Let’s be honest here: among my “gifts” in life is a powerful ability to discern a person’s most annoying characteristic rather rapidly. That gift is accompanied by a corresponding curse that makes me a little less able than most to let things go, especially when I am tired or frustrated, feelings that occasionally arise when one is traveling.
Those characteristics are certainly elements of my personality I will undoubtedly struggle with, but this trip has reaffirmed something else about me that’s a bit more positive: those abilities of perception can also be used to find something wonderful about almost anyone you meet, even (perhaps especially) if it’s just for an instant.
In one of my favorite poems, Whitman writes of a person he passes on the street, a person he has never seen before and knows he won’t see again:
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Whitman’s idea was forcefully presented to me on my first day in Budapest, when I had this lovely conversation with a Bulgarian couple after I took their photo together a few times. The man was straight out of 1980s movies about the Warsaw Pact, this hulking brute of a man, who towered over his tiny girlfriend, who seemed, nevertheless to be entirely in charge of their relationship. What stood out to me almost immediately, though, was that he was so gentle and concerned about other people, not just to his girlfriend. He was one of those people who always makes sure to get out of the way for other people on the sidewalk and offered small gestures like always moving when he inadvertently stood in front of a smaller person in the tour. When he was speaking to his partner, it was with this soft voice that always seemed questioning, not demanding. My initial impression that he was this big, scary dude was shattered by simply watching him for a moment, and seeing the two of them interact on the tour was one of the simple pleasures of that three hour tour through the city.
We talked about a simple travel truism, that you tend to find the people you’re looking for. I mentioned that I had really only encountered warm, friendly people on my travels, and they said the same, that while they had met some rude, strange, people across the their trips, most were welcoming and warm. While over time, the memories of this journey and its passing strangers are likely to fade, there are a few that I just don’t want to lose.
When you visit Cantabria, and you absolutely should, be sure to visit El Hombre Pez in Liérganes. Initially, I went there for the WiFi one day so that I could download the New York Times onto my Kindle, but I kept coming back for the three weeks I was in the area because of the genuine kindness of the man who seemed to be the server and bartender of the place. From the moment I walked in and attempted an order in my terrible Spanish, he was one of the most genuinely friendly people I met the entire trip, even though we never spoke for more than 2-3 minutes at a time. We settled, without discussion, on a strange pattern of communication, in which he spoke in his limited English and I responded in my limited Spanish. For those three weeks when I was largely alone on the trip, he was a island of friendly kindness.
Another moment in Spain happened on the eight day of the Camino, between Sarria and Portomarin. I was walking with a woman from Miami and a man from Australia, and after a dark, cold start to the say, we came across blue skies and sunshine just as we turned on to a farm road. Soon after, we saw this ancient farmer walking towards us, back bowed by decades of labor, a paper towel clenched in his hand. When he pressed it towards us, my typical reticence reared its head, and I initially waved him off. He persisted and pushed the towel into my hand. When I opened it, there were a handful of warm chestnuts he was offering us, “free, free.” As we thanked him, and I avoided the deadly poison in my hands, he wished us, as so local people on the journey seemed to, a “buen Camino” and then asked us earnestly to pray for his wife Dionysia when we reached Santiago de Compostela.
What I love about Whitman’s poem is the idea that we can fall in love, for an instant, with those we see in our daily journeys, and why in the hell wouldn’t we? Whether it was the small scene of a father and daughter laughing over cookies and tea at the Vienna Natural History Museum or the authentic joy on the face of the traditional Hungarian dancers I saw last night, most people, if we let them, will show something about themselves that we can’t help loving. When I think about my worst and best travel days, the difference is that: whether I chose to see people the way Whitman challenges us to or the way that frustration can so often lead me to.
The truth is that we can’t help occasionally meeting people in our travels who drive us mad with their rudeness, annoy us, or even scare us, and the corresponding truth is that there are certainly going to be moments when we’re that person for someone else, probably without knowing it. But in this trip, more than any other, I’ve realized how right Whitman was, that we can observe a stranger we know we will never see again, find ourselves powerfully and honestly loving something about him, and never see him again.
Perhaps another time I will write about some of the stranger passing strangers I encountered on my journey, but today, under the Budapest sun, is a day for thinking like Uncle Walt and seeing the best. Some other day will be better for the worst.