first. Herrenhäuser Gärten – Herrenhausen in English – is the showpiece of Hannover. Created more than three hundred years ago, the gardens have the feeling of a mini-Versailles, with elaborate English landscape, beautiful fountains and baroque design. Mark told us that he has great memories of spending time here growing up. It’s extremely serene, a great place to wander and a spectacular surprise.
The Great Garden
The baroque gardens switch gears to a contemporary design in the Grotto. Artist Niki de Saint Phalle transformed the 330-year-old Grotto into a space of luminous color and spiraling movement. The deep blue room is entitled “The Night at the Cosmos” and is a tribute to painter Henri Matisse.
The Great Fountain
We walked along shaded pathways and perfectly manicured hedges toward the Nouvelle Jardin, home of the Great Fountain, built at the end of the 17th century. Along the way we tried our luck at finding our way out of a hedge maze – not a great idea if you’re short on time! – and passed idyllic scenes that seemed as if they were painted to match the summer morning.
Some Gilded-ness Before Leaving
We headed back toward the Great Garden, taking a different route that immediately called to mind the era of gilded grandeur. Gold statues stand atop railings and pedestals in the gardens and form a ring around the theater, which is used for concerts and special events.
Back in the car, we drove about fifteen minutes to Old Town, the heart of Hannover. With its half-timbered buildings, cobblestone streets and bicycles parked at every corner, it’s the kind of place that immediately comes to mind when thinking of old European cities.
To make sightseeing a little easier, Hannover created the “Red Thread,” the town’s version of following the yellow brick road. A 4200-meter-long red line painted on pavement weaves through the streets, leading visitors to 36 attractions.
Our first stop was a somber one. Aegidienkirche, constructed in the 12th century, was never rebuilt after the damage it sustained in World War II. Instead, the open-air church became a memorial to the lives lost in Hannover during the war. Today it stands as a stark reminder of the devastation of war as well as a place for people to pay their respects to those who didn’t survive. Most profound to me was a white zig-zag line painted on the floor that shows the sun’s shadow on the roof at the moment the church was destroyed.
New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus)
We followed the Red Thread to New Town Hall, the stunning dome-topped seat of Hannover’s municipal government built in 1913. The interior architecture is as stately as its exterior, with winding marble staircases and light-filled, colorful domes. Four miniature scale models depicting Hannover in 1689, 1939, 1945 and the present day are displayed on the main floor, showing visitors what the city looked like throughout its history.
Found In Translation
The rest of the day was a wonderful blur of family and friends. We had lunch with Mark’s best childhood friend and his wife at a restaurant in Old Town. They are fluent English speakers – as are Mark’s sister, brother-in-law and niece whom we’d met for a delightful dinner in Hamburg a couple of nights earlier.
It was early afternoon when we arrived at Mark’s parents’ home. His mother had the dining room table beautifully set for cake and coffee, complete with the small proper dessert forks that Mark always uses at home. Cake, I have learned, is de rigueur in German households when entertaining guests – and it doesn’t matter what time of day you arrive. Cake will be served!
Conversation was lively and never-ending, with Mark and Andrew interpreting German and English at lightning speed. At one point, Mark turned to me and started speaking German, so confused we all sometimes were by the fast conversational ping-pong. But the funny thing was, although I didn’t know what they were saying without the translation, I did understand the general feeling of their words by the way they spoke. It reminded me of the old adage, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
Laughter – clearly an international language – was going strong as well. These lovely people have a zest for life that is contagious, and it became clear that Mark carries with him a huge dose of his parents’ kindness, compassion and joie de vivre.
It was getting late and time to head back to Hamburg. Mark and Andrew were driving us to Copenhagen in the morning, where Herb and I would begin our cruise to Norway. We all hugged each other, that all-too-familiar feeling of love and sadness that never fails to pierce my soul when I have to say good-bye.
We may not speak the same language, but I feel a profound connection to these people who have welcomed our son into their hearts. I feel as if I know them, even though we’ve only shared two brief visits. And although I may never master any more German words other than my humble basic travel phrases, I know deep inside that’s not what is important.
The only thing that matters in any language is love.