Category

Europe

Adventure, Europe

Welcome to the World: First Post-Camino Reflections and Impressions.

Sunrise over Bolibar, Basque Country, after an accidental four a.m. start time.
High heels tap-tapping on the pavement. SALE signs in every storefront. The familiar turning on sound of my shiny laptop that I haven’t heard in a month. 
Not one single “hola, peregrina!”* as I pass crowds of strangers in the streets.
Walking through central London is quite the “welcome” to the world. But arriving in London town on this beautiful July day, that’s just what I’ve done, scallop shell hanging from my backpack, dusty shoes on my feet and cool breeze on my face.
While many reflections are sure to follow, here are the first thoughts I’ve had since officially “returning” from my journey:

I’m damn proud of what I’ve just done.
Estimates vary from 795 to 863 kilometers (San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela), but whichever way you hang it, that’s a long walk. I’m proud of these legs that have put up with unplanned 35-kilometer days, these feet that have weathered blisters and mysterious swelling without (much) complaint, this brain that has learned passable Spanish in four weeks. While part of me was underwhelmed by my accomplishment and tempted to understate it, another part of me felt like turning around in the street and shouting, “Look what I did!”
I really want others to know that they can do it too.
Over the past month, I have heard of or personally encountered pilgrims on horseback, bicycle (“bicigrinos”) and wheelchairs; overweight men, non-athletic girls and heavy smokers; young children, women in their seventies and everything—everything—in between. Think you can’t do the Camino? I think you can.
Being a pilgrim is a privileged way to experience another place—maybe the most privileged.
Never have I been so utterly accepted in my travels, nor my purpose and my role so completely understood. As a pilgrim (as opposed to a traveler/tourist/visiter/all the other things I have been), I found local people exceptionally welcoming, caring, understanding and accommodating. The people of Northern Spain have happily put up with my (and thousands of other pilgrims’) poor language skills, smelly clothes, abysmal navigation and overall cluelessness as we passed through their homes. It was a privilege to be received so kindly.
I’ll miss it.
Backpack, staff, sturdy shoes and scallop shell. The trappings of the modern day pilgrim are different from those of our predecessors, but nonetheless unmistakeable. On a daily basis I received unsolicited directions and support from passerby. From farmers in their fields, cyclists whizzing by and cars on the road, shouts of “Hola, peregrina!” and “Buen Camino!” were common and comforting. To be so firmly rooted in a fixed purpose, and to have that role understood and supported by the community, infrastructure and even landscape around you is a rare gift. Though difficult to describe, pilgrimage as a state of being was an unparalleled experience, and I will miss it.
I definitely don’t know what I’ve learned yet.
Deep thoughts? Rare. More common: “My feet hurt.” “I’m hungry.” “Why is the sky still spitting at me?” “Ooohhh, that’s a pretty mountain.” “Cows are funny.” “Goats are funny.” “Hehe, sheep are really, really funny.” “Ooohhh, pretty horses.” “Hmm, my feet still hurt.”
You get the idea. Even more common: “…  …  …” Clear mind. That was the best part. So, I don’t know yet what the big lessons were—but I’m sure they’re in there.
But everything was perfect and exactly how it needed to be.
There’s no “right” way to do the Camino. Everyone will walk at different paces, stop different places and learn different lessons. And that’s exactly as it should be. I’m still entirely in the processing phase of my return, but I know one thing for certain about my journey: It was perfect.


*Peregrino(a) is the Spanish word for “pilgrim.”
***

Some bonus awesomeness: Check out my friend and fellow pilgrim, Margaret’s inspiring campaign, WALKING FOR WOMEN WITH BREAST CANCER IN TIMOR-LESTE – HALIKU.

***

I expect to be writing a fair bit in the coming weeks and months about the Camino, so if there’s anything in particular you want to hear about, please let me know!

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Adventure, Europe, Nature

Off to the Camino… Travel Update and See You Later!

On Sunday, June fifth (yes, that’s tomorrow), I will close my laptop. I will put it on a shelf, and I will not see it again for a month. I will put two pairs of pants, three shirts and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I will head to San Sebastian in the Northeast of Spain.

I’ve been waiting for this day for a while now.

