Monday, June 2, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers: A Greek in Vienna

One of my best experiences in travel came in Vienna, Austria after my dad and I had visited the museum at the arsenal. It was a small gesture from a stranger, but it embodies one of the things I find most rewarding – the unexpected kindness of strangers.

Walking back from the military museum, we were passing the Belvedere Palace grounds on our way to St. Stephen’s Cathedral where we planned to meet up with my mom and sister.

Admiring the palace, which consists of two buildings separated by a well-groomed park, neither of us noticed the short, Mediterranean-featured man as he walked up to us.

“Excuse me,” he said.

I turned and acknowledged him.

“Are you Americans?” he asked, and we nodded. “I want you to come to my restaurant and have a beer or a glass of wine, on me.”

Since I had been offered free beer and wine by a restaurateur…well, never, I was instantly suspicious. Not only did he supposedly want to give me free alcohol, but he wasn’t put off by the fact that I was an American.

Initially, I turned him down, but he was persistent, and we had a half-hour or so to kill, so we followed him to the corner opposite the Upper Belvedere, where his Greek restaurant sat.

He told us to sit down, and we let him know that we couldn’t eat or have any more than one drink, as we had somewhere to be. He still insisted we sit at one of the outdoor tables while he went inside to grab ice-cold draught beers.

He sat down with us and told us he had a brother living in America, somewhere in the Midwest. The two men had opened the restaurant together 10 years earlier. As business was slow, he truly wanted nothing more than to sit and talk with us over beers about the land his brother had moved to. It surely didn’t hurt to have some customers sitting at his café, but I believe he really did just want the company.

We left him with a promise to suggest his restaurant to my mom, who was making the dinner decision that night, but told him we most likely wouldn’t be eating there. He didn’t seem to mind at all, and thanked us for our conversation, and we thanked him for the beers.

We didn’t return to his café, as we ate at a restaurant near St. Stephen’s, but I have every intention of dining there the next time I’m in Vienna. I have no idea what the name of the restaurant was, but I can still picture the spartan outdoor tables and the blue sign with Greek lettering over the door.

More importantly, the random act of friendship sticks in my mind.

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