Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Talking to Strangers

Like all parents of five year olds, we’ve had the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ talk with Kasia. This has not been entirely successful.

Kasia, left to herself, would hug everyone that came into range. We have, with some difficulty, managed to convince her that she should at least ask her intended victim whether they wished to be hugged before actually hugging them. Since this was similar to the well-established and understood rule that she must never pet a dog without first checking with the owner (lest said dog bite her) she has started asking permission first. The problem is, few people feel they can turn down the request for a hug from a five year old without appearing completely cold-hearted, so they often say ‘yes’ even though their body language is screaming ‘No!’.

This is particularly problematic with people in the service industries, who may feel they have to indulge the child lest they loose the goodwill of the parents. So we have recently added the rule that Kasia must first ask us, even before asking the intended huggee, so we may judge whether the individual or circumstances appropriate.

The latter criteria is still a bit hard for Kasia to grasp, however: Once given permission to hug a particular person, she believes she has carte blanc to hug them at will, regardless of what they are currently doing. This can be an issue when relatives, for example, are spotted at a job site, or standing on the edge of a panoramic cliff, or otherwise engaged in some demanding activity and not expecting 22 kgs of child to come hurtling at their knees.

So. We are the first aboard our cruise ship and a nice looking woman is manning the reservations desk, so Kasia asks if she may hug the woman. Mary agrees that it would be okay to ask, because for the moment we are the only ones there, and the woman appears approachable. So Kasia asks, the woman agrees, and the hug proceeds to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

The woman introduces herself as Maya*, and tells us where she will be working later that evening, and expresses the hope that she will see us then and possibly get another hug. All is good until later that day when Kasia, contrary to the rules, rushes over and hugs another woman without checking with us first. Now, this was not a time or place I would have given Kasia the go ahead, because the waitress in question was clearly very busy – if anything, looking a little tired and harassed – and being tackled at the knees is probably the last thing she needed. But in the event, the waitress burst into a huge grin and hugged Kasia enthusiastically right back. And again later, Kasia spontaneously hugged another waitress without checking with us first. I was about to chastise her for this violation of the rules when I saw Kasia’s surprised distress when the assaulted waitress asked, “What’s your name, sweetie?” I realized that faced with three waitresses of the same nationality, with similar hairdos, and wearing identical uniforms, Kasia had confused the women and honestly thought she’d been given prior permission to hug. It wasn’t until she’d talked to them all a bit more that she was able to keep clear who was which.

And talk with her they did. One of the three, Aba*, was so smitten with Kasia and her hugs that the next day she brought over her roommate to meet Kasia so that the roommate could get a hug. On another occasion, Aba saw us in a restaurant she didn’t work in, but nevertheless came in for her hug. Our waitress of the hour, seeing Aba making a fuss over Kasia, asked if she too could get a hug, and pulled out pictures of her seven year-old daughter. Pretty soon, it seemed as if every crewmember on the ship had heard of Kasia and were asking her if they could get a hug.

This was not, I hasten to clarify, about the ship’s crew humoring a spoilt child’s need for attention. On the contrary, it became increasingly clear that many of the crew desperately needed a good hug. The crew generally sign 10-month contracts, and having been away from their own young families for too long, latched onto Kasia as onto a lifeline. Out came baby pictures, cellphone photos and 30-second videos of sons and daughters, and stories of what it was like being away from family for so long. One waiter talked about how he had left when his wife was pregnant and now had an eight month old he had yet to meet; this one had a seven-year-old who followed her compulsively for the two months she was at home, even into the shower; this one had a ten month old who’d be a toddler by the time she got home; and so on. Heart-breaking war stories, familiar enough for those in the armed forces, but these workers don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing they are making the world safe for Democracy.

Other cruisers, we discovered, often made facile comments such as, “I can hardly stand to be away from my children for the week of the cruise, I couldn’t possibly be away from them for 10 months!”, as if these workers had the choice, or that being away for 10 months out of the year, every year, for the child’s entire childhood doesn’t fundamentally change family dynamics in ways that a week’s absence can’t begin to approximate. It must gall these workers that such sacrifices are demanded of them so that they might serve cruiser’s another round of iced drinks.

Not that I don’t have my own middle class guilt here. When Aba came over to the table where Tigana and I were sitting to say hello and asked where Kasia was, I mumbled something about Kasia being off with her mom on ‘an activity’. “Yeah,” Tigana pipes up, “Mom’s taken Kasia to the spa for a mother-daughter massage session.”

“She’s five, and she’s getting a massage?!”

“She loves massages!” Tigana again volunteers, though this is based entirely on the five-minute demo the spa staff performed on Kasia as part of first day orientation on board ship. (Kasia’s cuteness factor gets her a lot of freebies.) But I could see by Aba’s expression that she was trying to comprehend what it must be like to be so rich that one could afford routine massages for one’s five year-old.

In another conversation, Aba said something about our work being hard too, and Mary said, “It’s not bad really, we only work about 6 hours a week.” Now, I’m pretty sure she meant to say “60 hours a week”, which would be pretty typical for a prof, and considerably less than the 90 expected of crew; or maybe she meant to say that this term she only taught 6 hours a week, and could work out of our home for the other 54 hours, which made sense in context of explaining why ‘rich’ folks like us didn’t have a nanny; but either way, Aba’s expression suggested she was picturing a lifestyle where the driveways are paved with gold....

(On the other hand, we had super next to a businessman and his wife who probably had glided his driveway – they mentioned in passing how their new chihuahua had ruined their $40,000 carpet and how he had jetted down to Argentina for some duck hunting the previous weekend...I deeply resented the extravagance of this glad-handing wastrel, but if he was typical of cruisers, I can’t imagine how galling having to wait on this idiot would be – or how I and my family look any different to the crew serving us....)

But I digress. Aba started showing up with little origami pieces for Kasia. First was a crane, then a kangaroo, folded by her fellow crewmember, Percy*. Kasia, with five year old’s lack of manners, asked for a puppy and a horse, next, which Percy quickly produced, along with a host of others: scorpions, crabs, and so on, all quite marvelous.

And then, to my consternation, Aba showed up with an expensive doll for Kasia, which sang a superb rendition of “You can count on me” when hugged. Kasia was instantly crazy about the doll, but I worried that Aba should not be spending her money on my already spoilt children. But Aba told Mary that although the crew see a new shipload of children every week, Kasia had affected Aba far more than any other child she had encountered. Hopefully, we can stay in touch, and Kasia can send Aba’s child something too...

*[Names changed to protect their privacy.]

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