When did we last meet a stranger–––from nearby or from across the world–– long enough to find out who they were, share a moment of life with them, say good-bye, and never see them again? For many, the question really is: when did we last travel? Our universe has shrunk since March 2020 and we are entrenched in the strictly familiar, so the answer is likely to be ‘not recently’ ––and, for most of us, ‘not in the near future.’
There are some unexpected costs attached to this new insularity of ours as travel constitutes the type of disruption that only serves to further hone the acuity of our perceptions and help us adapt to unprecedented situations. It disconnects us from our natural environment and intensifies experiences because so much of what we see and hear is new to us and may even lack explanatory context. What cultural tools do we use to assess a new environment and strangers’ behaviour? Our passing connection with strangers, in particular, can only be tentative and based on the sole and fragile cues of appearance and demeanour because our usual identity and reputation may weigh very little and we are as unknown to others as they are to us. Yet, we still have conventions to respect, self-protection to ensure, and a certain comfort zone to maintain. Whatever relations we may form are based on different criteria than those forged at home: there is neither past nor future involved, only the present–––yet, in spite of these differences, our travelling behaviour is not usually at tremendous odds with our behaviour at home. However, when the ordinary disconnection of travelling – being in transit from one place to another and sometimes from the known to the unknown – is compounded by external events of extraordinary import, the rules of conduct by which we usually abide can be profoundly disrupted and can even endure a total reversal of their habitual character––––as happened to me once in unusual circumstances.
Although I happen to be married to the perfect travelling companion, I have mostly journeyed on my own. I am of rather bland appearance and mild-mannered, often slightly rumpled: in other words, quite unremarkable and this blessing has probably saved me from potentially unsavoury encounters since I do not draw attention to myself. But on two exceptional occasions I became part of a dual alliance between two flights. In May 1974, a series of events blew away my comfort zone to smithereens and I still relish the memory of two nights spent in Amsterdam and Montreal with two total strangers with whom I exchanged a passing friendship. There is no likelihood at all that, had we spent more time together, we would have actually developed a real friendship. We had nothing in common except the circumstances that united us. It was a connection of the moment and for the moment, understood as such, with its own rules of conduct. Both ended blandly on a handshake and mutual good wishes, but somehow, almost half a century later, out of dozens of other encounters, these men whose names I was told at the time but forgot immediately afterwards, those two men have remain clear in my mind, though perhaps as distorted as childhood memories.
I was on my way back from Paris and, rather than fly directly home, I decided to make a detour through London to visit an old friend and then come back to Vancouver via Amsterdam. I registered my luggage directly to Vancouver, keeping only a small overnight bag with me. Soon after my friend had dropped me off at Heathrow-Terminal 1, passengers were told that a bomb had exploded on the third level of the parking garage across from the street. London was no stranger to such attempts and the routine response was pat. Everything closed down at once and all flights were suspended. A bunch of us in the same area, by happenstance all from Canada and Australia, started exchanging rumours and quips, and even spotted an unattended suitcase, which we reported and were amazed at the promptness of its disposal by heavily protected men. We stuck together until, after several hours, we were told some unscheduled planes would take us to Amsterdam, from which we could connect to our various flights. I vaguely remember being driven across the tarmac to a plane, possibly in a truck, but really would not swear to it. Fatigue had already taken its toll and my memories are vague.
Eventually, I found myself sitting beside a monochrome man of bland blond looks, his English so clipped I thought him to be German. He turned out to be a South African of Dutch descent. The events of the day had definitely created a spirit of fellowship among strangers and we found it natural to comment on the events at Heathrow. By the time we reached Amsterdam, we had formed an alliance of two against whatever awaited us there, although our directions would diverge at once, as he was on his way to Hamburg and I was aiming for any available Canadian city from which to fly home to Vancouver.
