PENDLETON, Ore. - One act of kindness can travel across an entire ocean and warm the hearts of strangers. A little black bag lost in a Paris taxicab and its six-week journey to its owner in Pendleton illustrate the strength of one honest man and a single good deed.
Richard and Marilyn Smiley traveled to France in late November. On their first morning in Paris, the Pendleton couple walked a few blocks from their hotel and hailed a cab. Climbing in, Marilyn set her black daypack on the seat beside her. The nylon bag contained a Canon camera, sunglasses, notebook, lip gloss, gloves and a copy of Rick Steves' "Paris 2011."
Outside their window, wind blustered and the temperature hovered just above freezing. The cabbie stayed quiet during most of the trip, speaking just a few words of broken English.
The driver was one of more than 15,500 cabbies who cruise the city each day. Most own their own vehicles and operate their businesses from home. Though cabs come in all makes and models, they all carry identical light bars, marked with "Taxi Parisiens," that light up when the cab is available.
Their driver stopped his white van near the hotel where Richard would serve as one of the moderators at an international pest-control conference. Richard, a plant pathologist at the Oregon State University Columbia Basin Ag Research Center, handed the cabbie a 20 Euro note and waited as the man hunted for exact change, since he wouldn't take a tip.
Meanwhile, cabs piled up behind them and other drivers started getting impatient. Honking ensued. The couple took the change and hurriedly slipped out of the cab, not asking for a receipt.
Afterwards, with a jolt, Marilyn realized that she had left her bag in the taxi. With sinking heart, she realized the driver wouldn't know their names or maybe even which passengers had left the bag.
They mentioned the incident to a friend who lives in Paris. Emilie Lucas is a Paris native who once traveled to Pendleton as a youngster when her father and mother worked for a year at the research center. She then returned as a teenage exchange student and lived with the Smiley family.
The connection remains strong and Lucas' father even sports a Pendleton Round-Up bumper sticker on his car. Lucas volunteered to call the taxi system's lost-and-found and, after having no luck, called periodically over the next several weeks. The Smileys realized they had probably seen the last of the bag and the camera inside.
About a week after arriving home, a message on the Smileys' answering machine stunned the couple. A woman's melodic voice told them in halting English that they had left their bag in her father's cab.
"We were amazed," Richard said. "Then, we checked our e-mail and there was an e-mail message from her, too."
Richard and Marilyn were baffled. As far as they could remember, the bag held absolutely no clue to their identities. Then a light bulb came on in Richard's brain.
"The information was in the camera," he said.
After purchasing the camera, Richard remembered, he had embedded their names, phone number and e-mail address into the device by using the camera's lock-in function.
"I typed the information on a white piece of paper and took a picture of it," he said. "Then, I locked the photo into the camera so when we deleted our photos, it wouldn't disappear."
The cab driver, Althony LaLanne, had looked at the photos and found the identification. His daughter Emannuelle, a marketing student at a Paris university, had volunteered to contact the Smileys.
After some brainstorming between Emannuelle and Emilie Lucas, they came up with a plan to get the bag home.
First, Lucas picked up the bag from the cab driver's daughter. Lucas then traveled to her parents' home in Pace, a small town in eastern France, and handed the bundle off to an American friend, Molly Bloom, whom she had met while attending Lincoln Elementary School in 1991. Bloom was in town for the holidays to visit her brother John, who teaches in a school near Pace. The Bloom family stopped by to visit with the Lucas family.
Agreeing to shepherd the bag back to the states, Bloom tucked it into her luggage and returned to her home in Petaluma, Calif., where she mailed the bag to the Smileys. The package arrived on Jan. 10 as the Smileys were getting ready to watch Oregon play Auburn in the national championship game.
The contents were intact. Richard inspected the camera and noticed that someone had switched the camera's digital language function to French. And there was a surprise.
"There was an extra photo. It showed the taxi driver, Althony LaLanne, in the living room of his home in Paris," Richard said. "What joy. But, even greater is the honesty and extraordinary effort that was taken to return these belongings to us."
In the picture, the cabbie looks smilingly into the lens.
"We have a new best friend — our cabbie," Marilyn said, laughing. "This one honest man got this whole thing going."
The couple plans to send the taxi driver and his daughter some Pendleton memorabilia, along with reimbursement for the international telephone call. The relationship promises to continue the cabbie's daughter, Emmanuelle, has asked for assistance in editing the English version of her resume and the couple agreed to help.
With the return of the bag, the couple adds yet another memory to a trip that included cathedrals, the Arc de Triomphe and the light show at the Eiffel Tower.
For their part, the LaLannes wonder at the fuss over the bag's return. In her last e-mail to the Smileys, Emmanuelle wrote, "It's totally normal that we give your bag back."