There’s little that can bring a bigger smile to a bicycle-traveller’s face than a spontaneous act of kindness from a stranger. Incidentally, I have come to really dislike the word ‘stranger’. It implies something which I don’t believe to be true; that anyone with whom we aren’t familiar shouldn’t be trusted. Because they’re ‘strange’.
But travel was always going to disarm that misconception. It seems a very long time ago that I went through the process of realising that almost all people are generally really nice, unless they’ve had some particular button pushed. We unfortunately get fed only these examples, lapping up — as we love to do — the drama of others’ lives in other lands.
I roll up in a tiny town with my new-found pizza addiction raging hard. I pootle about, looking for somewhere likely. The solitary café is closed. Only the supermarket is open and it looks like it’s kick-out time there too as people head for their cars and drive off as I pass.
Initially I dismiss it, because from the outside it’s difficult to say whether or not it’s open. But after riding three times past this little grill-kebab-pizza restaurant, such as are found in every little town up here, I decide to try the door, which opens, revealing a rather more charming little eatery than I’d imagined.
This kind of travel, by the way, regularly requires snap-judgements of people, and gut instinct quickly grows very accurate. There’s a young-looking man behind the counter in the kitchen, and a young-looking woman who greets me with a smile. Something tells me in that moment they’re a couple and that the little girl at the table in the far corner is probably their daughter. And something in the genuineness of the lady’s smile gives me a good feeling, so I decide to stay.
There’s no shortage of customers, and not wishing to colonise too much space with assorted clothes and damp accessories I set up shop at the back of the room and scan the menu. I ask if there’s something extremely cheesy and the man offers to make a special pizza for me. He exudes positivity and zeal, with none of the miserable sulk one sometimes finds from those who one day find themselves working in low-key roadside establishments. In fact, it seems he takes pride in the job.
It’s been snowing most of the day — incredibly feather-light, floaty, fluffy stuff. The warmth is addictive and, despite watching the scene outside the window turn deep blue and begin to vanish into night-time, I hang around. I’m not entirely sure why but I feel fairly at home here at my little table, watching the couple calmly and methodically go about their work. The other customers drift away and the workers find a moment to take a seat at the next table.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re crazy?”
Many times, I tell him. That’s true. I am entirely unable to explain succinctly to ‘strangers’ why I’m cycling through the bitter winter of northern Scandinavia, alone, for fun. To do so requires a long explanation of the context in which this trip sits, and frankly I usually opt to play the crazy guy for practicality’s sake.
We get chatting. Tea is brought, which I haven’t asked for, and presented with another warm smile. This young family have only been here two months, and they have high hopes for the place, which has seen a big rise in custom since they took over. We talk about the place, about my trip, and about the man’s dream to eventually make a living from web-design.
Time draws on, and I know I’ve got to get going.
“But maybe you’d like another pizza to take away?”
I think that sounds like a pretty good idea, given how tasty was the sixteen-inch cheese-ridden monstrosity I’ve just devoured, so I agree. And I go to pay the bill. How much do I owe them?
“Nothing.” He turns round and looks at me squarely with an enormous smile. I protest but he won’t hear anything of it. The pizzas and drinks are absolutely on the house.
So I thank them both dearly, far more for their show of generosity than for the pizza itself. I’m the one wearing the enormous smile now.
And that’s not all. He disappears back into the kitchen and returns with two cans. “Do you eat tuna?” And bananas. And the lady takes my thermos flask and brings it back full of tea. All of this is pressed vigorously on me.
I’m overwhelmed. And leaving that cosy little place, that little place by the roadside on the way through a nondescript village in the remote north of Sweden, is the hardest thing I do all week. This loving and generous family watch, smiling still but barely concealing their concern for my well-being — in the knowledge that I’m going to bivvy up in the forest — as I wave my goodbyes and thank-yous and set off relentlessly into the night.
So here’s to you, people. To all of those who’ve unwittingly made another person’s day glorious through a simple act of kindness, and to those who have this power within them and who will one day make it known.