An Extended Family of European FriendsBy Grandma Ellen
taly, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Russia. Our extended family of European friends spans the continent. The same is true of our U.S, friends, but, strangely, it is the Europeans who truly feel like family. This feeling was reinforced on a recent trip to Germany and Switzerland, and I've been contemplating the "why" of that since my return.
Italian friends tell us that Americans are open and welcoming and friendly upon first meeting -- and maybe second, too. So they are lured into thinking that the openness and invitations will continue and that "friendship' means the same to Americans as it does to them: their doors open without reservation any time and a willingness to devote countless hours and energy to cementing the friendship. But soon enough they find that life in the United States is inordinately busy and the 'art' of cultivating relationships is allotted to a block of time just like any other task. Friendship becomes a matter of "call me if I can do anything for you, but don't drop in without calling first, please".
We, on the other hand, have given the name and phone number of friends in Padua to relatives and friends visiting Italy, and the Italians have spent days with them and even invited them into their home for meals -- total strangers, mind you -- simpy because the callers have a connection with us. A remarkable generosity of spirit, I think.
When we spent a summer in Switzerland, our Swiss friends, whom we met in Cambridge, England, introduced us to their close circle of friends, included us in their every-Saturday-night get-together and invited us to their home for dinner four times a week. Something Americans would do? I think not.
Even our German friends have taken us under their wing and treated us with unbelievable warmth and generosity. During a three-month stay in Frankfurt, my husband's 60th birthday was celebrated with a spectacular birthday bash, including a home-cooked dinner for 35, endless toasts and a slide show. (A group of our friends in St, Louis threw a similar party for me for my 40th birthday, but they were people I had known practically all my life). I say "even" our German friends because Germans are renowned for their formality in relationships. It sometimes takes years for acquaintances to begin calling one another by their first names. Our favorite story about that quirk is a married couple that had been husband and wife for twenty-five years and were still referring to each other by "Herr" and "Frau". We know it's a true story because we spent an evening with them. All the more astounding, then that we have been embraced as close friends in Germany.
These kinds of relationships are ones that require 'care and feeding', of course. And we do our best to measure up to our European friends' ideal of friendship. We invite any and all of them for extended stays in our home; we send then books about art and politics; we celebrate their birthdays by phone and gift; and we make it a point to travel to visit them at every opportunity.
Our extended family of friends across Europe has taught us that friends are to be cherished and held close to the heart. Our lives are all the richer for that lesson.
Ellen Baron is a wife, mother and grandmother who has had three distinctive careers:
1) as an editor at an educational laboratory;
2) as a businesswoman who ran a private-label group at Black & Decker, and then served as Director of Marketing for a consumer electronics start-up company; and
3) as an academic administrator who was director of a post-baccalaureate business program.
Her 'Just Jobs' (as opposed to "Careers") included piano teacher and French tutor (her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis having been in French).
Now retired from both careers and jobs, Ellen serves on the Maryland State Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as the Boards of several non-profits. She has lived in England, Switzerland and Germany, as well as St. Louis, Boston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, now, Baltimore, MD.