I spent the summer before my senior year of high school in Paris. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, and I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B every day with just a Metro card and a small map of the train system that looked like a tangle of rainbow-colored veins. I learned to feed myself on a few francs a day (lots of baguettes and liters of Pepsi with chocolate bars for dessert–thank God for youthful metabolism), and how to ask people for help in the rudimentary French I’d picked up from my pocket-sized dictionary. It was a challenge and an adventure, and an incredibly formative time in my life. Without the freedom to explore and to either succeed or fail on my own terms, and without the faith of my parents that I was a capable enough seventeen-year-old to survive for a summer without them, I don’t think I’d have the same sense of my own potential that I have as a grown woman. The notion that I could get a master’s in my late-30s and become a high-school teacher (a teacher! I don’t even like to talk in small groups, much less in front of a room full of petulant teens!), or that I had the ability to dive headfirst into something as complex as writing and self-publishing and give it a go in my spare time…where did that sort of self-belief come from? I have to blame it on that summer abroad, but there are a few other things I learned about in Paris, too.
Like the kindness of strangers. One day I climbed off the Metro train at my stop during rush hour, clumsily bumping my way through the crowd just like everyone else. It’s pretty safe to assume that I had those old-school foam headphones on my ears, my yellow Walkman cassette player in hand as I listened to the Thompson Twins (my soundtrack to that summer–even now I can’t listen to King for a Day without thinking of the City of Light), and that I was already worried about where I’d buy that night’s baguette and cheese. Anyway, I knocked into a man in a business suit, and the rolled-up poster under his arm fell to the ground and started rolling…and rolling…right to the edge of the platform…and then off the concrete and onto the train tracks. I was horror-stricken. I apologized–in English, of course, though it’s possible I uttered a few excusez-mois, as I had added excuse me, can I have a ham and cheese sandwich without butter, please? and where is the restroom? to my limited French vocabulary. But my apologies in any language weren’t registering, as he was already screaming at me–in French–about what a dumb idiot careless American girl I was (I’m guessing here, but I don’t think I’m wrong), and I stood there on the platform in my patchwork denim skirt and those backless cowboy boot half-shoes/half-slip-ons that were so popular (and impractical) in 1992, looking stunned and embarrassed.
It’s possible I even considered climbing down onto the tracks in my jean skirt to retrieve the rolled-up poster (at the time I imagined it was an architect’s drawing of an important renovation at a museum, but it could have been anything: a cheesy image of the Eiffel Tower that he was mailing to his girlfriend in Portugal? The “Hang in there!” kitten poster, but, like, in French? A Def Leppard album cover print he’d just picked up at his favorite record store? I’ll never know…), but as I moved in that direction, another man–older, calmer–stepped between me and the angry Frenchman and put his hand on my shoulder. “Go,” he said in English, “just go.” He physically turned me around and gave me a light, encouraging shove. So without a backward glance, I went. My assumption was that he was offering to go down onto the tracks himself to save the poster from certain death-by-train, but I don’t know what happened after I climbed the steps out of the station, all I know is that a stranger had been kind–he’d done something he absolutely did not have to do, and he’d done it for me.
I feel the same way now about my writing: people–strangers, more often than not–read my blurb and buy my book. They leave reviews, follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, send messages of support to say they liked it, and then buy the next book. They don’t know me–they don’t have to encourage me or my writing–but this is the kindness of strangers. In a world where we focus our ire at someone on Twitter we’ve never even met, and during a time when we shout at each other in cyberspace and call one another out over political beliefs and misinterpreted comments about everything under the sun, I still believe in the kindness of strangers. It’s out there. I like to see it, and I like to write about it.
And now I’m hungry for a baguette.