I had just dropped my rucksack on the bedroom floor and stepped into the bright, open hallway when I heard the ruckus. I peeked over the open stairwell and saw my two nephews pounding up the stairs with excitement, the six-year-old, Geoffrey, a few paces ahead of his younger brother.
“Auntie Dawn! Auntie Dawn!” I knelt down to receive the oncoming barrage of love, and my heart nearly burst with happiness when I saw his sweet face round the corner. His brown hair bounced as he ran toward me, his green eyes sparkling with glee, a giant smile on his face.
He almost knocked me over as he ran into me full-force for a giant hug. I wrapped my arms around his little frame as soon as he crashed into me. His brother joined from the left side, blonde curls framing his sticky face, and snuck in for a group hug. As I gave them both a big squeeze, overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from their big hearts, I wanted to hold onto them forever.
“Auntie Dawn, I missed you! Are you going away again?” Geoffrey’s tiny voice was strained with anxiety.
Oh no, I thought, surprised by the length and ferocity of his hug as I held him close. I was suddenly feeling polarized between the immense amount of love flowing between us and the intruding guilt sinking into my stomach. I didn’t think it mattered to him that I was gone for nine months. They don’t see me that often anyway.
Suddenly, the two large dogs descended on the three of us, tails wagging and tongues flying, trying to get in on the action. As the youngest let go and started asking questions, Geoffrey kept me locked in his arms with an intensity I hadn’t felt from him before.
I don’t want to be another person in his life who comes and goes and makes him feel unstable, unloved, or disconnected. I thought we stayed really connected over FaceTime. I guess that wasn’t enough.
As I held him close, trying to reconcile the overwhelming energy of the dogs, the barrage of questions from the youngest, and the increasing concern about him, images and sounds of a different memory emerged—reminding me of the last time a wonderful hug led to questions about connection and my responsibilities within it.
Every culture we are engaged in, whether personal, professional, or geographical, has different touch rules. Many are unwritten. So how can we approach connecting through touch in a genuine and open way?
The restaurant had the feel of a small, simple café, complete with a tall Norwegian blonde woman behind a coffee counter and a glass case full of baked goods. Wanting to feel part of the culture, I walked up and grabbed the Norwegian menu. Maybe I can figure this out. I was a little nervous, as I really wanted to connect, but wasn’t sure what was appropriate as far as initiating conversation. Will I talk to people in English? Swedish/Norwegian hybrid?Well, I don’t understand much of this menu, so it’s already looking bad. I traded it for English and skimmed the page. No wonder. Whale steak, some kind of fish I’ve never heard of, and accoutrements I barely understand in English. After ordering, I re-gathered my courage and sauntered upstairs into the near-empty open dining room that included a small stage to my left and a bar to my right. The windows overlooked the ferry, fjord, and small patio, which was packed. Most of the inside chairs had been pulled outside and added to tables crowded with people and drinks. That’s okay. I’ve been outside all day. It won’t hurt me to sit inside near the windows. After claiming a chair by loading it with my stuff, I wandered up to the bar for a glass of wine just as the bartender ran to the back. I waited patiently, and a tall, stocky, obviously-Norwegian gentleman and eventually a shorter brunette woman joined me in the wait.
“Var är han?” the man asked, followed by something I didn’t understand, as he gestured towards the back and then down the stairs I had ascended earlier.
“Du talar för fort. Jag föstar inte. Kan du säga det igen?” I said, telling him in Swedish that he spoke too fast and I needed him to repeat what he’d said. I focused intently on the general words as he asked if the bartender was in back or getting food from the kitchen.
“Is English easier?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yes, but I should have a conversation to learn.”
The woman chimed in and my brain immediately tried to pinpoint her accent, “It’s really a friendly space here. You can just pull up at any table and join the conversation. Are you waiting for the ferry as well?”
When the bartender returned and took their order, I paused. Just pull up and join the conversation? I felt my stomach flip. From what I know, that might not be appropriate. Plus with those full tables, it seems like a lot to manage with a plate full of food.
Dawn, my other voice chided, you would have jumped on that in three seconds at home, plus that’s what you resolved to do. Remember being in Ireland in 2009? You had no compunction about joining conversations, touching people, engaging, and being yourself. Yes, you are more culturally sensitive now, as well as more aware of the impact of unwanted touch on people, but don’t hide out at the perfect moment.
I shook my head at myself. I’m back to being sensitive to people and a bit fearful of overstepping cultural boundaries. Perhaps I can bridge that with more ease this time—after I eat at a proper table.
“Miss, what can I get you?” the bartender asked.
When we all had our drinks, we started introductions. The woman was German and was traveling Norway in an RV with her husband and three large dogs. The man was from Oslo, Norway, and was on a two-week holiday visiting friends. Both returned to their respective groups on the patio. My food arrived and I was grateful for the space while people-watching through the glass. People are sitting very close to each other, and most are laughing and engaging and talking with enthusiasm, but they are not touching casually at all. Even the couples don’t seem to be touching much.
“Come, join us outside.” The German lady peeked her head in the door, her shoulder-length curly hair standing out from under her beanie. “Don’t be in here all by yourself.”
“I was just going to eat first and then come out,” I said, startled and hesitant to leave my quiet nest, “but okay.”
“How can I help? Shall I grab your water and wine?” she asked, as she reached forward to grab them.
“Thank you.” I followed her with my food out to the corner table, where her husband sat.
The couple they were sitting with must have left. I didn’t even notice.
She set my drinks down and introduced her husband. Quickly, we started with casual talk about our trips, and eventually worked our way into other conversations as we ordered another round of wine.
This is what I’ve wanted for so many days. A connection with people, real conversation, and a chance to learn.
“You are more than welcome to come stay with us in Germany,” she offered, her husband nodding as she pulled out her phone. “We are in a really small town, but it is beautiful. Here, I’ll show you.”
Everywhere I travel, I meet good, generous people who want to share where they come from and who are proud and excited to share it with others.
We exchanged Facebook messages so I had the ability to contact them in December, the next time I would be able to enter the Schengen zone again.
“Okay, we have to get our dogs out for a while,” she said, standing up. “We will see you in Germany.”
Okay, this is my opportunity to practice what I preach.
I took a breath and stood, being careful to keep my body open and relaxed. “How do you say goodbye where you come from? Do you just say goodbye and wave? Give handshakes? Hugs? What’s appropriate?” I smiled, watching her reaction to my question.
It feels like a way to imply I am open for all of those things, but without crossing a cultural barrier and asking for something specific. Even though we have been talking for two hours, we are technically strangers. I know Germans have a reputation for being practical and structured, but I have no idea how they touch.
“Hugs are good,” she replied smiling and opened her arms. We exchanged a warm hug, and I stepped back from the table.