There I was, sporting the signs of a typical North American: Coffee in a to-go cup. Laptop open. Headphones plugged in, tuning out the rest of the world so I could focus on meeting tight deadlines. Game face on, I was implicitly communicating to everyone around me: "This woman means business. Do. Not. Interrupt."
But someone interrupted me, and, in hindsight, I'm glad he did. He reminded me that there was another way to live other than this mechanized way of operating.
A photo I took while on vacation in Italy. The sugar package is ON POINT.
I was initially quite shocked when a young man, my age, pulled up a chair and sat with me (hardly giving me a chance to fully consent). After introducing himself, he blatantly said: "I am talking to you because I want to make friends."
He explained that he was originally from Italy, but he was here in Vancouver to study English for a semester. Turns out he'd picked the right person to converse with, because I had JUST recently returned from a vacation in Italy and Spain. Since I was experiencing massive Europe withdrawals, I gave him a shot, removed my headphones, and listened to his story.
As cliche as it sounds, he was the stereotypically boisterous, expressive, and energetic Italian with a zest for life. And sadly, I could tell that his experience in North America was squashing his spirit. He was restrained. He wanted to be free, but he felt like he couldn't be.
We launched into a really interesting conversation about cultural differences between Europe and North America.He expressed that life here was too structured compared to what he was used to -- here we all stuck to our schedules with so much rigidity, waking up, eating, studying, working, and sleeping, all at fixed, appointed times -- while he was accustomed to flexibility, to studying at 2 AM, and having unplanned fun once in a while.
He said it was so hard for him to make friends here, because everyone always kept to themselves (he once got kicked out of a section on campus for being too talkative, in which he humorously exclaimed, "I can't help it, I'm ITALIANO!"). He said there seemed to be a resounding fear in North America, a fear of strangers (to be honest, I was quite afraid when he first approached HAHA). It was as if everyone here just wanted their space, to draw boundaries. He said there was too much importance placed on first impressions and not enough room for real human interaction.
Sadly, I couldn't agree more.
MY REFLECTIONS ON EUROPE
Truth be told, he basically articulated exactly how I felt returning home from my vacation in Spain and Italy. I thought I was going crazy, that I was the only one who noticed these things, but his input brought me affirmation.
I love traveling because it gives you perspective. It makes you realize how great things are back home, how much you've taken for granted. And it also makes you question whether the "North American" way of doing things really is the "best way". It definitely isn't the "only" way. It can be scary yet exciting to acknowledge other ways of thinking beyond what you grew up with.
I'm not denigrating the quality of life here in North America, because it's great. I especially love living in Vancouver. There are certain things we enjoy here that can't be enjoyed in many other places on this planet. And it's also not to say that EVERYONE living in North America falls under the category of what I just described. However, the man I encountered today had a point.
Maybe the fast-paced, overly structured, individualistic society we live in isn't always the most conducive to fostering social, emotional, and mental wellness. Maybe there is something problematic about this mechanized way of living that prioritizes work/duties over people/relationships. Maybe we do need to take breaks from our rigid schedules once in a while to allow for spontaneous encounters. Maybe there really is another way to live, one that gives us more permission to be human and less machine-like.
A CULTURE OF ENCOUNTER
I've come to realize that sometimes I can be the epitome of a North American-bred person. It scares me how rigid, mechanical, and task-oriented I can be. I cherish the encounters I have with others, but sometimes I can be so guarded, so afraid to let people into my private spaces -- and to step into theirs. Yet I know that all human souls long for connection, for genuine encounters. In fact, it's what we're called to do.
Pope Francis spent quite a bit of time calling forth a Culture of Encounter. Perhaps we'll come to find that genuine encounters with other people will be the soothing balm to our souls, the way that God wants to heal us -- and that he wants to do the same for others through us.