My family and I have this strange tradition where we collect random coins from the streets, sidewalks, and public places. The person with the most amount of money at the end of the year gets everyone else’s coins. In 2020, I collected 82 cents from the streets…and I spent much of my time indoors due to the pandemic.
A few days ago, as I was crossing the street in Vilnius, Lithuania, I saw a 2-cent euro coin and stopped to pick it up. It was deeply embedded in the cracks of two cobblestones, so it took me a minute to get a good grip on it. I didn’t even realize that a car was coming straight towards me. The car stopped, of course, and I figured he was just letting me pass. But no, instead a young man put his car into park, got out, and started to help push me across the street. Unbeknownst to him, I wasn’t stuck on the street, I was just going after 2-cents. We didn’t speak a word of the same language but both smiled and he got back into his car.
A few days later, in Warsaw, Poland, we were having dinner and asked the waiter for the WiFi password (the data plans we have are expensive, so we try to use WiFi whenever it’s available). The waiter explained that it was not working that day but said we could hotspot off of his phone. We told him it wasn’t necessary but he insisted. Our phones were connected a few minutes later and he set his iPhone down on the table with us, telling us that ‘he trusted us.’ It sat there for our entire meal. When we finished, we thanked him profusely and he said, “Well I wasn’t using it, so why not share?”
The buses and trains in The Baltics have been challenging. Most signs are not in English and there are many buses and trains, all congested in small terminals. As I’ve written before, we’ve missed a few buses and trains due to the general confusion. In Vilnius, Lithuania, we were having trouble locating the bus and our tickets were all in Russian. A wonderfully kind woman did the interpreting we needed and directed us to bus bay #22. As we were approaching the bus, she ran up and stopped us, redirecting us to the correct bus. She smiled so graciously, and really went out of her way to make sure we got onto the right bus safely and in time.
In Poland, we were three minutes from making a train when we encountered a long flight of cement stairs and no elevator. Two women saw us staring up at them, and before we even had time to tackle them on our own, they had our bags and the wheelchair in their hands. Again, we didn’t exchange a single word of English, they just jumped in and helped.
On our first day in Warsaw, Poland, we made the hour-long train ride to the closest stop near Treblinka. Treblinka is where one of the largest concentration camps was located, and they have a museum and memorials that we wanted to visit. Our Google map directions had indicated that we would take the train and then a five-minute taxi from the train station to the museum. We got off of the train to discover that we were pretty much in the middle of a field. There were some buildings off in the distance that looked like a small town and not much more.
The directions indicated that the walk was about three miles, so we figured we may as well give it a try. It didn’t take us long to realize that the sun was beating right overhead and we had little water. We would definitely need to hydrate before we could continue, and even better yet, if we could make it to the small town, perhaps we could get the alleged taxi.
We walked to the town where we found a market to get water and a few snacks. We asked, through Google Translate, everyone we met – the cashier, two female customers, and a man outside – if they had a car and would be willing to drive us to Treblinka. Everyone shook their head no. I was a few seconds away from standing on the side of the street and holding my thumb out when a young man came into the store and held his phone up. Using Google Translate, he communicated that he would drive us to Treblinka. I have no idea where he came from or how he knew we needed a ride, but out of nowhere, he appeared.
We got into his car for the short drive and learned that his name was Christian, he had a two-year old daughter, and he was fortunate that none of his family died in the Holocaust. We gave him 20 euros when we arrived, which he of course did not want to accept, but we insisted. It was the best 20 euros spent. Oh, and he was so kind to be sure that the man working the ticket office knew to call us an actual taxi when we were finished.
The incredibly helpful and kind people I have encountered continues to impress me. They are leaving an impression on me that I won’t forget. I think so often of how these scenarios would play out in my own country and in other parts of the world. It really is like comparing apples and oranges, since I understand the language and the regulations in the US, but it is such an important reminder that taking two to three minutes out of my day to help someone who is struggling can be life changing. For them, and for me.
Our time in Lithuania and Poland was spent strolling the streets, having coffee at more than one coffee shop in the mornings, and sampling the local fares. The food in The Baltics has been some of my favorite in all of my travels, and there is a fun variety that’s not too adventurous for even the most cautious eater.
I haven’t written yet about the impact of the war in Ukraine on these countries – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland – yet because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I can properly articulate in words the immensity of what is happening. I don’t know that a blog post from me is what anyone needs to read. The media is capturing the horror of it all quite well. But what I will put into words is that it is palpable how much these countries can relate, understand, and empathize with Ukraine. The Ukrainian flag is hanging everywhere, signs of support line the streets, and you can sense it in the people that they want nothing more than for this to be over for the Ukrainians. The amount of generosity and kindness is overwhelming and I can’t help but think it has something to do with what they are all too close to today. Everyone in these countries went through the same exact fight just 30 years ago, a memory too current in their minds to forget.
We paid a little less than $25 each for an 8-hour bus from Vilnius, Lithuania to Warsaw, Poland. The bus would ultimately end its route in Kyiv, Ukraine, and after a few stops, it was crammed full of people. The bus itself was less than luxurious with poor air conditioning, uncomfortable seats, and general dirtiness. We were seated in the back row, and as a young mother and her roughly 10-year-old son sat down next to us, her face heavy with sorrow and struggle, I couldn’t help but wonder where they were going and what pain they had been through. Seated in front of us were three young men in their 20s. One of the men started conversing with a stranger seated to next to him. They didn’t speak the same language, so he was using Google to translate his language into English and she did the same thing to translate her language into his. While I only understood one of the three languages, I did see him pull up a picture of a young woman standing next to him. He translated that it was his girlfriend and that her dad and brother had been drafted for the war. I will never know where those three young men were headed, but it broke my heart to think that their destination might have been to Kyiv, to do something no human being should ever have to do.
Poland was emotionally tolling in so many ways. The reality of what is happening just across the border is terrifying and heartbreaking. The reality of the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago, was so prominent. I felt the pain and the sorrow and will never be able to understand how human beings could and can be so outrageously barbaric to each other. It will trouble me forever, knowing that these are just a few of the horrible things this planet has endured, and that as I write this, there are many places in the world where innocent people are being killed in a similar fashion.
I remind myself of the man who parked his car to push me across the street, of the waiter who gave us his phone, of the young man who drove us to Treblinka. All of these people are so close to the human destruction that has happened and is still going on, and I wonder how that has shaped them into the incredible people that they are. Is it possible that we can all become a little more like them, and in time, our world might become better? I have to believe that there is a little bit of kindness in all of us.
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