"Am I ever tired," I thought to myself as I stepped out on the train platform at Oberamergau, a small town in southern Germany known for its yearly Passion Play production. Little did I know there was an unexpected gift headed my way!
You see, I had been traveling for a week throughout Europe during my break between quarters at the Stanford program in Florence, Italy using my own unique way of saving money. So far, I had managed to be pretty self-sufficient.
I had purchased a Eurail pass that allowed me to use any train I liked for a one-week period. Instead of paying for nightly accommodations, I would find a sleeper train departing in the late evening that would arrive somewhere else I wanted to visit in the morning. I would sleep on the train, then get up in a new place to explore the next day.
It had worked like a charm until tonight.
An Impetuous Decision
I decided at the last minute to take a quick train to Oberamergau from Münich since my first year studying German in high school our teacher had taught us a silly song about Oberamergau and another village below it called Unteramergau.
I was singing the song to myself as I descended from the train to the platform: “Heut’ kommt der Hans zu mir, freut sich die Lies. Ob er aber über Oberammergau oder aber über Unterammergau oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt ist nicht gewiß!”
My good mood, however, soon turned sour as I discovered I was in trouble since I had very little money left, and it just happened that there were no night trains leaving a little village station like Oberamergau. My free hotel was not available! In fact, the station was closing up as I was arriving.
The Unexpected Encounter
I looked around for a bench on which I could sleep, but one of the last people leaving the station was a little, white-haired, German lady who came over to me.
“Von wo kommst du?” (Where are you from?) she asked.
“Ich bin Amerikaner,” I answered.
“Wirst du bleiben heute Nacht in der Herberge?” (Are you going to stay tonight at the hostel?) she asked.
“Nein, I habe kein Geld” (No, I don’t have enough money), I replied.
“Komm,” she said and headed for the exit.
Wondering whether she was a psychopath who was leading me into a deadly trap or simply the kind elderly lady she appeared to be, I meekly followed her out to a tiny car. She told me to get in and drove me up a hill.
Soon, in front of us stood a gorgeous alpine home covered with flowers. "Was this an unexpected gift? Or," as my skeptical self entertained, "might this be the gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel lore, where the innocents had almost met their demise?"
She ushered me into a beautiful room with a four-poster bed and asked me if I needed anything. I was so tired, I just told her I wanted to sleep. I fell into the bed and was unconscious in seconds.
Gift upon Gift
In the morning, I awoke to the sound of sparrows and the smell of coffee. The little old lady whose name was Gretchen had made me a wonderful breakfast with homemade bread, butter, yogurt, fresh fruit, and coffee. I don’t even like coffee, but I drank every drop, and it was delicious. Unexpected gift after gift.
Gretchen then drove me down to the train station and made sure I found the correct train. Right before I left, she pushed a basket filled with sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate into my lap. I thanked her profusely and headed down the mountain, past Unteramergau, and ultimately back to Florence.
Gretchen had given me the precious gift of hospitality. A totally unexpected gift that challenged my understanding of what a 'stranger' can be. As a young and foolish student, I hadn’t even thought to get her address in order to write her a proper thank-you letter. There is something, however, about offering hospitality that can’t be returned.
A Simple Act of Kindness = Long-Term Impact
As I look back on this experience many years later, I realize how her generosity has influenced me to want to help others without needing thanks. She may never know the effect she had on me, but it made a difference. Since that time, I've looked for creative ways to offer the unexpected gift as well. Indeed, from this experience I learned how offering hospitality freely is never a waste.
Can you recount a time when you received an unexpected gift like this from a stranger, especially when traveling? Share with us!
Image Credit: Mars87 on Pixabay