Thursday, July 28, 2011

Karim Karim

“Track 2. Let’s go. RUN!!!”

So, we ran. And we made it onto the train as the doors closed. It had been a long day in Venice and we just wanted to get back to our hotel in Treviso—16 miles away by train and bus. We had used one of the self-service kiosks and purchased our tickets just moments before, tore them out of the tray, and scrambled through the crowds at Santa Lucia Station, elbowing our way onto the train to Treviso.

Only, it turned out to be the train to Verona, instead. Thankfully, we realized we were on the wrong train just a few stops into the trip and got off as soon as we could. And found ourselves alone on a Sunday evening at the Dolo train station. There were no travelers and no employees at the locked station. Just three tired and frustrated Americans.

The immediate vicinity of the station in Dolo did not have much happening on that particular Sunday night, so Isabel and I walked off toward an open shop a block away. We were going to try to call a taxi or get whatever information we could about the next train back to where we started. On our way we passed two men standing outside their car parked on the roadside. We asked them if they spoke English, assuming they were Italian. They did not, but as we walked away I heard one say something to the other in Arabic.

I stopped in my tracks and asked them, “tatakelum Arabi?” They said yes and then called their friend, Karim, over. Using a mixture of English and Arabic, I explained to Karim that we were stuck and needed a taxi or some help finding our way back to Treviso. Karim took care of a few loose ends with his friends, made a quick phone call, and then gave us his complete focus and attention.

He spent almost an hour with us, first helping us call a taxi dispatcher to find out it would cost the ridiculous sum of 50 euros to get a cab from Dolo to Treviso, and then helping us sort through the train schedule to ascertain that a train would be coming through Dolo in an hour and it would take us back to where we needed to be.

As we settled in to wait for the train Karim started asking questions—“What is your name?” “What is your wife’s name?” “Your daughter?” “How old is your wife?” “Where are you from?” “Where do you live?” “What is your phone number?” “Where is your hotel?” He wrote his number for us and said we must call him if we needed anything. He left before the train came and took us away. But not before both Erica and I started to feel a little bit nervous—just a little bit suspicious about Karim from Morocco. He seemed maybe just a bit too helpful.

That all happened Sunday night. A day and a half later—Tuesday afternoon—we were in Padua, having taken a train from Treviso so that we could spend our last day in Italy roaming agenda-less around an interesting town. After a bit of clothes shopping we followed our feet to Bar Fuji for some sushi. It was on Via Roma, a pedestrian street with umbrella-ed tables set where the cars used to drive, and it came highly rated by our guidebook. We took a table and sat back to wait for our food.

And just then Isabel saw Karim walking by. She and Erica recognized him and called out and Karim came over to join us at our table. We were all a bit surprised to see Karim again. And again, a bit suspicious. We talked as we waited for our food. Karim told us he is a plasterer who has worked all over the Arab world and Italy. He has a wife and two daughters of his own in Morocco. His family lives near Marrakesh and he wrote their phone number and told us we could stay with them any time we were in Morocco. He told us about his cat falling asleep on his wife and purring like an engine.

I am not sure exactly what he said or when he said it, but at some point in our 30-minute conversation with Karim at lunch that day it became clear to both me and Erica that our suspicions about his motives were entirely off-base.

We managed to talk for a while in a mix of English, Italian, and Arabic and became convinced that Karim was simply a generous man who had been trying to help some travelers in need far from home. Once we parted ways, Erica and I had a chance to talk about our reactions to Karim and our earlier lack of trust. Was it because we were lost and far from home and feeling vulnerable? Was it because he was so insistent? Was it because he was Moroccan?

Mostly, I think it was because we just didn’t have enough information. If an Italian man or a British man or an American man had been just as helpful and insistent, I would have been just as suspicious of his motives. Sad to say, but true. Most people simply don’t go so far out of their way to help strangers without any gain for themselves. We assumed Karim was like most people we have met. But he wasn’t.

I don’t feel like I owe Karim an apology—that’s not what this is about. Actually, it was not clear to me at all why I was even writing about this encounter until just now. I am writing and posting this small story about Karim to share a bit of good news. There are people in the world who are generous and kind and helpful. It can be hard to know who they are and I am very happy Erica and I had a second chance with Karim so we could see him for who he is.

When I lived in Yemen I learned an Arabic phrase, “Allah karim.” It means “God is generous” and it was used to comment on the quirky nature of the Universe and its penchant for sometimes providing just what a person needs. It is fitting that the man who reminded me that not all people are driven purely by self-interest is named Karim.


  1. Very, very nice. I could feel what you felt as you wrote that, having been in the situation many times before. I think the key is you doubted but did not fail to trust.

  2. I think Karim was lonely for his language... I felt that way after being in Italy for a long time. Also maybe he felt happy to meet a friend who also so happened to be a stranger. Isn't that odd and somewhat disconcerting when that happens?

  3. Sharing with your travel experiences is a really nice thing to do, thanks.