It was the eve of my birthday, and I was hungry. My Peruvian school mate Ronnie and I were in Morocco and we had made plans to eat at a nice restaurant to celebrate my birthday. We both were looking forward to a fancy dinner and perhaps some boy watching after, so I could not understand why he was suddenly dragging his heels. “I want to leave my laptop at the front desk. It might not be safe in the room”, he said. “Ok, so leave it,” I said. “The receptionist for the night shift is not there yet,” he countered. We waited for a few moments. I kept on standing up to check if the receptionist for the night shift has arrived, consumed with the self-entitlement of the birthday brat. Wait a moment, the afternoon guy kept on saying, with a lopsided grin. He is late, it is raining in his town, his car had broken down. He kept on cracking small jokes and forcing me in his broken English to exchange high fives. I was getting more and more irate by the second – even more, when I noticed that people I did not know were going to the small lobby of the youth hostel as though there was some event. “We need to get out of here, Ronnie, there’s some party about to take place, we’re not invited and we look awkward sitting here. I’ll carry your stupid laptop to dinner.” I hissed. Suddenly, the lights went off and everyone began singing Happy Birthday. The owner of the hostel and the high-five guy walked in from the kitchen carrying a big cake and walking towards me. It was a surprise party, and it was the idea of the high-five guy when he noticed my date of birth from the passport I presented at check-in. They forced Ronnie to keep me from leaving. My 31st birthday was made forever memorable by an Arab man with a lopsided grin who in all likelihood, I will never get a chance to give a high five to ever again.
In my room here in The Hague, I have a collection of snow globes from the European cities I’ve managed to visit during my year here. Whenever I get back from a trip, the first thing I do is open my suitcase or backpack, retrieve the snow globe from between the clothes, unwrap it from its package and lovingly put it in place on the table beside the earlier globes. My English friend calls them “tacky monstrosities with putrid water” – such name-calling the result, I suspect, of being made to walk around Edinburgh’s souvenir shops with me when he’d rather be sitting in a pub with a pint. I like them because they remind me of adventures taken and roads walked, of travels I’ve managed to afford on a student stipend through strict military-precision budgeting and home-cooked meals.
But most of all, they remind me of the fellow human beings I’ve met along the way, the randomness and sheer richness of encounters with strangers, and the gentle graceful dismantling of the walls and webs coming between people. On a ferry to view the Norwegian Fjords during an unfortunately-foggy day, a middle-aged lady and I stood beside each other, taking pictures of what just appeared to be a gray haze over blue waters. “To be honest, I don’t know what a ‘fjord’ is”, she said to me in a stage whisper. “Neither do I,” I stage-whispered back. “No one back home will be impressed by my pictures,” she said, peering into her camera. “I come from the Philippines, an archipelago. I won’t even try.” I responded. We laughed together. I soon found out that she was a professor at the MIT in the States and was in Oslo for a conference that ended the day before. We ended up spending the rest of the day together, sharing a giant bowl of mussels, white wine and easy conversation about politics, life, travel, family, love. She had two sons and no daughter, she told me I made her sad she did not have a daughter. I told her she made me miss my Mom. I promised to call when I find myself in her country. She and her husband are planning a trip to Southeast Asia next year; for me, they’ll swing by the Philippines.
How many more micro-stories there are! The Australian girl in the hostel room in Pisa who borrowed my moisturizer and lent me her hairdryer. We got into a long, lively chat and she told me that she has a Filipina stepmother. The Italian graduate student sitting on the next table who came up to me while I was reading “Dangerous Love” and told me that Ben Okri was his favourite author. The Indian lawyer who I met in a walking tour around Edinburgh and is now in my facebook. The chatty grandfather who showed us a different side of Paris and told us that the best coffee to be had was in a small cafe manned by an old Guatemalan woman who spoke no English and smiled in all languages.
My one-year stay in Europe is drawing to an end, and I write this because I need to remember. There are enough pictures of me in the Eiffel Tower, by the Prado, in front of the Big Ben, all plastered in my Facebook page. What I need to remember are these tiny vignettes, the gentleness of random human interaction, the tentative ways we give and seek out kindness in a strange place. And afterwards we marvel at how profoundly we are shaped by the most fleeting of encounters.