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England, Korea, and the Kindness of Strangers

September 6, 2012

Today’s culture spotlight is really just a couple of personal stories of mine demonstrating my experience with some of the highs and lows of human compassion in a few of the world’s major cities. Every city will have its fair share of both, but I find this to be a telling example of how misfortune is often just the place to see people shine the brightest.

In the summer of 2008 I took a brief trip to England with my family. It was my first time visiting Europe, and as a medieval history enthusiast I was very excited to see the castles, museums, etc. Stonehenge was also high on my list, so we rented a car, with the intention of spending the day in London before driving up to Salisbury.

The damage.

While in London our first stop was the Tower of London, which is an absolute treat for any historian or connoisseur of art and architecture. It’s really a fascinating site with examples of masonry from the remains of the Roman walls to the early modern trim. The Crown Jewels are also on display there, as well as a number of other rotating museum exhibits. It was the first real castle I had ever seen after years of research, and all the pictures I built up in my mind still didn’t match the sale of the real thing. I left the magnificent structure absolutely glowing, but the mood turned sour quickly, when we returned to our rental car and discovered a shattered window and a number of other clear signs of forced entry. Apparently we had parked near a building dedicated to helping lower-class residents recover from drug addictions, and one of the tenants had likely relapsed and smashed the window to hunt down any valuables. Luckily we had packed light, and hadn’t left anything behind worth stealing, but it still put a damper on the Stonehenge trip since we had two hours of highway driving ahead of us.

As we stood moping, a cab pulled up behind us and the driver steped out, looking for all the world like the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins (albeit with a much more convincing accent). He had just finished his shift, and strolled by without a word as we struggled to sweep the glass off the seat with a credit card.

Two minutes later he was back with a broom and dustpan, explaining the likely reason for the break-in and explaining he was always happy to help his American cousins. After he heard about out planned trip to Stonehenge he even offered some plastic wrap and tape to cover up the window for the drive. But this man wasn’t done yet. A few minutes later we were all in the back of his cab as he drove us to a local pub for some beer and fish & chips. The Captain Kidd pub is situated in a 17thcentury building on the same street as Execution Dock, where the notorious pirate was hanged in 1701, hence the name.

The view from the Captain Kidd pub on the Thames.

London is a city of contrast, home to both modern skyscrapers and ancient Roman ruins. As I mentioned in my photo of the week featuring the Olympic torch in Vancouver, Canada, London’s own Olympic event showcased the diversity of the city, and indeed of humanity in general. This contrast and diversity is apparent on every level of the city, featuring kings, tyrants, Romans, Celts, athletes, bishops, cabbies, businessmen, pirates and addicts, the tale of King Arthur and the Industrial Revolution. Their ceremony featured celebrities from James Bond to Mr. Bean.

As a side note, in August of 2008, just two months after my trip, a group of London residents founded The Kindness Offensive, a group that exists and thrives today.

From an act of crime sprung an act of international friendship, although I can’t remember his name. That may have been the first and last time I ever saw him, but the generosity he embodied was not gone. Four years later I was on a subway in Busan, South Korea. My hostel booking had fallen through and I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night. Just before I was ready to step off the train a kindly Australian lady tapped me on the shoulder, and the next thing I knew I was fifty miles away, shopping for ginseng root with her husband and three kids.

Several days later, also in the Busan Subway, A Korean man in a suite approached me and asked – in broken English – if I was lost. I showed him the address to the hostel I had booked, but rather than just point the way, he proceeded to personally guide me down various streets for the better part of thirty minutes. There were several points in the journey where I worried if I was about to be led into an alley and robbed, or if this was a part of some scam, until we finally reached our destination. He then handed me his card (he was a design consultant) and left.

People can be pretty incredible sometimes.

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