Running down the steps in Cambridge Station to reach the 7.44 to Kings Cross, I hurtled into a student who was patiently waiting in front of the doors. As we sat down across from each other on the near empty carriage, he introduced himself as a resident of Tokyo, on a visit to friends in Kings College. I really hadn’t expected to have such a fascinating conversation on a train.
Interspersed between the exchanging of cat pictures, we both told a little of our family histories, which turned out to be intertwined in an unexpected way. A several times great grandfather had served in the Japanese Navy in the last years of the 19th century. Stationed in Portsmouth for training, he had struck up a friendship with an Englishman who had given him a tea-set and crockery in exchange for a samurai sword (an item I was told, the family had in abundance). Although he was subjected to some truly revolting navy rations, he recorded in his diary that he had tried the ‘quintessentially English’ dish; Fish and Chips.
Now I was naturally delighted by this vivid image of adventure and culture shock, and slightly envious when I made the comparison to my own potato eating shtetl dwelling ancestors. But then I reminded myself that my family had a stake in the dish that he found so surprisingly oily. This was of course because fish and chips has a Jewish lineage, emerging from the fried fish dish brought over by Eastern European immigrants.
So there I was, a British Jew looking across from a Japanese man hailing from half-way round the world. Besides a mutual love of cats, I hadn’t thought we had much in common. And yes, we now have each other on Facebook, a sign of our very globalised times. But our worlds were never separate. It just took a faltering conversation on a late-night train to remind us.