An Ode to The Kindness of Strangers
I had been in Albania for four days. My friend and I were staying on the coast where endless days melted into sticky nights and our pink skin slowly cooked under the Mediterranean sun. We took day trips to the deep clear pools of the Blue Lagoon, and spent long nights in a shared dorm room, one fan slowly pushing the hot, heavy air between our beds.
On the fifth day, we rose early, strapped on our backpacks and made our way to the local bus stop. Most people were still sleeping, unaware that the asphalt was already humming with the promise of a hot day.
On arrival, we found broken air-conditioning and a full bus. Squeezing on, we sat wedged between local children, one of whom casually threw up in a bag, successfully circulating the smell of sick through the trapped humid air.
Six hours later, we arrived at our guesthouse in Berat, by which point the edges of my vision had become blurry and my skin had become hotter than a shirtless Channing Tatum. In a shitty turn of events (literally), my friend was curled up on our guesthouse floor, unable to move far from the safety of a toilet and unlikely to fetch me water and hydrolytes.
Certain I was on the brink of death, I rose from my bed and slowly shuffled in what I hoped was the direction of the hostel common room. I had become nauseous and shaky and was mentally writing my will in my mind: “I bequeath my panda hat and diaries to Laura because no-one except her should have that weird shit.”
Instead of the common room, I accidentally stumbled into the front room of the older couple who ran the hostel. I had disturbed an afternoon television session and two surprised faces looked at me as I attempted to ask for water. Neither of them spoke English and neither understood my broken Albanian. The last of my energy used up on this language attempt, I collapsed. My sun-soaked limbs had finally given in to the heatstroke that had been building for the last four days.
Immediately, the old woman in the room sprung into action. She spoke to her husband rapidly and he quickly left the room, shutting the door behind him. She turned off the TV and gently guided me to the couch. Her husband returned with bottles of cold water, a sheet and strips of cloth. The woman helped me take small sips of water before gently peeling off my sweaty clothes.
She lay me down on the couch and covered my body in the cool white sheet. Soaking the strips of cloth in cold water, she placed them under my arms, along my groin and on my forehead. She stroked the damp hair off my forehead and muttered softly in Albanian, intermittently feeding me sips of cold water as she refreshed the strips.
I turned my head and looked out the window, seeing nothing but unfamiliarity. The thrill of the unknown was no longer thrilling; I could see Ottoman houses in the distance, their windows winking afternoon sunlight at me and all I could do was cry. The woman noticed and tutted at me as if I was a silly child, which in that moment I was.
She helped me sip more water and continued cooling down my body with strips of cloth until I was well enough to be moved back to my own bed. Too shaky to do anything except lean on her for support, I repeated Faleminderit over and over, although my voice was weak and my Albanian was poor. I grabbed her hands and squeezed them.
“Thank you,” I said again. She smiled at me, briskly squeezed my hand and left.
We never knew each other beyond the confines of that small living room in that small Albanian town. She didn’t speak my language, but she cared for me when I was surrounded by unfamiliar mountains and the soft murmurs of an unfamiliar tongue. She made me remember that even when you’re alone in a foreign country and your friend is expelling liquid from all orifices, you can always find the kindness of strangers. As long as you’re willing to pass out unannounced on their living room floor.
Ciover by Daniel Garcia