When I was a child, my mother’s strictest rule for me was “Never talk to strangers.” Many years later, I not only unconsciously ignored that rule, but talking to strangers became an essential part of my travel experiences. I found that memories of all the literary and historic sites in England that I’d looked forward to seeing had faded, but I had retained almost total recall of the conversation I’d carried on with a daughter of the Empire (“Daddy was an officer in India”) and an elderly fellow passenger on a London-bound train.
When the three of us had originally boarded, the rather stout lady had struggled to stow her luggage in the overhead compartment. The older man jumped up from the seat opposite mine. “May I help you, Madame,” he announced without waiting for her answer and took the suitcase from her. Even for him the weight of the case made it difficult to lift it high enough to reach the shelf.
“Oh, thank you so much,” she said, a little out of breath. She removed a handkerchief from her purse, wiped her forehead, and seeing that the seat beside me was empty and I was smiling at her, she sat down.
We began talking in awkward formalities. After we had run out of things to say about the weather, we cautiously proceeded to a more personal level. I found out that during World War II the man was in the Royal Air Force and was in the ground crews that maintained Spitfires, the legendary fighter planes whose heroic pilots had won the Battle of Britain. .I was filled with admiration for him and told him so. He reminded me that he hadn’t flown Spitfires—just worked on them. I assured him that his job was critical, too. He looked pleased and seemed to relax.
Eventually, the matron beside me brought up a detail about her life in India. I told her I’d love to hear more because about all I knew about that country was what I’d learned from Rumer Godden’s novels. The former Air Force mechanic and I became absorbed in her conversation as the train sped past small villages and fields divided by low stone walls. Occasionally we caught a flash of shining water—a stream or even a bit of the English Channel.
Somehow I found out that I could buy tea for us several cars ahead of ours. When I returned with a tray of teacups, a teapot, and all the fixings, including biscuits (cookies to us Yanks), the elderly pair were simply delighted. “Good show!” Suddenly, we became a cozy, comfy group of friends having afternoon tea in a parlor,
At the end of our journey, as we prepared to leave each other, the man stood up, leaned over and kissed me on my cheek. The daughter of the Empire invited me to stay with her in London. I’m told that this was a rare treat for an American stranger.
Another time, in another place thousands of miles west of England, I was sitting with a friend on an adobe wall in the Millicent Rogers Museum just outside Taos, New Mexico. We were listening to a famous Native American flute player. Outside, the sky was a velvety navy blue with stars that looked close enough to pluck for a bouquet. The air was clear, cool and scented with chamisa.
I became aware of a Pueblo Indian elder seated on a bench opposite us. She had a light blue rebozo (scarf) wound around her head. Her hands were quietly resting on her lap, and she was unabashedly studying me.
I asked her, “Wouldn’t you like to join us over here? We came to hear the flute player and we can see him from here …”
She answered quietly, “I’m fine, thanks. I like to look at you when we’re talking.”
My friend said she had to leave. I joined the woman on the bench. I learned that the flutist was her foster grandson … that he’d invited her to come to his performance at the museum. There was also an exhibit of Pueblo artists’ work that she wanted to see. I sat with her for the rest of the program. Occasionally she told me about her grandson and her connection with him. I was afraid to break the spell of this magical evening if I talked too much. I just listened. After an hour or so, I began to feel that there was a tenuous, precious bond developing between us.
Nettie and I became friends. We only saw each other when I visited Taos each summer for a number of years. I cherished all that she shared with me about her world. I might never have known her if I hadn’t first spoken to her.