The kindness of strangers

Heading back to Britain recently from a small regional airport in southern France brought to mind what is perceived in the collective consciousness as ‘the kindness of strangers’, and what often in reality means ‘the kindness of foreigners’ (or even ‘the kindness of people we can’t understand’).

I had just experienced utter rudeness from a British stranger at the airport: a very well-to-do lady of perhaps fifty. Queuing for the check-in desk (a hassle you rarely encounter with land-based transport) the woman pulls up in front of me with her neat carry-on baggage grinding to a halt beside her ankles like one of the lap-dogs I’d got so used to seeing around Toulon during my week stay.

Instead of a simple apology – saying ‘sorry I didn’t see you there’, or ‘sorry I thought there were two queues’ Mrs Stuck-up Briton 2013 seems eager to accuse me of holding her up from the hour’s wait before our flight’s departure time. For that she was to face the wrath of a 6 am wake up. To my loud cry of ‘excuse me!’ she replies, ‘oh, is that check-in desk not free?’ as if I make a hobby out of standing around airport departure lounges in front of free check-in desks. Desk came out closer to dask.

‘Clearly not’ I reply curtly, my own rudeness embarrassingly unnecessary even if it was witty, igniting giggles from others around me. She irritated me as much as the time of day. It was as if she was under the illusion that as a foreigner – she had no clue I was British too at the time – she was in some way more instinctively allowed to hurry than anyone else. After all, neither of us wanted to miss the chance to examine the goodies inside the single duty-free shop before boarding. It is a snootiness I find rare in travellers – which is all about experience and interaction – or locals. It’s a jolt back into the reality of working life as much as the tyres hitting the tarmac at London city airport.

In contrast to my fellow countrywoman, the Toulonnais had been polite and patient on every occasion. Not only that, I had been taken on an impromptu car journey through the back streets of Toulon to the cable car station at the base of Mount Faron by a local woman whose English, if she had any, was not apparent. It was easier for her to take the time and drive me there than to explain the route. Taking yet another turning, the streets zigzagging slowly uphill towards the base of the 420 metre summit, she took her eyes from the road to the mirror to explain ‘the cable car’s not far, but there are lots of twists to get there.’ In exchange, she asks for nothing, as she turns her small car around and heads back to her flat and the jobs I had distracted her from.

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