The other day I was in a supermarket. At the door I had to dodge people dressed in snowmen costumes (honestly. I’ll leave you to imagine that one) because I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to talk to people. My entire family were at the same supermarket as we’d stopped for a break from driving, so obviously I had to try and avoid them too. Before I’m accused of being mean; 6 people in one car for three hours means we would have plenty of time to chat when the brief pause from the road had drawn to a close. Being just before Christmas, it was especially busy, and after a slow meander round the unfamiliar store, I settled in the magazine aisle, which was thankfully nearly deserted.
I had time. I made my literary way from Cosmopolitan to Grazia, then from NME to just the cover of Lonely Planet which was teasingly wrapped in cellophane before taking a little longer perusing Outdoor Photography, a publication which I had never noticed before and perhaps would have remained ignorant to, had it not been for the rather amazing January cover photo. I wasn’t really intending on buying anything, which is of course a ridiculous sentiment when you find yourself already in Tesco, but I did end up taking a copy. Regardless, that is not today’s reflection. A gentleman, perhaps also taking refuge from the Christmas crowds in a less bustling aisle, noticed that we were reading the same magazine. He asked me what I thought of this photograph and we appeared to reach the same conclusion (much better than anything I’ve taken); he recommended that I look at National Geographic’s Your Shot website for inspiration and a place to share my photographs, and before disappearing, told me his name so that if I remembered it, I could see some of his photos.
Since signing up to the website approximately 38 minutes ago, I can already tell I’ll be back. It is the perfect mix of photos from all over, places you perhaps didn’t even realise existed; the chance to share your own efforts; and a place to search for inspiration and advice.
I found my kind advisor on the site and here is the link to my favourite photo from his page. Go and check those out if you get the time.
This little encounter has made me think of other examples of the kindness of strangers over the years. It was mostly when travelling alone that I found the opportunity and the necessity to approach and be approached.
There was Crystelle in Toulouse, who took a lonely traveller with terrible French (me) under her wing, for a personal tour of the city and for a ridiculously drunken night out in a bar called Down Under. The accidental choice of bar was made all the more amusing by the fact that we had spent most of dinner chatting to the middle aged couple next to us who recognised my accent, turned out to be from Manchester but spoke perfect French, and urged us to visit Australia immediately because they had previously loved living there so much. I lost her number when I lost my phone and I am still pretty gutted. If anyone can put us back in touch then please do!
There was the gentleman in Rennes on a torrential January afternoon who offered to share his umbrella all the way down Rue Emile Zola to the Musée des Beaux Arts and then decided to visit too, neither of us seemed to know much about art but then again neither of us spoke the same language so it became a lot of meaningful pointing at the artworks we especially liked, until the rain came to a halt and we went our separate ways.
All of our greatest friendships begin as an interaction between strangers. Of course, the not so great friendships do too, so it helps not to get too carried away with introducing yourself to everyone and anyone. That said, I do sometimes find it strange how nowadays saying hello to strangers in the street is a no-no, whereas accepting friend requests on Facebook from strangers is no biggie.
In this case, a chance encounter IRL led to a whole new internet-based society to explore, but it has reminded me not to be so scared to put yourself out there. Imagine the people you pass in the street to be representative of an Instagram feed. If you like someone’s shoes, tell them. If you want to know how the book they’re reading rates, ask. The worst that can happen is you get ignored and that’s no different to how the situation would have been if you had said nothing. Strike up conversations wherever you choose, from Asda to the train to the queue in a coffee shop and who knows which surprising new direction a stranger could point you in. It’s a gamble, they may well point you in the wrong one; but hey, it’s not the destination but how you get there that counts, right?