Remember this summer when I emphasized how much people affect your travels? How traveling—and really, life—is about the people?
This weekend proved that all the more. I just got back from spending the weekend in Interlaken and its surrounding towns. I traveled with one of my close friends who lived next door to me freshman year and who loves adventures, funny stories, maximizing every moment of a day, and enjoying the beauty of people as much as I do.
When I first got to Interlaken, I waited at the train station to be picked up for paragliding. Within a few minutes, the van arrived and I hopped on board with two Chinese tourists and an Australian. The Australian told me all about how this has been her 11th month traveling as part of a year off to see the world. She literally just quit her job and traveled by herself. She was so nice, and told me all about some of the amazing places she’s visited. When we got to the top of the mountain to paraglide, I met my instructor, Nick. Nick was incredible. He leads over 700 paragliding flights a year and has been flying for 25 years. During our twenty minutes in the air, I asked him all about his life. He participates in competitions all over the world and is one of the most popular guides for celebrities. He has taken tons of princesses, actors, and other celebrities paragliding. He was an incredibly humble guy. In fact, my flight was clearly much more of an experience than the others. The other instructors, though they took off at the same time in the same conditions, were way below us and didn’t do any tricks. But Nick did all of these 360 degree flips, spins and turns, and we were twice as high as everyone else. I told him how impressed I was, and he shrugged it off, saying, “Oh, I just got lucky with the wind around me.”
Inspired by the Australian I met paragliding, that night my friend and I ate dinner at an Australian restaurant. It was hilarious because: 1) we are American, 2) we are studying in Switzerland, 3) we are hanging out in Europe, 4) everyone around us is speaking German and we only barely know French, 5) the waiter is speaking to us in Australian English which is confusing and out of place, and 6) CULTURES ARE JUST COLLIDING AND I CAN’T KEEP IT ALL STRAIGHT, MY GOSH. The food was great, though, and we decided we didn’t want just one dessert so we had two. Man how I love friends who understand the importance of embracing the cultural nature of food. Or just using that as an excuse to eat more than one normally would.
The next morning, we awoke to hundreds of people running by us for the Jungfrau Marathon. If you’re not familiar with this marathon, it’s probably the most famous mountain marathon in the world. Thousands of runners run straight up the tallest mountain in Europe for 26.2 miles. INSANE!!!!! But it was incredibly inspiring and humbling. Every time I start to get cocky about my half marathons I’ll just remember the thousands of people running twice that amount. And uphill. Up one of the tallest mountains. It was hilarious because as these runners zoomed by us, we were running in the opposite direction to make our 7:35am train. The spectators were so confused by us. Who were these silly Americans sprinting for their train while real athletes embarked on a truly incredible feat?
Once our train arrived in Grindelwald, we looked everywhere for coffee. We were about to give up when we noticed these two German women sitting in a stand with a bunch of fresh pastries. It turns out they bake them fresh every morning and sell them by the train station. And get this? They had coffee chocolate muffins! We scarfed them down in 2.5 seconds.
We asked these two women who walked by us to take a picture for us of the mountains in the background, and they spoke perfect English. I’m slightly ashamed of this, but we took advantage of that and asked them to take pictures from several angles. Ya gotta take advantage of the common language, okay?!?! Plus the views were stunning and you’re only in Grindelwald once….
We started on our five-hour hike to the top of the mountain which promised a view that earned itself a spot on the official Swiss calendars. We were trying to take a * slight * detour to see a pretty lake, which turned in to quite the trek. After three hours, I started asking my friend—about every five minutes—if we were almost there. Discouraged by the fact that we would get to the top of every cliff and not see the lake beyond it, we decided to ask for directions. Of course, we were the only two people on the trail so that was going to be complicated. Eventually we saw a small chalet and a man tending to his yard out front. We walked over and asked where the Bachalpse lake was, to which he began laughing. He pronounced the lake a completely different way, then asked if that was the one to which we were referring. Embarrassed, we nodded and apologized for our horrible German. He smiled and told us in beautiful English that it was to our left and that we only had about a 30 minutes more. Both my friend and I were captivated by how incredibly attractive this man was. Not in an objectifying, model-type way, but in an endearing, humble, reserved kind of way. It was like he didn’t know he was beautiful, which was all the more striking. He had a huge smile, bright green eyes, light blonde hair, was tall and was around our age. It was clear he didn’t get many visitors, and as we walked away we wished we had talked to him for longer. My friend and I made a personal commitment to bring gifts along with us everywhere we go now, so that when we ask for directions we can properly say thanks. I thought about that man a lot for the rest of the hike. At first, in a funny way, telling my friend how maybe all boys just seem more attractive to me since 95% of my program is girls. Then, we started talking about how simple his way of life must have been. And how odd it must have been to see two Americans furiously snapping pictures and traipsing across an area he has always called home. I’m so grateful I met him because I realized that a smile, genuine humility, and eagerness to help are three qualities that can bring anyone together, regardless of language, nationality or expertise.
