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Trip to America

It’s pretty unusual for a band from the Eifel region of Europe to receive an invitation to sing its dialect songs in America – unusual even for us musicians in Wibbelstetz, though we have already given successful concerts in France, Belgium, and Berlin. When Dr. Dieter Pesch from the open-air museum called us at the beginning of 2002 and mentioned the possibility of us appearing at the German Heritage Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, we were totally psyched! But when the "Räuber" from Cologne were picked over us, our disappointment was just as great as our enthusiasm had been.

Fate would offer us a second chance the very next year, however. And after a few uncertain weeks in which it repeatedly seemed that our US-trip might be canceled because of the war in Iraq, we finally had our plane tickets in hand after all. As we climbed out of the plane in Philadelphia and faced the 95º heat and high humidity, the whole situation had something surreal about it: Wibbelstetz in America – it was difficult to comprehend.

But after a one-hour tour of the sections and suburbs of Philly, our guide from the museum – with plenty of help from his back-seat drivers – managed to get us pointed in the direction of Kutztown, where we arrived hungry, thirsty, and rather tired. Before we could climb into the hard and creaky beds of our dormitory at Kutztown University, we still had to take a quick look at the main stage on which we would be appearing.

And to our surprise, the stage equipment we had ordered in advance was almost entirely present. Only the acoustic guitar, an Ovation, was totally unsatisfactory. The rest was okay, so we could then sleep soundly in the truest sense of the word.

Saturday morning we started in the cafeteria with a generous breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. (After a few days, we couldn’t stand the sight of the stuff anymore.) We then headed over to the festival grounds, where a few thousand people were already walking around at that early hour.

To get ourselves in the mood a little before the first show, we first ordered a beer in the only beer garden at the festival. It would become a sort of headquarters for us during the next ten days.

After talking it over briefly, we decided on Budweiser, which was served to us in a two-liter plastic pitcher. This word “pitcher” could be directly related to the Eifel dialect expression "eene petche john." After the Heidelberg Brass Band played some beautiful German folk songs like "Oh du lieber Augustin" and "Rosamunde," the stage set-up was switched around and we could begin. Just to be safe, we started off with an English song ("It's good to see you"), just like we often do back home.

We felt right at home on the stage of the Dinner Theater. It reminded us a little of our barn concert that time in Bescheid. The seats were always full at our shows. The American public responded very well to us.

But it soon became clear that the large audience enjoyed our dialect songs even more. I introduced these in my rather clumsy English ("I croft enus" ???), but I received strong support from my multilingual colleagues Schroeder and Metzele, so the listeners ultimately knew what the songs were about. But after a few days of really struggling to make these announcements, it started to go considerably better. In fact, there were supposedly even some people in the audience who understood what I was saying!

After the first shows on Saturday and Sunday, audience members already started coming up to us, bombarding us with questions ("Where do you come from?") and showering us with compliments (“Great show, guys!"). We do experience these things sometimes when we play bars back home, but none of us would have dared to think that our music would resonate so positively in the Land of Unlimited Possibilities. We tested out various repertoires, and although we ultimately settled on pure rock’n’roll and played it hard, it was especially the older listeners who patted us on the back and told us about their connections to Germany.

Most of them had ancestors who had come from good ol' Germany. Others, like Erich "you know what I mean" from Leverkusen or Hans Knobloch had emigrated themselves. All five musicians and even our virtuoso sound man Peter Rosué were surrounded after the shows by people who wanted to know something about us, our heritage, and our music. It usually took a half hour for us to get to our first pitcher of beer.

The Temperatures

Hardly a drop of rain fell during the entire ten-day festival, and the temperatures always fluctuated between 85 and 100 degrees. Even at 11:00 at night, as we made our way from the Kutztown Tavern towards the dormitory, the mercury stood at 82º. Our shirts and pants were drenched after every show. The sweat started dripping before we even played the first song. We experienced the hottest day in Philadelphia, shortly before our return. It was almost 104º with unbelievably high humidity. At such temperatures, shopping wasn’t exactly a pure pleasure.

