Two Canadian empty-nesters host a pair of  German teens,
and a lot of old parental reflexes resurface


It was a case of someone who knew someone who knew someone else and they wanted to see Canada. Emails were exchanged, dates were set and my wife and I became the hosts of two freshly graduated German high school girls on a three-month visit.

And the sleeping mechanisms of parenthood hummed quietly to life once again

The girls: How do you negotiate with a Valkyrie?

Twenty-five years earlier, when we were expecting a new arrival the first time, it was the logistical equivalent of field manoeuvres. The furniture, the room preparation, the clothing, the books and of course the parliamentary legislation around naming. Fortunately, the circle of moms at the time provided a wealth of reassuring wisdom and what they didn’t know was likely in a reference volume which I read with religious fervor. I had developed six pack abs for the first and only time in my life just from doing the Kegel exercises incorrectly.

No pre-natal classes or La Leche League sessions this time but still the paint cans and brushes began to rattle in the garage and the tools and ladders marched up the stairs throbbing to the rhythms of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The credit card nearly caught fire passing through the card readers. The furnishings were selected, the colors were chosen, the muscle flexed and the countdown began.

Unconsciously I began shadow panting in anticipation of delivery and struggling to resist putting up the alphabet border around the ceiling. Twenty years of accumulated parenting experience had snicked smoothly into gear just like that sweet Georgia overdrive. It was the first of many such Pavlovian clenches that would lead me to a rich set of opportunities to get over myself. Revelation by any measure, eh?

Judith and I had started our family late in life so by the time the kids were grown and nearly gone I was peering out the back end of 50 and oscillating between euphoria and panic at the prospect of reinventing myself as a retiree. The overwhelming burden of possibility made it difficult to concentrate.

Now, I love my children, don’t get me wrong. I view the experience of parenthood with a certain pride, didn’t consider the sacrifices too onerous or a serious crimp in my style, don’t bear any scars that can’t be masked by socially acceptable behavior and feel no guilt in remembering the whole experience with a modicum of breathless relief.

I had expected, perhaps foolishly, that upon reaching the Grail of 65 I would find myself easing gently into my empty nest and luxuriating in the new environment of stability and peace. Lights that I had turned off would remain turned off, unplugged appliances would continue as unplugged, placed items placed and leftovers, well, left over. I would have entered a new realm. Slipped the surly bonds of earth, so to speak, and danced the clouds in celebration of being the first to open the daily newspaper. God would be in his heaven and my glasses and car keys would be exactly where I had forgotten them.

It occurred to me much later that there are no seminars or workshops to lead one out of parenthood. No psychological diets for childlessness, no exercises to help keep the Olympian parenting muscle from turning to fat and reflexive volunteerism. Still, three months could be considered temporary and for someone who tends to the crotchety and territorial  I found it just inside my boundary of doable.

Besides, one of the young women was an international Zonta award winner and she and her travelling companion had been educated in the German school system so there was a reasonable expectation they would at least be housebroken and interesting.

With these comforting imaginings clutched to my chest we set out to meet the plane and within three days I was mugged by the reality of powerlessness wrought by the clouds of free estrogen in my atmosphere. My inflated delusions of parenting burst in one incendiary realization. My new house guests didn’t need parenting; they needed boundary negotiations and I needed Henry Kissinger. How does one negotiate with the Valkyrie?

So the girls arrived and my fluttering expectations had begun to subside a little and the real business of relating began. For the first three days their room was a model of neatness, beds were made, clothes picked up off the floor and books and personal effects well stowed away. But by the end of the first week the pull of teen entropy had prevailed.

Much later, when I had remarked upon the startling level of disorder, I received in response, “but this is how we live at home.” This from a girl who told me, straight-faced when asked about her thoughts on the controversy then swirling around the leader of the IMF, “I don’t think. I’m a girl.” I swore to myself then and there never to play poker with this person. I think she already had my number.

However, I was charmed that they should feel at home but troubled that my naiveté had expected otherwise. The shuffle of cultural imperatives continued.

