I take great pleasure in helping out people looking for directions or guidance, in so far as I am able. Here in London, exasperated tourists will approach me with varying degrees of English competency on the regular, looking for assistance in locating their destination; I am always delighted to point them in the right direction, when I can, drawing maps on a notepad or even walking them partway if I have nowhere important to be. Even though this is not my home country, this is just good hospitality, and I like to do my best to send folk on their way with a positive impression, just as I rely on fellow Londoners to help me out when I’m in an unfamiliar part of town. I am a big believer in asking for, and offering, directions.
So this is, as I said, just good hospitality, and ultimately good karma. It’s not a big city, but it is a busy and twisting one, and we all need a little help from time to time. I was recently thinking, however, about the people I call Travel Angels. These are the people you meet in the course of your journey who go far out of their way to assist you, and leave you with a warm feeling in the pit of your belly, the people who replenish your basic faith in humanity, however grand or small the gesture. These gestures are always poignant, but especially so in a foreign setting when you are wary of your vulnerability.
This is more than essential kindness, and more than giving directions. These acts require the Angel to take time away from themselves to see you safely to your destination, or extend their welcome to the point of invitation into their own lives. It’s the person who sees you on your own in an unfamiliar place and invites you to a Lebanese family supper, or offers to drive you 30 miles out of their way (both experiences from my own life). With that thought, I wanted to detail four instances of Travel Angels and invite you to share your own.
1) Senior year of college, I arrived in Munich for a European tour with my two best friends and their extended family members. Due to mid-terms, I was a day behind my travel buddies and faced with the slightly daunting task of securing my own way from Munich to Prague to meet up with the group. With the confidence of a 21-year-old, I refused to be intimidated. I was resourceful, and not above asking for help. Unfortunately, my strategy of making my own way was quickly squelched by the prepoderance of signs strictly in German and the confusion of ticket purchase. I approached numerous couples my parents’ age for help, none of whom spoke English.
After some frustration and mounting dread, a German girl my own age approached me. She not only navigated me through the machines to help me buy my subway ticket to the train station, but actually got off at the train station and went to the ticket booth with me to buy my pass to Prague – several stops before her own destination from the airport. That train station was my first exposure to European football fans; hundreds of men in brightly colored soccer jerseys, mostly drunk, were shouting and shoving their way about the terminal. I was frightened of them and the evident knife’s-edge they were walking between exuberance and violence. My guide sensed my fear and escorted me to my train, swearing in German at anyone who unreasonably blocked our path. She saw that I made it onto the correct train and waved me off, before continuing her journey homeward. That girl is actually my hero.
2) Drunk in Turkey with my boyfriend last year, we were three miles from our hotel and debating how to get home. A chubby guy on a motorbike pulled up next to me on the street. Somehow, we started talking, and he offered us a lift back to the hotel. While this isn’t as extreme an instance as my previous example, he obligingly allowed us to hop on and carefully chauffeured us home, chatting pleasantly all the way. He refused money and the offer of a drink once at the hotel, but invited us to a party the next evening.
Six months later in Malta, we were lost after walking in circles for a couple hours and stopped in a bar for directions. Because it was literally dangerous for pedestrians to cross the highway on the way back to our hotel, the girlfriend of the proprietor insisted on driving us back. She only took 5 Euros in thanks because I left it on the seat, against her protests.
3) This is an embarrassing one. At my office Christmas party in 2008, we ended up at the house of my COO, drinking and playing SingStar until the wee hours. By 5:00 am, I was ready to get home and fled without any particular plan in mind besides hailing a taxi back to central London. Stupid me found myself stuck in residential Wimbledon with nary a taxi in sight, over a mile from the nearest tube stop. Wearing a party dress, 5″ heels, and a wrap, I was a block of ice within minutes and realized I’d need to go back to my boss’s house to order a cab or die of exposure.
Unfortunately, I had no idea which house was his, as every semi-detached was absolutely identical. I banged on doors, I aggravated neighbors – it was horrific. Eventually, I woke up the inhabitants of one nearby house, who not only invited me in, but made me tea while they got dressed. I remind you, this was 6:00 am on a Saturday, and the woman of the house insisted on giving me a cuppa to warm up before driving me to the tube stop. They were relentlessly sweet and said I hadn’t bothered them at all, and promised to never tell my boss, who lives on the block, apparently. If I had any idea who these people were or where they lived, I would send them a massive bouquet for their kindness and lack of judgment towards a barely-clad, drunken, and panicked street urchin. God fucking bless. And I will never again leave a party, especially in winter, without a heated taxi with my name on it.
4) To bookend my tale of the German Travel Angel from my arrival in Munich, I was lucky enough to encounter another on my return trip. Our voyage through western Europe was excellent, but my best friend and I had a fight of epic proportions on our very last night. It was cinematic enough to involve running through the cobble-stoned streets of the Marienplatz, and an actual directive to “follow that cab!” (him chasing me when I ran off hellbent and in floods of tears). The nature of the fight itself isn’t important here, although we love to tell the story because it’s become such a fundamental part of our history. Regardless, I ended up at a cool piano bar some miles away, and met a German guy called Rolf. Rolf didn’t speak much (any) English, but could understand that I was hysterical, and took me home with him.
Now, this sounds scary, but Rolf is a professional jazz pianist, and he took me back to his flat to drink wine and play some music for me, until I eventually finished snarfling and fell asleep. I awoke the next day late and didn’t want to go back to my hotel to see my best friend. I did go back, but was an hour late and after collecting my bags, Rolf drove me to the airport at about 100 mph on the Autobahn. I still missed my flight. Snarfling again, he took me back to the hotel and deposited me in my room to reschedule my flights. I didn’t think I’d see him again, understandably, until he returned an hour later with McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, because he thought they would cheer me up. It was so hilarious and sweet, I had to laugh. Because I had an extra day, he drove me around Munich and gave me a tour of his university. He took me to a coffee shop and a club for atmosphere, to show me his world, all speaking minimal English. We had a good time, and he obligingly drove me to the airport the next day. We are still MySpace friends, and he’s a very successful jazz musician, which I can appreciate in any language. Mostly. I appreciate his unerring and unexpected kindness.
So these are just a few examples of Travel Angels, because I’ve been lucky enough to encounter a few. If you have any stories to relate , please share.
(Top image from Kimbacan.)