Nomad Life

Published: Oct 16th, 2021 · Nonfiction | Travel
Location: Frankfurt, Germany
Travel Dates: Sep 21st-28th, 2021
Days Nomadic: 209 · Miles Traveled: 22148

Mittel-Gründau

Chapter 9

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A path ran along both banks of the river where people walked and rode bikes at all hours of the day. During evening twilight, young couples hung their feet over the retaining wall with their arms wrapped around each other. Groups of friends lounged in the grass nearby drinking beers and conversing with one another. Some people moved efficiently down the path and with a purpose, but it never felt like anybody was in a hurry, including the river. The water flowed too slowly for me to tell which direction it was moving, so I dropped a leaf in one day and watched it mosey downstream toward its junction with the Rhine and on to the North Sea.

A church and a lone tower—both constructed from the same orange-red stone—are the only buildings in the city center that survived the air raids of World War II. They stood out amongst the shiny skyscrapers and modern apartment complexes that now dominate the city. The new European Central Bank Headquarters were down the street from our building. It was made of blue glass that twisted as it rose toward the sky like a strand of DNA.

It can be challenging to meet new people as a nomad, but I make a conscious effort to form relationships with locals whenever I see the opportunity. I made friends with a man who worked the front desk in our building. He had a buzzed head and well-trimmed beard and was probably a little younger than me. Whenever I passed through the lobby, he said hello and made himself approachable for quick chats. One morning Skutull and I were headed to the river path for a run when we struck up a conversation.

“Do you have any restaurant recommendations?” I asked.

He thought about it for a minute, started writing on a sticky note, then said, “Come back later today and I will think about it. Right now I’m not so hungry, so it’s difficult.”

When I returned, he printed out a document containing a list of his recommendations, complete with the type of cuisine, location, and telephone number. The fonts varied in size and the text was pleasantly spaced. It looked very official. I felt like a teacher accepting a student’s written report.

We ate goulash, schnitzel, and apple strudel at a German restaurant the first night. Then we ate with our hands at an African restaurant a few days later. This type of African food has a special place in my heart because Shelby and I’s first date was at a similar restaurant that used to exist in Boulder called Ras Kassa’s. They shut down a few years ago after Google purchased their building from the landlord and leveled it to build a new campus.

Shelby researched the local cuisine of Frankfurt and insisted that we walk across the river to one of the traditional restaurants that served schnitzel with seven-herb green sauce and Apfelwein. I joked with her that these “traditional” restaurants were probably where they send the river cruise tourists.

The air was warm the night Shelby finally convinced me to try the “traditional Frankfurt food.” A tall woman sat us on their outdoor patio at a long picnic-style table with benches running along either side, which we shared with a German-speaking couple about our age. Skutull laid in the gravel under our feet and guarded us from a cat or mouse that was rummaging through the shrubbery. As daylight faded to darkness, we enjoyed our food and observed that we were the only non-Germans at the restaurant. Shelby was right, it was both better and felt more authentic than I had anticipated.

My favorite place to buy food wasn’t at a restaurant, but a local market near the “New Old Downtown” called Kleinmarkthalle. I purchased bread full of seeds and herbs from a woman who told me, “It’s all organic. I grow the cereal, we grind it, and I made the bread.” I handed her a €5 note. She gave me change, which I dropped into a donation box that had a picture of a deer on it. “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Danka. It’s for the animals,” she said, holding her hand over her heart.

Her shop neighbored several produce stands that displayed fresh fruits and vegetables piled high and neat. I reached out and grabbed an avocado, but a man who didn’t speak English snatched it out of my hand, then gestured for me to pick out what else I wanted.

I pointed to the strawberries, “Eins.”

Then the raspberries, “Eins.”

And the mangoes, “Zwei.”

He wrapped each item individually with paper, then placed them in my bag. After I paid, he shook my hand and patted me on the back while smiling.

