I’ve lived in London for almost seven years, and when in public, I like to think I am so London-esque you might mistake me for being a native.
On the tube, I never look people in the eye unless I’m exchanging pursed lips and raised eyebrows with fellow Londoners knocked about by tourists. I know the most direct route to any destination on Oxford Street and will literally walk through anyone ambling across my path (although I rarely go to Oxford Street, it being predominantly a sideshow for tourists who don’t know any better). And I can even remember not to smile at my neighbours – a perfunctory head nod will suffice – when I chance to bump into them in the hall. Oh, and I never, ever speak to anyone I don’t know.
So I was rather taken aback this week when a stranger in my favourite local cafe not only looked me in the eye, but smiled and spoke to me. Imagine! Her quivering excitement about going to the latest V&A exhibition immediately marked her out as a non-Londoner.
I’m ashamed to say it took me about five minutes to warm to her. I actually felt physically uncomfortable being engaged in conversation with someone I didn’t know, and I discreetly tried to detect her motive for speaking to me. Was she about to ask money for the bus after losing her purse? Having just spent £2.50 on a coffee it was unlikely. Note: I am wary of people’s capacity to ask for money in every more creative ways, having fallen for such a scam as recently as last year – a small chink in my London armour. I was accosted – in my own home in Crouch End! – by a woman calling through the window telling me she’d locked herself out of her house next door and needed £10.00 to get a taxi to her husband’s office. It’s London – I couldn’t be sure if she was my neighbour or not – and thus I gave her the £10.00. Apparently, so did my housemate the previous week. She was a very forgetful neighbour.
After eliminating the money motive, you can usually be certain that your London stranger conversation has been stimulated by insanity. But, it seems that Christine’s motives were something more simple. This lovely lady had decided to make an effort to talk to new people she encountered, whenever she could. We chatted about Australia, work, family and travels. I relaxed into the conversation and actually enjoyed myself!
As I made to leave, Christine asked my for name and wrote it down with the date in a little notebook, below other such entries. And she said we might meet again some day. I’m looking forward to it.