Universal Language

My husband and I spent recently spent a couple of weeks traveling in Europe. I love Europe, I really do. Yes, for the cathedrals, and the history, cobblestone streets, the people and the food, and well, pretty much everything. If there is one struggle while we’re there it is, like many Americans, my husband and I only speak English.

Typically, it’s not a problem as most of the free world speaks English. And, most countries teach their children English in elementary school. Thank you modern world for accommodating us. Occasionally though, we come across a situation with someone who doesn’t speak English. This is when I truly realize we are all the same.

I’ve used hand gestures, pointed at signs, pictures on a map, and played pantomime. I swear there are times I look like a full-on version of charades. I appreciate more than anything that other people are almost always willing to be patient with us. They don’t get mad because I don’t speak their language, we laugh together as we struggle to get the point across.

One day I was up in a clock tower in Switzerland looking at the inner workings that had been part of this wall structure for literally hundreds of years. Some older man and his son made their way up the steep narrow stairs every single day to wind the clock. Not kidding. It is a daily duty belonging to the father and now to the son for almost 60 years. Before them, another man and before him, still another, and so on. It’s an honor to be the winder of this city clock and they treat this mechanism with incredible respect and delicacy. What I find even more amazing is the physical condition this man and his son must be in! The clock tower is five stories high. There is no elevator. The first few stories are quite fine, but with each additional story after that, the stairs get more steep and narrow. The last flight literally has a rise of about 14 inches per stair and is a few degrees away from climbing a ladder.

Walking up is not death-defying. The beauty of Europe is everyone walks or bikes everywhere, so after a week or so, my legs were used to putting on several miles a day. But honestly, by the time I was getting to the final set of stairs, my legs were starting to burn. “Shit,” I thought to myself as I took the last several steps. I said it out loud once and realized thankfully, I was at the top in a room by myself. Soon another man approached the stairs, “Scheiben” he said in German. I recognize this one immediately as my Dad speaks fluent German, and as a child, my Mom wouldn’t let him swear around us in English. The only German I know is the swear words. I smiled when I heard it. I look at him and smiled, I tried saying something that I meant to mean “so big” in German and gestured with my hands way apart, smiling. He smiled and chuckled, “Yah” came his reply. A few minutes later still another man rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and up and looking up muttered out loud, “Mierda”, he was Spanish I believe. I smiled and gestured to the view, “Worth it”, I said. He climbed up, smiled and nodded in return. Three of us, all from different countries, stood and looked out the small windows at the view of the countryside from five stories up. There was a collective sigh.
“Beautiful”, I said. They both looked at me, each other, nodded in agreement and smiled.

Inside I was laughing. I know we talk about the universal language of love, but never have I thought of the universal language of shit!

Here’s the deal. Each of us looked at that last flight of stairs the same way. Each one of us felt it in our legs and related it out loud with the same expression. Our common denominator was the stairs and our humanity.

One of the things I love most about traveling is realizing that while we’re all different in so many ways; where we come from, our cultural, our religions, our government policies, how we look, talk, walk (we Americans take up a lot of room when we move around), etc. there is a place just below the surface of all of those things, where we are truly the same. We are all human. We all have families, friends, jobs, expectations, desires, dreams, loves, hates, talents, and failures. We all have places we struggle and things we wish were different.

We are truly all just humans. I love this reality and its never more apparent to me then when I’m sitting somewhere that I don’t speak the language. The expressions on people’s faces, their body language, the rate and gate of their movements, says so much about where they are inside of themselves and their lives. Stressed, pressured or freewheeling and laughing, we wear our truth when no one is watching. It’s on our face, in our eyes, and yes, many of us talk to ourselves.

We tend to not notice each other.

A while back I took a self-defense class and the instructor gave a statistic I thought was astonishing. That was until I started paying attention to myself. He said well over 90 % of people who are attacked have no idea what their attacker looks like, even when approached from the front. We don’t pay attention to the people around us. Largely, we’re off in our own little world, talking on our phones, texting while we walk, scrolling social media, but not really present at all to those around us. Not only can this be dangerous, but to me, the greatest danger is not in not seeing an attacker, but in the realization that we’re not seeing anyone. We don’t see each other.

We live in a world full of people, and we’re really not engaged with any of them. I’m a weirdo. I talk to people in line at the grocery store or at Target. I smile at people on the street. I laugh when someone has the same response to five really steep flights of stairs as I do.

Folks, we’re on this big ride together, let’s share it. We are way more alike than we are different, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or where you’re visiting.

The climb is tough for all of us, but what we can see together, makes it worth it.

Blessings Galore, Anne

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