Exploring the Trumps’ Roots on a European Trek
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018
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New York Times| Travel

Exploring the Trumps’ Roots on a European Trek

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Sev­nica, Slovenia, is the birthplace of Melania Trump who left when she was 19. Since moving to the United States, she has returned only once.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Prague, the capitol of the Czech Republic, is Ivana Trump’s country of birth. An early morning jog over the Charles Bridge revealed that it is a kind of outdoor museum of Baroque bronze sculpture from the 18th century.

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    Diners fill Winzerstuben Weick in Kallstadt, Germany, the birthplace of Frederick and Elizabeth Christ Trump, President Donald Trump’s paternal grandparents.

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    The Callanish standing stones are a landmark on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Lewis is the birthplace of Donald Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, who left it behind for America in 1929.

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Most Americans come from somewhere else. That is as true of presidents as it is of newcomers reciting naturalization oaths across the United States today. Donald Trump, the 45th president, is a second generation German-Scot — two nationalities that happen to be the first and 10th most common in the United States. Trump’s mother and grandparents arrived in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century from Scotland and Germany. Two of his three wives are relatively recent arrivals from Eastern Europe and four of his children are half Slavic.

Last fall, researching a book on the women of the Trump clan, I set off on a three-week dash to the remote corners of Europe from where the Trump family hails. Besides interviewing people who knew them, I wanted to capture the history and rhythm of life in areas where the Trumps have roots, and so I wandered, sampling food, culture and ambience.

The following is a collection of observations from the west coast of Scotland and a little-traveled swath of Mitteleuropa, a German term for Central Europe. It’s an area that includes modern Germany but also Austria and what’s sometimes called “Germania Slavica,” the eastern edge of the German medieval settlement in parts of the modern Czech Republic and Slovenia. Besides the Trump clan, this slice of Europe is the birthplace of Freud, Grimm’s fairy tales, the Nazi movement, schnitzel, pilsner beer and some of Europe’s great writers and musicians, including Kafka, Dvorak and Mozart.

The Outer Hebrides

Before hitting the European continent, I made a pit stop at the Isle of Lewis, one of the northernmost islands in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It lies so far out in the North Atlantic that it’s closer to Iceland than to London. A bonny place, in the local argot, it’s also the birthplace of Donald Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod. She left for the United States in 1929 on a steamer carrying hundreds of her fellow Scottish islanders who, during one of the great waves of emigration, were in search of work and prosperity.

These days, small planes from Glasgow make the two-hour trip north several times daily, landing at the island’s largest village, Stornoway, where pale-colored houses, churches and a castle are nestled around a sheltered harbor.

Beyond Stornoway’s edge, black peat fields give way to chartreuse hills, between which one can see great sweeps of sandy bays and the Atlantic. The western edge of the island is almost lunar: white and brown, stark and rocky, pocked with narrow, water-filled crevices that reflect the clouds. It’s no wonder mystics call the island “a thin place” where the wall between the corporeal world and the spirit world is barely there.

After driving by MacLeod’s childhood home, a two-bedroom rectangle with a pitched slate roof and two chimneys set against a tidal marsh (and still inhabited by her relatives, who have stopped talking to the media), I grabbed a burger in the bar of one of the few open establishments, the Caladh Inn.

The island prides itself on its strict adherence to the Sabbath; even the ferry was forbidden from landing on Sundays until 2009, when only limited service began. So the next morning, I went to church.

The gray stone Stornoway High Church is where Trump’s mother and all nine of her siblings were baptized early in the last century.

Today, cruise ships disgorge hundreds of tourists on summer day trips to pick up Harris tweed made at the source, eat fish and chips at the Stornoway chip shop, explore Lews Castle and visit the Callanish standing stones, dozens of mysterious giant rocks dragged to a field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, placed there by Neolithic people 1,300 years before the rocks at Stonehenge.

