The last night I spent on a winter trip to Venice, I misjudged my timing. I had a fantastic late lunch at a cicchetti bar, bought my ticket for the waterbus to the airport, rode the #1 vaporetta at sunset timed just right for an incredible view of light and water, and returned to my room to pack and prepare for my journey home. I was completely packed and ready at…7:45 p.m.
I had nothing to do. Moments like this can sink me when I’m on my own. I didn’t want dinner or a drink, shopping was done, emails had been sent…and it was way too early to sink into a bath and a nightcap. Most of all, I felt out of sync with the world and my vision of the trip.
Being in an exotic and beautiful city with nothing to do feels like cataclysmic waste. I did a quick inventory of the week and places I might like to revisit – a walk, a hidden square, perfect window shopping. Then I remembered a bright spot, an odd moment that happened during the high water on Monday. It was late morning and all of us boot-sporting pedestrians had climbed atop 3-foot-high walkways to traverse the low water-filled squares. When I stumbled down at the end of the planks, I looked behind me at the line of tiny, elderly women with shopping bags. How were they going to do this? (Better than me as it turned out – experience should not be underrated.) I stood at the end of the walk and handed one after another ladies down to the sidewalk.
Why did that moment stand out? In those few minutes, I was not receiving help but was giving help. I was useful to someone else. At home, I have the opportunity to be useful to others, as we all do, everyday but when I am travelling, this didn’t happen often. Usually, I’m the one depending on the kindness of others.
That night in Venice, I thought of the story about John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican priest. It’s said that he would not go to bed at the end of the day until he’d done at least one good and selfless deed. This was setting the bar high but I decided to take an hour and walk through Venice and just look for an opportunity to give back some of the help I’d received all week.
Moments out the door, I saw two frustrated and exhausted American women with a wrinkled map and too much luggage. They were looking for the Hotel Flora, a wonderful hotel where I’d stayed two years before. It’s beautiful but hard to find unless you know where to look for their sign — look down on the pavement at your feet! I introduced myself and walked back with them the half block and pointed out the entrance. Clearly no big deal for me but I remembered how it felt to arrive in a strange city, tired and jet-lagged and anxious for your room. There were other interesting encounters with fellow travelers that evening. Though I have truly no sense of direction, walking the city for a week helped me pass on some aid to new arrivals.
After a week of wondering how to get the most enjoyment out of my vacation, how to find all the spots I wanted to see, and asking myself what would make my trip memorable, my last night was saved by the welcome relief of helping, of being useful to other travelers even in small ways.
The time flew, I walked through streets I loved, seeing the sights one more time, and everything looked new again, I had purpose and was then delighted to find my bath and a Bellini.
What I Learned
We can only stand so much time focused on ourselves before it feels like the spiritual equivalent of eating too many doughnuts.
Allow some time to help a stranger, look for special mementos for friends who don’t expect it, put money in the donation boxes, write a complimentary review of those who help you at the hotel.
When you do find yourself, as you will, depending on help from someone else, if you can, make it a two-way interaction. Ask questions – find out more about the desk clerk, the museum guide, the store owner, the tourist beside you on the train who provides that answer.
Remember that ‘doing good’ is tricky and in the eye of the beholder. As in the case of the elderly ladies in the flood, I surprised them. I needed to help more than they needed me (which was not at all), but it was still important.
Hold dear the two-way, interacting, powerful role of citizen of the world.