A heartwarming story about bridging the culture gap

A gaggle of giggling young teens — pre-Facebook — pesters this cranky, lonely guy, and asks him… everything.

Luxembourg, 1998. On a whim and with zero preparation, I’d decided to spend a weekend there, only to face crappy weather and a lack of available nearby hostels. After much schlepping, I wearily ended up in Echternacht at a hostel teeming with a gaggle of giggling teenage kids.

They ate dinner at their reserved table, and I ate — alone and lonely — in the opposite corner. We largely ignored each other, but they’d occasionally glance over as if to ask:

“What is that weird, tired looking guy doing at OUR hostel?”

Restless, I wandered the cobblestone streets to find something to do or see. Before long, I heard a familiar set of young voices behind me. Great :\. I continued walking, but somehow still wasn’t escaping their nattering.

Almost as if in a cartoon, the young’uns instantly piped down when I peered back at them. Imagine my surprise then, when one of the girls broke from her group and shyly approached me.

“Hallo!”

…she said, not quite sure of herself, but with quiet yet visible support from the others.

Still shocked, I blurted out an un-matching American “Hi there.”

She smiled broadly, and told me she was from Germany, which I’d already guessed, but then…

“Are you… by yourself?” she asked? I nodded, even more unsure about where this was headed.

“Do you want to be our friend?”

Ah! 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 cacophonous 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 initial questions were admittedly ignorant but nonetheless amusing in their simplicity:

“Do you [Americans] really eat at McDonald’s every day?”

and

“Are all the streets in the States very big?”

and

“Do you always go to the beach?”

It was quickly clear that most of what these kids knew of America they had gleaned from imported American entertainment. D’oh! Baywatch was super-big in Germany, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the perception that America is just one big beach flanked with fast food outlets.

Before long, the kids got braver with their English and started addressing me directly. I figured this was a good time to shift gears a bit.

So what do you think of Americans?”

…I asked.

They responded eagerly: “Creative!” “FAT!” “Sportive!” “Lazy!” “Funny!” and “Friendly!” But then, one of the boys had a different take.

“Americans don’t like Germans. They’re friendly to themselves but not to us. From the War.”

I should have been prepared for this. I’d been living in Germany for a bit and the issue of the Holocaust often came up. People — especially college kids — often wanted to know… 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, with intensity but respect.

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.

“You are nice!” gushed one of the girls out of the blue, prompting some bantering 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 of course I’ve had quite a few rough days since then. 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 still makes me smile.

22 comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. “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 🙂

  7. 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

  8. 😀 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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!

  11. 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/

  12. 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)

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