Bad People

I have several times been warned of people who are dangerous, thieves or just unpleasant. In at least three cases, they turned out quite normal, friendly and helpful.

Before we went to Italy in 1967 my father warned me about the thieves there; they have real schools for thieves there, he told me, so watch out! We were in Milano three months and I hadn't noticed any suspicious people yet. By this time I was good friends with three young blokes in the workshop of the Institute I was working in, so I asked them about this. They told me, not here, they are like that in Southern Italy. We left Milano by train to Germany and in the same compartment as ours there was a family of Southern Italians. Somewhere at a station a conductor came in and told us we had to get out of this train and into another, quickly. We did this, but in the confusion left my camera in the old train. Oh no, those Southern Italians... It turned out that both trains went the same way and both stopped at another station, in Switzerland, ours getting there after the other. As we stopped and looked out, we saw the Italian family all leaning out of their window, waving at us excitedly "Your camera, your camera!" So much for Italian thieves.

Our first stay in the USA was in Buffalo, New York. We went to a few restaurants and after a while I was missing Chinese food, which has always been easy to find in Australia. I checked the phone book and did find one Chinese restaurant in the city. Late one night we drove there. It turned out to be the black part of the city. There might have been a Chinese cook but the staff in the small place was all black. They were surprised to see us, and clearly a bit embarrassed. We sat down, and another (black) couple came in, apparently known to the place. They were also surprised to see us there, and the waiter joked with them, telling them they should sit in the back. The meal wasn't great but it was not bad, and we went home. The next day I told a few people about finding this restaurant, and they were aghast. "What? You went there, at night? You are lucky to be alive!" With all respect, bullshit.

We stayed in Lexington, Kentucky, for a year and a half. There we heard and read stories about the bad hillbillies in the mountains, who hate "foreigners", that is, people not of their own kind, and are liable to shoot them on sight. Very bad and dangerous people. One day we drove there in our "Shuddering Heap", an old Rambler Ambassador, which had a foible of the gear stick (it was a manual shift car, very unusual) getting stuck. This happened just as we were driving up a deserted narrow road, miles from civilisation. What to do? We were stopped. A hillbilly appeared next to us. "Havin' trouble, buddy?" I explained about the stuck gear, and he asked "Got a screw driver?", and I got one out of the back. "Put the hood up", OK, I did this. He applied the screw driver at a strategic point, and the gear stick was free. I thanked him and he walked off. He wasn't even carrying a gun.

I was told that the French are very unfriendly if you don't speak French. In about 1990 or so I went to a meeting in Lyon, to do with the beginnings of unification of chemistry courses in European universities. I was booked into a hotel and had to take the metro from where the airport bus dropped me off. I had no French coins, only notes, and I was at a loss how to get a metro ticket, there not being any ticket office, only a big automat that only took coins. A young man near me asked me whether he could help me, and I explained my problem. "No problem" he said, dug into his pocket for some coins and got me a ticket.

Don't try to tell me about Italian thieves, dangerous hillbillies and blacks or unfriendly Frenchmen.