Today humans are surrounded by people constantly, yet they have never been more alone. We isolate ourselves without even realizing it, between taking a taxi to avoid the busy and stressful public transport, or even spreading out in a movie theatre so that we have the most possible space between us. We are like atoms, sometimes colliding, but never fully connecting. Only in genuine connections can we find the antidote for our impending isolation. Often times, it takes momentarily breaking off from people in your comfort zone to find these connections.
A time in particular that I ventured off on my own was while I was exploring the streets of Palma de Mallorca, an island off the south coast of Spain. My white sneakers traverse the uneven cobblestoned streets of the small town of Soller. This is my first time on an island and I am trying to grasp what island life was like, specifically in Spain. Every shrub, tree, and cactus catches my attention as I try to put together what this foreign land is all about. The signifier of island life, the palm tree, is almost as plentiful as the citrus groves that were found in every yard. Branches bearing oranges, lemons, and limes dip into the streets from behind high fences, their weight dragging them down for the picking. I stand on my toes and stretched upwards until my fingers envelop a particularly vibrant looking orange. I can feel my mouth watering at the prospect of tasting the fresh fruit, a luxury I wish I had in all of my travels. I tear open the fruit and popped a slice into my mouth. If you had blindfolded me I would have thought I had bitten into a fruit sourer than a lemon. I spit the orange out and shake my head in shock. That’s what I get for thieving an orange, I guess.
The next corner I round, I am in a small square with a baroque fountain in the center, right in front of an old church. As I stare up at the church, the bell starts to ring. When I look down, I realize that a group of women have formed around me in a semicircle, holding hands and staring down at the cobblestones under our feet. They all look like mothers, with the signifying wrinkles of concern on their foreheads and kindness in their relaxed brows. However, their faces were enveloped in sadness; their eyes shut tightly and their mouths forming unspoken words. With every toll of the bell, the women seemed to dig deeper into the earth in their presence. I turned to an older woman who was watching the display next to me with the same sadness on her face.
“Do you know what this is about?” I asked. She turned to me, grasped my hands between her hands, and spoke quickly in Spanish. “I’m so sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” She just smiled and sad smile in response, and continued speaking in Spanish. As she spoke she continued to grasp my hands, and stared into my eyes with the most sincerity I have seen in a while. She emphasized certain words, and whispered others. I did not understand one bit of it but I was so drawn into the emotion that she was conveying as she spoke to me in her captivating smooth accent that sounded like her words were carved out of butter. I felt like I was somehow understanding what she was trying to say to me. She released my hands and lightly touched her fist to my stomach a few times in a stabbing motion, then rubbed my arm as tears filled her eyes. I grasped her back and nodded. She smiled her sad smile at me again, just as the bell stopped tolling. The women dispersed, and so did she, disappearing into the crowd. The instinct of this woman to reach out to a complete stranger with such warmth and love is one that caught me off guard because I am not used to such compassion from a stranger. Our society is so intertwined with others through social media, but it is usually just within our own social circles. When people rely just on these fake interactions that immediately give them an endorphin rush, they miss out on the interactions with people outside their circles in real life. This interaction with this woman left me craving connections with other strangers during my travels.
A few weeks later in Venice my friends are off ripping into buttery croissants, while I leave them to seek out some vegan food. I find a cute little pizzeria that serves vegan pizza, so I buy one and roam the packed streets in search of a place to sit down. I come across a little dock on the canal that was unoccupied, so I crouch down and start quickly eating the pizza, wary of the strict sitting regulations in Venice to prevent tourists like myself doing exactly this. I feel a pair of eyes on me so I glance up and see a woman with dark skin and warm eyes watching me from the steps above. With my mouth full, I give her an awkward smile and a wave with my sauce covered hands. She smiles back and waved me over, patting the step next to her. I am puzzled for a minute, then I realize that she wants me to sit by her. I climb the steps to meet her. She is with who appears to be her husband and another couple. In Venice it is against the law to sit down on the ground in the streets, so I glance around before I sit in this very public location.
“Where are you from?” She asks me with a warm smile. She holds my arm with her hands.
“Boston in America,” I say. The whole group lights up and gets closer to me.
“We love Americans!” She says, and starts to run her fingers through my hair with one hand while holding my hand with the other. Normally a stranger touching me would feel very strange, but this interaction felt almost maternal, just like it had with the woman from the Spanish island Palma de Mallorca. I could tell that this woman viewed me like she would her own daughter, and I viewed her like I would me own mother. I got the feeling that this was just how the woman was with everyone, especially people who she sees alone.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Nepal!” Her husband said. Now it was my turn to light up.
“I have many friends from Nepal! It is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture,” I say. They beamed.
I took another bite of pizza. “No cheese?” They asked. I shook my head.
“I don’t eat cheese or meat,” I said.
