, Derry, New Hampshire

September 5, 2013

Column: Vacation saved by the kindness of strangers

John Edmondson
Derry News

---- — Unlike Blanche DuBois, the tragic Southern belle in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I have not “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” But I will never forget the time a few decided to intervene.

Several weeks ago my wife, Betty, and I were in Athens. I’d taken my backpack off my shoulders for a few minutes as we waited for our tour guide to walk us back to the bus. A quick conversation with another traveler distracted me just enough so that five minutes later, on the way to the bus, I realized I’d left my backpack behind.

A panic-induced adrenalin rush coursed through my body. I gave Betty a look and said, “My backpack ...” then ran back to the meeting place, praying it would be where I left it.

The passage of time becomes distorted in crisis mode. Senses are heightened. My field of vision shortened, as if wearing blinders. As I neared the spot, I recognized an elderly woman who’d been selling scarves moments before. And she recognized me. She waved her arms to stop me and yelled, “Police! Police!”

A worst-case scenario headline came to mind — American tourist in Athens arrested for assaulting female peddler.

That was one of the milder thoughts that occurred to me as I struggled to make sense of the situation.

As seconds raced by, it became clear this woman wasn’t accusing me of anything. The only word in English she knew was “police,” but she could have been a mime. Her gestures told me that she knew — and saw — what happened.

Then a younger Greek woman appeared, nodding her head and pointing in the opposite direction. “Police,” she said, then added, “no speak English.”

Miraculously, a third woman appeared, younger still. “I’m Italian,” she explained, “but I speak Greek, too. Let me help you.”

As the three women engaged in an animated discussion, I spotted Betty standing in the distance. I’d forgotten all about her. Then the Italian woman spoke again.

“A policeman picked up your backpack. This woman will take you to the station. Go with her. It’s only five minutes away.”

I looked back at Betty and yelled, “Wait here!”

As I waded through the back alleys of downtown Athens with a stranger who did not speak English, I should have been questioning my sanity. But I was determined to find that backpack holding jewelry that Betty had just purchased.

The police station was housed in a squalid office building. An elevator, designed to accommodate two small children, screeched its way, in fits and starts, up to the fourth floor. We entered the office and found one filing cabinet and a metal desk. A young Greek policeman was sitting behind it, and he spoke unaccented English.

Another animated discussion ensued. A few phone calls were made. “You’re lucky,” the officer said. “The policeman who picked up your backpack works in this station. Just wait outside. He’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

Just like that, there’s my backpack with all the valuables in it. The Greek woman walks me back to Betty. Cue the happy ending music. Except that our tour bus is gone.

Betty just looked relieved. No problem, we’ll get a taxi back to the cruise ship.

Now it was my turn to play Charades. The cabbie didn’t speak English, but it didn’t matter. I rolled both hands to simulate waves, like a four-year-old in a preschool play. We made it back to the ship, despite rush-hour traffic, with 10 minutes to spare.

Betty and I love to travel, and we’ve always kept our worries and fears at bay. A scary thing happened, but some strangers in a strange land came through just when we needed them.

Despite the grim headlines, there is still some goodness left in the world.

John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.