A ray of sun in the rain

Traveling by public transport rarely inspires one with feelings of warmth for one’s fellow human beings. Many bleeding-heart (but able-bodied) liberals become veritable tyrants when it comes to securing a seat for the duration of their journey on a bus or train. And the delays induced by traffic or track works – depending on one’s chosen mode of transport – rarely bring out the best in any of us. But most Athenians, like other city-dwellers, depend on public transport like the air they breathe. Like the air they breathe, however, it is far from reliable – being at the mercy of its environment. Hence, it was no surprise when torrential rain caused the city to grind to a virtual halt earlier this month for the fourth time in a year, provoking the ire of thousands of commuters. What was surprising, however, was a rare glimpse of human warmth amid the angst and the cynicism provoked by this minor crisis, which made me realize what brats we city-dwellers become when deprived of our conveniences. The rain was falling mercilessly that Thursday as I pored over my newspaper on a Piraeus-bound train virtually crawling along a route riddled with construction work, when the dreaded announcement sounded over the public address system – we would be stopping at Tavros station due to the potentially catastrophic consequences were the train to cross the bridge at Moschato, already weakened by the swelling Kifissos River. A convincing argument indeed, but certainly an inconvenient one. The last three times the fury of mother nature had been too much for the Piraeus-Kifissia electric railway, I had failed to board one of the dangerously overcrowded buses creaking down Syngrou Avenue to Faliron – despite gallant and creative efforts – and my attempts to hail a taxi in that direction had been equally fruitless, so I had trudged several kilometers to work in the rain. It was therefore with little relish that I – and a crowd of fuming fellow passengers – embarked on a sloppy trek toward one of the coast-bound thoroughfares that might offer salvation. As I fumbled for my mobile phone, assessing who I could call to express my outrage at this travesty of public transport, a young woman asked me whether I was going to Faliron. «Yes,» I told her. «Perhaps we could get a taxi together?» she offered. I told her the prospects were pretty grim and that I was preparing to walk the whole way, at which she suggested we walk together – for company. Somehow, the prospect of making polite conversation with a stranger while wading down a flooded highway was less appealing than striding off alone to get the whole soggy ordeal over with as quickly as possible. But it would have been rude to refuse, and so we walked together. Eva was her name, she was from Albania, worked as a cleaner, and was married with two daughters (the younger one was scared of thunder and would be hiding in a cupboard as we spoke). As we trudged and waded our tortuous route to Faliron, Eva’s mobile phone would ring – her husband, father, daughters calling to check on her homebound progress. Just under an hour later, I arrived at my workplace, soaked to the skin, in waterlogged shoes and desperate to dry off. As I turned to say goodbye to Eva, I was confronted by a man in waterproofs and an umbrella holding out a plastic bag to me. «This is my husband Yiannis,» Eva said. On Eva’s instruction (during one of the mobile conversations), Yiannis had donned his waterproofs and walked through the rain to bring me two pairs of dry socks and a skirt to change into. A stranger concerned about me catching a cold had called her husband to come to my aid. And I had thought twice about sharing even my «dead time» with her. What in retrospect seems such a simple – and logical – reaction struck me then as a surprisingly considerate gesture. But in a village – in Eva’s village in Albania, in any «community» – it would have been the most natural thing in the world. It seems the concept of going out of our way to help anyone apart from ourselves (and our little circle) has become foreign to us city-dwellers and blaming the unreliability of public transport (or the weather) for our self-absorption and irritability is the easy way out.

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