(“Crowd at Syntagma,” taken June 6th at Syntagma Square in Athens by the author, edited in VSCO)
(And by heaven, I mean vacation. This current one.)
Walls could indeed talk, and I believe that to be true. It isn’t that once you pass by a brick facade garnished with graffiti that it opens its mouth to say, “Hey, got a minute? I’ve got a story to tell you.” I stand by my word that they indeed speak, but they’re not very good askers. You’ve got to cross the street, linger for a few seconds, and see the scars on it to speak for its history. This trip, out of all my trips, got me to learn that lesson. It may be the most difficult thing to do, because you probably want to walk past temples made of stone or run off from the heat of the sun than to stand under its 12 noon version, its rays burning your skin to climb a cliff. But after you do take that single (albeit struggling) step, the stories are worthwhile.
People can be facades too, and although they could talk, they could might as well be the floor you spit on (out of prejudice) or the buildings you pass by because you’re in a rush to finish. You could also be stuck in a tour group and while away the hours in constant grumbling by yourself, trying to avoid the more sociable people who’d readily approach you with questions you’d rather not answer. I held that intention within me, as I wandered the streets of Prague on a walking tour with a mesh of people from different parts of the world. I’d rather prefer a private tour of the Castle District than have a bunch of people I didn’t know walk behind me as I strode forward with my family. But on the same day, I met the first of five significant people who I’ve heard stories from that made me smile. You see, it makes a difference when you ask, and although the rest are secondhand tellings from the questions of my father, it fascinated me still that it’s so difficult to box people in as this and that, when they too have adventures and misfortune they went through. You don’t have to make everything a mere facade because you have the choice not to. The facade eventually crumbles, and the ones behind it come alive.
So, I present to you the five strangers I met on this trip so far and the lessons they have left me. I may add a bit more to this list, but for now, these will do.
(Disclaimer: these quotes were not written down verbatim, but the idea is there.)
1 Frank, owner of Residence Agnes, the boutique hotel we stayed in on our visit to Prague
Life Lesson: “My passion is in serving, which is what I love to do at the same time.”
We dragged our jetlagged bodies toward the front door of the hotel upon our arrival into the city, and we were greeted with a “Good afternoon!” coupled with a smile from the man who carried our luggage in. Thinking that he was the bellboy, we greeted a quick hello back as he carried our luggage (all four pieces by himself!) up to our room. When one of the staff led us to the tables in the center of the lobby (which doubled as a check-in counter and dining hall, as it was a bed & breakfast place), that same man came bounding in and greeted us again. Seeing that we consumed all the pretzels on the table, he left us and gave us a packet of it. “Hello, family! I’m Frank, the owner of this hotel. Welcome, you are the first guests from the Philippines!”
As the days passed, we noticed that he was always around, doing different kinds of tasks from cleaning up the plates to driving us around to different tourist attractions and restaurants for us to eat. He even went the extra mile to bring us to the restaurant and asked one of the staff to give us the best table — an act he did twice (one for Kampa Park, a restaurant under Charles Bridge, and the second for Kogo, this Italian place). My parents, especially my dad, was fascinated with his hands-on method, as it applied to all of his staff who did rounds of tasks.
“I’m curious to know why you and your staff aren’t just stationed in one job,” my dad asked one day, as we were seated in Frank’s BMW, on our way to Kogo. “How do you motivate them to do all those things?” Frank laughs and says, “I own the hotel, yes. But aside from that, I do construction work plus I own a few properties [that some hotels are built on]. I have three kids, but Agnes is my fourth baby. I am present most of the time, even if I know the staff doesn’t need me. At the end of the day, even if I have a lot to do, managing and helping my customers is what I really love doing.” He says he enjoys taking care of his clients, and seeing to it that they enjoy their stay in the city and to fully experience the wonder of Prague.
I guess his staff caught on to his attitude, as they were just as wonderful too.
2 Mary, a mother originally from Boston but balances between her home life in Connecticut and her work in the UK (particularly in the Cotswolds, if I’m not mistaken).
Life lesson: “Y’know what I hate about the young ones nowadays? They have this mentality where they apply for a job and immediately they demand that they be put in the highest positions, refusing instead to work hard for it. It just doesn’t work that way. You always have to start from the bottom and work your way up. Be humble.”
