On Loving Strangers
Velta, the teeny tiny tough-as-nails Latvian grandma I've shacked up with for three months, has taught me profound lessons on resourcefulness and survival. I'm now realizing she's also taught me the beauty of sharing your life with strangers.
I don't mean blogging about my adventures, splashing them on Facebook for whomever to see. I mean intimately sharing your weird day to day life. With someone you barely know and cannot actually speak to. For months. And loving it. And loving them. And being open to all of the randomness that ensues.
Because I've realized life is too short not to.
I was lucky enough to be here when four generations of Velta's family converged for a surprise visit. Velta had no idea they were coming. They were visiting from all corners of Europe. The day I spent with them was eye opening. They have no boundaries, no limits, no sense of personal space, no concept of ownership or personal property. Everything is for everyone and they will make sure you are taken care of first and foremost. They will also boil 20 lbs of potatoes and make sure you consume more sauerkraut than you'd even imagined possible.
It sounds overwhelming, and it sort of was until I got used to it. It's also instructive. There was no pretense, no fuss, no vanity, nothing was held back. I was given three different sweaters throughout the day. They were as confused with my many thin layers of clothing as Velta has been. I've since stored the sweaters upstairs for the next house sitter to enjoy. The point for this family was in the giving.
I was also lucky enough to be here for Velta's 78th birthday. I noticed she kept a list by the phone, lovingly recording the name of each person who called her to celebrate. I'd navigated her scribbled grocery list for weeks at that point. This list was different. This was careful, deliberate. This mattered to her more than matches, olive oil, and onions ever will.
Her grandson-in-law Joel happened to call and check on me the day before and let me know about her birthday. She didn't realize he told me, which created the perfect opportunity to surprise her.
My friend (who later traveled to Latvia to meet her and stay at the farmhouse) drew a sketch as a birthday card and sent it to me as a photo. It was a colorful balloon hovering over a wrapped gift + "daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā" (i.e. Happy Birthday in Latvian). I went to the village early that morning and bought a big chocolate cake with mixed berry glaze. She has such a wicked sweet tooth, this one.
When I got home Velta was sitting at the kitchen table with her newspaper, her list, her birds eating their seeds off the window sill. She was wearing a clean sweater I'd never seen before. On her head was her fancy scarf, the one she also wore for the exciting day we took a bus into the village together. She was all spiffed up and ready for her birthday phone calls.
I showed her the photo on my phone and held out the cake. It took her a minute to read it, another few seconds to realize what was happening. She teared up when she realized what it was. She pulled my shoulders down a good two feet so she could kiss both my cheeks. She clapped. I danced a silly jig. In Latvian I told Ruffo The Dog that it was his mom's birthday. She laughed at my horrible accent and bungled mispronunciation.
I kept dancing with the dog. She just kept clapping.
It's tender, right? The birthday surprise as a touching moment transcending age, language, culture.... Well, about that.
Velta had birthday visitors that afternoon who speak a bit of English. We were all huddled around the table eating mountains of strange food I'd never seen before. They held out her list and asked me, "What is your name?"
I said "Gail..." and they all laughed. They pointed to the second name on her list and instructed, "You please write your name here." "Um...sure...but what does number two say now?" They kept laughing... "The Girl."
You guys, Velta may love me, but she still has no idea who am I or what I'm doing in her house.
And that actually means more to me than if she knew my name.
The women who shared their birthday feast that day have no idea who I am. Neither do the two barrel-chested men with booming voices who saw me at a far flung bus stop and gave me an unsolicited ride into the village. The woman at the bakery who likes to practice her English with me, so proud of the years she lived in London as a student. The taxi driver who teaches me a few Latvian words every time I miss the bus and need him to drive me back to "mana maya, ludzu." I'm the only American for a solid 100 miles. I'm confusing to everyone. I'm not supposed to be here. And everyone is kind. And generous. And helpful.
And that's the thing about travel. I'm not ignorant of the dangers in the wide world. I'm a woman traveling solo and I'm savvy. But I also know that people are good. Velta and her world has reinforced that to me ten fold.
Love + loving strangers,