Monday, 11 July 2011

Talking to strangers isn't always as bad as your mum told you...

So it’s been a ridiculously long time since I have posted anything. To this blog I mean, though while we’re on the subject it has also been a ridiculously long time since I’ve posted anything using something as archaic as a red postbox.

The reason for this long silence? Well, my dissertation has been handed in, of course, and I’ve now graduated from uni (with first class honours and two prizes. Not that I’m boasting. Okay I am definitely boasting). There’s nothing to procrastinate from anymore, and the uni-shaped hole in my life has been replaced by knitting. Due to my lack of knitting skills, I need my mum on hand for any knitting emergencies that may occur (and they do. Frequently). So today, while she’s at work and I’m at home alone, scared to pick up the knitting needles in case I accidentally ruin all 4 inches of my jumper-in-progress and have to start again, I thought I’d finally update this blog instead of watching Loose Women. (Let it be noted that when I say ‘instead of watching Loose Women’, what I really mean is ‘instead of giving Loose Women my full attention’. It is on in the background. Obviously.)

I thought I’d write about journeys, and my inexplicable ability to make friends with people while travelling without even trying.  I must have one of those faces – if I’m standing at a bus stop with ten other people and there’s a weirdo there who wants a chat with a stranger, 9 times out of 10 they will pick me to strike up some bizarre conversation with. And then sit next to on the bus.

It’s not all bad though.  Sometimes, very occasionally, I meet nice people.  And it’s also given me stories to tell, like these two.

Creepy Jonathan from the Ferry
After a week spent in Lewis with my grandparents I boarded the ferry with a long journey back to Aberdeen ahead of me. As usual, I headed straight for the good seats in the Observation Lounge where I could look out the window, waiting for the mainland to appear on the horizon and maybe even catching sight of a couple of seals or porpoises.

A tight-white-t-shirt-wearing man who would have better matched the décor on an Easyjet flight than the neutral tones of the CalMac ferry said ‘You’ve done this before! Going for the good seats!’ I laughed and agreed that yes, I had been on this ferry before, many times. He seemed a bit weird but there were a couple of normal looking guys of about my age with him so I continued with the conversation and when I was invited to join them I thought ‘Why not?’ It would beat sitting on my own reading my book for 2.5 hours.

It turned out that Jonathan, who had a foreign accent it was difficult to place, was not actually with the other two guys and he had met them in much the same way as he’d met me.

As soon as I was sitting next to Jonathan, he turned the sleaze volume up to full blast. Every time he spoke to me he touched my arm in a creepy, intense way and whenever I spoke to Tom or Sam (the other two guys) he interrupted us with a totally inane question directed at me. He was apparently from Gran Canaria and owned a plethora of pubs and casinos; was a scuba diving instructor; worked on boats; was a climbing instructor… in fact anything we mentioned, he’d done and done it better than us.  He invited me to work with him in one of his pubs in Gran Canaria for the summer and gave me his email address, which I only pretended to note down in my phone.  I’m pretty convinced if I naively turned up in Gran Canaria there would be no Jonathan, no pubs and casinos owned by him, and no job. In fact I’m even more convinced that Jonathan was actually from Hull or somewhere equally uninteresting, and that his ‘foreign’ accent was as fake as his tan.

It worked out well in the end though, because when the ferry arrived in Ullapool and we’d escaped Jonathan’s slimy clutches, it turned out that Tom, Sam and I were on the same bus to Inverness, and then because I’d missed my train to Aberdeen due to the bus being late we all went for some food and a couple of drinks while waiting for the next train. We’re still in touch now, so I guess it was worth enduring creepy Jonathan and his unnaturally white teeth.

Tam on the train
After graduation last Tuesday and subsequent celebrations in Aberdeen, I boarded the train back to my parents’ house near Stirling, where I am living for the summer.  On boarding the train I was in no mood for chit-chat, due to various circumstances on my way to the station, but it was crowded so I was forced to sit opposite a hefty middle-aged man with glasses.  On sitting down, I immediately took my book out and put my earphones in: it was undeniably evident I was not interested in chatter with a stranger.  Tam, though, obviously missed the life lesson where you don’t try and strike up conversation with a grumpy looking girl on the train who has her nose in a book and earphones in. 

And I’m glad that he did.

I could hear his voice muffled by my music and he was looking straight at me. There was no avoiding it.  It took effort to hide my irritation as I pulled out my earphones and marked my place in the book, and I probably didn’t manage to hide it, but thick-skinned Tam didn’t care.  ‘Mind if I open a beer?’ he was asking.
‘No, go ahead’

I was about to put my earphones back in, but he continued, relentless.
‘Do you want one?’
‘No, I’m fine.’ I turned back to my book.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, I need one. I’ve just come from offshore. Not had a drink for two weeks!’
‘Oh right.’
‘Yeah. Off home to Balloch now. Well not quite yet. I usually get off at Stirling and get a lift back to Balloch but this time the wife and I are going to stay in a hotel for the night in Glasgow! So I’m getting off at Queen Street. Where are you headed?’
I realised then I wasn’t going to get any peace. He wasn’t giving up.  As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. 

We chatted away, and I accepted a beer from him after all.  It made the train journey go by much quicker than usual, and he was much more fascinating than his middle-aged middle-class demeanour suggested: he’d been stranded in Libya when the riots broke out and was telling me all about the secret operation to get him out. He hadn’t even been able to speak to his wife for five days so that no one except those involved in getting him out could know where he was or what was happening.

Apart from him trying to set me up with his son (‘You look just like his ex!’), speaking to Tam was a pleasure.

And it got much, much more interesting.  At one point Tam went to the toilet and was gone for a while.  When he came back he said he’d bumped into someone he knew and did I mind if they joined us?  So then another man sat with us, whose name I never caught, but who was equally chatty and equally generous: he insisted, despite my protests, on buying me a glass of wine from the trolley.

Then (and this is where it goes from ‘completely feasible but slightly unusual situation’ to ‘completely bizarre but wonderful situation’) someone further down in our carriage stood up and started playing the bagpipes!  Soon the entire carriage was clapping along and smiling and laughing, even people who’d seemed as grumpy as I’d been at the start of the journey. 

When the train arrived in Stirling I was thoroughly cheered up as the party raged on.  Three people argued over who would help me off the train with my case, and Tam wished me well for the Master’s I’ll be starting in September.

Definitely the best train journey I’ve ever been on, and I may even go as far as to say it was worth the extortionate £40 I paid for the ticket. (Don’t tell Scotrail I said that though).

So, I’ve learnt something from these two experiences: it’s definitely worth hearing what people have to say when they strike up conversations with you on public transport. Your initial judgment may be proven correct, as with Jonathan, but it could lead you to other opportunities, such as making new friends like Tom and Sam.  Or, as with Tam, your initial judgment could be blown completely out of the water and you could end up in a much better mood stepping off the train than you were when you stepped on it, having spoken to some fascinating people with fascinating stories and had a totally bizarre, but totally wonderful, time. 

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