Crossing the Gorge
Editor’s note: This beautiful and moving essay by author Alicia Andrae won second prize in the 2018 Book Passage Travel Writing Award, announced each year at the conclusion of the prestigious Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. We are deeply pleased and honored to publish it here.
The Tube doors screech shut. It’s hot and stuffy in the crowded train car, and I already regret not insisting that we walk a few blocks more, outside in the cool spring air. We’ve just spent the day wandering the great halls of London's British Museum, ogling mummies and admiring ancient Greek marble, taking turns picking the next room to explore.
Now, we’re trapped underground with thousands of office-dressed commuters, and not one of them seems particularly happy to see my two kids, with dark, jetlag circles under their eyes, overloaded with sugar, and squabbling over a cheap souvenir keychain that will soon be forgotten. It will be left behind in this very same spot where brother and sister now vehemently insist that the fuzzy cat-or-is-it-a-bear-thing is theirs, oblivious to the disdainful grimaces tossed their way. Well, I think, at least the commuters will have something to talk about when they get home:
“Darling, I saw the most uncivilized American tourist today, allowing her children to run amok, ice cream dripping down their fronts, and bouncing off the walls of the Tube car.”
I try to chuckle at the imagined conversation, but mostly I’m mortified. And exhausted. Mostly, I just want to dissolve into the seat. I negotiate a temporary truce between the warring factions by bribing both sides with gummy bears.
The doors slide open again. A large dark shadow on the floor distracts me from my attempt to turn into a seat cushion. I look up. Directly in front of me is a huge black stroller, the double-decker kind, with rugged mountain bike tires, being pushed by a woman about my age. She’s wearing a black abaya and hijab. She looks tired. A small boy, with dark hair and patient eyes, stands on a little platform at the back of the stroller. This mom is struggling to maneuver the stroller into a more stable position, but the commuters around her are too engrossed in their individual device worlds to notice.
I’m immediately terrified. I want to help, but my ignorance, and fear of exposing that ignorance, are paralyzing. I know what to do, and I have no idea what to do. Will an offer of assistance be wanted from me, with my long, unkempt, uncovered hair? I'm suddenly all too aware of my arms and neck, exposed by my short-sleeved V-neck T-shirt in sunny southern California colors. Will she be disgusted by my two unruly, blond-haired, blue-eyed children? Would an offer of help be somehow offensive? Will she yell at me, loudly rejecting my offer in this crowded Tube car for all the world (or at least the several hundred surrounding passengers) to see, and shake their heads at the cultural stumbling of yet another idiot American tourist? I know what would have helped me when my children were very small, but I don’t know this woman. I have no idea what she thinks of me, and I’m utterly petrified about how she might react. The gulf between us, created by history, culture, news reports, clothing, and stereotypes, feels as real as any mountain gorge.
But then, I think, gorges can be crossed.
I take a deep breath. I paste a smile on my face as best I can, hoping to convey confidence and reassurance, rather than “crazy lunatic American,” and reach out to steady the stroller.
“Can I help?”
She rewards the gesture with a relieved smile.
I, too, am relieved.
For the next 10 minutes we make small talk. The baby’s name is Samara. She is three weeks old, tiny and pink. I notice her dreamy blue eyes, surprisingly, the same color as my daughter’s. Three weeks old, and already off to greet relatives who are flying in to Heathrow.
“We wouldn’t go all the way to the airport with the baby, except that these are my husband’s relatives.”
Hers, she says, would understand, but these are his parents.
“I know,” I say.
And I do know. In-laws. Never quite the same as your own family. Some degree of eggshell walking usually required.
I admire her strength. Three weeks after giving birth, she’s undertaking a cross-town, public transportation journey to the airport with the baby and a three-year-old in tow. When my second child was three weeks old, I didn’t leave the house, too exhausted to see straight, too frazzled to get dressed, and too frightened of the myriad dangers lurking in our suburban American town. All sorts of scary things. Germs! Traffic! Teenagers!
I wonder how she managed to get everyone ready and out the door, clothes and hair neat and clean. Even the stroller is spotless. I look over at my two—my daughter’s long blond hair hasn’t seen a brush in two days, and my son’s clothes? Well, they sort of fit, they kind of match, and they were clean the day we bought them. But this other mother, she doesn’t seem to mind. I find myself smiling again. And this time, my smile isn’t forced.
A moment later, I am stunned as she holds the infant out to me. “You want to hold her?”
Gratefully, I accept the tiny bundle and her gift of trust. Just fed, the baby stares contentedly around, taking everything in, focusing on nothing in particular. As I gaze down at this newborn not my own, walls of culture and language, religion and politics fall away. For the moment, none of it exists, and I am no longer afraid.
We are just two mothers, and we know what really matters.
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