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?