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A nose for curiosity

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As a parent, I’ve often noticed a young child’s natural instinct for being curious. Unburdened by preconceived notions about how life is supposed to work, children are primed to make the most of new interactions and experiences. Most of us can identify with being curious, yet as we grow older, we seem less willing to indulge our instincts. I certainly have more fear about looking or sounding foolish than my five-year-old son. While some children are inherently more curious than others, given time and the right circumstances, even the most tentative child seems willing to explore, ask questions and experiment with the world around them.

On our recent spring break trip to the Italian Alps, I watched our children test the limits of their own curiosity. We were staying a week at a resort in the Dolomites with half-board. Each morning at breakfast and each evening for dinner we were assigned to the same corner table. With a view of the mountains outside and the other hotel guests within, we were able to survey the multi-cultural scene, clusters of Czech, German, Italian and Dutch families enjoying their meals. On our first day, while waiting for the next course, our children took the opportunity to scope out the scene for potential playmates. Ostensibly, they were going to the salad bar for refills or going to the juice machine for more juice; however, I saw the glint in their eyes as they wove their way through tables that had similarly-aged kids. They were on the prowl for playmates.

Although the dining atmosphere was supposed to be on the nicer-side, with three-course dinner plus dessert, the block-style arrangement of tables and the high number of guests made it seem more like a fancy cafeteria. It wasn’t long before we realized the food wasn’t much better than cafeteria food either. In typical Italian fashion, the dinner didn’t start until 7:30 pm. In an attempt to help parents enjoy more leisurely dinners, the hotel’s playroom remained open until 10:30. On the first evening, all three children scampered eagerly up the stairs to the playroom. After waiting five or ten minutes, I prompted Radek to go check on them, just to make sure they had settled in and weren’t getting into mischief.

Radek returned a few minutes later with a tearful Anna Lee. He’d found her in the playroom, standing by herself and crying. When he’d asked her what happened, she refused to talk about it. Finally, she explained that she’d tried to speak to the playroom worker, a young, friendly Italian woman, in Czech. Anna had asked the woman if she could leave the playroom, but since she hadn’t understood her, Anna had stayed in the room and begun to cry. It hadn’t occurred to her to try speaking English when the woman hadn’t understood Czech. The Italian didn’t try English either, probably assuming that Anna only knew her native Czech.

When Radek and I tried to make light of the incident and suggested she return to the playroom with the boys, now that she knew she could speak English with the worker, Anna instead clung to my side. “I felt so alone,” she kept telling me. “You just don’t understand.” I reassured her that I did understand exactly what she was going through. It wasn’t easy to be in a new place with a different language, but I mentioned that we’d come to Italy especially for the chance to hear and see new things.

When we entered the playroom later to retrieve the happily playing boys, I heard mostly Italian. Oblivious to the language difference, Samuel was happily shuffling trains back and forth with another Italian boy on the train tracks. Meanwhile, Oliver was intently watching another boy play on his iPad. They weren’t talking together, but they waved effusive goodbyes, and Oliver reluctantly left the playroom for bed. On the way to our room, Anna heard some girls in the hall speaking Czech. She seemed reassured to know there were others speaking Czech here and she tugged on my sleeve to make sure I’d also noticed.

By the end of the second dinner, Oliver and his iPad-playing friend and his friend’s older sister were chasing each other through the hotel lobby and café. While Anna watched from the safety of our table, the threesome raced up the stairs making monster faces and wild gestures then erupting into uncontrollable giggles. I soon noticed that Oliver was the ringleader and the two siblings watched with curiosity and pleasure as he made silly faces and motioned for them to follow him on another lap around the lobby. Eventually, Samuel went on his own up the play room, and Anna finally gave in to her curiosity and joined Oliver and his friends. The other siblings broke out an iPad and a drawing tablet, which they demonstrated to Anna and Oliver. Although their interactions were mainly passive, I was still impressed.

On the third day, Oliver and I chanced to see his new friends with their parents on the slopes. He desperately wanted to ski with them, but despite frantically waving his arms and smiling, Oliver couldn’t get the family to recognize him. They didn’t recognize me either, even when I smiled and waved. I was too shy to introduce ourselves. When we got to the bottom of the slope and boarded the lift back up we surprisingly found ourselves riding up next to the family in a parallel lift. I suggested Oliver take off his goggles and try once more to get the boy’s attention. It worked.

When we disembarked, I mustered my courage and approached the parents who were smiling nicely, if a little bit wide-eyed. “We’ve been following you,” I started, in English, hoping that they’d understand and wouldn’t think I was totally nuts. “Oliver enjoyed playing with your son at the hotel, and he’d like to say hi.” The father said, “Hello.” While the boys grinned at each other happily, we exchanged greetings and the children’s names and ages. Although I hated to be so presumptuous, with Oliver insistently poking me in the side, I asked if we could ski with them for a few runs. They agreed. As we skied, I learned they were from northern Holland and were also here for their children’s spring break.

Thus, began an intense, week-long friendship. The children played together in the pool after skiing, after meals and sometimes skied a few runs together. On the slopes and in the pool, communication through hand gestures and physical movements was enough. Off the slopes, Anna and Oliver struggled to pronounce their friends’ Dutch names (Chail and Jinta), but they persisted. Although the boys were content to use sounds, motions and actions to convey their desires, the girls were too old to be that silly, and they tried harder to communicate in English.

At times, Anna’s enthusiasm seemed too much, prompting Jinta to ask her dad to ride up the lift alone, because it made her nervous to ride with Anna when she didn’t understand Anna’s constant chatter. Eventually the girls bonded through Samuel, who Jinta particularly liked. Playing with him, she showed more patience and gentleness than he ever receives from his siblings. Later in the week, Anna made a Czech friend in the pool and for a brief moment it seemed Jinta might be left out. But when we reminded Anna how alone she’d felt at the beginning of the week, she made an extra effort to communicate with Jinta in gestures and actions. As I watched Anna learning to navigate the blossoming friendship, I knew I could probably pick up a few tips from her.

Although we’d spoken casually with Jinta and Chail’s parents neither Radek nor I knew whether we should attempt a bigger conversation or just leave them to enjoy their holiday. We were torn between natural curiosity and not wanting to impose our chatter on them, since we’d discovered only the father spoke much English. But following our children’s example, on their last night we invited the parents to after-dinner drinks. While the children played in the playroom and lobby, staying up much longer than even their Italian contemporaries, we listened to live music and exchanged stories. Talking about skiing, work, family life and travel, we stayed up past midnight. The following morning, we exchanged emails and addresses, took pictures of the children together and promised to keep in touch.

Whether or not we see our Dutch friends again, I know that I will long cherish my memories of the week we shared. Learning from my children that language differences need not separate us, and that sometimes the hardest step to take is the first one, I came away from the holiday with a greater appreciation for courage it takes to follow simple curiosity.

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