A Mutual Schooling

IMG_3198“People travel to Paris for two weeks and think it gives them the authority to justify their perceptions of all French people based on their experiences with Parisians, and that is such a narrow way to see the world. It would be like traveling to New York City and thinking you can speak for all Americans based on the melting pot of people and perspectives you encounter there. It’s simply not the case.”

Celine was passionate and expressive, her hands splayed out in front of her in a frustrated stance and then cupped around her light eyes when she said the word “narrow,” implying with the blinders worn by a horse.

Celine’s boyfriend of six years, Giuseppe, sat next to her listening, his eyes crinkling as the smile on his face crept north to the corners of his chocolate-brown eyes. Giuseppe turned toward Celine as she spoke, nodding his head in silent agreement—clearly used to her fired-up defense of the French. Based on my numerous, generally wonderful exchanges with French people, I agreed with her too.

We were sitting in a corner booth at Coastal Kitchen in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, sipping Washington microbrews. Though they’d invited me to dinner, I felt like I’d stepped in on their date and asked if I could pepper them with questions. However, unlike some of the people I converse with on a regular basis, the couple and I volleyed questions at shared clip—mutually interested in the minutiae of one another’s lives. Over $1 oyster specials and northwest seafood, I learned about the macro and micro components of Celine and Giuseppe’s lives. About their jobs, families, and how they met. Sprinkled amid our life histories, we swapped stories about mutually visited destinations and how we all love Prague…and wine.

“I once read an article written by an American who observed that Americans talk about grapes and French people talk about regions. For example, I am from the Champagne region and love drinking Champagne. I grew up drinking it in my home like it was water. My family serves it at every opportunity—whether it’s a special occasion or not. It’s very different from the Champagne you find here. Giuseppe likes Bourgogne wines—it’s his favorite region. Don’t you find that fascinating—a subtle conversational nuance in how our two cultures discuss wine?” Celine asked. I nodded my head, considering this new hypothesis; realizing that yes, I mostly talk about pinots and cabernets and syrahs with my friends, but rarely do we discuss the regions said grapes come from. I think. “I’ll have to pay more attention now,” I concluded, still stupefied at a conversational nuance I’d never noticed. It was my turn to smile, entertained to learn something new about my own culture.

How are we similar? How are we different? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The morsels from our conversation add to an education I never expected to have, but now can’t imagine life without. It’s a world perspective I can’t learn from a textbook, newspaper, or news feed. Celine and Giuseppe are a lovely couple, and I loved hosting them. They left today, bound for Portland and then San Francisco—two months left in their three-month work sabbaticals.

Last night was one of those dinners—one of those nights—that have become blessedly common as I engage with my Airbnb guests. At a regularity that humbles me, my home has served as a classroom, where I’ve been schooled about our vast world and its unique inhabitants. Hundreds of strangers have been my professors.