A few days ago I went to a very interesting talk at The Waldorf School of South West London. The speaker was a lady called Erika Grantham and the talk was entitled “Doing not talking”, aimed to parents and school tutors for kindergarten. No need to say the environment was ever so peaceful relaxing and very welcoming. The thought that in that same room children spend their days made me somehow jealous.
All the colours were soft and warm, there was a nature table with natural flowers and hanging from the ceiling a beautiful weeping willow branch, with some of the ends covered in green, symbolising the spring buds. As you can imagine we sat in tiny chairs in a circle, and perhaps the mood of the room was so calming whoever entered automatically pulled a couple of gears down and spoke very softly and calm.
Regarding our speaker, Erika, she was quietly sitting down, facing all of us, observing and I think enjoying herself with the surroundings as we were. How can I describe her, a tiny woman oozing the strength of a titan, and at the same time that lovely gran from the fairy tales that you wish you could have her as your next door neighbour. With a strong German accent she opened the talk and her words still resound. She spoke about the will, the fantasy and the imagination in a child and on how nowadays all three of them are manipulated by the comforts of modern high tech living.
From this talk and particularly the part of imagination, I remember quite well an episode when I was working regarding this subject.
It was a very cold evening, and we were waiting for a train that was delayed. That train was coming from Disneyland, and I was prepared to greet grumpy parents, overtired children and anxious travellers. But nothing prepared me for the story I’m about to tell you.
As I was saying, I was waiting for the train to arrive; I was informed that a wheelchair passenger was on board, so I was there on the platform with the ramp ready to be deployed as soon as the train stopped. The train arrived, doors were opened and I started to deploy the ramp for this passenger.
To my surprise, the first passengers to come down the ramp were two boys, who were obviously excited to be back. As you can imagine I kept an eye on these two – who were no more than 7 years old – because I did not see an adult coming after them. So I just stood there, with the ramp fully opened and waiting for the wheelchair passenger to come along.
These two boys were talking between them, and they were dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Obviously they had not thought about the danger – at that age they are not fully conscious of it – and they were quite persistent trying to look underneath the train, and close to the rails. It is worth mentioning that the gap between the train and the platform is quite substantial and the depth of this gap is substantial as well.
I was a bit uncomfortable watching these two so close, so carelessly close to the edge so I decided to walk towards them, you know in a very casual way. As soon as I approached, they came to me, hesitating and talking. Finally after a discussion of “no, you ask” “no you do it””you ask go on” the question came out.
– “Is it really dead people under the train?” blurted one of them.
I have to say, I have heard, I have been asked so many things when I was working, that I could write a catalogue with details and even so probably I would miss a few. But this question? NEVER. Imagine my shock when they asked me, I simply could not believe for one second that 2 seven year old boys were asking me that.
– How about you move with me away from the edge and then I tell you? I said, calmly and with a smile on my face as if the question was the most natural thing to ask.
– But if we move – said one of them – we won’t be able to see the dead people!
– Well, I’m afraid it is dangerous to be so close to the edge, so please come with me and I tell you all about it.
They agreed, perhaps under the illusion the dead people would emerge from underneath the train and grab them. Although that sounded like the right thing to say to get them away from the edge of the platform– thinking back on reflection – at the time it did not cross my mind to say it. I did see some excitement in their eyes waiting for the promised answer. But my answer was not an answer, was another question.
– What makes you think they are dead people under the train?
– Because in this game we are playing the dead people hide under the train – started one of the boys
– And then – said the other – you have to kill them all!
– Yes, yes, and the more you kill the more dead people appear and then you have to kill them!! – said the one who asked the question in the first place.
All I managed to say is “Ohh….I see” completely astonished.
At that same time the wheelchair passenger was making his way down the ramp and who I think it was the father called them and off they went. But before they went, they did ask again.
– So, are there dead people then?
– Josh, Matt, come back here right now! – Said the man
– I was folding back the ramp and I answered them “Of course not! There is not such a thing”.
The disappointment in their faces was beyond words to describe it. They went back to the adults who were getting ready to leave the platform with all their bags and suitcases whilst I was making my way back to the office to clock out and go home. Nothing that happened that day could top this last event.
Needless to say this “3 minute conversation” still very clear in my mind because it did shock me and every time I recall it still does. And after listening to lovely Erika and all her wealth of knowledge I started to comprehend – understand is not the right word in this case – as to why these two boys posed such a question. The first thing that comes to my mind is “their imagination is corroded” by these new games and paraphernalia that surrounds children nowadays. Fair point, children do have to know that those games exist, violence is a real deal, and life is not as rosy as we, parents, expect it to be. We, parents, do our best to keep life as rosy as possible, but the fact remains; reality is not a soft pillow, rolling hills with green grass and perfectly blue skies.
But then again, isn’t childhood what it is all about? Blue skies, rolling hills with green grass and soft pillows? So, why corrupt it so soon and so fast?
