12. The comfort of strangers
My friend was visiting from out of town, and we happened to run into you two at a bar on the other side of the city, where you happened to know everyone. You mentioned thanksgiving, and upon our explanation of the occasion-you offered there on the spot to have a thanksgiving with us. You offered to make a turkey, for us, complete strangers, and proposed we work together to make a feast, each person bringing something to enjoy. You wanted to welcome us, and to make us feel comfortable. So it was there, in your generosity, that layers of Paris peeled back, the clouds opened, and strangers became not so strange anymore, but familiar.
You cared, and mentioned that you knew what it was like to be far from home, a little disoriented, and that you wanted to be friends.
We discovered mutual interests, and even a mutual acquaintance in New York. We discovered we like the same movies, same actors, and that we share a mutual passion for supreme coffee and both had a dream of at some point of being an awesome bartender. No, we don’t speak the same language—yes, we grew up worlds apart, and will continue to live across an ocean from one another. However, you will always be the ones in my mind who broke the cold shell of Paris, the acquaintances that became friends, that reminded me that no matter who you are, or where you’re from—we’re all human…Strangers are just friends you haven’t gotten to know yet. Not all strangers, of course, yes there are creeps, and one should always be on the lookout for fear of getting taken—but largely, as you showed me, people are people…we all feel, breathe, and exist.
Thus, I pause for a moment of reflection and thanks for you two—who invited me to meet your friends, dine with you, let you teach me things, and let me tell you about my life at home…You made my mornings on subway cars full of strangers more cheerful, aware of the fact that even across our differences we are all, just here, and that we don’t want to feel alone. Thank you for that, and here’s to you, Parisian friends. You will be what I miss most about my life in Paris, and one of my regrets for not staying longer.
All the best.
I've grown very wary to trust anyone while traveling in Argentina (I honestly don't even trust the police here) but trust and comfort are different feelings. Some Argentineans have certainly comforted me. Probably most of all my host family here, and probably the person who has comforted me most in my host family is my host mother, well that's however excluding my host family's Bernese Mountain Dog named Pampa who comforts me by far the most. She comforts me because of her unconditional love and disregard for what language I speak so when I am sitting at the table and haven't spoke in a while and have no food to distract my self with I'll pet Pampa and a lot of the time talk to her to at least give the illusion I haven't been completely silent for the meal. It's not always like that at dinner but sometimes it is when I am really tired.
I knew my host mom would play into her maternal role from the moment I got to Buenos Aires. Within the first few days I got sick (I still don't know if it was the flu or food poisoning) and they had a stranger doing all the things sick people do in their house. At first I had a limited Spanish vocabulary but somehow I managed to get the point across that I was deathly ill and staying in bed for the next 2 days. She provided room service with 7up she insisted on running out and getting and apples that she first peeled the skin off of because she said it would be easier on my stomach. When I was mugged I told her and she was there as my own mother would be. She insisted on taking me to the police station to file a report herself instead of me going with the school. We sat in the station for a hour before she patiently helped me fill out forms and talk to the officers. She treats me more or less as if I was her own child, minus the reprimanding. She has made me feel comfortable in a city that is otherwise not so comfortable.
Of course the mother is kind of an expected place to find comfort but another more unexpected place I have found comfort in Buenos Aires is at my boxing gym. Every Tuesday and Thursday I go to the gym where my old boxing coach Juan Carlos and all the same guys are working out in the backyard roof area. Juan Carlos calls me by my last name loves it when I show up. It's an open gym time but I've gotten to know all the guys that work there. You get to know someone if you're punching them twice a week. It is a good sense of community here for me even though it is something I am not serious about and I didn't do it in NYC. I think they all know my name because I am the only American, there is one other British guy that shows up every once and a while too. They all love practicing their English with us. Also going there regularly makes me feel like I really live here because I have a daily routine. So you can find comfort in the most expected and unexpected of places.
Here in NYU Accra, we have Community Resource Assistants, or CRAs, who function much as RAs in New York do, except they don’t write you up for smoking hookah on your balcony. One of the members on staff, Chris, is our librarian-slash-resident-handyman, and once upon a time, Chris was a CRA.
Chris isn’t very tall, but Chris was the first person to know everyone on our program’s name. This seems like an easy luxury, as there are only 32 of us currently in Accra, but there have been plenty of occasions when a security guard or IT technician has asked one of my friends for her name. In October and November and December, this still happens. But I’m thankful that, whenever I walk into the cool wooden stacks of our tiny library in our tiny academic center, I can count on a soft, cheerful voice saying, “Good afternoon, Abena! How are you?” followed by an equally friendly “What book are you looking for?”
It is something of a running joke here that we are almost always off balance in some way. The refrigerator/toilet/sink/generator is broken, the electricity is out, the internet box has exploded, the roof has fallen in. Today, for example, we all woke up hungover and generally sweaty from last night’s farewell dinner. We also all woke up to no electricity and no running water. It is also a national holiday, so the closest CRA on duty was three hours away. After going out to the emergency water tap and filling a blue plastic bucket with water, I was preparing myself for a cold bucket bath when I heard cheering.
“Chris is the best!”
I left the bathroom and house just in time to see Chris walking towards our front gate; he turned around and smiled shyly, waving. He had come specifically to fix our water and power. And so, once again, I felt the comfort of strangers in our librarian-slash-resident-superhero, Chris.
(My friend Mary took this picture of Chris last weekend).
Interestingly enough, the person who I chose to blog about is named after this particular Madonna song, and I bet you could never guess, but her name is… Cherish. She is a lovely, hilarious and sassy, 20 year old London babe, who I can safely say is one of my favorite people I’ve ever met (and I’m not being hyperbolic). It just so happens that she works at the record label where I’m interning while I’m in London – I still vividly remember our first interactions, in particular, we went to lunch one of my first days here, and I immediately knew after that, she was someone I was going to love spending time with. I don’t know what it was, but (I thought) we just, clicked.
Now the thing about Cherish is that she’s, as I said before, only 20 years old (a few months younger than me), BUT she has alreadybeen in a couple bands, she has been working as an A&R scout at a major label for over a year, and on top of all that she already has started her own record label. Talk about impressive…
Back in New York I’m used to people thinking that I am a somewhat ambitious individual for having done internships since freshmen year, but Cherish basically puts all that to shame. I don’t intend for this to sound harsh, but there are few people around my age involved in music, whose opinions I can say I truly value and respect – I can count them on one hand, and Cherish is definitely one of them.
But more importantly than being accomplished in music, she has a genuine spirit, and compassionate heart that, while it can be masked at times, is my favorite thing about her. From the first day we met, she has been nothing but kind and welcoming to me in an environment where I was pretty unfamiliar. She’s taken me to shows, introduced me to her friends, and most importantly she has beenfriend, to me. Not to mention she’s equally hilarious, and always makes me laugh so, so hard. I already know that when I leave here at the end of the semester, she will be the person I will miss the most. However, I can only hope that in the future whether it’s through doing label stuff or something else in the music industry – our relationship will continue to deepen. I’m so grateful to have gotten to know her over these past months… she’s my biff, and I’m not one to use that word lightly.
One of the 15 doormen who works in my Apartment building- Like every other position in China, this job is grossly overstaffed – you probably need 3 (at most 4) people to alternate on this job. But there are at least 10 different people who put on the uniform and sit at the desk in the lobby doing nothing. The doorman I am talking about though is my favorite. He has kind eyes and a big goofy grin – he always says “Ni Hao” when I come in and he reminds me the most of the better NYU residence hall security guards. In my life at college so far, those security guards have been a part of my experience, someone to come home to, to have a short chat while signing in a friend or asking them to kindly let you in when you forgot your wallet upstairs. I don’t speak to this man or even know his name but he has made me feel at home in my apartment.
The second person is the friend of a friend of a friend. We actually met the first week I arrived in Shanghai. She just finished graduate school in China, studying Chinese- and is working in some kind of a translating position / research position. She has allowed me to explore Shanghai outside of the NYU bubble – but mostly we just hang out, explore new places or go dancing with some of her many friends. I don’t have a ton of older friends in New York but she seems more like an older cousin than anyone else- she knows the city, she knows almost fluent Mandarin, she helps me with my Chinese homework, and she understands and helps me deal with my issues that arise from living in a foreign place.
