This summer, Jordan and I went on the trip of a lifetime. We spent five fast-paced weeks in Europe, visiting friends from our missions (to learn more about what Mormon missionaries do, visit this page) and seeing some incredible sights.
Among our unforgettable experiences was a particular night in Athens. To back you up, at this point we had been travelling for almost two weeks. Because we had had three flights at crazy hours, we had never properly gotten over jet lag and our bodies’ sleeping and eating schedules were all weird. So on this particular night, we found ourselves wide awake at midnight—and hungry.
Well, Europe isn’t as accommodating of late-night cravings as America (probably for the better), so most places would be closed and it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to go exploring Athens as lost tourists in the middle of the night. So we went downstairs and asked the man at the reception desk of our hotel if he knew of any ideas of places we could eat.
He said that the hotel had a deal with a nearby pizza place, and he could call them up and order for us. He even pad with his own credit card and let us pay him in cash (with no extra fee) to make it easier on us. While we waited for the delivery, we sat and talked.
Somehow, this always happens to us when we travel. (Not the late-night pizza thing, but the talking thing.) It’s impressive when you consider that, if you know us, neither of us are terribly social; in fact, we’re both quite the introverts. Yet the highlights of our trips are almost invariably the conversations we have with strangers that make the world just a little smaller and more meaningful.
Thakis, a native Greek, and his partner Patrick, from Holland, owned the hotel. They were working absolutely ridiculous hours to keep it going in its first years. Some nights they didn’t get more than two or three hours of sleep. He told us about how difficult it was to start a business in Greece, especially because of issues with government corruption. For example, though they were called a “bed and breakfast,” they were not allowed to serve breakfast. “It’s as stupid as it sounds,” he said. He told us about the mandatory year he had served in the military, which, though he disagreed with, he felt had given him discipline and other values that had helped him in his business.
He also expressed frustration about his experiences with religion. He saw the Greek Orthodox church hand-in-hand with the government that seemed to be crippling his country. He talked about the high number of Muslims in Athens who still couldn’t build a mosque there because of religious intolerance. He also knew of a nearby religious leader who regularly spouted some pretty hateful things about homosexuals—and Thakis and Patrick are not just business partners; they are a couple.
Intrigued, we sat listening to this man, his experiences and his opinions. We told him that we really hoped his business took off. I really hope it does. I’ve met few people so determined to grow and thrive where they are planted, even if their environment is stale and thorny. We also joked and laughed about some of the experiences we’d had on our trip to that point, and how they aligned with some of his experiences of the vastly different cultures in Europe and the world: the love of the French for their own language, the Greek forwardness that is not always as endearing as it is to tourists, and all the quirks of Americans.
Then he asked about us. When he heard that we were from Utah, he was curious about the Mormons. He asked if they dressed differently, if they integrated with society, etc. (I guess some people might have differing opinions on that!) We told him that we were Mormons, and I guess he thought we were normal enough. He asked questions about our religion and its origins, about our belief system, and about the way being Mormons affected our lives. He was surprised to learn that Latter-day Saints were not just in Utah, or even just in the United States, but could be found even in places like Greece. “I’m glad,” he said, and I think he meant it, “that there are Mormons in Athens.” He listened to us with the same sincere curiosity and empathy he had found in us.
When our pizza arrived, and we began to head upstairs, we wished him a good night, and for once found ourselves glad for our severely interrupted sleep and appetite routines. We had more great conversations over the next couple of days with him and with his partner—who made sure to tell us, as he helped us put our things in the Uber we were taking to the airport, to call them if we ever needed anything in Greece.
It’s a simple story, right? We met nice people. Nothing out of the ordinary. But later I started wondering. How would that conversation have gone if it had happened on Facebook? Maybe just as well, I don’t know. But my gut tells me that it wouldn’t have happened. Because we were strangers, our interaction on the internet would have had to be over some issue, opinion, article, or other post—and probably one we disagree on (because I’ve never seen a comment chain conversation about an agreement). And I’m sure there’s plenty we disagree on. We are from different countries, cultures, religious views, sexual orientations, life experiences. The only things we really had in common were our setting and our humanity. But that was enough.
I think that’s usually enough. I think that—at least most of the time—when we get to know people for people, instead of getting to know people in terms of ourselves or our views or our experiences, it’s hard not to respect each other. It’s hard to care too much about our differences, and when we do, it’s easier to find common ground. It’s easy to assume the best intentions in each other instead of the worst. It’s easy to see the good in others, both in their similarities to and their differences from us. And we’re better for it.
So my challenge is to go meet someone. All you need in common is a setting and humanity. You just might come away with a friend.