That’s no co-inky-dink

The large boat was on a tour throughout the very large port of Hamburg, Germany. We were part of a larger group of folks whose business plans included this portion of our trip. It seemed that the vast majority of the others were disinterested at best as they were jabbering louder and louder over the voice of our guide who was no small potatoes in the Hamburg Port Authorityscheme of things. He was a member of Germany’s Foreign Service and he had gotten stuck with this group of what I thought had become ugly Americans.

He was extremely knowledgeable about the comings and goings of the large ships and the containers they carried. Up to that point it had never occurred to me that the huge semi-trailer trucks I would see up and down American highways were really just carrying containers many of which had come from those we saw stacked upon stacks in the Hamburg port.

But what really caught my ear above all the hubbub around me was this guide’s additional information about Europeans who emigrated from Hamburg and all of Europe to the United States way back when. They weren’t just Germans. And they were leaving behind all of what they knew to adventure into a new world and a new life.

When the tour ended, our compatriots made a mad dash to the upper deck of the boat in pursuit of alcoholic beverages. But we stuck around a bit. I was more than a little embarrassed by our group’s behavior and I kind of wanted to apologize for them (even though they weren’t under my care), but I also wanted to pursue a little more information about the days when Hamburg was the place to go to catch a ride to America.

I timidly approached the tour guide and introduced myself. By that time I had discovered that the name “Gretchen” in Germany was a kind of gateway because most all Germans had read about Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust. That wasn’t necessarily a complimentary example of a Gretchen. Plus I had learned that Gretchen in Germany is a nickname for Margaret and is usually only used by young girls. So with my name as an introduction of some interest to him, my apologies on behalf of the group were waved off with a smile and I could go on with my questions about my own ancestors who had emigrated from the Schleswig-Holstein state north of Hamburg and in the far northern reaches of the country.

Klaus Tobien was the guide’s name and he was immediately both kind and interested in what I had to say. He asked a lot of questions about my family and was knowledgeable about that part of the country and the Frisian Islands from which they had come. He nodded and said that, most likely, my great-grandparents had found their way to America from the port of Hamburg.

Then he went the extra step and told me he would send me some more information about it all if I would be willing to share my mailing address. I did and thanked him profusely, but I figured that would be all. I was just thankful to have had a chance to let him know that not all of us were rude.

By the time we returned home just a week later there was a large and thick envelope from Klaus that included all manner of maps and historical information along with additional means to do my own research. He included a nice letter in which he recalled our conversation and his pleasure in meeting both my husband and me. Klaus and I corresponded a few times over the following months about the information he and I had shared.

Now fast forward about two years.

Terry and I found ourselves in a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had gone into the breakfast room and availed ourselves of the included morning meal. As we sat and ate, I saw a man and woman enter. I was so taken aback. It took me only a moment to stop chewing and say quietly to Terry, “Isn’t that Klaus from Hamburg?” They were seated in a blink of an eye (and behind Terry, of course), but he managed to turn around enough to see them and then turn back to me and said, “That’s definitely Klaus.”

So we finished our meal and I was the first to approach. “Herr Tobien? I’m Gret….” He immediately said, “Gretchen! What a nice surprise!” He introduced both of us to his wife and we had a brief discussion of what had brought the four of us to Puerto Rico.

The next thing we knew we were spending the entire day together touring a nearby rainforest and tasting the local roadside cuisine. I recall that his wife, Dr. Tobien, was less than enthusiastic about indulging in the food due to the less-than-immaculate conditions under which it was prepared. Nonetheless, their English was so good (our German non-existent) and they were so much fun and interested in the world around them that we had a perfectly marvelous excursion.

At the end of it all we offered to each other a place to stay in our own homes in America and Germany as well as sight-seeing assistance.

Again, Klaus and I kept up some sporadic correspondence.

A few years after that, Terry and I found ourselves planning another trip to Europe. I wrote to Klaus expressing our interest in just seeing him and his wife again and asking for his assistance in planning our trip. Well, let’s just say that while we did not take advantage of them in terms of lodging, we were thrilled that they invited us into their home outside of Hamburg, dined with them, and allowed Klaus to give us a driving tour schleswig_holsteinof my ancestors’ home area of Schleswig-Holstein. That day ended with a near-midnight meal as we watched the sun set over the Baltic Sea and picked out Denmark in the distance.

I have marveled over the connection we made. That initial contact and exchange of letters could have just dwindled off into nothing. But after the unplanned meeting in Puerto Rico I recall writing and saying something to the effect of “I no longer believe in coincidence. That could not have been a coincidence. I think God intended for us to meet again.”

That was several years before I could even begin to articulate any beliefs about God working in my life let alone the lives of people we had met. In our several letters and get-togethers we never got into a discussion of any depth about religion or our beliefs, but there was, I believe, an understanding between us that God had God’s hand in our relationship.

I’m just the one who said it out loud. I’m glad I shyly advanced that idea. That mutual understanding as to the underpinnings of our meeting led to a relationship that was much deeper than it might have been.

Terry and I were saddened to hear in a Christmas communiqué from Klaus’ wife a few years ago that Klaus had become ill and died. What a gift he was to us! His worldview was invaluable and his patience in explaining to us his feelings about everything from local culture to the horrors of World War II and his own and his parents’ involvement in it opened to us an insight we would never have had.

I have never believed in coincidence since that day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when we ran into a German man who we had met only briefly once before on a boat in the harbor of Hamburg, Germany.

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” – Jeremiah 29:11-14a

Sometimes we don’t even have to know that we’re seeking God with our hearts. God has ways of letting us know. Many times the way God does that is through the people who come into and through our lives even if only for a moment.

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