Mary Oldenburg.

Growing up, I didn’t really care much for my last name. It was long, compared with my friends’ names, and sometimes I would get teased about being old. And it had that “u” in the last syllable, which most people assumed was spelled with an “e,” requiring an explanation or a correction that never failed to embarrass me.

But one day, in what felt like a whirlwind of an instant, a new kindergarten teacher at my elementary school forever changed my perspective on being an Oldenburg.

Her name was Ruth VandenBergh. She was tall and slim, with short brown hair and a German accent that seemed to dance through her smile as she spoke. “I have something to show you!” she said in what may have been the most gregarious voice I had ever heard from a teacher. “Your name is a city in Germany…and it has a castle!”

Mrs. VandenBergh showed me the town of Oldenburg on a map and told me that her parents still lived in Germany. And most impressive of all to my younger self, she explained that burg in German means “castle” and berg means “mountain.” Suddenly, the thought of making sure that last syllable was spelled correctly made perfect sense.

A few months went by, and Mrs. VandenBergh once again stopped me in the hallway. She handed me a small package that her parents had sent from Germany. Inside were several postcards from Oldenburg and two silver charms. One was decorated with the city’s coat of arms, and the other featured my namesake castle. It was the most precious gift I had ever received, and it became the beginning of a charm bracelet that I still have.

It felt as if Mrs. VandenBergh had given me the world that day.

And all these years later, I believe that the world is exactly what was hidden in that little box with the lovely charms from Oldenburg.

    *     *     *     *     *

Oldenburg At Last!

Oldenburg lies about two hours southwest of Hamburg in the state of Lower Saxony. It’s an easy stretch of highway that passes through verdant farmlands and small German towns. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this place I’d held so long in my heart, but my first reaction was that it was much more of a city than the hamlet I had imagined.

Our traveling foursome headed to the Tourist Information office, a bright modern space housed in an old brick building. “My name is Oldenburg and I have come from California to see your city!” I told the young woman behind the information desk as I showed her my passport. When I got married, Oldenburg became my legal middle name. It’s a bit of a mouthful, especially with a “burg” followed by a “berg,” but it’s who I am.

The desk clerk seemed surprised and interested that I had the same name as her town. Surely there must be other pilgrims who find their way to their namesake cities, I thought. Maybe they simply show up without passports in hand. I had also tucked my childhood charm bracelet inside my purse. I knew that if I was finally making the journey to Oldenburg, I wanted my younger self to be there right beside me.

I bought an Oldenburg mug and a bookmark and picked up a map with highlighted tourist destinations. “Be sure you go inside the church,” the woman at the TI had urged. “It’s a real surprise.”

At the Tourist Information Office.

St. Lamberti-Kirche & A Farmers’ Market

We began our walk in the city center, a mix of modern shops and interesting architecture from past centuries. When we arrived at St. Lamberti-Kirche, I was immediately transported to the day we’d spent a few years ago in Honfleur, France, where a farmers’ market had been set up next in a square next to an old church. The Oldenburg farmers’ market setting was almost identical. Different country. Different language. But so very much the same.

The Oldenburg farmers’ market by St. Lamberti-Kirche.
A variety of local jams and spreads…
…and flowering plants.

St. Lamberti was built between 1155 and 1234 as a Romanesque hall church. It’s the city’s oldest church and tallest building. At the end of the eighteenth century, a neo-Classical rotunda was constructed inside, creating a circular design inside the angular brick exterior. The church was refurbished again between 2007 and 2009, and it’s a dramatic contrast between interior and exterior.

St. Lamberti-Kirche’s 12th century exterior…
…with its surprisingly contemporary interior design…
…complete with a suspended plexiglass cross that at first appears clear, but reveals shades of magenta and blue as you walk closer.

Oldenburg Schloss

I was most excited to see the castle, which had been filed away in my imagination since I first knew such a place existed. But when we arrived, what stopped me in my tracks was that the castle looked more like a palace – which it actually was. It turns out that the original medieval castle was built in 1108 by the Counts of Oldenburg, with a moat added around 1400. But in the early 17th century, a Renaissance residential palace was built on the site, and the last remains of the medieval castle were removed in the 18th century due to dilapidation.

Today the palace houses the State Museum of Art and Cultural History.

The Oldenburg Castle-Turned-Palace.
Window detail, fit for a Count!

The Schlossgarten

Just outside the palace, we happened upon a small lake that seemed to serve as an entrance to the palace gardens. Flowering shrubs in shades of lilac and deep purple spilled over the lake, and an elegant marble-looking viewing platform peeked out from between the trees. We stopped at a few spots along the serene summer setting before heading back to the city center.

The Schlossgarten Lake casts a tranquil reflection.

Heading to the lake for a swim.
Looking toward the city center from the Schlossgarten.

Kaffee Hamburg

We turned back into the city center in search of Kaffee Hamburg, known for its baked goods as well as tasty breakfast and lunch fare. Although the patio was inviting, I was intrigued by the charmingly self-described “shabby chic” interior, with its old china tableware and upholstered chairs. After lunch, we ordered coffees and traditional waffles. I knew we would be having a waffle break on one of our upcoming Norwegian cruise excursions and thought it would be fun to compare it with the traditional German variety.

Kaffee Hamburg at Markt 23.
The cozy, welcoming interior.
My cappuccino was served in a small wooden tray along with a glass of water and a cookie…
…and our heart-shaped waffle was topped with powdered sugar.

