dinner by the rhine

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He had a difficult time getting a word in between the roar of passing trains (about 3-400 a day he said) and the near-equal roar of the men talking at the table nearby. It was obvious which one annoyed him more.
We had sat down to a late dinner in our last town of the European tour—Bacharach, Germany. Next to us was a lone German man enjoying his beer and, seemingly, the atmosphere, though the train tracks not three feet away didn’t feel terribly atmospheric. He started to talk to us, and as time went by, we struck up a conversation that lasted the rest of the evening, until I realized we absolutely had to start our trek up the hillside to our hostel in the gathering dark.
He had worked in several industries, including tourism, had taken and taught classes in other countries, and all in all truly enjoyed sitting around meeting people from other countries. In the middle of the conversation, he paid my daughters and me the best compliment I think we got all vacation. “You see,” he told us, nodding at the four people sitting nearby, “There is the difference between travelers and tourists. Tourists go places. They take pictures. They meet other tourists, talk to people from their own country, then go home and tell people about the places in their pictures and tick them off in a book to say they’ve been there.
Travelers learn about where they are. Travelers want to know about the people, the politics, the history—travelers talk to the people who live there, and eat with them, and shop with them. They”—he looked at the four Americans who had just met at the restaurant but were already laughing loudly and swapping stories–“are tourists. You are travelers.”
Well, that’s enough to give someone a bit of a swelled head. But it felt so good, knowing, really, that all the hard work of research, learning, and listening had paid off. Knowing that our teenagers had acquitted themselves as individuals with inquiring minds that wanted to know rather than spoiled American girls with permanently twitching texting thumbs. Sometimes, one does have hope for them. Knowing we had learned quite a lot beyond how to get to the riverboat dock and train station.
Is there anything wrong with being a tourist? Not particularly. People have different reasons for going where they want to go. If I start looking down my nose at a tourist, well, I can’t learn anything from him, can I? But I know that, years from now, even as the pictures in our scrapbook may be of castles in Bacharach, the best memories will be of dinner and our new friend, learning about the German government system, health care, and education, punctuated by trains, three or four hundred a day, running down the Rhine River.

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