• Mathilde Fongen

I was having lunch on my own one day, at a restaurant in Exeter half a decade ago. There was a woman with a small suitcase waiting for a table and I was sitting close to where she stood, at a table meant for two. I hadn't ordered yet. I thought about it for a little while, before suggesting she join me. As it happened a table for one opened up as I spoke, but she opted to sit with me anyway. Two strangers, a woman visiting her son, a doctor now, she told me, and a girl visiting her boyfriend, who was at work, I told her. We ordered, chatted, ate and shared a glimpse of each other's lives. Then the bill came, we each payed for what we had, and went our separate ways. I don't even know her name.

Earlier this year, I sat on a train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, a frequent journey for me these days, and at one of the stops, one of those stations that's really just a platform, an elderly woman boarded and sat down opposite me. I always reserve a table seat, so I can at least attempt to get some writing done on a decent work space. Something about her body language gave an immediate impression of openness, and I wasn't focusing much anyway, so I put away my laptop, left my phone in my pocket and sipped my coffee, attempting to display the same openness. For the next hour or two or how ever long it was, this lady and I shared the most wonderful conversation. She spoke about her life, her loss, her grief, her joy and I told her about mine. Then Edinburgh approached, much too soon, and she smiled and waved from the train as it slid away and I stood at the platform waving back. Part of me still wishes I could contact her somehow. Part of me just savours that fleeting encounter.

Then there was the strange man at the tram stop in Oslo who saw the guitar on my back and said "Music. Music is a good thing to do." at a point in my life where I was doubting just that. The magic in his words is here lost in translation, and perhaps in time, but to me they always echo whenever that doubt returns to my mind.

Strangers have always fascinated me. They hold a power over us that is so different to that of the people we are close to. Those people are the ones who can truly hurt us. They are the ones who can make us truly happy, but strangers can change us in a way that is subtle, gentle even. Strangers can also be brutal, violent and hurtful, but I've found beauty, more often than not, in the tiny part of themselves strangers leave with us in the brief moments they share with us.

To me there is no greater privilege than when someone decides to share their story with me. Maybe it's a writer thing, or maybe it's a human thing, that surge of joy I feel knowing someone feels they can share however big a part of their history, of who they are, with me in however brief or long a moment. There are so many conversations I've had that I've wished didn't have to end, but then it's closing time for the café, last call at the bar, or life finds some other way to intervene, and the moment has to pass. These are the conversations that have turned strangers into friends.

I think it is a writer thing, this fascination with other people's stories, and I think that's why I love cemeteries so much. Here's this beautiful park, with monuments, big and small, raised for people I will never know by people who loved them. Walking past dates and names, wondering what their lives were like. Who did they love? Who did they lose? What did they hope for? What made them smile? Or cry? Or laugh? Did they laugh at their own jokes, like I've been known to do?

Another of my favourite pastimes is people watching, an ever so slightly more alive variant to walking through grave yards. The same questions arise and I find myself making up stories for the people I see. I really am too nosy for my own good. I'm also obsessed with the ordinary, and what is more ordinary than strangers? These people we pass by day to day without even thinking about it. And of course we can't think about it, because thinking about each and every person you pass, especially when you live in a city, would drive you out of your mind. But from time to time, I thoroughly enjoy considering these passersby. Could we have been childhood friends if things had been different? Could you have been my teacher or a friend of my parents? Did I judge you too soon when I first saw you? What opportunities have I missed from judging you too soon? How wonderful it is that your smile made me smile that day when I didn't feel like smiling. I think only strangers have that power on days like that.

We learn from a young age to be wary of strangers, and that may be sage advice, but today, I wanted to consider the beauty of them and the joy conversations with strangers have given me. What they've taught me. The magic of something that is brief and temporary, yet powerful. So thank you, fleeting lunch friend, lady on the train, man at the tram stop, woman who complimented me on my glasses the other week. Thank you to anyone who ever shared a part of your story with me. And thank you to my dear friends, who were strangers once, but found your way into my life through these cherished conversations.

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  • Mathilde Fongen

Updated: Apr 7

Saturday night was a milestone. It was the first ever gig I played as part of Audiokicks, and for us as a band it was a big night. We played our hearts out, probably drank our hearts out and with a ripe bedtime of 4 am I can honestly say it was the best night I've had in a long time. Waking up aching, knowing it was completely worth it, feet reminding me how much I danced. Not quite remembering what we talked about or what we laughed about, but remembering laughing. Remembering being entirely happy.

