The Kindness of Strangers: You Get What You Give

DenaSeptember 23, 2010

Stranger Friends Near Eiffel Tower

You’ll seldom experience regret for anything that you’ve done. It is what you haven’t done that will torment you.

I really didn’t know what to expect. It was my first solo international trip. I’ve traveled internationally—England, Kenya, Wales—but always with a group. I’ve traveled solo—Seattle—but I was still in the US. Paris was going to be something different—an international journey, alone, to a place where I didn’t even speak the language. My inability to speak French was the thing that I was most anxious about. I get lost easily. I often joke that I couldn’t make my way out of a paper bag and while the quip is cute, the sad thing is, it’s true.

On top of the language barrier & my notorious lack of directional instincts, well, the French aren’t always known to be the nicest folk—especially when it comes to American tourists. I suppose there were a few moments when I stopped and thought, Dena, what the hell are you thinking? But then I remembered—creating the life of my dreams, living in spite of fear—and I pushed ahead.

Breaking Down Barriers

I taught myself to say a few key phrases: Hello; Excuse me; Sorry; and Where is the train? and then I hoped for the best. In the end, part of my fear came true—I did get lost (several times)—but what I never expected also came to pass. The Parisian people were incredibly kind to me, more than I could have ever hoped. I stopped strangers to ask for directions often and by often I mean at least five times a day. I stopped strangers on the bus, on the metro, on the street, and in cafes. I stopped strangers everywhere and everywhere I was greeted with kindness, compassion, and patience. People took the time to listen to me, to decipher my broken French, and my pitiful pronunciations. They looked me in the eyes. They smiled. They told me where to go & even when I couldn’t understand a word of their instruction, my heart was warmed. I felt safe, comfortable, and confident. With the kindness of strangers, I found my way. I always found my way.

The Art of Strangers & Friends

In addition to receiving guidance from strangers in Paris, I also received shelter. I didn’t tell anyone at home about this until after the fact (because I knew they would worry); but I stayed & visited with beautiful strangers friends that I met through If you haven’t heard of, it’s an incredible community. Couchsurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, travelers and hosts have come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never have met are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding because of the Couchsurfing community!

Despite many of my close friends having taken part in couchsurfing adventures, I was still a bit apprehensive. For a brief moment, I allowed insecurity and anxiety to get the better of me… but I quickly came to my senses. In my heart, (and despite the many that have tried to convince me otherwise) I know that people are inherently good. I also know that my instincts are sharp & strong (even if my sense of direction is not!). The women that hosted me are friends, kindred spirits. Our time spent together confirmed this fact and I know now that they will be my friends for a lifetime.

Stranger Friends near Sacre Coeur

Both of my hosts were lovely & staying with them allowed me to see a side of Paris that I could never have experienced staying in a hotel for a week. In fact, my second host took me to her parent’s home outside of Paris. Their home is located in an urban neighborhood of Malian (northwest Africa) migrant workers. It was fascinating and something I never would have experienced had I not been couchsurfing.

The last stranger that I met on my trip was not Parisian at all. I met him on my flight home. I was so grateful to be sat next to a quiet, respectful man for the duration of the 9+ hour journey across the Atlantic. He was so generous that he gave me the armrest all to myself! We didn’t speak much, both engrossed in the movies & books that were keeping us occupied. At the end of the flight—when we were all so eager to land—our plane got delayed in the air. Apparently there was a back up on the runway. We started to fly in circles. We circled around the same area three times while waiting for clearing to land. At this point, we had been asked to put away all electronic devices and the movies were unceremoniously cut from the screens.

My traveling companion seized the opportunity to strike up conversation. We chit-chatted a bit and I learned that he takes this journey and similar ones often for work. He visited Las Vegas recently with his wife. He hasn’t spent too much time in New Jersey (my home state) but he’s hugely intrigued by the train wreck that is the Jersey Shore on MTV.

Our conversation was pleasant but typical. As I drifted out of it, he reached in his bag and pulled something out. Handing the small item to me, he said, “Now you can tell everyone you sat next to your first air marshal.” He handed my an official, shiny, gold U.S. Air Marshal pin! I couldn’t believe it. For some reason I thought he was kidding me. “Are you serious?” I exclaimed. He responded with a yes and gestured me to quiet down as this is apparently not public information. But I was still excited by the idea and—like a giddy schoolgirl—I asked if he had a gun. Sure enough, he lifted his shirt to show me the automatic weapon concealed in his waist!

It was amazing & quite comforting. The man sitting beside him, across the aisle was his partner. It turns out that on each international flight, there are two in the front and one in the back of the plane (where we were sat). One more fascinating, kind stranger to top it all off.

You Get What You Give

There were many other incredible strangers friends along my journey—from the lovely vagabonding hitchhiker, to the Chilean man who saw me struggling with my map & walked me fifteen minutes to my destination. It would take me days to write about all of the kindness I encountered. In the end, however, I know one thing for certain: It was not just dumb luck that chanced me to encounter so many magnificent individuals during my journey.

The fact is that you get what you give. You create your own reality. The environment that surrounds you is a direct result of the energy that you release from within. When you stay focused on positivity, on spreading kindness & light, and on believing that people are inherently good; then you are bound to encounter positivity, kindness, and light all around you. We are constantly moving in the direction of our most dominant thoughts. My thoughts are pure & full of love, and so throughout my travels, I have experienced purity & love. For this, I am truly grateful.

So what about you? What have your experiences been? Have you met any strangers friends on your own journey?

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