Sunday, November 27, 2011

Kindness to Strangers

This is not the woman in the airport, of course, but a flower seller in Paris who looked something like her.

She sat in a seat near the gate; an archetype of the immigrant woman in her dark blue skirt, blouse, coat, heavy shoes, and blue scarf tied on her head. I sat near her as we waited to board the plane to Germany  and pulled my book out of my carry-on bag.

I'd barely opened it when she tapped me on the shoulder and held a piece of paper out to me. It was tucked into a protective plastic sleeve and on it was typed:

I do not speak English. Could I please borrow your phone to call my daughter in the United States. (616)###-####.
(I don't know the actual number.)

She held this in front of me and waited. Inside, I cringed. Why me? What was it about me that projected the word 'sucker', 'gullible', or 'mark'? Was this some type of scam? Was there some ulterior motive? Was she going to use my phone to charge thousands of dollars somehow? Her typed paper and plastic sleeve seemed too rehearsed, like the "mutes" who come up to people in tourist areas in Paris and San Francisco, with cards telling us they're mute and asking for donations.

I wanted to ignore her and pretend that I couldn't help. I wanted her to give up on me and go away. But there was something about her and her request seemed so simple. I decided to take a chance and hoped that I wasn't about to learn a costly lesson. So, I pulled out my phone and dialed the number on the paper. I heard the line ring on the other end and handed the woman the phone. She began talking rapidly in Russian while I sat near her and opened my book. It seemed legitimate after all.

Then suddenly, she handed the phone to me.

"Hello?" I said dubiously.

"Hello! Thank you for letting my mother use your phone! She doesn't speak any English and is trying to get home. Bless you. Can you find out where her bags are? She doesn't know where her bags are."


"Bless you. God will surely reward you."

At this point, the woman was holding a baggage claim sticker in her hand and thrusting it toward me. I looked at it and saw that it was marked with an airport code.

"She has her baggage claim ticket," I said to the daughter on the phone.

"But she doesn't know where her bags are. Please, can you find out?"

"I'll see what I can do," I said reluctantly, kicking myself for getting involved. I felt that I was somehow responsible for this woman now when all I'd wanted to do was be nice and let her use my phone and sit back and read my book until we boarded the flight. Instead, I found myself going to the ticket counter and explaining the situation to the ticket agent there. He listened to my tale and then walked over to the woman.

"She doesn't speak English," I told him. So he looked at her claim ticket and then asked for her boarding pass. She stared at him blankly and didn't respond. He looked around at the other passengers and asked whether anyone spoke Russian. One man did, so he came over and translated. He told her the ticket agent wanted to see her boarding pass and she answered in a fast, anxious flood of words.

"She says the boarding passes are in her luggage and that someone took them from her before her flight here. She says they gave her this ticket." (The baggage claim form.)

Dawning passed across the face of the ticket agent. He knew exactly what was going on. Knowing that the woman didn't speak English, the agents at the place where her flight originated had sent her carry-on bag ahead for the other agents to handle. He had her boarding passes at the gate and went to retrieve them. I called her daughter back and let her know that everything had been taken care of and that the agents had her bags.

"Bless you, bless you," she told me. I handed the phone to her mother so that they could say their goodbyes before we headed off to Europe. She smiled at me and grasped my hand in hers. I was suddenly so grateful that I hadn't let cynicism and skepticism keep me from helping this woman. It would have been so easy to have walked away, or feigned ignorance, or to have pretended not to understand that she was asking me for help. My initial reaction had been to shake my head and pretend I didn't have a phone. I didn't want to get involved. But afterward, I was so glad I had. I have relied on the kindness of strangers many times in my travels and it was finally my turn to reciprocate. I set out on my journey a little less jaded. I wish I could have thanked her for that.


  1. Wow, what a great story, Juliann. And what is it about you? It's that you project that you have such a good heart. That's nothing to be ashamed of or upset about. Yes, it can lead to trouble occasionally... but I'd rather be too nice and get taken advantage of a few times than be too hard and never spread kindness into this world. :)

  2. Well, how very sweet, Kristan. Thanks! I am glad I seem honest and trustworthy. I'm even more happy when the people who approach me are, too.

  3. Hasn't your mother ever told you, "Don't talk to strangers!!!" "Don't count your money in front of people while sitting in an unlocked car!" Honestly, this could have been a disaster and I am thankful that it ended well, but please! Never again!!!!!!!