Cultural Differences


When my daughter Heidi was twelve and Dena was nine, I took them on a wonderful ten-day trip to Germany and Austria. Only three years had elapsed since I had started the practice of taking each of my children on an annual trip alone with me. With each trip, I realized what a wonderful way it was for a busy, overworked executive like me to find added time to bond with his children.

Most of our trips had an educational element, as we often visited cities with rich histories or national parks with interesting geological significance. To optimize the experience for each child, I usually took just one with me on each of these trips—but since Europe represented a longer trip, I thought it appropriate for the three of us to team up. The girls were excited and liked the idea of being together with Dad.

On the long flight to Europe, I announced their assignment.

“Assignment?” said Heidi.

“Yes,” I answered. “The theme of this trip is ‘Cultural Differences.’ I want you both to be very observant each day of the differences in how Europeans live from what we’re used to in the United States, because every night before we go to bed, I’m going to ask you to record your observations in a journal.”

As I’d thought, the girls took to their assignment with enthusiasm, making note of a wide range of differences that included, among many others, the extent to which Europeans smoked cigarettes; the fact that we often saw dogs sitting at their masters’ tables in restaurants; and that merchants never put change in the customer’s hand but rather set in on the counter. There was also one particularly glaring difference: the nudity that was evident in advertising, on public beaches, and at hotel swimming pools.

Early one morning, we were driving from Munich, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria, and the girls had been incessantly begging to go swimming when we arrived in Salzburg. With visions of visiting historic churches, wandering through world-class art museums, and attending concerts and operas in Salzburg, I snapped, “Girls! There are thousands of years of history out there and I don’t want to waste my time sitting next to a pool!”

But their fervent pressure continued and eventually I succumbed. Shortly after we got to our hotel, the girls changed into their cute little swimsuits, I grabbed a book, and we headed for the indoor pool. What we saw next was certainly not what I had planned.

At the entrance to the pool area we had to climb three or four stairs. As the girls walked single-file up those stairs, what should they see coming down but two young men in their early twenties, totally naked! I was somewhat shocked and realized this may have been the first time my young daughters had seen a naked man up close. Talk about a stark and rapid immersion into cultural differences!

Judging by their body language and facial expressions, the girls were indeed shocked, but they didn’t say anything. They simply jumped into the pool and started to play. I was relieved to see the young men depart the pool area, leaving the three of us alone, but my peace did not last long.

Within minutes after I sat down to read my book, the sauna door next to me burst open and out ran three lovely young women in their early twenties, also totally naked. This was the first time I had seen female nudity in public and I was naturally intrigued. You might say it gave me an entirely new perspective on sitting poolside and my own new sense of appreciation for these rapidly accumulating cultural differences. Suddenly I too was participating in the educational exercise.

Unashamedly the naked girls scampered up to the pool and jumped in. This proved too much for Heidi and Dena. Unlike the experience with the men, who had promptly walked away, here my girls were confronting prolonged nudity at close range—as if three strangers were suddenly bathing with them in a relatively small pool They ran over to me and said, “Daddy, let’s get out of here!”

I paused, wondering how I could tease my daughters without appearing too eager to observe their bathing partners. “Hold on just a minute!” I said calmly. “I thought you wanted to swim, and besides, my book is just starting to get interesting!”

Heidi caught my teasing and cleverly responded, “But Dad, there’s thousands of years of history out there!”

The trip turned out to be magnificent. As originally planned, we did enjoy the art, music, and history of the region, and I was less resistant to swimming respites for the remainder of the trip. And yes, we did see more nudity.

Among family and friends, the story of this trip was told often, generating great interest and amusement, but I never considered it legendary . . . until a few years later, when my youngest son, Corey, was ten. I had intended to take him on a fishing trip to Alaska. But I was in the middle of a major business deal, and just days before we were to leave, I was forced to cancel.

Expecting Corey to be very disappointed, I broke the bad news to him as I tucked him into bed that evening. “But later this summer,” I consoled him, “when this deal is finished, I promise I’ll take you to Europe.”

I was talking softly. Corey was deep under his blankets and nearly asleep, so I was shocked by what came next. With an explosion of energy, he flung off the covers, leapt out of bed, and, clenching his fists, he yelled, “YES!”

“Corey,” I said, startled, “I thought you’d be disappointed.”

He looked up at me, excitement in his eyes, and asked, “Dad, when we go there, can we go swimming?”

Even as a ten-year-old, he was clearly thinking about the opportunity to see for himself what the girls and I had seen poolside.

Although I was gratified that my youngest son had actually remembered something about the educational objectives of these trips, I realized that before the next trip I’d need to spend a little time educating him on a somewhat broader understanding of the term cultural differences.

For Reflection

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
— Ecclesiastes 2:24–25

The one-on-one annual trips I took with my children over twenty-five years were marvelous bonding experiences for us and also represented a legacy to the employees and agents of New York Life. That legacy probably never would have materialized had I not told hundreds of agents and employees the amusing story of the European trip I took with Dena and Heidi and the sequel involving Corey. Similar stories later became a regular part of my numerous presentations to employees and agents each year.

This particular story did not relate to an embedded message from God but it did set the stage for future storytelling that often disclosed my faith in God and the guidance and nurturing He provided to me in many aspects of my personal, spiritual, and vocational life.

Think back on the memorable experiences you’ve had with your spouse and children. Is there an amusing story to be told that reflects the love and unity in your family? Cherish those memories, and don’t hesitate to share them with your friends and acquaintances. They may more readily recall their own joyful family experiences as a result of hearing yours. As Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 reminds us, we can find fun and enjoyment in our toils—something in which we should rejoice.