7.442 Billion people and counting. Each with a purpose. Every encounter divinely intertwined. After seeing the Roman Colosseum, Greek Acropolis, ancient city of Ephesus, Michelangelo’s David, and other world renown sights, the conversations with a few of these billion have taught me the most.
Among the endless gelato, candy colored buildings, crisp blue seasides, and lush vineyards, the relationships developed with each new local have constantly opened my eyes to the world around me. Our intense focus on our own lives often numbs us into automatically thinking the worst of people from other cultures. Making assumptions based on preconceived ideas and outward appearances robs us of knowing and understanding the unique individual underneath. We commonly generalize people into categories based on their background, who they spend time with or what they are doing with their lives, when, in reality, everyone possesses their own specific purpose that defies classification.
Exposure to individuals from myriad cultures over the past month has given me further insight into the vast similarities among humans underlying the obvious differences between our societies. Conversations with the most unexpected people excite me the most. For example, looking for a BNL bank in Milan, we mistakenly stumbled into the National Bank of Milan and eventually resorted to asking the two heavily armed guards for directions. Our question about a bank surprisingly morphed into a conversation about American TV shows, boots in Texas and where to find authentic Bufala mozzarella in Italy. They could have blandly answered our question and sent us on our way, but chose to strike up a laughable conversation with a few lost Americans. Their unexpected energy and happiness was contagious once we looked past the unwelcoming machine guns and uniforms to see their true personalities. That encounter reminded me that everyone enjoys a friendly conversation, even (or perhaps especially) intimidating Italian polizia who stand inside an almost-empty bank for hours upon end everyday.
Similarly, the abundant kindness and hospitality of the international crew on our Aegean cruise thoroughly impressed and surprised us. We were on a cruise, in the middle of the Greek Isles, with endless food and 70-year-olds who could party harder than we could, but the best part was the crew. They weren’t just the people who brought us food and drinks, prepared our beds, and made us cappuccinos. They were joyful, kind, and genuine people who couldn’t keep from singing when their favorite song came on late at night in the lounge. I’d say being away from home and family for months on end, working for others nonstop and becoming sleep deprived as a result of it can easily justify a little discontentment or disconnection. Nevertheless, the crew constantly radiated happiness and their joy was contagious. We acquired a new routine just to see them: hot cocoa to chat with the barista Yuli, nightly shows to visit our new friend Mark, dance parties in the lounge to get our “usual” two waters and an occasional (non-alcoholic) Pina Colada from Budi, and eating at the Patio Cafe to talk it up with our first friend, Desmond. While the food was wonderful, the sights breathtaking, and the cruise overall entertaining, the people truly made it meaningful.
If you have ever been to Europe, and Italy in particular, you know about the Bangladeshi men who sell lasers and flying gadgets in every piazza within eyesight. You either eventually learn how to refuse their relentless offers or lose your mind. (Having been to Italy before, we were fully aware of their persuasiveness; however, we supposedly still needed to buy two lasers and eleven slingshot-light-up-twirler things before we could fully escape their grasp.) Since these men crawl over every public space, advertising their products, people become numb to their true humanity and often treat them more like pesky pigeons rather than human beings of equal importance.
The same can be said for beggars. Whether African men holding out their ball caps, women on their hands and knees completely covered in cloths and holding out a cup, or people handing out little pieces of paper on trains and then returning to collect donations, they have the same importance as everyone else here on Earth. Oh, but how much easier it is to ignore them altogether! One of the kindest beggars we met was an African man in Venice. He stood across the teeny street from our Airbnb and greeted us every morning with a smile and asked how we slept. Although we didn’t have much money with us, he was incredibly grateful for the few coins we gave him. When my mom asked for a picture with him, his excitement was heartwarming. “Oh, with me?!” he said. After straightening himself up and posing, he asked if he could see the picture. It made me wonder about the last time he saw himself in a photograph. While most people don’t think twice about the privilege of being able to take a picture whenever, others may never see a photo of themselves. And don’t we all love a good picture of ourselves?
Over 7.442 billion individuals, created for their own specific purpose and loved all the same. Our differences distinguish us, yet our similarities simultaneously bring us together. Isn’t that how we are really created to be?
Originally published in the Geneva Quarterly Issue 2: https://issuu.com/genevaquarterly/docs/gq_fall_2017/44