Some of my more wholesome and fulfilling human interaction have been with strangers that I've met in transit. I enjoy talking to strangers on trains, buses, bus stops, cafés. This evening, on my way back home, I got talking to a young woman who's studying theatre design. Within minutes we were chatting passionately about theatre, she relayed her feelings about the relationship between the set designer and the director, and I talked about a performance of Romeo and Juliet I was involved in, where the set was devised solely from four ladders. Then we launched into Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare, extolling the virtues of the Baz Luhrman approach, and the pervasiveness of Shakespeare in the modern story. The last play she saw was A Few Good Men, with Rob Lowe, and the last play I saw was Death of a Salesman (last year, I'm greatly slacking).
After the most invigorating bus ride I've had in ages, I asked her for her name, which she said was Stella. I told her mine, and then she got off the bus. And that was that, no telephone number, no email, no nothing. A long time ago, I would have insisted on getting her number, in the hope of establishing some kind of friendship. It seemed a shame to waste the serendipity, especially when we had gotten on so well. But that's precisely the draw of strangers, you connect, and then you let go. Not every acquaintance is supposed to blossom into a lifelong frienship or even a romantic relationship. Seetha Hallet who presents A Place by the Sea on Channel 4, met her husband on a train. But they don't all end so blissfully. A friend of mine met someone who turned out to be a bit of a madman after his car pulled up beside hers at traffic lights. This sort of thing might be a daily occurence in "whatchu sayin' ma" New York, but in staid Britain, it's as rare as chicken teeth.
A few years ago, I met this wonderful young woman at the coach station in Birmingham. I was coming back from a wedding, contemplating my post-uni future, and she was also about to start the rest of her life. She was off to be a beautician on a cruise ship, and was at a crossroads in her relationship with her boyfriend. She wasn't sure where it was going, but she still had a ring from him on her finger. I had also just come out of a long relationship, and so I could understand her muddle. We were both at a point in our lives where waiting at a coach station in Birmingham, and a three-hour drive to London seemed like the most cathartic experience in the world. We promised to keep in touch, but never did. I hope she's well, and I hope she saw the world, as she'd wanted to.
In the constantly urbanised world we live in, we become individuals disjointed from our immediate surroundings. We exist in the cocoon that is the ipod, or some other personal accoutrement. Relationships are conducted over the phone strictly with people we have chosen. There is nothing wrong with this, but we restrict ourselves greatly by doing so. One of the most touching things happened to me some months ago. I cherish my plantain, and I've said before that I base judgements about where I live on proximity to buying plantain. After a year of buying plantain at this particular shop, the man asked me to take an extra plantain (normally four for £1). I grinned all the way home. Apart from the extra plantain, that supposedly insignificant gesture meant that, to a certain extent, I was now part of a community. I was customer. I was no longer represented by just Queen's heads, ink on a receipt, the anonymous ring-ring whenever one enters these shops, but a living breathing human, part of a whole.
In Britain, I've found that the North-South divide is not only manifested in economic terms, but also in the way peope interact. Up north (where I lived for five years), when you stand at a bus stop, you talk to people. And it's hardly ever tired bromides about weather and all that jazz. The weather is always predictable up north - sleet rain - why waste time on what you already know? I looked forward to going to the laundrette, because I'd give the laundry woman little vignettes about how most modern so-called African princes had no physical kingdoms to claim, while she called me a southern nonce for saying "detergent", when the real northern word was "soap powder". Down south, most people are too concerned with the vicissitudes of life that they want absolutist control of at least one thing - who they interact with.
One thing I'll get no prizes for noticing is another North-South divide of a different kind, that of human relationships in the global south and the global north. Something that struck me when I went to Egypt earlier this year was the importance of human interaction in Africa. In London, I can get anything I want from the comfort of my room. I can order food online, I can pay my bills on the phone, I can choose what films I watch on digital television. Even if I venture into the netherworld that is the shop, I can use the automated check-out till. On the African continent, for anything, you must interact with your fellow man. Some of the interaction might be grudging, say, that of the bribed to the briber at a police checkpoint. But man still interacts with man, for better or for worse. To steal biblical terminology, one must commune with another. And the "dark continent" is richer for it.