I saw this little girl, about seven, on the subway. Her mom was sleeping beside her. She was surveying the people in the car with a calm and wit that belied her age. Some people might identify her as an “old soul.” Each time the car pulled into a station she would turn and look at what was going on out on the platform, then return her attentions to her neighbours in the seats around her.
It was one of those mornings when the car was quiet – all of the passengers into themselves, nodding off, sipping coffee, rolling through BlackBerry messages, reading the newspaper; a collection of sleepy-eyed commuters easing themselves into a day in silence. The absence of chatter makes a ride like this seem as if we’re suspended in time for a few moments before city life whirls itself back into your consciousness.
Behind her cute little wire rimmed glasses the girl watched people; still, hands in her lap, and a slight curl to her lip that indicated a confidence in her perspective.
I wondered where her mind was taking her; I wondered if she would always observe her world in this thoughtful way. I wondered if she might grow up to be a writer or an artist, taking inspiration from her world around her always.
Today on the subway I meet a family visiting on holiday. I hear them talking in German about subway stations and the teenage girl keeps mentioning College station, which we had passed through two stops ago. So I interrupt and tell them that if they want College they’ll have to turn around. The lady says no, they were just discussing that they want to remember the correct station for the return back, and are actually going north to Sheppard, the same stop I change over at. So I tell them they’re welcome to follow me and they get on with their conversation and I return to my reading.
As we near the destination and I’m packing my things, the lady says they need to change over too, and would I point them in the right direction, and as it happens again they’re going to my stop. She explains the area at street level where a friend is to pick them up and I know it and am happy to take them there. From then we have a chat – they tell me they’re from Vienna, and that they once lived here in Toronto in 1969, but went back home after two years because the lady’s father was ill there and they missed home and family. They had not been back here since and remark how much the city has changed.
I taught English as a Second Language right after I moved from one area of the province to another. The effect of moving cities on me was more substantial than I’d imagined it would be. I would tell the ESL learners that I admired them for their courage and adventurousness. Not only did they move cities, they moved countries and time zones and cultures and languages – I simply can’t imagine how overwhelming the transition would be. I still fancy living abroad for a year or so at some point, but that would always be a temporary thing – like a working holiday. The courage it must take to pick up one’s life and family and move it to a new and strange place must be enormous.
But for this lady, it wasn't about courage and adventurousness. Joy and fulfilment wasn’t to be found in the “new world” with all its opportunity and monetary potential. It was back home with her people and her places and her culture. And besides, I say to myself, it’s Vienna! I love my city, and I’ve never actually been to Vienna, but why wouldn’t you live in Vienna?
They tell me the places they have visited here – the top of the CN Tower (which was not built yet when they lived here), and the daughter demonstrates the tentativeness with which she stepped onto the glass floor in the lookout. Yesterday they went to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Today they’re off north for a quiet day at a friend’s cottage on Lake Simcoe. Next week they move on to Vancouver and Whistler – the latter of which the father and daughter, both avid skiers, saw on TV during the Olympics and decided they want to visit.
When we arrive at their allotted pick up point, they can’t be more grateful. We all shake hands warmly and I wish them a happy remainder of their holiday and go off to work. They could have easily made it on their own – our subway system is small and simple compared to many spider web underground systems around the world. But having travelled alone, I know what it means to be assured by the kindness of locals. And travelling on the subway during the morning work commute is not always, er, pleasant. People are rushed, rude and vacant. I’m feeling as grateful for the friendly conversation as they were for the escort.
Sitting on the bus approaching my office, I wish we’d exchanged names. And I get thinking about this book I bought a couple of years ago. My small effort was nothing compared to the kindnesses experienced by the writers of the stories here. If you enjoy travelling, or if you want to read some uplifting personal stories, do get yourself a copy. (Click the image to go to the publisher's website.)
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the stories we get in the media these days: environmental destruction, war, prejudice, angry people, insignificant fluff; and when we move about our cities with our city facades on, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people in this world are good and kind. This is what connects us.
The little half-hour encounter today was one of those pleasant little reminders of the true source of happiness. It's not the assets we have, it’s each other. Maybe if we remembered this more often, we’d be better equipped to honour our world and cherish its gifts.