Talk to Strangers

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With the sputters of motorbikes competing with the bamboo flutes of spa music, I was flattered when my masseuse in Bangkok, pressing my right knee to my left ear, told me my body was “so strong.” I was less flattered when shortly thereafter – with my quadricep on the verge of splitting in two – she giggled and told me, “Your body is just like a guy’s.” I winced. I could have punched her, I guess, but Oui and I just laughed about it together.

When I was little, I always imagined that when I grew up, I’d meet most of the people in the world. In the long stretches of of grass near my childhood house, with hours ahead of me without any responsibility, I remember thinking I’d have to make sure to use my time wisely, because I wanted to meet most of the people in the world, and I knew there were a lot of people.

Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” I don’t agree. I think Hell can be other people. It’s Hell in the betrayals you can’t forgive. The loves who break our hearts. People you want to hold onto, to keep as your own, before you realize that every person is their own, and can never really belong to anyone else. Since I’ve waited for love letters that never came… seen people I love most in the world in pain…I know Hell can be other people. But Heaven can be other people other, too.

When we were growing up, we were told never to talk to strangers. I think this attitude persists into adulthood. It’s not that we can’t care for strangers – send them a little kindness instead of indifference – it’s just that we don’t try. Our default is to not try.

I grew up to be a woman who, like most people, is pretty indifferent towards strangers. I’m much more inclined to be annoyed with the person ahead of me on the on-ramp, than I am to send that person a silent wish that they have a good day at work. But what if instead, when I notice myself feeling annoyed, I decide to be this stranger’s ally – to forgive the apparent offense and for a few minutes we’re in each other’s presence, I decide to help this stranger if they need help.

The truth is we gain a lot when we overcome that initial discomfort and either share a few pleasant minutes with a stranger, or get to know them – have them go from strangers to friends.

A lot of the time, we surround ourselves with people who are a lot like us. By making an effort to talk to strangers, meet other people, we get a chance to break out of our comfort zones, and we learn a lot. Our view of reality changes altogether.

This seemed like a good idea, until I realized someone was going to take the dollar (.

This seemed like a good idea, until I realized someone was going to take the dollar.

When I was in Asia, I nibbled on cuttlefish, fried, cut and served in a plastic bags. I ate a chili pepper on a dare, and minutes later, was trying to find a good Phnom Penh gutter to throw up in. I fed an elephant bananas, and held my breath as the basket of our hot air balloon crashed into the ground. I’ve been home about a week, and people have asked me how my trip to Asia was. “What was your favorite part?” they ask. And even though I loved all of the things I got to do and see, often what comes to mind as my favorite parts are the people parts. I tell them: “Meeting all these different people from all these different backgrounds was one of my favorite parts,” and I think of the conversations at picnic tables in bars and on buses and at food stands with 31-then strangers.

I think it’s important to remember, when we’re standing in line at Starbucks, Iphones in hand, just how many people are out there, and what stories they have to share. This can even extend to when you’re fresh off a broken heart, and forgetting that there are many fish in the sea, and not only one fish – which you’ve now identified, via his stripes and shady colors, as the Bastard Fish, cousin to the Clown Fish… (joke, everyone).

Because while I’ll always remember the steps leading to the Doi Suthep temple, tiled, gilded with gold and guarded by dragons, more prominent in my memory will be hugging a new friend tight in the airport when her big blue eyes welled with tears because her flight home basically disappeared. I’ll remember sitting on a sidewalk outside a bar in Chiang Mai, me wearing a tie, him a purple dress, and talking about how people should be able to love whomever they want. I miss sizing up hotel rooms with my Italian roommate, the conversations that would ensue when we walked into our room (“We’ve got a BLOWDRYER, ladies and gentlemen!” (neither of us had a blowdryer) or “So we have a phone next to the toilet, but no toilet paper. Or blowdryer. Or bottled water. Or anything useful, really”). She used to swear in Italian when she burned herself with her straightener or lost at UNO (“maria virgENE!”), and I will never forget sitting on our wraparound deck with her in Luang Prabang, Laos, drinking a beer in our robes, and talking about our futures.

It’s halfway through the year – a great time to check in with your New Year’s resolutions and decide if there’s any Half Year’s resolutions that you’d like to make. Six months is more than enough time to accomplish some pretty big goals.

I’m just off a trip abroad that gave me plenty of time to renew and reflect. They say you should work on five big goals or less at a time – I have three. One of them is to make a conscious effort to talk to strangers more, and meet new people/make more new friends.

What are some of your Half Year’s resolutions? How are your New Year’s resolutions going? (if they’re not going well, don’t worry about it!).

Have a great week, everyone! xx Natalie

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