Buon Viaggio: Encounters with Strangers

By Mandy Lee (Follow us on LinkedIn)

“I emailed the entry instructions to you as a reply to your email. I didn’t see your email before. It must have been in my spam folder.” A faint, embarrassed laugh followed. 

Florence train station crowded interior
Picture provided by author

She was lying. Otherwise, how would she have known to look in her spam folder for my email address, four months after I had emailed her to lay out my case for a refund? Hurt stung my heart as the call concluded and I stared, vaguely, at the people crisscrossing the station in front of me.

Almost five thousand miles from home, I was about to board a train for Bologna, Italy, to stay in the bed and breakfast owned by the person with whom I had just spoken, a person who had not adhered to her stated cancellation policy, and, accordingly, had refused to refund the not-insignificant payment that I had remitted to her for a four-night stay. Instead, she had offered a credit, good for six months. If not for her, though, who knows when I might have realized my childhood dream of traveling to Italy? Hence, here my mom and I were, in the middle of the Florence Santa Maria Novella station. To compound matters, the taxi driver who had deposited us in front of the station earlier had tried to rip us off. 

protect yo heart sidewalk paint which I crossed out with a red, X
Picture provided by author

As my mom and I waded through the masses, wheeling our luggage next to us, to look at the giant monitor identifying platform assignments, I heard a voice to my left, and turned to see a woman smiling at me. “Many trains,” the woman began. I hesitated. Was she out to take advantage of me, too? Like the two people with whom I had just interacted, like the young men who used to loiter around the food court of one of the Chicago commuter train stations, preying on gullible people like me to believe their sob stories and give them $20 bills to help them get home while they waited for their bank account access issues to be resolved. When I had returned home that evening, my mom had been furious at me for having fallen for the con artist’s trap. “You believed him?!” The memory of my mom’s disappointment in me, years later, still creates a twinge of pain. 

On the other hand, this woman’s face looked Asian. Had she sought a kindred human amid the tide of strangers, someone who, due to a common heritage, might be more likely to empathize with her? Like the time I had offered to give directions to a woman wearing a headscarf, steps from the entrance/exit to a subway station in downtown Chicago? I had wondered if she had felt vulnerable, if she would be afraid to ask people for help, in the event that the reactions were not kind to her. This calls to mind the time when my brother and I had been denied service in a restaurant in Munich, in which we were the only Asian people in the establishment, as well as the time in a restaurant in North Dakota . . . in Nebraska . . . in Chicago . . . 

Perceived shared ethnicity notwithstanding, my heart was still too freshly sore from the previous encounters. “Sorry,” I mumbled, and turned away. I didn’t look back. But, exactly one month to the day, the guilt of my mistake – perhaps – still weighs on my conscience. “She probably was sincere,” my mom had ventured, later, when I had told her what had happened three feet from her, amid the throng and the cacophony of the 1930s-era, Italian modernist building, one of the busiest train stations in Italy. I still wonder what had happened to her, whether she had found her train among those 19 tracks, and an average of 49 trains per day to Rome, and 46 trains per day to Milan . . .  

After my interactions with the taxi driver and the innkeeper, I ruminated on people who, on jobs that, thrive off of taking from others, of taking advantage of others. I was glad that I worked in a library – in an environment where, for the most part, people chose to help others, rather than to profit off of them.

If I could do it over again, I would do what I usually do, when I’m on my home turf – ask, “can I help you find something?” Maybe my wallet, or my phone, or even my phone battery – as once had happened in Paris – might have disappeared in the process. Or maybe, just maybe, I would have helped a fellow traveler, vulnerable like me, to find her way.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.