A talk with a stranger

Ok I’m a little bit proud of myself. Here’s why.

Striking up chat with strangers is so far away from my forte that some people might buy me a magnet that reads “Do I look like a f**king People Person?”

I do own that magnet and yes it was a gift from someone who knows me too well.

Not because I am not a people person (I am) but because I do not LOOK like one.

I look like a person in a tunnel of task who has no time for you. And mostly I don’t. Have time for you. Unless you respect I’m quite introverted and that I need advance notice that we’re about to engage in chat. Then, I’m good. I swear. I’m not task but the present — which is listening to you.

But the long and the short of it is that I do not give off an aura of openness. My body language doesn’t say “hey, come talk to me.” Ask anyone I went to high school with, ask my work colleagues, follow me around for about 5 minutes. My body language says, “I am Busy.”

So I was particularly proud of myself last night when I engaged a stranger in a full on tête-à-tête

The scene — I was on my way home. It had been a hard week and I’d a stack of reading and writing to catch up on, so I stopped for food at a place where the set-up is conducive to eating alone while working. [This is a subject onto itself … just how often I prefer to be alone while surrounded by people in a lively spot. I have haunts around the City where the staff take care of me and give me my usual tucked away spot so that I can do exactly this.]

I sat at this long bar-like table on the corner stool pictured in this photo. The room was dark and the place was packed. I ordered my tapas and opened my folder.

Across from me sat another lone eater. This can sometimes pose a problem. Especially when the other lone eater is doing something I would never dream of doing — eating alone with nothing to do but eat alone. He hadn’t a book or a newspaper or a folder of work. But he seemed contained. He wasn’t going to intrude on my comfort. The bread and chorizo and cheese that he ordered, however, did. My folder was getting squished and my own food hadn’t even arrived. But I pressed on.

My salad and patatas bravas showed up just as he finished his chorizo and the dance of plates surrounding my work space worked for a while. But then something happened. I got tired of working even though I wasn’t finished my meal and I started to consider my lone eater more carefully.

I envied how comfortable he looked sitting in a loud tapas bar on his own. Men can do this. Especially older men. And he was older (I hate to say, but maybe late 50’s to mid 60’s.) He wore a striped dress shirt, he had a nice watch, his face was tanned and rugged. I wondered if he was foreign. I’d overheard him saying something to the waitress about whether she was Hungarian. So I sat there for a few minutes daring myself to talk to him. I could ask him if he’s Hungarian! And then what? Even if he was, I had nothing ready to say about Hungary. My mind went blank which is what always happens whenever I try to compose small talk in my head. I am just not built for it.

I stared out the window and got lost mulling over just how useless I am, when a couple seated under the window drew my attention. It was clear that she was trying to squeeze past her dinner date to get free of the table to go to the ladies room but what I hadn’t expected is that this well-dressed, suited up business woman would swing her knee deep into the crotch of her companion to pull off the manoeuvre. I arched a brow and at the right second made eye contact with my lone diner who’d observed the same interaction.  We both smiled.

And that’s when he spoke to me. Who knows what he said. It was about what we’d just witnessed which then somehow lead to our favourite travel destinations, what’s wrong with the corporate world and how people always tell you what you want to hear, about being “hungry” enough to do what you really want to do with your life, about how Sarah’s Key was a brilliant movie no matter how many stories of the Holocaust have been told before.

The man had been killing time, waiting to collect his grandson. His grandson is a munchkin. Actually the lead munchkin — Marmaduke, with lines and everything. His stint on stage for last night’s Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium was due to finish at 8pm but in the preceding half hour I met an interesting person and he gave me some very good advice. “It’s all about eye contact,” he said.  That’s the secret to skipping the small talk and going straight to the good stuff.

And this the subject of this weekend’s blog — the ways we connect and disconnect from the strangers all around us.

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3 Comments

Filed under London, Random idea, Relationships

3 responses to “A talk with a stranger

  1. I love this. What a great experience. ‘It’s all about eye contact’ is a keeper. On a related note, I’m going to a Miranda July talk at the School of Life on Sunday on this very topic: Strangers. Here’s the link, although it doesn’t reveal very much – http://www.theschooloflife.com/Sermons/Miranda-July-on-Strangers_2 – but maybe it reveals just enough to get us there.

  2. Christine

    This is a beautiful, heartfelt observation of ones inner self……love it……and it is so me too. I too don’t much engage in wanting to talk to strangers but if ever I do I will remember the “eye contact” tip in order to find ‘connection’.
    Well done Natalie.

  3. I love this. And I love the advice too, although I’m far too scared of eye contact to actually do it…

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