A former colleague, a glass-half-full kind of guy, commented recently that his several flight delays had afforded him major people-watching time. His upbeat statement reminded me of the grand time I always had in airports and train stations, with or without students, simply observing my fellow human beings.
To me, one of the best parts of traveling is meeting all kinds of people. Yes, I have written about random encounters with “famous” people, long-lost friends, and friends of friends. But there have also been lots of “just plain folks” whose passing acquaintances were memorable enough to file away for recollection another day.
Here and abroad, I sincerely appreciate individuals who serve the public with professional care and cheerful demeanor. Such were any number of bus drivers, train conductors, bank tellers, and store clerks I met along the way.
There was also a specific set of people I remember even today with fondness and gratitude: the staff at a hotel in Munich, Germany, where my students and I often stayed. After an overnight transatlantic flight across several time zones, a shuttle trip into the city, and a luggage-laden group trudge along busy sidewalks, it meant everything to step to the reception desk of the Hotel Amba and hear: “Miss Scott, you have arrived!”
The ladies in the breakfast room of that hotel were also very accommodating. They spoke no English and little German, but their smiling faces and kind help every morning – year after year – made the first meal of the day special.
Even longer ago I recall two or three grandmotherly ladies who assisted this very green college girl during her first-ever streetcar trip. In the southern city of Stuttgart I managed to become irrevocably lost – what with my shaky German skills, skewed sense of direction, and miniscule experience on public transportation.
The women explained, gestured, headed me in the right direction, and even complimented me on my wonderful German language skills, although I knew I had butchered the entire grammatical structure. Such lovely ladies!
Then there were the U.S. soldiers we ran into in a McDonald’s somewhere. Back then, German broadcasts of American daytime and primetime soap operas were a year behind those at home. The curious GI’s, hungry for news from the home front, grilled us about The Guiding Light, General Hospital, and who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas. What fun we had obliging their requests!
Our annual crossing through Checkpoint Charlie, to visit the communist section of Berlin on the east side of the Wall, led to other kinds of interactions. An East Berlin passport inspector once pressed me into service when he realized I was speaking German to him and English to my students. There we were – the communist guard and the American teacher working together to explain procedural regulations to a confused British couple.
Even more memorable was a mentally-challenged lady sitting next to me at the fountain on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. When she heard me speaking English with my students, she began to shout: “I love Ronald Reagan! I love Ronald Reagan!” I was fascinated, but more than a few of her fellow East Berliners edged away from us as they heeded the strict laws forbidding their association with people from the West.
One year in Paris, I had a delightful conversation with a gentleman from Africa. I rambled on about the heatwave back in Ohio, mentioning that our typical summer temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius, almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, had climbed to 40 degrees Celsius or approximately 100 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale.
The attentive African tourist finally got a word in edgewise to describe daily summer weather in his home country: 50 degrees Celsius, calculated at 122 degrees Fahrenheit – I broke into a sweat just hearing that number!
When the tour guide at the Bahlsen cookie factory in Hanover learned we were from the U.S., he made every effort to compare the German baked goods company favorably to America’s Nabisco – and disallowed photographs in order to prevent cookie espionage. By the way, that visit remains my favorite factory tour of all time.
Another tour guide, dressed in the colorful costume of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and speaking perfect German, surprised us with his disclosure that he had been born in Pennsylvania – and proceeded to crack us up with his dry wit and steady stream of one-liners.
Absolutely unforgettable was the flight attendant on a Frankfurt-to-New York flight, who delivered stunning news in the middle of my sleepless night: she believed my ailing student had probably contracted typhus. The physician who boarded the plane as soon as it landed fortunately diagnosed a nasty flu bug, but I had aged several years in that process.
I still remember that a supervisor in the arrivals hall at JFK Airport would not allow me to keep my students together as we attempted to hurry through customs to catch our flight home. My explanation that I was their teacher failed to impress: “Ma’am, I don’t care if you are the Queen of England. You will go where I tell you to go.”
Traveling has enriched my life with lasting friendships, visits to some of the great sights of the world, and a thousand lessons taught and learned. But so many ordinary moments remarkably shared with ordinary people certainly added to the adventure of it all.