Coffee Shops and Strangers

I love a good coffee shop. Who doesn’t, right?

They are cozy and perfect for catching up with a good friend, read a book, write, or work. I find the background noises of coffee shops and the soft chill music they usually have on soothing and helpful for concentrating. Then you have the added pleasure of good coffee or a chai latte, in my case, plus a cookie or a shortbread cake. It is the perfect work/study/reading environment if you feel like a bit of social company. Not that it is not as wonderful to stay home in your very own home office with your cute tea set and cactus in the window.

Sometimes days in coffee shops are uneventful but what I love most about coffee shops is that it can also be a place for new things to come your way.

I was in a coffee shop in Kensington earlier this week, writing my dissertation, or trying to. I had writer’s block which came from pure dissertation page fright. So I kept reading, looking at my phone, Shazaming the music on the coffee shop to add to my playlist titled ‘Coffee Shop Vibes’, and doing any number of stuff to keep me from actually starting to write the first chapter of my dissertation. A man with his dog came into the shop and the dog made my day by coming to my table and letting me play with her. The cute dog saving me once again from the blank page. Then the dog left and I was still not ready.

As I was having this procrastinating turmoil inside, a young woman suddenly approached me.

“Hey! Your keyboard cover is so cute! Where did you get it, it is so colourful!”

I get that a lot. My keyboard cover is cute and colourful, but the reason I have it is due more to my clumsiness and expensive habit of spilling my drinks on my laptop than my aesthetic inclinations.

I told her she could get it on Amazon, and that it was quite cheap too, and would save money by avoiding spilling accidents. She said thanks for the tip and then simply started making conversation.

Now, I am usually someone who doesn’t mind talking to strangers as long as I get good vibes from them. I listen to my intuition and this girl, I knew, just wanted a friendly conversation. Or maybe, she just wanted a friend.

The reason it surprised me more was that in London, I found soon after I moved here, people just don’t talk to strangers. If you do, everyone around you will gawk, especially if you do it on the bus or god forbid, the Underground! You can see they all go visibly surprised and uncomfortable.

Coming from Mexico, a country where people are ready to smile at you as you pass by and wish you a good morning, I felt the loss of that easiness of day to day social connection. After a few months in London, however, I got used to it. I avoided eye-contact in the Underground like every one else, more for their benefit than mine. I looked at people’s shoes instead, like Forrest Gump, and wondered where they had been and where they were going. I buried my nose in my books as usual or sometimes just my phone if there was no room to read.

In the street, I also stopped smiling at people. I learned to walk looking straight ahead, becoming a ghost like all the others. Sounds awful, I know, but it also has its perks. You feel free, unwatched (which is so not true, there are so many cameras in London), anonymous, small and grown up at the same time. It is nice, actually. Different, but cool in its own way. It took a while but now I am used to it and even appreciate this anonymity and freedom.

Nevertheless, I do believe it is sad. It is so sad that there are so many people in London, sometimes very close to each other and yet so disconnected, so far apart and just lonely. If I didn’t have friends in London that made me feel connected I know it would feel like a very different city. It wouldn’t feel so much like home. But I know that is not only specific to London but to every city or really, every place in the world. Friends, family and love (in any of its versions) are what make a place feel like home.

But now, in this COVID-19 world, I think we can all agree that making friends just got a little bit harder which is why I admired that this girl took the first step. She kept to social distancing measures and was funny and kind. We talked for a bit more than an hour, I didn’t do any work but I did smile and laughed a lot.

When it was time for me to leave, I thanked her for starting the conversation.

“More people should do that,” I said. “Especially here, especially now, in these times.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” She said. “And you look like someone with a good heart, that is why I talked to you.”

That made me smile. That’s the intuition and vibes I talked about. It’s nice to know I give them out too.

“Ditto.” I told her and she smiled back.

I walked home, with that freshness that good human connection gives you.

I realised that maybe now, especially now, we are all feeling a bit lonely, a bit disconnected, a bit far away… maybe now, especially now, it is the time to get over that ghostlike existence, now that we have to keep distance, it is more important than ever to make eye contact, to smile at each other from across the street or across the room, to wave at each other from opposite windows and sometimes just to say hello and start conversations with strangers with good vibes in coffee shops.

Published by Mariel Torres

Wandererer whose feet follow where the pen leads...

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