Small towns are quaint and enjoy a slower pace of life but are they welcoming? Nine years ago, my husband, son and I moved from the south suburbia area of Fargo to Wishek, a small North Dakota town 97 miles from a Target or Starbuck’s. Wishek was my husband’s hometown and people stopped to welcome him home.I’m a lifelong North Dakotan but was living 160 miles from my home. In the grocery store, most people pointed and said, “That’s Nathan Pinke’s wife.” That was my cue to walk up to them and introduce myself.
I can count on one hand the number of people who stopped to welcome me. Florence brought banana bread, and we made the connection she was my grandma’s little sorority sister and a bridesmaid in my grandparent’s 1951 wedding.The world became smaller that day. Mary Ann stopped by on her bike to tell me elementary aged boys were waiting at the park to meet our son and play with him. She sent him on his way to the park, “turn left and drive straight for a few blocks.” I swallowed hard as he never rode his bike alone in Fargo. At the same time, I felt encouraged he could meet new friends.The next day, Kay stopped by with cookies from the church’s outreach committee, the Wishek welcome wagon, to welcome us. I distinctly remember their words and welcome.
Then there was Wilma—my most memorable “welcome” moment. It was late July and I was pregnant. We sat with my in-laws near the front of the church with what felt like spotlights on us. There was no air conditioning and I was uncomfortable morning, noon and night. The ladies ahead of us were talking back and forth to one another during the prelude. I could hear them but they would slip into what sounded like German to me. I said to my husband, “Is that German they are speaking?” He smiled and said, “Yes.”
The ladies heard my comment and turned around to greet me. “Velcome to Vishek” they said. Then who I came to know as Wilma looked me right in the eye and said, “Do you speak a little Cherman?” My sarcastic self smiled and said, “Jeg snakker litt Norsk,” giving a nod to my Norwegian heritage and the two semesters of Norwegian I took at the University of North Dakota. My husband gave me a nudge in the ribs and tried to cover for me. “She speaks a little Norwegian,” he said.
Wilma’s eyebrows raised and with a tight smile she said, “Vell, if you want to live in Vishek, you had better learn to speak Cherman!”
Wilma’s welcome was right. While I haven’t learned to speak German, I have learned the culture. Adapting to the people around you is important. I haven’t forgotten my roots, but I’ve learned I’ll be better off in my small town if I can speak a little broken German. It makes me a legit local. It’s a rite of passage, a way of welcoming you into their circle.
My husband is now a second-generation business owner in Wishek and can identify every item in our lumberyard in German, thanks to older generations taking the time to teach him as a child.I want our kids to know the traditions and learn about my husband’s ancestors and the life they forged for us. Wishek is a slice of the North Dakota prairie where the German-Russian culture remains strong across generations. While I didn’t know it at the time, Wilma’s words were welcoming. From then on, Wilma always greeted me with a smile and a story.
I give a nod to Wishek anywhere I travel and enjoy sharing Wishek sausage and locally made kuchen, a German Russian custard and dough delicacy. It’s my way of welcoming anyone and sharing just a little about my small-town life.
Can you make your community more welcoming with a smile, by sharing a story or paying a visit? It doesn’t have to have cultural meaning. A simple introduction and hello, whether you’re a lifelong resident or not is welcoming to a new face.
(Originally published for my weekly Agweek column.)