I cannot now remember the time for the beginning of the first leg of our journey home from Barcelona on February 8 last. All I remember is that it was Sunday, and Sunday quiet when we awoke. And that may have been the reason we were almost an hour late; that and the fact that we’d forgotten to set the alarm correctly. Nevertheless we dressed, breakfasted and were in the lobby several minutes – time enough – before our limo driver arrived. I do remember that it was a bright and beautiful day.
Through deserted streets we moved unobstructed and unaccompanied. In place of the floods of buses, cars and people that had been the normal accompaniment to our comings and goings during the week just ended, silence on this last short, bright and quiet ride. It was lovely and we both, I think, were thankful for the soft, sweet farewell from the city and the day. As far as I could tell from internet weather reports we were beginning a long day’s journey into a Dantesque scene of snow, wind, cold, ice and misery in what is shaping up to be Boston’s worst winter since; well since there has been a Boston, Massachusetts.
There was good chance, we both thought, that the London to Boston leg of our journey home would be delayed while the expected storm over there did its worst. As I thought about that I prayed it wouldn’t happen; wanting my own bed come, no matter, what may.
With those kinds of thoughts on our minds we gathered our bags and bravely pushed through the doors into the departure terminal at Barcelona’s nearly brand new, nifty, bright and shiny airport. The mystery of all of the people missing from the streets of Barcelona was solved immediately. They were here! In front of us a hive swarmed, everyone a worker bee. And all we needed to do was drop our own pollen load of luggage with the appropriate receiving bee perched between counter and conveyor belt, and find a place to sit and wait.
Easier said, don’t you know.
As we stood looking about us the thought occurred to me that such a thing as identifying one particular drop of water in all the ocean from every other one might be an easier, maybe even a more sane and useful, exercise. We wandered left. We wandered right. And then we repeated our maneuvers, breasting in every direction the flood of folks all of whom, unlike us, moved with purpose, intent and direction. They knew where to go; knew what to do. One could see it in their eyes, their posture, their pace. The lost are always timid.
There is nothing so dismaying, I think, as being lost in a strange place far from home; lost amid strangers to whom such an anxiety is utterly foreign. It should have a name, this feeling; something akin I guess to Hansel’s and Gretel’s in that dark forest. I was about to be overcome by H&G Syndrome and drop to my knees in search of bread crumbs when I looked behind me and my eyes met those of a nice woman at one of the six or seven hundred auto rental counters. She smiled and I walked over to ask her an Important Question. Where the hell were we, and how did we find and get to where we wanted and needed to go?!
It took her about ten seconds to solve our problem. Why not? She practically lived in the hive. Within a few minutes, solution given and received and satisfaction obtained we found ourselves in the slowly moving line, Al-Qaeda’s and Islam’s great cultural legacy: the pre-boarding security check.
That done, all that remained was to find a place to sit and wait. That place was the two chairs at the end of a short row one level deeper into the hive and a dozen or so yards in front of the Duty Free shop, one of dozens of glitzy, glamorous, shiny, polished and expensive pocket picking devices for people like us; people simply waiting, waiting, waiting. The other attraction, perhaps the more beneficial for mental and spiritual health in a place like that is People Watching, which may have been the original spectator sport. Being a native New Yorker, and that city being a place which affords no shortage of opportunity and material, I was born to the sport of sitting and watching the world go by – almost literally.
As we took our seats to observe as much of the “game” as we might I noticed the other seats in our row were filled with odd bits of clothing and belongings; a jacket or two, a bag or three and one old fellow , a sturdy man, thickly framed, with a full head of salt and pepper hair; moderately well dressed. My memory of him sitting, simply watching, waiting, guarding?, reminds me now of some old lion. There was indeed a sort of quiet nobility to his still watchfulness. We exchanged a brief look at each other, a glance and the slightest nod. Then he returned to his business and I to mine; between us the arm rest and history. Good fences…
An hour passed at least during which I shared an orange with Mariellen next to me quietly reading one of her Kindle books, and walked once or twice to the large non-portable electronic device announcing where our boarding gate for the flight to London would be. My lion-like seat mate did not stir, except for once when he rose to make room among the belongings scattered along three of the remaining six chairs in our row to accommodate a woman of a certain age I took to be his wife. She, like him, was generously proportioned and neatly dressed. They spoke for a while, their conversation sounding to me as if they were from eastern Europe, perhaps from the Balkans; Slavs of one kind or another, whose ancestors may have marched across this very spot thousands of years ago behind some Greek or Roman general.
