Blanche Dubois summarized my expat life best, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” And so it is. That random guardian angel who swoops in when I am most lost, confused, disconsolate. With a nearly unnoticeable gesture they lighten my load.
It doesn’t take much, frankly – sometimes just a smile or the willingness to hang with my English – to translate my mimed questions and provide a mimed response. Take last week. I needed to mail a box to the United States. For a few days, I procrastinated. Some days just finding a store which sells packing tape is a bit more than I can handle. With the box sealed, I trudged to the local Posta where I learned they do not take packages. I raised my hands in a question, “Where?” “Nyugati” came the single word reply.
I pushed my box onto the 4 tram and headed to Nyugati – up three flights of steps and into the main post office. I waited behind a window not open for business. Two women talked – unaware of my presence. After some minutes, their conversation ended and one woman, an older woman, turned to me. I didn’t expect much. She wasn’t obligated to help me and I doubted she spoke English. I tilted my box so she could see the US address. “Where?” She shook her head repeatedly – a “no” for each of my series of unspoken questions. No English. No mail support for packages. No relief for my aching arms. No end in sight for this errand.
Then she acted out what I must do. Go back down stairs. Exit the building. But then, I lost her. She pointed to her brain in that universal gesture of “I have an idea.” She took a small piece of paper. As she described what I must do in Hungarian, she drew a picture – more precisely – a map. I knew exactly what to do. Exit the building, two quick lefts, enter the last door and go up one flight of stairs to the room on the left.
As I walked to my next stop, my mind flashed through the upcoming landmines – shipping options, shipping labels, and customs forms – all in Hungarian. Behind the counter sat a bespeckled, uniformed, middle aged man who – by all appearances – did not speak a word of English. Again, I tilted the box so he could see where I was sending it. He looked up, “Regular or Express?” In nearly perfect English, he priced the shipping options, helped me fill out forms, and told me it would be 20,000 HUF cash. I took the box home, withdrew the roughly 80 dollars and gave the money, the box, the validated forms, and my most precious of hand drawn maps to my husband. He agreed to return in the morning.
As an expat, I depend on the kindness of strangers. What other choice exists? It may be the restaurant customer who comes over to our table in a small village and translates the menu; or the train ticket seller who acts out my journey with me and smiles as she hands me my ticket and change; or the young women at Costa Coffee who insists I get the “frequent drinker” discount after my fourth or fifth visit. They make me happy, one might say, disproportionate to what they do.
Don’t we all – at the end of the day – rely on the kindness of strangers? Maybe it is the person who opens the library door just as we are about to drop the pile of books. Or someone in the grocery store who allows us to go ahead because we have so few items. Did they realize we were late to pick up our child? Perhaps it is a stranger’s smile and greeting the same same day we learn a loved one is ill. As an expat, I feel more needy and vulnerable than most. But let’s face it, there’s a little Blanche Dubois in all of us.