I often hear adults saying that they want to DISCOVER HIDDEN TREASURES, enjoy LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS, and “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL”. It’s only through true cultural immersion that these experiences really present themselves. Imagine spending a couple of months in a Tuscany Villa in while learning Italian, for example. Or spending a warm winter in Oaxaca, a beautiful colonial city in Mexico with fascinating indigenous cultures and foods, or sampling the food and wines of the Basque Region of Spain like you may have seen on Anthony Bordain’s show on San Sebastian…and learning Spanish. Or living in France to learn French but maybe not in Paris, since you’ve been there several times, but somewhere smaller yet vibrant and full of activities, like Bordeaux. Both the city and the wine region of the same name offer a multitude of activities and unbelievable dining experiences. Or in Martinique, a beautiful, lush Caribbean Island that IS France!
But you’ve really got to get into the culture and hence, the language, if you truly want those lifelong, unique cultural experiences. I’ve had many over my international career and over the past 30 years – including, of course, my marriage to a Mexican woman (and family) that left me with three bilingual sons and a family in Mexico that still invites me to my nieces’ and nephews’ weddings!
In a separate article, I document my personal journey to becoming a Polyglot, however this article focuses on some of the many life changing moments and unique experiences that I’ve experienced due to language acquisition and living, working, and traveling abroad.
Student Travel to Europe
In the bicentennial year of 1976 I make my first journey to Europe in the form of a one-month travel and study abroad program sponsored by my high school and organized by one of the big tour operators. My high school German teacher was the host of the trip, which added to the experience as he was born in Germany and had family there. This trip was unique for me not only because it my first trip to Europe, but also because of all the many trips I’ve taken in my lifetime, it was the only one for which I kept a diary, and that of a 17-year-old Kansas boy the summer prior to his senior year!
The Kuchl Experience
After a quick spin through Rome, which was quite overwhelming for me (now as an adult I would go any chance I had!), we made our way up to Austria near Salzburg, staying in a trade school dormitory in a charming little village called “Kuchl”, pop. 9,000. It was right up against the Alps, with a beautiful river running through it, and close to the famous Golling “Wasserfall”, or Waterfall. This was our first chance to speak German and our first chance to sample good German (in this case, Austrian) food and, of course, beer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but since our next two stops would be the large cities of Munich and Berlin, this was going to be the best opportunity to make friends!
The first night we all went to a summer festival, complete with beer and pretzels, music and the other entertainment one might expect. We also met some Austrian guys and conversed for a while, in English, of course, as there English was much better than our German! I met a guy named Herbert, who little did I know would play a big role in the Kuchl experience and beyond. The next afternoon, after our tour of Salzburg, I made my way down by the river where some young boys, about my age, were drinking beer from a wooden keg. They pretty much forced be to try some, and I pretty much forgot about American beer for the next month.
That same evening, Herbert saw us out in the town and invited us to come back to a friend’s house for an outdoor party. It was sort of like going back in time. I mean, it was 1976, and the guys were playing guitars and singing Beach Boys and Beatles songs as if they were new! We sang “Barbara Ann” and “Yesterday”, over and over while we partook of whatever beverage they were serving. Since we were staying in sort of a summer hostel, and our curfew was 11 PM, the rest of the group wanted to go back. Not me, I wasn’t about to leave! There were parents, kids, and grandkids all enjoying themselves, singing to their heart’s content and eating and drinking, mostly drinking, and just having an overall fun time. I returned home around 12:30 AM, got in a bit of trouble, but never forgot that evening and that experience.
Our July 4th celebration was a great feast in a local restaurant. After dinner we all talked about what part of the country we were from and a few had prepared skits. We were all a bit melancholy, being so far from home on July 4th. We sang some songs and then wrapped up, except for my German teacher, two girls from Iowa, and myself, who chose to stay with a group of Danes from an all-male choir who were also celebrating at the restaurant. The men sang a few songs and then asked the Iowa girls to sing a song, which they did, and the group went wild! They didn’t want the girls to sit down and finally we all sang together a few classics like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, “Tom Dooley”, and “Home on the Range”!
Finally, the men dedicated a couple Danish songs to us (to the girls, really), which was considered a real honor. It was a very moving experience, total strangers who could hardly communicate, singing “hang down your head Tom Dooley” together and just enjoying the moment. My diary (from the 17-year-old) read, “The whole deal was incredible. The people were great. They really know how to enjoy themselves”!