During the boat tour for the Charles Bridge in Prague, I was squished with my dad in the second row of the boat, and in front of me were two ladies chattering while eating ice cream. One of the boat staff approached us to get our drink orders, and after they were served, the lady in front of me threw a comment about Prague or something like it. I honestly don’t know how the conversation began, but soon enough the two ladies turned their backs away from the view and started talking to my dad. The lady in front of my dad, Leslie, started rambling about the stock market and other financial terminologies I found even more tedious to understand than interpreting the keyboard-smash language that was Czech (seriously, their words were chock-full of consonants!!!!). She and my dad were so into it, and I was left alone, which was what I wanted in the first place.
“It’s actually really tiring to talk about Finance,” the lady in front of me remarked. “Maybe you find it interesting, but I don’t.” I nodded in agreement, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful so I asked, “So, what do you do, Ma’am?” Then from there, I learned that she works for a pharmaceuticals company based in London (she was sent to London from Connecticut as a job opportunity), her three kids (one girl and a set of twins) were off to college in the States taking up biotechnology courses, and she loves Downton Abbey. “You’ll find the right job, don’t worry. You’re still young, and you’ve got a lot ahead of you. Take as much opportunities as you can. Your parents are still alive, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Go for it.” Thirty minutes in, she already knew about my job search woes and the companies who still haven’t contacted me yet. “Don’t be in a rush. You know those long summers you had when you were still a student? Cherish it, because once you turn fifty, everything just flies by so fast.”
We talked even more on the way to lunch (which was super bad, save me from that meal) and on the way to the last stop of the tour, in front of the Astronomical Clock. I introduced her to my sister and to my mom, who were just as fascinated with her demeanor and humor. Leslie joined right in after, with her dry humor, sharing with us the strategies of the Fortune 500 CEOs (which I cannot disclose, teehee).
“If you got any questions, there’s my email address and phone. I wish I could refer you to a financial company or something, but you could always give me a call when you’re in the UK,” she said as she handed me her business card. “It was so nice meeting you. And again, don’t worry. You’ll find the right path. You never know, ’cause everything just constantly changes.”
3 Gabriel, the driver who drove us to the Budapest Airport
Life Lesson: “We used to be a Communist country, but not anymore. We changed.”
Although I didn’t listen much on the conversation between my dad and him, I heard bits and pieces of the history “lessons” he was telling my dad about World War Two, especially about the rocky relationship Hungary has with Russia. Like Prague, Hungary was a Communist country too, and Gabriel was telling my dad about the events that took place in war-torn Budapest.
He didn’t directly give a life lesson, but what I got from his stories were that the past does not always necessarily become the present. True, the past will always be there to haunt us, but you can always choose not to have that particular ghost around if you will it. I read that the initial reaction to an invite to visit Budapest is not so well-received by tourists, claiming that it is unsafe and full of crime and terror, but having visited and experienced the life and kindness of the city and its people, respectively, I can say that Budapest is the most underrated city I have ever been to. The city, in itself, is a combination of the different cities I have been to, and its glory shines in the dead of night when you are onboard the Danube River Cruise. It’s even more beautiful and more rich in sights than Prague, and I loved walking there.
Gabriel (or Angel Gabriel, as my mom dubbed, because he was ‘heaven-sent’) proved to me that like people, you can’t box a city in just because of its past. I have to admit that I have boxed in Japan and Germany for so long because of their horrible, horrible pasts. Having visited Japan last year and experiencing the organization and the courtesy of its residents completely changed my perspective of the country as the one whose soldiers sexually assaulted, harassed, and raped Filipina women during their invasion plus bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, among others. They, too, have changed, and I have slowly let go of my prejudice of Germany too, knowing how beautiful it is through the photos my friends have taken on their visits there.
Change, is after all, the only thing constant.
4 The doctor from Africa who specializes in climate change research
Life Lesson: “Wow! You and your family have been around the world! I hope you [and your sister] can do the same thing for your families as well.”
The bus ride to Delphi was one hell of a long ride. Our tour guide, who just had an endless supply of brightness and cheer (even I have a limit, especially super early in the morning), briefed us on the story of Apollo (which I thoroughly enjoyed hearing again) and his sacred sanctuary in that particular place. The trip even lessened in fun after I reached my quota of photos of the ruins of his temple and the tour guide decided to relish in the heat, and have us torturously suffering under the heat of the sun as she told us stories of what the ancient temples looked like in Delphi. After hiding under the trees and rushing off to the museum ahead of the tour group to get everything over with, it was off to lunch. Since the Prague walking tour’s lunch venue was super bad, I expected the worst for this one too, and without Mary and Leslie for great conversation, there was nothing good to make up for it.
