A connection with a stranger reminded me how to play
It is around 8 in the morning Amsterdam time. But my own body clock is set to Boston. I’m on part one of a two-part journey, laying over at Schiphol Airport on my way to Nairobi. I’ve got a freshly brewed latte and a sandwich on a tray in front of me, and I’m sitting down at a long table, watching the traffic out on the tarmac — vehicles and aircraft taxiing and parking, loading and unloading, being fueled and serviced, arriving and departing.
I am traveling to facilitate a writing workshop about inclusion, gender and intersectionality for a cross-cultural team of COVID and AI researchers. But at the moment, I’m feeling a sense of disconnectedness, a lack of grounding, a malaise of jet-lag remove.
Suddenly, a haggard family, seemingly exhausted, origin unknown, lands at my table. A mother with five children in tow, aged about 5 to 12, I figure, dragging various baggage and backpacks, in transit from one place to another, like the rest of us.
They begin to chatter: French. I smile and offer an anemic, “Bonjour.” The mom replies, “Bonjour,” and a couple of the older ones acknowledge my presence. Then the mom departs, probably to find breakfast, leaving them all briefly with me. I imagine that she’s enjoying the few moments she won’t need to worry about entertaining or keeping track of her menagerie.
The youngest, a boy with a mop of blond hair and a messy face, settles at the far end of the table from me. He begins to squirm in his seat. He seems antsy, or bored, and in any case, like a lot of young children, possesses zero interest in casual conversation with a stranger. Especially me.
I meet his gaze for a moment and widen my eyes, showing interest in what he’s doing. He smiles back.
There’s a leftover plastic lid of a paper to-go cup on the table, and I watch him as he fiddles with it. I meet his gaze for a moment and widen my eyes, showing interest in what he’s doing. He smiles back. No words exchanged.
What he does next is unexpected, and fundamental, and primal: With his fingertips, he flicks the plastic lid towards me, skittering it across the ice-smooth tabletop like a hockey puck. The lid stays on the table and skids to a stop in front of me.
Without thinking, without wondering what his response might be, I look at him, lock eyes, and zip the lid back across the table.
He’s surprised by my gesture. The lid shoots to his end and he snags it with his hand, smiling. He’s clearly delighted I’ve responded to his form of communication — wordless, at the level of play, in the language of reflex.
His other four siblings notice what we’re doing and exchange looks of disbelief.
The game is afoot.
Soon, the boy and I are flicking the lid back and forth, again and again, trying to “score” by shooting it past each other, but stopping it each time. More smiles and smirks and giggles, but no conversation. We’ve invented this improvisational finger soccer/hockey game using the most rudimentary tools of play. I imagine I am playing with a primate – I mean, the boy is a primate, and so am I — but a wild one. Or we are both from neighboring tribes, unable to speak each other's tongues, or from a time before the invention of words.
I don’t want to analyze the moment too much because I’m having so much fun.
We're operating in a space outside language, a place of gestures, glances, grunts and glee.
I don’t want to analyze the moment too much because I’m having so much fun. For once, I am not focused on my journey to come, or the job and work that awaits me, or on any of my usual worries. I'm simply finding hope and pleasure in this wordless form of connection. I’m thrilled, watching the range of expressions break out across this kid’s face. And mine.
When he shoots the lid past me, I cry out, “Goal!” and raise my hands. The kid buckles with laughter. I do too.
Then the game ends as soon as it began. The mother returns. She has collected her husband, and provisions for the kids. Mom and dad begin to chat, the kids join in and soon the boy is distracted by the glass of juice in front of him. I dust off my rudimentary French skills and stumble through a conversation to learn where the family is coming from and where they’re headed. We exchange additional smiles, then focus our attention on our separate ends of the table and our separate breakfasts.
The spell is broken. But I’m left hopeful. In this age of unprecedented suspicion and conflict, xenophobia and polarization, discrimination and being “othered,” play is a way to reach across cultures, differences and generations and languages. People, cultures, civilizations, countries, nations, do have the ability to connect, to communicate, to collaborate, even to create fun in a wordless way. This kid is not fearful — of unfamiliar people, unexpected encounters, a diverse world — and I want him to stay that way.
I down the last of my latte, get up and wave goodbye. And I send the kid one final look. “Bon voyage,” I say, then add, “Bon courage.” Hang in there. You can do it. Be strong. I also want to say, “Go you go kid. Keep on playing.” But I don’t know how.
Then I gather my tray. I scan the departure board for my gate and departure time. The power of pure play surges inside, powering me for the next leg of my journey.
I look over my shoulder and the kid and the family are gone.