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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Breaking the Code

We have always travelled with our smalls. On buses, on short and long flights, and very long car trips. I've done plenty of those trips without the Mister and he reports to helping families when he's travelling on business. Like everyone I know, we do our very best to help others. We're no do-gooders, it is just the right thing. Maybe even more, we do our best not to require lots of assistance. We pack backpacks of quiet games, books, snacks, and emergency supplies. We try our best.

There are lots of a kindnesses shared among travellers with and without children. You lift a bag for someone who can't and let someone go ahead who might need more time to board. Travelling is tricky enough without adding an element of competition. Getting to your destination is more an endurance test than a sprint. It certainly isn't a race with others. This isn't the Tokyo subway.

I've long been the beneficiary of the kindness of strangers on trips. On our first airplane trips with baby Biggest Brother, we were overwhelmed by the helpfulness of others as we jetted to and from Canada. After a long day and multiple connecting flights, we arrived home to discover I'd left a little zipper purse (my wallet included) in a Canadian airport restroom when changing the baby. Given the level of kindness we received in our travels, we were grateful, but honestly not terribly surprised, to have someone turn the bag in and the airline speed it to us. And it remains legendary in my mind the compassion with which staff and passengers helped me in the worst imaginable few minutes of an 8 hour journey across the Atlantic.

So being on the receiving end of someone's outright unkindness when travelling last week was a new experience. That it was another mother (and grandmother!) of small children who was the perpetrator made it sting that much more. I've always felt there was a code of sorts. People who see you pushing a stroller and hurry to get the door, a knowing smile and kind word when a child is fussing, and a general friendliness. A code. An understanding. Part of a tribe helping another.

Not so this mom. And because I'm not fully evolved, I still want to say something more to her. I can't, so thanks for listening.

Anyway, after a lovely visit to Scotland, we arrived at a bustling train station on a busy bank holiday. Lots of travellers returning home. Most of them fortunate enough to have reserved seats on the train. As our seat assignments were unreserved (we booked late), we elected to let an earlier train go without us to ensure getting 6 seats together on a later one. So we waited patiently at the train doors with others in a friendly, loose queue. Everyone knew who had arrived first (US!) and was seemingly in good spirits for a pleasant return to London.

The children and I were first in line at a door and the Mister walked our luggage to a baggage car. A mother, a set of grandparents and 3 children strode up, sized up our line and waited by an adjacent door at the neighboring train car. I am too naive to have realized at the time what they were up to. While they were smiling and chatting with us about Baby Sister's get up (a crown and wand from having visited a castle the day prior), the mother was handing the grandmother her children's backpacks. Sure enough, when all the train doors opened and I began to hoist my little girls from the platform into the train, the grandmother rushed through the other door, raced passed my stunned children and grabbed the very seats we'd obviously stood in line for. Their little backpacks holding their places. On the only unreserved seats on the train together.

Laughing and settling into their seats, the grandmother and her adult daughter seemed to congratulate themselves on their "victory" over my little brood. And the grandmother wasn't even travelling with the family - she was the designated runner - the base stealer if you will - for coveted seats on a long journey.

While I am not proud of it, it is my nature to be externally gracious while inside preparing a future breathless recount of injustices for the (poor!) Mister filled with dozens of things I should have said. But not this time. Once I finally found my children seats scattered throughout the car and received lots of sympathetic words from other passengers who had waited with us, I felt compelled to talk to those women. About how embarrassed they should be. The grandmother, still laughing, said, "You could have done the same thing." I pointed out that I wouldn't stoop so low. And that she'd broken a code among mothers. And travellers. I didn't say it all because the grandmother continued that her daughter was travelling with THREE children!

Gracious. Is the bar car open yet?

Let me say, we have dear friends with one child and lovely friends with eight children. We fall somewhere there in the middle. Family size, of all absurd things, is exceedingly personal and is absolutely never grounds for competition. But I, just this once, felt justified in mentioning that I was travelling with FOUR CHILDREN. Who were clearly better behaved than these 2 grown women.

Well. I got enough of that out to feel better. But apparently not all of it. Indeed, I sat seething in my seat for a bit, hoping that in the next 5 hours, those children and their uber-competitive, seat-swiping mom (clearly trained by her own mother) might need a diaper, a coloring book, a snack, or any of a number of things that go with us on trips. And the Mister. When he made it to our car and found the smalls and me in various corners, he said he hoped she disembarked at a stop prior to ours so he could help her off in a show of genuine kindness. And he meant it. He wasn't offering to throw those little backpacks out the window, but rather to lift her stroller carefully. And he would have. He is nicer than I am. I waved to the grandmother with a smirk on my face as we pulled away. Now who is the child?

But the Mister didn't have a chance to be gentlemanly as we all got off together in London. Prior to that, though, she eventually left their comfy seats around a big table (after her children had mild meltdowns) and sheepishly offered them to us. We didn't take them. The smalls were busy by then with their games and projects and I had my nose in a book. The Mister smiled a pleasant, "No thanks." I think I growled.

And you know the worst of it? I still feel bad. Because when I saw her husband collect his family at the station in London, I looked right through them. I'm no saint. But following a long journey with 3 children alone, seeing her reunited with her husband, I should have given her a genuine smile to say, "Water under the bridge. Enjoy the last days of break! You were lousy, but I can be, too. We all are!"

So what I'm trying to say, even if not to her directly, is just this: I broke the code, too. I'm no Pollyanna, but feel better sending her a virtual truce.

But by all means lady, don't do that seat swiping again. It is just not nice. And it looks bad in front of the kids.


  1. Wow, that is crazy. I find there is very little etiquette in the UK with unreserved trains, but generally people with little kids do get treated well!

  2. You have seen this once in the UK? I have seen it again and again; the last time on a flight from Chicago to Kansas. I am always amazed since everyone on a plane goes to the same place. Anger has turned to pity, however, when I consider how stressful that level of competition is, and how much anxiety is tied up in "being first".