[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 😀