Cities feel alive. They’re pulsating, dynamic places where people circulate at all hours of the day and night. They breathe their energy onto you, which can be invigorating, but tiring too. They have personalities of their own, quirks, secrets, years of history folded into their streets. Sometimes I’m amazed by the immensity of what happens when you put so many people in a highly concentrated space.
Studying abroad in Madrid was my first experience living in a true city. Sure, I’d traveled to plenty of cities before, but I’d only ever lived in suburbs. And as I adjusted to the highs and lows of urban dwelling, I was struck by the sheer vastness of people that I saw on a daily basis. Of course, the suburbs aren’t people-free, and they have their own people-watching hotspots. But when you sit in your car shuffling from point A to point B, you don’t get as much interaction with people beyond your immediate scope. In a city’s public transit and on its sidewalks, you really see everyone, and everything.
In Madrid I took the subway everywhere. And I was always struck by the volume of people I saw in the stations and on the trains. People who I would probably never meet. People whose stories I didn’t know. In time, I developed an admittedly odd habit: whenever a subway car sped away, I’d look at it and think “goodbye, all the people I’ll never know.”
I’m not sure what was so striking about it. Perhaps the sheer volume of faces. Perhaps the fact that I was in a foreign country added a slight edge to the situation. I was just overcome by this realization that every subway car was filled with people I knew nothing about, and likely never would. There was something about this concentrated set of strangers, speeding away that really stuck with me. Yes, I could have gone up and tried to make friends in the subway. But I never would have met all of them. And the point was more than that, anyway: it was a reminder of how our own lives are just one tiny thread of what’s happening on this earth on a daily basis. We need those reminders sometimes, of the vastness of the world. And in Spain, that vastness was amplified by the fact that I knew very few people in the city, period. Back in the US, I’d go to campus events alone or show up to the college cafeteria solo, assuming I’d know someone once I got there. At my Spanish university, I’d walk into the cafeteria and fail to see a single familiar face. It was a striking experience for me, as an extrovert who tends to bounce between groups of people.
These days, I see a lot of strangers on my daily commute. Sometimes I do talk to them, but only when there’s something that prompts natural conversation: the ticket machine isn’t working, a tourist wants dinner ideas, a toddler is making silly faces. I see some of the same people a few times a week, and always wonder if it’d be cool or creepy to go up to them and comment on the overlap, start a conversation, see what they have to say. With photo blogs out there like Humans of New York and Nola Beings, it’s becoming more common to celebrate the stories of strangers. But in day to day life, would people be as receptive? If I just walked up to someone and tried to talk with them for the sake of talking, how would they react? If I told the guy I secretly call my “bus buddy” that I realized we take the same bus several days a week, would he say he’d noticed me too? Or would he run away in fright?
I’m going to challenge myself to talk to 5 complete strangers in the next month, without any pretext. No cute toddler, no crazy bus driver, no bonding over our city’s bizarre bus doors. Just two people, talking.