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.
Yesterday on the subway I see two young women, both in their twenties, sitting near each other but not right beside one another, and since one speaks to the other now and then, I assume they’re together. Funny thing is, each is listening to an i-pod. And I get to thinking, is this a new version of “comfortable silence?”
Of course not; listening to an i-pod isn’t silent at all. It’s not like I hadn’t seen this before. Teenagers do it all the time. But for teenagers, the i-pod is a fashion accessory, and it’s often cranked so loud it’s clear that the type of music being played further personalizes the fashion. Annoyingly, one can usually only hear bits of base line or repetitive riff, or worse – you do recognise the music and it’s NEVER music you like. But I digress.
Sometimes teenagers will share the i-pod – each wearing one earphone from the same set, and I get that – that’s a shared experience. But these gals weren’t teenagers and they weren’t sharing anything beyond an occasional comment. It seemed they were both actively listening, because when they occasionally spoke to one another, each would take out one earphone and then put it back. And then they got laughing at some private joke, every minute or so breaking into suppressed chortling but each still listening to her own personal music.
Sure I get why people wear i-pods while commuting. Sometimes the sounds on the transit system are something I’d very much love to escape from. Like Warbly Talky-Louderson, several times featured in annoyed 140 character rants on my Twitter page. But then again, to try and drown HER out with an i-pod would surely cause damage to one’s eardrums. I find transit experiences noisy in general and never really get any enjoyment from my i-pod because there are too many other noises that spoil the music. It’s like too much information coming from too many places.
Last year I wrote about a former colleague of mine who couldn’t believe that I would actually go for a walk without my i-pod – what pleasure could I possibly get in a walk without some kind of portable entertainment? Sometimes I wear it – it's fun to walk to a beat. But more often I don't, and the pleasure isn't diminished by my having to just think.
Another time I was on a GO bus coming home from Hamilton and we were stuck in traffic for what was probably less than an hour because of some highway incident and one guy at the back of the bus was simply going squirrelly with boredom. At one point he hollers out, “DOES ANYONE HAVE A BLACKBERRY I CAN PLAY WITH?” I almost handed him my notebook and a pencil like my mother used to do to when I was a little girl getting restless in church.
I know I’m a daydreaming sort, but I can sit on a bus (or my sofa, or my bed, or a park bench or a bicycle…) and get pleasure from just looking around me and thinking. And sure, I’m a writer and I purposefully try to notice things going on around me. Like lots of subway riders I often read books and let my imagination do the entertaining.
And therein lies the rub. This growing need to be entertained and distracted in every waking moment can’t be good for the imagination. Because I think that if the human imagination begins to diminish as the generations turn over – that would be a real tragedy.
"Our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel-and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
On the subway today is a dad holding his baby in his arms. She's sleepy and lying relaxed, arms and head floppy. Now and then he rubs her belly or smoothes her forehead. She'll reach up and lazily take hold of his hat or touch his nose. I feel like a voyeaur, intruding in on the father-baby moment, but they don't notice me. They've only got eyes for each other.