I had the good fortune of attending a course at the NATO School Oberammergau this past May. A week long course, with an extra day for personal time in Munich, had a profound and lasting impact on me. I’ve always believed that the people we meet in our lives can always teach us something. I think my cheesy way of phrasing it when I was spitballing ideas for my blog title and purpose was, “The path of life is paved with people who will teach us along the way, provided we care enough to listen.” Through observing and interacting with other students of different nationality, both on the course and socially in the evening, I walked away with a different perspective, a renewed outlook. I came away with a willingness to allow myself the time to look inwards, and the courage to force myself to make changes.
There were several people that I meet that impacted me in some small measure, but for the purposes of this article, I have to single out a particular Dutchman. We were not on the same course, but met at the Meet & Greet on the Monday. He is what I like to call a people magnet. He draws people to him. His demeanour is inviting. He is funny and confident, engaging. I too can sometimes be a bit of a people magnet, in the right setting. But our polarity must have been correct that evening, because I was drawn into his circle rather than be repelled, and we hit it off. The group of us shared stories, we laughed, carried on, and bonded in a way that military folks will understand.
At some point in the evening, we decided to become Facebook friends. In perusing each other’s profiles, I remarked how the Dutch always seem to look so good, that they take pride in their appearance. Yes, I was stereotyping, but my limited exposure had showed me that they were not likely to be out at a Walmart in pajamas in the middle of the day. He agreed. He asked why we wouldn’t want to look good? Why wouldn’t you take pride in your appearance? If you look good, you feel good. He said he likes to look good for his wife, and she likes to look good for him. Not a word of this came across in a superficial, material, or chauvinistic way. He was really seeming to state it as fact. This aspect didn’t seem to be limited to the Dutch. It was something I had noticed from the Nordic nations as well. They all seemed genuinely happy and more importantly, they had an air of good health about them. Maybe there was something to their philosophy.
The next night was intended to be a quiet night. We had a fantastic course supper, and I shut down relatively early to head home with three others. Two had already veered off for their accommodations, and the one remaining wanted to stop for a last drink, in a platonic manner… just to be clear. I really didn’t want to, but this fellow seemed determined. Not wanting to be rude I acquiesced. I regretted it shortly after we were seated and having the drink. I often say I could talk to the side of the wall if it would listen, but having a conversation with this fellow was painful, especially without the rest of the group present. It was awkward. I all but chugged my really good German beer, and headed home.
The following evening I was lamenting the awkwardness of the drink the night before, and muttering about how I wished I could have gotten home that half an hour earlier and at least had a good night’s rest. My Dutch friend pointed out that us Canadians are just too nice. If I didn’t want to stop for that drink in the first place, I should have just said that. Intuitively, I know he is right, but yet I still cave. I often find myself being more concerned about other people’s feelings ahead of my own. Truth be told, it is probably more about me feeling bad for hurting someone else’s feelings; I’d rather avoid feeling bad and just have the damn drink. But for whatever reason, I’ll call it the Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman delivery, I found myself agreeing with him. He was right. I had nobody to blame but myself because if I had wanted to go straight home, I should have just said that, and went straight home. Why have I somehow been incapable of seeing things so simply until then?
Through the course of the week, these little interactions seemed to be having an impact on me. The course itself was opening my mind to a new way of looking at things, something I was not expecting. The Friday evening I decided to make my way into town to say farewell to my new friends, the Dutchman and his classmates. Listening to them, hearing about how they live, what they spend their time doing, where their priorities are, it was as if I had donned a new pair of glasses and was seeing things in an entirely different light suddenly. I soaked it up.
I headed to Munich in the morning, determined to make the most out of a solo day in a foreign country. I walked over 20km around the city, absolutely captivated by it. People make time to simply be in the moment. They seem to be more connected or intimate with whomever they are sharing their time. The vibe is laid back. They are present, happy, healthy, grounded. It didn’t feel frenzied. I vowed to make a change upon return home.
I followed up my Munich trip with a message to my Dutch friend. I actually thanked him for unwittingly having been my therapist for the week. And he came back with another gem for me: If you talk, you are only saying things you already know. If you listen, you learn new things. That is why we have two ears and one mouth. The irony that I hadn’t heard that expression before was not lost on me.
The Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman, has me listening. Listening to others, and taking the time to listen to my inner self a little more. I’m also happy to report that I’ve been making some small progress on the changes I vowed – getting up earlier to start the day with walking the dog and a healthy breakfast, procrastinating less, prioritizing and being okay saying no to things. Small steps, easy changes, but one has to start somewhere.