Wonderful Strangers

London, England.

I clutched onto the railing as the double-decker bus lurched forward and departed from Kensington Palace.  I quickly plotted down in the seat next to my sister, Cheryl.

“Are we going the right direction?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I don’t know where this bus is going,” she said.

A soft voice suddenly intersected our conversation.  “Do y’need help?”

She was sitting behind me, but the twenty-something had a pale oval face and tied-back auburn hair, I think.  Her accent was lovely.  

“Um–yeah,” Cheryl said, sounding surprised.  “We’re trying to get to…”  The girl and my sister leaned into the aisle where the stranger pointed to directions on Cheryl’s iPhone map.  

I adore the story that this cute interruption implies: an unassuming citizen sitting on public transportation with her eyes and ears wide open, soaking in her surroundings like a sponge–and then without hesitation offers her help to a stranger without prompt.  

My absence from WordPress lately is due to my vacation to France, Belgium, and London!  Trips like these often provide more opportunities than usual to bump into some very open and interesting people.  

Bruges, Belgium.

I was falling in love with Bruges.  Its old buildings, tranquil canal, and shops of chocolate, lace, and toys all created a picturesque Disney-like setting that melted my heart.    

So when I discovered a display of paintings depicting this beautiful city in watercolor, my knees practically went weak.

“Hello ladies.”  The vendor was slim and dark-haired with sunglasses, and the hand that she waved displayed the wrinkles of middle-age.  I quickly flicked my gaze downwards at the spread-out display of softly-painted scenes–I am irrationally and consistently intimidated by storekeepers.  “Do you speak English?” she asked in her clipped accent.

“Yes.  Um, how much are these?”

“I will tell you, ladies, but first let me tell you a leetle it about the art, okay?”

She actually paused for our response.  “Okay,” I repeated while Cheryl nodded.

The woman talked about the painter: an art history professor and her boyfriend.  When she said that six post cards cost five euros I was already envisioning the proud place the cards would have on my bedroom wall.

But my mother, when she realized we wanted to spend money on something, was thrown into a mood and was currently standing several yards (miles) away from us with an impatient frown.  My mom was reflected in the vendor’s sunglasses as she fixated on her and opened her red-lipsticked mouth to drop a bomb:

“Let them take their time and show some patience, no?  You should appreciate two girls who love art so much.”

Moments later, the vendor was helping me find the six postcards that I would bring home.

Paris, France.

I couldn’t help thinking that she was the epitome of the modern woman.

It was mostly the young woman’s jumpsuit, a kaleidoscope pattern that covered her entire body except her white shoulders.  But it was also her bouncy black hair, minimalist flats, large sunglasses, and the slim smartphone she held in hand that contributed to the thought.  

After conquering the first infinity of Notre Dame’s stairs, I heard her say, “This is so cool.”  

I briefly side-eyed in her direction – she was apparently alone, staring at the opposite tower of the cathedral, and yet she projected as if speaking to a friend.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said again, her voice straining with excitement.  Perhaps she was conversing with the gargoyles. 

20140713-212132-76892274.jpg

deep in thought about all these cool peeps

The group of tourists moved along the balcony, only to discover another flight of stairs leading up.  “There’s more!?” the jumpsuited-lady cried out.  

Upon arriving to the top of the tower: “Oh my God it got even cooler!!!

She was taking a selfie with the sparking Seine river far below when my mother offered to take her picture.  

“Oh!  Yes, thank you.  Here, I’ll take one smiling and one not smiling.”

“You’re beautiful!” my mother complimented after taking the two photos, and the young woman blinked and smiled, abashed.

My mom said the exact same thing after helping an adorable couple take a photo, spurring Ms. Jumpsuit to exclaim with mock offense, “Oh, so you say that to everyone!”

Homeward, Atlantic Ocean.

The man sitting in 10A and I made brief eye contact as I sat one seat away.  My eyes lingered on the notebook in his lap, the open page half-covered with graphite letters.  His salt-and-pepper jaw seemed solemn as he penciled and erased, so I said nothing.

When my mom sat between us, it wasn’t long until she commented to him about the weather, and then the entertainment system on the back of each seat, and then his notebook. “Are you writing poems?” she asked.

“Oh, these are song lyrics, actually.  I’m in a band.  I’m meeting them in New York.”

I nearly threw myself across my mother’s lap to join the conversation.  “What kind of genre is your band?” I panted asked.  

“Um, we started as a punk band, but we’re moving away from that a bit.  We’re getting worse,” he laughed, and his laugh sounded slightly strange but clearly used often.  

As the flight attendants got ready and the airplane raced into the flight, I listened as this man discussed his life: a young American arriving in France for work, meeting the right girl, raising a family.  He talked about the French and their different way of thinking, and how their different thought process has made him rethink and reinvent himself.  He inquired about where my sister and I were in school, in life.  He listened to my mother recite the hotel budget of our trip.  As he talked about musical instruments and how the French served duck, I sat back and watched the clouds outside the plane’s window.  I think I quite like humans, was my last thought before falling asleep to the sound of airplane propellers and warm conversation.  

Alternatively titled: Displays of Openness

Hope you enjoyed it!

-M.L.

 

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