All of the fruit from this market was incredible, but the mangos were special for me because they were nostalgic. I don’t know why it’s impossible to find good mangoes in the US, but it is. My family traveled to Europe when I was a kid and I have vivid memories of me and my siblings devouring mangoes whenever we could get our hands on them. My younger sister became notorious on that trip for ordering nothing but a pile of sliced mango for dinner. Even though I’ve been to Europe nearly a dozen times as an adult, it’s been years since I’ve eaten a perfect mango. Each bite sent me back to memories of family meals in Italy after long days walking in the sun and eating gelato.

The German elections took place while we were in Frankfurt, which was the first election since 2005 that Angela Merkel didn’t run for Chancellor. It was a big election and I was told by multiple people that the country is nervous about a “golden age” ending, but I almost didn’t notice that the election was taking place.

I asked my new friend at the front desk what the main political issues of the election were and he told me, “Climate change.” He explained to me that parts of Germany were devastated by floods earlier in 2021, which launched climate change into the front seat of politics. He said that all of the parties want Germany to expand its global leadership in environmentalism, but that their strategies to accomplish that goal is what politicians were campaigning on.

We saw evidence of Germany’s eco-conscious culture throughout our stay. The lights in most buildings had motion sensors and turned off automatically when nobody was around. Restaurants offered take-away food, but many required us to purchase reusable tupperware, which we could later return and receive a refund for. I found a craft beer store that sold dozens of “alcoholfrei” (alcohol-free) beers. I loaded up my bag with hefeweizens, dunkles, and wheat ales. Some of them were in cans, but most were in glass bottles. I’d noticed at the grocery store that there were machines people shoved their used bottles into and it appeared to dispense money in return. I learned from the guy working at the craft beer store that you pay a “deposit” when you purchase any single-use bottle in Germany and you can get the money back by returning it to one of these collection machines. Not only do they recycle many of the collected bottles, but companies must also accept returns of their used, undamaged bottles for reuse.

We lived low-key, low-stress lives in Germany. Most days we walked to the market and purchased fresh food to cook for dinner. I found an outdoor gym near the ECB building where metal poles sprung from a soft, synthetic mat and bent into the shape of dip bars and pull up bars. It wasn’t fancy, but combined with my trio of elastic resistance bands, I could do a full-body workout. I was never alone at the outdoor gymp—there were usually three or four other people exercising. One cool, foggy morning there were two girls around my age who wore knitted sweaters and did nothing but body-weight squats for almost an hour while a shirtless, shoeless man with impressive abs did situps on a bench next to them. His dog roamed the area off leash and gave him a kiss whenever he finished a set.

Skutull enjoyed walking along the river multiple times per day. There were ducks that made weird noises. He never chased one, but he always kept a close eye on them. The only downside of the river walk was the broken glass scattered all over the cobblestone paths. Public drinking is legal in Germany, which inevitably leads to occasional dropped bottles.

One night Shelby and I were walking back from dinner when we noticed something in the window of our apartment from across the street. Our studio was on the fifth floor and the sky was dark—all we could make out was a small shape that resembled a round head with pointed ears. I waved toward the window, thinking maybe it was Skutull. He stood up and swiveled his head back and forth between the window and the studio front door. I wondered how long he’d been looking for us.

Shelby walked by a fish market early in our stay that she wanted to buy salmon fillets from, but time slipped by and we never purchased fish from the market. On our final night in Frankfurt, Shelby noticed that the market also served dinner and decided that’s where we were going to eat. We walked into the shop at a normal dinner hour, but were surprised to see that there was nobody sitting amongst their two dozen tables. “Are you sure we want to eat here?” I asked her, wondering why the four restaurants we passed on the walk over were full while this one sat empty.

Before she could answer, a man emerged from the kitchen and sat us at a table. The menu design was impressive—it was arranged like a book with colorful illustrations and curvy text printed on textured cardstock and bound in leather. I ordered the trout with potatoes; Shelby ordered a trio of fish with potatoes.

Just as I was about to admit that I might be wrong about the fish market restaurant like I was wrong about the traditional Frankfurt restaurants across the river, our dinner arrived at the table. Shelby’s meal was served in a cast iron skillet. Her potatoes were crispy and her fish fillets had a creamy sauce to go with them.

