A surname connects strangers and starts a friendship

My father was not a man to express wonder freely. When it happened, he made his feelings known in the form of a strangled grunt. It was a noise that sounded something like "Uh-HUH!" - almost as if he weren't really surprised, but in fact had been expecting the unexpected all along.

Rare as these moments were, there was one circumstance that never failed to produce an "Uh-HUH!" from the old man. It popped out whenever he ran across a mention of our family's surname.

Although Gottliebs are not unknown in this world, the name could never be considered ubiquitous. True, a man called Gottlieb Daimler built a fairly successful automobile business with a partner named Maybach. But "Gottlieb" was Herr Daimler's first name. And although Gottlieb is the German form of the Latin "Amadeus" - Mozart's middle name - Wolfgang seldom put it on paper that way.

In the normal course of events, therefore, one seldom encounters a Gottlieb. So whenever the name turned up - on the news, for example, or in a magazine or a list of movie credits - my father's antennae would twitch and out would come "Uh-HUH!"

These moments seemed to provide him with what I always thought of as a disproportionate degree of pleasure. I could never understand why running across someone with the same name should be so fascinating to him. Yet each time it occurred he seemed to experience immeasurable delight, as if he had just discovered a long-lost cousin.

I mention all this because of something that happened about a year after my father passed away.

I received an e-mail from a total stranger - a young woman named Monica, age 17, who lived in Vienna.

In her e-mail, Monica informed me that she had a new computer and was exploring the Internet for the first time. She was searching the World Wide Web for people who shared the same names as members of her family.

In tortured English she explained that she had first conducted a search based on her own name. She then moved on to the names of her father and mother - Michael and Regine. Finally, she tried her 19-year-old brother's name, and that was how she hit upon me.

Her brother's name was Marcus - Marcus Gottlieb.

Monica asked me to write back and tell her a little something about myself, which I did. I also asked for more information about her and her family, which she was pleased to provide.

Not long after our first exchanges, Monica's mother wrote to me. Regine's English was a little better than her daughter's, so she was able to provide more details about her family's background and their life in Vienna.

She also mentioned that she and Michael were just then planning their first visit to the United States. Motorcycle enthusiasts, they intended to make a two-wheeled tour of California and the Southwestern states.

Regine asked hesitantly if I might be able to supply her with some additional information about America - anything that I thought she and her husband should know before they began their great adventure.

I spent about an hour putting together what I deemed reasonably practical advice and sent it along. Regine wrote back the next day with effusive thanks. She told me that if ever I came to Vienna, I should consider the Gottlieb family home as my own. In fact, she offered me both a room and a key to the house, so I could come and go as I pleased.

The Gottliebs eventually made their motorcycle trip through the Southwest and enjoyed every minute of it. I know because I heard all the details eight months later, when I stepped off a train at Vienna's Südbahnhof and was welcomed to Austria by Regine and Monica.

My hostesses gave me a brief tour through the center of town on the way to their house on the outskirts. There I met Monica's brother, Marcus, and Regine's husband, Michael.

The Vienna Gottliebs and I were as strange to each other as if we had come from different planets. But we talked quite a bit that first day, and we got to know each other fairly quickly.

Michael and I seemed to hit it off particularly well. Almost the same age, and sharing a similar sense of humor, we were soon so comfortable with each other that at one point - as the ladies puttered about inside - we sat together in his backyard and enjoyed the evening air for about 30 minutes in total silence.

A few days later, Michael, Regine, and I were strolling through the Prater, Vienna's huge public green space and amusement park. We were walking off the enormous meal we had just consumed at the Schweizerhaus, an open-air restaurant to which seemingly all of Vienna repairs on pleasant evenings.

As we walked and chatted, an older man coming toward us on the same pathway said something in German to Regine. She laughed a little nervously but replied politely. After he passed by, I asked Regine if the man was a friend.

"I never saw him before," she said, clearly bewildered. "He looked at you and Michael and said, 'It's nice to see the two brothers out for a walk together.' "

Brothers? Well - not quite. But perhaps long-lost cousins after all.


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