There is a new game I like to play called, “What was I doing at this time last year?” It’s a fun way to relive our year abroad and bring back fun memories. And it so happens that this week last year was extremely memorable. It was fall break, and we went on one of the best family vacations we have ever had.
First of all, I have decided that having longer breaks in the middle of the school year is really nice. This year, my kids have several days off of school in September and October, but they are all spread out. Having just one extra day isn’t enough to do very much. A three day weekend, while nice in some ways, is not really that different from a regular weekend. And if you try to squeeze in something big, you just end up exhausted and stressed. So this fall, we are taking things slow. I’ve had some great, laid back days with my kids. Sitting outside, reading, going to parks. It’s really nice.
But not last year. Last year at this time, we were in the first part of a three-week-long break. And, let me tell you, three weeks is a really long time. We took two family vacations – one to Germany and one to the Swiss Alps – and we still had a week in between to just relax, and a day at the end to recuperate before going back to school refreshed and rejuvenated. It was wonderful. Just different.
Anyway, in the first week, we headed to Southern Germany for a week of incredible experiences, hilarious mishaps (at least they’re hilarious in hind sight), and some of our most popular blog posts ever. I think all family vacations are similar in that, while you see things and go places that you planned in advance, it is often the experiences that were unplanned that create the strongest memories. We went to Oktoberfest, visited Legoland Deutschland, and saw the castles in Hohenschwangau. It was, at times, idillic. However, we also remember our ridiculous travel day from Münich to Legoland, and how Henry got plowed over by a careless teenager and had a scraped face for the rest of the trip. But to my dismay, the post that everyone talks about from our entire year in Europe, is the one about Henry’s diaper disaster on the Alpsee in the shadow of the Neuschwanstein Castle. I think every parent on the planet can relate to that experience in some form or another. And it happened one year ago, almost to the day.
A stroll down memory lane is an enjoyable, if somewhat treacherous thing.
I just went for a walk around my neighborhood, and up the street there was an old man laying in his front yard listening to the radio and pulling weeds by hand. He greeted me and joked about having a weeding job for me (at least I think it was a joke). Then he said, “Keep an eye on that patch,” pointing to a patch of dirt in his yard about a foot in diameter. “If that patch doesn’t have weedless grass in the spring, then I’m just wasting my time.” I smiled and agreed to keep an eye on it, assuring him that I didn’t think he was wasting his time.
But it got me thinking. What if there is no grass in the spring? What if it grows back with weeds, which, more likely than not, is what will happen. Does that mean the beautiful sunny day he spent working outside was wasted? Absolutely not! At the end of today, he will have a sense of accomplishment, not to mention a lot of fresh air. What happens 9 months from now won’t change that. If his efforts turn out to be a failure, does that mean he shouldn’t have tried in the first place? That it was a waste? On the contrary, he should learn from his first effort and get out there and try again.
This is important to me right now, since I’m spending most of my time trying to do two things: raise my kids and start a business. The idea of parenting being a waste of time is laughable, though there are individual moments when I wonder whether what I am doing matters. But what if my business fails (as many do)? At times, both of these things feel like an endless field of weeds. I work hard pulling weeds, planting seeds, and praying for rain. And inevitably more weeds pop up. And I do the work not because I expect to have a perfect lawn, but because I believe that each small success along the way makes a difference.
Trying to make the world a better place, one child, one business, or one patch of grass at a time is never a waste.
During our year in Switzerland, we experienced many differences between things there and what we were used to in America. Everything from the smallest details of daily life like greetings and food to large cultural and value differences like the language and the education system. There were thousands of differences of varying degrees, which is a big part of what makes living abroad such an amazing experience. There is value in opening your mind to different ways of doing things, adapting your own behavior, and eventually understanding the underlying reasons for the differences and making informed decisions.
It is very easy to be judgmental about cultural differences. Some Americans travel abroad and complain about everything. They believe that the good ol’ American way is the best, and that the rest of the world is just wrong. They wonder, “How can people live like that!?” They refuse to change what they wear, or what they eat, not to mention the nuances of how they talk or the language they use. “Doesn’t someone around here speak English?” As you can imagine, it can be somewhat off-putting to the people around them.
Fortunately, not everyone is like that. Many people enjoy experiencing other cultures and do their best to integrate and try different lifestyle choices. We tend to be on the extreme end of this continuum, assuming the best about the cultures we visit. Different is good, right? The food is… fresher. The people are… more loyal. The transportation system is… amazing.
Of course, there are other adjectives, good and bad, that could be used to describe each of those things in Switzerland. (Well, except the transportation system… that really is amazing). And the more we experienced the Swiss culture, the more complex our descriptions became. The food is fresher, more local, pretty bland, and very expensive.
When you have a deeper understanding of something, it is much harder to categorize it as “good” or “bad.” It just is what it is. Different isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different.
Coming home, we had this experience in reverse. Now we see American things with new eyes, and it is easy to jump to judgements about which is better, and I keep reminding myself, “It’s just different.”
Anyone who is married knows this feeling. Integrating into a new family is a lot like integrating into a new culture. It’s amazing how different two families can be! The dynamics, the expectations, the values and beliefs, how they talk, what they eat…. It takes time to embody the ways of another family and understand them fully, or as fully as possible. After 10 years, I love my in-laws like my own family, but it is still different.
Just like I love both Switzerland and America. I wouldn’t want them to be the same. That would be so boring! Then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience differences and challenge ourselves to understand them.
So maybe different is good after all.