Then they set my food down, which consisted of a whole boiled trout served in a puddle of warm water with a side of boiled potatoes and a ramekin of melted butter. I’m an adventurous eater and I genuinely enjoy a wide variety of food, but this was the blandest meal I’ve ever eaten. None of my food had a speck of salt on it. It’s not that I thought the whole trout was weird or gross—I love stuffed whole trout and used to order it at one of my favorite restaurants back home—there were texture and flavor issues specific to the food on my plate.

Since the fish was boiled instead of baked or grilled, the skin was still slimy as if I’d pulled it fresh out of the river. The meat was overcooked and not tender enough to pull the spine out, so I had to peel the skin back with my fork, then scrape the flesh off the fish’s ribs, bite-by-bite. It didn’t taste bad—it just tasted like unseasoned trout—but I spent the entire meal picturing Smeagol from Lord of the Rings snatching a fish from a river, then sinking his teeth into it’s flesh while it was still alive.

I ate every speck of meat off the trout skeleton and a few of the boiled potatoes. When we left and were walking down the street, Shelby asked me, “Did you feel like Smeagol?”

“Yes!” I said, “The entire time.”

“You were a good dog eating that,” she said, interlocking her arm with mine.

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We visited Ellis Island back in August when we were living in New York City. I was eager to search their records database for my ancestors because I’d always been told that my paternal lineage immigrated to the US through Ellis Island at the start of the 20th century.

Shelby and I were on the first boat departing Battery Park Saturday morning, hoping to secure a computer on Ellis Island before the crowds descended. We circled the Statue of Liberty, then walked once around the island to take a closer look. It was smaller than I expected, but in its time it was a lavish monument that was intended to signal to each person arriving from across the Atlantic Ocean that the land they were about to set foot on was a free land full of free people.

When our boat docked and the reception building came into view, a sense of excitement built in my chest. I wasn’t hunting history, I was hunting my history. That’s something I’ve never experienced, despite the two years I worked at an online genealogy startup.

The reception hall was upstairs. I’m sure that on a normal weekend day in August, the hall would be teeming with tourists, but on this day during the pandemic, we were the only people there. I pictured family members too old for me to have met standing on the very tile that I was standing on, eager to start their new lives.

The immigration records search stations were also fairly empty. I purchased a ticket at an automated kiosk, which cost something like $10 for twenty minutes of time on a computer. I sat down and got straight to work.

The early results weren’t encouraging. I typed “Thoutt” into the search bar with no other filters and pressed enter… Zero results.

I’ve always been told that the reason our last name has a silent “h” is that it was added by mistake when our ancestors came through Ellis Island. So I tried “Toutt,” and “Tout,” and every other variation I could think of... Still no matches.

I sent my grandpa a text asking if he knew how our last name was spelled before his grandparents immigrated to the US and changed it. He replied quickly and said he thought it was “Thaut,” so I typed that in and got… Zero search results.

Then he sent me a picture of a newspaper article published in 1975 titled, Nonagenarian recalls tribulations of trip here from Russia. This article is an interview of my great great grandmother on her immigration from Russia as an ethnic German.

The first time she and her husband crossed the Atlantic, they arrived at Ellis Island. They were herded into the lower ship deck for the month-long journey, during which their three children contracted measles. Many of the other children aboard died from the outbreak and their bodies were thrown into the sea. My great great grandmother’s mother had told her before they departed Russia that, “If the kids get chicken pox or measles, keep them very warm and let them sweat it out,” so she went against the advice of the physician onboard to keep the sick cool and instead forced her kids to snuggle together and wrapped them in blankets. The news article reads, “She told them if they didn’t keep really warm they would die and be tossed into the sea as the others were. They were so scared they didn’t dare move. But their lives were saved, so maybe ‘grandma’ knew what she was talking about.”

It seems the children had recovered by the time the ship docked at Ellis Island, but there was a new problem. Her husband had developed red, puffy eyes near the end of their journey. She passed the health examination, but her husband did not. They were forced to reboard the ship and head back to Europe, only this time to Germany. When they set sail again three months later, they made landfall in Galveston, Texas and took a train to Loveland, CO where they settled in 1907.

