…because some thoughts are worth remembering
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” goes the saying. Indeed photoshop projects like one by Esther Honig reflect a diverse opinion of what is considered beautiful around the world. But what of friendliness?
The stereotype of Europeans with respect to friendliness is that Southern Europeans tend to be friendlier than the Northern counterparts. Some countries, like Italy, have been singled out as friendly and jovial.
Denmark, being north of Germany and part of Scandinavia, is not known to be friendly for several reasons. The biggest factor may be that the Danish definition of being polite in public is to ignore you. Taking a walk in Denmark is nothing like doing so in Hawaii, even if you adjust for the weather. Eye contact occurs with others walking past you, accompanied by a smile, and often with a hello. They treat you like you are a distant auntie or an uncle. In Denmark, you do your best to not be noticed, and to not notice anyone else. You simply go about your business, starting from point A, arriving at point B with minimal changes in facial expressions, words uttered, or human interaction of any kind.
When we first came to Denmark, we asked our neighbors to see if we can use their WiFi until we got our own Internet hooked up. We were quite grateful and delivered some baked goods later and we chatted for a short while. Next day, we bumped into each other in the apartment complex laundry room. I hesitated to say hello because it seemed like she was avoiding eye contact. She continued to gather her things and walk up to her apartment unit even after I mustered up my courage to say hello. “Did they not like the baked goods?” “Did they regret sharing their WiFi with us?” Various thoughts went through my mind, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized she was just being polite, minding her own business while we both did our chores, rather than taking up each other’s time with insignificant chitchat.
Contrast that experience to my experience traveling in Italy. I’ve only visited the country twice, but both trips included “breaking bread” with complete strangers in a restaurant who asked us to eat together. In Florence, we looked up a restaurant known for its bistecca alla fiorentina, a Florence-style T-bone steak, served quite thick to be shared. Because it was quite early for Italian dining hour, we were the only ones in the restaurant. After a while, another couple entered the restaurant, sitting right behind us and chatting with the owners. After a few moments, the couple approached us, and explained to us that they are regulars at this restaurant and they always eat at the table we happened to be sitting us and asked if we would mind if they shared our table. We thought it was odd, given all the other tables were vacant, but since we didn’t mind, we agreed. Then out came the bottle of wine they brought with them. “Would you like to have some of our wine?”, they asked us enthusiastically. After admiring their bottle, we realized it wasn’t just some wine they brought, but wine that they had made. We spent the rest of the meal relaying our experiences traveling in Italy clumsily, as the husband spoke little English and his wife, almost none. Still, we had a wonderful time, delighted that they asked us to join our table.
I was alone traveling to Orvietto recently, a day trip from Rome while my husband attended a conference. It probably looked odd that I was dining alone (and again, early, but this time I had a good excuse: I needed to make the train back to Rome). It was some sort of a holiday during an off-season, so again, I was the only diner. Then a group of older men sat at a large table next to mine as I was finishing up my dinner, with jars of olives, anchovies and other condiments. They kept glancing in my direction until they asked the chef (whom they obviously knew) to ask me to come join them and share their jars of goodies. It turned out that there was a small convention of military police that day and some of the organizers were having dinner together after a long day. “Please try some. They are from Sicily.” When the chef went back to the kitchen to prepare their meal, I was left trying all of their jars of deliciousness, as they observed my expression to see if I was enjoying them or not, as they spoke very little English. As one would expect, the joy of sharing a scrumptious meal was universal, and it remained our common language until I had to leave for my train on the last cable car going down to the station.
For unexpected delightful encounters like these, I think fondly of Italy and its people and their ability to befriend a stranger (especially over a meal).
On a plane ride back to Denmark from a different trip, there was no airport busses given that it was New Year’s Eve (planes still land but, you know…this is Denmark, where the individual’s right to enjoy the holiday is greater than the community’s need to have public transportation). We knew there wasn’t going to be a bus before we landed, so we strategized to get an alternate mode of transport. Perhaps we can ask others on the same flight how they are getting into town. I said to my husband, “You realize we have to make friends on the plane.” “Then we better start ignoring them like crazy!” he responded.
Many locals were arranging their transportation by asking their relatives to come pick them up, but they weren’t going in the same direction as us. There were other internationals who offered to spilt a cab as a last resort. After landing, we stood by the baggage claim and put up a sign asking for a ride into the city or to the nearest train station, trying not to look into people’s eyes directly. Bingo. The first man, after staring at our sign for a bit, asked if it’s OK to just give us a ride to the train station because he lived near by and his friend was picking him up. Yes! As we were dropped off, we gave them a gift, which we had to insist they accept. They still didn’t tell us their names, didn’t try to make any conversation with us, acted like the ride was absolutely nothing, and we never saw them again.
Despite the lack of eye contact or a follow up in both of the Danish stories here, I had to revisit my own definition of friendliness, where a smile and eye contact may be substituted for helpfulness.
Photos (from the top): Duomo in Orvietto, Italy; Bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence, Italy; Me and the restaurant’s owners and the regulars who brought “their” own wine; Main course of wild boar and chestnut ragu with juniper berries and sage with their local wine; Italian military police (and a military priest) who invited me to join their table and share their antipasti.