The waiter came to our table to take our order. I sensed he was not a Swiss native by his accent. I thought perhaps he was Italian, since many Italians work in Switzerland, and a large number in service jobs in restaurants. When he returned with our order, I ventured to ask him where he was originally from. When he said Spain, I immediately started speaking Spanish with him. He beamed from ear to ear to hear his native language. We exchanged small talk; he lived in the apartment above the restaurant, he was here for 25 years, and so forth. Whenever he passed by our table, he had the biggest grin on his face. We connected.
We were having dinner at a restaurant by the Aare, one of Switzerland’s most famous rivers. The waitress picked up immediately that we weren’t locals. My wife Esther asked her to explain the ingredients of several dishes in Swiss German, but she heard us passing on the information to my brother and his wife in English. When she returned to take our order, my Brother ordered in Standard German, Esther and I in Swiss German, and my sister-in-law in English. She didn’t skip a beat. When she returned with the food, I complimented her on how well she could get along in all three languages, and that her English, which was not her native language, was very good. She beamed. Some chitchat ensued; she only had what she called “school book English,” and knew just enough to serve English-speaking customers. I was surprised at how good her accent was for what she claimed to know. We connected.
A waiter approached us at another café. He asked us for our order in Swiss, but soon again discovered there were some English speakers at the table. He immediately spoke fluent English to us, and said, “I’m a [US] American, but born here in Switzerland.” He had also lived several years in the USA before coming back to work in Switzerland at a resort. As he passed our table while going about his duties, we kept up a little dialog. We connected.
We connected with more than just waiters and waitresses on our recent tours of Switzerland’s natural wonders with my brother and his wife. We were eating our packed lunch in a lookout tower facing the North Face of Switzerland’s iconic Eiger Mountain. As we were finishing, a couple climbed the stairs to join us in enjoying the view. I greeted them, and could tell by their return greeting that they weren’t Swiss, so I began speaking Standard German with them. A very delightful conversation ensued. When the woman discovered that we were from the USA, she began speaking with my sister-in-law in English. We must have spent 20 minutes discovering each other’s realities. He was a retired German locomotive engineer, and had a free rail pass to travel across Europe. His wife could travel with him at half price. They usually travelled to Austria on their vacations, which was just as beautiful as Switzerland, but less expensive. We connected.
On the way down the mountainside on a train that day, I was curious about the oriental couple sitting beside me. There were busloads of oriental people wherever we travelled in Switzerland. Some look like Koreas, others looked Chinese, but I was quite curious where they were from. After a few minutes in silence, I asked them if they spoke German or English. They smiled that I had wanted a conversation with them, and answered in very broken English. Imagine my surprise when they said they were from Macau. “The Las Vegas of China,” the man said with a big grin. “We are as expensive as Switzerland,” he proudly continued. We tried to proceed with the conversation, but it was torturous. Yet he really wanted an exchange, so I plodded on. Patience, deep listening, all earmarks of a good communicator, were stretched to the breaking point. However, seeing their huge grins and exchanging a very nice, “have a nice trip” at the end of the train ride, made all the efforts worthwhile. We connected.
These interesting random encounters happened to me over the past several days. I have travelled many times in many areas, especially Central Europe and Latin America. I have been thrown together with many people from most parts of the world. There was a time, however, that I didn’t take so well to chance encounters. In fact, I did whatever I could to avoid them. Reluctance to engage in small talk and perhaps a dose of arrogance kept me from doing it. Perhaps the arrogance has mellowed with age, along with my reluctance to engage in small talk. Connections across cultures and languages can become God moments when we realize that our souls are all similarly stamped with God’s image and likeness.
Many years ago, when I was in my arrogant stage, I was travelling with a colleague and a group of students to Spain. My colleague and I went out to experience some tapas at a local café in Madrid. While we were enjoying the tasty munchies, a crew from Swiss Air walked into the café. My colleague, who was as interested in Switzerland as in Spain, insisted that I go up to talk to them. He knew I could speak (some) Swiss German, and he wanted to know what they were up to. At that time there was no way in Hades that I wanted to do that. But he insisted, and persisted, so I finally gave in. When we first approached them, they looked at us as if we had come from Mars. When they discovered that I was a [US] American who could speak Swiss, they were overwhelmingly welcoming! As it turned out, they were a pilot, a co-pilot and two stewardesses on layover for a trip the next day to the USA. We exchanged wonderful conversations about their lives as cross-cultural flyers and my life as a cross-cultural leader. We connected. It was a God moment.
I could tell endless stories of random encounters over the years, many which I initiated, and most of which I did not. I wonder how often I’ve missed, during my years as an arrogant world traveler, the many opportunities I had to witness God’s good creation in human form in myriads of manifestations. Random encounters often lead to God moments and bridge gaps of understanding that too often are forced on us by the tribal narrow-mindedness of our cultural, religious or political bubbles. I challenge you, and myself to continue to be open to experiencing God and connections to random encounters.