I need a vacation, yes. I need a total break from society—also yes.

But it’s more than that. It always is.

The Camino de Santiago has been on my list for awhile now. (It’s not a bucket list. I like to call it my, “Do These Things as Soon as Possible List.”)

I don’t know why I want to do it, just like I don’t know why I want to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, ride on horseback across Mongolia or sail the seven seas (all on my list). Except, I know that it calls to me; I know that adventure is my way of searching—of seeking.

I know that a search need not have an object—that it is the act of searching that matters—sometimes…


***

So, that’s about it. I’m not packing my camera, so I’m sorry to say I may not have many beautiful pictures to show for this trip at the end of the month. I also haven’t decided how much, if at all, I’ll stay connected. I may be updating here over the next month—or I may not. If not, I’ll be back in a month with a whole lot of stories to tell. See you then! 🙂
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Europe, Food

Olive Oil on Everything—A Gastronomic Diary of Italy

Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.
Florence, Tuscany
Gnocchi with fennel, mint and gorgonzola. A generous drizzle of olive oil (the frisky, green, good quality kind) on plain, unsalted bread.
A lake near Rome somewhere
Tiny fried fish, fresh marinated anchovies, mussels, salad with potato and octopus. Gnocchi with clams. Zucchini with mint. A drizzle of olive oil.
Perugia, Umbria
Hands dry from chalk after climbing. Spaghetti with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes. Olive oil from my host’s grandmother’s home. On the pasta—and on my hands.
It was in Italy that I learned you can truly put olive oil on everything. 

This most recent visit was no different.
I mean the good stuff, of course. The fresh, tangy-green and gorgeous kind. The kind with bite and soul that tastes like it came from somebody’s grandmother’s farm (it probably did).
Here is a short list of ways I have seen olive oil used to perfection:
  • Drizzled (well, poured, really) into tomato sauce after it is cooked and off the heat.
  • Applied to dry hair, skin and lips—best directly after the shower while skin is damp.
  • On a plate with sea salt and balsamic vinegar, for dipping (soaking) bread.
  • Drizzled over pasta, salad, cut vegetables, meat, pizza—everything, I’m serious.
  • Straight from the jug—just a taste, a drop.

Olive oil is everything. Condiment and cooking base. Start and finish. Salve for the body and soul. I suspect it could heal a broken heart, too, though I haven’t tried yet.

In the North, butter features prominently in many recipes—but in the South, it’s always olive oil.
And that’s really it. I mean, I could keep listing mouthwatering Italian meals. That never gets old for me… but I suspect others might have a shorter attention span.
Olive oil. On everything. My time in Italy, in a nutshell.
Try it. Don’t be moderate. Italian grandmothers never are. 
Find the good stuff. Apply liberally. Buon appetito!

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Europe, Food

What Makes this Mountain Different from all other Mountains?

Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome
Valle Aurelia, Rome, Italy
This could be any street in any city.
Mixed-era apartment buildings. Imposing stone architecture at turns. Cobblestones and pavement following no particular logic. Crush of cars and scooters. Cafes. Hairdressers. Passerby dressed in scales of gray.
So, what makes this different from any other street—any other city?

***
As we made our way along a dry riverbed, through native South African fynbos vegetation, toward a spectacular (but, again, arguably nondescript) stretch of shoreline, my friend put to me a similar question. Not quite verbatim, it was this:

Most mountains are pretty similar. Most cities are pretty similar. There are trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. There are streets and cafes and passerby in scales of gray. So, what makes these mountains different? If we can go hiking at home, why ever go anywhere else? And if we do go, how do we choose? 

Why these mountains?