Kallstadt, Germany

To get to the winemaking town of Kallstadt, Germany, the birthplace of Frederick and Elizabeth Christ Trump, the president’s paternal grandparents, I made a rendezvous in Paris with my husband, Erik, and we hopped a high-speed train to Mannheim, a midsize urban hub that is home to a U.S. Army base and a rapidly growing population of immigrants from the Middle East.

Kallstadt lies in a corner of the Rhine Valley, at a point where the wind blows up from the south, and the soil is unusually dense with clay, which holds the heat of the sun in the earth, forming a kind of micro climate — perfect for growing the riesling grape that is distilled into the Pfalzer wine.

The area has been a magnet for German tourism since the early 1900s, when industrialization gave working people a bit more leisure time. The wandervogels, literally hiking birds, made it a hiking destination and, generations later, Germans still come to mountain bike, hike and mushroom-hunt in the boar-infested woods of the nearby Palatinate forest.

It was cold and rainy, so rather than hiking I spent another Sunday morning in church at Kallstadt, hoping to find parishioners who recalled any stories about the long-gone Trump ancestors and to see records related to the family.

The church once solicited money from Kallstadt’s rich American descendant: Trump sent $5,000. (The check came attached to a letter embossed with a giant gold T, which the church has added to its reliquary.) Trump’s money went to restoring the warped and cracked 16th-century door, a restoration that your correspondent can attest was successful — halfway through the German service, I nipped out to make a phone call, but the massive wooden door was so secure it was impossible to open and I found myself trapped inside the vestibule for another 20 minutes of German hymns.

After spending a rainy afternoon looking for people who knew the Trumps, and checking out the grandparents’ homes — a pair of simple two-story structures — we were finally ready for the local specialty: saumagen. Kallstadt is so famous for this delicacy — pig stomach, in which pork meat and vegetables and herbs like marjoram are made into a kind of extra large sausage — that a recent German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was known to have regularly sent for it to be delivered to Berlin.

We headed over to the Winzerstuben Weick and ordered plates of it. It was good and filling, but as we tucked into our pig stomach we noticed that we were the only ones eating it. Our fellow diners were all waiting on a man in a white coat and chef’s hat to wheel over whole roast goose, lit sparklers attached to each leg, and swiftly carve it onto plates with a slice of the apple that had been in its stomach.

As dozens of families around us gorged on spangled roast goose we wondered what obscure European holiday we were witnessing. The answer would have to wait until the next leg of our journey.

Prague and Zlin, Czech Republic

Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, is the birthplace of Trump’s first wife, Ivana (mother to Ivanka, Donald, Jr. and Eric Trump). To get there from Kallstadt, we took a couple of trains and then hopped a Czech Air prop plane from Frankfurt to Prague, landing in a light snow. Around midnight, we drove a rental car into the city as snowflakes drifted on myriad spires in the yellow streetlights. A fairy-tale town, I thought.

An early morning jog over the Charles Bridge revealed that it is a kind of outdoor museum of Baroque bronze sculpture from the 18th century.

That morning, a pink light from the rising sun illuminated the river and distant spires as statues of some three dozen obscure saints and notables gazed down at the bridge. Ivo, Ludmilla, Adalbert, Cyril and Methodius, John of Nepomuk, Sigismund, Wen­ceslas and others are each arranged in tableaux commemorating events and stories that require a history doctoral thesis to fully comprehend. Wenceslas was the only name I remotely recognized, bringing to mind the first simple piano tune I ever learned to play: “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen / When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”

After a pit stop for an interview with a historian at the Institute of Contemporary History at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic near the U.S. Embassy (a building where a plaque proclaims Kafka lived at the same address — how Kafka-esque!) we did a rapid hit of the city’s tourist high points, up and down narrow, hilly, cobbled streets, looking at marionettes, the Museum of Alchemy and crystals on sale in the stores … and finally off to lunch at a restaurant called Lokal Dlouhaaa in the old town.

