Water, snow, sun, and sky: 8 people who define my memory abroad
The following people I met only once and will never meet again, but they helped me along, taught me lessons about generosity and about language — and define my memory all the same.
1) To the blue-eyed man on the Rue de la République in Avignon in 2005: I saw you begging for change every day in front of the Shoppi while I bought bread, and you were the first person that I ever dared give my spare coins to. (I have never met a homeless person before.) I didn’t even have to speak to you in halting French, for our eyes met, and you looked so grateful in a way beyond language. Thank you.
2) To Romina who robbed me in Strasbourg in 2007: Because of the blue-eyed man, I thought that trying to help you on a cold winter’s morning while I ate roasted chestnuts would have helped me understand something noble about me and love and poverty, but instead, you humbled me and made me grow up a little. I still wonder about you and hope you’re all right.
3) To French tourists in Avignon in 2005: A group of friends and I were standing among the cafés on Place Pi in the darkness of early evening when you approached and asked me in French where to find a particular street. You have no idea how much it flattered me that I could be mistaken for someone who knew, but the fact was, that I did know, and I directed you to where you needed to go. In the time of my life when I felt furthest from home, you showed me that I was already there.
4) To the newspaper boy in south London in 2007: I know I asked you for directions three times in the growing dusk, and I’m sorry I kept trying to imitate your accent — and then kept trying to stop myself from imitating it — in a way that made me sound neither American nor French but German, as you properly pointed out. I was pretty stressed at the time. I hope you realize I really did have a bus to catch and was not intentionally blowing you off when you suggested we grab a drink. Anyone who was willing to help someone so flustered would have been awesome to know.
5) To the couple in the campground near les Chemin des Dames in 2010: Lynn Palermo and I had been hiking all day under the July sun on a road without trees, and I was slumped up against a shade tree next to your campsite with the summer heat press against my throat and cheeks like a fever, and at this moment you emerged from your trailer with two cups of ice and a full liter of water to share. I do not even know your name. This was the most singular event of kindness that I think I have ever received.
6) To the elderly shopkeeper in Greystones, Ireland, in 2007: When I walked up to you on the edge of the town to the sound of crashing waves by the sea and asked you if it was a far walk to Bray, you chuckled and said, “Nooo, tisn’t, as long as ‘ou gott two strong legs.” I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me, but I have been absolutely charmed — and I mean charmed — by your accent ever since.
7) To the Swiss farmer outside of Grindelwald in 2008: You leaned on your pitchfork inside a warm barn while snow flew across the Alps outside, and you listened to me as I translated my father’s questions about dairy farming into haphazard German. When I spoke the words for “I see one cow, two cows, three cows…” and then gestured toward your herd, your eyes lit up and you said, “Ahhh, ich habe fünfzehn Kühe,” and I understood you. We somehow talked in German for an hour during which I managed to grasp that you had a neighbor farmer with our ancestors’ last name, and that you took your cows into the mountains in the summer and let them roam free because of their bells. Your patience — despite the fact my father and I had simply parked the car in a blizzard and walked into your barn — still stuns me.
8) To the man in the sea near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, in 2010: I was swimming at dusk with friends in a little alcove near the bay, and you bobbed up behind me and said, “Welcome,” in a voice as deep as the sea. I learned for the first time what it was like to be known as a foreigner by the color of my skin, but when you welcomed me in, you were smiling, and that made all the difference.