Thursday, April 19, 2012

I forgot the protocol

In the Minsk Metro (subway) there’s always room for one more. When the train pulls into the station, people press themselves into the car. Frequently, people on the platform press the people in front of them in order to help get more into the car quickly before the doors close. I’m used to that protocol, and I’ve got no problem with it. I just don’t ride the subway if I’m carrying eggs at rush hour.

Tonight I took my first rush-hour ride on the Boston subway since I’ve been gone. When the train pulled into the station it looked pretty full at first, but enough people got off that I knew those of us on the platform would all fit inside the car. A couple of people in front of me got on, and I could see plenty of space inside the car, but I had a problem: There was a very large woman standing in the doorway. I’m having a little trouble choosing the right words to describe her size. For various reasons, a lot of Americans grow bigger and wider than most Belarusians. But this woman stood twice the width of an ordinary American woman, and she filled about half of the doorway and I wasn’t sure how to get in.

My first inclination was just to give her a push and get in. There was plenty of empty space behind her and this would have been the normal approach on the Minsk Metro. I remembered before reaching the door, however, that we don’t touch each other on public transit in Boston. Still, I really wanted to get onto that car because even at rush hour our trains aren’t so frequent and I wanted to be on time for a meeting. I just had to squeeze between the fat woman and the little cluster of people trying to make room on the other side of the doorway. I touched her gently, guiding her to my left so I’d have room to squeeze behind her. “OW!,” she yelled. “Jesus!”

I thought about how I could possibly have hurt her. I replayed the memory of my hand on her back and affirmed that I had barely touched her. I quickly considered the hypothesis that somebody behind me had injured her in some way, but she reacted too soon for that. I even thought about telling her that Jesus Christ had nothing to do with this incident. But I just continued into the train, leaving space behind me for additional passengers and hoping that the fat woman would not press her attack. She did not.

I watched the people behind me as they got onto the train. They avoided touching and begged to be excused. “Excuse me:” the magic words I had forgotten. And I didn’t really need to hurry because the driver didn’t rush to close the door. He didn’t have to hurry because the trains are spaced at least five minutes apart. While occasionally somebody in Minsk pushes me so hard that I become annoyed, I generally prefer the Slavic tradition of fitting everybody in over the Bostonian no-touching protocol. But that’s there and I’m here, so I’ll try to follow the local rules. And when I go back, I’ll try to bring along Boston’s polite tradition of asking forgiveness before squeezing in.

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