After two years, I returned to Buenos Aires with my little one. The flight was horrendous – direct flight with British Airways – and we landed with sunny weather and 36 degrees, but I can say after a week being here that young sir is adapting slowly but surely to the heat, the food and the new faces around, his appetite increased and I am pretty sure he has grown in height – weight is difficult to measure, for him the scales are a toy and it is ever so funny to step in and out to see the light flash !- but my arms can tell the difference in weight from a week ago.
His cheeks are rosy and even his mood has changed. He is not that cranky and demanding although today he has been “difficult” but I don’t know why. I blame everything on the sun and the warmth of the summer.
In any case, yesterday we went to the “plaza” which is in most cases in Argentina, a mix between a playground and park. It is important to remark that “plazas” are the heart and soul of every neighbourhood / city / village in Argentina; it is very popular to go during the evening to the “plaza” to gather around, to see what’s going on and to share a moment with friends, or if fancy takes you, to sit down and gaze or read a book.
The “plaza” is surrounded in most cases by the church and cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlours; in some cities what would be the village hall is right across the “plaza” together with the church, the Council hall, the bank and a cafe (cafes are inevitably near a “plaza”).
In such a public space you can find benches scattered around, concrete tables with chess boards made with black and white mosaics, and you do see people sitting down playing chess and drinking mate (mate is a traditional drink in Argentina) and of course playgrounds for children.
Some of these playgrounds have a merry-go-round beside the traditional games and structures for children like swings, see-saws, sand pits and slides. Needless to say a “plaza” with a merry-go-round is extremely popular, particularly during weekends, and if those weekends are sunny and warm, no need to say, they are simply a “must do” activity.
Another important fact is that the “plaza” is – being the heart and soul of every village/city and town – the best place to take the pulse of the socio-economic beat of the population. At the plaza people from different paths of life concur and diverge; it is important to note as well that Argentineans talk *a lot* not only between themselves but with complete strangers and if they could talk to trees who could answer or follow a conversation they definitely would.
And what is it Argentineans that talk about? Normally it would start with the weather and then 5 minutes later they will – trust me, they will – end up talking about politics and how bad the economy is, comparing the current price of potatoes to how the price was two months ago and so on and so forth. If the conversation goes any deeper, they probably will come up with solutions to the economy, how they would do things differently and end up waving goodbye to each other as if they were old friends.
I can tell that it is true the social situation is bad and the economy is even worse; it is absolutely true that the money is worthless and going out to the shops (and it is only for groceries and the absolute necessities) requires skills of an economist and a calculator in the hand. One needs to be a magician in the kitchen to be sure to use every scrap of food and is nowadays a must, turning it into something edible and perhaps nutritious, in order to stretch the money and live day to day.
I experienced this feeling of money falling like sand through my fingers the first few days I was here and of course going out doing the shopping for fruit, veg and dairy. Boy, I went out with a wallet full of money and came back with few coins!. Now I became more “savvy” and I do like everybody else, wait for the daily offers and walk reaching different shops looking for the best price.
Going back to my lovely Sunday afternoon, my son woke up from his afternoon nap and of course, being sunny and warm we decided to go to the “plaza” nearby where I used to go as a child. Needless to say, so many memories came back to my mind! The swings, the see-saws, the sand pit…and the merry-go-round.
My mother was very excited to take her grandson to the merry-go-round, like she did when I was little. My son was delighted with the prospect of getting himself on the merry-go-round, so after buying the ticket off they go, my son sitting in a horse and my mother standing by his side. I do not need to say that both were very excited and my son was in absolute awe to see the world from his horse and me waving like an idiot whilst trying to catch a glimpse of the moment with my camera.
The merry-go-round stopped and my son was craving for more; as soon as I tried to get him away from the horse he climbed up again and looked at me as if to say: “you are not thinking on going back home, are you?” with a big smile and giggling; so I went to the lady who sold the tickets and queued to buy another ticket. Note, each ticket costs $ 6 per child per round (we are talking something like 45 pence) and you must buy them there and then, preferably with change.
So, another ticket bought, another turn on the merry-go-round, this time it was my turn to get dizzy and my mother’s turn to try to take a picture. As I stepped down and tried again to take my son away from the merry-go-round (failing again) my mother looked at me and said go on buy another ticket, it is a lovely afternoon after all and we have plenty of time…
There I was queuing up to buy another ticket and observing a mother who was taking her children down from the merry-go-round and you could tell the children were quite unhappy with the situation, and the mother as well. The dialog was more or less like this:
– But mum….
– C’mon darlings now we have to go, it is time to go home, we had a drink, an ice cream and some popcorn…
– But we want another ride on the merry go round…
– Yes mum we do!
– Listen, we had two rides. That’s it. I cannot afford another ride.
– No. I’m sorry.
