I’ve had the opportunity to cover four summer Olympics during my career as a writer. I went to Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. I witnessed amazing things, met many wonderful people, had unforgettable experiences.
Of course, I have favorite stories from each place. Like the time several of us found a restaurant in Barcelona that was far off the beaten path, and our helpful server tried to bridge the language difference by describing their specialty – squid with tentacles attached – as “fish with feet.” Or the wonderful afternoon spent sipping a glass of wine at Sydney harbor. Or that incredible feeling of touching history when you touch the stone on a Greek temple. Or the way the marathon runners whooshed past me and made me realize how they run so far, so fast.
Great stuff. But maybe my favorite memory from all of those Olympics involves doing the laundry.
Yes, the laundry.
Most Olympic games feature secured villages for athletes and the media. There are sleeping quarters – sometimes small apartment buildings, sometimes dorm-like structures, other times rented trailers – and areas for eating and shopping. Also, a place to do your laundry.
You get to take your two luggage items along, and you have to leave plenty of space for souvenirs on the return trip. Basically, you have enough clothes for a week and a half. At some point during your three-week stay, you toss all of your dirty clothes in a bag and head for the laundromat in the media village.
Members of the media spend long days covering the games, so it’s not uncommon to see the laundry facility full at midnight when the work day is finally done. No matter which country you’re visiting, it’s all the same process. You buy your little box of detergent, toss your clothes in a washing machine, then sit down and strike up conversation with someone while everything gets suds.
It’s not uncommon to hear a half-dozen different languages being spoken in the laundromat. People from all over the world – different cultures, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds – load a washer with their dirty underwear, fill the coin slots, pour in the detergent and pass the time socializing.
English is such a common language that it was easy to strike up a conversation with anybody, which is great — I enjoy getting to meet people from different cultures. We’d ask each other how their day went and share our cross-cultural horror stories – how the laptop locked up in the middle of writing a story, how an editor slashed at our beautiful prose (yes, that writer-and-editor thing is universal), how it was so hot at the various venues and there was no time for lunch because things were so busy.
And we’d get around to the personal stuff, too. Back before social media, people would carry photos of their families with them. We’d show each other our pictures, point to our kids and tell their names and ages. We’d talk about the last time we got to see them, what they were doing, what grade they were entering. How they were taking their first steps or getting ready to graduate.
Always, there would be a smile. Often, a tear as well. In those moments, you were no longer strangers at all. You were sharing tears and feelings.
Those moments in the laundromats reminded me of how we’re all alike. We may look a bit different or speak a different language or eat different foods, but inside we all want the same things: To love and be loved, to have a safe and peaceful world for our families, to get along with one another.
And clean underwear. We all want clean underwear.
It’s good to remind ourselves of this underlying truth of our human family. We hear so many fearful voices in our world nowadays saying we can’t trust those who are different from us. They insist that we can’t let people from other countries get close to us because we don’t know who they are. Instead, they want to build walls and patrol borders and practice exclusion.
I have a better idea. Let’s pack up our dirty clothes and all meet at the nearest laundromat. Let’s load our clothes in the washer, empty the little boxes of detergent, and then sit down and share pictures of our families while our underwear goes around-and-around in the sudsy water.
And for a few minutes, we can tell our stories and realize they’re not really all that different, when you come right down to it. They all bring a smile. And a few tears, too.