Thirty years ago, my parents hosted a German exchange student. She and her family have remained a part of our lives — as well as in the lives of the many friends she made in the small town where I grew up. When my dad got very sick in May, Herdis Harzheim-Sambeth, the German exchange student from long ago, came to the States to be with my parents.
Through the decades, we’ve done a lot of celebrating together — weddings, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, but we all recognized that this trip was different.
One day in May, while she and I were sitting together in my dad’s hospital room as he slept, she began to tell me about her own dad’s death a few years ago. We sat in silence for a while after she finished — the comfortable kind of silence that comes in heavy moments between people who know and love each other. Finally, she said, “In August, we plan to go to Croatia for holiday. I believe we will come back here instead.”
I assured her we felt her love and so did my dad — she did not need to cancel her family’s vacation plans. But as we’ve all learned through the years, once Herdis has made up her mind, there’s not a lot the rest of us can do. The only problem was that she didn’t have someone to take care of their dog. I suggested boarding the dog, but she said, “You don’t do that in Germany.”
When she says things like that, we’ve also learned just to go with it. Almost jokingly, I said, “Well, maybe Greer could come dog-sit.”
Greer is our 24-year-old daughter in graduate school in Florida.
Herdis asked, “Greer would come to Germany to dog-sit?”
I said, “Let’s ask.”
We called Greer, and she was up for the adventure — and that’s how it came to be that earlier this month our daughter left for Germany to dog-sit for three weeks. Herdis and family picked her up in Stuttgart and spent less than 24 hours showing her around their home and small village near the Black Forest.
Herdis called the one woman in the village who speaks some English and introduced her to Greer in case of emergency. The next morning, Herdis and her family headed to the States.
In the time since, Greer has been adjusting to life over there as she finished an online summer class and completed the semester as a teaching assistant for another class. With so much schoolwork, she has spent most of her first week in Germany either writing or grading papers.
She has, however, ventured out to the apothecary on foot and to the grocery store about 3 kilometers away by car. Thus far, she says she has learned how to say please and thank you in German. Her other primary observation about life there is that Germans really like Pringles.
Now that the semester is finished, she is planning to relax this coming week — and she’s well-positioned to do just that. Our friends live in a centuries-old home with a pool in the garden. She joked that she was basing all her travel plans for the trip on the movie “The Holiday.”
I keep encouraging her to go on little adventures. She is content to relax in the sun on her own. Her approach to this time and my approach to a similar situation have little in common.
The juxtaposition in perspective and demeanor between parent and child is such an interesting and potentially difficult area to negotiate. I realize the fine line between gentle encouragement and nagging. She is keen to point out the differences, as I offer suggestions and advice, between empathy and boundaries.
When Herdis and her family head back to Germany, Greer knows adventure is on the horizon.
In the meantime, we are grateful that the German contingency of our family-by-choice is here. My dad has been so excited about their visit — and their arrival has come at the perfect juncture. Even in the best of times, few can get my father to do anything other than exactly what he wants to do. Herdis knows how to step in and give my mom a break. Plus, she can boss him around better than any of the rest of us.
Meanwhile, while our daughter is on the other side of the pond dog sitting, she needed someone to watch her dog.
So, he’s with us.