I learned in London: That the difference between a stranger and a friend is a conversation.
It was chilly outside, the kind of day that has you pulling your jacket a little tighter when you’re standing still. I crossed the street from Victoria Coach Station in London, where I had just purchased my tickets to Manchester and Amsterdam. I looked around for inspiration. It was another travel day where I find a starting point, walk around without a map or an agenda until I’m tired, and then take a train home. I find I learn the most about a city when I use this tactic. It’s a bit of a purposeful sensory overload to force me to take in my surroundings.
Manage to avoid getting hit by a large red bus, I entered a modest park where I stopped to look at a large black statue of a man on horseback. The statue rose into the trees and blocked the sun from where I was standing. I decided it was the perfect place to start drawing, another pastime I enjoy while traveling.
I sat down against a black iron fence a few yards from the statue, and got out my sketchbook, a feeble stack of paper folded and stapled into a torn black paper cover. I started to draw the statue. I began with the profile of the man’s face, then onto the curve of his back, and then I moved left towards the head of the horse. I found my groove, shrugging my body closer to the gate to keep warm and intermittently taking sips of coffee.
Suddenly, the pigeons that had been steadily clucking closer and closer to my feet batted into the air violently as a caramel colored pit-bull came ambling towards me from across the park. I stood up, startled, and rustled the dog’s head as her owner came ambling from behind the statue. The man smiled happily, and called out,
“I thought I would help you shoo away the pigeons!”
I replied, “Yeah they’ve been bugging me, some guy actually threw a bun right at me. I’m just trying to draw.”
This moment, the three or four seconds just after I replied, is what I want to talk about. In these seconds, these minuscule subdivisions of time, my day changed.
This space is a crack in our own perception of what was supposed to happen next in our day. It’s an instant in which we decide for ourselves whether we want to interact with another human being, or withdraw and shorten the exchange as much as possible.
It just so happened that on this day, I decided to talk to this man. Before experiencing a detour for myself, I did not know that this moment existed. It isn’t who I am as a person, some mantra I say to myself everyday, or something that I would dare preach to anyone else. It was a spontaneous opening of the heart and inner calm that was a gift to me that led me to talk to this man I did not know.
I do not think it is important for me to explain who this man was, or what his life was like. I do not find it imperative for you to know what we talked about, or what came of our meeting. I think what is crucial, what is the point of this narrative, is that we are all human. That the difference between a stranger and a friend is a conversation. That whatever you have planned for your day can change for the better if you let it, if you get lucky and feel that opening, and seize it.
Thirty minutes later, the man stood up.
“You know, I think I was meant to meet you today.”
I think so too.