The Kindness of Strangers (and other stories)

by cindy


The date has become the name and the mere mention of it brings back a torrent of memories. As the ten-year anniversary approaches, I join multitudes in writing about experiences on that day and the days that followed.

My husband and I were vacationing in the south of France and we became stranded there for several days.  Yes, I know that sounds like one delightful place to be stranded. And it was. Except all we wanted was to get back home. We wanted to be where we could touch our children and our friends and know for certain that those we loved were all right.

That was not to be, at least not for a while, so we did whatever we could to make each day count. Fortunately, we were on a tour sponsored by the Smithsonian and were well cared for. Our remarkable young tour leader did every thing she could to remain in contact with both the Smithsonian and this motley group of Americans she was in charge of. We knew that eventually we would get home. We just didn’t know when. And we didn’t know what to expect when we did return. The uncertainty was nearly unbearable.

We hungered for news. The only available English language channel was BBC but the reception was iffy and we had to be satisfied with whatever images we could find accompanied by whatever language was offered. Whether on the BBC or French news, we saw over and over again the video of people falling from the towers of the World Trade Center. I was later told that those images had been quickly blocked here in the States. Not so in France.

As upsetting as it was, we needed something more to help us comprehend what had happened. I felt I had to find some way to fill that need. Suddenly I remembered the days of high school French classes and a magazine my teacher had subscribed to, Paris Match. I remembered it being a magazine similar to our old Life magazine, filled with photographs. Not knowing if it was even in print, I gathered my francs one morning and headed to the Tabac, the nearest newstand.

There on the shelves with all the other magazines, I found the one I was seeking. It was in print and it was filled with images from the tragedy in New York. I can remember holding the magazine, staring down at the cover, my body starting to shake. The photographs throughout the magazine confirmed the reality. It wasn’t some bad B movie. It was real.

Now, at that point in our trip, I had become fairly confident using the currency. I knew I had plenty of change in my pocket and I joined a short line of men who were buying cigarettes before heading to work. As I waited, I continued to stare at the cover.

Suddenly, it was my turn to pay. I froze. The sounds rushing in my head made it impossible to hear. My heart was beating so fast it had to have been visible. I couldn’t hear the man behind the counter but I could tell he was losing patience. I knew what he must want—I had to pay! But how? How much? I can’t hear you! I can’t think!

I was overwhelmed with panic. I have never, before or since, felt so alone, so vulnerable.

Somehow, I reached into my pocket for the coins I had brought. I gathered them in my hand and held it out to him, silently offering my money. His mouth kept moving but my ears were just not hearing. Then, without warning, I saw a hand come from behind and deftly pick out the appropriate coins. The hand passed the coins to the clerk and returned to my still-outstretched palm, carefully folding my fingers safely over the remaining money. I felt his hands on my shoulders as he gently turned me around and moved me toward the door.

In my confusion, I realized the line had grown very long. Those waiting had been getting impatient. Yet I believe that in some way they understood where I was from and why I was numb. As I slowly walked past, the anger left their faces. Through my tears, I could see their concern; their eyes offered their sympathy. If home is where people care, then, for the first time in days, I was home.

* * * * *

In spite of their reputation, we found the French people to be quite friendly. We had no problem at any time. We would try to stumble through their language and mostly amused them with our butchered French. They were patient, however, and seemed to appreciate the effort.

After 9-11, however, these people went above and beyond with their expressions of sympathy. It was no secret that we were American. Our dress and our mannerisms announced that fact before we ever uttered a word, french or otherwise. After the 9-11 attacks, every waiter, every shop keeper, every person we encountered from that point on, expressed their sympathies in whatever manner they could. My memory is filled with waiters who, to a man, would cross their hands and tap their chests against their hearts, saying simply, “so sorry. So Sorry.” Even the hotel where we stayed expressed sympathy by presenting each of the tour members a set of  Limoge “Splendid Hotel” salt and pepper shakers and a lovely note, albeit with bit of a language glitch.

The note read:

“Dear Madame and Monsieur,

These last days have been very difficult and I am sure you cannot help thinking you should be on a plane back to America now.

Despite this difficult and tragic circumstances you have shown dignity and good spirits.

I hope you shall enjoy your “forced” stay with us and we shall do everything we can to make your stay as unpleasant as possible.”


Regardless of the translation error, they made our stay extremely pleasant.

The world stood with us. We were, for a time, one.

* * * * *

Friday, September 21, 2011. We’re going home.

In the days since 9-11, we completed our tour and managed to make the most of our circumstances. The extra days were spent revisiting some of the museums we loved and revisiting more than one shop that I hadn’t managed yet to empty. We bought some things that had to be shipped. Other things, like wine for the boys, we decided to bring home ourselves. We had not learned about the change in policies that airlines had initiated. That lesson would come in the wee hours of the morning, at the airport in Nice.

I had packed carefully. The bottles of wine—packed “for shipping” by the shop keeper—were in two thin cardboard boxes, three bottles per box. No problem, we decided. They would fit perfectly in our carry-on suitcase, with the camera case securely fitting in the remaining space. SO perfect! The two most important items: camera and wine. Together. With us.

Except that the rules, as I mentioned, had changed. In those very early hours, I was told that ALL suitcases went below in cargo. But! BUT! I stuttered. LOOK! WINE! The answer was simple, at least according to the ticketing agent who gave me two “FRAGILE” stickers to put on the suitcase. Great. Like that’s going to help. I frantically re-shifted things. The camera case went with us. The wine went with additional items of dirty clothing which I scrambled to pull from other suitcases. I had no pride. The articles of clothing ranged from Dave’s underwear and stained t-shirts to my old-lady-ish unmentionables. Lovely.

We made it work. We had no choice. Everyone on our tour got a great giggle out of this and spent much time on the eventual flight home predicting how many bottles of wine had already shattered. We were too damn happy to be heading home to really care.

* * * * *

In the meantime, we flew from Nice to Paris where we waited for connecting flights back to the States. I had brought two or three paperback books over with me on this trip and after finishing them during the tour, I passed them off to other interested tour members. Deciding that I would need something to read on the long flight over the Atlantic, I headed downstairs to that part in DeGaulle Airport where the shops were located.

Now this is the part of the story where you might begin to wonder where my head is. To be honest, I wasn’t playing with a full deck. Maybe I never am, but by this time, I was surely more than a few cards short of the deck. I entered the bookstore. And I remember standing there feeling mystified. In my mind I was already home. But “home” had books that I could read. ALL THESE BOOKS WERE IN FRENCH! What?

Then I saw it: the FOREIGN LANGUAGE department.

Ah. Ha. Indeed. There they were. A small selection of books printed in English. I have been forever amused that while in France I purchased a book printed in English but originally written in Spanish. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. How multi-cultural. And an amazing read, just so you know.

* * * * *


When we finally arrived in New York’s JFK Airport, we—what remained of the tour group—stood exhaustedly in line to enter customs. In the distance, we watched the carousel spill out the suitcases from our flight. Tossing and tumbling down and around, all those suitcases, boxes, and bags began to slowly spin as their owners were unceremoniously processed by the customs agents. Then we spotted it. One suitcase was wrapped in plastic, taped all over in an apparent attempt to contain its contents. Our fellow tour members joined Dave and me in hearty (and badly needed) laughter. Well, we all assumed, THAT’S WHAT BECAME OF THE WINE!

Except it wasn’t. Our six poorly packaged wine bottles arrived intact. Small miracles, I suppose.

We were just glad to be home.