“Us either!” The woman who was holding my hand says with a big smile over her face. “You must visit us in Nepal,” I nod, even though I know I will probably never see these people again in my life. These strangers welcomed me into their family as soon as they saw me without one.
It was 7 AM and I was walking down by the Maas river in the teeny tiny town of Well in the Netherlands. I have gotten into the habit of waking up for the golden hour when the sun paints the town in a warm golden light that looks like the town has a sepia filter over it. I walk down the street and pass a very old woman hunched over a walker. I smile and say hello and she smiles back. I reach the end of the street, turn around, and pass her again. This time she turns around and shouts something after me. I spin around.
“I’m so sorry I don’t speak Dutch,” I say, the phrase a common one in my vocabulary here. Realization washes over her face and she smiles.
“You are American? Ah! I can practice my English, it is bad,” She says. I laugh.
“Well it’s better than my Dutch!” We laugh.
“I’m Mary. Won’t you come for a coffee?” She asks. I am immediately taken aback because I have never been invited into a stranger’s home before. However, this woman seems harmless enough so I nod and follow her to her house a few houses down. I help her carry her walker inside the dimly lit room. As I step inside I am immediately hit with the thick stench of stale cigarette smoke and cats, even though I don’t see any felines lurking about. Her walls are covered with paintings; portraits to be exact. There are so many that the yellow wallpaper beneath them is barely visible. Mary shuffles around in the small kitchen attached to the room. I walk over to a desk and see some wet paint on a plate and a few crusty brushes. There is a small easel sitting on the desk with a painting in the works of a woman with a blue hat. The most striking aspect of the painting is the details of her eyes. The iris is a piercing blue and the whites are as white as marshmallows.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the room, and sure enough Mary is hobbling over to the chair I had just taken a seat at. She hands me the coffee and I thank her and take a sip. I discreetly wince; the coffee tastes like she brewed cigarette butts rather than coffee beans. I thanked her all the same and take shallow sips from it, the bitter drink overwhelming my senses. We begin to get to know each other. She asks me questions like where I’m from and what I’m studying in school, and I ask her how long she’s lived here and if she has any family. We chat like estranged relatives, trying to catch each other up on all of the major plot points of our lives.
“I have lived here all my life. I don’t have any children, but I have a brother who I don’t see anymore,” She said. I nodded, looking around at the paintings. “Take one, please!”
“Oh I couldn’t. These are all so beautiful, you should keep them!” I saw. She shakes her head and motions me towards a large stack of paintings.
“These are either famous people or people that come into my house who I paint for free. There is a sign outside that welcomes people in, but most people don’t come in. No one talks to each other in this town, so cold! Will you flip it for me when you leave?” She asks, I nod my head and continue flipping through the paintings.
“These are really good! People are missing out.” I say. Mary shrugs. The paintings are strictly portraits, and each one seems connected to each other, as if all of the subjects were in the same family. They all share the same piercing eyes that permeates the gaze of the viewer. I stop flipping when I see the face of the man himself; Bob Marley. I couldn’t help but let out a soft chuckle because of the utter randomness of seeing this ganja god here in this small town of Well. I choose Bob as my painting to rescue him from this suburban prison. Mary hands me a second painting of a man with a very kind face.
“It’s me,” She says. I gaze at the painting, puzzled. “This is the only self portrait I have. Well, it’s not me really. I started to paint myself but I am really not very attractive so I started to paint my brother. We are one. It is yours now,” She explained. I try and hand it back to her.
“This is too much,” I say. She insists on me taking it, so I lay the painting in my lap. I feel like I need to give her something of my own now, so I rummage through my pockets trying to find something worthy enough of Mary and her artwork. I remember the polaroid that I keep in my phone case of a beach I go every summer in Cape Cod Seashores, Massachusetts. I know that it is incomparable to the painting, but it is still a piece of me, so I take a pen and scrawl my name on the back and hand it to her. She places it on her worktable. Mary and I are in each other's lives now, if not in the literal sense, in the spiritual sense. We have a piece of each other, and that is something I cannot say about most strangers. Mary views herself as one with her brother, one with me, and one with everyone she meets, which is clear when examining her paintings. Each person has similar kind eyes, and an indescribable warmness about them. She explained to me the stories behind a number of the subjects of her paintings, one a traveling woman from Nigeria, another of a young girl with Down Syndrome that lives down the block, and a local farmer that gives her her weekly milk. These people were all her family, which was clear by the way she spoke of them. I am now one of her faces too, and I wonder if she will paint me, turning me into another clear eyed face on her wall. She has taken a story from me, and I have taken a story from her. Here she was, living by herself, but yet she did not seem alone. I have seen people with ten times the amount of friends and social connections than Mary, and she is still less alone and more filled with life than any of them. These women, these complete strangers, are so filled with love and are so connected with the world around them purely because they are open to it. If everyone opened themselves to the physical world like them, it would be a much less lonely world filled with citrus fruits and paintings of long lost family members.