Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Stranger on the 36

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.


ayoke said...

Sweet. Very sweet rendition, this post of yours. And I do agree that if there's one thing Africa has in abundance, it's human interaction (an almost in-your-face interaction). It's almost impossible to avoid.

Nneka's World said...

I love this post!

Maybe that is why i am comfortable in my own company and not to bothered if i see people or talk to people.

So true. there is something refreshing about talking to a stranger, having a laugh and goin on your merry way after that.

I have to agree with ayoke, in africa its almost impossible to avoid human interaction.

Morountodun said...

Nkem, like what both of the above posters have said I think your piece was very well told and it leaves one with the sentimental touch at the end about how in Africa at least we are doing something right. What I can't stop feeling a sense of irony over is that we have all read your piece and we are communicating via the internet from the comfort of our own homes!

Anonymous said...

I feel you on this one. Wasn’t one of Margaret Thatcher’s most infamous comments: “There is no society”. A lot of people were very very peeved off but she was very right. 21st century lifestyles in developed countries don’t promote the kind of social interactions that we grew up experiencing in Africa and generally still exist in a lot of the third world – saying that people are much chattier in the U.S and most Mediterranean countries. I just think what we’re going through (particularly in filthy London) is an adulterated form of British reserve.
A few years ago whilst having a couple of drinks at the Manchester Uni student union, a few of us pondered this problem and decided the way forward was to go about inserting “interventions” that would get people chatting. We knew that acting as common social cupids by standing in the middle of the road and thrusting people together would only see us all being slapped with ASBOs; so what we decided to do was find different ideas of making subtle differences to people’s everyday agendas which might thrust them together in some sort of camaraderie brought about by common fortune or misfortune:
Our first intervention involved moving the signs for bus-stops to the wrong locations. It had positive results and people started having long heated conversations; communally slagging off the bus drivers who didn’t stop at the assumed designated busstops. However the topics of their conversations soon changed to more cordial issues and more than a few people walked (the busses never stopped) away smiling with/at each other.
Unfortunately when we changed the price tags of cider bottles at a local off-licence as our second intervention; we had no idea it would all end in violence. If we had given the scheme a bit more thought, we’d have probably restricted our tampering to the expensive premium larger; as we sadly found out that the ilk of Manchester cider drinker who frequents off licences before lunch time is more than likely to throw a punch over a disputed couple of pence.
We stopped trying to intervene after the poor sales assistant ended up with a bloody nose – if one chooses to play God the worst place to do it is in North-west England. (Imagine if this had happened in Liverpool).
Its something to think about though – most people in southern England will only converse if there’s something blatantly conversation worthy.

Nkem said...

Herr Delot, I admire your chutzpah with moving the bus stop signs. Had me grinning from ear to ear. That action shouldn't be ASBO-able, rather its a very sociable thing to do. As for alchies, is you crazy? Hell hath no fury as an alchie sober. But it seems like an experiment which should be tried. If you were an artist, that would be your Turner Prize entry.

I know Morountodun, how ironic. But I'd hope posting on blogs wasn't the height of our interaction with people. We could do better.

Monef said...

@delot - have to say that even though people may appear to be chattier on the surface in the US, I find it significantly more difficult to actually connect even in passing. There is always the smile that doesn't quite reach the eyes and the absolute lack of anything remotely resembling wit or personality.

@nkem - sweet post, great sentiment

Anonymous said...

for me when ever i kick some serious convo with a stranger we end up becoming friends- exchanging info. it's a shame to not follow up. anyways your style is cool also. one!

Oh-So-Bored said...

I ride the train home most days and I hate getting into conversations with strangers. I rather sit and read something the whole way thru. Even if I do get into one, I dont have the urge to exchange info.

Kush said...

random toasting? I like that.

Anonymous said...

Talk to Strangers - Saul Williams

Now i wasn’t raised at gunpoint
And i’ve read too many books
To distract me from the mirror
When unhappy with my looks
And i ain’t got proper diction
For the makings of a thug
Though i grew up in the ghetto
And my niggers all sold drugs,
And though that may validate me
For a spot on mtv
And give me all the airplay
That my bank account would need,
I was hoping to invest in
A lesson that i learned
I thought this fool had jumped me
Just because it was my turn.
I went to an open space
Because i knew he wouldn’t do it
If somebody there could see him
Or somebody else might prove it,
And maybe in your eyes
It may seem i got punked out
Because i walked in their own path
And then went and changed my route.
But that open-ness exposed me
To a truth i couldn’t find
In the clenched fists of my ego
Or the confines of my mind
Or the hip-ness of my swagger,
Or the swagger of my step,
The scowl of my grimace,
Or the mean-ness of my rap.
Because we represent a truth son,
That changes by the hour,
And when you open to it,
For nobility is power,
In that shifting form you’ll find a truth that doesn’t change
And that truth is living proof of the fact that god is strange…

Talk to strangers
When the family fails and friends led you astray
And buddah laughs and jesus weeps and turns out god is gay.
As angels in disguise love can come in many forms,
The hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm,
And when you finally take the time to see what they’re about
Perhaps you find they’re lonely or their wisdom trips you out.

Maybe you’ll find the cycles end
Right back where you began,
But come this time around
You’ll have someone to hold your hand,
Who prays for you who is there for you
Who sends you love and light,
Exposes you to parts of you
That you once tried to fight.
And come this time around
You choose to walk a different path,
You’ll embrace what you turned away
And cry at what you laughed,
Because that’s the only way
We’re going to make it through this storm,
Where ignorance is common sense
And senseless is the norm.
Infact we’re high above the truth
And that you never touch,
And stolen goods are overpriced
And freedom costs too much,
And no-one seems to recognise
The symbols come to life,
The bitten apple on the screen
And jesus had a wife,
And she was his messiah
Like that stranger may be yours,
Who holds a subtle knife
That carves through worlds
Like magic doors,
And that’s what i’ve been looking for,
The bridge from then to now,
Just watching b.e.t like what the fuck son,
This is foul
But that’s where [boston?] represents
This fear that we live in,
The world is not a flat screen
I ain’t trying to fit in.
But this ain’t for the underground
This here is for the sun.
A seed a stranger gave to me
And planted on my tongue.
And when i look at you,
I know i’m not the only one.
As a great man once said,
There’s nothing more powerful
Than an idea
Who’s time
Has come.