Some people describe their ordinary days as “boring” or not worthy of “being a story.” While I don’t think my days are boring, I grow accustomed to my daily routines and am often blind to the lives of people around me. Last week I was in Chile, enjoying an ordinary day in the life of downtown Concepción. I was there for an engineering education meeting and had wisely allowed myself a day to recuperate from a long flight before the start of the meeting.
It was colder than I expected (55° F.), and the day felt especially cold because it was cloudy. People were definitely dressed for fall, and shops everywhere were displaying coats and boots. Many street vendors sold scarves and woolen hats. I had been to this downtown twice before, staying at the same local hotel, but I had forgotten how many people live, work, shop, and play in the downtown area. There were people of all ages; only school-aged children were noticeably absent during the day. They joined the others in the late afternoon, when street performers entertained on every corner. That I know of, it was not a holiday, just an ordinary day.
What was remarkable to me – and not so “ordinary” – was the way people spent the time with each other. It seemed as though every bench in the park had a least one man polishing shoes. One string of benches had four shoe-shiners! It wasn’t the shining of shoes that was remarkable, but the engagement of the men (I didn’t see any women engaged in this activity) in deep conversation. I believe they were solving the problems of their families, of Chile, and indeed, of the world!
I saw this same camaraderie at a coffee shop in one of the indoor shopping malls. At my church, we serve coffee and a light breakfast after daily Mass. We sometimes joke about the fact that the women sit at one table and the men at a different table. When I asked one of the women about this, she said, “Oh, we can speak about different and more interesting things with other women, than we can with our husbands!” Not so different here in Chile, I guess. These men and women may not have come to the café together, but their conversations reminded me of our church coffee group. An ordinary activity, but worth observing and photographing while traveling beyond my own daily routines.
Returning to Latin America after more than a year reminded me of how important it is to look at our ordinary days once in a while from a different perspective. Because I am somewhat familiar with life in Chile and can understand enough Spanish to get by, I don’t fall into the trap of comparing life in other cultures with that of my own view of reality. I try to resist thinking, “This is so different from home,” and rather just enjoy what I am seeing and hearing and feeling in new situations. Once home again, I try to look at my ordinary days from the perspective of someone visiting from another country. What would I observe, photograph, or tell about in a story or letter?
Q. How would you describe your own life? Do you see ordinary days as boring, interesting, safe, or exciting?
Q. What would someone from another culture find interesting, amusing, or worth describing in a letter to friends at home?
A post-script. I was so busy writing this blog that I missed lunch – or at least the traditional lunch hour in Chile. When I stopped at the cafe near my hotel, I could get only coffee and dessert! I justified this splurge in that the cake was layered with bananas and peaches. And, on ordinary days, there is fruit in my diet.