A heartwarming story about bridging the culture gap

people and relationships, personal, society, travel

[I wrote this years ago, but had posted it on a site I no longer maintain; I thought it might be nice to share it with you now.]

As many of you may already know, I spent over a year total in Europe during and immediately after finishing grad school in ‘98. My experiences included an amazing mixture of triumphs, tragedies, laughter, adventure, confusion, and pretty much every other emotion one can have… but compressed in time and on foreign soil.

While I regret not keeping any semblance of a diary during my time in Europe, I still carry a wealth of knowledge and emotions in me… much of which bubbles to the surface at random times. For whatever reason, one event came to mind tonight, and it made me smile.

During my initial 3 month internship in Europe, I was dying to ‘taste’ as much of the continent as I could. My workplace was next to a train station, and nearly every other Friday I’d bring a small suitcase to work, and spin the virtual Europe-roulette-wheel (and consult the weather forecasts) to pick a travel destination for the upcoming weekend. I’d then leave straight from work, typically take an overnight train, spend Saturday and Sunday at my destination, and arrive back—sleepy eyed and exhausted—to work Monday morning.

Spontaneity and adventure sometimes gave way, however, to frustrating circumstances… including nasty weather, obnoxious hostel (and hostile) roommates, and in some cases, lack of an available nearby hostel at all. Such was the case when I arrived in Luxembourg one weekend… forcing me to scour surrounding smaller cities for lodging. When I finally discovered a hostel with vacancies in a far outlying town of the main city, I was none too thrilled to find myself alone at this hostel… except for a gaggle of giggling teenage German tourists from what turned out to be a church group outing. They ate at their reserved table for dinner within the hostel, and I ate, basically alone and lonely, by myself in another corner… understandably not wanting to butt in on a chaperoned group of young’uns.

To my annoyance, they’d occasionally look at me with eyes that seemed to mockingly ask, “What is that weird, tired looking guy doing at OUR hostel?” but aside from that, I ate in peace, and then—noting it was too early to retire for the night despite my fatigue—wandered out into the cobblestone streets to find something to do or see.

There wasn’t much. But lo and behold, before long, I heard a familiar gaggle of giggling a ways behind me, and, almost as if in a cartoon, that very same group of young kids shushed quickly when I peered back at them. Imagine my surprise then, when one of the girls broke from the pack and shyly approached me.

“Hallo,” she said, not quite sure of herself, but with quiet yet visible support from her friends behind her.

Still shocked, I blurted out an American “Hi there” instead of a matching Hallo.

“You’re English?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, “American.”

Her face lit up with a big smile, which compensated for the moment of silence between us.

She told me she was from Germany, which I knew, but I never could have anticipated the next turn in our conversation.

“Are you… by yourself?” she asked? I answered affirmatively, still confused by this situation… and I’ll never forget what came next:

“Do you want to be our friend?”

Such sweetness and innocence and courage! I could have hugged that kid right there. 

Instead, though, I delved into one of the most honest and memorable conversations I had during my time Europe. The friends of this girl, Christina, immediately sensed that I DID welcome a chat with them. And so, as they approached, they fired off a sometimes cacophanous bunch of questions in German for Christina to translate to me, and then waited eagerly for my response and acting-spokeswoman Christina’s translation.

A few of the questions were admittedly ignorant but nonetheless amusing in their simplicity: “Do you [Americans] really eat at McDonald’s all the time?” and “Are all the streets in the States very big?”

Before long, it was clear that most of what these kids knew of America they had gleaned from their exposure to the dominant American media. And that, indeed, scared me. Baywatch is SUPER-big in Germany (and apparently leads at least a few Germans to assume we’re all Malibu-stylin’ and beach going tansters). David Hasselhoff may be a laughingstock amongst some of the ‘hipper’ Germans, but he’s still a beloved actor and recording artist for much of Deutschland. In other words… given what we ‘export’ to Europe, we should all be afraid… be very afraid!

But before long, as the kids got braver with their English and started addressing me directly, I began to delve deeper into their opinions and prejudices.

“So what do you think of Americans?” I asked plainly.

They were none too shy or slow with their responses. “Creative!” “FAT!” “Sportive!” “Lazy!” “Funny!” and “Friendly!” seemed to be relatively agreed-upon adjectives. But the latter one spurred some deeper discussion, with one boy arguing that, “Americans don’t like Germans. They’re friendly to themselves but not to us. From the War.”

I should have been prepared for this. Even at parties with college-aged folk, the issue of the Holocaust often came up. What did Americans think of Germany? Of Germans? Of the War? And why? Was it fair to perpetuate the Guilt? Those that brought up this subject with me often did so almost randomly, over beers and fries, though with sometimes pretty intense curiosity and passion.

This same curiosity, combined with innocence, was so clearly present in these young kids. On one hand, they saw America as everything “cool”… but still so distant geographically and emotionally. There was a marked admiration for, yet confusion about and partially even disdain for Americans, perhaps no different than that reflected by our own general ignorance of other cultures.

But here there was such a heartwarming yearning from them to connect to me, to connect with the America I was an impromptu representative for. They continued asking me questions for nearly an hour, and drew closer to me all the while until I was almost surrounded. “You are nice!” gushed one of the girls out of the blue, prompting some titterings in German that I understood more than they realized.  Not long after this, Christina—by now pretty emboldened and unshy—asked, “Can I have your address?”

“Sure,” I replied, amused and flattered, though I couldn’t help but ask, “Why?”

