Belonging to the World

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?”

“A pot!”

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.”

 

Heather Whelpley is a coach and speaker that works with women to master doubt and imposter syndrome and own their brilliance. Learn more about her coaching services here.

Keeping the Faith

Slovenia Coast

On my last day in Slovenia I decided to do what I enjoy most: walk. I had walked all over Slovenia during my 10-day trip – on mountain paths to waterfalls, down country lanes past herds of sheep and cows, on boardwalks through gorges. This last trek was along the coast from Piran, where I was staying. I planned to follow a designated walking route north, do a short loop at the end of the trail, and walk back to Piran.

I missed the turn back. I saw it. I paused to consider whether I should turn there, but the trail markers I had been following for two and a half hours kept going down the coast. So I also kept going.

After a while I realized my mistake. I wasn’t lost. I knew I could turn around, but at that point turning around would mean walking for at least six hours. I could do it, but it didn’t sound fun.

So I kept walking forward. I could soon see a town in the distance on the coast. I was pretty sure it was Izola. We had stopped in Izola on my bus from Ljubljana to Piran, which meant if I could get there, then I would eventually be able to find my way back to Piran without having to walk for hours on end.

Hiking in Slovenia

I continued to follow the path along the ridge over the sea. Eventually the trail ended at a road. I kept walking down and forward. The road led to a park (with a much needed bathroom!). From the park there was a promenade along the ocean to a marina. From the marina I walked to the first road I saw and followed the signs pointing to the center of town (it was now clear that I was actually in Izola – yeah!). I walked a few blocks along the road and ran directly into the bus stop. I checked the schedule and the next bus for Piran was coming in 10 minutes.

I’ve thought a lot about this walk. What amazes me most is that I felt no fear. Here I was, walking alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, not entirely sure where I was or where I was going and yet I had complete confidence that it would work out.

We could use a fancy corporate term, like managing ambiguity, to describe my attitude that day, but it really comes down to one thing: faith.

How many times do we need to be reminded of keeping the faith? When the final job interview yet again doesn’t lead to an offer. When you want to be in a relationship and put yourself out there only to be rejected. When the pregnancy test comes back negative. When you’re launching a business, but haven’t landed your first client.

And yet I am reminded of the walk to Izola. Not only did faith lead me to the end I wanted, but it was a beautiful journey. The Adriatic Sea sparkled into infinity. Soft pale green olive trees twisted their branches creating artistic shadows in the grass. The sun shone brilliantly above me. I felt like I was walking in a Van Gogh painting.

Olive grove in Slovenia

I know the journey doesn’t always feel beautiful. Sometimes it’s heart wrenching. It is vulnerable being out there on a ridge, knowing what you want, but unsure when and how it’s going to happen.

But keep the faith. One foot in front of the other. You (and I) will get there eventually.

 

Heather Whelpley is a coach and speaker that works with women to master doubt and imposter syndrome and own their brilliance. Learn more about her coaching services here.