Here again, the roast goose topped the day’s menu. We ordered and tucked into a deliciously crisp slab with a side of red cabbage. The waiter helpfully explained that goose is eaten for Martinmas, a holiday officially celebrating the fourth-century St. Martin of Tours, but also known as Old Halloween, a reference to the pagan autumnal tradition of bonfires across Europe. In Prague, they say, “Martin rides in on a white horse” — because around Martin’s feast day, the first snow always falls. And indeed, as we had seen, it had.

We left Prague and its crystals, Dvorak and alchemy, much too soon, and motored out onto the D1, a major auto artery aiming south. Departing Prague for Zlin, the birthplace and hometown of Ivana Trump, the president’s first wife and mother of his oldest three children, is like traveling from an enchanted land of elves and fairies, and back to dull mortal Middle- earth. The scenery goes flat and monochromatic, and, especially in November, dry corn shocks and leafless birch trees dominate the view, reminiscent of the American Midwest where I grew up.

Zlin is a city of no-nonsense, working people, a factory city, famous not as the hometown of Ivana Trump, but of an early- 20th-century cobbler, Tomas Bata, who turned his family’s cobbler shop into a global mega-corporation, with factory assembly lines copied from Henry Ford. The Bata brand is still sold worldwide.

Ljubljana and Sevnica, Slovenia

Our final destination on the Trump immigrants tour was Melania Trump’s birthplace in Slovenia. To get there, we drove hundreds of miles through Old Bohemia, Moravia and Austria, passing shriveled vineyards in icy rain, green fields in fog, and church spires on foggy hilltops.

We reached Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, after a morning drive southward, passing a Heidi-scape of Alpine horizon, blue skies, puffy clouds. Ljubljana is one of the most charming cities I’ve ever seen. It looks and feels like a miniature, bikeable replica of an Italian city. The central piazza is built around the Sava River, crossed by a charming footbridge, with white railings. A pink church with white columns and the words Ave Gratia Plena (Hail, Full of Grace) anchors one end; on the other are numberless Vespas and bicycles parked beside outdoor bars and bistros. At sunset and dawn, the Alps glow in a distant semicircle around the city.

It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would want to leave such a lovely place, but Slovenia’s famous former resident did leave when she was 19 and, since moving to the United States, has returned only once. But Slovenians have not forgotten her. Since Donald Trump started his presidential campaign, tourism has reportedly risen by 30 percent.

The next morning, we drove a curving narrow road along the Sava River and through pine forests and past corn and pumpkin fields to the first lady’s birthplace, Sevnica.

Sevnica, it turns out, was, like Zlin, also once a shoe-factory town. Today, all that’s left of the shoe industry is a rowboat-sized wooden shoe sculpture hovering like a specter above the roundabout entrance to town.

As for commemorations to Melania, the Julija pastry shop in Sevnica invented and sells the Melania torte, a confection of almond and white chocolate. Melania’s Slovenian lawyer has snuffed out efforts to put “Melania” on other products, though. Sevnicans have got around this by naming a few products “First Lady,” and so one can pick up local First Lady red wine and soaps at the tiny tourist center.

Not much to see on Sevnica’s single main street, Trg Svobode, besides the smokestacks of a few factories by the Sava River. Melania’s father, Viktor Knavs, now a U.S. citizen living primarily in New York, still owns and sometimes stays at his house on a street a few blocks off the main street. The unassuming ranch-style house has attracted journalists, but when Viktor is in town, the locals warned us he has been known to chase off the curious with some vehemence, so we noted the American flag on the mailbox from a safe distance and left.

We high-tailed it to Vienna and a plane home, stopping for a last meal in Middle Europe at the Austrian capital’s most famous schnitzel house, the raucous Figlmuller, where the line was out the door, waiting for a plate of the house specialty, a slab of breaded and fried pork that extended beyond the edges of the plate.

That night, overdosed on meat and beer, steeped in the fairy-tale scenery, I dreamed strange dreams of lonely church spires in the fog, cobbled streets and cobblers and Good King Wenceslas, looking out on the newly fallen deep snow a millennium ago.

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