The question was philosophical in nature. My friend is nearly as avid a traveler as I.
I would like to offer three answers to these questions—one of which sounds nice, one of which I believe most strongly, and one of which I feel, irrationally, to be true.
It doesn’t matter which is which.
First, terroir. Terroir is a French term I fell in love with while studying the anthropology of food. Essentially, it claims that taste is deeply rooted in place—territory. The elements unique to a given locale—water, specific bacteria, culture, human traditions, soil, weather, everything—combine to create the particular circumstances in which a given food item is produced. And we can taste it. While terroir is a culinary concept, I believe it can just as easily apply to cities, landscapes and really anything else.
Thus, these mountains are made unique by an intangible yet undeniably meaningful agregate of water, culture, air, bacteria, soil, and human idiosyncrasy. 
Why go anywhere? Terroir.
Second, intuition. Some part of our deepest self knows where we need to be. It doesn’t make sense, and it can’t be proven, but those who have experienced will swear that the voice of intuition is real—and that it is always right.
So, how do we know, how do we decide where to go? Instinct.
Or third, the difference isn’t out there at all. It’s us. The mountains are, more or less, all the same. Trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. The cities, too. We, however, change, and we can understand that change by observing its reflection in the places we visit—or rather our experiences of them.
What makes these mountains different from all the rest? We do.
Or, most probably, the answer is some combination of the three.
What makes these mountains different from any others? Nothing, or precious little. Yet, they will be different, because we will change—always.
Why go anywhere else? Terroir. 
And if it’s all the same, how do we possibly decide on one mountain, one city, one street over another? Oh yes, intuition.
Maybe this could be any street in any city, but it isn’t. It’s this one—the one I’m in. And it is utterly unique, both for its composition of individuals, elements and other intangibles, and for my experience of it, in this particular moment. No other street in any other moment will ever be this. I don’t know why I’m here—and not in another street, city, mountain—but I trust the voice that called me.

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Europe

Helsinki Snapshots


Monday, 11 January 2016
It is 2:30 pm, and the sky already seems to be getting dark as I make my way to the Helsinki airport… in a taxi (gasp! I know! But my tennis shoes and single layer of pants just aren’t going to make it to the bus stop in this -20º C weather). 
Somehow I have managed to visit this city three times over the past several months, for a total of six or seven weeks, and it’s about time I shared some snapshots of life here. What I lack in photos (I’ve taken very few) I’ll try to make up for with riveting description…
The in-between bingo sets show… it’s pretty much what it looks like.
Sunday nights find me at Mascot cafe with my friend Ella (and her friends) for bingo. A young, rambunctious crowd plays for free drink vouchers and the satisfaction of winning. They sing along with the flamboyant host (an out-of-costume drag queen who hardly looks his 40 years) for certain numbers—“I am 16 going on 17…” “when I’m 64…”—and cheer loudly whenever a player gets Bingo! I begin to get a solid grasp on Finnish numbers just in time to leave.
Two locals sitting outside the fray stop me this week on my way to the door to ask what’s happening. But isn’t bingo just for old people? They say. Sometimes not, apparently! It is always when I can tell a local something they didn’t know about their own city that I begin to feel I have really settled in.
Mascot, a down-to-earth bar with a lobby plastered with graffiti-letter posters advertising underground events, also plays host to Helsinki’s first spoken word festival, among other things.

German Sparkle Party capture (not mine).
My friend’s house in Käpylä, where I am very kindly welcomed as a long-term guest (maybe there is no Finnish saying about houseguests and fish…) is green. Snow covers the front lawn; when I first arrived it was autumn leaves and apples instead. Seven unique individuals coexist there with surprising harmony, and instantly make me feel at home. We practice jiujitsu on the tatami mats in the attic (later we will move the mats to make room for a massive “German Sparkle Party” (warning, click at your own risk) complete with mojito bar and black light dance floor.) and we play pinball on a vintage machine in the living room while sipping Salmiakki (licorice liqueur). In proper Finnish fashion, I become thoroughly addicted to the sauna in the basement. I learn that if you add a splash of beer to the ladle of water before tossing said water onto the hot stones, it makes a delightful smell (really). 
Elephant journal HQ, Helsinki—my coworker, Sara and I working at the kitchen table.
From the small kitchen table where I work, I can watch the light changing outside, fat snowflakes drifting lazily past the window or bunnies appearing from behind trees.
The bouldering gym where I go to climb a couple times a week is small, but intense. Typically crowded and obscured by a haze of chalk, its routes challenge me and always hold my interest. In an open loft workout area, I observe people displaying more varied exercise routines than I have ever seen in my life. I become noticeably stronger over the weeks that I train here.
At my favorite supermarket, I learn to distinguish between smoked and raw salmon, free-range and organic eggs, full fat and lactose-free milk, and more kinds of berries than I can name even now. My Finnish vocabulary seems to consist of equal halves food words and profanities.

