Americans aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they are known for it. This can be a bad thing when those questions are considered rude or misguided. However, it is a good thing if curiosity is reined right, questions are delivered intelligently and carefully, and education is always the goal.
When I traveled with two of my new friends throughout Europe, we asked a lot of questions and people were usually surprised. “What is your favorite thing to do in the city?” was one of our favorites, and we got everywhere through this question, even though people were shy to answer at first.
We asked so many questions that we forgot to be embarrassed about language barriers and cultural differences, and we ended up making so many friends that way.
These friends were a kind I had never known: one-day friends. Sometimes we were together for only half an hour, or even a few minutes, but asking people about their opinions and their everyday lives, trading questions and answers with near strangers, made me feel close to people so quickly, and vice versa. I met dozens of people that I wished I could call long-term friends. Sometimes, we never even exchanged names.
One thing we noticed was that people, especially older people, started to parent us a little, take us under their wing. We got free things from them: free knowledge, free affection, and free things.
The free items were what kept surprising us. People were so giving. Sure, it definitely could have been partially because we were three pretty young girls traveling Europe, but I know it was also because of our genuine eagerness to learn about people we met. We got something free in 11 out of 13 cities.
In Paris, a jolly older waiter gave us free Flemish dessert with brandy. He owned the restaurant and he told us all about the renovation he did by hand. When we left, we all hugged like friends.
In Strasbourg, France, my friend’s distant family gave us food for four days! In the city, we got free perfume from a woman who makes it with her own natural recipe.
In Geneva, Switzerland, we got free tram tickets from a kind old woman who didn’t speak English. She bought the tickets and handed them directly to us. We also got food and housing from a fellow Hoosier who now lives there.
In Konstanz, Germany, we got free falafel from a Turkish restaurant owner at 10 p.m., and another man came inside to give us each a long-stemmed rose. In Berlin, another Turkish restaurant gave us hot tea, yoghurt, and cheese pastries.
In Potsdam, Germany, a man in a church gave us free passes to climb to the top of the beautiful church tower even after the last tour group had already gone up. At the top, you could see two castles in the forest!
In Hamburg, Germany, a shy lady gave us tickets to “Noah’s Ark,” a boat that gave tours on the river. It turned out to be quite creepy, with wooden puppets, but she was still kind!
In Barcelona, Spain, a waiter at a restaurant gave us sangria. This was in exchange for a kiss on the cheek, but…still. Another man named Lativ from Morocco, who owned his own gourmet hamburger stand, made us a fresh batch of Moroccan mint tea and we talked to him in broken Spanish and French for over two hours.
Venice, Italy, offered us limoncello, the drink of Italy. A restaurant waiter and waitress gave us the bright yellow drink in beautiful little conical shot glasses.
In Chianti, Italy, we got a free wine/cheese/olive oil/spice/honey tasting, which was incredible, as well as free spaghetti and cookies from our hostel owner, Sylvia. Finally, in Lucca, Italy, a store owner gave us free tastings of local olive oil.
Don’t get the wrong idea – we were always cautious of people. We didn’t fly around cities or train stations asking bums on the street what we should do that night. We asked informed and open questions of bartenders, families, and others we encountered and evaluated to be semi-trustworthy.
Meeting these one-day friends made me realize how closed off I may have been before. Comfortable in my group of friends at IU and my family at home, my friend-making and kind-stranger talking had slowed down. Consequently, I wasn’t expanding my view of the world and the brilliant things strangers do within it.
As Americans, we are considered by Europeans to be very open and confident, although sometimes the stereotype labels us as more obnoxious – caused by misinformed questions, no doubt. I think the openness stereotype is a fantastic one, and it has been built by generations of Americans traveling for the first time and asking all those questions.
Yet, I notice that I and many Americans, like people all over the world, become too comfortable with those they regularly encounter. In a small town like LaGrange, it is easy to be easy in such a familiar group of people.
Many forget that strangers, though they have never given you anything, are valuable caches of knowledge and kindness.
Seeing the unknown as always threatening, many become introverted within the world, though they may be extroverted within their small group. This negates the stereotype of lively curiosity in Americans.
I came back home much more open to striking up a conversation, more ready to listen and learn. Sometimes I fall into asking, “Which family do you belong to?” so that I might connect them to something familiar. Familiarity is great, but sometimes it causes prejudice or preconceptions of a person who is totally distinctive. It is better, perhaps, to ask people about themselves, to get an understanding of how another individual experiences life. You might get some free things out of it.