When I first saw her, Clara Fernandes was wearing her travel face – neutral, a little wary and with only passing interest in her fellow travellers. She sat down on the bench next to me where I sat waiting. I confess that the prospect of my first trip on one of the trains that serve rural areas in northern Portugal did not necessarily fill me with great expectation. This would be no fast-running metro or city train. And I didn’t find myself in a well-organised station with clear, updated information about platforms and times either. To say there were 2 trains in front of me would be somewhat of an overstatement. Each had only about 3 cars and I could see no destination information or number on either. I knew that one would take me south to Porto and the other would take me north. The latter was the one I wanted, but despite checking at the ticket office, I was anxious about taking the wrong one, so I leaned over to ask Clara Fernandes.
The World Giving Index
It is somewhat surprising that The World Giving Index 2010 doesn’t give Portugal a very high score. In fact, it doesn’t fare well at all against the 153 countries ranked for donating money, volunteering or helping strangers and comes in at an unimpressive 129th place. So really, what could I possibly expect when I asked this woman for help? Truthfully, what do we expect from such situations? A brief and helpful answer is the best possible outcome and a radiant smile is rarely on the menu of options, is it? To my amazement, however, that’s exactly what I got. A smile so wide and an explanation so kind that I didn’t quite know how to react to it (that’s what living in Russia for five years will do to you).
After her answer, Clara leaned back for a few minutes and then stood up and motioned for me to follow her – “It’s better to move to the front when the train is about to leave. More seats.” And so I followed her onto the train and saw immediately that she was saving a seat for me. Over the course of the next half hour I learnt many things, firstly, and most importantly, that it is possible, on the rare occasion, for Portuguese people to speak slowly! Clara officially introduced herself and told me that she was born in Portugal, but had trained as a dressmaker/tailor in France, that she was retired now and that she divided her time between Portugal and France, where most of her children and grandchildren lived. She asked me about our time in Portugal, why we lived here and where I was learning to speak Portuguese. The mere fact that I was able to understand her was enough to make my day, but there was so much more to our brief encounter. Throughout she was kind, motherly and so interested that some of the hardship of moving to a new country faded away instantly.
Dealing with Change
When you’ve lived abroad for a number of years, the constant external changes lead to some internal changes that are hard to ignore. For example, “home” becomes a difficult thing to define and with the vagueness of that notion comes a diminishing sense of belonging. What’s more, it’s fairly inevitable that you’ll lose a valuable friend or two along the way. That sense of loss, especially if it happens on various levels, tends to lower your expectations of the world you currently inhabit, which can make the way you engage with it feel superficial or temporary. When Clara reacted with that rare thing – unreserved friendliness – you can understand why I felt the urge to hug this wonderful woman. It was as if she was pulling me into my new world with a firm, but gentle tug.
When we disembarked, she walked with me to where Tom was waiting to pick me up. I introduced them and we spent a brief minute talking some more. Then she turned to me, kissed my cheeks (we were no longer strangers, after all) and said goodbye. She didn’t ask for a telephone number, nor did she volunteer hers. There was no pretence or expectation beyond the half hour of pleasant chatting with someone who came from a completely different world. That was it. And at that moment it was plenty. There is a Russian proverb that says “kindness is like a spring day” and on that dark winter’s evening, Clara offered me the brightest of spring days without hesitation. For that, and for giving me such faith in the people of my new country, she deserves special mention in any Human Kindness Index.