In the spring of 2008, I was sitting at a dinner table for my 20th birthday, surrounded by people I hardly knew.
I was studying abroad in Paris and had taken a train to visit my hometown friend and his host family in the large town of Monheim, near Cologne, Germany. It was a retreat from my tiny apartment and a hard couple of months adjusting to Paris' vastness and my own inexperience in the world.
It was my first time away from home, and my friend and I were missing West Virginia. As usual, I couldn't keep it to myself.
Everyone gathered around and started singing the song that made us feel right at home, temporarily transported, while the world outside carried on in another language.
Four years later, I would sing that song for them.
Since that first visit, the Mohr family of Monheim has always welcomed me as their own. When my trip fell in tandem with my birthday, they threw me a party and invited all their friends and neighbors to celebrate. They loaded my friend Neil and me in their old Mazda van, and took us on a road trip to Brussels and Amsterdam, where we stayed in youth hostels and got lost on purpose. We went to an amusement park, toured castles on the Rhine River, ate strange food and indulged in how delightfully foreign these things were. For two kids who grew up in rural West Virginia, everything was.
I speak roughly 25 words in German, and one of them is "ashtray." Pretty useless. And when attempting those 24 other words, they're weighed down by a French accent that usually induces peals of laughter. Amazingly, that didn't keep me from making real connections with the members of the Mohr family, who made every effort to ensure I was included. We got by on their basic English and Neil's impressive knowledge of German -- and through music.
Neil and I adjusted to Europe well, but we kept thinking about home. We sat in his attic bedroom and talked a lot about it, Neil plucking strings on his guitar. Sometimes we would sing about West Virginia together. During our year abroad, he started a pop rock band, called, absurdly, Backyard Disco, and they became local celebrities in the town.
One reason the Mohrs chose Neil over several prospective American students was because he, like their son, played music. They loved listening to Neil sing and would sometimes gather around the living room and play his recordings. I'm certain they still have them today.
In 2010, I went back to visit, solo this time. A friend asked: Why Monheim again? Why not Berlin, Prague, Barcelona, someplace more exotic?
I explained that the most rote, seemingly mundane experiences are often the most rewarding. On that trip, I ended up speaking to a German elementary English class about life in the United States. Not surprisingly, I also ended up at a rock-themed bar, talked politics and sang songs with the locals.
On my most recent trip, in July, music connected German and West Virginian again when I sat in on a teenage metal band's rehearsal in a dingy basement practice room.
Also on that trip, Neil, who's living in Kentucky these days, and I stood before a crowd of 60, clutching microphones, exchanging nervous looks. It was a reception for the Mohrs' silver wedding anniversary. We had reunited to celebrate their 25 years together.
It shouldn't have been all that surprising that Germans knew our song. After all, American pop music, even Mac Miller, plays on their radio stations, too.
We knew this was our gift, as it was their gift to us so many years ago.
The music started and we began: "Almost Heaven, West Virginia ..."
Molly Born is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1944).