On the Kindness of Strangers

Statler and WaldorfA couple of months back I suffered through what I have lamentably come to think of as a ‘typical’ Hungarian day. In short, I had encountered surly service personnel, walls of inflexible and inscrutable regulation, congenitally uncooperative bureaucrats holding court in their petty fiefdoms of paperwork – all the throbbing headaches of a post-communist hangover in the world’s capital of suicidal cynicism.

The very next day I had to have my car inspected, and I expected the worst. Armed with a two year-old boy primped for maximum cuteness (having a young child in tow goes a long way around these parts toward softening hardened hearts), I entered an office of faded chrome-and-plastic chairs and jaded pushers of paper. Almost immediately the endeavor hit a technical glitch, compounded by the babble of mutually incomprehensible languages. It seemed that I had to call my wife, but of course I had forgotten my phone. And then it began to happen.

The man behind me offered, unsolicited, the use of his phone. Then a man in the next line, who I later learned was named Zoltan, simply took me under his wing. He translated for me. He guided me from one office to the next and back again. He showed me what line to pull my car into. He was friendly, helpful, kind.

When I had to sit in my car and respond to a series of commands I could not understand, another man, who was also having his car inspected, took my place and ran through the procedure for me. When it was done he gave me a smile and went back to his own vehicle. Then Zoltan returned and escorted me through the ludicrously inefficient payment process, until we were both done and stood outside in the sunlight with our freshly-approved and stickered cars.

It had been remarkable – people had gone out of their way, had inconvenienced themselves in order to help a stranger, and a foreign stranger to boot. I felt wonderful, my faith in Hungarians and humanity partially restored. And I began to wonder why it wasn’t always like this. Why encountering human kindness and selflessness was such a strange and striking event. Oh, I know, we’re all busy and we all have our paltry problems, shopping to do and places to get to and kids to collect and laundry piling up and dinner to make. But what if the helpfulness I’d just enjoyed was the rule rather than the exception?

We tend to remember extraordinary acts of kindness because they are so anomalous. Many years ago my wife and I stood outside of a freezing train station in Japan, wondering how we were going to get home when we had taken the wrong train and there were no more to take that dark January night. We asked several taxi drivers if they would drive us the hour and a half to the town where we lived, but they turned us away. Then one driver told us to wait – he had one more fare then he’d be back.

A few minutes later he returned in his cab, and to our confusion brought us to his own home. Then he explained that we had to change cars – he was going to take us in his own private car rather than in the taxi. And he did. He drove three hours round trip through icy mountain passes in order to get two lost foreigners back to where they were living. I offered to pay, at least for the cost of petrol, but he adamantly refused, shook our hands, and drove away. I never even got his name.

I’m writing this because we just returned from Slovakia, where we were the recipients of another act of astounding kindness. At an adorable traditional restaurant we fell into conversation with a rotund, amiable Dutchman who had settled long ago in Slovakia. My wife ran to the car for something, and returned bearing the decidedly unwelcome news that she had locked the keys inside it. So, we’re in a little village in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, with our keys visible but tantalizingly inaccessible on the shelf behind the back seat.

Our Dutch friend gets immediately on the phone, but things don’t look good. We seem to be stuck there indefinitely. An older couple sitting at the other end of the massive family-style table overhear our plight, and soon he’s on the phone, making calls to people who may be able to help. Within a few minutes he announces that a man is on his way who specializes in just this sort of thing.

Trying to extricate the keys

Trying to extricate the keys

Although he has long ago finished his meal and his young daughter is made to wait, our Dutch savior stays with us until the man arrives, inserts thick black balloons in the car door and inflates them to make a gap, threads a long wire in and deftly hooks the keys, pulling them out and into our hands. The Dutchman stayed to do any necessary translation and to make sure everything worked out all right.

Back in the restaurant we had gratefully offered to pay for the meals of both the Dutchman and his daughter and the older couple, but they had, just like the Japanese taxi driver, steadfastly refused. I can understand that. There’s something about receiving recompense for an act of kindness that diminishes it somehow. It’s often said that kindness is its own reward, and as cheesy as that is, it happens to be true.

Wandering around Budapest, which after ten years here I know pretty well, I frequently come across tourists with open maps and bewildered expressions. I always stop to help. Why? Because I know what it’s like to be lost in a foreign country. Because it will make their lives just a bit easier and their day a bit better. And because it makes me feel good. That’s the selfish aspect of extending a kindness. It makes the giver feel just as good as the recipient.

