Brief Encounters

Travelling alone by foot and public transport has several drawbacks, to be sure - it requires vast amounts of "waiting" time, and always involves interminable steps to negotiate with increasingly weighty baggage. But overall, it is a stimulating way to see another country, and opens up so many opportunities for meeting "the locals". 

I launch myself into many uninvited conversations on holiday, and the result is often rewarding, sometimes surprising, and frequently memorable.


The train trip from London to Edinburgh is a favourite of mine, but this time it was a little unusual because there was some unexplained problem near York which meant we had a long delay and were then joined by the passengers from two other trains. For the next leg of the journey it was very noisy and crowded, because one group was a bunch of primary school students from some small North Yorkshire town who had been on a field trip to the Viking Museum in York. They were very friendly, excited and chatty. You can imagine!

My "foony accent" amused them enormously, and we all enjoyed the guessing game about where I came from:

"Middlesborough", said one confidently. No, further away, I said.

"Ooooo Scotland!" said another. No, further than that, I said.

A brief silence followed, then in awed tones one ventured "London????".

I don't think they believed me for a second when I told them the truth, so from now on when anyone asks where I'm from, instead of "Australia" I intend to say "Middlesborough. Can't you tell?" 


Even when things don't go to plan, there is often an unexpected gem on a holiday.
On one otherwise infuriating day it was the glorious presence of a stereotype on one of the many trains I took that day. He had a tweedy flat cap, hunched shoulders, a large watch, and a well-thumbed notebook in which he made copious notes every time we passed another train or a shunting yard. On the pretext of losing my balance en route to the toilet, I managed to peer over his shoulder, and sure enough, the pages were covered in squiggly numbers and times. Yes, he was a bonafide "Train Spotter”.

But that was almost incidental to his sudden loud assertion: "Actually I prefer to sit on my own, thank you". This was directed at a boarding passenger who attempted to take one of the 3 spare seats around our hero. A spirited discussion then ensued, but Mr Train Spotter was implacable, and the other chap shuffled off down the carriage, muttering loudly about bloody people who think they own the bloody train just because they know the bloody engine number.
I was exchanging fascinated and appreciative grins with a lady across the aisle when the petulant voice rose again, explaining (apropos of nothing) "I'm retired. And I'm not married, either." Marvellous stuff.


I was ambling alongside a canal when I stopped to watch a swing bridge being hand-cranked open to allow two barges through. Having watched the operator exchange familiar pleasantries with the boatmen, I wandered over to chat to him. Sounding rather like HM the Q, I asked if he enjoyed his job and the people he met. Unfortunately he didn't like his job of 13 years, but "it's all I can do now, of course" (I didn't pry), and agreed that the boat people were generally friendly and easy-going. Correctly identifying me as an Australian (and not from Middlesborough - see above), he then asked about my holiday. On hearing that I had been in Scotland for 2 weeks and was now in England for 2 weeks, he nodded politely, but then advised me in no uncertain terms that if I'd come for an extra week I could have gone to Austria, because it was really nice there.
Feeling there was nothing I could offer in defence of this frightful lapse in my travel plans, I agreed sadly that I had probably not given it enough thought, thanked him kindly for his advice, patted his scruffy dogs ("One's a Whippet/Bedlington terrier cross, y'know.") and went on my way.
Fortunately, he waved cheerily at me the following day when I passed again, and the dogs stopped shouting at the boat-bound dogs long enough to give me a quick wag, so I think my poor travel planning had been forgiven.

In the same village I met Peter, walking his two tired and blissfully muddy border collies. Like many elderly men, he had more than enough time to stop for a chat, so we talked about the hot-air balloon race we'd seen passing over the village that morning, and agreed that neither of us would ever be seen in "one of them things". 
Talk turned, as usual, to my holiday, and when I explained that I'd been on a walking holiday in Scotland he smiled knowingly and said "I expect it rained all the time, didn't it?". I agreed that we seldom had a bright sunny day in the 2 weeks I was there, at which he nodded triumphantly, explaining that he'd been to Scotland once and it rained the whole day he was there! 
"It might just as well have been Cheltenham", he said dismissively. 

© makrhod 2011