I was nearly tempted to pick up the phone on Saturday and call in. Rick Steves and his radio-show guest Don George were discussing the kindness of strangers, the subject of a book George had edited. At the mere mention of the theme—influenced, in part, by the travel-show context—I immediately thought of her. A tiny wisp of a woman, in the train car with us at about hour 35 of a rather epic journey that began in Rome and was leading us to Istanbul.
Some day I’m going to write an essay about that train trip. It was summer of the year 1985. Six of us from the University of Puget Sound had just wrapped up the inaugural year of the school’s study abroad program in Dijon, France. Joanne and I stayed on to travel the summer before heading back for our senior year. She’d spent her senior year of high school in Istanbul and the family’s daughter was to be married that summer. It was an opportunity not to be missed since we were, generally speaking, in the neighborhood. Hindsight? Maybe we should have flown. But that train ride proved to be the most fascinating travel experience of my life, archived in many pages of that summers’ journals. I wouldn’t trade the uncertainties and challenges of the trip for anything. Because there was also music, laughter, adventure. And the kindness of strangers.
It was a long trip, even at first when we thought it was about 40 hours—including the train trip from Rome to Brindisi, an overnight boat trip from there to Patross, train to Athens, another train there to the Greek/Turkish border, yet another train then on into Istanbul. I’ll never forget that moment in the compartment at the end of the car, where the map was. We found the spot on the map showing the Greek town we’d just left. Noted relative distances of how far we’d traveled, how far we had to go. Checked our watches. Did some quick calculations in our heads (a real-life math story problem!). And soon realized we were not going to be arriving when we thought. Ends up there was an extra 24-hour period we failed to notice on the original train scheduled.
Lord a-mighty. We weren’t prepared for a 64 hour trip! Honestly, we were barely prepared for a 40 hour trip. Every last Italian lira was snatched up for an unexpected train supplement, levied onboard. We didn’t get more than a few drachmas in Athens because we weren’t staying in the country, just passing through on the train. Starving, we made a trip to the café car. Our funds afforded us just two very pitiful cheese sandwiches: dry white squares of bread with nothing but nondescript yellow cheese between them.
Tired, frustrated, hungry, we returned to our train compartment—the type with banquette seats, so you’re face to face with fellow travelers. While we gnawed on our sandwiches, the grandmotherly voyager motioned to us. She had a basket packed for her lunch, which included a tin of keftedes, small seasoned balls of ground meat. Handing us each a few, nodding her head insistently, we were wide-eyed with gratitude and surprise at the gesture of her sharing her lunch with us.
I wish we could have done more to thank her than mouth our feeble English words. But her wide smile showed how well she understood.
It’s a kindness I shall always remember. One I wish came to mind more often, though, encouraging me to recognize opportunities in my days when I could pass that kindness along.