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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers….and Lufthansa

European Alpine Village

As someone who has traveled the world extensively for over 40 years, and run his own international adventure travel company for almost 30 years, relating the following story is an effort at full disclosure and humility.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Lufthansa was our preferred airline for East Coast passengers traveling to Nepal, offering direct service Frankfurt-Kathmandu. In 1992 the airline provided my family of four with complimentary tickets from Boston to Kathmandu in appreciation for our longstanding support of their Kathmandu service. We decided to layover in Germany for a long weekend so that I could acquaint my wife Muna, and kids with a country very near and dear to my heart.

After picking up our rental car in Frankfurt, we headed south on the autobahn and stopped an hour later for breakfast. On returning to the car, I wanted to get something out of my camera bag and realized it was missing. Earlier, at the parking garage, my son thought I had put it into the trunk, and I thought he had put it in. We raced back to the airport at 190 km/hour. As expected, it wasn’t where we had left it, so I went to the small trailer that served as the agency’s garage office to inquire if they had found it.

Having not spoken German for several years, I struggled to explain to the man behind the counter about my “kleine, schwarze Reisetasche,” at which point his eyes lit up and he burst into a smile and said in English, “You are lucky mann.” He then directed me to the counter inside the terminal where, he assured me, his assistant Rudolf had deposited it after finding it.

In addition to two camera bodies and thousands of dollars’ worth of lenses, the big problem with losing the bag would have been its other contents: four airline tickets and four passports, one of them being Nepali, which would have required extensive driving around Bonn on Monday to get replacements. The tickets were a real concern because they were gifts of the airline, and replacements, if available, would have to be sent from the Boston office on the Monday flight so we could catch the Tuesday flight to Kathmandu.

When the bag was handed to me, the agent insisted that I check to be sure that everything was there, which it was. I then asked if I could meet with Rudolf to thank him, and was told that he had gone on his coffee break. I asked the agent to please give him 100 marks for his having saved us from lots of trouble, and she was genuinely offended at the idea and refused. Thinking I had offered too much, I pulled out a 50 mark note. Same result. I then asked if Rudolf had any children, and the agent’s eyes lit up as she described his two cute little boys. I asked if they liked chocolate. “Oh boy, do they!” she replied. I put a 20 mark note on the counter and asked her to tell Rudolf to buy some chocolate for his sons, and she finally assented, with a big smile.

It’s not always easy when traveling in foreign countries to know exactly how our actions will be perceived, but two of the great things about travel are learning how some things are universal, and how naturally kindness from strangers can occur.

When we went to check in for the flight to Kathmandu, the check-in agent advised us that the flight was quite full, and asked if we would mind being bumped to business class. I’ve been on many flights in my life, but that was one of the most enjoyable. Thank you, Lufthansa, and a big danke schoen to Rudolf.


~ Steve Conlon
Above the Clouds

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