The third person is my Shanghainese roommate Chloe. Chloe is an amazing person – she is studying teaching Chinese as a foreign language and is double majoring in Economics. She is incredibly sweet, lets me badger her with outlandish anthropologically based questions about Chinese life and culture, tries really hard not to laugh when I speak horrific Chinese to practice with her, and likes teaching me about the historic/cultural significance of each character (which I find fascinating). She is like my Chinese sister and I hope that one day she will come visit America so that I can show her as much kindness as she does towards me.
I took this picture of Chloe when we went shopping together at the Yu Yuan gardens, a favorite tourist shopping area.
I loved this chick, she was French but she dropped an f-bomb and she took my advice on the directions. She said this was the only area she didn’t know at all and asked me if I lived around there. I felt so cool telling her yes, I lived just down the road we were standing at the corner of (yet still embarrassed to not speak the language, however she really did not seem to care). Everything about the encounter with this total stranger made me feel more like I could really survive in Paris. First, it felt good to be recognized as someone who might know where they were going (at least I didn’t appear to be lost anymore, at least not all the time). Secondly, the woman looking for directions was so American in the way that she approached me, a little bit loud and frazzled plus the fact that she even looked at a stranger at all! It made me realize not everyone in Paris is the same. And thirdly, I helped her with directions and there is nothing that makes anyone more of a local than being able to give directions, even if they weren’t the most exact. Plus even though we barely spoke each other’s languages, this stranger was so immediately easy to talk to, it made language feel like less of an issue than it had seemed. And her trust in my opinion made me feel more apart of my neighborhood.
At first, all I could say to the woman was “Baguette, s’il vous plait,” and she told me the price in English. But as the weeks went by, and my French slowly improved, I was able to order in more proper French, bid the woman a good day/night, and ask how much other things at the boulangerie cost. I guess the woman understood that I wasn’t just on vacation in France, that I was living here for some amount of time, because after about a week she started responding only in French. It was her subtle way of commending my efforts to speak French. While most French people I come across, especially those in restaurants and in stores, quickly become frustrated with my French or immediately speak English regardless of whether I speak French or not, this woman did not. Sometimes she repeats what I say, I guess to correct my pronunciation.
I don’t know anything about this woman who sells me baguettes. But, somehow, my daily encounter with her, however short, makes me feel somewhat at home. I guess it all goes back to the fact that when you feel like you are part of your neighborhood, you feel more at home. And having some sort of relationship with a local vendor makes you part of your neighborhood. Though we have no personal connection, the subtleties in our interactions make it clear that she understands where I’m coming from and makes me feel at home.
I’ve never been particularly fond of NYU, the university as a whole. Seeing two Ghanaians wearing NYU shirts though—after getting through the legal proceedings, waiting for my bags, becoming terribly confused by the airport’s lack of signs and directions, and even more so by the crowd of unfamiliar faces when I walked into the waiting area—was a relief. Arriving in a completely new place is overwhelming because everything is unknown. You don’t know the people, you don’t know the etiquette, you don’t know how much things are supposed to cost. Buffeted by the enormity of unknowns, anything familiar becomes a lifeline, something to cling onto for the time being. Yet, I think that what makes travelling to a new place so daunting is the fear of being unwanted. My memory of arriving in Accra would probably be much different if the Ghanaians wearing NYU shirts hadn’t smiled when they saw me, if one of them hadn’t lead me to a quieter place to wait for the other students as she introduced herself as Rosemary.
It’s a little strange to write about Rosemary now because she no longer works for NYU. She’s no longer our fashionable CRA who shares my house’s kitchen as well as the delicious food she cooks. She no longer is around to help us battle with rats or walk into our living room in the morning to see how we’re doing. If street vendors are too persistent, she’s no longer there to tell them they should stop since “it’s bad for business because it looks like you’re stalking them.” Even though I’m excited about her new job, I still miss her. It’s strange because if Rosemary were here, I would have written about her as one of the people who has anchored me in Accra and made me feel at ease. But because she isn’t, my sense of being off-balance has become a bit amplified, like I’m floating above the ground instead of walking on it.
My memory of arriving in Accra is tied to meeting Rosemary. To feel wanted is a powerful answer to the question “Should I even be here at all?” A smile did wonders for calming my nerves. It welcomed a stranger into a new place and tugged a smile out of me too.
(Photo is my own. Who do you think is Rosemary?)
Yet, interactions with strangers are so important. They help you immerse into a society and understand it better. I guess for this country, the lack of interaction does the same for you!
