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 Europe 2005 

Lost in a snowstorm: My Favorite European Stranger

I had gone to visit a certain museum of a certain person who, though long dead,  had helped me understand the works and prospects around a horrible part of my life.  It had been a day trip to a very homely place not too far from the city from where my return trip would originate, but suddenly I found myself stuck in this European smalltown because a little bit of snow had shutdown the entire public transportation in the country. My return trip however was scheduled for the same night, so in the last hours I had spend most of  my trip money a bit more lavishly…

It was snowing madly, but it wasn’t anything like a blizzard, and it wasn’t too cold when I had still been contently munching away at my favorite local candy while walking through the falling snow. I had then given myself the treat of a hot spicy restaurant meal to warm up from inside. I had wondered why the shops were all suddenly closing that early, and why hardly anybody was on the streets anymore, but figured maybe in a small town it was very different from the big city, where I still had to go to get on my return trip. I had started talking to a girl in that restaurant, an immigrant or second generation immigrant, and she advised me to get on my way, as trains were likely to be delayed in such a weather. It couldn’t be bad, I had thought, because it had only been a 15 minute train ride to that small town in the morning. Plus 20 other minutes or so of hold ups…However I still had 5 hours to go before my departure. Plenty of time. I thought. I left reluctantly. I didn’t like the bigger city.

 But then I arrived at the station and found out there were no more trains departing to that city. I was sure this was only temporarily. It would be so in any part of the world, or they would soon have some kind or emergency service. I joined a group of guys who then they tried to call their parents or asked arriving bus drivers about alternative routes, and ran back inside to check for train. They had vowed to share a cab with me in case all proved fruitless. But after 2 hours of running around in vain they spoke amongst themselves in their language and suddenly declared they would wait it out on the freezing train platform after all. I was on my own again…I had 3 hours left.

The only possibility now seemed a taxi, but all the people who had been coming home from work to go back to that city appeared to have already left, as I asked around. I didn’t trust the illegal drivers, nor could I properly assess them or their cars in terms of my safety, as the unreliable guys had expressed their doubts about these points earlier. It was more likely that I’d be stranded in a cold cab, alone with an insane driver, on a frozen highway, instead of freezing alongside indifferent beat people in a cold station hall.

I hadn’t even been able to find out the phone number to check if the return trip wasn’t cancelled after all. There was no public phone to be seen, the only number I had was an international number impossible to call from a cell and likely to eat up my remaining budget of precious cash anyhow, and the people in the ticket office offered no assistance. If my return trip was postponed as well, it made sense to stay where I was—but the only hotel in that place that I had come across on the net was horrendously expensive. And even if I managed to find a working  ATM in the storm and access my account in a foreign language with frozen fingers on a touchscreen, I would really need that money for my rent at home instead of a new ticket and hotel.

A younger not quite so frustrated looking couple I had approached and told about my problem called their local friend before they hurrried on to their train that was still running. The guy who lived on the block came to the station but when he found out no more local busses in that small town were running anymore and that he would not be able to direct me to a youth hostel, he left abruptly. Maybe it was because in I had dared to ask him if he had any friends who wanted to rent their living room couch to a stranded foreigner.

In New York , city of limited and highly expensive living space, this was quite common in my student days, (even if we didn’t pick up people from the street) But most roomates were strangers at first and we had the one or the other temporarily homeless co-worker, co-student or friend of a friend bunked up. Even if some stayed longer than they were intended to be welcome, in all those years there had been only one truly dishonest black sheep among them. In the Middle East I often even had invites from strangers who knew I was about on my own and therefore, to be fed and housed and helped when needed, treated like a welcome guest in the country, not like a beggar…I wondered what I had looked like to to the guy after all these hours of running about in the cold.

Helplessly and tired out in my frozen brain I asked out loud in the cold station hall whether there was anybody among the standing and shifting people headed my way. Nobody. People shrugged where they stood and were seemingly content, being cold, a bit like cattle. There weren’t even any benches, the floor was wet and slippery from partially melted snow. My scheduled train kept disappearing from the display.

The departure time for my return trip came nearer and nearer. I needed rest, warmth and an objective. It was clear—I always knew it—the person I lost on 9-11 couldn’t stand heat and died burning, so I, the desert rat, would freeze to death out here. It fit perfectly: We die of what we despise, maybe that is why we despise it to begin with…

It was bewitched:  I couldn’t go find a hotel room AND wait for a possibly departing train AND wait outside until people who wanted to take a cab arrived AND find a way to call a number on the phone both of which I still didn’t have. Time and money. I needed to be more than one person at the least.

