It was supposed to be a quick errand — go in and buy some fruit, cheese, burger ingredients, and a couple other groceries we had run out of at home. During peak shopping hours, usually between 5-7 p.m. when everyone is rushing back home from their jobs, this particular grocery store doles out a lot of free samples throughout the produce section.
You stop, try a couple of samples of white peaches or Gouda cheese, and pretend to ponder the idea of buying some before moving on. That was my exact intention recently when trying the Aronia Berries being handed out by an older white man near the unconventional fruit section.
But I was immediately struck with an odd sense of familiarity, and when I read the pamphlet next to the sample cups it came back to me. The Aronia Berry is native to North America, but is commonly grown in Poland. Three years ago, I spent the summer in the southeastern part of Poland on a farm in a small rural village called Szczuczin (I would attempt to spell it out phonetically, but it really isn’t much help), and my babcia, or host grandmother, would pick apples and berries every day from the garden and make kompote to go with every meal. Aronia Berries were always present.
I mentioned in passing to the older man working at the grocery store that they reminded me of my summer in Poland, and we started having a small conversation. He asked me if I had ever considered the Peace Corps, to which I only told him that I had thought of it, but wasn’t sure if I would be doing it any time soon because of work and trying to get into graduate school.
I almost left it at that and carried on with my grocery shopping, but I asked him if he had participated in the Peace Corps. He told me he had gone to Togo through the Peace Corps back in the ‘70s after he finished his undergrad. He also lived in Nigeria, Morocco, and other countries, totaling 25 years abroad, and went to graduate school to study international business and foreign affairs.
It wasn’t long before the older man and I had an in-depth discussion on social capital, determinants of health and poverty, and the difference between being poor in an urban area versus a rural area. We also talked about the difference between poor in a small community you call home and being poor in a large, unfamiliar city. He talked about the racism he saw in Northern Africa and the leftover racial hierarchies left behind by colonial structures.
After a while, I realized that this complete stranger and I had been talking for at least 20 minutes. From what started as what was supposed to be a 30-second interaction — please, thank you, and have a good evening — to a real discussion on American culture, poverty, and life.
My conversation made me realize how cross-generational conversations like this so rarely happen … and cross-generational conversations among races and cultures are even more uncommon. We all have seen the standard story of a young child talking to an elder and learning about history or life lessons, but how often does that happen in real life?
This is not meant to turn into a self-praising monologue, because all I did was have a conversation. But think about all of the stories and connections we miss out on in life when we are too distracted or afraid to start a conversation. Not too long ago there was an article that went around with obscure words and their definitions, and one of the words that really struck me was the word sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Sonder sends an important message. It strives to remind us that we all are going through hardships, some relatively more difficult to overcome than others, and we all have pasts, memories, dreams, and futures. I humbly ask: How many conversations do you have with people who you assume are unlike yourself? What kind of world would this be if we took the time to understand each other more?
The rest of my time spent grocery shopping was not as eventful, and I went back home. Not much later, my dad returned home from work and he had also gone grocery shopping, something he loves to do.
When unpacking the bags, he told me about this fruit he was excited to try that he saw at the store.