When we finally arrived at the lake, we sat on a nearby bench to eat our lunch and enjoy the view. About three bites into my sandwich a couple asked us if they could sit on our bench, too. We got to talking to them and it turns out they are from Michigan and are spending an entire month in Switzerland. The husband is retired and this specific spot by the lake is their favorite place in the whole world. They proceeded to give us tons of recommendations of other places to visit in Switzerland, and truly could not have been nicer.
We had already met so many kind and interesting people, but the day wasn’t even half over. We walked closer to the lake to snap a few more pictures, and a man kindly asked us if we could take a picture of his group, which included him, another couple and their baby. We took the picture and then he volunteered to take ours. The woman with the baby immediately starting chatting with us. “Oh, you should definitely get him to take your picture. He’s a professional photographer.” She then went on to ask us if we go to Duke, since we were wearing an embarrassing amount of Duke apparel, to which she asked us hundreds more questions. She wanted to know what we were studying, how we liked it, whether it’s as hard as everyone says, if it’s truly an amazing place, how long we’re in Switzerland. After a pretty lengthy back and forth, I made an off-handed comment that I hoped the impending rain just wouldn’t come today. She immediately pulled out her phone, checked the hour-by-hour forecast, then advised us how to spend the rest of our day so we didn’t get caught in the storm. I was amazed at how she so selflessly wanted to get to know us and help us however she could. I realized how infrequently I genuinely stop to get to know the person whom I ask to take a picture for me. And how many people I’ve truly missed out on getting to know! I’m so thankful she asked me so many questions and that I got to hear all about her life, the German photographer, her trip and her interests.
We left the lake in search of the cable car to take us down the mountain so we didn’t have to hike five hours down, too. When we arrived at the station, we headed to the ticket counter and were greeted jubilantly by an older man. “Hello hello hello! Do you want to go down the mountain?” He started joking with us about prices and telling us he learned his English from tourists, asking us where we were from and how our accents made it obvious that we were from the South. I was so impressed by this relaxed man who casually knew English and so much about American culture, even though he worked around the clock at the top of a remote mountain. After our quick little exchange, we hopped on the cable car. Before it carried us out of the station, the man came running to our car. He shoved two figurines through the window, telling us it was a gift. We were stunned. I clutched my little bear in my fist and it’s now sitting on my desk as I write this.
When we got back to Interlaken, my friend started asking me a series of questions. She’s great with creative conversations to really get to know someone. She asked me what three bands I would want to see live, and I quickly answered Maroon 5. All of a sudden, the couple walking in front of us turned around and exclaimed, “We just saw Maroon 5 live last week! They are amazing!!”
We then proceeded to have a ten-minute conversation with this couple from Louisiana about live concerts and the best parts of Switzerland to visit. I am OBSESSED with Maroon 5 and it was so cool to meet a couple who were so passionate about talking about the band with complete strangers. In the middle of Switzerland.
The next morning, on our train to another popular hiking destination, we met a man from Colorado. He overheard us speaking English, and asked us where we were from. We ended up talking to him about his family until we reached our stop. His daughter was in the Peace Corps for three years, was fluent in Spanish, and had traveled the world. So, basically, she’s done everything I want to do! We had the best time hearing about her experiences and just chatting.
This weekend, I hiked two amazing trails. I saw some of the most iconic views in Switzerland. I paraglided. I ate delicious Australian food and Italian food. I visited Interlaken, Grindelwald, and Wengen. And I got some cool pictures. But when I reflect on all of it, those experiences aren’t what stand out. What stand out are the conversations I had with Nick, with the German man, with the professional photographer, with the couples from Michigan and Louisiana, with the guy from the cable car station, with the guy on the train from Colorado. I remember their generosity, their selflessness, their genuine interest in my life even though they had no reason to be interested. I remember their smiles, their ability to relax and enjoy the beauty of their surroundings, their friendliness and openness.
How come when I’m on the bus from East Campus at Duke to West Campus at Duke that I never talk to the person sitting next to me? How come I hurriedly ask someone to take my picture and don’t bother to ask them how they’re doing? How come I rush from task to task and don’t stop to enjoy the scenery? How come I think I know best? These conversations made me rethink the ways in which I go about my daily life.
This was a successful weekend not because I checked some towns off my bucket list or because I collected some nice pictures for a photo album, but because I learned that small moments are what people remember. I remember those people for the wonderful impressions they left in just the small interacts I had with them. What impression did I leave? What impression have I been leaving in my small moments in the past? I am challenged to reevaluate the ways in which I engage with others, the ways in which I so easily focus on my own goals and my own little bubble. How easily I forget that memorable, fun experiences are all about the wonderful people, and that wonderful people exist because they choose to be present, generous, and selfless in the small moments