I acknowledge, at this juncture, that a revolution has occurred, and that much has been gained by having hand-held devices that not only allow us to communicate while on the run, but also reserve parking spaces, garner weather reports, and tell us where, precisely, at any given moment, we are standing on planet Earth.
But I must also acknowledge a loss. As a traveler, I think one of the joys of that experience is hearing what other travelers have to say. Conversation used to be surprisingly easy to initiate. When I would take a seat next to someone on a train, bus, or plane, the first thing I would do was greet the person. Once the ice had been broken, subsequent chatter tended to erupt spontaneously. Where are you headed? Do you live in Bangor? Isn’t Boston a friendly town? Do you really work for the New England Aquarium? Free tickets? Seriously? Well, thank you....
Things have changed, and the change has been striking. Recently, while boarding a long-distance bus, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was staring into their palms, poking and clicking away. I found an empty seat next to a middle-aged man and greeted him. He threw me a cursory glance and said “Morning.” Then he returned to his device. I made one more bid to engage him, asking where he was headed, but he wasn’t buying. So I left him to his world and retreated into my own.
I miss the casual conversations with fellow travelers. One never knows what will be revealed, and sometimes how helpful it will be. I was once on a ship traveling from Iceland to Denmark. I noticed an older man standing by the railing, looking out over the North Sea. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I ventured. He turned to me, nodded, and asked, “Where are you going?” We were soon chatting away. I eventually confided that I didn’t know how I was going to get from the port in Denmark to my destination city. His response: “Of course you know. I have a car and I’m going to drive you there!”
I shall never forget that act of kindness. But even when an interaction doesn’t produce a useful product, it can still be memorable. I recall the woman on an Amtrak train who looked at my slender frame, frowned, and began to scribble out recipes for me, to “fatten you up.” And also the teenage boy traveling on another train to see his mother after an absence of years. (I heard his moving story by simply remarking that he looked apprehensive.) Then there was the fellow teacher who, in the course of trading stories about classroom intrigue, discovered that he had missed his stop. When I expressed alarm on his behalf, he remarked, “No, no. It was worth it. I enjoyed our conversation!”
But now, if I attempt, however gently, to engage fellow passengers in conversation these days, I have the distinct sense that I am upending them from a preferred activity, be it checking e-mail, posting on Facebook, or, even with adults, playing games.
In this sense, the long trips have become even longer. But I recently discovered reason for hope.
The bus I was riding from Boston to Bangor had broken down somewhere just over the Maine border. We passengers disembarked and waited for the next bus to come along. As I got on it, I hovered at the front of the vehicle as those already seated glanced up at me. Inspired, and wanting to seize the moment when I had their attention, I asked, “Is there anyone here who is interesting enough for me to sit next to?”
A pleasant-looking woman raised her hand. “I am,” she offered.
I sat with her, we chatted, and by gum! – she was interesting! She read books, she traveled, she had interesting children. She got off in Portland, leaving me behind, but the glow of that interaction sustained me for the two remaining hours to Bangor.