Oregon couple's bag takes long way back from Paris

PENDLETON -- 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 illustrates 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 Paris guidebook.

Their driver was one of more than 15,500 cabbies who cruise the city each day. Most own their vehicles and operate their businesses from home.

Their driver stopped near the hotel where Richard would serve as one of the moderators at an international pest-control conference. He is a plant pathologist at the Oregon State University Columbia Basin Ag Research Center.

Afterward, 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.

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 no clue to their identities. Then a light bulb came on in Richard's brain.

After purchasing the camera, Richard remembered, he had saved their names, phone number and e-mail address to 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 had volunteered to contact the Smileys.

After some brainstorming between Emannuelle and Emilie Lucas, they came up with a plan to return the bag.

First, Lucas picked it up from the cab driver's daughter. She then handed off the bundle to an American friend who was in town for holiday.

Agreeing to shepherd the bag back to the states, the American tucked it into her luggage and then mailed the bag to the Smileys. The package arrived Jan. 10.

The contents were intact. Richard inspected the camera and noticed 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."

The couple plan 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, Emannuelle, has asked for assistance in editing the English version of her résumé and the couple agreed to help.

For their part, the LaLannes wonder at the fuss. In her last e-mail to the Smileys, Emannuelle wrote. "It's totally normal that we give your bag back."