Our Quarters

The rooms in the Kutztown University dormitory were quite Spartan, but okay, all in all. And anyway, the band and its entourage – including the “better halves” of Michael Metzele, Jürgen Schroeder, and Peter Rosué – spent almost all of their time in the breezy covered walkways that ran along the inside of the quadrangle-type building. These places were ideal for smoking and chatting, and popping open the last beer before going to bed. This didn’t sit too well with our “mission leader,” Toni Berger, whom we apparently woke from a deep sleep on a frequent basis. The two gentlemen from the museum generally went to bed earlier than we did. They’re just not rock'n’rollers.

What the rooms lacked in luxury was made up by the university’s fantastic sports and recreation facilities: indoor basketball court, swimming pool, track-and-field stadium, fields, etc. etc. etc....

Sports and Recreation

All of us in the band are sports fanatics, so we went straight to the basketball court after our first successful shows. Linus, our special agent for such matters, talked the custodian into giving us a ball, and Sharron/Stephanie, our fairy godmother, even got hold of her kids’ soccer ball. We went at it pretty hard right from the first basketball game, in which the ex-handball player Peter Rosué proved effective. Although I was the best scorer with five baskets, I finally succumbed to a bad muscle strain and ceded the victory to Team Rosué/Zwingmann/Krämer. In the following days, we restricted ourselves to kicking penalty shots, with Michael and Jürgen winning one game apiece. We also went jogging during the cooler morning hours.

The Women

With Andrea, Sabrina, and "Alexe," we had brought three very peaceable creatures along with us. This trio only seemed disgruntled after taking a day-trip to a cloister with the Bergers. As a result, we rented them their own vehicle, so they could motor around in the area without being dependent on the museum’s van. Otherwise, the ladies kept up the spirits in the troupe, doctored various wounds, and paid a king’s ransom for clothes in the Reading outlet stores... But not even the ladies could exceed Linus’ uncontrolled spending sprees.

The Festival

The Pennsylvania Dutch Festival has been held in Kutztown for over 50 years. Americans of German descent come from all over the country to learn about the customs and manners of their ancestors.

Old crafts and historical agricultural devices are demonstrated and displayed. There are also foods prepared according to old recipes from the German homeland. Lectures are given on “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a type of Palatine dialect that the first settlers brought with them to America, and which has survived for over 200 years.

Over 100,000 visitors crowded the stands during the course of the festival, watching the blacksmith at work, eating a "Brotwarscht," or admiring the huge ox that turned on the spit.

You would need at least one full day to see all the attractions and stands. The variety was almost too much to comprehend. And to cool off, you could stand in the misting tent and let yourself be sprayed with cold water.

The Area around Kutztown

The landforms and vegetation in Pennsylvania, especially around Kutztown, remind you strongly of the Eifel region of Europe. Around the well-manicured houses – typically German – are large lawns and not too many bushes. The forests grow wild, and the undergrowth is rarely cleared out. There are all kinds of small churches and parishes of various denominations. The people of Pennsylvania seem extremely hard-working and devout. Alcohol is drunk only in moderation, and there is little smoking. The university is the most impressive thing: Germany has no such thing as a town of 4,500 people with its own college of 7,000 students. Furthermore, the campus was spotless and very well equipped.

Our American Friends

On the very first day, we became acquainted with LeRoy and Bill, who held a sort of soapbox speech in Pennsylvania Dutch on the main stage.

Leroy and Bill, who held a dialogue in Pennsylvania Dutch on the main stage. grew close to our hearts. Whenever either of them appeared in the beer garden, our pitcher magically remained filled to the top.

LeRoy, who was 79 years old and had seen active service in World War Two and Korea, would ensure that our beer pitcher was never empty from that point on. Whenever he was in the vicinity of the beer garden, the pitcher was automatically refilled by our bartenders Butch and Sam – another unbeatable duo. On the way “home” to our dorm, we first stopped off at the tent of the "Echoing Hearts.” With their bare feet and such, they initially seemed like a hippie commune to us.

On the American Independence Day, we had an unforgettable celebration at the tent of the "Echoing Hearts." We had a difficult time saying goodbye to these wonderful human beings.

But after quickly establishing a connection and singing some songs together with them, we were like one heart and soul with Randy, the bass player, Randy, the fiddler, Josey "Rosebud", the "bluegrass" apprentice, Chris ("I wish I were a single girl again"), Levi "the sex-pistol bass player" and sweet Diana on the flute. Karen Ludwig also belonged to this colorful troupe, besides conducting the children’s program at the festival. Our evening together on the American Independence Day (July 4th) will especially remain in our memories as long as we live. It was simply indescribably wonderful. We accepted an invitation to an equally pleasant visit at the home of Karlene and Keith Brintzenhoff, who sing songs from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. These are two very loveable people who introduced us to their friends, including the wonderful José with her French songs. There was also good food and local wine.

