One of the ways I like to introduce myself when I meet someone for the first time is to explain that I am originally from Fort Worth but now reside here in Germany. I do this for a couple of reasons.
For one, it is a fun way to start a conversation as almost everyone on the planet has heard of Texas. Another reason is that I want Germans to know that, as a citizen of the United States, I value their language and culture and am doing my best to assimilate.
I am almost always complimented on my German grammar and vocabulary, and that, of course, is nice to hear. But I also consider myself an ambassador of sorts, and that means leaving everyone I meet with a positive impression of the United States and, naturally, my home state of Texas.
In fact, I have yet to meet anyone here who doesn’t have an affinity of sorts with Texas. I am always greeted with various compliments on our state, from remarks about The Alamo and Davy Crockett to catchy phrases like “Houston, we have a problem” — the latter much more entertaining when you hear it from a local’s German accent.
Many of the individuals I meet are surprised to learn that Texas is actually more diverse than just a colossal desert with an exponential number of oil wells and rodeo arenas.
When I describe the rolling Hill Country, the east Texas marshes or the gorgeous gulf coastline, they are somewhat astonished. Let alone when I bring up the museums, galleries, restaurants and entertainment venues.
I also like to share with my friends here the sheer number of counties, cities and towns with German names across the entire Lonestar State. It’s a gentle reminder that they, too, through their ancestors, had a hand in settling the Texas frontier. Naturally, this is a major source of pride.
The other day, while standing in line at the local grocery store, a sweet little lady complimented my face mask (being bright red, it also matched my jumper and socks). When I thanked her, she asked where my accent was from. I explained that I was a Texan, so perhaps that was why I did not sound like a local. And from there she lit up and I could tell from the corners of her eyes that she had a beaming smile under her mask.
“Oh my! I love Texas!”
And that’s exactly how she said it. In the most perfect English.
I thanked her and asked if she had ever been to visit our great state. She hadn’t, but she explained that she loved movies, television, and books about Texas and Texans in general. She mentioned Tommy Lee Jones, Chuck Norris and, wait for it ... Bruce Willis. I smiled and told her that I was unaware of Mr. Willis being from Texas. She then assured me that he was not a Texan. But that he might as well be, because he is so strong and full of courage.
“Young man, he is from here. Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein!”
She then went on to tell me that his father was an American GI, that his mother was a German and that he spent his first two years on this planet right here in this town, a few streets over and up the mountain.
It was eventually my turn to pay for my groceries and I thanked the lady for her time. When I got back to the apartment, I was able to Google more about the story. He is in fact the child of an American service member who married a local girl and, indeed, Bruce Willis had been born right here in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. I also found a news article reporting a visit the actor made back in 2005.
Apparently, he even showed up to the house where he lived as a toddler, both surprising and delighting the current owners.
They were pleased to show him around his old home, and even remarked on his attempts to communicate his gratitude in somewhat broken German.
It didn’t take much in the way of sleuthing skills, but I was also able to find the actual physical address and that naturally meant a bicycle ride across town to see the actor’s birth home in person.
And, thanks to the fact that the house rests on top of the highest peak in a town surrounded by mountains, I was able to burn away about a week’s worth of calories on the short, 5-kilometer journey.
Since the weather is currently “warm” here, the neighborhood locals can often be found in their front yards tending to gardens and flower beds during the daylight hours.
The old Willis family street is no exception, so it created a bit of a curiosity when a random cyclist wearing a Texas Christian University running shirt parked in front of a house and took a photograph. I simply said that I was a Texan and that I was there to see Bruce Willis’ childhood home, and then there was an immediate collective smile on everyone’s faces.
At the end of the day, this was much more than an exercise in fandom or the celebration of a well-known and talented actor. In many ways it is a reminder of just how small our world is, and the ever-diminishing number of degrees with which we are separated. I’m quite pleased to think that the sweet little German woman I met while standing in line actually equated Bruce Willis to a Texan because of the strength and courage of the characters he typically plays. This is significant because she said this to me knowing full well he was born in Germany.
Diplomacy is much more than government-appointed ambassadors and the execution of foreign policy. It is a matter of being considerate and thoughtful when meeting our neighbors abroad. Like trying to ask for directions in the local language, or even holding a door open for the person behind you. Sometimes it’s as simple as Bruce Willis discreetly surprising the people in the town where he was born with a quiet visit.
This is a recurring installment of a bi-monthly column on the experiences of an American Expat in Europe. Christopher Combest and his wife, Gerri Lyn (née Webb), maintain a permanent home at The Retreat in Cleburne, as well as an apartment in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. In addition to his art and writing, Combest is an adjunct instructor at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.