“All grown-ups were once children, but only few of them remember it”
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
My friend Kate was recently talking about a chance encounter on her daily commute to work:
I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.
I don’t have a better way to describe the state I was in today, as these are word for word depicting me as I was coming back from work. In the past, I too have had my fair share of unexpected encounters in the U-Bahn; while the exhibitionists and knife-holders are not worth remembering, I do remember fondly petting a parrot, being deemed comfortable enough a travel pillow for countless four-legged travelers as well as for some kids, being hugged by a stranger or learning how to say a few words in Tigrinya.
So today, I was preoccupied by finding myself a seat so that I could keep on reading that amazing book on the history of colours that I’m reading at the moment. Not only do I learn dozens of interesting facts about the sociology of colours, but it also turns out to be the most successful attention drawer in public transport as multicolored dots spray across a grey cover in a most unusual way. The subway is really busy, full of school kids. I can’t wait to find out about orchil after having learned all there was to know about Tyrian purple and its manufacture.
Only when I start reading, I notice the boy sitting in front of me. He must be ten or something, and is staring at me enquiringly. He is part of a group visibly traveling through the city, part of yet a little bit apart, excluded from the group. The other kids are all laughing together and playing with their mobile phones. That boy isn’t. He’s quiet and looks around. I think, maybe he’s different. And don’t think much else as I resume my reading. But then, I notice he is still staring. At my book cover. So I look up and he is startled, doesn’t know where to look anymore. Another kid might have quickly looked away. But that one doesn’t, so I smile and ask him whether he wants to check the cover properly. He beams: “Sure!”, then the smile fades as he notices it is written in English.
I translate the title for him: ‘It’s about the history of colours. It says all about when and why people started using this or that colour…”, I begin. His eyes widen in pleasant surprise. In this day and age you never know what people might think if you talk to a child so I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate to keep talking to him, and after all the orchil page is waiting to be savoured, so I smile again and resume, again, my reading. Then I hear the boy’s voice, talking to the lady sitting next to me: “Excuse me, would you mind switching seats?”. The woman laughs and looks at me, I look up and realize he asked so as to sit next to me. He’s still staring avidly at my book. Obviously I can no longer read. He doesn’t use “Sie”, the formal “You” in German, anymore, as he asks: “So how comes your German is so bad?”. The brat. But well, I did stutter and stumble upon each word I pronounced when addressing him, so fair enough. “Well, I’m teaching German, as it happens, so go figure”, I reply. Just when I thought his eyes couldn’t get any bigger with astonishment. Or dismay. But he’s too polite to voice it again. “Hmm…ok…” he says, “…but surely you teach something else?”. I should have gone for journalist, my poor German skills wouldn’t have been so targeted. I tell him what I used to teach.
“And there, what is that?” he asked, pointing at my bookmark. “It’s a hand carved wooden bookmark with a Chinese proverb on it”, I say. “Do you speak Chinese?” he says. I hesitate answering yes, given the success I had in speaking German. So I tell him about this proverb and China. He nods. Then he asks whether I know the story of X… and Y… (those are unknown novel characters from a book he’s reading at school, apparently. I have forgotten the names). I don’t, and this doesn’t do much for his overall impression. He sighs and proceeds to tell me, chapter by chapter, what happens in the book. The other adults in the carriage are all smiling as everyone notices our conversation. They politely look away but listen to every word he says. So do I, he’s a super bright kid.
Then, his school mates notice as well. Of course, they poke fun at him as he’s talking to an adult. And, strangely, it’s me whose face reddens, between cochineal and vermilion. My travel buddy remains unfazed. When he’s done with telling me all about the book he reads, I ask him in which grade he is. 4th in Germany, so he’s either 9 or 10 indeed. He asks me where I’m from; “France? oh I’ve been there once with my parents!”, so I ask him what he preferred. He smiles at the memory: “I went to a restaurant where I got a bag full of surprises! Parisians are really nice!”, he says. The entire carriage discreetly laughs at that: “Is that so?” I say. He seems really satisfied and goes on to ask me which phone games I play. Much to my shame, none. As if things couldn’t get worse, after my failed German language test. He sighs again. I kind of hope he’ll get off the subway soon before I make a total fool of myself. Yet it’s one of the best ride home I’ve ever had. “Do you know why Germany is called like that?” he asks next. “No, tell me about it?”. “Well, because of the Germans”. “Oh right, well it’s like France with the Franks”, I say. Ah, his face says he hasn’t heard of Clovis and Charlemagne just yet.
He changes subject. “Do you play an instrument?” he asks next. His friends are still casting enquiring glances every now and then but I know from the heat gone from my cheeks that I’m no longer cherry faced. Pheww, music. I might score some points there. “Yes I do, a little bit of piano, and…”, he interrupts “Oh I play the guitar, we could play together sometime…” he says. “Hmm yes so errm well I don’t really play you see”, I begin. The woman who gave away her seat so that we could have this enlightening conversation is giving me the thumbs up. My young friend isn’t deterred: “And this and that band, do you know them?” he hums his favourite tunes, none of which I know. He’s at a loss for explanations as to my sheer ignorance: “But what DO you listen to then?” he asks. I discreetly hide my phone with its load of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as I look ancient enough to him as it is. I learned that from school: passed 20, everyone is ancient.
He has reached his destination. He gets up, and asks: “I suppose you won’t give me your number, right?”. I tell him: “Well, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, young man. But I’ll tell you my name since we had this conversation, and you’ll tell me yours”. I tell him my first name, to which he replies: “cool. I’m X….”. It is me who is startled now, to hear that name, of all names out there. Sometimes life plays funny tricks on you.
He must leave: “Bye, then!”, he says, and we part ways. Everyone still smiles in the carriage. I don’t have time to think about it further, as the lady sits again and begins: “So…I heard you two talking about Paris…I’m going there next week, could you tell me a little bit about it?”. I nod as I watch X… walking away with his school mates on the platform, having already forgotten all about me, as a boy his age should. And I think, that as long as there will be little boys like him, the world won’t be entirely bad, very bad.