By Kurt Griesemer
It has been 25 years since I boarded a plane out of New York headed for Frankfurt, Germany. At the time I was 18 years old, a raw recruit in the US Army, with one semester of high school German under my belt and an urge to see the world, albeit from the back of an army truck.
What I learned, quite early, was that to truly experience the world, you had to get out of the insular cocoon that is an army base. It’s too easy to be surrounded at all times by all things American when you are a soldier overseas. There are clubs and gymnasiums, ball games and shopping centers, banks and post offices, and quite literally everything you need, right on post. It took some effort to actually get out and experience life off-post, but I found it to be incredibly worthwhile.
I lived in Heidelberg, (West) Germany, for just under two and a half years. During that time, my fiancée came to visit me twice, I spent time with married friends that lived off-post, took in the sights and sounds of a wonderful city, and tried to find ways to blend in whenever I could (which, despite the short haircut, wasn’t too difficult for a 5’7” blond kid from the heartland). I traveled to Switzerland and Italy, spent time in castles and cafes, and lived, really, a life I had never dreamed of growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. In doing so, I tried to live as a guest rather than a tourist, someone who respects and gets to know their host rather than breezing through and snapping pictures.
The army provided some very necessary, basic things. In the Headstart program, we learned a few German phrases, how to address seniors (politely), when to avoid going to rallies (always), and how to finish meals (tidily). These non-language components were just as important as learning where the train station was or how to ask for it. Armed with just this basic knowledge, I was able to go out and about in a foreign country, on my own, at an age when many people are still finishing high school. I can’t count the number of times I would start speaking in German, apologize that I wasn’t a better speaker, and right away the German would begin speaking their best English to me. In this way my future wife and I traveled the countryside of southern Germany and around the entire nation of Switzerland.
It mattered to the people I met that I attempted to take up a conversation with them in their language, even if I sounded like a toddler when it came to syntax and grammar. It mattered that I knew the difference between “How are you?” and “How are you Sir?” In fact, it was exceedingly rare for anyone to be rude to me, an American that was trying his best to engage in the language and customs of the place he lived.
There were several takeaways from this experience. One, I learned that the simple act of speaking to someone in their language softens every image of “the tourist” to “the guest.” Two, knowing just the slightest bit about customs and cultural norms provides the grease to the wheels of social interactions, and three, my time in Germany changed my life in ways that are overwhelmingly positive and ongoing.
In Global Wisconsin we feature many examples of people living as guests in our country and abroad, and to a person they tell us of the kindness and compassion they experience, and how it has changed their lives.
You can be a tourist, and return with pictures of your experience, or you can be a guest, and have the experience of a lifetime.