Talking with strangers

I am a lot like my father. He joked and laughed with people all of the time. He flirted with every waitress even into his late eighties. When I was younger I found it odd. Now I am the same way. We don’t like to be reminded we are like our parents because we immediately think of their flaws. This trait however is a wonderful learning tool he has passed on to me. A true blessing.

Years ago I answered the phone at work and it was apparent almost immediately that it was a wrong number. We laughed and joked a bit and soon we were chatting like old friends. After an hour we exchanged private numbers. We kept in touch. The caller was a vice president at a large oil company and a few years later he gave me a job when I was out of work. He was at a smaller company by then and an employee left abruptly. He called me and I started immediately. When I expressed my concerns about the job (it was outside of my field of expertise), he just said “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.” And I did. That was the beginning of my consulting career. Consulting was the perfect fit for my life, my personality and my skill set. I owe a great deal to this man. I flourished financially for the next 20 years but I also learned that I am very capable and easily adaptable. All because of friendliness to a wrong number.

Recently I attended a wedding on Vancouver island. On the ferry ride back to the mainland I sat near a young man who was travelling alone. In his mid twenties, he was decked out as any other person in his age group. Backpack, headphones, phone. All designed to keep the world away and discourage conversation with 59 year old grandmothers. Feet up on the opposite seat was also a sign he wished to be alone. So I sat beside his feet and started to chat. To be honest, his feet were on the only window seat that was open on the entire ferry and I wanted to sit there.

There is a common trait amongst the young men of this country. They are polite. As I blathered on he removed his headphones and responded to my chatter. He even offered me the window seat. His name was Hassan and he was originally from Yemen. His mother passed away when he was quite young and his older brother did his best to keep the family together. Hassan got into some trouble and eventually he was encouraged to leave his home and all he knew. He came to Canada at the age of eighteen and has earned an undergrad and a Masters degree. He was on the ferry as the first leg in his journey to Munich where he was to pursue a Ph.D. He had reached out to a Professor regarding a research paper, asking questions and offering personal insight. This same professor later contacted Hassan offering him this incredible opportunity. Again. Talking to strangers.

The ferry ride is about ninety minutes and we chatted amicably for the entire time. Discussing education , religion, family, politics. The young man had never been to Europe and was excited but nervous. I relayed one of my favourite stories about arriving in London late one evening with my husband. We were travelling throughout Europe for a month. When the customs official asked where we were staying, I replied that we didn’t have any reservations as I planned to get a half price room the first night. My husband was horrified. The story has always been about the differences between Rene’ and myself. My flightiness and his need for order. Hassan then said “Do you know what would have happened if that had been me?” He holds a Yemen Passport. One of the least popular in the world. Yemen is on the list of countries whose residents are banned from the United States. In truth, he would be sent back to where he came from and made to pay out of pocket for the return trip. He was born the wrong colour, in the wrong country into the wrong religion. This incredible fellow who I know in my heart will do wonderful things in his life. I feel blessed to have met him.

One year I spent a few weeks landscaping a rental property. I was removing all of the grass and replaced it with rocks and paths, plants and mulch. I built a retaining wall and stairs and basically made the entire yard maintenance free. In the first few days a scruffy man would stop and visit on his bottle picking rounds. He was up and at it by five A.M. in order to beat out the sleepier bottle pickers. He had his route and was well rewarded for his hard work. In time he began to help me and I gave his some cash for his labours. He had a long life dealing with addiction and in time lost everything. Eventually he was on the street with no hope. His story was one that had a happy ending. He still wasn’t pulling in the big bucks but he had a home and was able to make some money to supplement his government assistance. He still smoked and laughed that he felt it was the least dangerous vice. Everyone needs a vice. I married into a family with a history of addiction and we had great long discussions regarding alcoholism. One of his comments has stuck with me for many years. He said “Don’t do anything two days in a row.” Makes sense. Repetition creates habits. Habits that are based on destructive behaviour become addictions. Smart guy. Eventually. I often wonder where he ended up. In time I sold the property and that was the end of the relationship. I wish him well my bottle picking philosopher.

Strangers bring a rich diversity to our lives. We are forced out of our content and safe little boxes as we chat with those whose lives are far removed from our own. Not only that, strangers can teach us some valuable lessons. I have always said I prefer talking with strangers to those I know well. In the end, strangers won’t judge me as harshly as those I consider friends. And if they do, who cares? I’ll most likely never see them again. There is no downside to striking up a conversation with a total stranger. You may get a new job. You may get insight into the world at large. Perhaps appreciate how fortunate you are just by virtue of birth. You might come to show compassion for those less fortunate. You may just meet some lovely people. I have learned my Dad had a gift. I am so glad he passed it on to me.

2 thoughts on “Talking with strangers

  1. Apple doesn’t fall far…It’s funny, my dad does the same thing and I remember I used to role my eyes and sigh as we stood for an hour or more as he talked to strangers… now I do the same thing … not for as long though (I am the quiet Pedersen) and I watch my boys role their eyes at me as they giggle away I’m just like my dad 😁


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