The hill.
Finally, a quick walk from the house I briefly call home brings me to the top a small hill (the highest in Helsinki) topped with crumbling bunkers and criss-crossed with paths. When I don’t want to go anywhere else, I step outside, turn right and then right, and make my way there.

***

Welcome to (what was) my world for a short while, I hope you enjoyed the tour! As of yesterday, I am now in Cape Town, South Africa—currently settling in, but lots more on this new place to come!
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Culture, Europe

Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?

“Joulupukki” by Lauri Rantala from Espoo, Finland – Santaclaus at Helsinki Cathedral.

Consider this my holiday blog post. I could talk about Hanukkah (the holiday I celebrate), or Christmas markets (delightful all around the world), or any number of things. But why would I when scary monsters and mythology are on the menu?

***

It is September, and I am walking through the the Finnish tunturi (mountains in Lapland, way North), the setting sun to my right. Low bushes, a few turned to orange, carpet the ground. The trail is wide and mostly flat, and it carries me and my hiking partner past Pyhäkero (Sacred Mountain), herds of reindeer silent as dusk and rocca (unique shards formed by the freezing of water in crevices of rock and their subsequent explosion).

As the colors in the sky deepen and a nighttime chill settles over this landscape, I learn the real story of Santa Claus and his Nordic predecessor, Joulupukki (Yule Goat).

A terrifying creature with a goat’s skull for a head and flaming eyes, Joulupukki—so it is said—appears at homes during the Christmas season, demanding food, occasionally taking away those who have not been good. He dresses in gray furs and sows fear wherever he walks.

Jolly Saint Nick, is it?

Eventually, this Joulupukki became more or less synonymous with the Christian Santa we all know today. Funny how we always seem to do that to the less cuddly figures of mythology.

As I listen to this alternate (and, I must admit, much more interesting) Yuletide legend, I consider the gray, shifting light of this place and conclude it is much better suited to such a dark and mystical creation than a rotund, white-bearded figure in red.

Near Rovaniemi, where the train from Helsinki leaves us and we begin our journey, there is a place called The North Pole, where tourists seeking a merrier experience can visit Santa Claus’ Village.

I opt out. Biting wind, icy mountain lakes and ever-so-slightly magical mountains do so much more justice to this fascinating culture.

As for Joulupukki, the “real” Santa Claus? No, I didn’t run into him. But, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had…

***

{Update: Family matters brought me back to the U.S. sooner than my planned visit, and I have been quietly and busily staying under the radar in Michigan these past few weeks. I’ll be in the Northeast a few weeks longer, then it’s on to the next adventure. Where is that, you ask? …I’ll let you know when I do!}
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Culture, Europe

Tallinn Snapshots

Greetings from Tallinn!

On Monday, my friend and I took the 2-hour ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.

Our mission? Like nearly every other passenger on board, buying alcohol. Tallinn, evidently, is the everyman’s solution to avoiding Finland’s high taxes and stocking up on liquor for parties and general consumption.

With a house party coming up this weekend, we had an important task to complete, and an extra seven hours to explore Tallinn… Here’s just a taste:

The ferry itself is six stories tall, boasting its own liquor store, luxury “trends” store and nightclub—where drinking habits go to breed and a night out consists of a round trip to Tallinn without ever leaving the boat.

The breakfast buffet offers Karelian tarts (hailing from the Finnish region of Karelia, pastries full of rice, topped with a special “egg butter”), smoked salmon and cold cuts, mysterious meatballs and an assortment of very particular cured fish. We spend the entire trip to Tallinn slowly working our way through it all.

My favorite poster from the day.

Tallinn’s Old Town winds away from the harbor, a pleasant mix of cobblestones I’m still feeling in my sore legs, kitsch tourist restaurants loosely modeled after medieval times, posters that seem stuck in another century, souvenir shops and folk art galleries.

My friend, travel sister and current host, posing with an eye-catching door.