In some sense it brought back the panic of 9-11, the same tearing pressure of having to do different things all at once that weren’t possible, to find out a truth that mgiht be horrible, learning that seeminly whatever you tried, you would only end up with another dead end, or worse, because you sounded too emotional, people would not give you answers, or because you hid and swallowed your sobs with your last strength, to not get this reaction, you got no answers because they thought you were too odd to be real. Of course nothing will ever be as bad as that which these people we loved and lost went through, and that always leaves me comparatively calm—but that similar feeling of pressure and urgency came back that night.

I tried to remember that whatever was happening was supposed to be, even if I couldn’t see that now, and even if I didn’t like it. I could make it home or I could freeze to an icycle here, or be hit by a comet or run into an old pal I knew well enough from another part of the world who would help me. Whatever, que sera, sera, I couldn’t change it if it was meant to be and I had tried all I could. Maybe even something good would come out of it. Maybe I had died already and would soon run into someone long missed. The still whiteness of the world outside of the station reminded me of other strange things I had experienced since, anything was possible.

Submitting myself to fate relaxed me. But it didn’t restore my thinking power!I was mentally numb and coudn’t think creatively of any other thing I could try anymore. I was very very tired after all these hours in the cold that had finally managed to creep under my tripple set of underwear and my double set of socks, and I had only had few hours of sleep the other night. The cold had frozen a few brain cells as well.

Something else bit me—so far my dislike of human indifference in Western culture aka the downside of “individual freedom” had been confirmed—you can do anything you can afford—but people my age and with my education are supposed to be wealthy, have fixed arrangements with pricey hotels and reknown airlines. They are not supposed to be alone and stuck somewhere at other people’s mercy or, as it’s considered there, an irresponsible burden to society if something goes wrong, and because it’s their own fault that could have been avoided had they planned all possible emergencies on earth or stayed at home, nobody needs to lift a finger for them.

One time I had brought a relative to a long distance bus stop, and there a girl approached us and asked somewhat void of emotion if anyone could lend her a few dollars. The price for the ticket had gone up recently, and she didn’t have enough now. Someone would be there at the city of arrival to return it to pick her up. The bus driver looked at her contemptuously. After she was out of hearing range he told us with a strange satisfaction in his voice, as if he had proven his worth by finding someone lowlier and having his expectation and lack of helpfulness confirmed, that people lie so much to get a free ride at that station. It really was strange that someone had no emergency stash sufficient enough to pay the extra dollars. But I travel that way when I see my parents, too—got the ticket, no time to run to the bank, they will be there to pick me up. You never know anything about anybody else and their situation, besides that which they choose to tell you.

My relative who never has any such complicated thoughts as to if people are really deserving of her help, gave her the money at once. Without making her feel like the scum of the earth. Later she told me the girl, who had indeed been picked up by family, had returned the money to her.

 “Human relations are better” once was spoken by a certain European person from that same country where I was stuck, who was at that time stranded in Syria, and supported by various locals in his difficult days: Food, shelter, paid work, formalities, and last but not least: friendship were the local reactions to his problem. It made him a nice person—he was very helpful to me too when I had arrived, that good impression was one reason I had dared to go to that European country by myself after all! In the Middle East, in any obstacle situation, everything had come out even for me. It had helped me gain new friends whose worth I knew through their actions.

I tried to at least draw up comparative situations for ideas out of my frozen brain. What had I done in Syria when I needed help? Go ask my friends, or anybody in the bus or the street…or in a store where I was friendly with people. I remembered a kid’s brother, a person I didn’t even know at that time, locking their shop just to help me go room hunting, because I had come in and asked if he had any ideas.

But here I only remembered the girl from the restaurant, as the only local with whom  I had been vaguely friendly other than some Canadian tourists who had gone off to God knows where. In the west, in daily life, you don’t get to talk to an awful lot of people, that was true. When I talked to her, I had even mentioned the murder in a relevant context, and I don’t really trust an awful lot of people anymore with my experience, even when I have known people for a long time because of the reactions I get. But the subject had come up and I had felt comfortable with her.

I felt it was a good sign. I decided to go  back to ask her what I could do in these cirumstances in this country. There had to be some sort of emergency service—or did she know anyone who was going back or what else did people there do in such a case? Could she help me find out the phone number, make a call in her language and get to a phone to find out about my return trip, as they might not be going or be sufficiently delayed so that I stood a greater chance of waiting it out?

