Cash cab

IMG_5768My little miss is heading to Germany for a month this summer. She’s super excited to stay with family friends who will “treat her like a person, not a kid.” And she wants to do it all by herself; Momma has been instructed not to fly over with her. This kiddo has something to prove: her independence.

She reminds me a lot of me, but better. Way better.

I hope so. Little Miss’s upcoming trip brings back memories of my own trips; in particular I’ve been thinking of my arrival for my second stint in Germania. I was 19 years old, and ready to take on the world–or so I thought.

After I landed at the Stuttgart airport, I needed to make my way to Tübingen, a town about 20 miles to the south where I would spend my junior year in college. That should have been a piece of cake. Airport-bus-train-destination. I had read and re-read every piece of information I had gotten from both colleges–my American one and its German partner–and even though there was no internet back then, they had very thoroughly laid out all the steps on volumes of paper.

But I froze. In spite of five years of German classes and a summer exchange program a few years earlier, my exhausted, jet-lagged self was afraid to open her mouth and ask to be pointed in the right direction. I was afraid to look like another American ingenue. Add to that my Midwestern lack of exposure to public transportation, and I felt utterly overwhelmed. So with a pocket full of the D-Marks I had already exchanged at home, I did the only thing that made sense to my addled brain: I hailed a cab.

Yep, I hailed a cab. To take me to a town about a half-hour’s drive away. A cab that had little chance of scoring a return fare–after all, who would be so stupid as to take a cab when all those beautiful, efficient trains were regularly rushing back and forth between the two cities? As you might imagine, I paid a pretty penny for that cab ride, close to $100 in 1989 money.

I laugh about it now, but you know what? I don’t think it was all bad. Sure, it was expensive, and people–especially my German friends–have laughed about it for years. But the thing is, I got it done. I didn’t know what to do and I still found a way to get it done. It may not have been the cheapest or the most efficient way, but I proved I could take care of myself.

Of course, I learned a couple of lessons along the way. Besides the obvious do-what-you-gotta-do exercise, there’s this: sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. You might get where you want to go without asking questions, but chances are, it’ll cost you. By asking for help along the way, not only will you move toward your goal, but you’ll also learn what you need to get you there the next time.

So, Little Miss, when you get to the other side of the pond, do what you gotta do to find your way. I just hope it costs less than cab fare.

One little word

red squareYears ago, I often brown bagged my lunch and ate in the office canteen. A few of us eventually found ourselves eating together more often than not, and we got to know each other through conversation. One of my lunch buddies, who later became a good friend, was a woman who had emigrated from Russia. Her English was outstanding, and if her accent hadn’t given her away, no one would have been able to discern her nationality from her command of the language.

Most of the time.

In one of our lunch sessions, another colleague asked my friend about her husband. Somewhere along the line, the colleague asked how the two had met, and my Russian friend breezily answered, “Oh, at the wedding.”

We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. Finally someone piped up, “Was it an arranged marriage?”

“No, no, no!” my friend exclaimed after her grammatical foible became clear. “We met at someone else’s wedding!”

And there you have it: the power of one little word. Even a word as simple as the can make a big difference to the meaning a speaker is trying to convey.

You see, the Russian language doesn’t employ the use of articles. In fact, it doesn’t even have them. There’s no translation for words like a, an, and the. My friend, who did a bang-up job with our language, knew she needed to put one in her sentence, but she grabbed the wrong one. She chose the definite article (the) instead of the indefinite article (a), and consequently implied that she and her husband had met at their own wedding.

After she clarified, we all laughed at visions of a stoic Russian bride and groom shaking hands on the steps of some imposing Soviet-era building before heading inside to tie the knot. We should have known better.

This story still makes me chuckle, but it also serves as a powerful reminder of the power of words. Choose wisely, my friends. Not every misstep will leave people laughing.

Fanning the flame

When I wrote Beyond your ZIP code a week or so ago, I thought my passion for international youth exchange had been rekindled. Boy, was I wrong.

Last Saturday I took part in the International Youth Exchange Expo that started this discussion. I represented one of four local companies in an effort to show kids and their parents the connection between exchange and career paths. I was supposed to tell people about all the international opportunities a company like mine has to offer, right here in this sleepy little community.

Well, once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. But instead of covering the employment community’s need for people with international experience, I talked about how exchange changes a person’s worldview in general. It makes people better problem solvers, because they have tackled something that once seemed impossible, in a language that wasn’t their own. It makes people better listeners and more respectful of others’ opinions, because they’ve had to look at the simplest of issues from a different cultural perspective. They’ve had to make sense out of what doesn’t seem to make sense. They’ve had to see things through different eyes. They’ve learned to appreciate the differences and learn from them, even adopting some for themselves.

I went on and on and on.

I saw lots of smiles and nods as I spoke, but I think the parents appreciated what I had to say more than the kids did. That’s okay, because if it helps convince them to send their babies off into the wild, wild world to see what it’s like, then I did a good thing.

No, my passion for youth exchange wasn’t rekindled when I wrote the ZIP code post. That was just the spark that got me going again. After Saturday, NOW the flame is really raging.

Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’ve got a lot to say.