I’ve mentioned once or twice the life-changing trip I was lucky enough to make when I was sixteen, a student ambassadorship program called People-to-People. It was a mashed together group of about thirty of us Californian kids with another gaggle of maybe a dozen Texas teenagers, and all in all we traveled across six countries around Western Europe: England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. We were escorted by several chauffeurs who were part of the program, a couple tour guides, and our mainstay coach driver: Bjorn.
Bjorn was a big Austrian guy. Stout, dense with muscle beneath the padding, tall, and I’m sure his damn bones were heavier than a normal man’s. As a rambunctious sixteen-year-old, I knew a trophy when I saw one. So while going about our way in the U.K. (rhyme like that deserves a song, I think), I challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. His reply? A big, jovial smile and a bellowed, “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
Was that enough of a signal for me? Of course not. So for weeks, literal weeks, I pestered him. We saw the Louvre, the Palace at Versaille, the famous Dutch windmills and fields of tulips, Bonn, Germany, and so many other sights, and every step of the way I’m bugging Bjorn: “How about now, big guy?” “Aw, what? Scared of me? Weird, but probably good.” “Come on, I’ll make it quick. I promise.”
I carry on so much, so loudly and consistently, that over the course of the trip it becomes a point of interest for the rest of my travelmates. But every time, his answer is the same: “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
Finally, we’re at a hotel in Switzerland for our last night celebrating with a big old dinner and dance in fancy clothes. It was great! We had food, friends, music, some memories we’re already reminiscing over, and others being made that night to last a lifetime.
It was only missing one thing…
So I found Bjorn sitting by himself enjoying a book in the hotel’s rather sparse lobby. I approach, confident yet almost pleading, and ask again. “Bjorn. Man. It’s our last day. Can I finally crush you in an arm-wrestling match?” Around me is a small group of friends who’d heard I was going to pester him again. He looks from me, to the others, to his book. With a short sigh, he fits in the bookmark and sets it down, then with a big, beaming smile says, “Okay.”
You’d think he told us we’d won the lottery. We explode with excitement, and my buddy Peter runs off to grab a camera (phones didn’t have reliable cameras by default, back then – Christ that ages me some). We find a suitable table, a ring of spectators encircles us, Peter starts rolling the camera, Bjorn and I clasp hands and set our elbows, and with a nod show we’re ready. We get someone to referee, and they wave the flag (<ahem> napkin <ahem>) for us to start.
Immediately, I lean in full-bore. I’ve talked this up for weeks and poked the bear, I would not be made a fool of so easily now. So I throw my full weight and strength and strain into beating Bjorn. I will not let up, I will not give in, I will not allow myself to lose. And to my utter astonishment, I’m actually holding my own. Obviously I’m not demolishing him, but I’m actually being competitive. Our clasped hands are wavering at high noon, neither side able to gain ground, but also not losing it. This is amazing!
Then I see his face…
He…he was so calm, it was like he was holding the door open for a nice lady rather than arm-wrestling for life and honor.
So I ask him, my voice straining as I blink away the sweat, “Bjorn, are you even trying?”
His response? “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
At which point, he slams my hand back onto the table so quickly and with such absolute power he might as well have thrown me out the window.
If someone only tells you stories about times where they win, it’s an almost sure mark of insecurity and they’re almost certainly lying. With that understanding in place, let me tell you with utmost confidence that Bjorn kicked my ass that night. And you know what? It was awesome.