I went back onto the snowy street. It was farther that I remembered. But the movement warmed me up a bit. Thank God, the place was still open, and the girl was still there. “The trains aren”t running” I told her “I’m sorry, but you are the only person I know here, and I really don’t know what to do anymore…”

First she looked up the number for directory services in a local phone book, and then let me use her cell phone. I maxed out the  balance in vain to reach directory services. The number was busy and then her card was done with. I even forgot to pay her back for it until I remembered it days later when it was too late. I wondered aloud if a hotel wouldn’t have a directory, but the only one I knew about was another long march away. I had little more than 2 hours to go. Time was passing quickly. She then told me about another hotel nearby, and there the staff, a bit grumpily, but efficiently, helped me, the crumbled and feeble non-guest, find out a working number to inquire about my return trip, as the international number hadn’t worked.

Yes, the departure was scheduled on time tonight! Then the girl persuaded a co-worker who wasn’t sure about going back to go with me so I would be safe and share the fare. The guy could easily have slept at the shop as well, so I owe him thanks also. I had about 2 hours and a few minute’s time to make it back. Or be stranded on the slippery highway for a while and make it back, perhaps…

”I’ll come with you” she said ”To be sure you are getting on your trip alright” .It wasn’t certain if there were any cabs still waiting and this soothed me—I was afraid of being left to myself again. In the on-going snowstorm, the girl walked us to the train station. Her co-worker negotiated with the driver. A Pakistani cabbie! Hello New York! I felt relieved, something familiar. And if you can drive in crazy Pakistan traffic, you can drive anywhere, even in a snowstorm!

Her co-worker brought the price down so I let out a big sigh. Another guy joined us, and it was lowered even more. I might at least be able to sit the rest of the night out in a café, even if my trip was delayed after all, which I suspected despite the information. They always tell you to be there on time, so THEY don’t have to wait for YOU, in case they make it.

Then, before we got in the car,  the girl quickly took out her wallet and  tried to put a few bills into my hands to be on the safe side. “In case your return trip is cancelled and you still have to go at a hotel in the city!” I told her once there I could pester the company in charge of my return trip and now that my brain had relaxed, I had remembered my emergency 20$ bill, and I had seen exchange offices in the city before, which were not likely to be shut down like the banks in the small town.“You may need to buy food” she continued to urge me. ”I want you to take it.”

When was the last time you heard that from a total stranger?

There would have been no reliable way I could get the money back to her, or it would cost more than it was worth. But it felt so good that someone in that icy cold had cared. Like someone else, had, years back, in hard New York, in another life. it brought back memories and stunned me. I didn’t feel so cold anymore already before I sat down in the warm and cosy cab.

Later, in the taxi, after the co-worker, another passenger and I had slowly, carefully, glided over the middle of the iceskating course that didn’t deserve the name highway, passing by broken down cars and cars that had gotten stuck, after we had thankfully reached the outskirts of the city, we picked up a local couple. The girl who got in the car with me laughed about my absolute disbelieve that in such a modern part of the world public life simply stopped and people just went back home or stayed right where they were because of a little bit of snow.

“Oh, over here, when it snows, it’s so unusual that we tell our kids to just stay home! But it’s pretty, isn’t it?” She laughed with me, sitting in the back seat with her, who didn’t have to maneure in this difficult trafffic either, enjoying the slide and glancing at the stranded and slowly sliding cars on our side.

Yes, now that I sat in the warm taxi and we were in reasonably promising distance of the city, I thought so too…it’s pretty because it’s rare, and when because of it you have been lifted out of  an “all good people are dead for sure” resignation. And left me obligated to any future people in a similar situation—as in, don’t jugde and blame, just help. We will see…mistrust is spreading like a disease, but experience like that help build up my own immunity to the “cold”.

In that country, they are very tense about terrorist attacks. (like everywhere, really) Never mind politics and imperialism, likely also because of their own experience during Second World War II, i.e. invasion by mad and cruel people and the much hoped for liberation by the not so mad, the government of this country decided to support the war on Iraq.

I would like to have my own little country, out of reach of all aggressive and greedy and hateful evildoers and unbelievers  east and west, where all the good people I know , also eastern  and western, are safely tucked away so nobody can hurt them. But these worthwhile individuals are roaming around between all the mix of good and bad, weak and strong, kind and angry, and you know how few people are ever the same 24 hours anyhow. The only  thing that the majority of people really have in common in one place or another in which they live together is their passport. Please don’t judge them by their passport, their residence or the decisions of their governments. It tells you nothing sure at all about their worth.

Oh, and I’m not sure about her passport anyhow: She was a first or second generation immigrant.