Sunday, 20 March 2011

Me, You and Everyone We Know

Sometimes it just takes a couple of words or a smile to really get through to people. To break down barriers, to challenge stereotypes and to build relationships. Sometimes it’s about connecting with people on our most basic human level. You never know where these connections will lead us and how they will shape our lives. Simple beginnings often lead to momentous ends.  Through my own experiences, I’ve found this to be a valuable truth.  I’ve met some truly amazing people out on the streets of London. On buses, tube platforms, in cafes, by the river, in public libraries even! I’ve met people who have challenged my ideas and introduced me to new ones, new stories, new ways of living, cultures, identities and faiths. All of my encounters have enriched and challenged me. They have made me truly appreciate diversity. After all it’s what makes life interesting!

Often brief encounters have grown into lasting friendships. I’ll give you an example. A couple of years ago I was standing in line in the Imperial War museum and a young Latino woman struck up a conversation with me the way people do sometimes. Her name was Jessica, she lived in down-town Brooklyn and was in London visiting her brother. No sooner we got talking we realised we had quite a bit in common! We decided then to go for a long walk by the embankment. As we walked, (and we walked for hours) she told me all about New York gangs, about knowing what to say and how to get by! She told me about her aspirations to join the US marines and about her life in Brooklyn. In return I told her about my life in South London, my experiences and travels. It was amazing, the way in which we connected. The way we both felt as though we had known each other for years! When we’d finally got tired of walking, we exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. The next few days we met up and did the same, we wandered through the streets of London joking around and talking unremittingly to one another about our beliefs, our ideals and our dreams.

This happens to me a lot, a few words about the weather with someone at the bus stop soon drifts off into a long conversation about global warming. In this way I’ve met some really colourful characters who have really changed my way of thinking. I’ve met Anna, the Russian linguist who works in a Hotel in Bloomsbury, who speaks five different languages and was shot at in Grimsbury (I joke not). I’ve met Alberto the Portuguese giant who used to own a snooker club and who is a devout catholic. I’ve met Alison from Brixton who enjoys kickboxing and dislikes the Suits. Some of these friendships have turned out to be more salient and lasting than others, however they have all helped me to grow as a person. Three years ago I met one of my closest friends out on the streets, Chanmi, a Korean artist who was fascinated by time-travel and conspiracy theories. You wouldn’t believe how well we got on, how much we learnt from each other and how much of a laugh we used to have!  Diversity and conversation make life interesting! There’s a magic in sharing with others. A certain warmth.  

In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes the condition of oblivion as intrinsic to the fractured and isolated conditions of life itself in which people drift towards isolation. In the novel Mrs Dalloway expresses this dissatisfaction of not knowing people, not being known. She contemplates ‘But what was this thing she called life? ... Here was so-and-so in South Kensington; someone up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste, and she felt what a pity.’ And it is a pity, it is a waste- how unfortunate the number of people who flit by us in life, the number of stories that go untold, those cycles of isolation that could so easily be broken. Through ending this separation we could become so much more self-aware! Alive even! The other day, I was sat on a bus in Peckham next to an old man who was singing hymns. After a while I told him he had a lovely voice and his face lit up! Just like that his guard was down and the atmosphere was uplifted.  

Sometimes I think we forget how important and valuable it is to truly connect with other people, especially in this age of social networking. We can forget how to reach out. To have real conversations. And to be receptive to one another’s needs.  Sometimes it just takes a smile. Something we can all do. That one smile you offer might be all it takes to break down barriers and lay down new foundations. And who knows, it might lead to something much bigger!