An Ugly American Story (sorry)

September 19, 2010

Why did I have to travel with this colleague, for whom everything about Europe was wrong?

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when we arrived at the Holmenkollen Ski Hotel, atop a small mountain on the east side of Oslo.  I took a quick shower, then a short nap to recover from the long airline flight, and a delightful buffet breakfast before starting my trek down the small road to Oslo city center.  But my colleague stayed behind, “to watch television”.  And when I completed my downhill adventures, enjoyed a quiet day of art galleries, city walking, and gourmet foot, and took a train back up the mountain to the hotel, his only comments was, “The coke was warm!”.

Our next stop was the town of Hilversum, the radio and TV center of Holland.  I always like to work hard and live well, and so when our consulting was finished  I took him to one of the finest but least formal restaurants I knew — a small auberge in the seaside village of Oude Loosdrecht.

Amidst all the old dark wood, country curtains, and under a thatched roof, our table looked to me like a cover photo for Gourmet Magazine. It was filled with plates of  king crab legs and stuffed sole, copper containers for each of the five fancy vegetable dishes that came with our dinner, an elegant platter of salad ingredients, numerous little copper pots with all the special sauces, and large glasses for the vintage wine we were enjoying.  With such food, and no tuxedo clad waiters putting me on my guard, I was basking in the culinary heaven.

Well, at least until my colleague left for the bathroom, returned, and announced to the whole restaurant in his loudest possible voice “They don’t even have hot water in the bathroom here!”.  He was right, they didn’t, and so what.  But I was mortified, to be with anybody who had such disregard for our hosts and for all the other patrons in this fine establishment.

Then an older woman at the next table looked me right in the eye, and proceeded to speak.  What could she possible say, I wondered and worried, after the insult she had just heard?  But her words in were absolutely transforming  “You must experience some real Dutch hospitality!  Can I invite you for dinner tomorrow evening?”

Her response to this insult was a dinner invitation.  Incredible, but it shouldn’t be surprising.  Everywhere I traveled, I found most people at their best.  Thankfully my colleague had to leave the next day, but I enjoyed a wonderful dinner that night with this woman and her partner.  We’ve became lifelong friends — all because she could transform an insult into an invitation for cross-cultural understanding.

2 Responses to “An Ugly American Story (sorry)”

  1. Thank you for sharing. Beauty and kindness is everywhere. All you have to do is open your eyes.

  2. Leslie Walden said

    Long ago, in an enclave of Mumbai (then Bombay), I was filming women attending a birth-control lecture. All morning, I had watched a single, very thick, very chipped, drinking glass coming and going as various participants drank water. I hoped for them, that the water was not from their well, which was foul.
    When the meeting ended and we were about to go back to our cool, clean hotel, the instructor told the reporter and me that the ladies would like for us to have a refreshing drink before we went.
    I thought about that well, that glass, and the many mouths that had shared them, and then I thought about the kindness of the ladies who had allowed us to film them.
    Life, I decided, wasn’t meant to go on forever.
    Bravely, I said that I would like that.
    The reporter I was with gave me a dark look and then said he would also.
    In a moment a small child entered the tent with two Cokes, in their bottles, and offered them to us.
    The coke was warm. I wasn’t moved to complain.

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