When I was a boy, I had a fat, heavy book called Helden und Heilige, which translates as “Heroes and Saints.” It was a work of hagiography, with life stories, appreciations, and images of all the saints of the Catholic church. I loved reading about these people. The more remote they were in time, the more interesting feats and miracles they were said to have accomplished. I was very disappointed when the church eventually reformed its calendar and a few of my favorite saints did not have a name day anymore. Today, traveling in Europe, I sometimes come across churches, memorials, ruins, rocks, and features of the landscape named after fascinating, amazing saints and heroes who may have lived there at some point. At least somebody’s story became associated with a place that helps to keep a memory or myth alive. Quite a few of these saints appear to be known only in the regions close by.
We all meet remarkable people in our lives. You don’t have to be G. I. Gurdjieff to have this happen to you. We also cross paths with deceptive, troubled, and vicious characters. I know I have benefited from getting to know both kinds. They don’t ever deserve to be forgotten, even if I never knew who they were or what happened to them after we parted. Starting today, I’ll be presenting some of the saints, heroes, and villains I’ve had the fortune to meet. Today:
The kind cab driver who took me to my house and back to the airport
A couple of years ago, Evelyn and I went to Ravenna, Italy, for the first time. Our flights went from Seattle to Amsterdam and from there to Bologna, where we would pick up the rental car. The long Amsterdam flight left around 1:30pm and we got to the airport shortly after 11am.
We checked our luggage, got our boarding passes, and got into the security line.
That’s when I realized I didn’t have my driving license. Without the license, I wouldn’t be able to get the car in Bologna. The printed copy of it wouldn’t do me any good. Without a car, we would not be able to take day trips to the many places in the Emilia Romagna where one cannot get by train or bus. It would still be an interesting time, but probably disappointing in some ways. We decided I needed to get my license, which was somewhere in our house.
While Evelyn stayed in line for her screening, I rushed out of the airport and got into a taxi. I was beginning to panic. Time suddenly felt very short. The driver was a kindly-looking man in his sixties. He had a long, white beard and wore a turban. His voice was gentle and pleasant to listen to. I explained my query and that I hoped not to miss my plane. I forgot what he said, but, surprising myself, I was immediately at ease.
It was a beautiful, blue-sky September Saturday. Freeway traffic into Seattle was horribly backed up. By the time we had to slow down, I didn’t care anymore about making my plane. The driver and I were in conversation. I don’t remember all of what we talked about, but I do recall him telling me about his family members in India, and in Atlanta, New Jersey, and other places in the United States. “I have been to visit them all,” he said. “I am so happy I don’t live where they do. These places are not beautiful. But Seattle is. They come to visit me and are jealous. ‘Welcome to the heaven’, I say to them.”
Usually, I would be very unpleasant and awfully stressed out in this situation. But that man helped to relax, accept, and let things be. I remember thinking, “He’s right, this is one of the best places in the world. It’s not a big deal if my miss my plane and get to Ravenna a day later. Or never.” I also remember saying to myself, “This is not like me at all. It probably won’t last, but it’s very nice for now.”
Eventually, we reached our exit and got to our house. I asked him to wait in front. I ran into the house, unlocked my office, found the license on the scanner/printer, locked my office, locked the house, rushed back to the cab. The driver was gracefully turning a page in a leather-bound book with Arabic writing on the cover. He closed it immediately; I didn’t see what it was and didn’t want to quiz him.
On the way back to the airport, the driver shared more of his views. “Trust is extremely important, it’s the most important thing,” I remember him saying. “Trust and faith. I trust in God to take care.”
Eventually, he dropped me off in front of the terminal. I paid and gave him a large tip. He waved and wished me a happy journey. The plane was already boarding when I got to the gate.
I did not get the driver’s name. He was the kindest, most calming person I could have met under the circumstances. It’s unlikely I would ever share his religious convictions. But his serene graciousness, gentle humor, and kind presence? I can only hope to aspire to that.
So, “welcome to the heaven,” merry Christmas, a delightful solstice, or whatever else you celebrate.