Far from home, kind words help

The day begins with a simple transaction in a tiny grocery store on England's southeast coast. After greeting the grocer, a gray-haired man with a pleasant smile, I place my banana and juice on the counter. He starts to ring up the sale, then pauses and says gently, "Everything all right at home?"

Three days after the terrorist attacks on the US, his unexpected question and compassionate tone touch me deeply. I thank him for his concern and tell him my family is safe, omitting the sad news that a young father across the street from us was a passenger on American Airlines flight 11. For several minutes we share thoughts about the cataclysmic events unfolding an ocean away.

This brief conversation, although rooted in tragedy, proves immensely comforting, becoming one of many touching encounters during a five-day stay in England last week.

Again and again, sympathetic comments like the grocer's pour forth unbidden from strangers, including hotel employees, waiters, and shopkeepers.

"Every time I hear an American accent, my heart aches for all of you," says a woman in a home design shop around the corner from the grocer, echoing the sentiments of many others.

Support also comes from many Britons and several residents of Holland who have come to Hastings for four days of organized walks in the area. On Friday, as two dozen walkers pause on a cliff high above the English Channel to observe three minutes of silence at 11 a.m., a British woman in the group wraps her arm around an American woman's shoulder and whispers, "We're with all of you, you know."

Even the black wrought-iron gates of the Hastings Town Hall play a silent, supporting role as a repository for flowers - roses, daisies, chrysanthemums - and messages to Americans. One offering arrives at noon on Saturday, when 11-year-old David Isted and his mother tie a spray of cellophane-wrapped orchids to the gate with a card reading, "God bless you all in America. The Isteds."

For legions of business travelers and vacationers around the world, temporarily stranded far from families, friends, and everything familiar, the kindness of strangers like these has helped to assuage a longing for home when closed airports and sealed borders made it impossible to go home.

While lawmakers and world leaders concentrate on the big picture - political and military action - no one can overestimate the power of daily connections among ordinary people, far from the limelight and often anonymous, to give stability and hope in a time of crisis.

Newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, writing in a London newspaper last weekend, claimed that the enormity of the attacks had left him, for once, at a loss for words. "I did not know what to say," he said.

It may, as he suggests, be impossible to articulate the horror. But, as these small acts of kindness and words of support so eloquently demonstrate, it is possible to find the right words to express a nation's caring. Impromptu gestures and small grace notes of love - a look, a word, a touch, an embrace - can help lift spirits, bind hearts, shrink borders and national differences, and above all, hasten the healing.

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