Friday, October 16, 2015

How a Norwegian Stranger Took Me to Russia from Bangkok

Why do you ask?

The night I left the hospital in tears and compression socks I fumbled back to my friends’ hostel crying in the street, on the train, and back on the street.  I just couldn’t imagine getting on that plane the next morning- my mind was in a million different places, I had to pack, I had to say goodbye to my friends, I had only one pair of these socks, I barely knew what I had just found out. It was too much. I wasn’t going to Russia.

By the time I got to the hostel I had finished up the tears (or at least this first shocked round of them, there were many more to come that month). I told my friends and then went straight to my dorm room and had an addled conversation with my father, who promptly told me that the worst thing I could do was give up a job and a purpose in order to focus full time on the negative project of worrying about what ifs and whys. Over dinner my friends all co-signed my father’s wisdom. I still didn’t want to go, I still had moments of “Seriously, WHAT IS MY LIFE” when I would look down at the beige bandages on my legs, but in spite of myself I realized that I was in no position to make big, rash decisions like quitting a much looked forward to job that would give me the funds I needed to travel when I was finished. So I was going to Russia.

With that I desperately needed to get out and find some distractions from the fact that I would be heading to the airport the next morning at 6 a.m., which was not very far away at that point. On my way out the door I met a boy from Norway in the stairs. I was a frazzled mess, he was all smiles and laid back how’s it going? We talked in the hall, exchanged polite hostel talk, I declined an invitation to go out with him and his friends. Why, he asked? I have to get up early I hedged, wanting to get out as soon as possible, definitely not wanting to talk to a stranger about it. He told me had to fly to Russia the next morning, and also had to be up early, and that was no excuse. Plus, he had to fly alone, which would suck. It was then that we realized we were on the same flight, and within 5 minutes of meeting we pledged to one another we would be sure the other was awake and ready for what would be our shared ride to the airport. I left with a shout over my shoulder to be sure to set your alarm.

The painfully early next morning (dear reader, I did not sleep, I needed to not sleep at the time, but afterwards oh I wanted to be sleeping) he was nowhere to be found. I lurked around the silent bar and reception, the air sticky, the time creeping by. I pestered the receptionist twice to wake him up to no avail. Finally I made her give me the keys and tell me where he was. She took me up and found him sleeping. He dashed out of bed, threw his things together, and then we hustled down the street to find a taxi. Both sleep deprived, we collapsed on each other in the back of the taxi without saying a word and then it was onto the local train and finally the airport train. We stood learning against each other, my forehead on his chest, his arm around me, both of us onto the next legs of our respective trips, quiet and reflective, balancing on the swaying floor with our bags crowded around and under our feet. None of this was strange or awkward- it was just comfortable. We were bone tired travelers who had gone from thinking we had a long, boring trip ahead of us to having a person to suffer with, to help grab bags and open doors, to ask about ________ while the other asked about ________.  You forget what a luxury it is to have a traveling companion until you have one again after a long stretch of solo wandering. Considering the state I was in, I felt unbelievably lucky that we had bumped into each other the night before. He kept saying he didn’t know what he would have done if he had missed his flight, and I was realizing that part of what helped me deal with my flight was that we had decided to travel together.

At the airport it was a quick check-in and we were able to get seats next to one another. I had an aisle seat; he let me put my legs up on him. We promptly fell asleep on each other like tired kids. We woke up to turbulence and he got nervous; I had been a nervous flyer for years and had finally gotten over my phobias so I reassured him with all sorts of nerdy information about what turbulence is and why it happens. We ate our terrible lunch and then talked for a few hours. I told him about the diagnosis I got the night before. He said he was sorry and pet my hair and held my hand and told me a story of his own. Then it was sleep again for him, anxious rumination for me as he leaned on my shoulder. At the end of the flight my legs were so swollen I could barely bend them, and he rubbed my calves for me and assured me everything would be fine. I cried. He was a stranger and didn’t make me feel bad about the fact that he was taking care of me. I cried more out of gratitude, frustration, and pain. The last two hours of the flight I spent in the back by the bathrooms, performing all manner of exercises to move the fluid out of my legs. I went to the toilet to lay on the ground and put my feet up and within two minutes the stewardess was knocking on the door asking who was in there. I went back to my seat to find this new friend in knitted brow concern over me, asking if I had enough water, did I need anything else, don’t worry, we’re almost there. I kept apologizing for being a mess, he kept saying he wouldn’t have made his flight without me and I saved him, so please don’t worry.

We landed in Moscow and almost immediately had to part ways- he was going on home to Norway to surprise his parents and needed to dash across the airport, I had to go through customs and find my way to the driver of the family for whom I would be working. A quick exchange of Facebook contacts, a hug, goodbye, we turned away and were gone as quickly as we had been together that day. I stumbled through customs on numb feet and swollen legs, and it wasn’t until I was home that night at the family’s apartment in Moscow that it really hit me just what an absolute and total blessing it was to cross paths with him.

We kept in touch on and off, and later this summer I mailed him a care package to the army base where he was completing training for his mandatory service. I put it together in Dresden, spending an afternoon heading to a few different places for random things that might be needed or wanted. It felt really good to be able to return the favor of providing comfort and support. When I handed the box over to the woman at the post office tears immediately came to my eyes.

I have historically been the worst, and I mean the worst, at being vulnerable and accepting help. I hate feeling like a burden; I don’t like feeling weak; I like to feel independent and capable. The last three years of living overseas I have found myself in the most uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in with other humans, often strangers or brand new friends, and I was forced to just let it be and accept their help and trust that it would be all right. The relief and gratitude that I felt in trusting and accepting makes me even more eager to offer help whenever I can, because I know how much it can ease another person’s suffering.


I am going to keep crying in front of strangers if I need to. I’m going to tell people I can’t anymore, and I’m going to trust my friends and family and strangers on the street when they say they can for a while since I can’t.  I’m going to give up needing to be the one taking care all the time and allow myself to accept care. And I’m going to continue offering as much care and comfort as I can, from a place of gratitude to those who allow me to help them. There is nothing noble in suffering for no other reason than you think you deserve to suffer, or that you don’t deserve help when it is kindly offered, or that you need to prove something by doing it alone. Some of my most satisfying moments in this life have been when I have selflessly helped someone else, and I never regretted offering that help. Forget your ego. If you’re in a position where you need help, and people want to give it, let them. 


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