Stepping outside comfort zone isn’t that difficult

Two years ago, I left my iPod on a plane.

Losing such a device couldn’t have come at a more horrible time. I was about to embark on a summer of working in the center of Washington, D.C., where I was to spend over two hours commuting every day.

No longer sheltered by The Rolling Stones or podcasts of This American Life, my naked ears were left exposed to the sounds of argumentative couples, teenagers blasting Beyonce’s latest single and horrible mariachi bands that always approached me for money.

My least favorite sound I encountered on public transportation, however, was silence. It was also the most common.

There was quite an irony to it. So crowded. Yet so quiet. I tried reading books, the daily paper. But the silence still irked me.

I wanted to start a conversation with pin-striped suit man sitting next to me or green dress lady standing across, but I wasn’t sure how. It didn’t seem socially acceptable.

Too many stories of Ted Bundy and parental warnings of “Never talk to strangers” kept me staring without a word.

By the end of my second week, orange blouse woman, picking up on my boredom, turned to me. “I love your flats,” she said.

From there, she became Marie, who after traveling through Central America and living on a farm in Southern Spain, accepted a job at the Department of Commerce, where she had been working for 10 years.

I told her about my hopes to study French in West Africa or southern France the next year.

“So where are you from, anyway?” she asked me as the train pulled into Franconia-Springfield station.

“Chicago.”

“I could tell you weren’t from here. Look around this car — no one ever talks to anyone on the train. People from here, they aren’t nice.”

Was it that they weren’t nice? Or were they just shy and afraid like me?

A large number seemed too distracted by their technologies. Another group too tired at the end of their workday to be loquaciously chatting it up with strangers. Others I’m sure had a notion not to talk to strangers because that’s “creepy.”

But I wasn’t going to let any of that stop me from finding other Maries. In the coming weeks I met Bonnie, the diplomat’s wife, John, who owned a strawberry farm, and Manny, the Department of Defense equipment specialist.

I took my newfound success in stranger conversations off to France and London where I chatted on the morning Tube with Eric, the film animation student, and Ellen, the expatriate from Missouri. One evening conversation even offered me a job.

Of course, not all my conversations have ended so well. There was the older gentleman who begged me to attend a horse race at the Queen’s palace with him where he could surely get us VIP seats seeing as he was “friends with Prince Edward.”

Or the Irishman I met on a bus who, as we were pulling into the Victoria Coach Station, asked if I had a spare couch he could borrow for the week.

Those weren’t fun, and I had to find creatively polite ways to turn them down.

In large, my relationship with strangers doesn’t go beyond the confined space I meet them in. And that’s probably the way it should be: short, simple, yet often insightful.

One of my favorite encounters was on an Amtrak from Champaign to Chicago a year ago.

I sat next to Barbara, an 87-year-old retired journalist who had written for The Miami Herald and The New York Times, but now lived in a retirement home in Savoy, Ill., where she spent most of her time to herself. We spoke the entire ride.

As the train began slowing down, she looked at me apologetically.

“You’ve just spent this entire train ride listening to an old lady recount her entire life story to you. I’m so sorry for all of this; it’s just that sometimes it’s so good just to… to talk to someone,” she said.

“No, not at all, I completely agree” I said.

Even when that person happens to be a stranger.

_Rebecca is a senior in LAS._