Wir Waren Fremde: We Were Foreigners


It was a warm October afternoon in 1976, and we were on our way to the airport. The sun was bright, and the colorful Canadian Indian summer was a magnificent picture stretched across the foothills. As I contemplated that peaceful beauty, I knew why Peter had chosen Calgary to be our home. Now we were leaving it behind—heading for Germany and a new life’s adventure.

“All passengers for Air Canada’s flight 852 please report at the gate.” I had quite a time keeping six-year-old David, our eldest, from running to be first aboard. As I lifted one-and-a-half-year-old Michael into my arms, he asked, “Mommy, is daddy on that plane?” The answer came from his five-year-old sister, Danielle. “Of course not, Michael, that is why we are going to Germany—to be with daddy again.”

Good-byes, hugs, tears, “Don’t forget to write!” and then the clouds were a sea of rippling waves beneath the aircraft. Calgary fell far behind and with it home, friends, and numerous possessions too costly to ship yet impossible to forget. When we had left BYU to settle in Calgary, we had brought with us only a diploma, a car packed with household items, and boxes of books. The only piece of furniture we then owned was David’s crib. But our hearts were full of hope and determination. Hard work and time had given us all we needed. Now it was part of our past.

“We are now flying over the St. Lawrence River,” came a voice over the intercommunication system. My thoughts flew to another flight of long ago and far away.

I was almost twenty-one that calm January day in 1966. The Argentine Airline plane was leaving my country of birth behind, my home, my friends, my early artworks, the eager third-graders I had taught the previous year at the new Bilingual School in our district, and—the most cherished memories of my youth—the first two years of membership in the true church of Jesus Christ. Then had followed a long-awaited patriarchal blessing, my temple endowment, a mission, language study at BYU, meeting Peter in an Italian class the first day of school, a temple marriage, our beautiful children.

I looked at my watch. We would soon be landing at the London Airport. “I can hardly wait to get to a comfortable bed in our hotel room. I just hope it’s not raining there today,” I said to myself as I glanced at the little ones sleeping uncomfortably in their seats. Danielle and I wanted to look our best for daddy, but our curls wouldn’t survive London’s intermittent rain.

Next day, we were on the final leg of our flight. The German plane was comfortable and had a bright, modern interior. The children were happy coloring on books they had been given aboard. The sky was blue, deep and uniform as if painted on cloth. I found myself once again deep in thought.

Peter had left Calgary in mid-August. It was not his first time in Europe. He had served his mission in France and Belgium. He had been studying at Brigham Young University for a year when we first met.

“Was Möchten Sie, bitte? Kaffee oder Tee? Und die Kinder, was möchten sie? Zitronensaft oder Milch?” said the flight attendant to me. I looked over the cart full of drinks she was pushing down the aisle, pointed to the bottles of mineral water, smiled at her, and breathed a long sigh.

Suddenly, I was afraid! All those languages I had studied in my life did not include a single word of German. And the twelve-session rush course I had taken in the spring was not helping at all.

“In twenty minutes we will be landing at Munich International Airport.” I opened my night case and was relieved that I had not forgotten the paper containing a German translation of my testimony, which I had been memorizing for days. Gudrun, an Austrian member of our ward, had helped me with it. As I clasped that little piece of paper in my hand, I said to myself, “Tomorrow is fast and testimony meeting, and I will share mine!” I felt great hopes for the future rising in my heart.

We were flying over Europe, that legendary continent with vibrant history and a kaleidoscope of cultures. Three generations ago, my ancestors had left their native lands (Spain, Scotland, Italy, Albania, and French Piedmont) to settle across the ocean in a foreign country. All they knew of the land was its name and some of its opportunities. And now I was on my way to settle where they had once been.

At that moment a feeling overwhelmed me, and I heard myself saying, “We were all foreigners in a new land.” In a few minutes it would all lie before my eyes. And I was afraid.

“Home is where the heart is.” I had said that to myself in the USA, then in Canada. … “Of course we’ll be all right here too! Why fear now?” But memories of several Latin-American families I had taught during my mission to the West Spanish-American people in California and Arizona kept flashing through my mind. They had been forced to leave their beloved native lands for political reasons, and now they dwelt on memories of joys they had left behind. They were so happy reliving the past that they were blind to the joys of the present. I was determined not to let that happen to me! We must hold memories dear, I reasoned. But we must live in the present wherever we are!

