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Ashland's Little Germany

Every Thursday at 5 p.m., a group of Germans gather around their "stammtisch," or "regular's table" at Standing Stone Brewing Co., where they drink beer, play rummy and talk about home &

both their homes of birth and adopted homes in the Rogue Valley.

They are members of the German community living in Ashland, continuing the stammtisch tradition of their homeland, where pubs reserved tables for their regular customers. A large number of Ashlanders, both young and old, claim German citizenship, and they took widely varied paths to this mountainous city, much like their first home and yet very different.

"It resembles so much Germany and Switzerland," said Irene Augsburger, who moved to Ashland 10 years ago after trying out life in France, Tokyo and New York City. "It's a lot like home."

Augsburger said she chose Ashland for its natural beauty and relaxed way of life. She came without a job lined up, and now teaches French at Phoenix High School.

Like many of Ashland's Germans, Augsburger was already in the United States when she stumbled upon Ashland. Jens Sehm, who moved to Ashland seven years ago, left Germany 18 years ago and lived in the Bay area most of that time. Now he is a full-time woodcarver and is continually meeting new Germans around town.

The German community in Ashland is not one cohesive group &

and when the stammtisch group formed a year and a half ago many of the members had not met before. About 30 people are on the group's e-mail list, but members estimate the number of native Germans in Ashland is closer to 70 or 80, and they are constantly coming and going.

The group was formed by Hannah Grace, who wanted her three-year-old son Savar to grow up bilingual with connections to the German community and culture. She arrived five years ago, and unlike Augsburger and Sehm, came directly to Ashland, following a spiritual teacher she met in Germany.

"There are a lot of spiritual teachers and artists here, and a lot of Germans are attracted by those teachers," said Wolfgang Schmidt-Reinecke, an Ashlander for 18 months.

Schmidt-Reinecke did not come to Ashland for spiritual reasons, but it's a topic in his column about American culture called, "Letters from Ashland," which he writes for a German magazine.

Sharing culture

Schmidt-Reinecke also helped produce a travel film for German television about Ashland, and he is writing a book for Americans who want to better understand their German roots. He is constantly hearing about strangers' German ancestors when they recognize his accent.

"I think all Americans have a German grandmother," he said, and although most people seem to appreciate German culture, they aren't sure how to handle the dark side of German history, he said.

"Every country has a history that is not positive," said Udo Gorsch-Nies. "That is because we are all human beings."

Gorsch-Nies does not attend the stammtisch meetings because of scheduling conflicts, but he still uses his heritage to educate others about Germany. He participates in a conversation group whose members are mostly Americans, he tutors two students of the German language and teaches "German for tourists" at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SOU. He has also lectured on the German democratic process.

Despite his and others' efforts to educate Americans on German history and culture, many still seem clueless.

"Some people like to make inappropriate jokes regarding German history. Some people also don't realize Arnold Schwarzenegger is from Austria," Jens Sehm said. Sehm has been asked on several occasions to repeat the catch-phrase "I'll be back" from Schwarzenegger's films.

Comparing cultures

The longer they stay in the U.S., Ashland's Germans say the more it feels like home. But that doesn't mean they don't miss Germany or notice what's lacking from their homes in Ashland.

"We very often compare Germany to the United States," Gorsch-Nies said. "Sometimes Germany wins, and sometimes the U.S. wins."

Ashlanders are more helpful to strangers, he said, recalling the time his new neighbors took care of a downed tree in his yard while he was out of town, and his surprise when a shuttle bus driver offered him a ride.

"In Berlin, when the bus driver sees you come running, he closes the door and says, "Hey, you better get up earlier,'" he said.

Although it's easy to get to know Americans, others said, it's harder to have a deep relationship.

"It's really easy to be friends at first sight here," said Irene Augsburger. "In Germany, it's harder to get over the initial barrier, but once you are, you are friends for life."

She also misses the variety in culture that Europe offered, with so many countries only a few hours away. She could drive to France in 30 minutes, Switzerland in an hour, and Italy or Austria in five.

For a long time, Jens Sehm mourned the quality of American beer, bread and chocolate, although it has recently improved, he said. Now, he takes American chocolate back to Germany when he visits.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .