Monday, May 21, 2012

Defining Moments

it’s always hard to come back to something after you’ve left it for a while.  i told will it was hard to start up writing again, and he asked why.  and i said because time had passed and a big trip to europe had passed with it and i didn’t know what to say about it that wasn’t “the whole story.”  something has to be said first, and i didn’t know what that should be.
and then i remembered the cup of coffee.
he had asked me when we got home what the highlight of our trip had been.  and it should have been hard to decide....we hiked to a beer brewing monastery in germany, climbed to the top of a cathedral clock tower and looked out over the ancient city of prague (as well as went to the sex machine museum there on easter sunday :), stayed a night in a bed and breakfast with a balcony view of two castles (one of which we got to tour), and had many train rides through the beautiful european country side.
but the defining moment of my trip was so much smaller, and yet so much bigger, than all of those things, and i chose it without a breath of hesitation.
there were a few factors leading up to such an overwhelm of emotion that afternoon.  one of which was that in europe you can’t go into a coffee shop and order a double short americano.  you either order a single (small) or a double (large).  it took almost the whole trip for me to figure out how to order a cup of coffee that was really just what i wanted.  the other factor was that we visited a few places that weren’t so happy to have us there, where the heaviness of underlying hostility was like a thick smoke in the air, and other places where people were nice but i still felt like we were being somewhat taken advantage of as tourists.
the last city we visited was Budapest, Hungary, which neither of us knew ANYTHING about.  i was intimidated by that leading up to our arrival.  being in countries where english was a secondary language was humbling beyond belief, and i felt both relieved and guilty that most everyone spoke enough of my language that all i needed to speak in theirs was “do you speak english?”  we knew budapest would be different than the other countries, though not necessarily in the ways it turned out to be.
we fell absolutely in love with it.  from the moment we arrived we felt welcome and comfortable, without really being able to say or know why.  people were not overly nice, but they were genuine and helpful and kind (and a few of them even curious :)  they were proud of their culture and their history and pleased to share it with us.  we were pleased to learn.  
our second to last day there we went for an early lunch at a place a few doors down from our hostel.  the waiter asked me about soup with my meal and i asked if they had anything vegetarian.  he thought for a moment and said yes, bringing us both bowls of some kind of warm fruit and berry stew that was amazing.  after lunch we both ordered double espressos and i asked if he had some cream i could have with it.  again he thought for just a moment and said yes.  in a few minutes he brought back a tray and along with my cup he placed a tiny pitcher of beautifully thick cream as well as a small pitcher of steamed milk.  this was the defining moment of my trip.
that man didn’t know exactly what i wanted.  he spoke english well enough, but language barriers can go beyond just words.  he didn’t make any assumptions about what i wanted either.  he just wanted me to have a good cup of coffee and did what he could to make sure that’s what i got.  it wasn’t an opportunity to charge me extra for milk.  it wasn’t a pain in the ass trying to deal with an american tourist.  it also wasn’t a “yes, yes, ma’am whatever you say ma’am” either.  i was treated the way people are treated in hungary, because that’s how they feel people ought to be treated.  and to me, it was an act of unparalleled human kindness unprecedented in my memory.  in america the waitstaff is paid by tips.  not to say there aren’t genuinely nice waiters (of course there are!), but going out of their way to make you happy gets them paid, and no matter what else is going on that’s the dynamic of the situation.  this man was being paid wages, and not expecting a tip of more than a few coins, nor was he even expecting gratitude, judging by the almost uncomfortable surprise he displayed when i tried to express my appreciation upon our departure.
dinner the following night simply broke me into tears, when again, waiters receiving minimal gratuity were treating us like Very Important People, for no other reason than wanting us to have a good experience with them and walk away happy.  
defining moments can be small.  but they can mean everything.