Be a Kind Stranger

Jet-lagged Train rider

We wrapped up our Lessons from the Road series a few days ago, but on the first day of our trip to Europe, something happened that reminded us of another important lesson. 

Our Riding the Rails experience began right off the plane when we landed in Denmark. We took the train from the airport to Copenhagen central station, and luckily, the trip was uneventful. Well, except for one incident.

Terri and I were standing on the platform when a confused, jet-lagged, and bewildered teenager walked up and asked me – ME of all people – for directions! A 9-hour, overnight, transatlantic flight puts me at about 9.5 on the “jet lag meter,” so I might not be the best person for guidance.

“Sir, can you tell me how to get to Lund?”  (That’s Lund, Sweden – not Denmark!) And wonder of wonders, I knew the answer. His relief was palpable. He went back to his luggage, plopped down, and when the train arrived he dragged his gear onboard.

My first trip abroad is forever etched in my mind, and I snapped this photo as a reminder of those days. As a traveler, there have been so many times that I relied (and still rely) on the kindness of strangers. Time and again, I got the help I needed. We live in troubled times, but in my experience, most people are friendly, helpful, and trusting. I hope this kid got to Lund, but if he didn’t, I’m sure that someone else helped him along.

Travel, by definition, puts us in unfamiliar places and situations. I always remember, appreciate, and never take for granted, those strangers that helped me along.

Travel (and sometimes life) is hard enough. If you have the chance, be a kind stranger.

Happy Trails,



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

90 thoughts

    1. That’s very funny Margaret, and I can expand on Rule #1. This has happened to me many times, and it happens whether I’m abroad or at home. Another common occurrence for me is that people ask me to take their photograph. This happened here in Copenhagen twice yesterday. But I’m not offended by this, in fact, I take it as a compliment. My interpretation is that I’m honest looking and they think that I won’t bolt with their camera, and that I’m capable enough to press a shutter button. 🙂 ~James

      1. That is a very accurate rule of travel.

        But here’s another rule (of mine). Most people in the world are kind people just trying to get on with their lives. The worst they will do to you is simply say they don’t know the answer. Most of the time they will try to help in whatever way they can. This means if you ask a random stranger for help there is a 98% chance nothing bad will happen and let’s say a 75% chance you’ll end up at least marginally better off.

        But about fifty percent of people who notice you and ask if you need help are on the take.

        Lesson: reach out! Either to increase your chances or to increase someone else’s. 🙂

  1. ah! almost two in the morning here, and i was just about to shut down the computer.. and there you are..

    and at two, the post and images loaded – shazayam!— reminds me of watching a family sprint thru the bogota airport to catch the shuttle to board the very-late plane for quito. the three-generation party of three wore the expressions of extreme stress. the youngest lad was about twelve, and father was borderline for a stroke. grandmother seemed fairly serene…. they jumped into the shuttle, and i smiled and said, ‘it’s fine.. until ten minutes ago, there were two other planes boarding at our gate, and this one has just started.’

    whew.. their stress evaporated! i learned that they were on their way to the galapagos, so i bid them farewell again in gye!

    the ‘young lad’ in your photo seemed quite weary… don’t you wonder what he will do with his life, what he will become, and how that moment will affect his life?

    what a great story to end my very long day! thank you!


    1. Your story sounds familiar Lisa, and it was kind of you – karma remembers. I’ve been on both sides of this tale; the running to catch a plane, and trying to reassure a stranger that things will work out. I know that missing a plane, or having travel plans go awry isn’t a disaster, but it can seem like it at the time. And regarding the lad, it’s hard to know. When I started traveling I had never been anywhere – and I mean anywhere, but it got into my blood and I’ve never looked back. But, I know people that took a trip to Europe after high school and have never traveled since. Who knows how it will work? Have a good sleep, and hopefully no earthquakes. ~James

      1. ha! i will be stomping up and down and across that new madrid fault area! i will also be the intrepid one by flying on the 11th, which from here the travel warnings say, ‘high alert’ for travel into the usa…

        i’m going in via houston, so that is always a bit easier.

        btw, the earth has been quiet down here for quite some time… full moon approaching… hmmm.

        in bahia de caraquez, there’s a very obvious fault line, and the highway is always horrible there.. a new route has recently been cut, and it’s fascinating to see the geologic ‘tears’ along that stretch of road.

        thanks, always, for your temblor trivia!


