When I arrived back in the States after 20 months in Europe, I had no way of getting a hold of my dad to tell him my flight had arrived at the airport and I was through security. I hadn’t planned ahead so I didn’t have any American dollars to call from a phone booth. I decided to do what I had done many times with a language barrier but without hassle. I decided to borrow someone’s phone to call him.
I thought this would be easy. I’m female, I’m alone and I need help. Usually these three things work to my advantage and someone eagerly steps up to help me. Well, this was my first exercise in reverse culture shock.
I approached one lady with a polite ‘excuse me’ and I explained my situation. I just needed to make a quick call to tell my dad I was here and see where he wanted to meet me.
She was hesitant. She could see I had my bags with me, but she proceeded to tell me how she was afraid that by offering someone her phone, they would take it and run.
In her mind, I was guilty from the start and I had to assure her that I couldn’t pick up my bag that fast (much less run with it) and if I took her phone, she could take my bags because I would leave them behind. She seemed humoured, but still suspicious.
I half-jokingly offered that she could hold my hand, coat or hair while I called to be sure I didn’t run away.
Finally, she realized I was harmless and she offered me her phone. I made the quick call, hung up and she breathed a sigh of relief when she got her phone back. Seriously, do I look that dangerous?
After the call I realised I was still confused as to where we would meet (chalk it up to jet-lag and traveller’s exhaustion).
I spotted an older couple sitting down, obviously waiting for someone and not looking in a hurry to go anywhere. I thought they would be a good, friendly-looking couple to ask for help.
I gently approached them with another polite ‘excuse me’ and again, explained my situation: I had just arrived from Iceland to surprise my mother and I was being picked up by my dad, but I was confused where we were meeting.
They didn’t seem as skeptical as the first lady, but only slightly less so.
After promising it would be a quick local phone call and it wasn’t going to cost them an arm and a leg, they smiled, telling me that most people can’t be trusted, but I seemed like I was an honest girl and I reminded them of their granddaughter, so they would let me use their phone.
I made the quick call, thanked them and ran off to find my dad, but was left confused why they would assume the worst in everyone else, yet make an exception for me.
I am grateful to the people who helped me, but I must admit it was a strange entrance back to the States.
While travelling, I found most people trusting me without knowing me, sometimes without even understanding me because of a language barrier or without me asking for help. People went out of their way to help me and other travellers.
I will never forget the smiling eyes of an Egyptian woman as she helped me across my first crosswalk-free busy roundabout in the centre of crazy Cairo.
People were particularly generous when I arrived in Turkey by hitchhiking. I had no local currency and I didn’t even know exactly where I was in Istanbul. The same feeling came again a few months later when I hitchhiked out of Istanbul.
In Albania, I had a man who didn’t speak English walk with me 20 minutes to the bus station because it was easier than trying to give me directions through the confusing streets with the language barrier.
In Italy, a group of wine merchants began chatting to me and upon realizing I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, treated me to a lovely meal of rabbit perfectly paired with wine from the vineyard of the man sitting to my left.
Many times, I asked for help and while I did encounter the skeptical person here and there or someone who was too busy to help me, the situations were rare where I had to convince someone to trust me. And here, at my hometown airport, I had to convince people twice in about ten minutes that I was harmless.
I am not saying Europe is better than the States. Not at all.
I’ve been helped many times in the States.
Most memorably when I was driving through Texas and got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. A truck driver pulled over and helped me change it. He said he had a daughter about my age and if she was ever in my situation and he couldn’t be there, he would hope someone would help her.
Maybe it’s a perspective thing.
Maybe some people think if they are nice to one person, someone else will be nice to them.
Perhaps other people think someone has to be nice to them first before they have to go out of their way to be nice to another person.
Like the chicken and the egg, which should come first? Should you pay it forward or pay it back?
I believe you shouldn’t wait to meet the honest person. You should pay it forward and be the honest and sincere person right from the start. Assume the best in people. Innocent until proven guilty, right? Unless you have an honest reason to not trust someone or you’re in a vulnerable position yourself, treat them just as you would like to be treated. Set an example for people and your niceness will catch on.
There are certainly good people all over the world and their kindness stays in my mind more than the suspicious ones. These positive influences are a great force for change in the world and I hope the attitude of ‘pay it forward’ replaces the ‘pay it back’ mentality.
You can find more posts on my travel philosophy here.