In the summer of 1987 my family and I were traveling in Germany, and we made an obligatory visit to Worms and Heidelberg. I exercised my pitiful German and most of the people I talked to wanted to exercise their English abilities, which were usually better than my German. Likewise people wanted to know where we came from in America, and I would explain that we came from farming country in Central Illinois, that had been settled mostly by Germans and Italians.
Pressed further about where in Germany the settlers had come from, twice I answered that they were mostly from Ostfriesland, in northwest Germany, which elicited a response of laughter both times. The second time this happened I asked why they were amused, and they responded that they knew that in America people made jokes about the foolishness of people in American southern states, or about Polish people. There in southern Germany they made fun of people from Ostfriesland as the fools. After that I changed the answer to say that our own people had come from the Frankfurt region or from die Schweiz, and the response was polite interest.
The discussion about Italian settlers followed a similar course. There were mostly farmers and restauranteurs in our area, known for their pastas and pizzas, like Mona’s and Capponi’s at Toluca Illinois. But Illinois meant “Chicago” to three people that I talked to, and one of them pantomimed a machine gun, when I answered ‘yes,’ that I knew some of the Capponi family, and they prepared fabulous food. It hadn’t crossed my mind until his pantomime that he was thinking all the while about Al Capone.
At Worms we visited the reconstructed Cathedral, retraced Luther’s steps, and enjoyed some Liebfraumilch, but I’ll never forget the look on the face of one of the local citizens when I answered that I was most interested in worshipping in the restored synagogue where Rashi had studied. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” the man responded.
You learn a lot when traveling, and sometimes you can’t help but become the butt of jokes yourself.