“Because Julia likes you!” Christina replied with a huge grin, followed by a horrified look on a quickly clued-in Julia, “And she won’t ask you!”

Silly kids. Playful, wondering, movie-watching, tall, short, blonde, brunette, crush-having, sneaker-wearing kids.

At that moment I was reminded… that deep down we’re pretty much all the same, everywhere. There’s a child-like curiosity and goodness in everyone that never really dies. Sometimes it gets hardened a bit or repressed or shouted over, but it’s still there.

I had been tired and lonely and frustrated before I met these kids. And there are certainly times nowadays, too, when I’m feeling like that. But when life accentuates separation and distance, I look back on my encounter in Luxembourg and similar experiences and am reassured that friendship and understanding are still inherently valued. And though I never did hear from Julia, thinking of her and her friends especially makes me smile 😀

22 comments… add one
  • NoodleGei Nov 29, 2009

    Adam, very nice Post!

    Mit den heutigen technologischen Möglichkeit im Web, kann man viel besser miteinander sprechen anstatt übereinander zu sprechen.

    (Translate with G-Translator :-D:
    With today’s technological opportunity on the Web, we can better talk with other instead of talking about other.

    Bye from Cologne.

  • Claudia Nov 30, 2009

    Beautiful note!

  • Bindu Nov 30, 2009

    I remember as a young exchange student in Australia, the first weekend sitting alone by a lake late one night, it hit me.
    I was totally alone and very lonely. I knew no one.
    And this security man who saw me alone came over, and chatted, talked about his daughter who had been to India and through the distracting comfort of his words, my tears dried up.

  • righini Nov 30, 2009

    wonderful

  • candy Dec 1, 2009

    Que bonito recuerdo, de verdad.  Very lovely memory to have.  😀

  • christina Dec 2, 2009

    good vibes … communication is not very well developed nowadays imo

  • Susan Dec 7, 2009

    Interesting. I love kids too no matter what their ethnicity is… What a warm story. Well done.

  • Deane Dec 11, 2009

    I have been visiting your site even before and this one is really a heartwarming story. Bridging cultural gap is hard at first but if you will learn to extend your hand and throw out your inhibitions you will surely indeed learn to win people over.

  • cheryl cassidy Dec 14, 2009

    A story like that does the heart good!

  • used cranes usa Dec 16, 2009

    That’s a pretty nice story. Those girls must have been so cute being innocent and stressed talking to you. On the other hand it is nice to meet some open-minded people (even if they live with a bunch of stereotypes about you).

  • Miami Harley Rental Dec 22, 2009

    Your site have an awesome content but the visual site is not so good… Well, it’s awful. Did you think about creating new layout or just to use some of free themes? That would really be a good move for your blog, cause your posts are really interesting.

  • I mus admit that I’m with Miami Harley… You could use an upgrade for 2010!

  • Collections Etc. Jan 4, 2010

    This goes to all of the softhearted fellas out there, am one them.

  • Katie Feb 6, 2010

    “While I regret not keeping any semblance of a diary during my time in Europe”

    I forced myself to do this and never regretted it as I have a full journal of “adventure” to look back on… Great blog btw 🙂

  • DWongster Feb 28, 2010

    Awesome story, Adam. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Kim McGinnis Mar 19, 2010

    Hi Adam, Your story reminds me about what most makes a person happy – being open. Spontaneity can lead interesting events and people into your life like nothing else. I read a book recently called “Simple Happy,” by a man named Andy Feld. When I read your post it made me think about this book, and that when spontaneity is mixed with a positive attitude you have a better chance at success than the average college graduate.
    Thanks for listening,
    Kim

  • nonykeyz Mar 22, 2010

    😀 Am a guy am in need of suger mummy that will take good care of me fanicialy am in school and am 24yrs and i promise 2 give my best and not 2 disapoint her MUCH LOVE 2 HER.

  • Andy Feld Mar 24, 2010

    LOVED the story Adam and thank you Kim for sending it over. Like most of us I have endured many of life’s lessons while learning the messages hidden inside. The biggest one is that at the core we are all ONE. Yes, all people, all animals in fact everything on Earth and beyond. Recognizing, understanding, and harnessing this knowledge and power is perhaps the greatest gift of my present incarnation. Andy

  • Bryan Mar 29, 2010

    Really touching.

  • ThatAdamGuy Jun 12, 2010

    A belated but heartfelt thank you to all of you for the kind comments. I am glad you have appreciated my sharing of this experience (and I’m sorry it took me so long to acknowledge your comments!)

    A couple of you shared some nice experiences, too, and I hope all of us enjoy such serendipitous and heartwarming interactions in the future 🙂

    Thanks again for commenting!

  • Rosalina Rountree Nov 26, 2010

    That is a very touching story. I have a special needs son so that story had me literally in tears. My son is autistic and suffers from profound MR and ADHD. He is non verbal. I wish for him to have a moment like that. I know that would make his day and mine alike. Thank you for sharing that story.
    http://leanspaacai.org/

  • Adam Lasnik Oct 17, 2015

    A very belated thank you for your kind comment, Rosalina, and I hope your son has been growing well and finding happiness!

    On a different note, I thought i’d mention that I just added this story (albeit rewritten and abridged) to Medium: http://j.mp/hwskilb

    Feel free to check it out there! 🙂

    (I plan on starting to write more on this blog again, but with occasional cross-posting on Medium)

What do you think?