What Google maps doesn’t teach you

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Over the years I’ve learnt from Paolo that the most interesting way to get directions when we are lost is to ask someone passing by if they know the way.  Most of the time it works and we are back on track in no time.  Even when it does not lead to the right indications, it beats looking on Google maps because it is the chance for a spontaneous exchange with people and those encounters often leave us with a smile on our face or a shared experience to remember.

Recently, as I was returning home from the Veluwe, I was cycling with my large backpack near the center of Arnhem, trying to figure out the way to the train station.  I saw a man who was walking towards me on the sidewalk, so I smiled to catch his attention and asked in Dutch how to get to the station.  He replied in English that he doesn’t speak Dutch, adding that he is from Syria, so I asked my question again in English and he kindly pointed me in the direction of the station.  I thanked him but before I could pedal off again, he indicated that I should wait and started rummaging around for something deep in his backpack.

After about thirty seconds, he pulled out a mini-snickers bar and held it out to me with a smile. My first reaction was to refuse, a sort of reflex from deep down, not wanting to take something he probably needed more than me, and then quickly I thought after all if he is handing it to me he probably wants me to have it.  So I took it, thanking him and feeling very touched. We smiled at each other, feeling the warmth of connection for a few seconds, the simplicity of giving and receiving this small gift, and then I cycled away to catch my train waving goodbye.

Now looking back, it seems that by asking for directions I received more than just a geographical location.  I’ll never see that man again but our shared moment has stayed with me.  Alongside the directions to the station, I also subtly received directions for life: a reminder of how generosity can be found in small gestures of human connection and how it lights us up.

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