As children we were exhorted not to speak to strangers, for fear that something bad would happen.
But as adults sometimes that lesson from childhood lingers and by not speaking to random strangers, we potentially miss wonderful moments, especially when travelling.
Two fabulous incidents come to mind where initiating a conversation changed my day and my outlook on life.
Once while travelling, we had left our apartment early to reach the Hungarian State Opera house, a highly ornate building resplendent with gilt, chandeliers and frescoes, with the aim of booking a tour.
The queue was already formed when we arrived and as we stood chatting, I struck up a conversation with a woman in front of me. We both lamented that we really wanted to see Madam Butterfly that was being performed that night, but felt the chance of tickets was slim.
As the queue inched forward, the conversation grew, sharing mutual interests. Her career was a music academic and she was on sabbatical.
By the time we were next in line, my new-found American friend and her mother were offered a box for the opera, a last-minute cancellation, and they turned and asked if we wished to share the box with them.
Great excitement ensued.
The four of us then decided to share a coffee and headed into one of the many historic coffee houses in Budapest.
Visualise chandeliers, wood panelling, and a divine array of cakes to tempt us.
More conversation, more laughter and more common interests emerged, including Greek heritage.
The mother and daughter were travelling Europe with the rest of their family, making sure that they forged memories to last them into the future.
In the evening we put on our finery, met our friends in the foyer and ascended the stairs to the private box.
The red velvet curtains stared back at us and anticipation hung in the air. The music began and we were transported back in time to Japan in the 1900s and the agonies of Cio Cio-san.
We all shed a tear as she sang One Fine Day, her aching longing for her husband, knowing the betrayal she was to face in the remaining act.
But what was so moving for me, was to see a mother and daughter holding hands through the performance, sharing their love of music and their awareness of each other’s joy.
I was touched by their tenderness and obvious love for each other.
Strangers on a train
The second experience of speaking to a total stranger was on a bullet train from Beijing to Hangzhou.
I was feeling antisocial and hoped that the seat next to me would remain vacant. Alas, a youngish man sat down and I was faced with two choices – ignore him or say hello.
I opted for nei hao and what ensued was remarkable, an insight into a culture and a personal life I would never have known.
This man was a cardiac surgeon returning home from a conference. His English thankfully was excellent and we chatted for the next two hours, discovering that now lung disease was overtaking heart disease as the leading cause of death in China.
We skirted around issues of censorship and government control but he happily shared his childhood memories.
He remembers starving in the village in his early life, but with talent and hard work had risen to a successful career.
It was clear he understood on a very personal and visceral level the transformation that modern China has undergone. He was living with his mother, with his wife and son, happily fulfilling his duty as a son and husband. I was enthralled with his life and our conversation.
So, the moral of the story is take a risk, say hello to a total stranger. I guarantee the reward is worth the risk.
Have you ever struck up a conversation with a stranger while travelling? How did it work out? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?
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