I once watched a documentary on motorcycle travel. Ewan McGregor and his buddy Charlie Boorman were riding around the world and had found themselves somewhere in Siberia. Ewan made a small comment during one of the segments that has stuck with me ever since. He noticed that even though peoples faces had changed, that languages and cultures were different from what he knew in the UK, that everyone was essentially the same everywhere. They all wanted the best for their kids. They wanted happiness.
I don’t know why that had such an impact, but ever since I heard his words I too look around with every trip. Every new destination. Every outing to the supermarket even. And yea, he’s right.
There are many differences in cultures, I’ll grant you that. Some of which are lovely to explore, and some of which just disrupt your ways of thinking. Jar and shake you. Smells, tastes, noises. There are times that the world seems completely alien and scary. I experience that quite frequently. But I also always have Ewan’s words in the back of my head, and I try to look past the obvious and into the people. And time and time again, he’s proven correct.
Now I know that a typical human response to differences is fear. We immediately look towards what scares us and assume that everyone in that culture exemplifies that. And granted, there are good reasons too at times. But flip it around. Imagine yourself as a someone from say … Sgrasiland (yea, I made that up). You walk into a restaurant in Oklahoma and your skin is not the same shiny white that everyone else’s is. They’re speaking in a language you don’t understand. There are rifles in the back windows of the pickup trucks in the parking lot, and EVERYONE is staring at you when you enter. What do you feel? Scared? Is everyone here dangerous? You can’t ask, you don’t speak enough English. And even if you did …. that accent is so hard to listen to! 🙂
You can see how looking at others through your own lens can be deceiving. And this is not something that’s easy to change. With each and every new culture I find, I have to struggle to stay neutral. Being awash in languages you don’t speak is hard. Very hard. Sure, some fun stories are going to come out of it, but in that moment? Wow.
OK, an example. 🙂
We were in Cologne Germany, in a laundromat “trying” to wash our clothes. The machines were strange to say the least. There was a control panel that somehow dispensed detergent and started the actual washers. We didn’t understand any of it. I went off to the store across the street to get something to put in the washer (we didn’t know about the dispenser yet). Because I don’t speak German, I got fabric softener instead. Nikki had managed to get the clothes into the washing machine but was stuck. She must have said something in Spanish because a nice lady answered her back. Another Cuban, of all people. Together they tried to figure it out in Spanish. Someone else there spoke Spanish and French and they joined in, and enlisted a German/French speaker in the process. By the time I walked back with the fabric softener, there were no less than six people at the console, trying to get the machine started. (You’d think that they already knew, being there to wash their own clothes, but it was more of an exercise in language than mechanics).
Did that afternoon turn out to be a funny story? Yup, sure did. Was it frustrating, scary, exasperating, annoying, and unpleasant when it started? Double yup. And that scene has played out in many countries. Just trying to do laundry. Even in Spain where Nikki speaks the language, trying to figure out automated systems is hard. In Portugal she discovered that laundromats were hidden inside other stores, and that someone worked the machines for you. Kinda hard to figure out when you don’t speak Portuguese … or have an inkling that an art studio is also a place to wash clothes.
So yea, new cultures can be hard. Scary. Almost so much that one just decides to stay within a hundred miles of home. I’m a traveler and I feel it often. I can’t imagine how deep that feeling is for a non-traveler. But! (And I like my buts followed by an exclamation mark) … Those half dozen people in the German Laundromat? They were not scary. They were friendly. And helpful. And just as semi-lost as we were. Situations can be uncomfortable, but people generally have the same heart. Not all, true. Not everyone in your hometown would have helped us either. But some would have. And it’s the underlying people-ness around the world that makes it easier.
Let me share one more story:
One night, I think in was in mid-June back during our first stay in Barcelona, we had been on the go for what seemed like forever. So we decided to have a quick bite to eat and just call it an early evening. Just that, nothing more. So we walked around the corner to a nearby seafood place with an outdoor patio. Dinner was exactly what we expected. We ordered, we ate, we prepared to go home and chill.
Then the Italian football team walked in.
OK, I need to go back a few minutes first. We were sitting on the outside edge of the patio, in the corner nearest the restaurant. Next to us was a single table, with a girl sitting there dining by herself. And then several empty seats and tables beside her, out towards the street.
Well, she finished just before us and was in the process of leaving. Actually got up and was fiddling with her things when she decides she wants one more drink. Only problem is the restaurant staff had already cleaned her table and pushed it together with the other empty ones for an Italian football team that had just walked in. Nowhere for her to go.
Well, I’ve never seen so much chivalry and instant problem solving in my life. The team was comprised of twenty-something males, plus their coaches who were older. Well, the girl’s space was re-carved out, one of the older guys went and bought her flowers, and it was then somehow decided that all of the tables in that row, including ours!, was going to be a communal thing that evening.
So much for a quiet night, right?
The team members spoke Italian, German, and English. The girl spoke Russian and German. Nikki had her Spanish and she and I our English. Three dozen people piled together, with flowers, and all those languages just worked. Somehow we spent hours with them, and never once did conversation lag. We laughed until we cried. We discussed things like I had never discussed before. At some point, the restaurant came out and started giving us free shots of liquor.
It’s funny, because the evening was two-fold. On one hand, there was the group. Sitting there with a group of 20-year-old dudes discussing politics. Oh shit, I thought, this won’t be good. Until after just a few minutes when I realized they should have thought that way about me instead. They were absolutely knowledgeable, eloquent, and a joy to talk to. About one of those subjects that is never supposed to be discussed with strangers. I was amazed at the depth at what they knew, and how they interpreted world events.
On the other hand, there was our original plan to chill. I think, in a way, we did get our “early night in” rest and relaxation. Instead of walking for miles and taking in new sights, we stayed in a single place. Talked and laughed and ate. Just with a few more people than the two of us. It was indeed relaxing, and to use a word I wouldn’t normally use, pretty damn magical. That evening sticks with us.
I think what I found most incredible about that night is that what we experienced really isn’t that unusual. People everywhere are open to conversation, regardless of age, nationality, language, or any other label. Throughout all of our travels, it’s not something we even think about. It’s just the way the world it is.