The Kindness Of Strangers

Gareth Smith

© Copyright 2002 by Gareth Smith

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

“That dark path near the Odra river, Wroclaw, would make the perfect spot to photograph the Cathedral of St John the Baptist on the opposite bank” thought the foolish traveler to himself.

Three bright young muggers also thought the same thing, and within seconds had the idiot traveler on the ground. First to go was the daypack with camera, travel notes, chewing gum, travelers checks et al. The location of the wallet, however, did not yield as easily, and only after a colorful tour of the Polish language, did the mugger with the clumsy fingers find the pocket zipper, to find the wallet, that held the money, the fellow wanted.

Away the merry trio skipped, delighted with their haul. Away I slouched, distraught at my loss. All of my valuables, apart from my passport, were in the daypack.

The local police, although enthusiastic and friendly, were far more interested in the novelty of chatting to exotic foreigners than the serious business of crime detection. Disappointingly, no helicopters, searchlights or sniffer dogs were called upon to help the hapless foreigner. A cursory check of the crime scene yielded nothing, and after a police report was filed for administrative purposes, I was returned to my hostel and they returned to their world, now equipped with an anecdote about a stupid tourist who got hoodwinked.

Now I was truly in the "borscht." No money, or indeed no access to money, and no friends living just around the corner to lend cash, transport or moral support. Neither dreams nor nightmares could be entertained that night, for it was the night of the sweaty feet and the itchy bed. What to do next? Always, what to do next?

Peace was found the following morning in the shower, where through the soap and shampoo, the obvious made itself, well, obvious. All that needed to be done was to find someone with the power of transport.

This excellent person turned out to be the fine lady who worked at the Orbis Travel Agency, formerly the Russian state run travel apparatus which served the then occupied Poles. With a plaintive story, the police report and a passport in hand , the lady graciously and trustingly provided an express one-way ticket to Krakow, the nearest town with my prize, an American Express Agent.

Wonderful! Things were finally looking up, the sun was shining, birds were singing, and there were fireworks exploding overhead. The ticket had been arranged at 11 am and the train was leaving at noon. As the train journey lasted only four hours, there would be time enough to bolt into the town square, find the American Express agent and have the checks replaced. Bluebirds circling overhead sang joyously of the eternal goodwill of man and penguins playfully lead the way to the platform where the train would soon arrive.

Twelve-twenty. No Train. Twelve Forty. Still no sign. Instead, an urgent announcement on the platform speakers begged the indulgence of the passengers and assured us that the train would be arriving imminently. We would all be well compensated for the inconvenience by being fêted with lobster tails and Martinis en route. Perhaps that was not quite what was said, but you could tell by the genuine remorse in the voice that this was exactly what she meant.

At ten past one the train cruised into the station. The bluebirds were now thoroughly black and circling rather menacingly. Alligators gnashed at my heals. Would the train driver press the Big Red Button on the dashboard and rail us there at warp speed? For a time it seemed as though he did, as we whizzed by fast enough to lose the Ravens that had been looking to eat me.

Smoking must certainly rank above drinking as the Polish National Sport, something practiced with a dedication never approached in the West. Some passengers took two or three short puffs, removed their cigarettes briefly from their mouths, and then took another couple of puffs to repeat the scene again. These be the sprinters. Others held their cigarettes languidly, almost absently, and then transcribing an arc of blue smoke through the air, elegantly raised the cigarette to their lips, held it there, whilst rotating the hand from above to beneath the cigarette, before inhaling deeply, then exhaling slowly. The classic style of the long distance runner.

Upon entering the carriage, I noticed that my seat was in a cabin with three other such athletes and furthermore that it was buried under luggage. As I intended surviving the journey, I chose instead to sit on seats placed to the right of the cabin. One of the athletes had noticed that I did not take my seat in the cabin, and, looking me over, reckoned that I was a foreigner and came out to meet me.

Her name escapes me now, but she introduced herself as the curator of the Jagiellonian Museum in Krakow. This was a part of the institution that guided the astronomical studies of Nicholas Copernicus and was home to some extraordinary artifacts, including an ancient Moorish astrolabe, dating from the 10th century. Wealthy she was, no question there. On each finger a goldmine, and most basketball players would envy the chains around her neck. To round the image of the eccentric dame, she wore a pair of sunglasses of the type worn by Christina Onassis.

She plunged right into the conversation with “I am here to be your host.” She produced a slim Vendome cigarette and lit it with the single click of a Bic electronic lighter. The sign of an Ultra-Marathon athlete.

Conversation volleyed between food (“American food is so primitive,”) and family matters. She told of her sons, one was studying to become a Doctor and the other an established chef. To further what was rapidly becoming a very interesting conversation, I ventured to ask if she had tried a delicious soup called "flazcki" and what was in it please?

“Sheep’s…” and here she fumbled for words.



“Er, stomach?”

“Yes! A soup made from sheep’s stomach”

Problem solved. Primitive food is made from ground beef, "Haute Cuisine" contains tripe.

Now, not to betray total ignorance of Polish Culture and Literature, I mentioned that I had read “Solaris” by Science Fiction author Stanis?aw Lem.

A fantastic mistake on my part. She visibly swallowed and blew triangular smoke rings in disdain. “No, you don’t say ‘STANI-SSLAW,’ you must ‘STAN-ISS-VAFF.’ Now try again.”

And so, to the amusement of the entire carriage we conducted our Polish lesson until she was satisfied that at least this tourist would never again massacre the name of this most esteemed writer.

Wrapped in conversation, our elegant lady nearly missed her stop, muttered a goodbye and disappeared amongst the crowd.

Now, the blackbirds which had been left behind by the speeding train loomed ever nearer. Yes, it was four o’clock and still many miles remained. The distant specks grew larger and larger, the train seemed incapable of losing them. At a quarter past five the train glided into the station. Maybe, if I sprinted flat out, I would still catch them closing the office. I ran all the way, yet alas, the shop was well and truly shut up.

The prospect of spending the night in a sewer was not appealing and any hope of staying in a pub needed at least a couple of dimes to look like a serious drinker. The hostel that I had stayed in a few weeks earlier seemed like a good idea, and they were willing to let me pay at the end of my stay. So, for the moment I was out of the sewer.

First thing the next morning just as the autumn sun was rising, I stood outside the American Express office, now accompanied by buzzing black flies. No fictional flies these, but real ones attracted by the ripe fruit and cheese odors I imparted.

In the square great preparations were afoot; chairs were being laid in neat rows, banners hung on the tower and a podium being erected. None of the stores, or banks seemed to be opening, including the local Amex branch. You see, It was November 1st, All Saints Day, a Polish national holiday...

At least it was not raining.

Twenty-four hours later the flies and I stood outside the same office looking and smelling like Conan the barbarian. The American Express man who had seen it all before, expertly handled the claim and gave the idiot tourist his replacement checks and then offered cash to boot.

So, for every thug, villain and dictator in the world, and for every act of cruelty, malice and hate perpetrated by them, these will never diminish the fact that you will still find kindness, trust and love; they are neither obscure nor selfishly withheld. This, and the fact that even a nitwit and a fool can find them is certainly reason for hope. Don’t you think?

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