Outside one of those restaurants, bored waiters crouch down to scatter crumbs to a few pigeons. Next door, a woman in full-on (presumably) traditional Estonian garb acts as a human signboard—brightly colored embroidery, tightly braided pigtails and elaborate headdress demanding the passerby’s attention. We try to covertly get a picture of her… and fail:

I think she saw us…

But, we are photo-bombed brilliantly by a passing stranger, which makes up for it:

Never seen this guy before in my life.

I spot Captain Jack Sparrow walking down one of the main streets, swagger and all. I get a little bit too excited, fumbling with my camera and missing the photo op. I still wonder what restaurant he was promoting.

As Jack Sparrow disappears down the street, we follow the sound of a Steel HandPan to a busker, and I meet my soulmate in puppy form:

More puppy pictures to come.

As is the case in dedicated tourist towns the world over, we are met with considerable indifference by a considerable portion of Tallinn’s population, with some friendly exceptions. As dusk falls (around 4p.m. in this part of the world), exhausted from some combination of cobblestones and cloudy skies, we settle in for a dinner of Modern Estonian Cuisine before making our way back to the ferry.

Tallinn at dusk—beautiful.

It’s a good day.

***
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Europe

Stockholm Snapshots

Believe it or not, this is right in Stockholm!

I’ve fallen behind. There are several cities I have seen and enjoyed without writing a single word… And so now I’m revisiting not only in person, but also in spirit as I backtrack to bring you these snapshots.

Stockholm first.

(Evidently I have almost no pictures, so these will mostly be word snapshots.)

I arrive in Stockholm in mid-September to visit my oldest friend (for all intents and purposes my big sister) in her new Swedish life. She and her boyfriend graciously share their one-bedroom apartment with me for a week, and I get in what sightseeing I can between work and catching up.

We bake miniature apple pies for fika, Sweden’s infamous coffee and cake time, and cook kugel (noodle casserole) and brisket (Jewish soul food) for a belated Rosh Hashanah celebration.

Based on the tradition of fika alone, I should probably move to Sweden.

I also discover morotsmuffins (the most delicious carrot cake muffins in existence, with cardamom and cream cheese frosting), of which I unfortunately have no photographic evidence. (Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, I find myself morally obligated to document—the VT brand has officially gone global.)

Ben & Jerry’s in Stockholm? Oh yeah!
(No, I didn’t buy any. Morotsmuffins, remember?)

I dip my toes into my friend’s life here, meeting friends and learning a few useful Swedish phrases: “tak” (thanks), “hey” (you guessed it, hey) and “var festin mit fulla killor?” (where’s the party with the drunk guys?) I think I should be all set, no?

We also discuss politics and the refugee crisis (with Sweden poised to take in 200,000, it’s a particularly salient topic), but that is a far more serious discussion for another time.

Entrance to Haga Park.

Haga Park, just minutes from my friend’s Solna apartment, is a sprawling oasis sprinkled with a few architectural oddities. “Am I really in Stockholm?” I write as I watch the shadows grow over a massive lake. Difficult to believe.

Haga park—attempted dusk capture.

And lastly, wandering through Gamla Stan (Old Town) on my rainy day off, I stumble upon a marching band playing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” as a motley group of protesters waits to march through the square—one of many wonderfully incongruous details I observe over the course of the week.

I might as well stop there, as nothing could be better…

***

(Stay posted for Helsinki and Amsterdam/Haarlem snapshots!)

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Europe, Nomadism

Revisiting

“Revisiting” Sicily

I have rarely been one to visit the same place twice.

