On Being Ignorant: A Travel Diary

For the past month, we have been traveling around Europe as a family. We’ve seen all sorts of amazing things: the awe inspiring Alps cutting the clouds, the Black Forest in full bloom, its green hills bejeweled with white blossoms. We have climbed the stairwells of impossible cathedrals and palaces, treated ourselves to collections of art that span millennia. But I’m not going to talk about what we've seen. Not because I don’t have anything to say about these things or because the things we’ve seen have not had an impact on the way I see the world. Rather, it’s because something has happened to me on this trip that is much more important than anything I’ve found at the great sights of Europe. What’s happened to me is this: I have learned that I am ignorant.

It started right away. With a twelve-hour layover in Dublin on our flight to Zurich, we decided to take a bus into the city. It was five in the morning, still dark, and we were hungry. Finally, a few shops started to open, and we entered a little café. It wasn’t a big deal. We found our way in, ordered our food, paid, and left. But this was our first taste of dining out on the other side of the pond—trying to figure out whether to seat yourself or wait to be seated, whether there is a bathroom for customers, how and when to pay.

And then there’s the food. It’s hard enough to find a restaurant that serves something that everyone in our family will eat (well, let’s be honest: the kids are the problem). But then throw in the fact that the food is different, even when it’s the same thing. For example, in Europe (at least in our experience), a fried egg is basically cooked on one side and then flopped onto the plate, sunny side up. Naomi likes fried eggs. But not these. Not even the whites.

For me, living and traveling in Germany is especially humbling, because in Germany, I know just enough of the language to get myself into trouble. When we first arrived, my wonderful aunt Barbara showed us around and helped to get us acclimated. She took us to the ruins of a medieval castle nearby for our first side trip and to Lorrach, the neighboring city, for ice cream. She provided us with train tickets, and gave us the very important piece of advice: “Only take a train that goes left!” And then my uncle Friedrich taught us everything we needed to know about German culture. 1) Only one hot meal a day at lunch (“mittagessen”); otherwise, bread and jam or bread and honey. 2) Don’t drive over the speed limit; you’ll get a ticket in the mail. 3) If you start your day late in the morning, your hardworking industrious neighbors will judge you.

But, of course, at some point, we had to venture out on our own, and as the only one who knows some German, I repeatedly found myself trying to communicate and not being able to find the words. At a grocery store, looking for plastic spoons to go with the yogurt we bought for a picnic, I asked for a laufe (“to run”) instead of loffel (spoon). Another time, checking in at a hotel, I very confidently said that we were checking in and staying three nights. The clerk thanked me, started getting our key and asked me how our trip was. I knew all of the words except one: reisen. I knew that I knew that word, but my brain went blank. So I asked her to repeat herself. It didn’t help. And after feeling so confident and proud of myself for checking into the hotel in German, I had to admit that the only sentence I could really manage was the one I had prepared while I was waiting in line.

By far my funniest foible speaking German came in Salzburg. We had to convince our children to walk up a steep hill to the High Fortress, where we could gain a terrific view of the city. By the time we reached the top, the kids were tired and grouchy. I was saved, however, by a snack stand. Perfectly located. I would buy the kids a drink, and the whining would stop.

Both Naomi and Addie enjoy that Germans drink something called sholler .It is just juice with seltzer, but it’s very refreshing, and calling it apfelsaftsholler, somehow makes apple juice with fizzy water more appealing.

The problem was that we were in Austria, and they didn’t have anything called sholler. (It’s a different region with a different dialect, so my abilities with the language were reduced even further). There was, on the other hand, several bottles of something that definitely contained juice, called a radler. And they had all different kinds: apple, grape, orange, grapefruit. Naomi likes grapefruit, so I jumped on it, ordering two radlers for the girls, grapefruit and lemon. We sat down at a picnic table, cracked them open, and the girls took their first refreshing drink.

“There’s something funny about this,” Naomi said.

I was irritated. I had spent seven euros on these drinks, and now they weren’t going to drink them! Well, that’s when Rebecca took a sip.

“Umm, Kevin. This is beer.” She took another sip. “This is definitely beer.”

And then maybe, just maybe, I encouraged them (unsuccessfully) to drink the radler, which had very little alcohol in it, since they were thirsty and I had just shelled out all of those euros. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!)

