June 25, 2011
Earth does two things well:
receives all gifts with grace and
If you find a friend who receives your gifts, however silly or inadequate, with grace and love, cherish that friend.
If you find a friend who gives without expectation, gives without remembering a gift was ever given, cherish that friend.
Salzburg’s youth hostel filled that afternoon with the usual crowd – a mixture of college graduates avoiding life’s next step, a few poor souls looking for a warm, cheap bed, and a sprinkling of older people who had never lost their wanderlust. I had used some Christmas money to buy a train pass to travel on my own from Denmark where I lived at the time to Austria and back during my Christmas break.
Reading and relaxing on my bunk – one of five in the room, I noticed in one corner a flustered young man, about 30 years old, attempting to persuade a group of strangers to lend him money so he could return to Germany where he currently lived. Although I still had book in hand, my attention now focused on that conversation in the corner.
The man found no sympathetic ears. Heads shook and the group turned away. It became obvious that the man, visibly embarrassed by his situation, felt compelled to persist and eventually came to me having success nowhere else. He introduced himself, said he was a professor from South America currently teaching in Germany. He and his wife had traveled to Austria between semesters. He said they had lost their remaining money, or it had been stolen, on their arrival to Salzburg.
“How much do you need?” I asked. He told me $40 would pay for their return, and added that, when he had returned home in Germany, he could wire the money to my address in Denmark.
The group in the corner had stuck around to see if I would fall for his story and lend this perfect stranger the money. Maybe because the holiday season had infected me; maybe because the man seemed both desparate and sincere; maybe because I wanted to believe him; or maybe for all those reasons, in spite of misgivings and Polonius’s sage advice, I took $40 from my money belt and handed it to the man.
Surprise and relief showed on his face, as he nervously thanked me several times, and hurriedly left with the $40. Before anyone from the corner crowd could voice his opinion on my actions, the man returned and handed me an old poster. He quickly, but thoroughly, explained that the gold and turquoise museum piece on black background depicted on the poster was a sacrificial knife in the shape of an ancient god of the lost Incas. I thanked him, and he left the room. That is the last time I ever saw the man, but I have thought about him often.
A couple of the travelers from the corner came over to my bunk, and one said, “Hey, Buddy, you just bought yourself a $40 used poster.” What could I say? They were right. When I returned to Denmark, I hung the sacrificial knife poster on my bedroom wall, and every morning woke up to this strange god.
In spite of the poster, I forgot about the money until one day in late March when I received a notice from the Danish Postal Service that the equivalent of $40 had been delivered to me and I could pick it up at the postkontor when I pleased. Later the same day, I fetched the money and taped the receipt to my poster of the forgotten god.