Get on the bus, Gus

Moments that remind us to be humble can be moments that change our lives.  At the same time, what is humbling might also feel temporarily humiliating.  I recall learning to snowboard at 22 when it felt like everyone else had been doing it since birth. Trying to figure out telemark skiing at 37 renewed feelings of clumsiness and inadequacy on the slopes while toddlers and octogenarians swooshed by me. In Chongqing, China I sat uncomfortably on a train while dozens stared at me for the entire ride curious about my non-Chinese appearance.  In Japan my hosts bowed to me as a sign of respect and I fumbled the bow in return, either holding it too long or not long enough, not going deep enough or not completely stopping to properly execute the gesture.  These were all moments of humility and fleeting embarrassment which, in reality, add to the layers of who I am by forcing me to pause, breathe and reassess.

Here in Finland the daily dose arrives every time I get on the bus with Lou in the stroller. Our city, Jyväskylä, has a cool rule that parents traveling with a kid in a buggy can ride the bus for free starting at 9:00 (that’s a.m. for all of you late night party folk). We usually ride the 8:40 bus to get Lou to school on time.  Now I do know that 8:40 is not 9:00 therefore I must pay with my bus pass.  Well… maybe.

Bus on our home turf

The awkward moment arrives shortly after I pick up the buggy, enter the back door and set Lou on the platform in the middle of the bus.  I gamble: do I proceed to the front to scan my bus pass, catch the bus driver’s eye and wave my bus card to him in the mirror, or make my way to the front, knocking down a few quiet Finns with my backpack in the process?  Well, it depends on the day.

The reason for my uncertainty stems from the fact that each bus driver interprets the free stroller rule differently. Last week, I got on the 8:40 and scanned my card. The driver gestured towards me, talking rapidly, so I said what I knew in Finnish (which amounted to “I am an idiot, kiitos!”) and went back to stand by Lou who had started screaming “Mommy, where’s my mommy?” (side note: only non-Finnish children do this). A kind woman came up to me and said, “The bus driver just told you that you don’t have to pay because you have a baby in a buggy.”

“I know,” I said, “but I thought it started at 9 o’clock.”

The woman waved her hand at me, shook her head and sat down.  Pause: I was mildly embarrassed but no big deal.  I spent the next twelve minutes wishing I hadn’t wasted my two Euros.  

Conversely, the next day I got on the bus with Lou feeling victorious in my new understanding of the loose interpretation of what time the 9:00 rule begins.  As I waited for it to pull away I noticed that it was at a complete standstill, the driver was yelling and a lot of people were looking right at me (Finns are not known for staring at people).  “Oh…he’s calling to me,” I realized, making my way through the aisle packed with high school students (because there are no separate school busses here) and he told me I had to pay, pointing to the clock which read “8:41.”    Breathe: humbled again and note to self… do not ever feel victorious about anything in a land in which you have lived for only five weeks.  

Final tale: Chris came home one day after picking up Lou and handed me a slip of paper as he said, “Have you seen this before?”

It was a receipt for nothing or, rather, a receipt from the bus company that read “0.00 Euro.”

That day, Chris’s moment came when he got on the bus during the free stroller timeslot, stood on the platform and waited for the bus to pull away.  Another patron tapped him and told him the bus driver was waiting for him to go to the front.  Chris told the bus driver that he thought it was free.  The bus driver nodded, said nothing, punched a button, and handed him a receipt for nothing.  Oh yes, the proof-of-purchase for the free ride.  Got it.

Usually I am able to chuckle about the daily debacle (a small one at that) and chat with Lou as we watch the occasional Finnish sunrise on our ride to school.  Now and then, though, the whole 23 second event gets balled up in my throat as I blink to hold back a tear because the tiny exhaustion of moments like this all day long in an unfamiliar place sometimes gets the best of me. Nothing bad has happened but it’s just the miniscule bit of stress that can sit on me for a minute.  Reassess: When it does sit on me, I try to inhale fully instead of cursing under my breath. If nothing else, Lou gets to see me working on patience and grace as opposed to frustration and sarcasm and that is surely a victory for both of us.

Bus champion


Helsinki city center






One thought on “Get on the bus, Gus

  1. great article, I am working in a neighborhood that is gentrifying and it is interesting to watch 2 basic groups interact. It isn’t language but more cultures that come up. So this helps me to remember that we all get embarrassed when faced with something we aren’t sure about when I work to connect people.


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