– is a gift The act of conversing with unfamiliar individuals and hearing their personal narratives is a valuable present.
I have vivid memories of sitting in the backseat of our family car during a long journey (probably to Devon, which felt endless), watching all the other cars filled with people and wondering, “Where are they all headed and why?” As I strained to keep up with the passing traffic, I was amazed by the idea that each person was the lead character in their own life story, with a busy morning behind them and plans for the afternoon ahead. This thought has stayed with me throughout my life. As a middle-aged woman, one of my favorite pastimes is people-watching. You can find me doing it in cafes, bars, and on trains. I feel completely content when I immerse myself in observing the main characters passing by, imagining the scenes of their lives unfolding around them. The only thing that can top this is striking up a conversation. Not just small talk about which route someone took to get to a party, but a deeper conversation with strangers about their emotions and passions, perhaps even reminiscing about their childhood.
Early in my career as a radio journalist, it was clear that I preferred personal stories over professional ones. I was not the best at hard-hitting news, as I often became engrossed in the lives of the people behind the headlines. One time, I was assigned to interview an elderly couple on the outskirts of Peterborough. I recall their cozy bungalow with carefully placed knick-knacks and a calendar full of cat pictures in the kitchen. Instead of rushing back to submit my story after turning off the recorder, I ended up chatting with them for a while longer. The conversation eventually led to how they first met… It’s a tale that has stayed with me.
While he was a captive during the war, the man recounted that he was held at a camp in East Anglia. His current wife was employed as a land girl in the vicinity. By chance, they caught each other’s attention, became acquainted, and developed a romantic relationship. Theirs was a bond formed solely through the barrier of a prison fence. I vividly recall him describing how she would sneakily slip carrots and other vegetables through the wire mesh for him. He shared that as a scared young man, these gestures gave him strength and comfort knowing that someone cared.
Twenty years later, I found myself in Colchester on a warm September afternoon, engaging in a conversation with a stranger whom I had no intention of interviewing. He was on his way to Superdrug and casually revealed that he had been married four times and was currently awaiting a hip replacement. Despite using a walking stick, he had a playful glint in his eye and his wrists were adorned with multiple leather bracelets. He also shared that he was part of a band that performed all over Essex. As our conversation continued, he opened up about how his Italian father and English mother met – his father was a prisoner of war and his mother was a land girl. Although his father never spoke about his experiences during the war, the man knew that his parents’ marriage was a happy one and cherished their love story. He also spoke about his visits to Tuscany and how the older generation there had passed away while the younger ones had moved away. His tie to the concept of home was slowly fading, but he clung onto what little remained. As I drove home, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I had come full circle and felt content with where I was.
I traveled to Colchester in order to create content for my podcast, Where Are You Going? The premise is straightforward: I explore a specific area and chat with unfamiliar individuals, posing them with one simple query. The responses are consistently intriguing, ranging from humor to surprise, tragedy, or shock. Every so often, they leave a lasting impression on you, similar to the love story I encountered in Peterborough.
William Buckingham, in his captivating novel Hello, Stranger, discusses the liberation that comes with interacting with unfamiliar individuals and the potential they bring. These strangers are not involved in our daily lives, allowing us to feel less weighed down. This explains how strangers can often become unexpected sources of trust and comfort. In support of this idea, sociologist Georg Simmel discovered in his studies that strangers often exchange unexpected and intimate secrets, similar to a confession.
On a sunny day in Essex, I conducted interviews with various individuals including an artist wearing a fluffy orange cardigan, retired special needs teachers on their way to purchase ice cream, and a group of Iranian refugees. One of the young men shared his experience of fleeing his home country by dressing as a woman and then crossing the Channel in a small boat filled with scared and crying children. As the weather conditions deteriorated, he revealed that he had to bail out water and give his lifejacket to someone younger who could not swim.
Initially, I expected to receive negative responses or confusion when I asked people where they were headed. However, the majority of individuals were receptive and willing to engage in conversation, often about significant topics. A friend who is a psychotherapist was not surprised by this. She noted that in therapy sessions, people tend to reveal their deepest and most important thoughts as the session comes to an end. This is because there is a sense of safety in knowing that they will soon leave the room and there will be no further discussion. The brief moments I spend talking with people could be compared to both Simmel’s concept of confession and the final minutes of a therapy session. The individuals I interview are always anonymous and after our conversation, we part ways. Despite the potential for intimacy in our conversation, it is only a fleeting moment that quickly closes behind us.
I have found great amusement in some of the narratives I have heard, but have also been saddened by others.
The first time I inquired, “Where are you headed?” happened to be in Peterborough. This time, I was at the train station. I conversed with a woman who mentioned she was en route to retrieve her car from the repair shop. I complimented her eyebrows and she disclosed that she worked as a beautician. I inquired about her experience in that field. She shifted her large handbag from in front of her legs and revealed that she had been serving as a beautician since being medically discharged from the army due to injuries sustained from an IED explosion in Iraq. Upon moving her bag, I could see the visible damage on her legs and buttocks caused by the explosion.
What I appreciate greatly about collecting anecdotes such as this is the uniqueness of each interaction. I was unaware of the hardships that remarkable woman had faced. I also had no knowledge of the perseverance that allowed her to regain the ability to walk, just in time for her wedding ceremony.
In September, the podcast received an accolade at the British Podcast Awards and our audience has informed us that they have discovered a guide for establishing connections with others. They have realized that it is indeed achievable to engage in conversations with strangers and exchange bits of each other’s experiences.
Since I began questioning unknown individuals about their destination, the global landscape has shifted, with politics becoming increasingly polarizing and opportunities for candid conversations becoming scarcer. Many conversations now occur online and, as we are all aware, can escalate into anger rapidly. Therefore, I am constantly prepared for those I approach to demonstrate this hostility and resistance towards discussing meaningful topics with a stranger. However, to my surprise, I continue to encounter the opposite. People remain just as receptive and, in the wake of the pandemic, even more eager for human connection.
In his book Hello, Stranger, Buckingham discusses the effort we put into creating a sense of home and belonging, only for it to be overshadowed by the vastness of humanity. He questions how we can possibly understand and connect with so many unknown individuals. He suggests acknowledging our fear of strangers, but also embracing the tradition of “philoxenia” – the desire to connect with strangers. The quote from Hebrews 13:2 reminds us to not forget the importance of this tradition, as it may lead us to encounter unexpected angels. While I don’t want to preach, I do believe that even small conversations about mundane topics like fishing, biking, falling in love or losing a friend can make the overwhelming mass of humanity seem a little more familiar and understandable.
Listen to the podcast, produced by Loftus Media, at whereareyougoing.co.uk