We had a wonderful evening of music, wine, beer, and grilled food with Keith and Karlene Brintzenhoff – who sing old songs in Pennsylvania Dutch – with Lucy Muth in the middle.

"Oh God, was kind of outfit is that?" we wondered as we experienced the "Blue Mountain Gospel Express" on stage for the first time. These older gentlemen sang mostly songs with a religious touch, besides playing bluegrass music. But when we happened to find ourselves in front of the microphone together with Bob Hamm and his colleagues, we were the recipients of a multitude of kind gestures from these fellow musicians. Steve, the banjo player, loaned me his much better guitar for the rest of the week, and front man Bob thanked God in the company of all our fellow musicians for the opportunity to meet the "nice guys from Cologne." He then went on to pray for the safe return of Wibbelstetz to our Eifel homeland, and a few of us hardened types suddenly had weak knees and tears in our eyes.

The high point of the mutual displays of affection between the two contrasting bands was the gift of the American flag on the open stage. My attempt to represent my country with a statement about the temporarily disrupted relations between Germans and Americans was halted by the tears running down my cheeks. The other guys were wisely wearing sunglasses; otherwise, at least Gege would have been quite visibly emotional. It was unforgettable how the fiddler Norman, at over 70 years old, started rocking on “Orange Blossom Special.”

Bruce and Stephanie

A super guy, this Bruce Siegmann, our stage manager. In spite of his severe disability, he had everything under firm control.

Stephanie was the first American creature with whom we had direct contact. She provided us with a birch beer (tastes somewhat like medicine and hardly contains any alcohol) and gave us crucial tips for finding the best way to New York.

Stephanie (here with her cuddly daughter Natalie) took care of us like a mother.

In our long years in Wibbelstetz, we have never met anyone like Bruce, the manager of the main stage. A soul of a human being severely disabled by paralysis, but who more than makes up for it by the skillful handling of his crutches. It wouldn’t have taken much for Peter Rosué to have shamelessly dumped his Alexe for Bruce. The two were as inseparable as Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. And Bruce is also a good musician, too, as he repeatedly demonstrated.

Under the categories of friends, we can’t forget Randy Wert, the German teacher from Kutztown. He wants to build a school partnership together with Ferdi Steinberger of the Marienschule Euskirchen. Susan Haas, the journalist from the "Morning Call," wrote a wonderful story about the "German guys" who were creating a sensation on the main stage.

And then there were the girls (Leah, Erica, and Jen) from the musical troupe of "Blatt´s Dinner Theater," who were knockout singers and helped us out on “Himbeermarmelad.”

Randy Wert, German teacher from Kutztown, whom we might already see again next year. He is planning a student exchange with the Marienschule Euskirchen.

The Day-Trip to New York

Because of our daily duties at the festival, we hardly saw any of Pennsylvania itself. However, thanks to the help of the "Echoing Hearts," we were able to take at least one day out for a trip to New York. Manhattan with its skyscrapers and giant advertising displays, the never-ending flow of traffic, and the constantly honking taxis – it’s all overwhelming, especially for someone from the Eifel region.

The tour with the double-decker bus through Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich Village, and other famous districts gave almost all of us the feeling of being in an entirely strange world. The ride past “Ground Zero,” where the Twin Towers had once stood, was particularly special. But somehow we were all happy when the bus started back in the direction of Kutztown around 9:30 that night. Such a megalopolis can make you a bit scared, especially at night, when dark figures inhabit the street scenes.

Summary

It was well worth it to appear with "Wibbelstetz" in the USA. And contrary to all expectations, our music met with the greatest possible response there. We met people who left a deep impression on our hearts, and whom we would like to see again. We owe our thanks to the Open-Air Museum of Kommern and the Landschaftsverband Rheinland for offering us the chance to go to America. We shall see whether the numerous inquiries during the festival bring us to play in the States again next year. If not, we will not fret. We had a super time in Kutztown - and no one can ever take away our memories of it.



Günter Hochgürtel for Wibbelstetz
July 2003
English translation by Randall Wert