Last fall my daughter, Erin, and I were in Italy on vacation. Neither of us speaks Italian and it was an ambitious trip to say the least. Sure, we had the perfunctory Italian/English dictionary, but in our (sometimes North American) arrogance, we assumed that a lot of folks would speak OUR language. Hmmm…that’s a problem, isn’t it? We flew into and out of Rome, but between there we went to Venice and Montepulciano.
Cultures differ regarding personal space and eye contact. When you’re in an area of the world where tourism is a big part of the economy, it’s important for people to “draw you in” to sit in their restaurants, buy their wares, get you into their exhibits….it’s their commerce. People were very comfortable staring at us. That was probably compounded by the fair number of times we had no idea where we were and had to say, “Ci siamo persi. Parla inglese?” Our biggest “getting lost” experience was on our way to the apartment in Montepulciano. We picked up the rental car in Venice and took off on the “next adventure”. Erin did an amazing job driving the little Fiat, but once we were getting close to our destination we realized we had NO IDEA where we were. It wasn’t just that we missed a turn; we were driving around in a tiny rental car, without any type of GPS, with VERY little understanding of the native tongue, and road signs only in Italian, which matched nothing that was on our map! When we stopped in a little town to try to get some help, people literally came out of their homes and stared at us. We have photos that we took of each other standing next to the little car, with folks in the background gawking at us. Yep, we were the anomaly.
Finally, we reached someone at the apartment who spoke broken English (which was a heck of a lot better than the dozen words of Italian we knew). She drove to where we were stranded and “rescued” us. We were staying in slightly remote area and as we walked through the towns, or into little restaurants, there was blatant staring. “I feel like a unicorn”, Erin said one day. Eventually, we laughed about that; about how comfortable people were at openly staring at us, but that wasn’t our immediate response. We felt like we were definitely “not one of them”. In this little area, we definitely DID look different. We didn’t “fit in”. We were uncomfortable. Then, eventually, we just kind of got used to it. We got used to being unicorns.
Last week I read a book that my ten-year-old granddaughter, Lauren, loves. She took it out of the library at school and then chose to use her book money to buy it so that she’d have her own copy. The book “Wonder”, written by R.J. Palacio, is the story of a fifth grade boy named August who was born with severe facial deformities. As “Auggie” goes from being homeschooled to a mainstream school for the first time, he experiences what’s it like to be the “unicorn” everyday. His journey is painful and heartbreaking and brave and uplifting.
Lauren’s one of those kids that reaches out and connects with other children wherever she goes. Last week I took Lauren and Ethan to tennis lessons. While she was waiting her turn on the court, she was chatting up another little girl who she’d never met before. She makes friends wherever she goes. I think a lot of that is because she doesn’t see the unicorn in them. She SEES just them.
I’ve noticed for many years how much we “judge” people by the way they look. We don’t often get to know people beyond what we see: gorgeous, fit and well dressed vs. average, not-so-in-shape and wearing anything but the latest fashion, or great hair, beautiful jewelry and perfect skin vs. thinning hair, a simple ring and a face that’s known a lot of life. It isn’t always those three criteria; you know what I mean. We judge without even knowing we judge, so when someone REALLY looks different, we’re on “high alert”. Just like when Erin and I were in Montepulciano, we don’t look into someone’s eyes and really see THEM. We see the shell. We see the “unicornness” of them.
Before my brother, Bob, died at forty years old, he “looked” different. He had his first surgery for a brain tumor at sixteen. By the time he moved to the spirit side, his head looked a lot like a railroad track- so many scars. After high school he tried going to community college. He had no hair by then and was wearing a wig. One day, walking across the campus, that wig blew off. My memory isn’t perfect on this, but I think that was the “beginning of the end” for college for Bob. I’m sure at 19 he was “feeling like a unicorn”.
I have no frame of reference, at all, for being a fifth-grader with the challenges Palacio’s character has. I also did not walk in Bob’s shoes- just next to them. When I was in high school, I needed braces that my parents simply couldn’t afford. I was tall and skinny and did NOT like my smile. When I was on my own, I got braces and the “problem” was “fixed”, but until that happened I laughed with my hand over my mouth a lot. Years ago, I went to a black-tie event with my friend, Anthony. He was on the board of a not-for-profit and this was a very elegant affair. I definitely wasn’t the only Caucasian there, but I was a minority in that group. It was a real eye-opener coming from the less-than-diverse world I’m typically in, and it was great. It did, however, give me the slightest glimpse into what it must be like to be “different” and, just like that teenager who needed braces, I did feel a bit like a unicorn.
Let’s look at each other with different eyes.
Let’s look at each other’s eyes.
Let’s just look…and “see” what’s really there.
Chances are there’s a bit of unicorn in all of us.
Thank you, Lauren, for sharing this wonderful book with me. Thank you for reaching out to people wherever you go.
Thank you, Erin, for taking me to Italy. Thank you for being an adventurer. Thank you for being a “unicorn” with me.
©2015 Peace Full Home/Intentional Living
p.s. from “The Checklist from Z to A”:
#15. Simplify and unclutter your life; less really IS more when it comes to your life.