A common theme in my visit to Australia has been the willingness for people to move quickly to apologise for the unseasonably cold weather for January. The sentence itself jars to someone for whom January usually means single digit temperatures. However, I’m informed I should have experienced at least one day pushing 40 degrees during my stay.
The mercury or digital app has registered 35 degrees both in Sydney and Melbourne which was enough to allay most concerns that I had somehow missed out on a proper Australian summers day.
My partner had a rough day today attending a funeral. Although this was for the husband of a friend and the direct relationship wasn’t close family, it still had an impact. It was the first funeral he had attended for a while and the deceased was of a similar age which can always be a sobering thought. I knew he was more introspective than usual the evening before posting a couple of lines from Les Miserables (‘And the tigers come at night, with their voices soft as thunder’) as an indication that I recognised the impact.
With the funeral sceduled for early afternoon, I found myself in central Melbourne on my own, trying to navigate the cities tram system. It’s certainly an impressive and efficient form of public transport, claiming to be the largest tram network in the world.
I’m not entirely sure if this is true as similar claims appear to be made by Singapore, Chicago, Vienna and Amsterdam. However, Melbourne does cleverly add the phrase ‘largest double track system in the world’. In any event, whether or not the claim is accurate, disputed or widely accepted fact, the system is effective and much loved.
In recent years, to avoid congestion at intersections and reduce the traffic versus pedestrian interactions, many of the tram stops have been moved back from their original positions.
In doing this, the safety factor may have been raised considerably, however there is a new challenge facing travellers – knowing exactly where you are.
As the roads are based on a grid system, the street names are most prominently displayed at the junctions where they meet, now some distance from the point at which most trams stop.
Not deterred, I walked a few feet to a static map of the city overlaid with the tram routes.
Although all the routes were shown, it was a rather high level with much of the useful detail omitted. Presumably in an attempt to reduce costs and aid with print runs, these maps are the same at each of the tram stops. However, importantly and frustratingly, there was one vital piece of information missing from these standardised route planners. At no point does the map tell you where you are in relation to the network as a whole. There is an implicit assumption that you know where smaller roads and districts are which certainly wasn’t the case with me.
As I negotiated a variety of maps seeking some help from online resources I suddenly received a flurry of messages responding to my posted lyrics. Many of my friends assumed these were indicative of a problem and were asking if everything was ok. ‘We just assumed it was about you’ one of them said.
Thankfully, that made me aware of a parallel with the cartographic challenges I faced. In the absence of points of reference and context we can feel lost – not just in the case of physical geography.
Late that afternoon, the impact of the funeral was still fairly apparent to me. Thinking back to the mapping problem we spoke about how he felt and what might be causing some of those feelings of unease. Thinking of my own life experience I hope I was able to put some of those concerns in context. In some regards, it was like finding a known point of reference on a map – once you have that, the landscape becomes more understandable.
What did I take from today? Well, ironically it was more about the way we interpret other people’s actions. The analogy with my own experience of the map reminded me that assumptions are often the children of ignorance.
I was certainly reminded not to assume a known or shared starting point and the greatly undervalued capacity to listen. For me, it is only by listening to (and not just hearing) what is being said that you can hope to gain a shared understanding and context. It sounds little more than common sense, but so many people I know assume that they way they would react to a set of circumstances is universal or the only legitimate response. With a little more maturity comes wisdom – at least that is the hope.
So, something of a quiet, reflective, but ultimately positive day. I must admit I re-learned a valuable lesson during the process of disorientation. That said, to the Melbourne tram map management team I still have three words for your consideration. ‘You are here!’