Image: au pair and family
Dorothy Abernathy  /  AP
From left, Maureen Abernathy, 19, Helene, and Ellen Abernathy, 14, in Cologne, Germany. Helene, au pair No. 7, is the au pair the Abernathy kids remember best because she was the last one the family hosted.
updated 8/31/2010 8:33:58 PM ET 2010-09-01T00:33:58

There's nothing like having someone live with you for a year to forge a lifelong friendship. But you can't just drop by for coffee when that person lives across the Atlantic Ocean.

My husband and I hosted German au pairs for seven years to care for our three children. And from the moment we quit hiring au pairs, Duncan and I began plotting to get our kids overseas to see them and learn more about the culture.

We managed to do that this summer, nine years after no longer needing au pairs. My oldest daughter, Maureen, will soon turn 20. My son, Glenn, is 16 and now towers over my daughters and me. My youngest daughter, Ellen, is 14 and a much different child from the 5-year-old who, along with Glenn, used to understand German.

We have remained close to our au pairs. Most have visited us at our home in Richmond, Va., more than once since living with us.

We flew into Frankfurt and boarded a train for Cologne with great views of castles and the Rhine River.

We checked into a hotel that Duncan found in a travel book — Hopper's St. Antonius. It's an easy walk from Cologne's historic cathedral. This was my favorite hotel of the trip, even though it didn't have air conditioning.

Hopper's has a lovely open courtyard with ivy-covered walls. Breakfast was fantastic and included a big selection of breads, yogurt with muesli, fresh fruits, meats, cheeses and smoked salmon.

Our first evening we walked to the cathedral. Some find the gothic structure beautiful; everyone finds it massive and impressive. The exterior is largely blackened from the elements. But portions, replaced during continuous restoration, are much lighter. The area bustles with locals and tourists.

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We planned to dine at the Frueh brew house, known for traditional German cuisine and beer. But Frueh's outdoor seating was full. Indoors, it was hot and nobody seemed to want to wait on us. So instead we chose Cafe Reichard, with available outdoor seating next to the cathedral. My son raved about his crepes with apples. My daughters were amazed by the restroom stalls, which had transparent glass doors that became opaque when you locked them.

The next morning, we toured the Chocolate Museum, on the Rhine River. Our kids liked the free samples better than the history lesson.

Visiting with the locals
Helene, au pair No. 7, met us at noon. She's probably the au pair that the kids remember best because she was our last. We exchanged hugs and talked about how much the kids had changed. We had seen Helene twice since she finished her year with us, but not in a few years. Still, we were able to talk to Helene as if we'd parted yesterday. She walked us back to the cathedral area, where we met au pair No. 1, Tine, and ate pizza outdoors.

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Tine has been back to Richmond several times and is now married with an 8-year-old daughter. She and Helene are friends. All seven of our au pairs are acquainted and gather for "meetings" occasionally. Tine and Helene reminisced with the kids about their antics in years gone by.

Tine, her husband and daughter joined us the next day at an amusement park called Phantasialand just outside Cologne. This was one of the best days in Europe for my son. Phantasialand was like Busch Gardens or a small Disney World — clean with similar rides, food and shows.

We traveled for 10 days in Italy, then met up with our fifth au pair, Beate, and her boyfriend, Tobias, in Salzburg, Austria.

Since her year with us in Richmond, Bea has studied in Oregon, Germany and Japan. Her last trip to Richmond was about eight years ago. My youngest daughter, Ellen, didn't have clear memories of Bea but they hit it off immediately. There was much talk about tricks the kids played on Bea, and of course how they had grown.

We stayed at a Radisson Hotel a 15-minute walk from Old Town Salzburg. We went to Old Town early the next morning, walking through a garden where parts of the "Sound of Music" were filmed.

We had a great breakfast of German breads, meat and cheese at Cafe Bazar. When we finished, it was raining. We shared four umbrellas and darted from shop to shop to stay dry — a bookstore, a gallery showing Picasso and Salvador Dali prints, a candy store — before warming up in a coffee shop. As we sipped hot drinks, Tobias passed around "Mozart Chocolates" which he had bought in the candy store.

The rain stopped around noon as we continued our tour of the narrow, cobblestone streets lined with shops and cafes. We climbed stairs up a steep hill for better view of the city. We had a delightful early dinner at a restaurant called Triangel. I had a soup with sliced pancakes in it.

A less touristy destination
The next morning we boarded a train to Mainz and Wiesbaden, Germany, to see our second and fourth au pairs, Martina and Tina. We stayed at a Hilton in Mainz, across the Rhine River from Wiesbaden, Tina's home.

Some of our au pairs told us there wouldn't be much to do in Mainz. We chose it because it was close to Wiesbaden and had a hotel where we could use points. But we were curious to see a city that was less touristy.

Duncan, Ellen and I walked about five minutes into the old town area at 8 a.m. the next day. It was charming in much the same way Salzburg was, but not as busy. We found a good bakery called Werner's Backstube for breakfast. We discovered a large outdoor market with fruits, vegetables and meats.

Our bus ride to Weisbaden took 25 minutes. Tina met us at the bus stop, looking just the same as the last time we saw her. She lives with her husband, Andy, in an apartment near the Rhine River.

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Martina arrived a few hours later from Heidelberg. Tina and Martina are friends; Tina was in Martina's wedding the summer before. So they were happy to see one another as well as us.

Both have been to Richmond a good bit since their au pair days. Martina lived with us again during internships at the Virginia Film Office and a Richmond TV station. Tina returned after her au pair year for a six-month internship with a Richmond company. So it was like old home week to see them.

We saw the city building and grounds where Tina got married (near the Rhine River) and a casino downtown. We also saw a hot water spring, and I drank some of the water, which tasted salty. But my kids wanted to shop. Maureen and Ellen wanted English language novels, and all the kids wanted German chocolate to take to the states. We found all the shops we could have wanted downtown.

I was struck by how different Wiesbaden looked from the other cities we visited. The streets were wide and weren't made of cobblestones. Wiesbaden has some large green vistas. On one side of the city building where Tina got married, there was grass as far as we could see.

Later in the day we were joined by Martina's husband, Roland, whom we met a few years earlier. And Tina's husband, Andy, joined us after work. We had a home-cooked meal at Tina's home — a nice change after weeks of eating in restaurants.

We spent our final day at a park called Schloss Freudenberg that's a cross between a children's museum, a science museum and a park. The kids thought it would be too young for them. But we all had a great time walking on stilts, experiencing what it's like to be blind and feeling vibrations while sitting in a metal pot being rubbed with a mallet.

When it was time to leave Tina and Martina, we already were longing to return to Germany. I found it interesting that they enjoyed Germany and Austria much more than Italy. I think that's likely because we spent our time in Austria and Germany with the au pairs, who have all become good friends.

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