Saturday, November 8, 2014

Strangers in a Crowd

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.
Hebrews 13:2


  1. The Hebrews quote is an ideal end note to your post. I've always blended in pretty well when I travel abroad and as you say, sometimes meet friendly strangers. My husband and I were stopped in front of a home in Istanbul and invited by the Armenian couple who lived there to have tea with them which we did.

  2. I totally agree with you. Even in this "be careful-watch out!" world that we live in, I am friendly and gracious to others. I have had some wonderful encounters, because of this.

  3. I adore your little tales of holidays in the UK - you make us sound so exciting.
    I adore Vanessa Redgrave too - she is one of my icons.

  4. I have learned through the years that everyone is interesting, in their own way. Most people, including myself, are flattered when someone takes an interest in them, if approached in a proper way. In particular, the older generations are so happy to share their memories and stories. It makes them feel that their lives are important and that people really ARE good. There are no strangers. Thank you for this anecdote. It resonated. As Thoreau says, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” We can help to bring that song to the surface with kindness, curiosity, and empathy.

    ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

  5. Blessings and thank you for another beautiful posting. Much love...........I love meeting new people and we all have a story to tell.

  6. Wonderful stories of your travels and encounters Pamela! Have a relaxing weekend!

    The Arts by Karena

  7. I so AGREE with YOU about being an AMERICAN......when we lived in FLORENCE,ITALY I would cringe at the sight of them!!The men in shorts and knees high socks!!Talking loudly and so out of place!I don't think you follow me but I recently wrote about coming back from France where I had an epiphany about belonging "OVER THERE".Anywhere in Europe will do for me!I then received an email from a long lost cousin telling me I DESCEND from ROYALITY!!!So, it all made sense to me.........funny.I am like the MAN from AUSTRIA.....I too would invite a foreigner to my home.I would definitely go out of my way to HELP an AMERICAN in need.I am looked upon as a bit different.We have become a scared society........don't talk to strangers has been told to me since childhood.I was horrified to realize my neighbors that live on a short cup-de-sac road did not even know each other when we first moved here 20 years ago..............NOW THATS STRANGE especially when the homes are about 6 feet apart from each other!!Why are we so private?

  8. I so enjoyed reading about your encounters with friendly strangers. I agree, it adds icing to any trip. My husband and I had such an interesting conversation with a Chilean waitress working in a French restaurant in a small town in Brazil; and once, while admiring a display of geodes in the window of a cottage in Pacific Grove, the older woman who lived in the house invited us in to see her incredible collection of fossils. She had traveled to shows all over the country with that collection and shared many interesting stories. No one has ever asked me home to tea though.

  9. What a lovely post. Americans have an openness and warmth that sets them apart. I wish Europeans had a touch more of that particularity.

  10. You remind me of my darling Charles, Pamela, - perhaps his American father bequeathed to him that wonderful quality of friendliness that some people have - he conversed with everyone, in line-ups and waiting rooms, while I sat by, admiring the quality that made him so open with people and the response it always elicited.

  11. This reminded me of trying to drive in Ireland. My Cousin did the driving as she lives there.
    You can tell an American by the way they walk in Europe. I can spot one easy.

  12. A young(er) than me mostly American couple initiated a conversation with me at a Paris cafe in September. They had noted my "soft Southern accent" when placing my order. They live in Madrid and were in Paris for the weekend. (How fab to be able to do that!) We had a lovely chat about things back home in the USA and the current hurly-burly of Paris. Sure did make my day!


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