An Encounter with Humility by Ben Weise

During the semester break from my graduate studies, I decided to backpack to Greece via Italy in search of the rock ledge on which, according to a photograph, my mother − a few years before I made her acquaintance − had stood beneath the Acropolis overlooking Athens.

On a frugal student budget, I took the ferry from Brindisi to Patras, the voyage pleasant but otherwise uneventful except for two nocturnal bodies entwined on the afterdeck like moonstruck boa constrictors, it was all I could do to keep from ordering pop corn and taking notes. Late the following day we put into Patras Harbor. Behind me a blindingly red sun lounged in the sea as I made my way through the town up toward the mountains, there to find a spot to unroll my sleeping bag and dine on beef jerky, peanuts and dried apricots, my staple when traveling first class. Afterward, with my back to a cove of sheltering rocks, I sipped Chianti from my canteen and listened to the music that drifted up from the town square. I considered leaving my hideaway to mingle with the natives but for my sorely underdeveloped language skills, which, if I asked directions, such as “Poú eínai to bánio?“, the response would as likely find me watering the parched wall of a secluded building as relieving myself in a proper facility.

I was in high spirits. The night sky was alive with stars and, directly above, bats clicked and chirped like songbirds in June, I could not have asked for more agreeable surroundings as I scooted down inside my sleeping bag. Soon I was fast asleep and woke refreshed to a seemingly comatose world. I dug a hole with my Ka Bar, fertilized the hole and duly covered it up, then gathered my belongings for the descent into town. A steaming cup of coffee would do me good to grease the joints. In just under two hours I would be on a train to Athens. As I made my way along the narrow cobblestone street in the direction of the town square, I suddenly spied the lone figure of a man coming out of a side alley. Since he seemed to be heading toward me, my immediate thought was that he wanted money. What else? But I decided to ignore him and continued in the same direction at my present pace. Soon enough, however, he was beside me walking in step like a child imitating a grown-up. “Kali̱méra!” he said. Several inches shorter than I, his dark, expressive eyes, deep-set in a furrowed face, sparkled with kindness typical of rural people not yet inured to the behavior of bumptious globetrotters. Given his leathery hands, mud-caked boots and heavy corduroy trousers, I took him to be a peasant. “Kaliméra,” I answered with a cautious smile. At that he began to speak a few words of English, little of which I understood except “coffee”. So then, I thought, he wants me to buy him a cup of coffee. All right, that I could do.

In the town square we sat at a table under a tree while a waiter in a fresh white apron brought two kaimaki coffees. Niarkos was the name by which my table partner introduced himself as he offered me a cigarette. At that I offered him one of mine. He managed to tell me that he had a farm and, in short order, he invited me to his home to meet his family. When I explained as best I could with the help of much exaggerated body language that I had a train to catch, he seemed genuinely disappointed, but then called the waiter to take a picture of us with my camera. A few more minutes and I had to go, but not before we exchanged addresses with my promise to send him a copy of the photo. “Efcharistó,” he said and hugged me with his powerful arms. Need I say it? I never made good on my promise. There were always too many trains to catch and not enough time to look back.

Still today I am filled with self-loathing to think how easily I dismissed the chance to honor my pledge when a snapshot developed and mailed is all it would have taken. But the clock will not be turned back, nor would I see Niarkos again. In a vain attempt to mitigate my guilt I have often asked myself, had he not also been young once? Older and wiser than I, perhaps already then he knew there would be no letter forthcoming, no life sign to attest to a meeting, if only for a moment, of two hearts equally joined in amicable conversation.

In my many travels since, I have been invited to share the table with people whose stories, no matter the language, no matter the time or place, left me often humbled at the realization of my good fortune. For I am an American. My plate is filled to the rim. That this knowledge, however, should in the years of my growing have inculcated in me the notion that people less privileged are simply less is a deplorable fiction. It insinuated itself the instant I saw Niarkos appear from the side street. It lied to me about his intention. It robbed me of a friend.

But I no longer give in to first impressions. Difficult though it may be at times to suppress, arrogance slams the door on the possibility of discovering not only the wonder in people and places, but in the exhilaration of ideas different from our own. As Patrick R. Moran wrote, “Difference is not wrong, only different.”

Today, should I forget the greater goings and comings of the world, should I forget the myriad faces I have encountered at home and abroad that dissolved my suspicion and arrogance, there is one I will not forget. It belongs to a farmer whom I took to be a vagrant looking for a handout‒Niarkos, who had been sent to remind me of my own humble station, for as it turned out, it was he, not I, who paid for the coffee. Efcharistó.

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Moran, Patrick, R. (2001). Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston: Heinle, Cengage    Learning

 

BIO: BEN WEISE

Raised in Germany and the United States, I hold an MA in German Literature from Middlebury College and an MA in TESOL from the New School for Social Research. I worked a number of disparate jobs before settling into teaching Business English and translation abroad. Since then, I have taught academic writing at Rutgers University. My work may be found in present and upcoming issues of The Tipton Poetry Journal, As You Were, Silhouette Press, and Cosmographia Books, among others.When not at my desk, I and my wife enjoy connecting with family on three continents, as well as scuba diving, mountaineering, and star gazing.