Since we were one of the last few to get off the bus, we were grouped with two individuals from Africa and Italy. A Costa Rican (who hoped for one of us to be fluent in Spanish) joined our table too, and I hoped (at least) that we weren’t one of those tables that ate in silence. Luckily, we didn’t end up that way as when we arrived immediately, my dad greeted them and they responded aptly, with the African doctor welcoming us with a resounding “Hello!” The Italian researcher was friendly too, but he was more reserved than the other one. The Costa Rican, unfortunately, ate in silence due to the language barrier but found comfort in humoring us with the dessert that the restaurant served (“It’s cheese, not yogurt!” He exclaimed, swiping the ice-cream-like dessert on his bread).
“You want to go to Africa?” the African doctor asked my sister. “You should! It is beautiful there.” He loved the fact that my parents took us on vacation, constantly saying that we were so lucky to have the opportunity to go around the world. “There is so much to see in the world,” he said, and at the same time, wrinkling his eyebrows at the strange (but okay) food we were served. “It is good that your parents bring you around all the time. I hope you do the same for your kids as well, so that they too can see the beauty that this world has to offer.” The Italian researcher chimed in with us too, talking about his job in Florence and humoring us with his opinion on Italian politics. The lunch didn’t seem so boring after all, as the doctor brightened the table with his energy and genuine care to listen and tell stories.
5 Collins (sp?), the taxi driver from Nigeria who brought us to the hotel on our last night in Athens
Life Lesson: “I have one life to live, and I choose to live it positively.”
It was a regret of mine not to have taken a photo of this guy, because when he spoke, I could have sworn that I could hear him smile every time he gave us an anecdote. Like all drivers, he was reserved at first, until my dad told him that it was such a relief to have a taxi driver speak English in Athens, after experiencing the first one who brought us days ago and couldn’t speak fluently. He laughed and apologized at the same time, then proceeded to answer the questions my dad threw. We then learned that he moved to Greece when he was a student and has been living in the country for more than thirty years, and is not so aware of the happenings in his home city (except for the #BringBackOurGirls incident and the tourist-y things you could do in Africa). His reason for visiting the country was because of his fascination with Greek mythology.
“You are so positive,” my dad commented. “I like your energy.” Collins laughed and replied, “Well, sir, we all have one life to live, and I choose to live it that way. Sometimes, circumstances come your way and even if the situation can’t forgive, you have to forgive yourself at one point. These situations are circumstances, and they just happen, and sometimes they are uncontrollable.” I swear, there never came a point during the drive that he didn’t laugh, and we enjoyed his company as well. I held back the heaviness of sleep in my eyes to listen more to stories of his old life in Africa, his interactions with his Filipino friends, and the growing niche of African-Chinese people (“It’s happening!” he exclaimed.).
After we got dropped off, I went back to the taxi to try to get a photo, having been inspired to write this post. But I ended up shaking his hand instead and I thanked him. We also gave him pistachio nuts from Aegina!
In the end, we were able to meet a lot more strangers who were kind and hospitable. We got an on-the-house chocolate souffle from the crew at Kastro’s in Santorini because we met the other special people who are connected to the staff working for the restaurant. A waitress in the Sphinx restaurant in Santorini also told me about her love for Greek mythology because it explains so many things, and that stories are more fun as reasons for why such things exist. When we ate at Ciampini’s for dinner tonight, our waiter gave us free lemon tarts just because.
(TL:DR) It does make a difference to acknowledge people and listen, because we tend to rush past them, hurriedly boxing them into stereotypes and usually assuming the worst of them. It could be the color of their skin, their gender, their on-the-surface persona, and other factors. People are like the statues and the world is a museum, and sometimes we treat each other like facades, when we ourselves could tell stories unlike the stones and marble that have to depend on its cracks and structures to tell for us. Again, like the facades, people aren’t so good at being askers. We usually have to go the extra mile to wonder, but that curiosity could be the start of friendships or at least meeting different people that connect to us on different levels. And in that, you can see the complicatedness and multi-dimensional personalities of humans, when you hear what they have to say.