After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration — and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Let me begin by saying that if you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, you must. Grab a hot cuppa and a cozy blanket, and cuddle up in your favorite recliner. It won’t be long before you’ll feel like Count Rostov is a grandfather figure to you, and you’ll be overcome by a desire to give him a big ol’ hug. He’s not real, but you’ll love him like he is! Thank you, Towles, for creating this character. He is a gem.
This quote is just one of Rostov’s many reflections about humans and how to be one. I particularly resonated with his idea here because when I moved to Quito, Ecuador last August from the states, not knowing much about the country and the culture, first impressions abounded!
The longer I live here, the more I learn about the city and the humans in it. I don’t boast to be anywhere close to understanding them. I agree with Rostov when he muses that we must “withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” But as I ponder those words, I’m starting to realize that getting to a point when we no longer have to withhold an opinion is . . . impossible.
And maybe that’s the point. Look carefully at what he says: humans “deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration.” So it’s not that we should go around reserving all subjective feelings towards others, eyes glazed over, arms raised in front of us at a crooked bent, left leg dragging and leaving a meandering line in the dust. It’s that we acknowledge that opinions can and should be fluid. Humans aren’t robots. They are complex and ever-changing. It only makes sense to be open to changing opinions about them. It’s the least we can do.
I don’t live life feeling compelled to wander about zombie-like, but — I’ll be honest — I do feel compelled to judge others. Why? I don’t know. Probably my own insecurities and impatience with idiocy. Whatever the reason, it is not good.
I am working on it.
One thing that has helped me is moving to a new country. And I suggest you do the same. Because when you have to start all over at square one, and everything is a first impression, and you are constantly in a position of humility because of the language barrier, and you never know where public restrooms might be, you start realizing that withholding opinions is a very, very good thing. Having opinions about all the beings on top of learning all the things? Too much.
That said, move to Quito.
And join me in engaging with beings in every possible setting at every possible hour.*
*Disclaimer: I choose to interpret this statement metaphorically. Literally hanging with humans that much? Yikes. I’d get grumpy. Although I have to give a shout-out to some of my former students-now-friends: that all-nighter in the Performing Arts Center was epic. I loved it. Playing AND WINNING the game What Do You Meme against some of my AP Lit students is a memory for the
books blog. Did I mention I won? But more than that, hanging with my students, staying awake ALL night, playing piano at 3 a.m., and being a total weirdo because of lack of sleep combined to create one of my favorite memories. Because at 3 a.m., no one cares too much about how much of a weirdo you are. And we’re ALL weirdos. So perhaps there is a bit of a literal bent to be taken from the statement.
And as I engage with Quito and its beings, I am learning so many things. They deserve my consideration (and reconsideration), so I’ve compiled a list to go down in the annals of (my personal blog) history.
List of Things About Quito That I Might Upon First Glance Feel Compelled to Cast Judgment Upon but That I Won’t Because I’m Trying to Be a Good Human and Take Count Rostov’s Advice to Heart:
- Quito is a treasure hunt: You want different types of whole wheat flours for your breads? Find a teeny tiny specialty store hidden in a random neighborhood where otherwise you wouldn’t think to shop. This is where being in a neighborhood chat group comes in very handy.
- Fly in your house? Open a window. There are so few flies, bugs, insects in this climate that instead of closing your windows to prevent them from coming in, you open them to let a wayward one out. Oh, and there are no screens on windows here!
- There is no air conditioning or heating in your house. A little warm? Open a window. Feeling a little cold? Stand in the sun for one minute. Or grab a blanket and head to the couch with a cuppa and a book.
- Coffee served at restaurants is instant. As you read in my last post, I definitely formed a (negative) opinion about this. Whoops. But — UPDATE — I now have decaf instant coffee in my home. Occasionally in the evening, I’ll heat up some milk and add coffee and máchica, instant toasted barley.
- Good luck finding public bathrooms. And if you do, it probably costs 10-20 cents to use it.
- Speaking of bathrooms, there is no toilet paper in the stalls. Get some from a dispenser before you head in. And if you’re goin’ in for some serious stanky business, everybody gonna know.
- Drinking fountains are not a thing. Bring your own water.
- If the sun’s out, you’ll get sun burned.
- Lunch is not a “choose your own adventure” like in the States. It is a set menu, different each day, with a couple of options for the protein. Expect a soup, a protein (chicken, pork, or fish normally), rice, some sort of salad, a small dessert, and a fresh-squeezed juice — all for about $3.
- The sewage system is such that there are drains in the bathroom and kitchen. Occasionally these will emit an unpleasant odor. Simply pour a little water in. It acts as a barrier and prevents the smell from emanating forth into your kitchen as you cook dinner.
I’m sure this list will grow, but I like the number ten. So we’ll leave it at that. I am doing my best to get to know Quito as I would a human being. And to that extent, I can say that I have experienced Quito at every possible hour since I live here. And sleep here. And what not.
But, similar to humans, Quito is a treasure hunt. It is a complex city, full of surprise hole-in-the-wall grain stores (just press pause on that humans-are-also-a-treasure-hunt analogy). Tomorrow, I plan on adventuring out with my bike to ride the Ciclopaseo Quito, a bike path that goes through the entire city.
So while first impressions might not be conducive to truly getting to know people or cities, I’ve got to say that the first impressions I’ve made of Quito so far have been pretty darn good. Well, the toilet paper thing is a little annoying. BUT I RESERVE JUDGMENT.
Here’s the thing. Our impressions and opinions can get us stuck. Especially if we can’t manage to reconsider our opinions. So what is one to do?
Move to Quito. I won’t judge you. I promise. *Sips instant coffee-barley-milk.*