The incident at Heathrow had obviously played havoc with many airlines and their scheduled flights. Amsterdam was handling the aftermath––and all these years later, I can appreciate the extraordinary job they did of it, but at the time it all looked like chaos and confusion, and Amsterdam was where everybody seemed to have landed that evening. There were no flights from there to anywhere and we were told to come back the following morning at five, when we would all be put on standby.
I must have looked rather down for my travel companion, probably equally at a loss, offered to show me around Amsterdam which he had known as a student some twenty years earlier. So, we spent the night walking. I do not remember his name. In fact, I remember very little about him, only that he may have been a little younger than me, also had five children, lived in Johannesburg, and was either an engineer or a businessman. What I remember well is how much we laughed. Surely, we could not have been that funny? We must have been thoroughly exhausted because it seemed as if every remark led to peals of laughter, sometimes leaving us leaning against a wall to support ourselves. It was a silly night, a full regression into childhood. But what I remember most vividly about him is something he said before we went back to the airport at dawn. Once, as a young man, he had shaved his whole body and in a slightly perverse way had enjoyed the feeling of total nakedness it had given him. Why such a “confession” (for that was what it was) to a stranger, I have no idea, but it felt like a gift. Only later did I think I should have also confessed something to him (something tawdry or shameful, like my faking an appendix attack to escape a math test in high school and, feeling unable to retract, had undergone an emergency operation). Like children, we should have exchanged secrets to seal a friendship, even a passing one, even if mine had merely been cowardly and fatalistic, not clever, mysterious, and slightly louche, like his. But I did not think of it. At the airport we shook hands, wished each other good luck and safe journey, and went our separate ways.
Unable to book a flight to Vancouver, I eventually flew to Montreal instead. I slept most of the way, stretched over three seats. A passenger across the aisle explained why the plane was almost empty: it had flown from Israel and, because of a bomb rumour, many people had cancelled their flights. I thought of all those stranded in Amsterdam, turned over, and went back to sleep–––not the restorative sleep I was hoping for but the nasty one that leaves you even worse off. In Montreal, there was no connecting flight to Vancouver and, once more, I had to wait until the next morning. There were a few of us, in a darkish corner of a long waiting room full of unyielding plastic seats, facing the long night ahead. Among them, Jesus.
I had noticed him in Amsterdam. Indeed, he was difficult to miss among the scruffy and noisy group we formed at the airport. A tall, slender, blond, bearded, long-haired young man, immaculately robed in homespun white, quiet and serene. The white and gold Jesus of my First Communion missal, minus the halo and the lamb. He was still immaculate and serene in Montreal. We were both waiting for a westbound plane in the morning, so we sat and waited together. We must have made an odd pair. He as I have described, with an odd Teflon-like quality for repelling stains and smudges from his white garments; I, very battered by then and exhausted to boot, unkempt in my leather coat and rumpled jeans, and probably a bit smelly in clothes that I had not changed since Paris three days earlier. He also had, and by a good twenty years, the advantage of youth.
Local young boys started appearing, the airport at night being apparently a regular source of entertainment. They soon gathered around him–––us, I should say, since as we sat together and talked, they took us to be friends. Sitting on the dirty floor, they passed a joint among themselves and listened to him, soon oblivious to my presence. I think his name may have been James and he told me his story when the boys had left and we had the rest of the night still ahead of us. He was the son of a Calgary businessman who had supported him while he spent two years in an ashram in India. Now, as agreed, he was coming back home, would cut his wavy blond hair and his soft beard, don a business suit and would report at his father’s office at nine o’clock on Monday, briefcase in hand. It was a ludicrous picture he painted for me with gentle, self-deprecatory humour but as sad as the end of summer holidays in childhood. In my weakened state, I was almost bawling with regret and sorrow on his behalf.
With the remaining change in my pocket, we bought a cup of coffee as soon as the coffee shop opened. His flight to Calgary was announced, so we shook hands. “Goodbye and good luck,” I said lamely. He looked at me, deep in the eyes, and said, “Take care.” This was 1975, and I had not heard the expression before, so I took it literally. I toyed with the words long after we had parted ways and I was homebound. What did these words mean? Take care because you are a dear person whose welfare is precious to others? Take care because we would grieve if anything bad happened to you? Thanks to him, I sometimes still think there could be some really kind thought backing the now irritatingly trite expression.
