If there is a truth universally acknowledged is that spending a period abroad is something that may change your perception of life, something that broadens your horizons and that makes you develop some new skills, like choosing the right laundry program or asking for directions to get home when you are lost and nobody around speaks English.
Conscious of that, I was eager to experience life abroad when I applied for an EVS project and so, after hundreds of attempts, I have been finally picked in a project in Romania, where I spent seven of my happiest months in my entire life. In my long-term voluntary project I worked and lived with my other seven colleagues coming from five different countries and, even if we've never met before, it took no long for them to become my worldwide family.
It was in this context that I first met my Bulgarian colleague, Vladimir.
Abroad we are all more willing to make new acquaintances, incredibly we are more sociable, we sharpen our communication abilities and we all establish some bonds that may last even forever after we part. It is the same for everyone and I was no less enthusiastic than the others, but this outgoing state of mind didn't fit the same on Vladimir. Let's say that, among all the qualities of that boy, the social skills were not his point of strength. As a matter of facts Vladimir was not the easiest person to deal with: he's never made mystery of the fact that he didn't like to be among the noisy international companies of Erasmus students, actually he didn't like foreigners at all, all he wanted was to meet the locals only (which basically is a nice periphrasis to say that he didn't like us). He didn't drive any entertainment in having a drink with new people, just chilling and chatting (to tell the truth he deeply blamed us for our despicable habits of drinking a couple of beers in the evening and smoking cigarettes), he didn't like to share things or emotions with us and hardly bore the fact that from time to time we were trying to involve him in our meetings. So, after all, was Vladimir a misanthrope? No. Vladi was my Little Prince, well, a part for the fact that he was not a prince and, with his 1,89 meters of height, he cannot have been considered little either. But at the first sight he looked like someone who fell from an asteroid and was experiencing life, as we know it, for the first time. Extremely shy and reserved, he had no clues of how to interact with peers, from how to enter into a discussion to the unwritten rules of living together.
He never looks in your eyer while talking but he looks up instead making some nervous gestures with the hands next to his face, he didn't like to be touched, he doesn't speak his mind easily and it seems that he lives his life following a kind of list of rules as if he read an “how to behave” handbook but without internalizing it.
Little by little we stopped to pay attention to his weird behaviours (even if they were always funny) according to his moods. For examples, we were usually gathering in the kitchen and, when he wanted to join us, he used to enter in the room and just stand still in the middle of it until someone asked him if he wanted to take a seat and, in that case, with a sudden and agitated movement of someone who's received an electric shock, he used to sat on a chair, without saying a word, if not asked. But the hardest challenge for him was when he wanted to avoid us and he had to pass through the kitchen in order to go out. In that case he was preparing himself in his room and, once he was ready, he was launching himself in a run to get, in the fastest time, to the entrance door and close it behind his back as if he was followed by a pack of hounds. We've never figured out why we deserved to be treated in one way or the other, but little by little we begun to get to know him.
Vladimir is someone who one has to learn how to get along with, with patience and perseverance, sometimes closing an eye (and some others even two eyes) on his attitude that sometimes can be rude. After a while we understood that he is the product of a childhood of incomprehension and bullying for his being different, without any strong friendship bound and in a bad family situation, his only reference point was his grandmother, who raised him with some not really updated ethic precepts, belonging more to the first decades of the last century.
I saw in his behaviour the one of a beaten dog who finally knows a friend hand, so, putting the right questions, trusting him and showing that you can be trustful as well and finding a way to get close to him, it wasn't hard to see a special person.
He is an amazing polyglot who speaks fluently almost eight languages, so my channel of connection with him was my will to learn Romanian: when I was studying it I was always asking for his support and he was helping me with the spoken language and, through the fact that I was thankful to him and I appreciated him, we start to build our friendship.
A tender, delicate friendship but yet surprising as an alpine herb that flourishes among the rocks.
From that moment on we tried to get to know each other brick by brick, in a common and spontaneous discovery of our strengths and accepting reciprocally our flaws and weaknesses. we started to have our own jokes, for example his favourite Italian expression was “che schifo!” (that in English sounds like “how disgusting!”) and he started to call me dearly “schifa” and me to call him “schifo”, he was asking sometimes some advices for his life and how was I feeling. I discovered that, like the Little Prince, he knew only a little of what words like “friendship”, “help”, “relationship”, “collaboration” meant and I was giving him my view of things and he, with his logically built mind, he was discussing them with me, offering every time new points of view and food for thoughts.
There are two things that stroke a chord in me about Vladimir: his eyes and his laughter.
If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then you wouldn't know what to think at all about Vladimir's.
His eyes, hidden behind a pair of old-fashioned glasses were a bit pensive and listless, as if the reality surrounding him was just a background groan and they were set at the end of the horizon, on a spot very far away in space and time. Actually he was paying a lot of attention of what was happening around, collecting carefully and saving in his mind every single detail of what he was watching at, and being able, even after months, to tell precisely what were you wearing on that specific day or how many kids took part in that excursion.
Vladimir didn't use to laugh that much, but when there was something that he considered funny, with a movement of someone who's been subbed in his back, he used to turn his head up and open his mouth wide without making any sound for some seconds, and then, all in a sudden, he was bursting into laughter in a way that seemed that all the repressed laughters tried to come out at once. Slightly creepy I have to admit, but, once you get it, it became uncommonly contagious. I remember one night when we were supposed to watch the shooting stars along with our company and then all in a sudden he started to laugh so hard for nothing and we kept for more than half an hour under the disconcerted gaze of our friends!
If there is something I hadn't been able to change in Vladimir it is his look. We can say that Vladimir was not at all a fashion victim: he was so funny-looking, that you could have spotted him in the very middle of a crowd immediately. He was really fond of his cap (like a Pokemon trainer) and he was hardly going out without it on the head, moreover, indifferent to the fashion advices of not only one, but six girls at once, he used to wear anyway a pair of three-quarter length trousers, a little bit too wide on the hips, so that he had to crimp them with a belt at the waist in a really droll way. Among the several things that Vladimir didn't like, I can list also “to iron his shirts”, as he used to wear, between the cap and the trousers, a long sleeves shirt, worn all crumpled as it came out from the laundry machine. In the end, after all, I can admit that only him was able to wear all the outfit with such a grace and artistry.
What I feel that was changing was his ability to get along with people: I felt I made him feel more relaxed among our Erasmus friends and in the end he was even joining our parties and, in lack of chairs, we were even sharing the same one!
Despite all the social improvements, the things for him and for the whole group didn't go so well in the end and, close to the end of the project, due to some heavy fights and quarrels, he decided to leave sooner, but what I bear in mind of him is his dedication and honesty while working, even if it was a voluntary work, his reliability when you asked him something and the speed with which he was doing something for you when you asked him a favour.
After all Vladimir was a person that was challenging himself really much, I can say that he's definitely the definition of “going out of the comfort zone”. With his being a warrior, with his strength of breaking the cage of his mind of facing life, he inspired me a lot, and I will always think of him as a winner in life.