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A multilingual encounter

In a recent trip to Wellington for work, I had a few hours to kill between meetings and I headed to the capital's beautiful waterfront for a stroll. I was in a pensive mood and I did not hear at first the comment of the passing cyclist who had complimented me on my rather eye-catching embroidered ethnic coat. I reluctantly started talking with him, about this and that, and I ended up conversing in many languages. Peter (let's call him that) is apparently a fixture on Wellington's seafront, talking to visitors and tourists, using them as a source for his foreign languages vocabulary. This has resulted in an impressive vocabulary from over 30 languages. It was fun comparing words from my 6-7 languages repertoire with his 30. But it was not Peter's impressive linguistic repertoire that made this encounter special. It was more the content of our conversation that was special and his genuine tip offer at the end of it. In between comparing how 'thank you' and 'goodbye' translate in different languages, we talked about inequality and marginalization, capitalism, injustice and those having less than others...implicitly so.

Peter came to New Zealand as a little child with his Dutch migrant parents on a 5 weeks boat journey in the 50s. I told him I had done an oral history project with those Dutch migrants a few years back with a colleague, perhaps his parents were in that group, I mused... Life is strange, but I run an online magazine on serendipitous encounter (, so this encounter by Wellington's seafront was not surprising to me... It was this man's intelligence, natural inquisitiveness, friendliness, desire to connect meaningfully with his fellow humans, ease of communication, but above all dignity, and generosity of spirit that touched me. For when he bid me goodbye he shared with me the only piece of information that he thought had value, a genuine tip offering for free food at Wellington's Free food store (

Here was a middle class, well to do academic in her fancy ethnic coat, a testament to her worldliness, invited to free food by this man who I had by now figured out was most likely homeless. "Don't forget to come at 4pm, before everyone arrives and the best food is taken", he said to me as he waved goodbye on his bike...

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