I arrived safely, three days after my luggage. I had not phoned home, assuming my husband would know I would be doing my best to get home safely, somehow. It never occurred to me anyone might worry and wonder. Perhaps I had simply been caught in a maelstrom of events unleashed by a bomb exploding in an airport garage. When the dust settled (perhaps literally) reality had momentarily changed to exclude everything save imponderable connections, warped timeframes, and mental and physical exhaustion. The days and nights had blended into an unmeasurable continuum. Most notably, my usual cautious behaviour had been replaced by an acceptance of the disruption of the normal rules of conduct and encounter. The rule of thumb had suddenly become the here and now, every event specific to this particular time and space. The garage explosion had also exploded custom and habit, making the atypical suddenly acceptable and even natural. Not being gregarious, I am usually enrobed in silence and veiled observation, seldom a participant in life’s agitation and always respectful of personal distances. In fact, when travelling I usually nurture disconnection. I remember one eventful journey from Vancouver to the Seychelles, with a transfer in London and an unscheduled stop in Dubai for repairs–––thirty-three hours in flight and airports–––when I spoke to no one save to ask twice for directions and say thank you. This time, however, I had not spent a moment alone since Heathrow, connected as seldom before to strangers I would never see again.
Any event out of the ordinary is likely to create its own unique micro-reality, particularly when it is dramatic or horrific enough. Such were bomb shelters during the Blitz with their own etiquette and hierarchy; hostage-taking in Stockholm creating wrong and mistaken affiliations; survival techniques attempting to sublimate reality in concentration camps or doomed ghettos; hospitals’ emergency waiting rooms where the commonality of fear allows everyone to relate in every detail the recital of their woes and hopes. As social animals, we respond to pressures that affect the group and develop behaviours that favour cohesion and support when we feel under threat. By the time James (?) and I reached Montreal, the Heathrow bomb (that neither of us had seen, heard, or felt) was still our strong connecting link and the basis of our tacit alliance. Events need not be overly dramatic or present direct danger to make allowances for unusual behaviour but, in this case, the rules had changed immediately through a sense of unreality. In extraordinary circumstances, events and connections take on another dimension and preconceived ideas about adequate behaviour are superseded by the immediacy of the perceived threat. In effect, this modified environment is what fashions the new adequacy and the behaviour it dictates. Like newly hatched goslings, we gang up together and follow whoever gives us a sense of belonging.
For over a year now, we have been limited in our expectations. Rather than seek connections with strangers, most of us have stayed close to home and those we know well, both for safety and comfort. Under a new type of threat, we had to act against our natural tendency to gather and unite–––but compensated by saying we were “all in it together,” expressing loud clapping support for our health workers at the same time every night, and emailing jokes and videos back and forth to forge and maintain connections as tangible as the times would allow.
Naturally, forming brief connections with strangers need not be solely in response to threats and there are other reasons to seek group affiliation. While most of our contacts are neutral and forgotten almost at once, every so often, through happenstance or good luck, we meet strangers with whom to share small courtesies, an impromptu joke, or a minimal event that might otherwise not have been noticed but will now be pleasantly remembered. Such slight connections and the briefest of encounters are often what gives lightness to everyday life and remind us that not everything is straightforward and regulated. So, the first thing we should do when we come out of this time of constraint and serious mulling, is to seek the unexpected and rediscover the lightness of being–––– while also reaffirming our membership into the pack and being reassured by it. And when we travel again, our seat on a plane, a train, a sampan, or a bus will testify to our having successfully come out of the dark side of this dangerous period, together with the people on the same plane, train, sampan, or rickety bus without air conditioning noisily winding its way on a dusty country road.
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.