Europe | Switzerland – The Kindness of Strangers
I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ a Lonely Planet compilation of travel stories. Generally, the stories involve men seeking adventure in places where they shouldn’t be, doing things they shouldn’t do, just to be bailed out by some kind stranger whose daily life is more dangerous than the traveller’s worst day on the road. As I read this book yesterday on the train here to Switzerland, I realized that though I have received so much kindness from strangers on this journey, it has come mostly in the form of hospitality. I thought to myself, ‘Nothing bad has happened on this trip.’ Even as the thought passed through the gates, I felt as if the worst had been invited.
When I arrived at the train station in Martigny, I recognized Beatrice, another 5W woman waiting to take me to her home for a few nights, by the smile on her face. I had never seen her before nor did I need to in order to know her immediately. Potential friendship was in her smile. She approached me knowingly — the only girl with a big rucksack in this small town — and we kissed on each cheek for a total of three kisses, an upgrade from the Spanish two to which I was acustomed. Beatrice wisked me away from the station to her Mercedes Benz and hurriedly drove me to the few points of interest in Martigny including some Roman ruins. The sun was about to set and I sensed that Beatrice felt I must get an impression of Martigny and the Rhone Valley before dusk. She drove quickly, chattered even more switfly, and asked questions I had hardly the answers….
After the brief sightseeing, we went off to the grocery store to pick up salad makings for dinner. Though I understood that I could eat dinner at her house without paying, I needed to at least make a monetary gesture. Instead of taking my whole bag, I removed just my wallet and shoved it into my coat pocket. It didn’t fit well into my pocket; a corner stuck out in an awkward way. Upon entering the supermarket, I needed to use the restroom. While I was in front of the mirror, I realized how awkwardly the wallet seemed to hang from my pocket, so I adjusted it by moving it to the other pocket, though it fit just the same there. Then I exited the restroom to find Beatrice waiting for me patiently.
I must have walked 25 feet or so, in the direction of Beatrice when I realized I did not have my wallet anymore. But there was no one around. It wasn’t crowded. As we’d already begun descending the moving walkway, I ran back up the walkway and frantically searched for my wallet, assuming, of course that it had merely fallen from my pocket. Beatrice followed me, but didn’t seem to understand what I was up to and I was too frantic to make myself clear. Retracing my steps, I saw no wallet. I looked in the nearby trash cans, guessing that if someone had pick-pocketed me they wouldn’t really want the wallet itself, just the stuff inside. My search was fruitless.
My initial response to run and find my wallet was quickly tempered. The wallet was gone. My panic would not bring it back. Plus, I’d been travelling with wits. Though I’d taken out 160 Euros from a Venetian bankomat just the day before, I’d spent some and put only the small bills in my wallet. I double-checked the money belt still strapped to my midriff because I’d just come from the train station. Sure enough, a whole 100 Euros, my passport, and my credit card were all still there, nice and warm from my body heat. When I thought about it, the only thing to gain from stealing my wallet was about 35 Euros (about $38). What else was in my wallet? My driver’s license, which was a pain to lose but certainly replaceable. My library card, a few extinct phone cards, a hostelling membership card that wasn’t yet paid in full, some scraps of paper with email addresses of newfound friends (they’d just have to write me first!), and my ATM/Check card. Even the disappearance of the check card was not such a tragedy I realized. It had my picture on it and whomever had it in their possession was not likely to run through the permutations of possible pin numbers in order to drain my bank account. No, I was quite certain that losing my wallet was no crisis at all. It would require me to use my credit card for cash advances, but that was just something to accept.
So, we continued on with the shopping and though I could not offer to help pay for the food I would eat that night, I felt the panic dissipate. Amazingly, I was quite calm, thoughts of the kindness of strangers suddenly engulfing me. I was quite certain, actually, that I would see the wallet again. I offered up my worries to the universe, asking not for the return of my wallet or money, but asking for simple peace of mind. I was offered that gift quickly.
Beatrice suggested we go by the police station before going home for dinner. This struck me as an odd idea. I’d never been to the police station in my own hometown (did I even know where it was located?), but I imagined that they had many more important things to attend to than stolen wallets. I expected the Swiss Police to laugh in our faces until I remembered that I’d once accompanied an ex-boyfriend to the police station in a Spanish town to report his stolen skateboard. Here in the States, the police probably would have advised him not to skateboard at all, but the Spanish police, to the contrary, listened to his story and wrote up a very long and detailed report. The board was never located, of course, but it was the gift of someone’s time and patience that I remember most. The police station in Martigny was a calm place. We ran the bell and the officer came to the glass window. Beatrice explained to him that I’d lost my wallet and he immediately picked up a square black thing, flung it on the counter, and said, “Voila!”
There before my eyes was my lost wallet! I snatched it up, jumped for joy, and hugged Beatrice as if I’d known her always. Tres bien! It wasn’t until we were safely in the car that I opened up the wallet to see what was missing because with it in my hands, I knew that kindness had touched me. I had that much blind faith. As I had guessed: all the money was gone, but the bank card, ID, and momentos remained. I was dumbfounded at how quickly the entire episode took place, all within a half an hour. The wallet beat me to the station!
That night, as we drove home to the small village of Saxon I would call my home for the next few days, I looked out at the softly glowing lights of the Rhone Valley and thought to myself that 35 Euros was a mighty small price to pay to experience the kindness of strangers this Thanksgiving Day.