We pulled up in our cab to a pastel pink building in the heart of sleepy Noli where an elderly woman stood on the steps to the entrance waving enthusiastically. Buongiorno! She greeted us and indicated for us to follow her inside. She led us up a flight of steep, narrow stairs, which she climbed with ease, to our apartment.
She gave us a tour of our accommodations. The space was compact but had everything we needed. She spoke limited English but was eager to practice with us, pointing at various objects in the room and waiting expectantly for us to state the English word for it. Remote. Fan. Light switch. She repeated.
When she was finished with the tour, she asked us if we would like to visit her friend who lived below our apartment. Surprised and delighted by the unexpected invitation, though exhausted from a long train trip, I knew we couldn’t turn her down. Connecting with people from all over the world was one of the primary goals of our travels, and this was a special opportunity.
The door to the apartment downstairs opened, and our host embraced her friend with a hug and a kiss on each cheek, explaining in Italian that we were the guests staying upstairs. Wearing a fresh apron and her gray hair pulled back with a pin, our host’s friend welcomed us warmly, and I wondered how many times she had invited the guests from upstairs into her home before. She poured us some hot Italian coffee accompanied by a tray full of delicious biscotti.
Both women were bubbly and enthusiastic about getting to know us, and though we often resorted to charades to get our points across, the pleasure we took in learning more about each other outweighed any language barrier. When I mentioned the next stop on our journey would be the South of France, our new neighbor produced a stack of magazines highlighting various regions in that area. The women flipped through the pages, pointing at different towns and recommending we visit the region of Provence. Bellissima. It turned out that because Noli is just a short train ride away from the French Riviera, exploring the South of France is a popular getaway for locals.
The conversation shifted when our host noticed a ring on my finger. I had gotten engaged just two weeks before. She gestured for me to give her my hand so she could ogle at what was actually a ring purchased from a street vendor in an alleyway in Positano on the Amalfi Coast (the real ring had been forgotten in the United States… but that’s a story for a different day). Tanti auguri! They cheered.
After an hour or so together, we said goodbye to our new friends with a hug and kiss on the cheek, armed with a list of local restaurant recommendations and the best spots to get WiFi around town.
This particular memory of my adventures abroad resonates with me now more than ever, at a time when our country is suffering from a pandemic and we are forced to isolate not only from strangers but also from our loved ones. In this challenging time, I’m trying to embrace the lesson these women taught me. While we can’t exactly invite strangers in for coffee and conversation right now, we can practice being compassionate, understanding, curious, and most importantly, kind.
On a year-long trip around some of the most famous cities in Europe, three days in a small, rather unheard of beach town with little to do other than relax by the water probably shouldn’t have been all that memorable. But thanks to the generosity and kindness these two women showed us, memories of the quiet town of Noli are still with me. We were strangers, yet they opened their doors to us, fed us, and displayed a genuine interest in our lives.
Reach out to family and friends you might not have talked to in awhile. Check in on those who are living alone. Ask the store clerk, who may be bagging your groceries at some risk to their health, how he or she is doing. Go the extra mile to help someone out. Be proactive in your attempts to learn and understand the experiences of others… and listen.
Acts of kindness are always important, but they seem to have an even greater impact in this new world in which we are all more secluded. Time feels stagnant, and each day seems to blend into the next. But gestures of love, no matter how small, can bring light to the gloomiest of days. While we are all physically disconnected, we are together in our attempts to adapt to a new way of life. By looking out for each other, I’m hopeful we’ll make it through with a greater appreciation of those little interactions that we may have overlooked in a pre-pandemic world.