In the US, I have lived in Texas, Louisiana, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii. I’ve also lived in Japan, the UK, the Netherlands, and now France. I grew up in serious poverty, I have been homeless, and I have seen the world. There’s nothing like experiencing other cultures first-hand and understanding what a weird, wonderful bunch humanity is.
The following is from memory, not an old post, so some details might be off.
My brother Greg and his friend Tom had bought tickets to introduce me to football, the most popular sport in the world. It was for a minor team I had never heard of. Despite the minor team, there was a major police presence. Hoolaganism was the order of the day and the police were having none of it. I was warned not to stray to close to the fans on “the other side” and, indeed, the crowds were restless. As we were leaving the match, the police were making their arrests. The British take this sport a wee bit too seriously.
Greg, Tom, and I are making our way back to the Tube, I glance in a doorway and see a scene that could have been out of an art film. I stop and let Greg and Tom walk ahead as I take in the view. A lovely pub courtyard, with an old man nursing a pint lecturing a young boy. Could have been his son. Or grandson.
The man was warning the boy about the dangers of the world, the [insert list of racial slurs here] ruining England, and how everything is going to hell.
We all have hills we’re willing to die on and my hill is named “Fuck Bigots.”
Greg and Tom are far ahead of me now, but I march into the courtyard, straight to the table with the old man and the boy. Like committing a crime of passion, I have a reaction, not a plan. The courtyard is deserted save for the two at the table staring at me in surprise. I ignore the man and look at the boy. I am alone and this man looks like he has had led a rough life. This is not an intelligent thing to do.
I say, “I’ve traveled to and lived in many countries and there are wonderful, beautiful people everywhere. The world is an amazing place. Don’t let this man’s hatred poison you.”
The look of surprise on their faces turns to shock. Neither of them say a word. I wonder if my American accent, nice clothes, or apparent lack of fear caught them off guard. No one follows me as I turn and walk away, catching up with Greg and Tom.
I still think about that boy, wondering if he understood. I wonder if that boy remembers me. I hope he’s doing well and gotten beyond an old man’s hate.
February 3rd, 2017. I am in Brussels to speak at a conference. I hail a taxi at the Brussels airport and Leonid Brezhnev is behind the wheel. Or at least someone who looks like him.
Taxi drivers are a mixed lot. Some like to talk. Some don’t. Mine does. He was born in Belgium in a small town near the German border in the 1930s. I ask him how he came to be living in Brussels.
Back in 1958, he went to Antwerp to study at the Colonial School . After six months of study, he was sent to Burundi to help oversee their colony. Shortly after his arrival a new doctor arrived and, the moment he saw her, he immediately decided to be sick. Two of their six children were born in Burundi. They left for Brussels in 1962 when Burundi regained their independence.
He was so inspired by his wife’s career that he returned to university and earned a Master’s Degree in business administration. He went on to be the general manager of a large company and after several years in that role, he was unceremoniously fired when a German company bought it. He had a hard time finding work at his former level and refused to “lower himself,” despite his children urging him to take anything he could find.
And then his wife died and he had no choice. He became a taxi driver, but was always filled with shame when he would see a business person he used to work with. He’d hide his face and hope they wouldn’t see him.
On that day he is 81 years old and the shame is long gone. He drives two days a week just for something to do and only takes airport passengers because they’re much more interesting to talk to than fares around town.
I have dropped off our car to have the brake pads changed. As I wait for an Uber on a deserted side street, a long-haired blond gentleman walks up to me, all smiles. I am wary.
(All conversation is in French)
Him: Lovely day!
Me: Yes, it is. Not a cloud in the sky.
Him: Ah, you’re English!
Me: American, actually.
Him: You must be from Los Angeles.
Me: Texas, actually.
Him: You’re from Houston!
Him: You’re from near Houston?
Am I? Hard to say. What’s “near” in this context?
Me: Actually, no.
