Bridging the culture gap, one question at a time
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.
A significantly rewrite from my original post at AdamLasnik.net, and my first-ever Medium post :)