She left him after a while, plunging back into the ocean of glittering shops in front of us, and he returned to his stoic and silent guarding. But, it wasn’t too long before I saw his wife coming back with what could only be the rest of the family; herself, a son and daughter-in-law (or the other way round) and the grandson, a young boy with a young boy’s excited face and eager voice. He was especially excited to show his grandfather some small thing he carried; a game, a souvenir, an important object.
And here an amazing thing began to happen. The three others stood around taking, poking through the luggage and the packages, moving, re-arranging, being very busy, being very grown-up and, well, responsible. Not so these two; so close to me I could hear every word, could almost feel their breath.
He looked at what the boy held out to him and reached for it. The young fellow put it into his big hand and stood still, eyes fixed on the old man, eyes for no one else. While looking toward the Duty Free shop I could see both of them next to me clearly; and so, I watched. And listened. I listened for, you will understand, I knew every word they were speaking as if it was my native tongue.
“I had one of those when I was your age,” he said to the boy; who answered, a bit amazed, “You did?!” “Yes,” he answered quietly, slowly. “Yes, I had one long ago when I was young and everything was different.”
Then the child, who held again in his hand what his grandfather had had so long ago; the child was quiet, looking from his object to his grandfather. No one else was present in the whole huge space. I wasn’t there, nor his family, nor the crowds flowing by, nor the shiny stores full of shoppers. No one else but this boy and that man.
He moved closer to his grandfather who lifted him up out of the world to his lap and wrapped him in his left arm; his right kept free to hold the Object the boy had now given back to him. The boy looked at him and said, “Tell me, Grandfather.”
For the next ten or fifteen or however many minutes, there next to me yet far away, in a language I had never heard yet perfectly understood, the man, the old lion, told his story of the Object he once had to the little boy, the cub. I couldn’t help but listen and hear the story told. It was a story I had heard myself when I was a child. The same one I had told to my children, to my grandchildren when they were little boys and girls; little boys and girls who had climbed into my lap and sat within my arms and close to my heart. And my story used the same, the very same, words he used.
Just as my own children and grandchildren did, so did the little boy, who from time to time could not help interrupting to ask a question; not so much to clarify a point, but rather to redirect the story where he hoped it would go. And sometimes, so I could tell from Grandfather’s tone, and the young fellow’s smile and gleeful wiggle, why, the story went exactly where he wanted it to go. But there were times, and the same times occurred in the same stories I told, that what the hearer wanted to hear could not be told.
Then would come the questions always asked during the telling of the Story, “Why?”, or “Why not?”. I heard this several times as the story was unfolding, and heard eager young explanations for why the Story should move one way or another.
But this Grandfather knew, as Grandfathers have ever known, the how and the why of a story, no matter the Object, and its proper ending. And he told it well as for nearly all of twenty minutes, while those in the other place worked on packages and luggages, the Old Man and the Young Boy sat away and spoke, listened and lived a Story.
It ended of course. Every story will. And they made ready to leave. The three people had packed away what needed to be packed away. And the boy got down from the Old Man’s lap. He stood in front of him with his Object once more in his hand.
The others had gone ahead, already passing the last of the little archipelago of phone booths just beyond our own resting and waiting place, as Grandfather stood up, slowly as grandfathers do, and straightened up, slowly as grandfathers do. While the Boy waited, the Old Woman stopped, turned and urged the two, still returning from where they had been, to hurry. The Old Man put on his jacket, and, now quite erect, put out his hand to the little boy.
Who, turning, took it.