The Importance of Being a Stranger

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A view through one of Amberg’s fortified walls

I like being useful.  I like having something to offer the people I meet, and I like to be a good friend.  When I moved to Germany, I wasn’t any of these things.  I literally didn’t even know how to count past three in Deutsch.  I didn’t have resources to share, and I was rather vulnerable and needy.  I couldn’t drive there, I didn’t know what was going on, and my husband started work 13 hours after we arrived. We needed everything, household-wise, and I was limited to my daughter’s walking stamina, in terms of where I could go to take care of things.  This is not a position I like to be in!  I don’t like not knowing what’s going on, and I hate standing out as new and clueless in a foreign place.  While the experience was certainly rough, it went so much better than I thought it could.  What really surprised me was how, in a rather culturally reserved region, people showed up and helped me.  We had neighbors that went out of their way to solve little problems for me and helped get things set up, and just joked with me and made me laugh, when I didn’t know anyone else.  I asked about where I could get a used bike, and a week later, they called me down into the courtyard to surprise me with a bike they had gotten for me to use from a friend with a bike shop!

Once my daughter started kindergarten (it’s pre-school there) I was ready for some time alone, focusing on my own studies, and recharging my batteries from the turmoil of the move.  In the past, when I had moved to Portland from Los Angeles, it took forever to make friends and connect with people.  I assumed that it would be much more difficult in a country where I didn’t know anyone, let alone speak the language.  I decided not to try too hard, to just focus on my work and enjoy some quiet.  I figured it would take a long, long time, and wasn’t quite ready to make all of the effort.  To my surprise, many of the parents at my daughter’s kindergarten approached me, inviting me over to their homes or to get a cup of coffee.  I was really caught off guard, not even sure I was ready to keep a social calendar yet!  It was so sweet, and these women (and their children) were such wonderful, lovely people and I was a little puzzled that they wanted to be my friends.

Summer time in Amberg.

And I have to tell you something– it taught me a huge lesson about myself. I have this inclination to give as much as I can to people, to always be generous, to help in any way I can.  I have a sense of indebtedness when someone does something nice, that usually leads me to try to give more than I have received– I guess I am uncomfortable with ever taking more than I feel I should from anyone.  But this has kept me from being able to know whether people really care for me, or if I am just really useful to have around– I cook for people, teach them handy things, give advice, give them bodywork, listen… and I love to do it.  But I’ve never known what would happen if I couldn’t offer those things.  In Germany, I found myself with nothing to offer beyond an interest in German culture and language.  That’s it.  Moreover, I was afraid of making terrible cultural blunders. I needed more than I could offer, and I received from many strangers.  It was really touching to realize that the people I had connected with wanted to spend time with me, in the uncertain state I was in.  How wonderful!

A view of the town square, or marktplatz, from the clock tower.

We were only in Amberg for seven months before we had to leave.  This is a very short amount of time, in terms of getting settled and building relationships, and once again, I was surprised that our new friends cared so much that we were leaving.  It was so sweet and heart warming that they were so supportive when we were going through such a tough time, and had to leave so quickly.  One friend took me out for breakfast, then took me on a special city tour, including climbing up inside the clock tower of St. Martins Basilika.  Another friend’s husband is a photographer, and he took professional portraits of our family as a going away gift.  Our landlord took us and some friends out for a really wonderful Greek dinner.  There were cards, kisses and little gifts from so many people, I was kind of in shock from the love that was given to our family– still practically strangers to most of them!

Feeling at home on the Vils River.

This experience has given me an incredible gift.  I have learned that I can make friends wherever I go, and that it’s OK to be clueless and needy, even if I hate that feeling.  I know what it feels like to be a stranger, and I know how I can help those who may be feeling as unsure as I have felt before.  I have learned that most people are wonderfully generous, and that just being excited about someone else’s culture is enough to form a meaningful connection.  I often wish that the relationships I made in Amberg could have grown much more, that we could have stayed longer.  But even having to say goodbye a few months after getting acquainted, I feel incredibly thankful and lucky to know those wonderful people, and it helps me look forward to our next new home, knowing that it’s a gift to be a stranger sometimes.

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21 Responses to The Importance of Being a Stranger

  1. stefan r. May 16, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    thanks Ariana for these wonderful words and when I think back of the time,where Jeff, Amelia and you have spent together in Amberg, so I get tears in my eyes. I never will forget the great Mullins family.

    god bless you

    your former landlord

    and constant

    friend Stefan.

  2. Mullins May 17, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    Oh Stefan, we truly like you so much as well and valued our time living in your beautiful flat. Someday we will back in the great town of Amberg to visit once again. Jeff

  3. tech.samaritan May 17, 2011 at 1:08 am #

    There is no more pleasant teacher of humility than gratitude. As difficult as it is to be on the receiving end of blessing, it is a vulnerability that bears sweet fruit.

  4. Nathan May 17, 2011 at 2:20 am #

    Such a great reflection! Thanks for writing out your thoughts, Ariana! Love you!

  5. Grandma Seelye May 17, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    Thanks for sharing your reflective journaling.So good to remember the positive side of your time there. Love you

  6. Radka May 17, 2011 at 4:09 am #

    Ariana, such a wonderful post about your experience in Amberg. I’m sure that in the back of your mind there are many reasons than made you fall in love with this place. Time and place might change, but beautiful memories will stay.

  7. planetnomad May 19, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    We had a similar experience in a French town several years ago. It was a mystery to me why people were willing to spend long hours with us stumbling all over in our efforts to speak French, but they did. And now, back in the US, my radar is up. If someone looks lost or confused and doesn’t speak English, I want to help! I have learned what it means to receive and so I want to give.

  8. Ariana May 19, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Radka– so true! We had such a wonderful experience in Amberg, and I consider it a gift to have lived there, even for just a few months.

    Planetnomad– yes, sometimes we need others to show us the way, and what a relief and blessing it is when they do so gladly! I hope that I look forward to opportunities to reach out to disoriented strangers, as a way of thanking those that did the same for me…

  9. Great Aunt Gretchen May 20, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    What a wonderful post!
    Great to hear your heart.

  10. planetnomad June 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    We had a similar experience in a French town several years ago. It was a mystery to me why people were willing to spend long hours with us stumbling all over in our efforts to speak French, but they did. And now, back in the US, my radar is up. If someone looks lost or confused and doesn’t speak English, I want to help! I have learned what it means to receive and so I want to give.

  11. Happy Homemaker UK June 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    What a delightful post! I have found that I need to be more extroverted to make friends and find out what I need to know. I think living abroad creates so much personal growth, don’t you? I don’t know if you know about FAWCO.org – but there are expat communities worldwide that are so welcoming and helpful just to get you on your feet.

    Thank you so much for sharing on Post Of The Month Club! XOL

  12. Butterbean Row June 8, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    Ariana,
    So nice to meet you. I loved your honesty in this post You really took a chance of a lifetime to move to another country. In making yourself vulnerable, you gave others the blessing of doing kind things for you and your family.
    For some reason google is not letting me become a follower today. Maybe tomorrow.

    All the best,

    charlotte

  13. Ariana June 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Hello Charlotte, thank you for this encouraging comment. I really believe in taking chances. They don’t always work out as I’d hoped, but it makes life rich, either way. And in this case, it was such an important life lesson, to be in need of help and to receive from strangers.

  14. Vanessa March 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    That’s a great post – you shall have to go back and visit all your friends in Augsburg! ūüôā

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