It was already pitch black when I heaved my backpack off the train floor and stepped out into a cold, rainy night in a town close to Lake Geneva, Switzerland. This was the last leg of my European tour, a trip I had meticulously planned in order to attend the various music festivals offered each summer. The Montreux Jazz Festival was the culmination of my trip, a festival I had dreamed about attending ever since I discovered Dexter Gordon, Live at Montreux, at an old used record store. I must have played that record a thousand times, each time imagining myself in the crowd, taking in his soulful music. I had to pinch myself. I was actually here. I couldn’t have been more excited. Except for one small problem. The train had arrived late, which was rare back then for Eurorail trains. When I arrived at the Pensione I had booked, I found it was closed due to an unexpected construction issue. Now what? I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night.
I set off on foot, hoping to luck out, maybe find a small hotel that wasn’t listed in my Let’s Go Europe book. I walked for blocks and blocks, only managing to get more and more drenched. At that point I decided my best option would be to find a doorway, or a storefront with an overhang, that would keep me dry while I closed my eyes for a few hours.
I saw a shop with a big awning in front of it and crossed the street to check it out. That’s when I spotted an older gentlemen walking on the sidewalk towards me. ‘Now this is odd,’ I thought to myself. It must have been close to 10pm. ‘What was this guy doing, walking in the rain at night, like it was the most normal thing to do?’ Still, I was feeling somewhat desperate and decided to ask him if he knew of a place I could stay. However, I couldn’t speak German, French, or Italian, the most common languages spoken in Switzerland. I just hoped he’d be able to understand me well enough to point me in the right direction.
At first he looked at me as if I were an apparition who had materialized from the fog to terrorize him. Once he realized I was an actual human being, and a young, cold, and lost American one at that, he smiled and gestured for me to follow him. It wasn’t my first choice, following a complete stranger, in a foreign country, to who-knows-where, but I figured I’d take my chances since I didn’t really want to sleep on the sidewalk.
I sized him up as I followed closely behind him. He certainly didn’t look threatening and I figured I could take him if it came to that. He led me down a few winding streets, then some more, and then even more. Now my imagination started running wild. ‘Where was he taking me? Was he leading me into a trap in order to steal my prized festival tickets? Would his cohorts beat me to an inch of my life, or worse, and leave me to rot in the middle of the street?’ I shook my head and forced myself to think more positive thoughts.
Finally, we stopped in front of a small, charming house, that mirrored almost to the letter, the gingerbread houses I used to construct as a kid, out of graham crackers, marshmallows, and vanilla or fudge icing. He opened the gate and walked passed the house to a smaller structure in the back, probably once a garage, but now a workshop. He led me in and pointed to the stairs that led up to a loft. He smiled reassuringly and kept pointing for me to climb the ladder.
Now, I felt like a total tool. Was he really offering a complete stranger a place to stay for the night? It was hard to fathom his generosity, but yet, here he was, an old Swiss man extending kindness I had never experienced before. I was blown away and could feel tears forming in my eyes. I didn’t know how to respond. So I didn’t. All I did was return his smile and climb the stairs.