Since we’d stayed out late on the 4th, the next night I was in bed early, while the rest of the group went to the theater to what “Der weisse Hai”, or “Jaws”, in German. In subsequent days, we hiked to the waterfall a couple times, made a trip to the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria, visited the local salt mines and the beautiful “Konigsee”, and in-between squeezed in a few German classes to make sure we got credit.
But the most rewarding time was the time we could spend with the locals. Herbert joined us with his buddy, Norbert, the last night and we said our goodbyes. From my diary, “I had a weird but good feeling about leaving this place. Kuchl was all right, the people were great”! I went back to Kuchl in 1979 during my next study abroad program and looked up Herbert. He was surprised, about as surprised as I was that I actually had found his parent’s house. We got caught up, both with him and with Norbert. Several years later the two showed up on my doorstep in Kansas, since I had invited them, and we got to spend some time together there. Unfortunately, I was busy with work and my parents had to show them around, so it wasn’t nearly as fun as it had been in Kuchl. I think the reason I said at 17 that “I had a weird but good feeling” was that I knew I wouldn’t forget but I also knew that I would go back. And it’s about time to go back.
Next stop for the group was Munich, and what a great city and fun experience being in the heart of Bavaria and in such a beautiful place. I don’t have as many memories from Munich as I do from Kuchl, but there is a small anecdote that I’d like to share. As part of our sightseeing, the organizers were taking us to the concentration camp, Dachau. There was a couple from KU who mentioned that they had already been there and wanted to make other plans, but our local guide insisted that they go. “Sie mussen”, he said, “you must”, “es Ihre Pflicht”, “it’s your duty”. The Germans don’t mess around with WWII history and the role they played in it. They continue to relive and remind themselves so that it will never happen again.
In West Berlin, this being our first time here, it was about all we could do to grasp the realities of history and how the West Berliners were living on a virtual island in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany, linked to the West by only aircraft and a couple autobahns that where heavily guarded by the East Germans. I remember making our way to “Bernaur Strasse”, where there were several viewing platforms from which you could see over the wall. On the west side, there was the city and even graffiti right up to and on the wall, but on the east side there was some 1000 ft. of leveled ground that was guarded by the East German soldiers. In a surreal moment, several rabbits came out and ran around, playing and gnawing on the green grass; had they been humans, they would have been shot. Thank god, those days are over, in Germany anyway.
My diary reads, “Berlin is neat. These people must have something special to be able to live with all this”. Then, circled by me and with an arrow pointing to this last phrase, is only, “a thought”. I was too young to fully understand my emotions, but at least I know that I had been reflective about the experience and while it was disturbing, it was also somehow exhilarating to be here rather than just reading about it. I’ve gone back to Berlin several times and since reunification it is one of the best cities to visit in Europe!
In my last journal entry before flying to London and back to the States I wrote, “I really didn’t want to leave Germany. I could live there”. And I did, but only for a couple months during the summer of 1979 as part of a German study abroad program associated with Kansas University. While I did learn more German this time, I was still traveling with a group and I must admit that I learned more the four days I left the trip to travel to Kuchl than the rest of the trip combined!
Life as a Tour Manager, ’82 to ‘87
I had always planned to go to graduate school, but after finishing undergrad I wanted to do something different for a few years and if that meant traveling outside of Kansas then so be it! That opportunity presented itself in the form of a job as a Tour Manager with a Lawrence, KS based high-end tour operator. For the first few years I would spend summers in the Canadian Rockies and falls in the New England states leading bus tours and learning a lot about our northern neighbor as well as New England. I particularly have a warm place in my heart for Canada and Canadians, as I spent a good deal of time there and lived in Calgary through one winter (for a girl, of course!).
After the third season, I started spending a few winter months conducting tours in Hawaii and then in ’84 and ’85 spent the two summers mostly in Germany, where I finally perfected my German. I also spent quite a bit of time in East Germany, as the tour included a couple of days there and one night in an East Berlin hotel. I recall going to the bar, meeting the bartender, and answering, when asked, that I was from California. He reached under the bar and took out a bottle of Meissen Wine, which is a good white wine from the region near Dresden. He told me, “I’ll probably never be able to travel to California, so I’ll give you this Germany wine in exchange for a bottle of California wine.” I agreed, and the next trip I brought him a nice bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Little did we know that in five years the wall would be toppled and reunification would begin? He could be in the U.S. now but I’d have no way to know!
