Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Stories of Everyday People

Stuck at home today with a foreign germ picked up recently on travels that I had seemed to tame enough yesterday for my one-day commute to Omaha from California but that raged back full-force this morning after a sufficient amount of sleep to reconstitute my entire body (I went to bed significantly earlier than usual), I have found my mind doing the traveling, instead of my body. So many stories I have accumulated through my travels that I could probably write a multi-volume compendium of them, but I have no time for that. Therefore, I will share just one of those stories, one of many like it that keep me collecting them.

On a recent flight out of the San Jose airport, which is undergoing extensive remodeling, I found myself the only person in line at security. Now, there’s a disconcerting feeling! Where had everyone gone, and if everyone had gone somewhere else, why was I here? I smiled at the TSA agents, who smiled back. (I had my choice of three!) I have often said hello to TSA agents, and they always seem surprised. Not so in San Jose where almost all of them are very friendly.

“Hi,” I said, “Where is everyone?”

“We’re all here just for you,” he responded with a grin. Then he went on to explain the empty airport. They had just that morning moved about 90% of the flights to the newly re-built Terminal A and were in the process of shutting down Terminal C, where I was. My flight was one of the few still flying out of Terminal C, and I had come a bit early, hence, my isolated status.

An incurable extrovert, I talk to all who cross my path —- the guards, the homeless, the janitors. I smile at them all. Maybe that makes me weak-minded. The Russians would say that. In Russian culture, anyone who smiles at a stranger or smiles without cause is considered “legkomyslennyj” (weak-minded, or lit. light-thoughted). Weak-minded or not, I have met some interesting people that way.

Nearly two decades ago, I was waiting for Donnie to pick me up at the small airport near to where we live (not the San Jose International Airport, which is a bit farther down the road), and, learning that he had forgotten about my return, as was his wont at the time, I called a friend to while away the time that I would have to wait for Donnie. My friend being a Russian immigrant, I chatted with her in Russian. As I talked, a janitor remained not far away, sweeping an already clean floor. When I finally hung up, he walked over to me and said in Russian, “Excuse me, I did not mean to eavesdrop, but I could not help doing so. I was wondering when you moved here.”

“In 1989,” I told him.

“Ah-hah, from where?”

I started to see where this might be going, but not quite sure, I answered, “Well, I have lived many places, but I grew up in Maine.”

He looked a little surprised at that and then asked where my parents had come from. Now I was sure that I knew where this was going.

“I am not Russian,” I told him. “I just happen to speak Russian.”

Well, we talked for the remaining 20 minutes until Donnie finally showed up. I learned that his name was Volodya (nickname for Vladimir), that he had a family, and that he had been working as a janitor at the airport for a few months. At the time, I was traveling internationally on a frequent basis (as in every week) to provide consultation on various innovations and problem-solving strategies to ministers of education in a couple dozen countries. Every week upon departure and arrival, I would run into Volodya, and we would chat.

Volodya’s jobs changed at the airport periodically. He was promoted from janitor to baggage handler to ticket agent. Through it all, over the years, our relationship, too, changed. At some point – I don’t recall when – we moved from the “vy” (formal form of address) to “ty” (informal form of address). (In Russian, one is said to be “on vy” or “on ty,” indicating the closeness of the relationship and the amount of impersonality or friendship.)

Then Donnie and I moved to Jordan for 2.5 years, and I did not see Volodya again. Not until Donnie flew home through that same airport. His flight was delayed, and as I was waiting for him, Volodya, now a bigger whig (if one can say that), walked up to me, surprised to see me. I explained where I had been, and we sat down and chatted for the 45 minutes until Donnie showed up.

When I told Volodya that I was traveling less (although one look at my current travel schedule might make one think that this could not possibly be the case), he asked where I was working. When I answered, he gasped, “My wife works there.”

“Well, it is a pretty big place,” I said. “There are nearly 2000 people working there, and only a few hundred work for me. I doubt that I would know her.”

“She works in a special program,” he answered, and named one of the myriad programs I supervise.

“That is in my division,” I responded, somewhat flabbergasted. “What is your last name?” In the ten years that I had been talking to Volodya, I had never thought to ask his last name.

The next day I went to the program office and asked for his wife. I told her that I had known Volodya for ten years and was curious to meet her.

She smiled and said, “Yes, he told me. In fact, he has been telling me for ten years that he knows this American who speaks Russian like a Russian. Now I know who you are.” Then she added, “He is tickled that he is on ty with my boss. He said to me, ‘you two are on vy, but we two are on ty!” We both laughed.

So, I will continue to talk to all who cross my path. They all have stories.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

God's Lesson on Impatience and Irritation

Yesterday, one of my British friends wrote the following on her Facebook page: "In connection with the dust cloud that has closed UK airports, I have been arrested as police discovered I cleaned my house last week." I can relate to that, considering how poorly adept I am at housework!