  2. Someone just posted a comment on my FB page that said “Kindness doesn’t cost a damn thing, sprinkle that sh*t everywhere” I’m sure it felt good to you to be able to help him on his way. Imagine what a better place the world would be if we all practiced kindness!

    1. Love the quote Laura, and it’s a good philosophy to live by. When I travel I’m particularly sensitive to putting myself in someone else’s shoes. Terri and I have both been in some tight spots, and good samaritans usually help us out. It renews my faith in mankind. ~James

    1. It did make me feel good Carol, and that’s the beauty. It’s win-win and there’s no excuse for not being kind. The funny thing is that I knew half the answer from my research, and the other half by luck (seeing a train map in the airport train station). But I’m glad to have been of help. ~James

    1. Thanks so much Carol for the reblog of our post. And I’m sure that like you, most travelers distinctly remember instances where strangers have gone out of there way to be helpful. It should be a cycle that perpetuates itself. ~James

  3. James I agree with you about extending kindness at every opportunity. On our first trip to Italy we were jet lagged and very unfamiliar with train travel. Three trains later and a bus had it not been for many strangers guiding us I am certain we would have ended up in the wrong country. Lovely post and so glad you were able to help the young man.

    1. Thanks Sue. One observation that I can make about the trains in Italy is that they aren’t the most user-friendly in Europe. That’s for sure. And if there’s one country where a good samaritan is a welcome sight, it’s Italy. On one of my early trips to Amsterdam I was on a train going the The Hague, and if it weren’t for a gentleman sitting next to me, I would have ended up in Belgium. See, I’ve had guardian angels from day 1. ~James

      1. You can never have too many Guardian Angels James that is for sure. After reviewing our train tickets across the entire country and into France I’m hopeful one or two will shine down on us. 🙂
        Sending good wishes to you and Terri. I hope Denmark is treating you well.

  4. With the media assaulting us with so much negative we sometimes need a reminder of just how many good people there are in the world. Kindness, patience, and compassion are always a good approach, particularly when one is in travel status. Enjoy your travels!

    1. LuAnn I couldn’t agree more, and don’t get me started on the media assaulting us with bad news. One of my pet peeves is the local news on TV. They don’t seem to have enough bad news to report from their area, so they pick up the wacko, one-off stories from the other side of the country. And all of the sudden, grandmothers in Peoria believe that every person they see is going to grab their purse. Ahh, sorry for that rant, but this type of news certainly works to kill the kindness in people. ~James

      1. When I listen to the final sound-bite at the end of the daily news feed, usually a feel-good story, I have said to Terry that wouldn’t it be wonderful if this could be turned around. Make the entire news broadcast about feel-good stories and that last sound bite about some tragedy in the world. Imagine how being assaulted with so much good on a daily basis would change our perspectives. 🙂

  5. Great thought!

    Not a trip, but I worked for a retired SF soldier at a Christmas tree farm part time starting in sixth grade. Worse thing I ever did as I’ve never had a boss that compares to him. 🙂

    I think back to all the people I grew up around and it is amazing how much time they took to help me.

    Great article!

    1. Boyd, if you worked as a volunteer in the dead of winter all this time, you’ve paid your dues my man. Well done. The exercise that we all need to do on a regular basis is make a list of the people in our lives who have been special to us. Thanks for the comment. ~James

      1. I worked 12 years for him. It was a lot of fun.

        I remember as a 16 year old him giving me $10,000 to $20,000 to hold to give people change. I was the only person he ever let hold any money. Made a big impression on me. We are still great friends. 🙂

        Making a list of everyone that has touched your life is a very good idea.

        You are welcome. Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. I’ve even been asked for directions by obvious locals (in Moscow, no less!). It always makes me feel that I’m blending in, but it may just be that people don’t expect older women to travel solo….