So to Zoltan, the Japanese taxi driver, the Dutchman and the Slovak, I just want to say thank you very, very much. I’ll do what I can to follow your lead, to pass on your goodness, your kindness, your assistance in time of need. As a father I’ll do my best to teach my kids charity and courtesy,  humanity and helpfulness, goodness and grace by my own example. Thank you for the reminder. Thank you for the help.

“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
– Ettiene De Grellet

Have you encountered an extraordinary – or even small – act of kindness? Please share your stories!

17 thoughts on “On the Kindness of Strangers

  1. My 8 year old daughter has showed extraordinary kindess to a stranger over the last few months. She took $40 from her piggy bank to help a stranger paralyzed in a drive by shooting on his 21st birthday. It would start a chain reaction of kindess that would lead to $10,000 help this young man pay for physical therapy. Read their story and watch them meet for the first time.
    http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2013/06/want-to-smile-mckinney-girl-raises-1200-for-shooting-victim-then-meets-him-for-the-first-time.html/

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    • That’s AWESOME! I watched the video and I must admit I got a bit misty-eyed. It’s so wonderful that your daughter took it upon herself to help this man – she’s obviously a great kid, and no doubt that has a great deal to do with you. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. Your first paragraph makes me think of the few years I’ve spent working in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova… Moldova especially, was very hard for me, and even more because I was a foreign and female executive there… I remember crying out of frustration when trying to fight the stubborn “uncooperative bureaucrats” as you put it so well. Or doing business in a very strong masculine and even machismo-like society. And the paperwork, oh the paperwork… And the stamps everywhere…

    Many things were very hard for me to understand at first, but in time, I learned to love the people there, and even consider eastern Europe as part of my identity. Romania in particular, has become one of my homes.

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    • We’ve definitely met a lot of great people in the region, and have learned to appreciate living here. Hungary is a tough place to love – I actually find Romania far more appealing, but it has its own issues as well. And the bureaucracy is just part of the communist hangover, so you learn to deal with that as well. There are wonderful, helpful people everywhere – in some places they’re just a little more difficult to find. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

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  3. Pingback: On the Kindness of Strangers | randomglobetrottingthoughts

  4. I always try to help tourists, too, including recommending places to eat (and avoid). I feel bad for those who only experience the Vaci utca vortex.

    I’ve been the recipient of a few random acts of kindness, mostly while traveling. The most recent was in Lisbon. I couldn’t get my metro ticket to work and I was trapped inside. It was rush hour, so had to step aside to let others pass or they would have pushed me aside. A woman grabbed my hand and pulled me through with her. I was stunned. And then I felt sad that something so small could be so shocking.

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been having a “Hungarian day” (more like an “exSoviet Bloc country” day) for a few days. I have a hard time leaving the house. LOL.

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  5. It’s so nice to see that there is still good in the world!! All we ever read about is war, murder, death, prison, you’ve focused however on what is also important! The kind people should be spoken up for more often in my eyes, they’re more important than anyone or anything negative! Thank you for brightening up the day … now for me to put the news on haha … Again!! Thank you!! Xx

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    • I’m really glad to hear that this brightened your day, at least for a little bit. There’s lots of good stuff and great work being done out there, we just have to tune out the constant media barrage to actually see and hear it. And thanks for the comment!

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      • You’re more than welcome sweetheart! I love reading about human kindness no matter how big or small the gesture!! The media need to be supporting the good in the world to show people that there are diamonds in amongst all the coal that they are feeding us. I’m a very active and verbal supporter of the good community groups, individual’s, who are making a difference in communities around the world, forever sharing tweets and blog’s, pages on facebook etc to try and get word out. With you it wasn’t just the fact that these incredible people helped you out, it’s the fact that you found it in your heart to give these strangers their credit and dues when they are entirely unknown to you … well apart from Zoltan lol! It completely show’s how good a person you are by doing so!! Xx

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    • Indeed it would, bebs1, indeed it would. Tell you what, let’s start with us. Let’s try to do at least one good thing for someone else each day. Big, small, whatever. Are you with me?

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    • In PARIS, no less. What are the chances? I’d have to say that my experience in the city of love was less than loving, but maybe I just didn’t give it a chance, or maybe I got unlucky. It’s always nice to hear about these positive experiences, though. Thanks for sharing!

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      • Apparently the Parisians like San Francisco. I was dressed in my typical German garb of the era (hoping to blend in where I was living at the time, in Germany)… jeans, leather jacket, black boots. Every French person I met immediately asked me if I was from San Francisco and wanted to chat. Guess I wasn’t hiding my American identity very well! But, in this case, it worked to my favor.

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