After the trips to Germany I was fortunate to travel to China and Russia on several occasions in ’86 and ’87, as well as to Central Europe and South America. My future career in telecommunications would take me back to most of these destinations and I’m sure I’ll continue going back in the future. While in the travel industry, I made a lot of friends and shared a lot of memorable moments. And I’ve also lost contact with most of those friends and forgotten many of the moments, although I’ll finish this article with one special memory that happened on a train in China. But first let’s go to the next chapter…
International Telecommunications Career, 1989 to 2016
The travel industry was no place for a husband and father so I completed my MBA at Thunderbird, Graduate School of International Management, in Glendale, AZ. I then set out on a career path in telecommunications, mostly supplying technology to the entertainment industry, selling to Cable TV operators, satellite TV operators, broadcasters, etc. I quickly became a leader and clearly had a skill (and a passion) for managing international teams, applying my language ability and cultural sensitivity to managing and motivating people. I was an expat in Mexico City and managed the Latin American market, and also in Singapore, managing the Asia-Pacific market. During my courtship and then throughout my career I picked up Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese, as well as dabbling in a few other languages.
I traveled extensively throughout Latin America and Asia-Pacific and even worked for a couple European firms that, of course, required me travel to Europe from time to time. I sat next to Bill Murray on a plane, shook the President of Mexico’s hand at a trade show inauguration, and met Imelda Marcos at a Spanish restaurant in Manila. And, of course, experienced many, many other special moments all over the world, too many to remember, but enough to know that my life has been anything but boring!
The Hokey Pokey
During my last year in the travel business in 1987, I had the pleasure of leading a group to China. We were on our last leg of the journey, which was a four-hour train ride from Guangzhou (Canton), China to Hong Kong. And back in the day, travel in China was pretty exhausting, so we were all looking forward to our R&R in Hong Kong and were all in a very festive mood. I had told the group that there was only tea service on the train and that they might think about bringing their own libation, a tip that they embraced wholeheartedly.
To our surprise, we shared the train car with a group of Japanese women, easily in their 70’s, who sat quietly in their end of the car, while we sat not-so-quietly in ours. Now remember this was barely 40 years after the end of WWII and the Pacific theater had been brutal, and with a lot of hard feelings on both sides. We also had war age Americans in our group and one Canadian couple (I remember because she sang “Oh Canada”, in French!). Again, there were only women in the Japanese group, and I didn’t ask any questions. The scene appeared a little awkward to say the least.
After a few drinks, my group started talking louder, as we do, and someone broke into song. To break the ice, I sat down with the Japanese tour manager, who of course spoke perfect English, and we began to talk. My group was on their third or fourth song by now and getting louder, and the Japanese women began to applaud politely. Taking this as a good sign, I respectfully asked the Japanese tour manager if his ladies would be willing to sing a song, not expecting that they would, and he translated to the group. They conversed back and forth for a while and then low and behold – in these angelic voices that I never would have expected but will never forget – they sang what to me is the most famous, very traditional Japanese song, called, “Ue o Muite Arukou”. In the U.S., we knew the song as “Sukiyaki”, which has absolutely nothing to do with the actual song but apparently is easier to pronounce. I think everyone has heard this song.
My group went wild with applause and there were very few dry eyes in the bunch. We sang another song, and then the Japanese ladies, my group, and the ladies, repeatedly. We continued this “dueling songs” for a couple of hours and, I kid you not, by the time we came rolling into Hong Kong, the Americans, Canadians, and Japanese were dancing the “Hokey Pokey” up and down the aisles, arm in arm. It was the most incredible experience especially given the apparent “cold war” environment that I imagined when we first sat down. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, trying to put some profound meaning to it, but I think it was just humans being humans. We all want the same thing, just express it differently and in different languages!
But the real point to make here is, THESE THINGS DON’T HAPPEN IN YOUR FRONT ROOM! NOBODY KNOCKS ON YOUR FRONT DOOR TO HAND OUT LIFE-CHANGING CULTURAL EXPERIENCES!!! And it rarely happens when we travel abroad, since we usually travel in groups and / or are hidden in hotels.
I’ve been very fortunate to have experienced the things I have and in many diverse cultures. But I’ve also purposely put myself into the right environments in which they may happen, had the right attitude and, in many occasions, spoken the right language to facilitate it. This is our primary goal at Language & Luxury, namely to provide the best environment for language learning and cultural immersion. Personal language instruction, one on one, with a professional language instructor experienced in teaching adults, living in a real neighborhood in one of the world’s great cities, as well as cultural interaction, fun and interesting activities that will ensure that become immersed and speak the language.
You might not dance the Hokey Pokey with Japanese ladies aboard a Chinese train, but if you truly “live like a local”, you will experience your own lifelong memories that will hopefully top some of mine!