    My best kindness of strangers story is from when I fell and broke my wrist in Murren. Two wonderful British couples rushed across the road and picked me up. One couple took my backpack on to my B&B, and the other took me back down the mountain to the doctor. Truly good Samaritans.

    The ability to come up with a Plan B on short notice is a valuable travel skill.

    1. Kathy, as I said to another commenter, I think that it’s a matter of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. These two kind couples remembered themselves in a tough spot, and someone came along to help. They paid if forward, and all involved were better for the experience. The key for each of us is to remember these events and these people, and keep the ball rolling. ~James

    1. Thank much Sheena, and I’m not surprised that you feel this way. Truly perceptive travelers know that this is the best way to be. Travel puts us outside our normal element, and if there’s anywhere that someone can be themselves, it’s around strangers. No expectations, no history – so why not extend a helping hand? ~James

  7. Hi James, you are SO right… I know that in my year+ of travel around SE Asia, followed by the Trans-Siberian, Russia and Germany, I have the locals, expats and other travelers to thank – for their unwavering kindness & helpful directions (including hand gestures of all kinds!)

    1. Amit, I’m sure that with all your serious injuries in SE Asia, there must have been lots of helpers that you thank to this day. Helpful strangers aren’t really something that I’ve heard travelers talk much about, but we should. I know that they’ve helped us out of a lot of tight spots. ~James

      1. Yes of course, being saved by locals after my accident tops that list. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember and feel miraculously grateful. Thank YOU for reminding us all, bloggers, readers & so on…

  8. People, strange and familiar, should always be polite and helpful within their capability. Complete strangers have my thanks many times.

    That young man sure looks bamboozled. Glad you had the answer. Sometimes you don’t know all the things you know.:-D 😀 😀 A walking encyclopedia.

    1. Thanks Tess. I could have been this young guy in my early travel days. He was shot, and it was “any port in a storm” for him. We’ve all been there at one point or another; the key is to remember it, and do what we can, when we can. (And I must admit that I was pretty chuffed that I knew the answer.) ~James

  9. I agree wholeheartedly that, when we travel, we sometimes need to look to perfect strangers to help guide us on our way, and most people are happy if not eager to help.

    I remember looking for a particular shop in Panama. I knew it was nearby, but there were no signs or clues. I asked a local pedestrian where I might find this shop and she pointed up the street I was on. A block later I asked another pedestrian and he pointed back the way I had come. I found out later that Panamanians are typically so eager to help that they will give you an answer to your question even if it was wrong. It is all part of the experience and the memories we take with us.

    Thanks for your timely reminder. I think we can all be that helpful stranger at some point. – Mike

    1. You’re right Mike that it’s all part of the experience and memories that we take with us. The differences and subtle cultural clues are bewildering and intriguing at the same time. As Americans, we can’t relate to being misleading just to please (well, unless you’re climbing the corporate ladder), and yet to some cultures it’s important. At the end of the day, it’s about being helpful, and that’s what’s important. ~James

  10. Cannot count the number of times we’ve needed the kindness of strangers. People are fabulous. Everywhere we go – kind, helpful, openhearted, proud of their country. From time to time we’ve been able to pay it forward. It always feels so good when you can.

    1. We’ve had similar experiences Alison, and for us it’s one of the reasons that we feel comfortable going to off-the-beaten-path places. Our experience has shown us that if we need help, usually we can find it. And this does feel good to know. ~James

  11. So true! The kindness of strangers has found me in many places during my travels in Japan and New Zealand. All I know is that I have a lot to pay forward now that I’m back in my native country. Thanks for sharing! Truer words haven’t been spoken this day!

