I was born in the USA and for as long as I can remember I’ve always felt like an alien who didn’t quite fit in. This is partly to blame, I suppose, on the fact that I was raised in a military family and was constantly pulling up roots and moving every year or so, while growing up. As an adult, I kept up this pattern. I’ve lived in or near some of the largest cities in the U.S.—Houston, Philadelphia, and the New York City area.
I feel comfortable in large cities because they afford me the anonymity that I, an alien, crave. No one looks at you “funny” and as long as you don’t hold a stare for too long, you are left alone.
I recently visited London and Paris. I had long dreamed of visiting these places as they have lived in my imagination for years from reading books. Using the subway systems of Philadelphia and New York City, primed me for the London Underground and the Parisian Metro system.
On one of my many excursions around London, I descended the steps into the underground, and encountered a smiling, red-faced uniformed attendant.
“Hello!” I said.
“Hello!” he returned.
I inquired about the best route to get to my destination.
“Take the Circle Line to Baker Street, transfer to the Jubilee Line. Get off at Southwark and it is only a short walk to the Globe.”
This was typical of my experience in the London Underground— easy to navigate with friendly attendants and patrons who were willing to answer questions.
When I arrived Paris, I approached a Parisian Metro booth and spoke to one of the attendants.
“Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?”
Although I did not speak the language, I was able to communicate well enough to find my way using a few words and hand gestures. Perhaps the incongruity of being in a strange land made my existence in Paris somehow congruent. I felt at home at last.
On one of my last days in the city, I sat outside the Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germaine, enjoying a glass of red wine. A Frenchman, who took the table next to mine, lit up a cigar, and then glanced in my direction to ask if the cigar smoke offended me.
“Oh, no,” I said, “I understand that people who sit outside often smoke and I am not offended.”
He nodded and smiled. He puffed on his cigar a couple of times and we began chatting, he in perfect English. We talked for a long time about a wide range of events including the recent terrorist attacks. I mentioned the increased security around the metro. He shared that he had just spoken to his daughter who lives in the neighbourhood where the attacks occurred and she felt safe using the Metro System.
“Yes,” he cautioned, “but the police and soldiers cannot be everywhere. You have to be vigilant. In effect, we have to be responsible for our own security.”
While sitting outside, we watched many police vehicles drive by with sirens blaring.
“Something’s going on,” he said. “If a car were to pull up in front of us right now and gunmen alighted and started shooting, what could we do about it? Nothing!”
He was right of course. So I concluded that the French are a little fatalistic about such things.
C’est la vie?
I travelled to London and Paris by myself because I needed time to think about my life and my absurd existence. With only myself for company, I walked the cobblestone streets of Montmartre and the rain-swept pavement of Trafalgar Square in London The encounters I had helped me believe in the possibility of happiness and hope for humanity. A big smile and a hello or bonjour broke down the normal barriers humans erect, especially in urban areas.
You can be anonymous, but by using the universal language of a smile followed by a greeting, you can touch and be touched by the human heart.
A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.
– Phyllis Diller
©Benn Bell 2016 @ Ghost Dog
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