The Nice Thing About Strangers

Creative Non-Fiction Short Stories. :) Travel, Oldsters, Love, and Compassion.


I get to sit by him! The little old Japanese man I spotted back in the glacial airport check-in lines–he’s in my row and he will be spied upon.

He wears a surgical mask, sits for a while with his feet tucked under his thighs. He peers out browline glasses, he has wispy hair and vinelike eyebrows. The classic Grandpa cardigan keeps him warm.

His wife rests in the seat between us, so short her feet only touched the floor when she points them. My bag is under the seat in front of me and when I lean to get a pen, she thinks I am bowing. She bows lower. I bow back.

Later I need lip balm, a snack, another book–any time I reach for my bag she begins to bow. We set off a series of respectful awkwardness in the small space above the seat pocket. I want to say something–thank you or a correlative, respectful term for a cease-fire–but suddenly the only Japanese that comes to mind is, “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto,” and I have no idea what it actually means. So we just keep smiling and bowing. The little old man by the window sometimes watches the contest, sometimes skims a Japanese guidebook about Budapest, and sometimes stares straight ahead, his eyes not drooping closed with exhaustion. Not yet. Not on their first leg.

When we arrive, there is an echo of clicks from unlatched seatbelts as the announcement asks people to stay seated during taxi. It’s not an emergency evacuation, but a moment of contagious restlessness. People stand and start pushing forward. We are only going to a shuttle bus on the ground, after all. Once out of the plane, the waiting will continue, but there was no desire on the part of the passengers to let rows in front of them depart first.

Channeling someone much tougher than myself, I move into the aisle and hold back the maddening crowd so my darling and miniscule seatmates can climb out of the airplane before being overrun. I quite enjoy compelling politeness out of the 30+ numbered rows. As they grumble, I smile. And when I enter the shuttle, my seatmates offer me one last excellent bow. So we are even.

-Flight from Budapest to London. Also the scene of: The Shared Eyebrow and the Runaway Tablet

Danube, Budapest, parliament


20 comments on “Respect

  1. Steven Wordsmith Lincoln
    April 11, 2012

    Passengers should be schooled in the politeness and efficiency of deplaning. Thanks for sticking up for yourself and your seat mates. They would say “domo arigato” for sure.

    Favorite line in this one: “We set off a series of respectful awkwardness in the small space above the seat pocket. “

  2. Natalie
    April 20, 2012

    I really like this one. Your writing is amazing!!!

  3. Reblogged this on The Nice Thing About Strangers and commented:

    Away at work today, but I’ll share this cultural encounter anyway. 🙂

  4. evelyneholingue
    March 24, 2014

    One of your nicest moments, I really enjoyed this story a lot. The two last lines are my favorites in this well crafted piece.

    • Thank you, Evelyne! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Now anytime I feel embarrassed, it becomes a story. 🙂 I appreciate your kind comment.

      • Susan Knox
        December 18, 2015

        Interesting criteria for a story…..I am new to your blog and enjoying it, and have passed it on to two friends. I wonder what will be next?

      • thenicethingaboutstrangers
        December 20, 2015

        Susan, What a nice post, thank you! I’m honored you’ve passed on the blog. I’m always looking for the nice things and hoping others will start to watch these details as well. We can have such a big impact with a small action. 🙂
        Merry Christmas!

  5. hughcurtler
    March 24, 2014

    Very well done. A fun read!

  6. suej
    March 24, 2014

    Lovely snapshot!

  7. Christopher S. Malone
    March 24, 2014

    Each anecdote is a colorful puzzle piece adding up to a bigger… well… picture.

    Great work, Paige.

    • Mmm, puzzles! 🙂 You know I’m a fan of puzzles. Thanks, Christopher! Hope all is well in the great Northeast.

      • Christopher S. Malone
        April 1, 2014

        Yes I do.

        Things are a-changin’ … Hope everything is well with you. 🙂

  8. M. R.
    March 24, 2014

    You could write these vignettes till the cows come home and they wouldn’t lose an iota of their charm.
    I hope you will put them together in some way, Paige, one day …

    • M.R.,
      I have been thinking about it. I worry that in a volume they might seem all alike, but perhaps I can find a way. Thank you! 🙂

      • M-R
        March 31, 2014

        You just need a good editor, Paige …

      • Are you looking for a new job, M.R.? 🙂

      • M-R
        April 1, 2014

        I wouldn’t be so bold, I promise ! My editing was restricted to PhD theses (and the occasional Masters, for my sins): I don’t have the experience to edit wonderful stuff like yours, unhappily …

  9. Darlene
    March 24, 2014

    Fabulous shot of Budapest, a city I love. Lovely story. When you spend time with passengers on a flight, you often feel connected in some way. I love that she thought you were bowing. I enjoy your wonderful vignettes.

    • I also just love Budapest. This was one of those accidental photos from my first trip to Europe. What a city to fall in love with! 🙂
      Thank you, Darlene–

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