On being ... my Uncle Bert

By Ingrid Sapona

My late Uncle Bert has been on my mind lately. He was the husband of Tante (aunt) Eva, who was a first cousin of my mother. Uncle Bert and Tante Eva lived in Stuttgart -- my mother’s home town. When I was 17, as a graduation gift, my mother took me to Germany. We stayed with Tante Eva and Uncle Bert.

My aunt and uncle were generous hosts. Besides putting us up, Uncle Bert took it upon himself to tour us around throughout southern Germany and even into neighbouring countries. He loved driving and he loved showing off his homeland. We logged hundreds of kilometres in his luxurious Mercedes sedan.

Having done similar tours with my mother and my older sisters, by the time Mom took me to Germany, Uncle Bert’s tour guiding skills were well honed and the itinerary well planned. He wanted more than anything to make sure I learned about German culture, history, agriculture, industry and, of course, food.

Living in Toronto, from time-to-time I find myself in the role of tour guide -- whether it’s showing visitors things here in the city, or venturing down to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. A couple weeks ago friends came into town for the day. They’ve been here many times but this time they brought with them four teenagers: one of their daughters and a friend of hers, as well as a couple of boys who were foreign exchange students – one from Chile and one from Sweden.

My friends had a general plan for the main sights they wanted to show the exchange students. Given that my friends had already seen the key tourist sights before, to try to make the day as interesting as possible for them, I suggested a few places they’d never been to. I love sharing my city and showing off its many hidden gems.

Because I had been given notice about the exchange students, I even managed to find a Chilean restaurant. The neighbourhood the restaurant was in has lots of character, with off-beat shops, inexpensive restaurants, small grocery stores, second hand stores, and hippy-like hangouts. I kind of thought my friends would find it interesting. As we were walking around, though the boys didn’t know I could hear them, I was a bit hurt by some of the comments they made to each other mocking out different things they saw, but I figured it was just boys being boys.

After lunch we headed to the CN Tower, which is one of the “must see” tourist attractions. Because I and my friends have been up to the top of the tower before -- and because it’s a bit expensive -- we sent the kids up while we had a coffee and some time to chat. While we were waiting, I remarked to my friends that I thought it was very nice of them to bring the exchange students to Toronto. I also commented about the fact that I was finding it hard to tell whether the boys were enjoying themselves or finding it particularly interesting -- and that they didn’t seem particularly appreciative. My friends, who have teenage children and who have been the host family for exchange students a couple times, assured me it’s par for the course when it comes to teens. After dinner and a walk along the harbourfront, they dropped me off and headed home.

The next day I remarked to some girlfriends that I was a bit disheartened that the visiting teens seemed so indifferent, if not ungrateful, and yet my friends who brought them up took it all in stride. As we were chatting, I started thinking back to how I was at their age, wondering if I had ever behaved that way.

That’s when the travels with Uncle Bert came to mind, for I was about the same age on that trip as the teens who had just visited. As soon as I thought back to that trip, I cringed thinking of one particular episode when I behaved so poorly, it’s a wonder my aunt and uncle didn’t send their ungrateful niece packing.

Uncle Bert had driven us to some far away park to show us some waterfall. When we got there, to actually see the falls we had to walk up a long, narrow, steep path. I complained the whole way, mumbling about the fact that it’s not like I’d never seen a waterfall before. Then, when the falls finally came into view, adding insult to injury, I let him know, in no uncertain terms, that it paled by comparison to Niagara Falls.

After hearing my story, my girlfriends shared cringe-worthy stories about times they misbehaved as teens, taking something for granted or assuming an air of entitlement about something. One of them -- the mother of teens herself -- chalks it up to early attempts at asserting oneself in the world. I suspect she’s right, but that doesn’t relieve the embarrassment or guilt I feel now – more 30 years later – over not showing more appreciation to Uncle Bert for all his thoughtfulness.

That said, I think I’ve tried to make up for my reprehensible behaviour by doing my best to live up to Uncle Bert’s legacy of enthusiastically showing people around and trying to make sure they leave with many special memories. And, I can’t help think that Uncle Bert didn’t make a fuss about my rudeness because he knew that someday the shoe would be on the other foot and I’d be the one going out of my way for a seemingly unappreciative teen.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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