I always used to squirm uncomfortably when new friends, by way of goodbye, would ask when I was coming back, because I knew I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I would, indeed, be coming back.
Lately, however, I meet those new friends’ eyes and say with confidence, “I’ll see you next time,” because I’ve since learned that the universe likes nothing more than to send us what, where and whom we least expect. (It seems to particularly delight in setting me down on the same path twice.)
I can never say when or where or how this next meeting will occur, but it no longer seems so far-fetched to expect that it will.
You see, though I was never one to visit the same place twice—the pull of the uncertain new always stronger than that of the friendly and inviting known—I can no longer claim this to be so. In the last two and a half months, I have revisited: Rome, Sicily, London and Amsterdam. I have seen friends made in Serbia, Kenya, Germany, India and Vermont.
As I write this, I am en route to Helsinki for visit number 2.
Lonely shoe, Helsinki.
For a serial seeker of new places, it is an odd thing to go back to—to revisit—a place.
And then, as most strange things are, it is also wonderful.
I find, in revisiting, that such an act does not in fact exist; it is impossible to visit the same place twice. Friends cut their hair, or grow it; beloved restaurants close, and new ones open; memories, friendships and connections are planted, and new experiences grow from those seeds.
More important than anything, my perspective—ever evolving, never exactly the same—makes of each “known” something entirely new, and so, in going back, I find I am always going forward, after all.
The repercussions of this fact are almost terrifying in their magnitude. For each step that I take, there are infinite possibilities, not only ahead of me, but behind me as well. The tree that I see in summer might present itself entirely anew stripped bare in winter; the rose in bud another matter altogether in flower; the city of my 17-year-old travels lent a thousand shades of nuance by seven years’ distance.
And so?
And so.
Sunset on the plane…
Always moving onward, but am I?
Maybe I am no longer “not one to visit the same place twice.” Maybe only now does it truly sink in that “everything” or “everywhere” is a receding mirage, the pursuit of which can carry us in endless circles.
And still, I pursue it—encouraged, not dissuaded by the ever-expanding nature of the illusion—I willingly, obligingly circle back, and forward, and back again.
Moving forward, or backward, exploring the new, or revisiting the old, I find the unknown in everything everyone everyplace, and I am inspired, in-spiralled, enthralled…
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” — Lewis Caroll
 
***
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Europe, Travel Advice

Strangers on a Train

“We’re on our way to bible study,” says my friend. (He likes to make up stories, but let’s get real, who doesn’t?)

It’s 10:00 pm, and we’re on the Circle Line, retracing our steps into Central London after hopping the wrong train. Across from us sits a young couple—friendly, talkative, and maybe a touch too willing to believe his absurd stories. They are sipping from a water bottle of vodka and fanta, on their way to a night out “raving.”
Thus begins my Saturday night this past weekend. My friend alights at King’s Cross Station to head home, and I follow these strangers (soon to be friends) to Fabric, one of London’s most famous House clubs.
We will meet another stranger on our way out of the Tube, and together walk to the venue. We will spend the next four or five hours dancing to some of the best House music I’ve heard in a year, adding new strangers (new friends) to our group as we went, and they will become, over the course of the night, no longer strangers.
And all because we had all looked up across the aisle of a Circle Line train and said hello.
A week prior, I went to meet my coworker in Oxford for the first time. On the trip home, the train was rush-hour packed—standing room only. Series of unexpected events, I found myself squished next to a fellow American; as foreigners are wont to do, we struck up a conversation, found it fascinating, and continued it over a particularly delicious dinner in Notting Hill.

And all because I had asked (in my unmistakably American accent), “Is this the train to London?”
When did we grow afraid of strangers? When did the popular wisdom for travelers shift from, trust the road and the good Samaritans who walk it, to, trust no one? When did two strangers—or four strangers—talking on the train become the exception, rather than the rule?
I have an advantage, in that nothing about my thin five foot five frame and wide smile inspires fear or mistrust. There are fewer barriers for me to cross to arrive at the human beings inside their protective circles.
Some of my most entertaining nights out, fascinating conversations and closest connections have occurred simply because I looked up and said hello. Though I occasionally forget and succumb to the comfortable bubble of my own world, I try to make a rule of talking to strangers—I have yet to regret it.
And then, when you think about it, aren’t we all just strangers on a train?
Busy watching for our station, looking out the window, or within, or anywhere but around us, we don’t realize that the train is it. There are no stations, no stops, and for all we know no destination.
Our fellow passengers? We’re stuck with them—better hope they don’t smell—and we can make of that a party or a burden. The Buddhists will tell you the train is an illusion; the Jews will tell you it’s the only thing that’s real. One thing I know for certain: It’s what we make of the ride that counts.
So we can either look up and say hello, and make the journey worthwhile, or we can keep staring at our shoes, waiting for the conductor to call our stop.

Try saying hello to a stranger today and see what happens. Maybe they’ll tell you their life story. Maybe they won’t respond. Maybe that stranger will change your life—or your day, or your next ten minutes. But no matter what, isn’t it more interesting than your toes?

***
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