Encounters

Another source of unexpected happiness.

Train journeys in the UK are never fun. The Underground in London is the worst: standing amidst a jostling mess of people, all trying to pretend none of the others exists in this very small space. The moment of panic when accidentally catching someone’s eye is ridiculous, “Oh no! That was rude!”. Politeness is in our British bones. But last Saturday on a train journey I had a surprise that shook the conventional out of me.

I got on the train looking around for my booked seat number, 51. My number was in an empty seat in the corner of a table of 4. Unfortunately the other three seats were taken by a group of two men and one woman playing a dice game. Smiling apologetically for disrupting them I spoke, “Excuse me, sorry, that seat is mine”. They looked up at me, “Take that seat, it was mine” said one of the men in accented English, pointing at an empty group of seats across the aisle. Relieved to have an easier option than squeezing into the corner and trying to pretend they didn’t exist while they sat opposite me, I took the empty seat. And relax…

“You should join us” said the man gesturing to the game. Shocked, I looked up and instantly smiled in a self-derogatory manner, shaking my head. The man urged again and I think all that came out of my mouth was “ah”, I was so surprised. My polite upbringing had not prepared me for such an unheard of event! They returned to their game talking to each other in another language and laughing. I sat awkwardly eating my sandwich in an uncomfortable and solitary silence. After 10 minutes I mustered the courage to ask the question spinning in my head, “So are you travelling? Where are you from?”. Unfazed by my strange social behaviour of silence and nervous glances followed by a sudden question they replied they were from the Netherlands. After some awkward attempts at continued conversation on my part I was invited again to join them in their game. This time I agreed, and sat down at their table, surprised but pleased.

They were so friendly and I had a great time playing with them and chatting. The game was a rather confusing mathematical game about grumpy rabbits, which was a game of risk. As I sat trying to work out the game, and laughing with complete strangers at my poor throws of dice, I felt happy. After about an hour of talking and playing it was my stop so I said thank you and goodbye and I got off the train with a big smile.

I could say happiness is games about grumpy rabbits, hip chickens (Hippe Kippen – I know Dutch now!) and cartoon worms. But actually it’s much more than that. Happiness is an utter stranger reaching out a hand of friendship, accepting you as you are, sharing their time and smiles with you and expecting nothing in return. Happiness is the breakdown of artificial, rigid and constraining politeness with real kindness. Maybe this behaviour is typical in the Netherlands but it definitely isn’t in the UK, and I really wish it was…

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