Create a Friendly Foreign Land

FulghumRobert Fulghum (most famous as author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) wrote hilariously about his introduction more than 25 years ago to the Greek island of Crete.

He had arrived in the remote village the night before, and arose early for his morning run. Because the day was already hot, he dressed only in his black running shorts and his shoes. Even in those days his hair and beard were white. As he ran past the coffehouse in the village, the men seemed surly and hostile.

When he asked his landlord why that might be, he said that Cretans are always welcoming to strangers, but they didn’t know what to make of Mr. Fulghum. “For one thing, your hair and beard make you look like a priest, but they have never seen a half-naked priest running through the village in what looks like his underwear at that hour of the morning.”

The landlord told him to smile, wave, and say “Good morning,” and all would be well. Unfortunately, the Greek word for “Good morning” is “Kalimera,” which has a remarkable similarity to the word “calamari,” meaning “squid.” Furthermore, the Cretan wave requires the palm to face in, backside out. To the Cretan, the normal, hearty American wave is the equivalent of saying, “Up yours!”  The landlord failed to mention this.

Day two. Mr. Fulgum runs past the coffeehouse shouting, “Calamari, Calamari, Calimari,”coffeehouse

with an enthusiastic open-handed wave. He wrote: “The Cretans heard, ‘Squid, Squid, Squid’ and saw ‘Up yours!’ From the priest in his underpants.”

The men in the coffeehouse fell out of their chairs laughing, as they yelled “Calamari” and gave an American wave back. And by the third day, of course, they had invited all their friends, including women and children, to join them for this odd, early morning event.

In his retelling, the story takes another turn which could have led to bad feelings all around, but Mr. Fulghum knew that the laughter he had heard was genuine, and that it connected them. On the fourth morning, a chair was provided, and he joined the men in the coffeehouse.  Friendships that have now lasted 25+ years began then.

When they try to describe what it is like for people with advanced dementia, experts often say, “It’s like waking every morning in a foreign country where you don’t know the language, or the customs, or what is expected of you.” But they forget to add that strangers in a strange land can be made to feel at home. That laughter and affection don’t necessarily need a common language. That a foreign land can be a friendly place. That’s the more important lesson.

The story described above appears in Robert Fulghum’s book, What on Earth Have I Done? You can learn more and/or purchase it through Amazon here. The chapter I quoted from is called “Asbestos Gelos” which translates from Greek as “fireproof laughter,” the kind that laughs in spite of one’s troubles.

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