“Cosmopolitan” is a _______ word

Blurred people walking in Grand Central Terminal

Recently I discovered that “cosmopolitan” apparently is a bad word to some people. Silly me, I always thought a cosmopolitan person was someone who’d been places, different cities, different cultures, different countries and who moved with ease in them all. There was glamor attached to it.

I’d think of someone like Rick in “Casablanca” who could casually drop the line “But we’ll always have Paris.”

But apparently to fascist regimes, cosmopolitan is a really bad thing. It’s someone from over the other side of the fence who will destroy what we (the regime) have here. Come to think of it, maybe not a bad word just to fascists. The commies in East Germany back in the day also didn’t like cosmopolitans. In fact, they built a wall to keep their citizens from being lured into displaying cosmopolitan tendencies and go over to West-Germany.

Okay, I’m not xenophobic and still generally believe that pretty open borders are a good thing.

Cross-cultural experiences in school

Years ago I’d from time to time go to schools and talk to kids about what it was like being from another country (I grew up in Sweden and was living in Iowa at the time). The kids (any grade) were fascinated to hear from an actual person from another country.

But how to make the concept of other countries relatable to kids (and adults) in the Heartland of the US of A? Most of them had never been outside the country and some not outside their own state.

So I’d ask them if they knew how far away Chicago is? Sure: about a 4.5 hour drive from Eastern Iowa.

“Awesome,” I’d say. “When I go there, I get in my car and drive. And when I get there, they speak the same language and use the same money and while I’m in a different state, it’s still all the US.”

“Now, if I take the train from my hometown in southern Sweden, I first go to Denmark. That’s another country, with another language and different money. Then the train goes from there to Germany, which is a new country, new language and new money. Then finally I get to the city of Hamburg where I was headed. About the same distance as to Chicago from here.”

By now the kids were totally focused. They might not have been to Chicago, but they knew that it was easy enough to drive there and what I’d just described sounded so complicated. So foreign.

The international youth camp

As a teenager, I had the great fortune to get to go to an international youth camp organized by the Lions Club. For a couple weeks, teens from 20 or so countries were together at a resort in the forests of Northern Sweden. Doing activities together — both planned things, like games and dances and unplanned things like the guys raiding the girls’ dorm — we learned to bridge language and cultural barriers and gained insight into what made kids from other countries tick.

I’ll never forget one night when a guy from Italy was rather bored and wanted to “borrow” a car to drive into town. We all protested that even if someone would actually lend him the car, we didn’t have driver’s licenses. “No problem,” he assured us. “When the police stops us, I’ll just talk to them. It will be okay.” I got the feeling he had talked himself out of many such scrapes back home in Italy and while admiring his optimism, was firmly convinced that approach would not work with the Swedish constabulary. Cultural difference.

Exchange trip to Berlin

While in Junior High I also went on a school exchange trip to Berlin, Germany. Not that far, but far enough. Stayed with a German family, was part of their daily lives and saw what life was like for regular people in another country. (Also my first view of the Berlin Wall and how it divided a city for absolutely no good reason.) My host family made me feel very welcome and on another visit there, I even helped lay pavers for a walkway in their yard.

The interesting thing was that when I got back home, I appreciated my own surroundings so much more.

With Iowans in Belgium

Years later I went on a missions trip with a construction team from Iowa to Brussels, Belgium, to work on converting a building into a church for the North African community there. One of the guys on the team (let’s call him Ben) had never been much outside Iowa. He’d grown up in a farm community and nothing much riled him. Yet it was fun to see him discover a very different culture and how life flowed in big-city Belgium and enjoy it. I watched his worldview grow.

We were in a very cosmopolitan working class part of the city. You’d see faces and dress that indicated people from a variety of European and North African countries.

A highlight was getting to worship with the Arab speaking church and realize that while we all looked a bit different and dressed differently, we shared the same faith and we were all humans. All made by the same God.

And yes, we ate different things, though I quickly took a liking to couscous from a giant communal platter.

To sample local flair or not

Speaking of Brussels, another time I was there on a video production assignment. Together with a producer, Rick, I was there to cover the European visit of the then Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa. My producer and I had been on another assignment in Germany and met up with the Secretary and his retinue for the drive to Brussels from Cologne. From there we visited Rotterdam, an important entry point for American farm exports, before taking the distinguished group back to Frankfurt am Main for their flight home.

Everywhere we went, Rick and I found the local places where the locals hung out. Like a hole-in-the-wall micro-brewery outlet/restaurant in Brussels that only had about 3 tables or another dinner in an old windmill in the Netherlands. Rick, being a beer connoisseur made sure to stock up on some micro-brewery products while in Brussels. (Yes, the bottles made it through luggage handling on the flight home.)

All the while, the Secretary and his group frequented hotel restaurants and the only sights they saw were the ones Rick and I took them by.

At the end of the trip, it was still a mystery to them why we had to stop at every border. After all, they watched lots of cars just go zipping right through and here I insisted on pulling off with the big trucks and leaving them sit in the van for a while. I was inside clearing all the video equipment I had with me through customs, one counter for the country we were leaving and another for the country we were entering.

The Golden Rule

From these trips and experiences and many others, I learned to delight in differences between cultures and customs. For one thing, I may very well learn something important about myself in the process. The better I understand the world, the better I can work towards making this a better place for all of us.

Jesus gave us the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31, NIV)

If I go and meet others with ignorance and hate, I shouldn’t be surprised if that’s how they meet me back. However, if I enter into a dialog, looking to learn, discover and grow, both I and the other person will come out of it richer. And I may just have made a new friend, which is an altogether good thing.

Questions for reflection:

Do you remember the first time you met someone from a different culture? What stuck with you from that encounter?

What are some experiences you’ve had with people who at first appearance didn’t have much in common with you because of different backgrounds or cultural experiences? How did things turn out?