Stranger in a Strange Land
“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.”
My friend Gail has never met a stranger. Never. Whether on an unfamiliar golf course or foreign shores, she assumes everyone is as happy as she to engage in conversation and learn about one another. Though I have fine social skills, I am the opposite of Gail. And at nineteen, I was not an open, trusting soul, a direct consequence of being raised to be wary of strangers and to expect danger and disaster as general protocol.
Not long after Sooz’s and my disastrous adventure, I had a quarter abroad in Avignon, France. This is where Snow White had magically revealed the beauty of an orange, and where I began to hopscotch into a wider life experience; observing, maturing, and learning. Being exposed for the first time to a foreign culture (I am forever a Francophile), studying and traveling in Southern France and living away from the constant verbal supervision of my mother and stepfather, I was allowed my first extended period of open-ended exploration. It was grand.
Once a week our group would board a bus and visit destinations focused on the art and history of the area. Every weekend night, we gathered for wine, cheese and bread and the rapturous conversation of youth. We were intellectually hungry, basking in the daily revelations of becoming citizens of the world.
One night, Jack, our French history instructor, invited me and John, a friend and ‘older’ student at thirty-two, to the apartment of Jack’s French girlfriend Suzanne. Apparently, the two had a once-a-year liaison that was re-activated every spring when Jack returned to teach. They were perhaps in their early forties, and I, sexually naïve, was transfixed by the sophistication of their casual, yet clearly passionate relationship. We drank wine and chatted; Suzanne with broken English and John and me with equally broken French. One of the lasting memories of my Avignon experience was listening to Jack, who spoke fluent French, translating Jacque Brel’s signature song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” from French to English in a voice nearly as melodious as the singer’s.
I had joined the program believing that Laurie and I would spend the summer traveling together, but she had decided last minute not to go abroad, so, by the end of the quarter as our group began to venture out to various spots around the globe, I was all by myself.
Everything within me urged running back to the familiar, to get on an airplane and return to a safe and predictable existence in the States. Yet, in my heart, I did not want to go home. I yearned to be a free spirit like my fellow students as they began their travels with open enthusiasm. Still, my solitude and isolation were disheartening. Truly terrified but trying to be the person I wanted to be, I willed myself to stay in Europe and travel solo.
This was 1969, and “Europe on Five Dollars A Day” was the bible of young travelers.
With that book, a Eurorail pass in my backpack, some money, and a determination to, despite my inner terror, venture out, I bid adieu to the hefty and good-willed French family that had hosted me for three months. I would miss their apricot jam on fresh croissants every morning and having a home to return to each night.
Once I began my terrifying adventure, I found it surprisingly easy to meet other travelers and pair up for few days, depending upon the destination. Sometimes I changed my itinerary just to have company. I was always careful with my selections, choosing females as my companions. I met Joe, a sad and slightly goofy guy from Florida on the train to Florence, and we joined forces for a few days. We were both so lonely; he was missing his girlfriend, I the security of my student group in Avignon, that we would, from the distance of twin beds in the cheap hotel rooms we found, fall asleep holding hands. I remember thinking how bold I was to travel with a strange boy, when in truth it was more like babysitting a much younger cousin. He was even less prepared for solo travel than I.
I bought a switch blade and carved apples when I became uneasy with the looks from men on trains, believing that show of strength and panache surely protected me. What I really wanted during those lonely train rides and stays in hostels or dank hotel rooms was some fun, safe companions to get me through the summer and not have to constantly monitor my safety margins. Finally, after a month of being alone, I met Matt and Bill, my mates for the rest of the season.
They were USC students and best friends, one student body president, the other vice-president, of the university, so I figured they were trustworthy. Smart fellows both, Matt had long hair and a beard while Bill was cleaner cut. This was just the beginning of the hippie movement world-wide, and, because of Matt’s appearance, my new travel companions often received rude treatment from citizens, hotel and restaurant workers (beyond the usual French disdain). Americans overall were not a well-regarded group of travelers at that time, with Nixon at the helm and the stereotypical obnoxious American tourist in evidence wherever we went. I got used to hostile looks and comments about Matt (the gentlest soul one could imagine). I think Bill’s short hair and my more traditional look saved us from any real unpleasantness.
