2008 Contest Shortlist

The Kindness of Strangers

It can be tough to be a girl on her own on the road. But when things go wrong – even this wrong – you just have to pick yourself up and carry on.

Today was the day. After finishing teaching English in Hungary I was off on my first solo adventure. First stop Copenhagen, Denmark. Getting off the train I found myself on a park bench at 7am wondering, What now? How do you actually begin an adventure? Then the good looking black guy sitting next to me asked to borrow a pen. We got talking and it turned out that he was from the same country as the star player of my local football team. A connection was made. Would I like to go get breakfast?

It seemed I needn’t have worried about how my adventure was going to begin. All it had taken was a little indecision and biro. After breakfast Sam took me to Christiania and a coffee shop. He bought some weed and rolled a joint, passed it to me, I passed it to the café owner who passed it to the man who had sold us the cannabis, who passed it to the only other person in the café, who just happened to be in there for coffee. This, I concluded, was a cool place.

We passed the day wandering around Christiania. I met Roger the Scottish hippie. I ate sprouts and tofu for lunch. I drank beer with Danish drop outs. I got very, very stoned. It was exactly what I had hoped travelling would be like.

Sam asked if I wanted to come meet some of his fellow West African (legal, illegal and semi-legal) immigrant friends that evening. More adventure! We danced, we drank, we chatted. It was a great night out with a cool bunch of people. I heard stories of arrival and deportment, struggling and thriving. Finally it was time to go home.

Sam invited me back to his house. Why not? He was good lucking, attentive, funny and smart. Our taxi wound its way between suburbs, so densely packed with houses I wondered how we’d ever find our way out again. Getting home, we listened to some music, had another drink and went to bed. And did what two consenting adults who randomly met on a park bench do. Fully protected of course. He was, after all, an illegal immigrant from Africa, a continent riddled with AIDS.

It was athletic and pleasurably exhausting. After a break, we commenced to resume, only this time with a difference.

‘Can I come in you raw?’ he asked. Understandably not very thrilled with the prospect, I declined. Which is not to say he did. Suddenly all that athleticism became a bit less pleasant, a little bit more like being pinned down by someone much stronger. Maybe I could have screamed. Maybe one of the neighbours would have come to investigate. Or maybe he’d have hit me until I was quiet. I’ll never know. But what I did suddenly realise was that I was naked, in the suburbs of a city I didn’t know, with no friends and no phone. No-one at home knew where I was. They didn’t even know what country I was in, never mind what part of what city. I didn’t even know that.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life. Instead of being a grown up at the start of her big adventure, I felt like a foolish child. How could I have left myself so vulnerable? How would I cope if I wound up pregnant? Or HIV positive? Sated, he fell asleep. I gathered up my possessions, put on my clothes, walked out the door and kept going until I found a main road and a taxi back to the city centre.

I’d like to say this story has a happy ending. But I can’t imagine what that would be. I never saw Sam, or Copenhagen again; its ramifications continue to reverberate through my life still now. I haven’t gone back to a stranger’s house for sex since. So, on the plus side, I went through university and beyond without doing all that one night stand and regret stuff my friends seemed to do.

This happened when I was 19 years old, on the very first day of my very first adventure as a traveller. I didn’t call my mum and ask her to come rescue me. I didn’t blow all my money on a nice hotel and a good cry. Instead I got the hell of out Dodge and did the most sensible thing I could think of – I went to Amsterdam to get very, very wasted.

I arrived there at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night a bit dazed, with not much money and nowhere to go. A Czech man approached me in the station and asked me if I was looking for somewhere to stay. He explained his boss had a barge on the canal for travellers where I could stay if I wanted. It might sound stupid, given what had happened only a day before, but I went with him. He spoke Hungarian and there was something comforting about having a faltering conversation in a shared language which very few non-nationals speak.

Besides, I figured I could drop my bag, push him in a canal and run away if it came to it. But mostly I knew that I couldn’t let what happened the night before ruin my life, or even this trip for that matter. As Blanche du Bois once said, you can always rely on the kindness of strangers. And here was a kind stranger. Besides, it was either that or pass the night in a train station full of wasted men. Which did not appeal in the slightest.

We got to the barge and there were four Irish women sitting on the roof. The one nearest us handed me a joint and then asked my name and how long I was staying. My Czech guide showed me down into the body of the barge, which comprised eight or ten canvas bunkbeds against the walls with a table and chairs in the middle. I could barely see it was so smoky and as I descended one of the chairs’ occupants proffered a bong. None of them spoke, they all just waved vaguely and receded back into the fog.

I decided to stay. And ended up in a miniature community of disorganised wasters. The kind of people who turned up in Amsterdam in the height of summer with nowhere to stay organised. I spent a week living on that barge. One day we bought a football and had the most inept game of football I’ve ever played. Another day I dragged some of them to the Van Gogh museum where we ‘appreciated’ the art in a wobbly sort of way. We argued over whose turn it was to go to the coffee shop two minutes walk away. And so on.

Yes, I had a bad experience. Yes, it made me wary. But there was no way I was going to let it stop me travelling, no way I was going to shut myself off from the world because of it. And so I opened myself up, just one day later, to another foolish and potentially dangerous situation and had one of the most enjoyable (if least well remembered) weeks of my life. To travel means opening yourself up to experience. And it’s not always nice. The kindly stranger may not be so kindly after all. But thankfully most of them are. I’ve had a few bumps and scrapes, and a few scares on the road. But I have also been met with love, kindness and generosity beyond measure. Shit happens, bad and good, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

Oh, and for the record, I didn’t get pregnant, didn’t get HIV and did get to see the midnight sun.

Lucy Pickering