The Kindness of Strangers in Eastern Europe

This is a guest post by Jade Johnston from Our Oyster

I was born in the 80’s, and my first awareness of geopolitical issues began during the cold war.

I lived in Canada, and the controversy at the time revolved around US missile bases located near the Canadian border, vigilantly pointed towards the dreaded USSR.

“Mommy! What if they don’t throw the missile hard enough and it falls out of the sky and lands on us instead?!”

“That’s impossible, don’t worry.”

I was not convinced. What did she know about missiles anyways?

The wall fell, and peace (in this part of the world anyway) returned. Suddenly, Eastern Europe was no longer evil, just, well, backwards.

I moved to Europe in 2006 to go to university in Denmark. I spent more time outside of school than in, and made visiting Eastern European countries high on my list of priorities.

During semester break, I convinced two female friends from Australia to join me on a trip through Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. The time we spent there brought us together, taught us many new skills (I can read a map!), and showed us the kindness and generosity that define many of the people there.

A Shaky Start

We were a little on edge from the moment we entered Romania. We had read up (perhaps too well) on all the dangers that would await us in Romania.

On our first day in Bucharest, we were walking with a new found friend to the railway station, us girls with just our purses, and Jeff with his large bag.

Suddenly, we were swarmed by street kids. Tiny hands grabbed at our pockets and tried to reach into our purses, but luckily us girls were not weighted down and could run away.

Poor Jeff however, was left to defend himself. Luckily his wallet and documents were well hidden away and he was tall enough to hold his camera out of their reach.

Jeff went on his way and left us girls alone. We were, to say the least, a bit shaken up.

Discovering the Real Eastern Europe

Later that day, on our way back to the hostel we lost the way. This being the first trip that any of us had to hone our map reading skills – we still needed some practice. At a busy intersection we stood for ages peering at the map, when a man shouted at us from his car.

kindness of strangers in eastern europe
Learning how to read a map

“Where are you going?”

We told him, but he was not sure of the way either. Eventually, we decided on a direction and started heading that way. Our ears suddenly caught the sound of running feet, quickly approaching, and a hand grabbed my friend Sarah on the shoulder.

We screamed and quickly turned around – What now!? The man from the car stood before us breathless.

“It’s that way,” he pointed.

He had parked his car and ran after us when he remembered the way in which we needed to go.

As the trip was coming to an end, our group split up. The girls took a train straight back to Budapest, while I decided to take a train to Keszthely to catch a cheaper (Ryan Air) flight.

I was supposed to change trains in Dombovar, but had missed my connection. I arrived there at around midnight on a mid January evening to learn that there would not be another train for quite some time.

Despite giving myself ample time to make connections, I had underestimated the trains here, and found myself facing the reality that I may miss my flight.

At that moment though, all I could do was settle in and wait. Luckily, I had a very warm sleeping bag.

The Kindness of Strangers

It wasn’t long before I saw a man approaching. He spoke at me persistently in both Hungarian and German while I looked at him blankly. I showed him my train ticket and my plane ticket out of Keszthely.Eventually he gave up and walked away, or so I thought.

About thirty minutes later he approached me with a cell phone. A friend of his, told me, in broken English, that the man would take me to Keszthely.

Confused, cold, and generally feeling sorry for myself, I decided to take a chance and trust the man. Knowing that if this went wrong, it could go really wrong. But my gut instinct told me the man was harmless.

He led me across the train tracks, and as we walked further and further into the darkness, I started to second guess my initial reaction. There I was, a twenty year old girl, unable to communicate, in the middle of the night, in winter, trusting a complete stranger.

Finally we met an ancient looking train engine. It wasn’t attached to any cars, and looked like it should be in a transport museum. The man grabbed my bag and threw it in. He then grabbed me, and threw me in as well. He closed the door to the train, and started to press buttons and pull levers. The train hummed to life reluctantly and started off with a jolt. We communicated using gestures for a while, until eventually I fell asleep.

Just as dawn was approaching, we rolled into Keszthely. Despite all my offers to pay him for his help, he refused. After I got off the train, he slowly pulled back out of the station. I made it to my flight just in time. There is no way I would have caught my flight without the generosity and kindness of this man.

The Beauty of Travel

For 45 years, those of us in the West viewed Eastern Europe as the “other,” as people intrinsically different from us. We feared and reviled them evil, as enemies.