I say that they are not rude and I can back this up with examples. Unlike New Yorkers, Czechs will offer their seats to every old, frail, sick or exhausted looking person on public transportation. However, unlike most other people, they won’t smile or say anything when they get up. They’ll just get up and walk away. Yet it is such a kind gesture, that it makes me smile every time.
I had a man give me his seat when I stumbled on to the metro with my huge grocery bags. A quiet exchange with no smile on his part. Sometimes I wonder if it’s something that is just expected of them and not something they do because they are being kind. But I like to hope it’s the latter.
I got on a tram once, exhausted from lack of sleep and food, cranky from home work stress, and generally having a bad day. I found an empty seat and cherished it. But on the next stop, an old woman got on. Given that every other seat was already occupied by elderly people, I felt obligated to give up my seat. So I just stood up, tapped her shoulder and pointed to my seat. As she sat down, I did not expect any further exchange and hence took out my phone to distract myself. However, she grinned at me, and started saying all these things in rapid Czech that I did not understand. It was more than a thank you. When she realized that I was alien to her words, she just stroked my arm, and every now and then just smiled at me. I guess, in some way my simple (and expected) gesture had made her day. And her warmth, gratitude and unexpected emotions suddenly took away all my negative feelings and really brightened my day.
In regards to this post, it’s a little difficult to write because it seems as though I’m constantly “off balance.” So it makes observing my surroundings more difficult because I’m just worried about staying on balance.
Madrid is generally full of friendly people. Friendly in the sense that they greet you, but that’s all. It’s the type of friendly where there seems to be an arm’s distance between you and the rest of the people. Not many are open to continue a conversation with you unless you actually know them.
The doorman at my internship site is a prime example of this. He is a very short and stout man who seems to live by his own rules. He greets those who he wants and that’s all. Thankfully, I have made the conscious effort of greeting him everyday and I hope he likes me, but one can never be too sure. He is typically outside of his post whenever I come around, and always looks upset at everyone. He takes hours for his lunch break, meaning that every one has to carry their own set of keys at all times because he locks the front door. This is especially difficult on the interns, as neither one of us have our own personal key. This means that every time we try to leave we have to group together and make sure someone has a key to be able to leave the building. It’s interesting because this sort of doorman would probably never work in the US, therefore it’s difficult for me to comprehend his role.
But lately, I find a sort of comfort knowing he is around. Yes, he makes my life a little more difficult. And yes, sometimes I’m not sure if he’s going to greet me or lock me out of the building. But at the end of the day, he always nods his head towards me and says “Buenos días.” And sometimes it’s these little things in my daily routine that make it that much better.
When I came to London, I feared becoming trapped by the bubble and initially, I was. The first group of friends I hung out with (though all very fun and awesome people), were very much in and of the NYU bubble. We socialized primarily amongst the NYU community and when we went out, we went out to places that were popular amongst American study abroad students. Before I new it, the novelty of being abroad wore off and. I felt like I was back in New York. Needless to say, this got old very quickly, and I sought a truly authentic experience abroad.
I was fortunate enough to meet two girls who happened to share in my views on the NYU bubble. It is much easier to burst the bubble when you are not alone, and in the company of great people. So, with my two new friends, I burst out of the NYU bubble. We ventured to the more obscure neighborhoods of London, we went to places where we were the only Americans, and we met and befriended some wonderful people who were not from NYU. Ever since, I truly feel like I have been making the most of my experience abroad and have never been happier.
The great thing about studying abroad is that you meet people from NYU that you never would have met back in New York. Coming from different schools and different social circles, I would have never met these two amazing girls who have helped make my semester abroad unforgettable. Without their help, I may still be stuck in the bubble, unaware of how I could have been having a truly authentic and amazing London experience.
In my preparations before attending NYU and coming to the city I, like many of my peers, delved into the world of Sex and the City, hosting all night marathons with the girls. Even in Carrie Bradshaw’s busy, hip life she writes a column about strangers and the drastic role they play in our lives. In cities like ours (Prague, Madrid, Berlin, NYC, etc.) where we’re never alone yet always alone, strangers make a difference.
Czechs are notorious for being rude. Nobody smiles in public, laughs in public, or holds the doors open for you unless you’re old and shriveled. Which is why I was surprised when a local Czech ultimate frisbee player gave me her jersey.