“Adjust your seatbelts, please! In a few seconds we will be landing at Munich International Airport.”“Mommy, mommy, I can hardly wait to kiss dad. …” “Me too. …” “But I’ll kiss him first, okay?”

Munich is a clean, beautiful, cosmopolitan city of massive, tastefully-constructed buildings. It throbs with action, and boasts a public transportation system equal to the best in the world. Artistic and cultural opportunities abound: castles, city gardens and lakes, museums, art galleries, theaters, ballet companies. Two opera houses, one of which is considered among the best in Germany and in the world.

Members of the Church in Munich guided us to a spacious, comfortable four-bedroom apartment in the city’s heart. Its previous tenant had been a widower for twenty years and in that time had done little or nothing to modernize—or even clean—the apartment. I had never seen such an unkept place in my life. As Peter and I saw it for the first time—grateful as we were to have a place to settle in—we suddenly felt tired. It was going to take months to fix it up the way we would like it.

But we had underestimated the generosity and helpfulness of the German Saints. The Frauenhilfsvereinigung (Relief Society) helped us with all the cleaning—and if you have ever attacked twenty years’ worth of dust, you would have a good mental picture of our task. The brethren helped us paint and wallpaper, and a former branch president spent night after night for nearly three weeks replacing bathroom pipes and installing our whole kitchen (sink, faucets, water heater etc.). It was a tremendous amount of hard work, cheerfully undertaken by our new brothers and sisters in the gospel.

But their help went even further. Herr Christoph, a charming old gentleman, had had a stroke; he had no family, and his best friend had arranged to take him to a rest home in her city, four hundred kilometers from Munich. A friend came to us and asked us to meet him. “He just wants to speak to you about his apartment.” Communicating half in French, half in Italian, we learned that he wanted to leave us his furniture—beautiful bedroom and dining room solid-oak art pieces. Amid tears and laughter he gave us the key to what had been his home for forty years.

There are a myriad of necessities when someone settles in a new land. Here is where the German Saints were truly generous. They came day after day until we lacked nothing. I even received three irons and two toasters in one day.

Our future is taking shape now. Like thousands of other “foreigners,” we experienced many trials—such as the frustrating feeling of knowing exactly what the gospel subject in Sunday School class was all about but not being able to participate. But what I remember best is the happy times. Art shows, a concert in Brussels, the first road show in the branch—writing and directing it in such a difficult new language had been a thrilling experience. Several temple trips, Peter’s exciting operatic career, a summer in Nuremberg. But most rewarding of all, the joy of friendshipping a young Scottish fellow, who found in Germany a better professional opportunity and an introduction to the gospel. He is today a high priest, a second counselor in his ward’s bishopric, and has been sealed to a beautiful, spiritually sensitive woman.

Germans generally are very reserved. They are very careful to approach those they do not know, yet are quite open in their criticism. They are a very well-informed people, generous and industrious. It is true that because of the language we didn’t find it easy to be foreigners here. But we have found that good things are worth sacrificing to obtain.

Who lives beside you? Has a “foreign” family moved into your ward or your neighborhood? Are they struggling to make themselves understood? Once they may have been architects, teachers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, chefs, tailors—who knows? Yet now they must take up other employment because they do not speak your language well. Remember that it’s not easy for them, but their hopes and goals for a better future for their children—some of whom will never know another home—are what keep them pressing forward even when it hurts.

Extend friendship and understanding to the “foreigners” in your midst. But allow them to enjoy their heritage, their pride, and their self-respect. Admire them for their courage. Share with them your knowledge of Jesus Christ—for the gospel could be the only reason the Lord guided their steps to your land.

We are no longer a church of one nation and one culture. The neighbors we have been asked to love as ourselves may come from lands we never even heard of before. But in blending our lives with theirs, we will enrich the church—and ourselves—in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Paul of Tarsus may have said it best: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).

Malena Barreiro Armstrong, mother of three and an English teacher, lives in the Munich Servicemen Branch, Germany.