    1. Thanks for the comment Matthew and for dropping by the blog. All long-term travelers get lost and confused from time to time, and a helping hand is always welcome. Not only for the the assistance, but it’s also an opportunity to make a contact with a local person – and that’s one of the reasons that we travel. ~James

    1. My heart went out to this young man, and it was a vivid reminder for me. My first trip abroad was solo, and I was pretty much on my own. And believe me, I remember every helping hand. ~James

  12. It always feels good to be able to help some. I am glad when I can. Also, I have found I always feel kindly toward a place where someone goes out of their way to be helpful. Karma, I am sure, plays a part. Good blog, James. –Curt

    1. Thanks Curt. From what I know of your history, I had you pegged as a very helpful guy. You don’t volunteer in Africa (particularly where you were) without a few altruistic genes in your system. And I totally agree about the impression of a place based on how helpful people are. ~James

  13. Yes that is so true… I have relied on help from many as we have a knack for getting lost 😉 In Hong Kong and Seoul we were surprised to see people go out of their way to notice and offer help -before we even asked! It made such a good impression on the city. In Shanghai we have little Chinese (shame on us, but with a busy work schedule and working in an English environment we haven’t been forced to learn). Whenever stuck someone has come to our rescue. We have returned the favour and helped bewildered looking tourists. It only takes a second and it means a lot to the person who asked.

    1. It’s particularly nice when someone comes up and asks if you need help. I hadn’t thought of this until your comment, but there’s probably a cross-cultural “lost tourist” look that we all exhibit when we need help. Travelers huddled over a map, pointing in all directions, and scratching their heads send a help-me signal. The good samaritans pick up on these vibes and move in to help. ~James

  14. Happened to me in Chile! I was terribly lost on a bus in Santiago too late at night, and too scared to call my host family to get me. A lady got off the bus with me and waited with me until the rift one came, and then made sure the bus driver got me to the right place. And then that driver got me on the right bus back home. Angels exist!

    1. That’s quite the heart-warming story Gaby. You just want to give helpful people like this a big hug. Once in Seville, we were on a walk, and we took a break in a small plaza. It didn’t seem threatening, but as we sat a nice looking older man came up and asked us (in English) where we were from and how we liked Seville. After a minute of conversation, he asked where we were headed and we told him. Then he said in a low voice that we probably shouldn’t spend much more time in the plaza – that is wasn’t a safe place for tourists. This is the type of unsolicited help that has kept us out of trouble, and we’re so thankful for it. ~James

    1. Interesting point about teenagers Darlene. I guess that the younger we are, the less inhibited we are. There’s a lesson there. And I must admit that deciding who to ask for help can be difficult decision. But a kind face always stands out.
      ~ James

  15. Ah, to appear the least qualified, yet to deliver the goods (at least on this occasion).

    It did make me LOL a little however, as here in Mexico, the people would prefer to appear to know the answer (whether their answer is correct or not… frustrating when it comes to directions), rather than confirm that they in fact do not!

    1. That’s an interesting point Chris. On our spring trip to Mexico, I got directions on two separate occasions that were total BS. I just chalked it up to my poor Spanish. ~James

  16. You certainly captured that young mans weariness in your photo – so glad you could help the poor kid! I have benefitted so many times from the kindness of strangers and it’s always such a gift.

  17. It is so true that travel often puts us in the hands of strangers. I can’t tell you how many times people have taken the time to go way out of their way to help me and my wife. It restores my faith in humanity.

    1. It happens so much Jeff that I suspect that most people lose count, but all these instances are never forgotten. I help whenever I can, but I still have a long way to go to pay back all the folks that have helped me ~James

    1. Thanks for the kind (and clever) words Martha. And the god of kind strangers must have been watching, because I needed to make a phone call and couldn’t find a pay phone (we don’t travel with cell phones in Europe), and a cute, young couple let me use theirs. And they wouldn’t hear of letting me pay them. There may be something to this Karma thing. Do you think they wrote a blog post about me? ~James

  18. My husband (also jet-lagged) once left his briefcase on the hook of an airport luggage cart at Heathrow. Some kind person found it, dug out his phone number, called him – and then DROVE OUT OF HIS WAY TO MEET HIM at a motorway rest stop and return the briefcase. For every awful person in the world, I like to thing that there are many kind ones 🙂

    1. Great story Jeannee. Isn’t this sort of kindness amazing. And after an incident like this, how can any of us not be kind to other strangers? We all know and encounter kind people every day, but sadly, the awful people are the ones that get the most attention, and seem to be the most memorable. But, this conversation is a start on the change. ~James

  19. Terri & James, I see you’re on this side of the Atlantic again? Too bad we weren’t closer!

    I’m ever amazed by the kind strangers that we meet along the way, regardless of where we are in the world. Your post reminds us that we can make a difference for others even when we aren’t on our home turf.