The woman is one of the beautiful Czech ladies every man wants to make their wife. She’s tall, thin, with an impressive smile. I have played with her a couple of times and I have no idea what her name is, but when she offered to give me her jersey, I could have kissed her.
I was flattered and impressed with this woman’s kindness. She didn’t just walk up and ask if I would you like a jersey but when I asked whether she knew when the team would be ordering the next batch, she just gave me hers. I said I would bring money but she insisted no.
It’s moments like these when Czechs take me by surprise. When you expect glares all day, the occasional smile can do wonders.
Oh, and I’ll be sending my new friend a jersey from back home.
A couple weeks into the semester I was going to my volunteering in the morning. I usually go with another girl but she was sick on this day. I only had enough money to get there if I had to pay the taxi alone meaning I was forced to go to the ATM beforehand. I am sure you all have realized the toll that ATM transaction fees can take on your bank account. I have learned my lesson from when I was abroad in Florence and so now only use the bank Barclays because they are associated with Bank of America and then I don’t get charged. So you can imagine my extra disappointment this day when I had to not only pay the entire cab fare but also use the bank by my house, which would charge me a fee. I walk up to the ATM and even as I approached I knew. The machine was down. Just my luck! I turn from the machine to see a Ghanaian young man standing there and he asks, “Is it broken?” I respond with a disgruntled “Yes” and walk to the edge of the street. The man then comes up to me and says, “so we go to another machine?” I ask where and he responds, “Osu”. Osu is a the main street in Accra and a taxi ride away which immediately causes my NYU flags to go up in my head. “Don’t get into a car with a stranger!” I avoid eye contact and look around saying something about how I can’t because I have to be somewhere. Then I hear, “but where will you transact?” I am about to say something when I sigh and simply shrug, because he is right. Where will I transact? I don’t know any banks around my volunteer site and I definitely do not want to be stranded up there, but with my guard still up I snap back “I’ll figure it out”. To which he hails a cab immediately and says, “lets go”. Defeated, I give in and get into the cab. Once in Osu, he pays for the cab, declining my offer to split it and I go to the ATM at Barclays (no fee!). He starts to follow me and I begin to think of what I will have to say to get rid of him at which point he just uses the ATM and says goodbye.
It was one of the most sincere and nicest things a stranger has done for me. While NYU is right in many of the cautions they give us and I do still have my guard up and my eyes peeled, I have learned to relax a little and give people the benefit of the doubt until a problem actually arises. Ever since my ATM man, I have come to often, in the words of Blanche Dubois, depend on the kindness of strangers.
(The picture is not Mary but a stand that looks similar)
I wandered into a café in central Madrid one afternoon, finding myself there after reading about the city’s vegetarian spots online. As I entered, the green color palette, leaf in the logo, fresh fruit, glass water pitchers, and raw wood panels, among other eco/sustainable-oriented details, immediately made me feel at home. A jovial middle-aged man welcomed me, leading me to one of the nine tables and proceeding to explain the menu. Dishes were marked if they were – or could be made – vegan or gluten-free. As soon as he saw this pique my interest, he told me he wait a moment and returned with an entire plate filled with gluten-free breads, chips, crackers, and toast. Not having eaten bread or any similar product in weeks (as they all have wheat!), this was heaven! I devoured all before even ordering, only to have him bring more, along with scrumptious dips. Best part? No charge. He simply wanted me to be happy.
A three-course lunch with dessert, bread, and beverage is standard practice in Spain, where the midday “Menu del Día” is required by law – and comes at a very low price, often less than one normal-priced dish. I am not one to pass up great food a great price, so I ordered a soup (rich, thick and topped with a whole variety of goodies... and beautifully presented as well, as you can see in my photo above), a flavor-packed rice-and-bean patty-concoction over layered salsas and a creamy base, and a huge ‘vaso’ of soy yogurt with raw honey for dessert. The meal was amazing – and teeming with fresh veggies and whole proteins that had been lacking from my diet since arriving in Spain. I trusted him to pick out things that were not only healthy, but also things I could eat. And he was so thrilled to be able to make me feel happy and comfortable, simply with a meal. We connected around food – and now, every time I come in, he tells me all that is new on his menu, at the restaurant, in his life, even the country!