Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Conversations with Strangers

One of the best parts about traveling is that you meet strangers that can become friends for life within minutes. Haven't we all made that experience where you just start talking to somebody and before you know it, you exchange emails, phone numbers and you just KNOW that you have met a travel soul mate?
Well, the other side of the coin is when you meet a stranger that thinks you are his long searched for BFF ... and you don't! There was the slightly weird and somehow very creepy guy I met in Maceió, Brazil; the overly talkative miner in Chile (yes, I know ALL the dirty details about his divorce), the very angry Bolivian lady, the farmer boy who developed a huge crush on my boyfriend and and and. My latest encounter with a strange stranger was in a cafe in Cincinnati:

I was sitting at a table, minding my own business when an older gentleman walks up to me. He stops, hesitates for a second or two, as if to find the courage to say something. He looks at me, hat on his head, trench coat and umbrella in one hand, a canvas bag in the other (a little hint for all my fellow German travelers, if a non-German with a canvas bag, or Jutetasche as we call it, starts talking to you: RUN as fast as you can!), and says with a now very convinced tone in his voice: "You are German!" I am shocked and a little creeped out! People have called me many things from French to Jewish, but nobody just walks up to me and just straight up guesses that I am German. At least he spiked my curiosity: "I am! How did you know?" "Oh, that gentleman over there told me!" That gentleman over there turns out to be my boyfriend's dad, and I have a strong feeling that he found the perfect way to re-direct the older gentleman's attention from him to me. In other words: Now I am stuck with him!
It turns out, he used to live in Berlin (which he loved) and he is a composer. Classical music only, mind you! Once I make the mistake to mention the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and their famous ex-conductor Herbert Karajan, he knows he found somebody he can talk to. "Did you go to see the Cincinnati orchestra play two days ago at Music Hall?" - "Oh, I heard they were playing, but I went to see The Breeders." As he is clearly lost, I add: "I guess you could call them a rock band. They were actually playing right outside Music Hall." (And wouldn't play any encores because of the symphony, I am adding silently and a little angry still in my mind!) He clearly doesn't appreciate the fact that I went to see The Breeders. Jazz, he tells me, is still acceptable, but rock music? And before I know it, the conversation goes back to Germany, its great composers, its wonderful orchestras, and the country's impressive musical tradition. From here, we move on to German philosophers, of course. I know the intellectual drill: German music, German philosophy, German literature. German universities. He hates Heidegger (because he was a Nazi), he doesn't hate Wagner though (even though he sympathized with the Nazi ideology) because his music is just so fantastic. I prefer not to ask about Nietzsche. Instead we talk about Hannah Arendt and German movies and jump straight to German universities. Strangely enough, he doesn't know my alma mater (Tübingen) but he is raving about Göttingen and Heidelberg, which is insulting if you have studied in Tübingen. It's like knowing Harvard but not knowing Yale. But before I can protest we have somehow moved on to anthropology and it turns out this gentleman has studied anthropology at Columbia. I will spare you the rest of the nerdy conversation about Claude Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Margret Mead and Franz Boas and other anthropology pop stars. At this point, I feel that we have covered all the "I want to be nice and polite to this old-fashioned German fan" themes, but of course, this gentleman just has SO much more he wants to talk about! And by now I can see out of the corner of my eye that my boyfriend and his family are signalling vividly at me that they are REALLY ready to leave. About 20 minutes later, the message has reached my conversation partner, and he says good-bye. Not without listing all the important dates for classical music events in town for the next two months. He concludes his speech by saying: "Well, it was nice meeting you. Cincinnati is a horrible town for classical music though, you should go back to Berlin!" And while he is leaving reluctantly, I get the very strong feeling that he probably hasn't talked to a lot of people in the past 20 years...
I have to admit that this particular conversation with this particular stranger was somewhat interesting (sort of, in a very nerdy way), but it did feel a little bit like taking my final oral exam in anthropology all over again.
Meeting strangers on the road is very common if you travel a lot. However, I was reminded that meeting strangers while traveling can be both, a blessing AND a curse. But it sure never ain't boring!

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