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  • Mathilde Fongen

Conversations With Strangers

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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