AT THE TRAIN station in Milan last week, I was one of the first to board the train that would take me to Switzerland.
A few minutes later, an American couple and their daughter, who appeared to be about 9 or 10 years old, boarded.
Right before them, with their larger suitcases (and they were large and heavy) came a dark-skinned man, probably East Asian, who proceeded to heave the suitcases up onto the luggage racks. When he finished, he held out his hand.
“Do you work here?” the wife demanded. He said no.
“Then you shouldn’t be on this train!” she said angrily. The guy sheepishly suggested that she might give him some money and he would gladly get off.
“No!” she said. “I am not giving you money! You do not belong on this train! Get off!”
The guy tried again but was again refused and eventually he did get off the train.
The family’s seats were at the other end of car, so she ordered (yes, ordered) her husband and child to go to their seats while she stood guard over their luggage. I guess she was afraid the guy would come back and take her heavy bags.
It just so happened that my bag was on the lower rack. My first instinct had been to offer to move mine to the overhead rack so that this family would have room for their suitcases, but after what I saw and heard, I felt no compunction to help out.
Next to my bag was the bag of another passenger, another dark-skinned East Asian guy of about 30. He had gone to the bathroom, or somewhere, and had missed all that had happened. When he returned, he decided to move his bag, and he reached for it.
The still-irate American woman slapped his hand and said, “That isn’t yours!”
The Asian guy appeared shocked and said nothing, but he again reached for his bag and again the woman slapped his hand away, repeating that it wasn’t his bag.
I sat there, watching in a state of unbelief for a few seconds but finally I said loudly, “Yes it is! It’s his bag.”
The woman turned to me and gave me a stare that said, “Who the hell are you?”
I repeated, “That is his bag. Let him have it, damn it.”
With that, she removed her hand from the guy’s suitcase and he was able to retrieve it. He looked at me with both a bewildered and thankful look.
“I’m sorry about that,” I told him, loud enough for the woman to hear. And as he exited, I said, “Jesus . . . unfreakingbelievable!”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that was his bag?” she said sharply.
“You didn’t,” I responded. “But you assumed that it wasn’t just because he has a brown skin.”
“That is not true!” she said. “That had nothing to do with it at all. It did not enter into the equation.”
“Of course it did!” I countered.
“You don’t know me,” she said. “My job happens to take me all over the world and I work with all kinds of people.”
And with that, she walked off to join her husband and child.
NOW, HAVING JUST lost all of my money and credit card to a subway thief in Rome a few days earlier, I understood oh so well that there are crooks and thieves in Europe, just as there are in every corner of the world. I know that they steal not only wallets, but also suitcases. So I can understand the natural instinct of a person in a foreign country to protect what is hers.
But this woman was not protecting her luggage, she was protecting the luggage of someone else – someone she didn’t even know — from a guy she assumed was not the owner of the bag, and that assumption was based solely on the way he looked.
The way this American woman reacted to the dark-skinned man’s attempt to retrieve his own suitcase still makes me shudder. She probably would have slapped my hand if I had attempted to reach for my bag.
And so I can’t help wondering what kind of message about Americans she – and others like her – send out to all the people with whom they come in contact as they travel around the world. Surely there has got to be a way to be protective and smart about our belongings while traveling abroad without treating like dirt those with whom we come in contact.