Years ago, I studied abroad in Paris for a semester in college. When I arrived in January 2007, my luck would have it that Paris was having its government-mandated bi-annual sale, which happens in January and July.

The windows of all clothing stores, from high-end to bargain, mainstream to boutique, are plastered with white signs with big lettering that read “Solde! -25%.” That percent discount increases as the month progresses, and inventory count of the sale items dwindles as shoppers of all ages descend on this opportunity.

And what an opportunity, especially for college students, it was!

My group of 20 American students from universities up and down the East Coast had been preparing for months (years, for many of us) to live in France. We’d studied the French language in classes, read the latest travel guidebooks, waited in the lines at the French Embassy to obtain our student visas, bought European adapters for our hair dryers and laptop computers, booked Eurorail and other train tickets for spring break, and anxiously awaited meeting our host families.

These host families, with whom we’d live for the semester, were located across Paris and its suburbs. Some had children, some did not. Some had strict curfews, some did not.

We’d find out soon enough, but the program gave us a week at a hostel in Paris, to get acclimated with the country, the language, and each other, before placing us with our host families.

The Parisian Shopping Life

We were fast friends, having bonded over the nervousness and the uncertainty of being a foreigner. With our hostel in the busy 14th arrondissement, we were thrust into the quick pace of Parisian city life that first week, and we developed a routine at that pace. When we weren’t meeting with our program directors, we were indulging in oversized ham and cheese sandwiches and flaky chocolate croissants from Brioche Doirée, walking the Champs-Elysées, and waiting in long lines to climb the Eiffel Tower, snapping photos at its base and buying key chains in metallic colors.  And we were shopping. A lot.

One afternoon, while shopping at ZARA on Rue de Rennes, I stood waiting for an attendant outside the dressing room. I’d tried on several items, but none seemed to work. Suddenly, I realized that I’d left a denim dress in the dressing room. When I rushed back, I found the door had already locked upon closing it.

“Ça était?” the attendant asked, meaning “How did it go?”

“Umm, I don’t want these,” I said in French, handing her the items. “But I left…” I started to say.

I quickly thought of how to say, “But I left a dress in the dressing room.” Dressing room…what is dressing room? And is dress jupe or robe?

“Yes?” the attendant asked, raising her eyebrows.

I fumbled for the words, noticing her impatient glances at the line forming behind the counter.

What I said probably sounded like this in English: I left that clothing item in the box because the door closed.

“What?!” she said. “Argh, just give me the items!” She rolled her eyes.

I felt my face heat up, especially when I saw the line of shoppers in front of me. I noticed one of them, a woman in a tan coat with light brown hair, looking at me.

Great, I thought. She probably thinks I’m some dumb American.

I rushed past the attendant and the growing line, feeling like a lonely foreigner.

The Skeptical American

About 30 minutes later, my friends had paid for their items and I was more than thrilled to leave that ZARA store. Before we could reach the door, a woman cut in front of us near the handbags. It was the woman who had been staring at me during my disaster French conversation in the dressing room.

Oh dear…I thought.

“Excuse me,” she said to me. “Are you American?”

Here we go…I thought.

An Unlikely Move

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, I’m Spanish, but I’m fluent in English and French, and I just wanted you to know that what you said to that woman in the dressing room was perfectly fine. I understood you perfectly.”

“Thank you,” I said, dumbfounded that a stranger would take the time to tell me this.

“No, really,” she said. “Your French was just fine. There was no reason for that attendant to treat you that way. I’ve been a foreigner in this city, so I know what that feels like,” she said.

“In fact,” she continued. “I was so upset by the way she treated you that I told the manager that you were my sister and that you were crying over the incident. The manager was very upset and is talking to the attendant now.”

I was now in shock. I couldn’t believe that this woman whom I thought had been judging my broken French had actually been empathetic, so much so that she’d gone out of her way to set it right.

I didn’t leave with a Solde item from that ZARA store, but I left with a reminder that acts of kindness can happen anywhere.