101 Days, 101 Strangers, 101 Stories: Day 22

As I mentioned in my post on Day 4, I was fortunate to exchange contact information with a bunch of really interesting strangers after giving them my elevator pitch a couple of weeks ago at the Creative Mornings event. I told them that I would love to meet with each of them over what was then the next 97 days, over coffee or tea, on me.

Today, I met up with one of these lovely strangers. His name is Stepan and when he approached me at the event earlier this month, I remember him saying he’d love to meet but only if he paid for coffee. I still struggle to fathom just how kind strangers can be! It’s amazing.

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Anyways, funny story: Stepan moved to Vancouver just four months ago from Prague. His verbal English skills are superb, however, there are still a few words here and there that confuse him a little bit. At the event a couple of weeks ago, when I said I was meeting with “strangers”, he thought I had meant “foreigners.” So today, when we met for coffee, he was asking me why I was meeting with foreigners and eventually we shared a good laugh once we realized what had happened.

Stepan’s story is fascinating. He grew up in the Czech Republic under the communist regime. His parents were outstandingly skilled and educated — his father an engineer, his mother a doctor — and yet his family was among the most poor in the country. The educated professions his parents practiced were not valued under the regime and could not be solely depended upon to make a living.

Stepan’s father, thinking proactively, spent time learning how to operate computers. During the days, despite his professional background, Stepan’s father would make money to support his family by collecting and cleaning garbage from trash cans in office spaces. In the evenings, he would continue to educate himself about computer operations. This gave him the skills and resources to lift his family out of the rough times. Fortunately, things finally changed in Prague.

Stepan graduated from a small high school in Montana, USA. The town he lived in is called Turner, and it had only twenty permanent residents. Yes, only twenty. The school itself had one hundred students ranging from kindergarten to twelfth grade. At first he thought Turner would be boring. “How am I going to live here for a whole year?”, he wondered. But it ended up being a nice, closely-knit community where he could try things he wouldn’t have been able to experience had he attended a larger school.

For example, he played on the school’s basketball team despite being an awful basketball player. His school team never won a game and almost never scored any baskets. At one point, when he was 16 years old and 6’4″, he was playing against relatively tiny 11 year olds and they still managed to weave in between he and his teammates. His team would be frustrated but he found the experience fun. Losing doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Sometimes you need to honestly recognize your limits and make the best of your reality”, he said.

Stepan completed his masters degree in applied mathematics when he was living in Brussels. He was pursuing his PhD in the field but then realized that it wasn’t a space in which he could make the best impact he is capable of making. Now he works in business, and has held leadership roles with different corporations while being constantly intrigued by the idea of start-ups.

Although Stepan has lived in many different cities, he said that Vancouver is by far his favourite place to live. He talked about the ways in which he disagrees with the common belief that North Americans have no culture. “There is a lot of culture here”, he said. “It’s just different culture — sports culture, active culture.” When he first came here, he wondered why there weren’t as many theatres, operas, and art galleries. At the same time, people wondered why he wasn’t adept at sports despite his tall physique.

In his free time, he loves sailing and spending time with his wife whom he loves “beyond comprehension.” He asked me to meet her and to have dinner with them sometime. I’m really excited to meet with them soon. And I think I have an idea of who a future stranger of the day will be!

Stepan gave what I thought was some really wise advice. He said that it’s important to remember that the most important person to help is yourself. Take care of yourself, listen to your needs and what calls you. By treating yourself well you will be in a much better position to help others. It starts with you. And, further, he said not to seek happiness in comparing yourself with others. “There are certain things that cannot be measured — things that shouldn’t even be attempted to be measured”, he said. “For example, there is no purpose in even trying to compare the quality of my relationship with my wife to the quality of someone else’s relationship with their partner — it’s not something that can be measured or quantified and we shouldn’t try.” These comparisons, he offered, are a waste of time and a source of unhappiness.


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