30×30: Lesson 26: The goodness of strangers

I was robbed on a crisp December morning in Strasbourg, France, after I had bought hot roasted chestnuts on the Place de la Cathédrale and decided that I needed to change my world.

Growing up, I had unconsciously divided all people into those who were “safe” (extended family, church friends, my ballet teacher) and those who were not (people who drank beer, stayed out late, and swore). This division did not affect my actions, for I knew better than to condemn people openly; instead, this manner of thinking crowded the corners of my mind and divided concepts into hard-lined truths and lies. Such lines made life more clean-cut, less troubling. It allowed me to refuse to deeply listen to those who were not like me.

That day in Strasbourg, I had resolved to cross that mental line and buy lunch for a homeless woman named Romina, for she, too, was alone and frightened in France. We left the square together. Then my purse disappeared. Then Romina vanished. Snow fell. For a long time after that, I looked the other way when the homeless extended their hands. But strangely, my faith in humanity was only beginning.

*

I’m well aware that I am writing this post from a certain amount of privilege related to time, place, financial status, and race. I do not have a history of personal trauma due to others’ verbal or physical abuse. When I approach strangers for directions when traveling, I do not (usually) have a face that provokes suspicion, fear, or hatred. When I am stranded in airports or cities in Europe, I always have a savings account that I can draw from, a safe hotel room that I can buy, a warm meal that can bring me comfort.

But I’m writing still because, despite this, seeing the humanity in the difference of others had to be learned before it was felt.

I was humbled by it when I stood teary-eyed in the Greyhound parking lot in Harrisburg, PA, two minutes too late for my bus, and another driver, already at the wheel of a second bus, jerked his thumb toward his empty seats. “Climb on in,” he said. “I’m headed that way, too.”

I was inspired by it with Xavier, the director of the local opera in Nantes, France, who stood on an enormous stage in front of the Opéra Graslin to direct a singalong of 2,000 people for France’s National Music Day. When I ran up to him in the crowds afterwards to thank him for his work, he said, “You can’t leave the city without seeing the opéra perform” and gave me his personal comp ticket for the next show.

And then there’s the family of the Chesnie farm who picked me up at the bus station near Vay, France, and allowed me to work with them and their cows for a day, without us ever having met before.

And then there was that baker in Basel, Switzerland, in 2005, who gave me and four friends an armful of day-old bread when we had no money left to spend and pushed us out the door before we could attempt to pay.

I strongly believe that, in this world, there is horror, but there is also peace. I have been loved by strangers without reason and aided by them without compensation. And beyond the differences I once saw in people there are also similarities — homes, fears, joys, expressions, dreams — that frame our daily lives.

Is it too optimistic to think that I can be the change that I want to see in the world?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. lxp19 says:

    Yikes – I hit the ball out of the park on your “not safe” list. Kidding aside, people’s kindness maintains my faith in humankind. We could add to that a young couple who took pity on a soggy couple of backpackers lost in the maze of hiking paths on the edge of a wood, a friendly bus driver who drove off his route to deposit us right at the start of our route, an eccentric expat who drove us to the next city and waited with us at the cafe to make sure our couch-surfing host seemed okay (if she only knew the wild evening we’d have! Talk about beer drinking!) — and of course, those couch-surfing hosts, including the parents of host in absentia. And there were others. One of the main reasons I want to take students to France is so they, too, can experience the kindness of strangers — and then become more sensitive to the phenomenon in their own midst. And become kind strangers themselves.

  2. paindecampagne says:

    Lynn, thanks for adding examples — I didn’t have enough room for them all. Now that I continue thinking about this, so many of my examples of strangers’ kindness (such as that couple that gave us water with sirop de menthe in that campground near the Chemin des Dames) most often come from my time abroad. Not that Americans are less kind, but when you’re home, you have so many less opportunities to be out of your safe zone and truly need the kindness of strangers. One great thing about this blog series is realizing HOW MUCH that going abroad has changed the way I see things. I’ve always emphasized study abroad so much to people that I’ve forgotten why — here’s why.

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