On a stormy, rainy evening in Marseilles, our now established trio had taken our clothes to the laundromat. This was an infrequent occurrence, that night necessitated by the weather and the unspoken understanding that laundry day was, in every way, overdue. The wait for machines was interminable, and we had skipped dinner to try to find a time when the utilities would be more accessible. The rain continued, beating against the windows, generating dampness that permeated the interior of the laundromat. After two hours of waiting for a machine, we were cold, hungry, and cranky. Then, as a washer became available, and bracing ourselves for several more hours onsite to claim a dryer once our clothes were clean, an attractive woman in her thirties began a conversation with us.
Mickey did not speak English and I was the only one in our trio with a small offering of French, but she seemed very eager to learn about us and our travels. Another hour passed; our clothes having graduated from the wash but with no post-graduate possibility in any available dryers. We resignedly started packing our damp clothes into our backpacks, hypothesizing glumly that stringing them across our hostel room would be of some help in the drying overnight. We weren’t hopeful, but it was clear that a French dryer was not in our near future. Still chatting with Mickey, we were surprised when she invited us to her apartment to use her home dryer and enjoy a light respite. She didn’t hesitate in her invitation due to Matt’s appearance, and the two boys quickly agreed.
I was wary. She seemed nice, but why would she invite three bedraggled strangers, one of whom looked slightly like an ax murderer, into her home? I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “Do NOT go to that woman’s house. Who knows what might happen?” I really didn’t want to accept the invitation but was outvoted. Loading our packs, heavier than when we’d begun the adventure because of their dampness, we followed her to her apartment a few blocks away.
She seemed excited to be in our company. We learned she was divorced and had a child with cerebral palsy who lived in an institution. Shyly showing us pictures of the girl, explaining the extent of her disability and Mickey’s own inability to care for the girl, the sorrow she transmitted while explaining the situation was palpable, and the mixture of regret and grief about her circumstances somehow, in those few hours, brought the four of us into a circle of empathy and intimacy.
Retrospectively, I understood how lonely she must have been – how horribly sad; single and away from her beloved child. Then, I was focused on the generosity of a stranger.
She concocted a modest feast with the inevitable table wine, as gracious as if we’d been extended an invitation the week before. As the dryer hummed with the weight of our clothes, Mickey put French music on her record player and detailed the tunes she was sharing. She couldn’t believe we didn’t know her compatriot, the famous singer Johnny Holiday. Several hours later, we departed, folded and dry laundry in our bags and a new friend in our hearts. We’d had a glimpse into the personal life of a friendly French citizen, enough older than we in age and life experience that the exchange felt more genuine, more heartfelt than those we had with international students in our travels. It was as if Mickey’s personal tragedy, paired with her open friendliness, was its own chapter in a singular book we’d been gifted, and we were the privileged readers.
I had taken her contact information, meaning to send her some American music upon my return to the U.S., but lost it, and felt badly about my lack of follow through. I’ve spent some time in the decades since trying to locate her with no luck. Yet, the kindness she showed us that evening changed how I viewed future interactions with strangers from other cultures. When my mother’s inner voice, like Jiminy Cricket in a very bad mood, would caution me away from the horrible people and things they might do to me, I remembered Mickey. I became more open to the unfamiliar.
Ironically, shortly after returning home from France, I overheard a fellow in a Rite Aid with a French accent trying to understand the clerk’s directives about payment. I might not have intervened before meeting Mickey, but instead jumped in and awkwardly translated. I befriended the fellow, Jean, who turned out to be a member of Jacque Cousteau’s crew. We had many interactions in the following months while the company furloughed in Seattle, including me taking Jean to my mother and stepfather’s house for dinner, where he thoroughly charmed them. “See?” I wanted to say. “See what happens when you trust?”
So long ago, Mickey opened a door that I had been taught was locked – one to approach with distrust. The consequent broadening of my mind and heart would likely have occurred regardless as I matured, but I’ve always felt it would have taken much longer to discover the riches I found in the opening if not for Mickey.
Mickey wasn’t a ‘friend’ in the traditional sense, but her act of friendliness captured the essence and meaning of the word; kindness, trust, and open giving of self. I gratefully include her in the collection of women who helped to form me.
Next: Carolina, the Wild One
New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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