As our train slid into the western German city of Trier, large banners festooned the station, Augusta Treverorum. My son went nuts. With glistening dark eyes, curly hair and a broad smile, Jon, in his middle twenties, loudly blurted, “Mom, it’s Augusta Treverorum,” as if I knew what that meant. “We’re here on the spot. I hadn’t realized. This is so cool.” He twirled, arms wide, in all directions, as if trying to see everything at once while his legs did little jitterbug kicks.
I remained oblivious. As his excitement grew, he seemed to think we’d arrived in the promised land and I could only stare, gape-mouthed, at my normally quiet and reasonable son, wondering if an incipient schizophrenic personality had emerged, as it sadly did in some young people.
For Jon’s entire life, I had promised him a tour to the towns where our distant relatives had come from in Europe. Last summer, he announced he had a free week in September and it would be perfect for the ancestor trip.
My first thought was, But that’s in a small closed box in my mind labeled Some Day in the Hazy Distant Future. I felt like an old fogey habitually resistant to change, which I’d sworn I never would be. Checking my calendar, I had that week free and I mentally opened my dusty mind-box: the future had arrived.
We knew Trier had Roman ruins and Jon loved Roman military history. But my reserved son was nearly break-dancing with excitement.
“What’s it mean, Augusta Treverorum?” I asked, hoping for a non-schizoid answer.
“It’s my computer game, you know, the one I play all the time, my favorite.”
I groaned, but tried to stifle it. We’d fought the video game wars during Jon’s teen years, due to my certainty that it rotted his gray matter. Since he began college, Jon had lived apart from me and I tried to convince myself that his screen-time brain decay was no longer my concern considering his fully adult status.
“The Roman troops conquered the Celtic people, the Treveri, right here.” His cheeks became rosy with his broad gestures and tapping feet.
It felt odd for me to enjoy Jon’s big-eyed enthusiasm for a computer game that he had apparently absorbed at the cellular level. And stranger still, this game had a practical application in the real world, helping us comprehend our family history. A clever German bureaucrat seemed to have been aware of the game’s popularity and made the banners to attract young people.
I’d shared what little I knew of our ancestors in Trier with Jon as we’d traveled. My great-grandmother, Susanna, had been an orphan in the 1800s and we had one photo of her somber square face with our fair-haired Belgian great-grandfather, Leonard. Susanna must have bequeathed her curly black hair, deep brown eyes and skin several shades duskier than a Celt, to her grandson, my father, and then to me and my son. Genetically, she seemed to be a Treveri/Roman fusion, which made sense.
The Roman troops, provided with a generous pension and free land in and around Trier after twenty years of army service, were encouraged to remain on conquered land and marry locals, ideally adding a cultural take-over to the military one.
Over five hundred years of Celtic blending with Romans resulted in Susanna. After 475 AD, the Gauls (French) and then the Franks (Germans) alternated in dominating the territory. But those old Roman warrior genes in our curly black hair, dark eyes and olive skin, persevered to the present day.
As we disembarked from the train, my son, twitching with glee, repeated, “This is it. This is where it all happened,” as he searchingly peered around, as if he expected a Roman Centurion to emerge from a corner. “Augustus conquered the Treveri people right where I’m standing.” He sighed and I sensed heavy satisfaction. After all, he’d fought those wars himself for years, albeit on a computer monitor. Now screen fantasy knocked up against solid reality.
A new expression came over his face, a look of wonder, “But,” he said, “this is where I came from. I’m one of the Treveri. Wait, I’m Roman, too.” He stopped, stunned as he seemed to ponder our hybrid ancestors.
“Oh, my god, this isn’t just a game I played,” he said. “I’m the result of that war.” He gulped, “I am the game.”
“Wow,” I said, loving Jon’s insight, “Yes, you are. Or rather, we are.” Then I chuckled, “And it’s a miracle I’ve found a computer game I can finally relate to.”
He laughed, “Yeah, Mom, literally.”