I saw the mother’s distress when she was saying no. When she was saying they had to go. As the dialog with the children extended for another 5 minutes, I heard the mother say to one of her children “I saved all week to bring you to the plaza and I am afraid I cannot save any more. I’m sorry darling” and she stroked her child’s head whilst holding the other child’s hand.
I saw in her eyes the sadness and the frustration of having to say no to her children and quietly walk them away from the merry-go-round. And we are talking about only 45 pence each child, which is in any case almost a pound to pay for both of them to have 3 minutes of fun and laughter.
As I was contemplating the scene a little hand grabbed my shirt asking for something and pointing to the swings, and my mother all excited taking him and saying he changed his mind and now it was the turn of the swings and both of them started to walk towards them.
As I left the queue to follow them I was still with that scene in my head and I have to say as a mother I felt her pain and her frustration and even now as I write this I struggle to come to terms with this clear result of a socio-economic situation that stains this country and its inhabitants; I can only feel respect for this selfless mother who saves one peso after the other during the week to take her children out to the “plaza” and treat them to a couple of rides on the merry-go-round, ice cream and a soda.
I do hope their children have the same feeling towards her mother in the future.
N.B. This was bound to be posted on Saturday – the Saturday gone – but for one reason or another, it did not happen. Now I got the time, I publish it, but I did not change dates nor bothered swapping the “Today” for “last Saturday”.
Today at work was like any other Saturday. It was busy Saturday, with that overall feeling that I did not have enough hands to point in all the directions, ears to listen to all the questions or enough languages to give the answers that were needed.
As I said at the beginning, just like any other Saturday….but.
There is always a but. But this time, I think it was a good but.
Let me draw you a picture: Train boarding, loads of people invading the platform like ants, walking almost running (if not running) – and I still wonder why, after so many years watching the same ritual – to give it a name, no idea if I should call it a habit? The question always remains the same: if the train is not going anywhere until the time comes for it to depart, why oh why do people run?!
In the midst – or shall I say ocean – of people, I saw a wheelchair passenger and companion coming my way. As you can imagine, a wheelchair passenger is not so unusual a sight on a railway platform, so as soon as I spotted them coming towards me, I made my way to put the ramp so they can get on the train and everything can be as smooth as possible.
As I was putting up the ramp, obviously they were faster than me, so as I turn round to face them, I see them staring at me. The wheelchair passenger was a child – cannot pinpoint exactly the age, but definitely no more than 10 or 11 I would dare guess – and his companion was his mother.
I greet them and offered my help to get on the train, help that the mother politely refused with half a smile and certain nervousness. So, I just stood there, with a sort of silent declaration of “I respect your decision, nevertheless I am here if you change your mind” sort of thing.
They got in the carriage, and they made way to the seating area. I followed them – as I normally do – and ask the mother if she is fine with the space and if there is anything else I could do for her or for her child. She started to jabber nervously, explaining to me that her child needed to be seated upright due to a deficiency in his breathing.
As she was talking – very fast, quite nervous still – and I was listening trying to get all the information in and thinking about solutions, I heard a very soft squeak.
Suddenly, in a fraction of a second I realised that I did not have the full picture. I was dealing with two passengers, one in a wheelchair and the other was his companion. When I heard that soft squeak, I had the full picture. The wheelchair passenger was a child, no more than 10 years old, completely immobilised.
I did not waste any time, and I briefly paused the mother to ask for the boy’s name. Let’s call him Daniel and his mother Anita (real names kept private). I started to provide the answers for the questions Anita was asking but instead of answering them to her, I decided to kneel down and look at Daniel’s eyes whilst giving him the answers.
“Daniel, just so you know, I will be talking the train manager, who will be in charge during the journey, and asking him if it would be ok for you to sit in a two-seater, so you can be more comfy for the journey, is it ok if I come back in 2 minutes, I just need to talk to him?”
Daniels and his mum thanked me. Another soft squeak, a quirky smile and something in his eyes told me “thank you”. I called the train manager, explained the situation and he said “yes of course do whatever you need to do”, and so I did.
I came back, as we say in my country ‘like a dog with two tails’ to meet with Daniel and Anita, and again, kneel down to Daniels’s eye level and explained to him that he was more than welcome to stretch out in two seats, leave the wheelchair – with the brakes on, of course! – and just enjoy the ride.
Another soft squeak and something in Daniels’s eyes told me “thank you”. Anita was much more relaxed by now, and she explained, very calmly, that Daniel has a far more enjoyable trip if he can be seated upright so his lungs do not depend so much on the oxygen tank, he can breathe easily and that helps distract him with the view and the scenery.
Also if Daniel is relaxed she relaxes as well, so it works both ways.
I wave my goodbyes and wished a good journey to them, train doors closed, I left the platform and got on with another train, with not enough fingers to point in the right direction, not speaking enough languages to answer all the questions….
Just another Saturday.