I’ve had weird conversations like this before. Usually they’re from someone eager to chat with a foreigner, pleased that they can communicate. However, from time to time, you experience this in tourist areas from people looking to take advantage of tourists with too little sense and too much money. They quickly shift to suggesting places to visit, offer to carry your bags, or maybe recommend a “friend” who can give you a cheap lift. Caveat emptor.
But that can’t be the case. I’m in Grasse, a small town in the French countryside. Tourists don’t go out of their way to visit Grasse (though they really should).
Him: Are you a tourist?
Me: No. I live here.
Him: OK. Bye.
And he walks away.
Later that week I arrive at the Nice airport in southeast France. I am very early, as I tend to do. I was heading to Leipzig, Germany, to speak at another conference. I’m grateful I arrived early because while there are no lines for other airlines, Lufthansa doesn’t have any quick check-in kiosks and it takes me over an hour to check in. While I’m in line, the lady behind me starts chatting about the line and the wait. Small talk.
Later, as I’m boarding the first leg of my flight to Frankfurt, I find I’m sitting behind her. We talk some more and she’s going to Leipzig, too.
At the Frankfurt airport, we pass the time having a quick drink and it turns out that she retired as a Russian ballerina after 22 years. She speaks seven languages and is learning to fly a private jet as part of her new job. She chats with everyone around and effortlessly switches between German, French, English, and Russian. I take her word on the Finnish, Italian, and Estonian.
During conversation I mention that my father, Jim Poe, lived in Moscow in the 1970s and I hadn’t been able to get more information about his time there. She replies that she has contacts and she’d love to help. We swap business cards.
We eventually get to Leipzig. She asks if I have a ride and I explain that my ride just sent an email apologizing for having to cancel. She insists we split a cab, but as she exits, she pays the entire fare, telling me not to worry about it.
She leaves the cab and tips the driver handsomely. As he is driving me to my hotel, already having been paid, he decides to take some side streets to show me some of the magnificent architecture in Leipzig. He is very enthusiastic about it. I have no idea what he’s saying. He points out buildings left and right. He doesn’t speak more than a couple of words of English. I suspect my accidental sightseeing tour is fantastic, but his enthusiasm makes up for the lack of understanding.
Even though I don’t have to pay, I offer a tip which he refuses. He hands me my bags with a smile and with a hearty and happy something or other, he waves and drives away.
I am downstairs in the hotel restaurant the next morning, searching for coffee for my room. Apparently I can’t have a pot delivered, but I can get a cup and carry it up. A young lady sitting at a table calls out to me.
Her: Excuse me! Sir!
Her: Can you help me?
Me: Uh, sure. I’d be happy to.
She stares at me. I stare back. Awkward silence. I’ve missed something.
An NPC laughs in the background. The lady looks at the NPC and turns back to me, blushing.
Her: I mean, can I help you?
I notice the pin on her lapel. She works here.
Me: I want to get some coffee for my room.
Her: You have to pay.
Me: That’s fine.
Someone leans over and whispers in her ear.
Her: Never mind. Go ahead.
So I do. The coffee machine doesn’t work.
As I write this, my daughter is sitting on the couch, reading. My wife is working hard. I’m only 55 years old, but I’ve lost much of my hearing and my sense of taste due to surgeries. I should have them back within the year, pending more surgeries. Today is also the birthday of someone I used to know and I only learned about her passing after doing some digging when I noticed she stopped posting to Facebook.
Time is passing and I’m keenly aware of it. I’m not old, per se, but I’m getting older. My beard is grey and the hair on the top of my head is just starting to follow. Within a two or three decades, I’ll probably be gone and these words will be forgotten, along with my life. Is it narcissism that leads me to write these entries? I like to think that I’ll be leaving something for my daughter to remember me by. Immortality by proxy. It’s why I write my personal stories.
There is, on my desk, a small figurine my great-grandmother Atwood picked up in her travels to South America. It was handed down to my grandmother. Not having a great relationship with my mother, my grandmother gave the statue to me before she died. I’ve told my daughter that it’s hers. An immortality by proxy for her great, great grandmother Atwood, though in name only. I have no stories for her.
All these stories lost forever. All of these wonderful, confusing people spending a brief moment of eternity with one another.