I was barely conscious of the word “terrorism” in the spring of 1991 as my mother and I sat in a Budapest train station, waiting for my sister Susan and her husband Dan to exchange our money into lira for our next stop, Lake Como, Italy. A well-dressed woman of perhaps 65 approached us, carrying a large, bulky green-and-white plastic bag.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” she inquired, softly.
“Ein wenig (a little),” I replied, feeling unsure that my German was still viable after decades of disuse.
“A little” was encouragement enough for the genteel lady who then told me, speaking very slowly and watching to see if I was comprehending, that this day was her son’s 40th birthday. Andreas lived in Basel, Switzerland, and she had baked him a cake. She knew our train stopped briefly in Basel. Would we be so kind as to take his birthday bag with us? If so, she’d call him with our seat numbers and he’d hop aboard to claim his cake and other gifts.
Delighted that I was able to follow her recitation, I readily agreed. Of course … no problem … we’d be happy to help another mother make her son’s birthday special.
When I quickly informed my mom of the request, she smiled widely, nodding in agreement. Andreas’ mom thanked us warmly and handed me the birthday bag, along with a small parcel of sweets for our reward.
After peering into our bag, which appeared to hold homemade cookies, Mom and I resumed chatting, pleased about what an interesting act of international kindness we were now embarked on during this final leg of our European adventure.
When Sue and Dan returned, we eagerly told them our tale. A West Point graduate then on active duty in Germany, Dan’s response burst our bubble: “What?! You can’t do that! What if there’s a bomb in that bag? Find that woman and return that bag immediately!”
We were stunned. We’d never seen this side of our mild-mannered, cheerful Dan.
Despite his vehemence, Mom and I could not see our way clear to disappointing Andreas’ gracious mother who — thankfully — was nowhere to be seen anyway.
While Dan fumed and muttered, “I can’t believe you two,” we came up with a compromise: We would open the bag and make sure it was bomb-free.
And so we did. Its contents were as Andreas’ mom had described, unless a bomb was masterfully hidden within the cake batter.
Still appalled by our insistence, Dan suddenly exclaimed, “Hah! We get off this train before it reaches Basel.”
Oh dear … Mom and I rapidly hatched a new plan: When we de-trained, we’d leave the bag in our seats, hoping they’d remain vacant until Andreas boarded and claimed his gifts. We attached a note, written in my rusty German, asking Andreas to let us know if he had indeed retrieved his gifts. This touch was Mom’s idea, and she readily volunteered her address for the hoped-for reply.
Dan was exuding visible disgust throughout our machinations.
Much to my surprise and Mom’s joy, a letter from Andreas greeted her upon our arrival home!
Between 1991 and 2007 when she died, my mother exchanged holiday cards with Andreas Schiff of Basel, Switzerland. Christmas after Christmas, my German improved “ein wenig” more.
A year later, my family celebrated my 50th birthday by acting out a series of funny scenes from my life. The final act was entitled “On a Train in Budapest.” In it, Andreas’ mother was replaced by my brother-in-law Doug, dressed in white robes, a turban and sporting a long dark beard, a la Osama bin Laden.
When Doug leaned over to hand the birthday bomb to the two smiling sisters portraying Mom and me, a huge rifle was visible beneath his robes. We howled with laughter. I think Dan laughed loudest and longest.
Eileen Reutzel Colianni isa freelance writer living inOakmont (firstname.lastname@example.org).