There are times when I feel like I belong nowhere, like I’ll never fit in. And then there are times when I feel like I belong everywhere all at once. When I sense the pulsing thread of humanity connecting me to every person on Earth. Those moments when I know our commonality is more powerful than any difference between us.
An experience from my recent trip to Europe epitomizes this feeling.
While in Bled, Slovenia I went on a tour through the Julian Alps. Our group of 17 consisted of families from Australia and Malta, couples from Malaysia and Britain, female friends from Singapore, our Slovenian guides, and me. We piled into two vans for a full day of hiking, waterfalls, and white-water rafting.
In hour eleven of our twelve-hour tour we shared a round of beer and loaded the vans onto a car train to return to our starting point in Bled.
I was in a van with the family from Malta (two college-aged daughters and their parents) and the couple from Malaysia. While our van chugged along the railroad tracks through the mountains, I started to ask questions about Malta, a place I knew nothing about. Soon one of the daughters was singing an old Maltese folk song about a pastry. It was recommended that I eat this pastry if I visit Malta, but I was warned to be careful how I asked for it because the word for the pastry also meant a certain body part it resembled.
We had a few laughs over that one. And that’s when the riddles, jokes, and one-minute mysteries started.
A few didn’t quite cross the language barrier.
“What has ears, but can’t hear?” one of the girls from Malta asked.
I paused. Nothing came to mind. “I give up. What is it?”
No hint of recognition from me or the Malaysian couple. “Huh?”
Lesson learned – the Maltese word for the handles on a pot also means “ears.”
But most of them translated impeccably well. I had even told some to my students in the US when I taught environmental education years ago.
“What goes around the world but stays in a corner?” – A postage stamp!
“What has a head and a tail, but no body?” – A coin!
“You’re lost in the woods and you come upon a cabin with a candle, dry wood for a fire, and a kerosene lamp. You only have one match. What do you light first?” – The match!
The Maltese family and I also shared “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Whoops” with the Malaysian couple. Who knew this silly game was played the same way in two countries 5,000 miles apart that spoke different languages?
There was so much laughter. It was the laughter of children playing child’s games even though there were no kids in the van. It was the joy of people from different corners of the globe recognizing similarity in each other. The freedom of being fully present, enjoying the company of strangers that felt like friends for a moment.
Two nights later I was sitting in a café in the small capital city of Ljubljana chatting with a couple from Texas while my waiter brought me his favorite Slovenian craft beers. The family from Malta happened to walk by and stopped to say hello. I stood up and gave each of them a hug. In that moment I felt like I could belong anywhere.
And so, in those times when I feel like the odd person out, like I’m weird and different and don’t fit in, or when it feels like division has more power than unity, I remind myself of the riddles in the back of the van. Of the collective belonging felt through laughter shared equally across continents, the simplicity of human connection, and the strength in our commonality.
NOTE: This blog post was equally inspired by my experiences in Slovenia and Brené Brown’s new book on true belonging, Braving the Wilderness and, in particular, the Maya Angelou quote she shared: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.”