I can also relate to the long lines that are going to face all of us who will at one point soon need to travel to Europe and through Europe. I seem to have gotten out of the trip to Jordan next week, but I will be going there in May and others from my office will, for certain, be traveling there this weekend...well, for certain, if the airports in Germany and Amsterdam are open again. One hears that the volcano eruption may continue for weeks, disturbing air traffic for even longer.

So, in anticipation of some jammed planes and resultant long lines, I will try to remember the lesson I was taught recently about impatience and irritation, two emotions that generally accompany long lines, especially in connection with disrupted plane traffic. It came as a result of having to disembark from a plane that had just loaded due to a mechanical problem. The plane was destined for Phoenix, and from there I was to catch another plane to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Everyone had to be rescheduled, and most of us were making connections that we would miss, so the line was long and slow, a couple of hours (!) slow.

A Vietnamese couple in line several people behind me kept pushing, trying to get ahead of those in front of them. “How not American,” I thought, determined to make them take their turn in good American style and sense of rightness.

There were three of them, actually, the elderly couple and a young woman, whom I assumed to be their granddaughter. They chatted away in an Asian language that I did not recognize but later learned was Vietnamese.

As they pushed forward, the elderly man actually elbowed me aside, trying to slide around me as the line began to inch around the twists and turns leading to the ticket counter. I had watched him use this maneuver to leapfrog successfully in front of about a dozen people, one at a time. Now I separated him from his wife and the young woman, and, having stood in line for close to 90 minutes already, knowing that each passing minute lowered the chances of finding a flight from Phoenix to the East Coast, I was decidedly impatient with the process and irritated with someone who felt he deserved to go first. (Of course, I did realize that this was simply his culture; he probably had no idea how Americans, who are raised to take turns, are annoyed by what was a normal jockeying for position in his own land.) Still, having spent time in countries where one must jockey for position or never make it to the counter, I was determined to hold my own place and did, continuing to separate him from the two who were with him.

Feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation, I did what extroverts always do. I struck up a conversation. The elderly couple did not speak English. However, Twi, the young woman, who, it turns out was not their granddaughter but just another line-stander, did, albeit almost unintelligibly. She spoke to the couple in Vietnamese and me in bad English and slowly a picture of each other emerged.

The elderly couple stopped pushing. The four of us were now a group and could proceed through the line together until we were separated into two groups at the ticket counter. The elderly couple took the first open ticket agent. Twi, who had asked me to interpret for her, and I took the second. It is not the first time that someone whose language I do not speak has asked me to interpret. You see, if you work with foreigners a lot, you learn how to speak broken English in a way that they can understand when they cannot understand grammatically correct and well enunciated English, and you learn how to understand what they are trying to say when they know only 1-2 words out of the dozen that they need. So, I interpreted for Twi and got her all set up for her new flight. Since she would have a 6-hour wait, she called her husband to meet for lunch. He would meet her at the baggage claim, where all our bags had been sent.

As for me, I had to go pick up my bag, as well, because my new flight was leaving from another terminal. San Jose Airport is easy to navigate, but Twi was new both to the airport and to the English language, so I offered to walk her over to the baggage claim area and get her on the right curb to meet her husband. After that, I could catch the bus to the other terminal.

As we left the ticket counter, I saw the elderly couple standing by, looking confused. They had just received their new tickets but clearly had not understood anything about what their next step should be. I looked at their tickets; they were on my flight. Twi explained to them that they would have to get their luggage and take a bus to the other terminal. They panicked until they understood that I was on their flight and would accompany them the whole way.

Having crossed the overpass, obtained our luggage, and dropped Twi at the right curb, the couple and I were ready to clamber on the shuttle bus. I stepped up first and threw my bag onto the shelving. Then, I noticed the elderly, stereotypically small, Asian man struggling to lift his bag. Equally small but a farm-raised girl with eight years of military duty under her belt, today I can lift and swing heavy suitcases much the same way as I used to life and swing bales of hay. I hopped back out and grabbed the two suitcases and swung them onto the rack.

We stayed together, minimally communicating, given the lack of a common language, until flight time. They got off first in Phoenix and were muddling through an interpretation of the airport signs when I disembarked, being rewarded with a second chance to help them.

I am sure that day I received a heaven-sent lesson: be kind, be helpful; irritation & impatience are not traits to be developed. I was given a chance to become acquainted with two people whom otherwise would have been only faces in a crowd. How interesting that once we know someone, our attitude dramatically changes for the better. As for them, they were very grateful. “Thank you” was the one American expression they did know, and they used it over and over with me. In spite of the aggravation of disrupted travel, I arrived cheerful, thanks to two people I did not know and whose language I did not speak.

Next time, when faced with long lines at the airport, as is sure to happen in the upcoming weeks, I will try to remember this lesson. I have often been the recipient of the kindness of strangers when I travel. I like it when the shoe is on the other foot, when I can be the stranger who shows kindness. At the end of the day, we are all God's children; we should work together and play together in ways that evidence that we know this to be true.