       *     *     *     *     *

Back outside, it was time to pick up the car for the drive back to Hamburg. It had been an extraordinary day, walking the streets of a town that had helped define my heritage. I thought about Mrs. VandenBergh and wondered if she could have possibly known the importance her kind gesture would have in my life. I took the bracelet from my purse and looked at the charms one more time.

“We made it,” I silently whispered to my younger self.


  • What a lovely post. I teamed up. The impact of one teacher that “connects” is immeasurable.


    • Thanks so much, Jennifer. So glad you enjoyed this! You’re so right that it’s impossible to measure a teacher’s impact, and I would also add “all of us” to that idea. The smallest act of kindness may have a profound meaning to someone beyond anything we can possibly imagine.

  • I agree with Jennifer. This WAS a very delightful post Mary. Teachers are so important and most never know of the huge impact just one gesture or comment will have on a student. I especially enjoyed the detail of this post. I love the charm and the idea of bringing your younger self along on this journey.

    • Susan, I’m happy to know that this resonated with you! It’s fascinating to me how a profound life experience can stay with us forever. It literally felt as if I wasn’t alone on this journey to Oldenburg, and I think my younger self would have been overjoyed with how it turned out. 🙂

  • What a beautiful emotional experience, it brought tears to my eyes. Your teacher was definitely serendipity.

    • Rebecca! It’s wonderful to hear from you. I hope you are well and traveling again, too. I love your comment…thank you! “Serendipity” is truly the perfect word. 🙂

  • Such a beautiful story about your name. I will share this post with my daughter who is an elementary
    school teacher.
    As always your photos are spectacular.
    Some years back we were on a cruise and spent two days in Hamburg. It was a favorite and made extra
    special by visiting Jawith friends who had spent time on the Monterey Peninsula while attending the Naval
    Post Graduate school in Monterey.

    • Many thanks for the lovely comment, Jacqueline. And thanks also for passing it on to your daughter. It’s interesting how vividly we can remember the teachers who impacted us, especially in those early years. And Hamburg – what a wonderful surprise of a city! Glad to hear it was a favorite of yours as well!

  • Oh Mary, what a wonderful story with such a delightful ending! How proud Mrs VandenBergh would have been to see her pupil treasure her kindness so many years later. I think one of the luxuries of travelling independently is having the opportunity to explore small towns like Oldenburg, to potter around the little markets and “discover” the interesting corners here and there. That this one held such significance for you personally made it all the more memorable – I am thrilled that you made it and grateful that you took us with you too x

    • That’s so sweet of you, Gill…thank you! It was my pleasure to share this story. I love what you write about the luxury of independent travel. Throughout our time in Oldenburg, I kept thinking that there are so many smaller towns with interesting sites, cafés and places worth exploring that might not be on our radars. I’m forever grateful that Oldenburg was on mine.

  • What a lovely visit and what a lovely story about the connection between your maiden name and this charming town.

    I have a similar name dilemma with Erin. People either assume I am Irish, or if I am on the phone, they want to spell it Aaron. I have to explain that I don’t have a drop of Irish blood and that Erin was simply selected because it is easy to pronounce in both English and Turkish.

    • Erin, thanks so much! It’s great to hear from you. Names are a funny thing, aren’t they? So personal on the one hand and sometimes difficult to explain on the other. And the fact that we typically don’t have a say in the matter when it comes to our names further adds to the complexity!
      I’ve been slowly making my way through your world cruise posts. What a fantastic adventure!

  • What a fabulous story Mary and what a treasure to find your “fairytale” heritage living up to your expectations. And what a treasure your teacher was too. This looks like such a lovely town. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Linda! It truly was a treasure to visit my namesake town. Interestingly, Mrs. VandenBergh was not *my* teacher. She had heard my last name and sought me out at school to tell me about Oldenburg…a remarkable gesture that I’ve carried with me all these years later.

  • Mary, what an absolutely lovely post! It is amazing how much influence those special teachers can have in our lives. I remember my first grade teacher Miss Irene Hoad (Precious Blood Catholic School in Detroit) traveling to Spain during the summer holidays. I thought this was the height of glamour – she brought back posters of matadors and flamenco dancers that I still remember! I recall gazing at those posters and thinking “I am going to see that someday”. Your wonderful teacher would, I’m sure, be thrilled to know how much her gifts and attentions meant to you even after all these years. God bless all our hard-working educators!

    On another note, I loved the Maud Hart Lovelace quote used in your previous post. My sister and I are lifelong Betsy-Tacy fans, and a few years ago when we were still living in Minnesota we had the opportunity to take my daughter Jennifer to Mankato to see their homes (now turned into a museum and shop). A fun day we enjoyed tremendously!

    Looking forward to reading about your Norway adventures! Take care.


    • Maureen, thank you so much! I love your story about your first grade teacher, and I can just imagine a young girl being enchanted by posters of matadors and flamenco dancers. It’s fascinating how so many experiences from our childhoods are a blur, but when it comes to special teachers, it’s as if they were in our lives just yesterday.

      I was born and raised in St. Paul and had no idea that Maud Hart Lovelace was from Mankato! Thanks for sharing that! Growing up, my neighborhood girlfriends and I would cart home Betsy-Tacy books from the library. I can still see those book covers 🙂

  • Absolutely a magical story and post. Wouldn’t you love to have cappuccino served liked that everyday? I know I would!

    • Aw, thanks Deb. I don’t think my feet touched the ground the entire time I was there. 🙂 And yes to having cappuccino served with such style! It tasted really great, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *