Life according to a Tunisian cab driver

This morning, in a cab on my way to meet my dear friend Kathy Cecilian for breakfast in Chicago, I had one of those moments drop into my life that for a brief moment in time make me stop, take note and think of things completely differently. I take a lot of cabs in my travels and am threatening to write a book about the stories many of the men and women who have driven me through cities all over the country have shared. You can learn a lot in 20 minutes in a cab with a total stranger. Today was one of those most precious times.

It usually starts by asking where I am from and I reciprocate with the same. Today’s driver was originally from Tunisia and had the French accent to prove it. Or maybe it starts with comments about the weather. That was the opener today—how beautiful this early November day in Chicago was—fall colors, crisp air, clear skies, light wind on Lake Michigan. My driver went from there to how much he loves living in this city, versus, say Los Angeles where his brother lives. One of, I would learn later, five brothers he has. When he learned I am from Vancouver, Canada he drew a parallel between my hometown and Chicago. Both have four seasons, both have great urban cores, both are very pretty. To him the seasons are important. You see, in cities like LA where it’s nice all the time he told me, people take things for granted, and often adopt the “meh, I’ll do it tomorrow” attitude in favor of spending time at the beach or just hanging out. He took it further and said those kinds of places are not good places to raise children, they just don’t inspire the same work ethic as cities like his new hometown. Interesting logic.

Then the next inevitable question—do you have kids. My standard answer is I have fur kids with four legs. Here’s where it got amazing. Growing up in North Africa my new driver and friend had a number of cats. It was pretty typical for cats to come and go and take care of themselves—they were all over his neighborhood, coming and going in and out of the house as they pleased. But it was a special dog he really wanted to talk about. A German Shepherd he named Prince, who he got for free from a neighbor who promised him a puppy. Prince was the runt of the litter, skinny and not expected to be anything special. But my driver took him home, nurtured him, fed him and trained him, telling me with pride that when his neighbor saw him two months later he didn’t believe the puppy could possibly be the same one. He was big, strong, athletic and smart.

My driver was a teenager at the time and saved the money he made working his family’s farm to buy food and bones for Prince. He took care of him. He trained him and he shared that the time he spent with Prince kept him from the trouble some of his brothers got into. Prince gave him a purpose, a responsibility. Very sadly, after being the most important thing in my driver’s life for four short years, Prince fell to an infection from a raw bone and despite trying everything in his young power to save him, Prince passed away.

Sad, for sure, but there’s an amazing legacy that lives on today. Prince became the metric by which my driver friend learned to choose his friends. He chose them based on their character. Were they egotistic and selfish, or were they kind and giving to others? Were they trying to do something positive or just causing trouble? These questions were coming from a teenage boy growing up in rural Tunisia because of the time he had with a special dog. A dog that showed him a strength of character that he used to measure others by.

He still carries a picture of Prince and shared with a smile that he uses his name in his online passwords. He thinks of him every day. My new friend now has human children who he loves dearly, (I am quite sure he’s an amazing father) but he continued to try to find words to explain the special gift of unconditional love and devotion a special animal gives.

When we arrived at my destination I thanked him for the ride and the conversation. I carried into my Thursday morning a deep gratitude for the special animals (Lucas, top of my list) I’ve shared my life with, running through the list of life lessons they’ve taught me. I hope I honor their gifts and memory as much as my driver friend honored Prince’s.

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