On the Nature of Talking to Strangers

Upon reflecting on my time abroad, I discovered that my path had crossed with that of a great number of others. In every city our group visited, I never seemed to fail to strike up a friendly (and sometimes one sided) conversation with the local populace or fellow travelers. Hence I have resolved myself to relate a selection of those encounters here. I was, in part, inspired by the plot of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel in which a writer recounts the story of a wealthy businessman with a storied past. Anderson’s film captures the essence of story telling masterfully and is my favorite film because of this.


Author interviewing Zero Mustafa (Gand Budapest Hotel)

“It is an extremely common mistake. People think the writer’s imagination is always at work, that he’s constantly inventing an endless supply of incidents and episodes; that he simply dreams up his stories out of thin air. In point of fact, the opposite is true. Once the public knows you’re a writer, they bring the characters and events to you. And as long as you maintain your ability to look, and to carefully listen, these stories will continue to seek you out over your lifetime.” – Author From Grand Budapest Hotel

In this spirit I’ll begin with Istanbul and a man named Vulcan

It was March, and I had just arrived in Istanbul with the rest of my company. On our first walking tour of the city, I witnessed one of the greatest local spectacles: the fishermen on Galata bridge. Fascinated by the over sized fishing poles and the thrill of catching exotic species, I set myself the task of trying my hand at this sport. a few days later, I purchased a rod, tackle and a live well and headed for the center of the bridge unsure of what to do next. As I began to set up, I felt very out of place and more than a little uncomfortable as the skillful locals went about their calm activity with the surety that only years of practice may bring. Once I managed to get my pole assembled, I purchased some bait: a dozen sea worms that I was dead certain would suck the life from me. These proved to be harmless and, in fact, quite fragile. The one thing that I lacked, however, was water for my live well. After all, if I was to catch fish I needed to be able to preserve them until my day was done. So here I was, 10 meters above the water and no clear way of getting to any of it. Enter Vulcan, a man in the later years of his life with a friendly demeanor and calm, assured tone. He would become my savior and my friend on this strange day. When I found him, he was selling fish from large plastic containers just down the bridge from where I had set up. He was seemingly the only man around that could understand English. So, naturally, we formed a connection. He would teach me that in order to fill my well, I must utilize the bucket found by the bait salesman and that if I wanted to catch red mullet, I had to drop my bait to 30 meters for the best results. We continued to talk for only a short time, but in that brief encounter, I experienced the most genuine example of Turkish hospitality. Here was a man with a business to run and no relation to myself whatsoever. Yet, he put his life on hold to help one utterly lost kid from Sparta Wisconsin fill his live well with water and cast his unwieldy fishing pole. Though I never caught any fish, and failed to return to that spot before our departure from the city, I will forever remember the friendship that I caught that day.

Madrid – Man by the Caixa Forum

During our time in Madrid, we were tasked with developing a design intervention at one of several museums along the Paseo del Prado just west of the famed Retiro Park (I suspect some of you will know it). Myself and my group were assigned the illustrious Caixa Forum by Herzog and De Meuron. We would proceed to spend the following four weeks digging into this building and its surrounding neighborhood with an all consuming fervor. I myself took to running there from our residence on a few occasions. On one of our evening outings to the sight, I ran across a curious character, whom I didn’t recognize, sitting alone in one of the neighboring plazas. He was an older gentleman perhaps in his 80s. Simply dressed in a pair of worn black pants and a grey jacket. He wore sun glasses and his expression was that of a contented smirk. I honestly didn’t give him much notice until, upon passing by, I heard a faint buenas tardes from behind me. Turning to face the him, I smiled politely and returned the greeting, asking him how he was enjoying his evening (I had taken a few years of Spanish and could converse slightly with the locals). Before I knew it, we were sitting together on the bench discussing the man’s life. He told me that he often came to the plaza to sit and watch the world go by. That he only lived a few blocks north of the museum with his daughter and grandchildren. That he remembered when the Caixa Forum had once been an important electrical power plant (the shell of which now serves as a part of the museums facade). After a brief discussion about my own life and how I was enjoying the city, I politely excused myself to rejoin my team. Later that evening, I would find the man walking back to his home accompanied by his daughter and two granddaughters. His expression was pure contentment as they slowly made there way back up the slight incline to their apartment. I, at the time, didn’t suspect I’d ever see the man again. In this respect I was successful for two weeks, but on my final visit to the Caixa Forum our paths crossed once more. You see I was heading back to the apartment via the Alvarado Metro station when I noticed the hunched figure of my friend slowly wending his way through the crowd. I immediately greeted him and was delightfully surprised when he remembered me. He would accompany me through the station as I forced my self to shorten my gate and slow my pace to his.It was a simple gesture and didn’t require much effort on my part, but I instantly felt more connected to this person, almost as if they were my own relative. together we waited for the train and eventually boarded. we talked of the weather and of his grand children. He told me that he liked the rain we had been having lately. And that was all. A simple conversation between strangers who, for that moment, acted as old friends. He departed the train before myself, leaving me to reflect on the experience.

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