Have you ever gone on a trip to a country or place where yours was not the language of the people? To say the least, it can be a challenge, especially if you’re in need of locating a bathroom quickly. Needless to say, there are a few phrases (at least words) you should have memorized before leaving native soil that will save potential embarrassment and quite possibly, your life.
If you are in downtown Berlin, for example; words like Badezimmer (bathroom), or Toilette (toilet), are important ones to know. And though it would help to put the words in a proper phrase, more often than not, the look on your face or your unusual body language at the moment will fill in the blanks for the average Berliner. As a side note, an FYI – If you should ever make that trip, be sure to keep a few euros in your pocket, you have to pay to use public toilets in Berlin.
Last year I visited with my wife’s family in Germany for the first time. Super-fine people who received me with open arms and went way out of their way to make me feel a welcomed member of the family. My mother in law, the wife’s sister and brother, all spoke some English and done their best to help me in bridging the communication gap that existed between us. They were all so very kind and thoughtful. Then there was Wolfgang, my wife’s sister’s husband. His English was about as good as my German – extremely poor, but he left a mark on my life like no other.
Not to take away from or minimize the kindnesses shown by the rest of the family (they were awesome), Wolfgang built a special room in my heart where he will always live. I still see his huge smiles and hear his rolling laughter as he hammered away at the language barrier between him and I. His efforts to make me feel at home and a part of the family were extra special in that he had to work at it – hard. He was determined to remove the 5000 miles that separated our countries, cultures, and languages that we might be brought together on a level playing field where both of us could play and win. He did that, and I will always be grateful.
I will not see Wolfgang again this side of eternity. But his memory will walk alongside me every day. And as his picture roles around in my head, I will see an extraordinary man who though small in stature will always be huge in my heart. No, I cannot honestly say what Wolfgang’s relationship with God was, I wish I could. Unfortunately, we were unable to communicate on that level. But what I do know is this; for all practical purposes I was a stranger, a foreigner who came to his country not knowing him or his language. Even so, I was given shelter in his home; a warm bed in his house; food from his table and good wine to drink.
As Christians, followers of Jesus, is that not what we do? Doesn’t it have a familiar ring? Something like the sound you hear in Jesus’ voice when he spoke to the people saying:
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
The last day before returning to the States, Wolfgang and I sat in his backyard laughing hysterically at one another as we tried to find at least one common thread (other than our wives) we could knit our newly found (and forming) relationship together with. Having given up on clear dialogue days earlier, we hit on a song we could both sing and sing we did. At the top of our lungs, we busted out: “Hey, hey baby, I wanna know, if you’ll be my girl” – in perfect English.
Thanks, Wolfgang. Rest in peace my friend.