Human behavior on display in the subway

Riding Boston’s T through Cambridge yesterday, I was reminded of why I love this town. You can learn a lot about a city riding its public transportation (and if the city doesn’t have public transportation, then you have learned something, too).

In Russia, for instance, people stare coldly off into space. The blank look can appear hostile to those not accustomed to it, but it’s really more representative of how Russians carry themselves in public than representative of what Russians are like more generally (some of the warmest people I know are Russian. They just don’t display it on the train). To the extent that people do anything while on the train, they mostly do crossword puzzles (at least in St. Petersburg, where I’ve spent most of my time).

In Taiwan, reading is rampant. You can see this outside of the subway as well, since there are bookstores everywhere, and they are very popular. This made me feel more at home (I almost always read on the train) than in business-minded Hong Kong, where reading was much less common. Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities, but its decidedly short on bookstores.

This brings me back to my T ride through Cambridge yesterday. The person sitting next to me was reading what was clearly a language textbook, but I couldn’t recognize the writing system. It looked vaguely Asian, but I know enough of Japanese, Chinese and Korean to know it wasn’t one of those. Eventually, he closed the book and I saw it was a an Akkadian textbook. Akkadian, incidentally, hasn’t been spoken in about two thousand years.

That is Cambridge — and Boston more generally. Many of the people on the train are grading papers, reading scientific articles or studying a language. It’s very much a town of academics. (A large percentage of the metro riders also wear Red Sox gear. The two populations are not mutually exclusive.)

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