The room: before . . .

. . . and after

Both girls had grown up in stone houses. You can imagine the places. Implacable Teutonic structures with an impenetrable insulation. A silence of the sepulchre undisturbed by anything short of nuclear fission and, consequently, the Canadian wood frame townhouse a mere box of sticks. On the third morning that I was physically raised up off my mattress by what sounded like the thundering gallop of the devil’s own herd I initiated an explanatory conversation about the particular drum-like qualities of platform framing. It became a standing house joke then as I referred to them as My Little Ponies.

Acoustics weren’t the only cultural clash. Our differences resonated all the way into the refrigerator. During the initial communication phase, the girls were given to understand that food would be included in our arrangement. Naturally, that meant to them that our fridge contents would look like theirs. Upon reflection, cuisine is an obvious cultural marker but at the time my cultural sophistication, on a scale of one to 10 was likely a negative number. The inevitable disappointments were perhaps foreseeable but remained unmitigated until that fateful day.

One morning, about nine weeks into their stay, I was having my own humble breakfast of leftover fish and potatoes, which, in my provincial simplicity, I considered sustaining and flavorful, when I was confronted with a pinched teenage face and the fervent declaration that, yes they had discussed it, and yes, they were in fact, “starving to death!”

As a trained first aid attendant I quickly took careful note of her physical state and, finding no obvious symptoms, concluded that she must indeed have been in the very early stages after all and that a certain credibility discount might be applied under the circumstances. But teen urgency was not to be thwarted. When I blithely offered fish and potatoes, the dam broke and out poured all the pathos of foreign disillusionment.

First in the litany was the woeful lack of bread. Canada, evidently, has no bread, at least not the good kind. How the Canadian breakfast menu could be so bereft of such a basic human need was a deep mystery to our guests.

Also missing were the several soft cheeses necessary to a healthy German breakfast. I tentatively offered that there was some Swiss in the fridge door and received the withering testament that, “Swiss is not for breakfast!” I had suspected that we were due for a recalibration of reality when I had begun to buy milk by the gallons.

I had a near death experience that first morning when I watched them start their day with a full 10-ounce glass of homogenized. She confessed then to the blighted hope that, “it would have been like home.” and then dawned the ruinous truth. We shared the failure. She hadn’t spoken up because everything was so wonderful and she didn’t want to seem ungrateful and it never occurred to me to ask because, well, everything was so wonderful. In silence the molehill had grown and from the view atop Everest I was reminded again of that stupid little homily about the word assume and who it makes an ass of. Ahh, kids.

I was now beginning to notice a shift in my feelings. My initial parenting reflex was moving into a negotiated relationship with intelligent and charming young women. Working shifts, I’m usually not back in the house until around midnight. The house is quiet and I had claimed this as my own personal time. A chance to kick off my shoes, surf the net and unwind. But these were teen girls. They were often up to all hours and in a snacking mood.

The initial contraction of my territorial imperative quickly relaxed into a comfortable expectation that they would be up when I got home and ready to recount the adventures of the day. I began to look forward to the conversation and laughter. I was powerless to resist them and wondered privately if this was what it was like at Jericho all those years ago.

And so it continued. They went to work, did their laundry, ate, talked and laughed and life settled into a happy routine. There were many occasions when we collapsed into fits of laughter over the misunderstandings of English words and phrases.

We particularly enjoyed the double entendre around their friends’ encouragement to see a Canadian beaver. I cautioned discretion in certain social situations when talk turned to this particular Canadian fauna and from then on Randy Beaver was the house mascot. His image is still up on the whiteboard in the kitchen.

The girls have gone back to Germany now, taking with them a lot of pictures, memories and, of course, our hearts. My urge to parent softened into genuine affection graced with friendship. The house is empty again. And quiet. Just like the last time the kids moved out.

To read the girls’ (German-language) blog chronicling their visit to Canada, click here.

Scott Sudbeck lives on Vancouver Island.