What truly taught me my ignorance, however, was a person. A person named Tim. Tim lives in the townhouse connected to my aunt and uncle’s. He is blond, wears glasses, likes to bang on a drum, and is six years old. And even though Tim speaks no English and my girls speak no German, they have spent a lot of time together. Hours. Days. Somehow, they come up with games to play by following one another around. And pointing.

And because I’m sometimes the only one in the house who speaks any German, I occasionally find myself trying to explain something to Tim. Naomi and Addie can’t come over to play. Naomi and Addie aren’t home (with explanation as to when they’re expected back). I speak, Tim nods, and then asks me a question of clarification, and I think I understand, but when I respond, he gives me this look that says something like, “How can a grown-up be so confusing?”

Despite being six years old (more than thirty years my junior), Tim is far more advanced in his understanding and use of the German language. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a little German Shakespeare. And I am a toddler, someone who can just barely manage to form words into sentences, and whose pronunciation elicits repeated shaking of the head from my six-year-old mentor. Nope, that’s not how we say it. Nope. Nope.

The reason this is so jarring for me, I think, is because language is one thing in which I’m something of an expert. I have two degrees in English literature. I have studied German and ancient Greek. I write stories, essays, and sermons, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at using language, in shaping words and phrases in such a way that allows others insight into what I’m thinking. I’m not good at math, or engineering, or science. Communication is what I do. But by stepping foot in another country, even this is stripped away from me. When others communicate with me, it isn’t because of my ability in language but because they know how to speak with me in mine. Again and again, they are the ones crossing a border I haven’t managed to circumnavigate.

What we human beings fail to realize, most of the time, is that the world we live in is very small. This is no accident. We learn a few competencies, memorize some street names, acclimate to a set of cultural expectations, and then work diligently to stay within this sphere of knowledge. If we never learned how to swim when we were young, we keep away from water. If we don’t know how to live with the people on the other side of the tracks, we keep to our side. If we don’t know what to order at a Thai restaurant, we don’t go out for Thai (until someone with knowledge of that world escorts us). For most of my youth, my Mom cut my hair, and as a consequence, I really didn’t feel comfortable going to a barbershop (I know that sounds weird). When I got engaged to Rebecca, I asked her to learn how to cut my hair, so that I didn’t have to leave my comfort zone. (It had the side benefit of saving us money for a long time, but, honestly, that wasn’t why I asked).

We all work very hard to keep within the confines of what we know. All of us. You might think of yourself as being an adventurous person, and maybe you are. But I will still guess that it is an incredibly rare day when you strike out and do something new. If you don’t believe me, spend some time in a different country, preferably non-English-speaking. And I’m not talking about visiting tourist spots, where others have engineered an extension of your home world (or something very close to it), but places where people live daily lives that are just like (but also very different) from the one you live. Try to learn the language and the customs, walk into a café and act like you belong. And then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

And the reason all of this is important is because it gets at perhaps our biggest spiritual problem: that we think we are gods. Of course, we would never put it that way, but it’s the truth. We close our circle in as tight as we need to in order to feel as if we are masters and rulers of our universe. Our universe might be a tiny little speck in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the feeling that matters—the one that says, “You’re the one who knows. You’re in charge.”

And this has two huge consequences. First of all, our belief in our own mastery (our inchargeness) causes us to elevate ourselves above others. This doesn’t mean that we think we are better than everyone else at everything, but rather that we are better than others at the things that matter most (a.k.a. the things we know how to do). I’ll admit it. I do it. And I’m convinced that you do, too. Even if you’re the most other-centered, most helpful person, deep down there’s a part of you that takes great pride in the fact that you are the most other-centered, the most helpful. Which, of course, isn’t true. We can’t all be the best or the most important people in the world, even if we like to think we are.

The other consequence is that we foolishly put ourselves on an even plane with God. Again, this isn’t something we would ever say. We wouldn’t ever consider uttering the words. But this is often how we approach life. When someone has the audacity to tell us that we NEED God, isn’t there a part of us that chafes at the thought? Why would I need God? I’m the master of my own little world. I know how it works. I know what to do.

And maybe it’s true. Maybe if we manage to constantly keep within the borders of our own world, our sphere of knowledge and understanding, we can maintain the illusion that we are self-sufficient. Maybe if the walls don’t ever come crashing down around us, we can just go on pretending. Maybe if a six-year-old named Tim doesn’t keep insisting on teaching us that we are no more than toddlers in a great big world.