Travel Stories: Grace on the Go

Two weeks ago on a trek to Image Journal’s Glen East workshop, I pulled off the road at a welcome area to grab some iced coffee. But what I left with was much more than that.

The social commentary of the American coffee line could keep anthropologists busy until the next transit of Venus, especially at travel plazas, where everyone is just trying to get from one place to the next. We want a toilet, a caffeine fix, and then we want to get on our merry way.

But this coffee line was going nowhere fast. The three customers in front of me had not moved in twenty minutes, despite the fact that there were about seven employees busy behind the counter. To be honest, they didn’t look like they knew what they were doing.

The woman at the front finally snapped. “I’m been standing here for 20 minutes,” she said, “and you haven’t even taken my order yet.” Her earrings dangled furiously. A dash of lipstick dotted her teeth.

A tall teenager hastily prepared her coffee, fumbled over the cash register, and handed her the drink. “All I wanted was a cup of coffee,” she said, and her wedge sandals clipped across the travel plaza tile off to a car, off to who knows where, and who knows why she had to get there so fast that common courtesy would weigh her down.

When it was my turn to order, I saw why the line was taking so long. The two young employees at the counter, dark-haired, unsmiling, had what I thought were name tags from a distance. Scrawled in magic marker, they read, “I’m from Kosovo.”

Kosovo. The country that is often named in the same sentence with genocide, war, death toll. Who knows what losses they have sustained? And we, Americans on the go, tapped our feet in line, irritated at such a small thing as having to wait for an indulgence the rest of the world is rarely afforded.

These boys had come from a home country severed by violence, flecked with blood and hate. We were just concerned with one creamer or two.

“What would you like?” the tall one asked me in stilted English. I realized these boys were new to American money, they talked to each other in their own language, checking their math on this foreign coin before giving back each customer’s change. They were new to everything here.

Waiting for my coffee, I realized that we never know where anyone we meet on the road is coming from. Not everyone has a name tag citing their dark history, their private wounds, their stain of regret. Every stranger and neighbor with whom our lives intersect is a mystery. Sometimes they will tell us, I’m just coming out of a messy divorce. Or, I’m on my way to recovery from this addiction. But more often than not, they won’t. The refugees will appear silently among the put-together parents, talented artists, earnest students, and we may never know what pain they are trying to put behind them.

Maybe, knowing this, I can better infuse traveling mercies into this journey–at the travel plaza, and in the sprawling road ahead that is open before all of us.

When he handed me my coffee, I thanked him, a few English words I hope he understood.

This post is part of Prodigal Magazine’s Travel Stories series, read more stories here or add your own! 

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  • Kristin T.

    What a great metaphor for life and grace! “…we never know where anyone we meet on the road is coming from.” Thanks for this poignant reminder to slow down and treat people more gently along the way.

    • Stephanie Smith

      Thanks Kristin! It was a good reminder for me too. 

  • Ed_Cyzewski

    I’m so dang jealous of your New England writing workshop while I’m boiling in the midwest! 

    I love travel plazas and airports because everyone has a story about why they’re on the road. What a shame that we can become so consumed with movement that we miss the times we need to stop. I can tell you’re a writer because you knew when to stop!

    • Stephanie S. Smith

      Put it on your calender for next year! You would be a welcome addition to this group of good and creative people.

  • Bethany Suckrow

    Such a beautiful glimpse at His Grace, Steph. Love this entry so so much, and it fits so well with the Prodigal series. Thanks for contributing!

    • Stephanie S. Smith

      Darrell’s email about it came at a good time..right when I was on the road. Grateful to you folk for pulling together some gems from others’ travels :)

  • Christopher Johnson

    “Not everyone has a name tag…” this rings so true. So often we are caught up in our own travels that we never stop to notice anything around us, especially those to whom we interact with. It makes us look cold and insensitive. Very glad you noticed and took the time to allow them to serve you in more ways than one.

  • Allison S. Duncan

    You draw some deep insights from this simple, everyday occurrence, Steph. How often we rush past people, getting from them what we want with little regard for them, and speeding on our way. Thanks for reminding us to get past our annoyance of people and show some compassion and understanding of where they’re coming from, quite literally.

  • Sarah Koci Scheilz

    Beautiful, Stephanie. I especially like the parallel between the nametag and the location these workers were from. So much of who we are is dictated by where we are from and our origins. Grace, all of it.

  • Sara

    Wow! Such a good reminder. Thank you!