After the wall fell and the iron curtain descended, we began to learn, slowly, that these people are no different than us. They work hard to get ahead in life, they dream of a better future, and they love their friends and families. Their kindness and generosity can come as a shock to those of us who grow up in fiercely individualistic societies.

The beauty of travel is that it forces those of us who are open to the experience, to challenge ourselves. It throws us in situations where we need to draw on personal strength, or learn to trust strangers.

It teaches us that no matter how different we look, and how different our food and dress is, all people are intrinsically the same.

It also forces us to learn how to read a map.

More Resources for Eastern Europe:

My bio: Jade Johnston has been travelling for her entire adult life, and has so far lived in six countries and visited over thirty. She is a co-founder and writer for the http://www.ouroyster.com project along side her partner, James.

15 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers in Eastern Europe”

  1. Uff this is so nice to read! Especially after preparing so long to come to Colombia, and all the warnings I received from people I told about my destination.

    It’s a bunch of crap. Everywhere you go, the majority of people are good and some people are desperate or just mean. The majority, though, is always good.

    I understand Colombians’ total frustration with their country’s reputation for danger: foreigners come to the country scared to talk to people, not sure if they can trust anyone. I imagine Eastern Europeans may feel similarly.

    Something I have noticed though: People in these situations go out of their way to show kindness and debunk the fears that foreigners have, like the man in the car or the man at the train station. Love is a beautiful thing.

  2. Wonderful story. It’s so unexpected sometimes when a stranger is so kind and helpful. Just when you think there’s no hope to find your way or may be heading into a bad situation, someone arrives on the scene to make things right. Love the part about the travel forcing us to challenge ourselves — if we’re open to it. Well said.

    1. One of the best things that travel has taught me is that with patience and hope, everything will eventually work out alright in the end. And it’s even better when the reason that everything works out right in the end is because a random stranger has gone out of their way to help you. 🙂

      Jade Johnston | http://www.ouroyster.com

  3. Roberto Gallegos Ricci

    It’s amazing how people are more drawn to good, than to evil. I liked the post, it;s my first time that I read an article from your website. Cheers and keep up the good work!

    PS Annika and Roberto (a couple of travelers like yourselves)

    1. Thanks! I think that people are more likely to talk about bad experiences than good (you hear more about plane crashes than smooth landings, right?), so it is important that we talk about our good travel experiences. It would be really sad if people felt afraid to travel just because they had not heard the good stories yet.

      Jade Johnston | http://www.ouroyster.com

  4. Great story. When we were in London a few years back, strangers helped us find our way home. 🙂 It’s very comforting to know that there are people who would really care enough to stop for a while just to help others.

  5. This is so true. I love eastern Europe, maybe more than the west. It just feels much more authentic and the people as you say are always very kind and approachable. Even in Russia I found that most misconceptions are totally untrue and I have always felt comfortable and welcome. Look forward to going back to the east later on this year with a trip to Poland having just recently been to Budapest. =)

  6. This was actually a very nice read, it describes the spirit of Romanians and Eastern Europeans fairly. I’m really proud when I read such articles. As Romania is becoming a well known touristic destination, so is Bucharest and all it’s attractions. The world should know that Bucharest’s charm lies not necessarily in it’s sightseeing but in it’s stories and way of living. That’s why some of us locals have gathered together to form BUCHAREST GREETERS, which is a volunteering programme offering FREE TOUR GUIDES but most importantly we offer the chance for tourists to hang out with locals and hear their stories. It’s a great way to uncover the city’s uniqueness.
    If you’re looking for a unique experience and want to SEE FOR YOURSELF what Bucharest has in store or if you want to become part of our volunteering team you can get in touch with us at http://bucharestgreeters.ro/ or check out our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/bucharestgreeters . We’re looking forward to sharing our passion for the city where anything is possible – Bucharest!
    BUCHAREST GREETERS is a proud member of the Global Greeter Network.

  7. If you stay in Bucharest for a few days you must consider visiting the closest Bulgarian city nearby with a bus or taxi service – Ruse!

    The interesting thing is the town is pretty old from 3000-2000 BCE – when pottery, fishing, agriculture, and hunting developed…

    in modern times used to call “The Old Viena” because of the architectural style so you will have many things to do and see in Ruse.

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