Talking to Strangers
Often when a stranger talks to us, we all respond in the same way. Either smile it off showing little interest hoping they get the picture, or ignore them all together. I've always smiled back, but rarely do I add much input. Lately, I've seen the world in a different way.
Living in the city, particularly in an apartment complex, we're literally living on top of each other. I remember growing up, we all knew our neighbours. In fact, my street would have street parties – now that's community. These days, we avoid eye-contact, give an awkward smile or wave to our neighbours, and go about our lives. I've noticed it's worse in other suburbs around Melbourne, but I'm not saying the west is exempt to this notion of stranger danger.
Today I was working away at a cafe in the suburb in which I grew up. A lot has changed around here throughout my 25 years of life, but today made me realise it'll only change if we let it.
Sitting in a communal area, a middle-aged man sat a seat down from mine, and started talking to me. I'll admit, my initial thoughts were, what does this man want? But, since I was in a busy cafe on a Friday morning, I decided, what's the worse that could happen – so I engaged in a conversation with him.
At first we found we had something in common. We both worked from home, and found it difficult to motivate ourselves to work hard without the office environment and a boss overlooking our every move. We laughed at the days where we don't even leave the house, not speaking a word to another human being. Coming to realisation we were here for the same reason – to get out of the house / office, and have some sort of human connection.
While we were talking I continued to work, I realise now, I was keeping my distance, reserved. After all, this man was a stranger, and I still wasn't sure what his catch was.
Turns out this middle-aged man, originally from the Gold Coast, Queensland (a much warmer and sunnier suburb of Australia), moved to Melbourne to work at a university as a head cancer researcher. He's been working on a project for 16 years – incredible I think. But lately, he's taken time off, and started working from home, because his long-term girlfriend committed suicide.
This shocked me to the core. I turned to him, and offered my deepest condolences. He smiled, and had a 'such is life' way about this horrible incident. I began to listen intently, as he shared their story. She was German, he showed me her picture on his phone desktop – she was beautiful, almost ageless. She was a designer, she loved fashion, and she had modelled when she was a little younger. He laughed at the memories of her sharing her world with him, saying it was beyond him – I could see in his eyes he's still very much in love with her.
He told me he travels a lot for work, and each time she would come along with him. But these days, it's like travelling with a ghost.
She had moved back to Germany for work. Things weren't going well with her job, and she was feeling overwhelmed by the idea of making far less money then she was used to. He said she was independent, she liked paying her way and never let him fork out money for anything. He offered to support her financially, but she wouldn't have a bar of it. Before it happened, she had been asking him to come to Germany, that things weren't good. At the time he was busy working, and put it off, saying her moods were always up-and-down blaming it on her cocaine addiction during her modelling days. So he thought this would pass.
To this day, he blames himself. Wishing he had dropped everything and jumped on a plane to her.
She had it all planned. She made gifts for everyone she loved – his was a book of images of her modelling days, showing her growing up, getting older. She was 37.
When he got too upset he would quickly change the subject, asking me questions about myself. But we always found our way back to the topic of his girlfriend.
After an hour or so of talking, we parted ways. He didn't ask for a business card, he just thanked me for the talk. I walked back to my bike feeling overwhelmed with sadness, and a deep connection to his story. I knew I had to retell it, because I learned something very important today. We all need to be a little more open to hearing other peoples stories, because that's what makes us human, and alive – our memories, our stories, our past.
I asked him if he could do anything with his life, what would he do. He said, exactly what he's doing now. I hope, when I'm in my 40's, I can respond in the same way.
What are your thoughts on talking to strangers?