This story explained why I couldn’t find records of my family arriving at Ellis Island—they were never documented as having entered the country because they were sent back to Europe.

I felt a bit like I’d wasted both my time and money searching for records on Ellis Island that didn’t exist, but I was still glad I did it. Now that I’d had a taste of success uncovering my family history, I wanted to dig deeper.

My biggest remaining question was why and when the spelling of our last name changed. It’s something I’ve thought about on an almost daily basis for most of my life. I’m constantly reminded of how odd the silent “h” and double “t” ending is (our last name “Thoutt” is pronounced “t-out”) whenever I’m asked for my name, and, unlike most people, I’m forced to spell it out rather than say it.

Later that week I zeroed in on the “Thaut” spelling and did some research. After a few hours searching on the internet, I came across a University of North Florida webpage covering the history of the Thaut family.

The Thaut surname originates from the Volga colony of Messer, which is in southern Russia near the borders with Kazakhstan and Georgia. Back in the 18th century, Russia recruited German farmers to settle the Volga Valley in exchange for land and freedom to keep their language and traditions.

The promise of the Volga Valley didn’t last, though. In the newspaper article above, my great great grandmother stated that, “The farmers lived together in little villages, then went out to the field during the daytime. This was for protection, not only from the wolves that ran rampant, but from the thieves who came in bands and ransacked the villages.” After settling in the US, she received word from Russia that her parents had starved to death just a few days apart.

The UNF Thaut family webpage went back to the first ancestor that settled in the Volga Valley of Russia. His name was Wilhelm Thaut. The website states that he “arrived from Lubeck at the port of Oranienbaum on 4 July 1766 aboard the English frigate Love & Unity.”

The interesting thing is that Wilhelm Thaut was born Wilhelm Daut on 2 January 1747 to parents Johann Friedrich Daut & Anna Maria Dietrich of Mittel-Gründau, Germany.

According to the Dictionary of American Family Names, Daut is a short form of Dietrich, which is a very common German surname. So the spelling of our family name has changed not once, not twice, but three times that I know of: Dietrich => Daut => Thaut (circa 1766) => Thoutt (circa 1907).

As for why Wilhelm’s parents had the same last name, that beats me. Maybe there was a Game of Thrones thing going on.

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I looked up Mittel-Gründau and was surprised to discover that it’s a small German village located about 30 miles northeast of Frankfurt.

By some combination of coincidence and fate, I’ve moved to Europe and landed on the continent at the spot my ancestors lived 250 years ago. I have reverse migrated.

It was probably mostly in my head, but when I walked the streets of Frankfurt, I saw people who look like me and my family members. I wondered if the man I was ordering a sandwich from was a distant relative or perhaps even a Daut. Kleinmarkthalle has been around for centuries, acting as the main trading point for fresh foods in the Frankfurt region. My ancestors likely brought their harvest to market in the halls where I purchased mangoes and bread throughout our stay. I pictured them relaxing down by the river after a successful harvest, eating schnitzel with green sauce and Apfelwein.

If it weren’t for some promotional flyer or drunk guy at the local tavern idealizing the better life that could be had in the Volga Valley back in 1766, Wilhelm Daut might never have left Germany. The spelling of our last name might never have changed. I might have been born Zackarey Daut of Mittel-Gründau.

But that’s not what happened. Fate put the idea of moving from Mittel-Gründau to Russia in Wilhelm’s head, and fate put the idea of moving from Colorado to Europe in my head. I’m left wondering what that means, or if it means anything at all.

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Our adventure in pictures

We made it to Europe!
We made it to Europe!
The view from our studio.
The view from our studio.
Skutull watching for us on our way home from dinner.
Skutull watching for us on our way home from dinner.
The New Old Downtown
The New Old Downtown
 5 Euro sign near old ECB building
My attempt at schnitzel. All ingredients (including the beer) were purchased at Aldi.
My attempt at schnitzel. All ingredients (including the beer) were purchased at Aldi.

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