Strangers in a Crowd
Outside the heavy doors of Fortnum and Mason I paused to readjust my packages. Despite every honest intention to travel as lightly as possible, I hadn’t been made of the sort of stuff strong enough to resist the charms of Persephone Books, or, I’m sorry to say, the enticements found tucked within the V and A gift shop, and was now significantly more heavy laden than I’d planned to be. Looking for an open slot, I dove into the London crowd with what I hoped was all the confidence of a local and, shoulder to shoulder, we wove our lava-like way to the corner.
After many holidays in London, I believe I have finally learned the city’s most vital lesson: Always Look to the Right Before Crossing the Street. This sounds easy enough, but for an American in London whose every instinct is screaming at them to do otherwise, looking right before crossing is a skill to be mastered. It is, of course, much easier just to wait for the little green man, that pixelated fellow atop the metal pole at most crossings in the heart of the city. The red man means stay where you are; the green man lets you go in relative safely.
So here I stood, at the busy crossing just down from Fortnum’s, lost in deciding just where to have tea, while The Red Man glowed warningly above. Then, instinctively, with my one free hand I reached for the arm of the gentleman in front of me, who had suddenly made a definitive move to cross the street.
“Whoa there! That’s how people get squished!”, I said as, sure enough, a sleek sports car took the turn in a blur of speed.
He was a slight, elderly fellow, clad in an impeccable suit complete with a tweed hat tilted slightly to one side atop his head. He turned to look at me and I instantly thought of an owl. When he spoke, his accent called forth European winters, foggy chocolate shop windows and Strauss waltzes. Grinning at me in that way Europeans have of grinning at over-gregarious Americans, Americans who possess the appropriate amount of audacity required to grab a stranger’s suit sleeve in the middle of a busy street, he said, “I suppose you’re right. But you see, I am an Austrian on holiday. If it is two in the morning on an empty street, an Austrian will still stand there and wait for the little green man to tell him he can cross. But, as I said, I am an Austrian on holiday, so I run across when I like today.”
“Yes, I see”, I replied, “but as I said, that’s precisely how one gets squished in London.”
We both laughed and as we did, the little green man suddenly shone from above. The crowd flowed on, jostling and nudging, separating us. Then just ahead, I caught a glimpse of the elderly Austrian as his face popped up midst the sea of backs and shoulders. He was waving at me. In a loud voice he called across the moving crowd, smiling, “It was so good to talk with you!!”.
“Yes, you, too, “ I sang back.
There are plenty of times when I am embarrassed to be American. Perhaps I’m overly critical but in my experience, if a flight is cancelled, it is usually the Americans who pitch a cringe-worthy fit. Like large-footed hound dog puppies we are known, sometimes rightfully, for being a bit too boisterous, a bit too effusive, a bit too demanding, a bit too… too much. All this, and other more egregious characteristics, can well be true. But we are also known for never really meeting strangers, a quality that can disarm even the crustiest soul. Stemming more from a love of observation rather than from any degree of shyness, I tend to be a version of the fairly quiet American. But like any card carrying member of the United States, I never hesitate to strike up conversations when I travel and have consequently been gifted with truly fascinating encounters.
There was the taxi driver in Edinburgh who invited me to his family’s house for tea. (No, I didn’t go, but still.) There was the lady who invited me to spend the night at her house in Glasgow when The Songwriter landed in the hospital after a broken ankle. (No, I didn’t go, but still.) I have shared photos of Edward with couples in cafes, who've reciprocated with photos, and stories, of their own big furry dogs. I have been given directions to far away yarn shops and book shops, places I’d never known of but for a chance encounter with a stranger. An elderly lady in the gorgeous cafe at the Wallace Collection took off her oxfords and showed me the best socks to buy if I intended to walk a lot. (Which I did.) I’ve had lunch with an adorable honeymoon couple in Savannah and had a friendly argument with a waiter in Hollywood over which actor best played Dr. Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. (Edward Hardwicke, without question.) Striking up a conversation with an unassuming lady in Oban, I learned she was a theater manager in New York and I was delighted to hear a wonderful story about Vanessa Redgrave. (Yes, she’s just as amazing as I’d thought.)
These encounters have been the icing atop any glorious holiday I’ve taken. They have made the world less forbidding, they have smoothed the chaos and tuned the cacophony of crowds to a more harmonious song. They remind me that, really, we are all so very much alike as we try to make our way across this planet.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.