It was a milestone in more ways than one. It's been about 26 months since I moved to Scotland and in those 26 months I've felt more lost than I've ever felt. I've also felt at ease, at home, overwhelmed, motivated, inspired and stressed out of my mind. Anxious, content, depressed, worried and out of place. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a bit of a rollercoaster and I've pretty constantly felt what Phoebe Bridgers calls "emotional motion sickness". And that's probably a very normal part of moving, starting a new job, joining a new band, writing a book, being in your twenties, or at all just being human.

Saturday night felt like landing. It felt like arriving home, finding that sense of belonging, puzzle pieces falling into place. I'm very aware that I experience highs as high as I do, because I've been as low as I have and I now feel this intense feeling of belonging that I don't know if I would feel had I not been through feeling entirely lost. Maybe this group of guys has been more important to me than they're aware of, or that I've been aware of. Maybe it's the feeling of belonging to something that's bigger than me.

This Saturday was positioned at the end of a period of time that has been more busy than I think I've ever been, having traveled, worked 7 day weeks and meanwhile trying to stay on top of writing, music and volunteering. It's come around after two years of building a sense of home in a city that isn't mine. The aftermath, as well as a desperate need for a day off or two, is a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude to my family, my friends back in Norway, my friends in other places, to my other half, to bands I've played in before, to Eilif, David and Erlend for teaching me bass. Especially, gratitude to my new friends here and to Audiokicks for giving me an anchor when I needed one.

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  • Mathilde Fongen

It's a lonely thing, travelling to a city by yourself. A city that isn't home. A city you adore that doesn't adore you back. I suppose a city can be forgiven for that, being a city and all. Then a spot of blue sky opens up just as you look out the window of the café, the sun shines through and you feel like maybe it's possible that it does adore you back after all. It starts to rain when you're walking back to the AirBnB feeling lost and alone and it feels like the city understands how you feel. Maybe you need the rain just now. The uneven cobble stones are beautiful because they are uneven, broken, put back together. Like people. And you think that maybe loneliness can be a peaceful thing. Maybe it can even be shared.

Marbles Magazine, Elaine Gallagher's poetry and books from Dead Ink and Charco Press.

This weekend, I attended a book festival in Edinburgh. It was my treat to myself, a weekend to listen, discuss, think, read and write. Coffee, food, wine and books. Bliss. It was a small festival hosted by my favourite book shop, Golden Hare Books, and it was truly a wonderful experience.

Yes, I opened this post expressing loneliness, but I think loneliness is what made it all the more wonderful. Reading and writing, after all, are lonely experiences, but they can also be shared in the most beautiful way. I've listened to conversations on cooking, propaganda, feminism, the queer experience, discussions on writing and publishing and poetry read by the poet who wrote it. It's been useful, educational, eye opening and inspiring. It's been small, intimate and personal. And numbers aren't why we do this are they? Words are why we write, read and publish. And that's the powerful shared experience of the weekend, a love and adoration of words. A shared experience in reading, writing, interpreting and publishing words.

Golden Hare Books is a favourite of mine in Edinburgh. Another favourite is Smith & Gertrude, whose wine list I've now thoroughly explored. There's something about sitting in a room surrounded by people, a glass of wine and a notebook in hand with plenty of time to kill that brings me solace. The sound of fifteen individual conversations merged together in a backdrop of noise is, to me, the perfect soundtrack for writing.

As a reader, I walk away from this weekend with a reading list that'll last me years. It better not last me more than one year, however, as I hope to come back next October for another literary harvest, and even more books to discover. As a writer, I walk away from this weekend with new motivation, inspiration and shiny new tools to play with. It's easy to feel disheartened when you see tables stacked with piles of extraordinary writing. What am I doing, trying to add to it? Who am I to claim my place among them? But I can't help but feel a sense of belonging. I can't help but feel a sense of purpose as I return home to Aberdeen with a notebook full of scribbles.

I opened this post with loneliness because that's what I felt on the first day of the weekend. On my last day I realised that loneliness can be a beautiful tool used to find a sense of belonging amongst people who share my love of words, printed, scribbled or drawn as they may be. I suppose that's one of the reasons I started writing to begin with, in order to find a space for belonging in a shared human experience. That's what books give us and that's why we can never stop writing and creating. For the sake of peaceful, shared loneliness, we can never stop reading.

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