Last weekend I took the train home from Boston to Rhode Island. I arrived at the station from my umpteenth job interview and I hadn’t eaten since an early breakfast hours before. Evidently I wasn’t the only person who was hungry. It was just after 1 p.m., and the terminal was hectic and crowded. Every food franchise had a line of customers, many with distracted, put-upon expression so characteristic of people who have somewhere else they’d rather be.
I got in line to buy a lemonade and a muffin, and watched as the couple in front of me—a small man and a smaller woman, both with thick, graying hair, and tidy, practical clothing—attempted to keep their large suitcases out of the way of all the rapidly moving legs cutting across the station floor. I noticed that they were speaking quietly to one another with the fast moving, “thhh”-heavy Spanish I recognized from my friend Alex, who’s from Barcelona.
As the couple’s turn to order arrived, they consulted one another, pointing again and again to the large menu hanging above the counter. I heard the people in line behind me begin to grumble. After a moment, the man stepped forward and spoke to the woman behind the register, working his tongue around the foreign words and producing the kind of off-kilter, rhythmless and hopelessly phonetic pronunciation I remember so well from my attempts at ordering food or asking for directions in other languages while I was abroad.
Just like me, the man also spoke too softly, and the cashier had trouble hearing him, let alone deciphering exactly what he’d said. She was patient, only showing the faintest frustration as the man repeated his order again and again, still pointing towards the menu board, which was too far away for his finger to make clear what his words couldn’t.
The queue was growing, and the two businessmen behind me started talking loudly to the cashier, trying to get her attention and making it even more difficult for her to listen to the man speaking to her. Behind me, I felt telltale, impatient movements—eyes flicking to the departures board, wrists turned upward to reveal clock-faces, shifting feet and heavy, “How long is this going to take?”-type sighs. Eventually another girl came to counter from a different part of the shop, and I let the businessmen behind me move to her side, while I stayed in line behind the Spanish couple until they were able to make their order clear by pointing out their choices on a take-out menu.
15 minutes later, when my train arrived and began boarding, I found myself again in line behind the couple and their gigantic suitcases. As the queue approached the track, an Amtrak agent stood checking people’s tickets to make sure they were getting on the right train. A large woman, with long, voluminous brown hair, she glanced at each ticket while keeping up a steady stream of loud commands: “Move into a single line please! A SINGLE LINE!,” “TICKETS OUT!” and “Keep moving!”
The couple approached her, unsure what to do. She stood looking at them, demanding their tickets, which the man evidently understood, withdrawing them from a thin paper envelope. But he had a question—I imagine he wanted to be sure he was getting on the right train, that he just wanted confirmation and assurance that he had in fact made it to the right place.
As he asked the woman his question, she looked at him as if it was inconceivable that he had the nerve to stop, and stand beside her, let alone speak. After a moment, in which he stuttered out his question again, his wife standing beside him looking bewildered, the station agent yelled in his face, “I WANT YOU TO MOVE!,” and pointed with an angry gesture down the platform toward the waiting train.
The man clutched his ticket back towards his chest, his shoulders tightening inwards, the way your body reacts when you feel threatened. And then he brought his arm around his wife’s back and guided her gently forward, wheeling their heavy suitcases behind them.
After showing my ticket, I followed them, inwardly cringing, and wishing I could approach them and apologize for the woman’s behavior, and for the general impatience of everyone around them. I thought of all the instances where I’d required someone’s patience, while I articulated a question or stood in a line, unsure that it was actually the right one. And I thought of all the times, simply by virtue of being clumsy and not overflowing with confidence, that I’d needed to take a moment to be patient with myself.
Traveling, particularly the part of travel that involves actually moving from one place to another, is full of impatient people, moving as rapidly as they can from point A to point B. And it’s also full of people whose jobs revolve around keeping things moving, who know that a hold-up in a line may costs a train two minutes, or twenty. But I hope, for the sake of the Spanish couple and uncertain travelers everywhere, myself included, that there are more people with patience, than without it.
Recently, both Beth and Erica wrote about the experience of meeting other Americans abroad. After a few months of travel, I felt an unashamed affinity of the Americans I encountered in foreign countries, except when their interactions with shopkeepers or waitstaff would become rude and short-tempered. Lack of patience isn’t solely an American trait; it’s a human one. It’s easy not to understand that what’s simple for you may be difficult for someone else, and as creatures with routines and commitments, we’re all often in a hurry.
But I felt really ashamed, following the couple down the platform to our train. 30 seconds of attention would have made their trip much more pleasant, and much less hostile. So the next time anyone unintentionally tries my patience, I hope I remember to take a deep breath, and to be patient for those first 30 seconds, and then the next 30, and the next, for as long as it takes.