    Where in Denmark do you think your travels will take you? 🙂

    1. Tricia, I think that I’d be hard-pressed to find a long term traveler that hasn’t repeatedly relied on the kindness of strangers. As I said to another commenter, it’s not something that travelers talk much about, but we should. As to travel plans, we’re not sure yet, but we did take a wonderful day trip (on the train of course) to Malmo, Sweden. ~James

  20. Meeting friendly, helpful strangers abroad is what makes travel so wonderful. And we folk in the English speaking world benefit so much from people in other countries being able to talk at least a little English. When they do, the sharing of stories can add so much to the understanding and appreciation of the place being visited.

    1. I agree Dorothy. No matter where I travel, there isn’t a day that passes that I don’t remind myself how lucky I am to be an English speaker. At the same time, I feel a bit guilty that I don’t work harder to learn more of the local language. But, as you point out, being able to communicate (in any language) enriches the travel experience. ~James

  21. wow – there are so many times I wish I had grabbed a photo to reflect on a moment later – and well, the picture you grabbed really does make the story come to life more. very cool. and also reminds us of the exhausting feeling that comes from travel – it’s exciting and needed, but takes a toll – and his posture said it all.

    and I agree about being a kind stranger – and we have usually met amazing ones – although we know not to take directions form someone who says “um” more than ten times in their instructions. and one time, only once – we had someone tell us the wrong way. It was in Canada and we asked a lady to the Niagar Falls entrance – so class – could hear it – but not sure – and she told us to go up ten blocks and left at the light. We did this and had to walk all the way back – cos it was really down two blocks and right there. Now maybe she misunderstood or thought there was access that way – but all in our party felt dooped – and how mean to do if that was the case. and so with that – I say 3 cheers to this post reminding us to all be “kind strangers” – it is just nice to be nice…


    1. Thanks very much. As a traveler, you know from experience all the things that are going on in this photo. Long, multi-leg international flights always make me wonder why I keep doing it. It’s hard on everyone, even the young. The key is to determine how to minimize the effects for YOU. I love the being there, but the getting there, not so much. And one of the benefits of travel is that it makes us feel that it’s OK to ask for help. Independence is a very good thing, but “No man is an island.” ~James

    1. Joanne, I think it’s the same with most travelers. It feels great to help, and when you need it, great to be helped. A young woman came up to me in the metro just yesterday and asked a question (probably directions). I felt really bad that all I could say was “Ich spreche kein Deutsch”. ~James

  22. This reminds me of the time we were at Shell Beach on our way back to Perth from Monkey Mia (Western Australia), and met 3 pretty Swiss lasses who were backpacking their way further up north. We gave them a lift in our car (it was a bit squished at the back!) to the “main road” 70 km away(!!). And left them at a truck stop where they could get a lift from someone heading north. I wonder what further adventures these young women had afterwards.

    1. In my experience, helping fellow travelers is never wasted effort, and the kindness is always repaid; sometimes when I need it the most. And isn’t a big part of the travel experience making contact with new people? ~James

      1. True. I helped a young Canadian chap a few months ago, and he still corresponds with me by email. He’s only 24 but plans to skipper his own boat around the world soon, and has promised to drop anchor where I am.

  23. Ditto for me ~ I’ve had my share of help in my younger travel days and now I attempt to pay it forward whenever possible. Even if it’s just offering to take a photo.

    1. I’m a big believer in karma Patti, and I’m sure that when you least expect it, there will be payback. I never take help for granted, whether big or small, and it’s usually win-win. Happy New Year! ~James

    1. I’m a map person and usually do pretty well, but often, in a new city when I walk out of the train station I just need one good landmark close by, and that’s where help from a local is great. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. ~James

      1. Agree:) I wish you a fantastic weekend. We are just staying at home today and try to cool down a bit, it has been really hot in Copenhagen these couples of days and it feel really roasting. Yes. I bought a big pack of sorbet ice cream yesterday to cool down and it was yummy:)

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