The doorbell rings and there’s a stampede on the stairs: “I’LL GET IT!”
Whose face will it be – the face of a stranger or a face we know and love well?
It’s the postman (a new face), standing in the rain. From beneath the brim of his dripping hat, he looks at us with an endearing mix of alarm, curiosity, and courtesy.
“Hi!” says one of us.
“How are you?” says someone else.
“What’s it like … out there?“
“Er, wet. Here you go.” The postman drops a soggy bunch of letters (bills), secured by an elastic band, onto the dirt of our doormat. He backs off with a relieved wave, and turns and disappears up the road.
(The next time he brings us post, nobody runs to the door, because we’re all in daggy lockdown clothes with unkempt hair and dubious personal hygiene. And the postman stands there, clutching a parcel, befuddled by the fickleness of my family.)
This lockdown (#3) is affecting my family’s ability to interact with the rare strangers we encounter to a greater degree than lockdowns #1 and #2. Back in 2020, we still had a clue: we came together and clapped for carers, we met neighbours we never knew we had, and we shopped for pilchards we never knew constituted dog food.
Now, in the final depths of a locked down winter, strangers are scarce – and our willingness to practise on each other is all but gone. We are battle-ready 24/7, clashing over who ‘mis-squeezed‘ the toothpaste to “who ate all the cheese?”
The kitchen table is a particular hotspot with a favourite bone of contention being: “Your elbow is too close to my elbow!” And I’m thinking: nobody’s elbow should be on the table.
I’m also thinking: if only we could test ourselves on people we don’t know.
The best we can currently hope for is an unlooked-for interaction with a fellow shopper at the supermarket, when trying not to prod food to check ‘best before‘ dates. “We should all be issued a pair of sanitised tongs at the entrance, shouldn’t we!” my stranger-friend giggles, mascara-heavy eyes twinkling above her daisy-sprigged mask.
Zoom remains a lifeline – that connection with others … via screens, on a regular basis, doing regular things (clubs, meetings, CoronaRitas), with friends or acquaintances of our choice. There might be a stranger (or a cat), but we can mute – or mute them, or they can mute, or stop their video (you get the picture).
It’s all as safe as houses – the danger lies in letting the hermit get out.
An awkwardness with others is something that Jim Haynes, friend to all, never grappled with. He died at the age of 87 on 6 January, at his Paris home – a home which he opened up every Sunday night (pre-pandemic) to strangers for dinner. A man with a World Citizen outlook who issued ‘World Passports‘ so convincing that they got people across borders.
In the 1980s, Jim Haynes had the idea of compiling a different kind of book to guide people around Eastern Europe. Entitled People to People, the premise was simple: to “introduce you to over 1000 individuals who live, work and play in the villages, towns and cities of the countries featured.” Instead of hotel and museum recommendations, there are names, addresses and ages of individuals who share insights and tips that only locals could give:
“I have four professions and thoroughbred cats. I know where you can get the best cake, ice cream, gulyas etc.” (Tibor, electrician of Szekesfehervar, Hungary).
At the time these guides were published, Eastern Europe was emerging from its status as the Great Unknown. Its people had been a faceless, nameless mass for decades – except for dramatic defections that revealed real people and compelling stories, which made them even more mysterious.
My new-old copies of People to People from the early 1990s are engrossing and contain generous offers of hospitality:
“We often organise barbecue parties cooking fish soup or roasting bacon on the bank of the Danube or in our yard under two big walnut-trees. I’ll tell you everything if you call me.” (Nora, teacher of Otteveny).
“Meet my friends (many, many).” (Janos, freelance journalist of Budapest)
Voices of history speak from these pages:
Yet some confidences could’ve been whispered yesterday: “I am always happy when I dance although I am shy at the beginning.” (Christeen, student of psychology, Sofia).
Some descriptions don’t seek to hide the truth: ” … a traveller should see what communism has done to Poland and to my town these past 40 years“; “[My town] would not be interesting for you.” (Jerzy, student of Swidnik, who loves: “to fly with gliders and sail.“
Others bloom with the aroma of lime trees in Spring (Peter, construction worker of Tsarevets) or talk of bee-keeping (Rumen, mechanic of Lom) and: “thermal baths in Lenti, and … cows fresh milk, home made honey, water from the well … ” (Csaba and Andrea Farkas, laboratory technician and production engineer from Kerkakutas).
There are words of wisdom:
“Taste, see, do experience everything.” (Jozsef of Budapest)
“My motto is ‘Dance or Die’.” (Stella, student of Turgovishte)
“When I was young and green, I read to find the answers. Then I realised I didn’t know the questions.” (Vessela, librarian of Varna).
And details that only a secret diary should see:
“… my wife and I don’t go together very well. I try to avoid being home as much as possible, so I have taken up choir singing and I devote all my free time to it.” (Emanuel, economist of Sofia).
“I am trying to preserve the child inside of me but that’s difficult. My dream is to see the dark side of the Moon.” (Pavlin, student of Troyan).
If I’d read this entry in the year that it was published (1993), my journey there could have taken quite a different turn:
“My town is the capital of Sunshine-land. It is waiting for the tired traveller in between the Danube and the Sugovica.” (Laszlone, advertising manager of Baja).
The listings in these books are infused with the idiosyncrasies of humanity. There is joy and sadness; humour and poignancy; quirky and artistic and precise and scientific. The people come from all walks of life (or every walk of life):
“I used to be a cartographer, street book seller, soldier, extra in a theatre, poet, sportsman, unemployed. Right now, I work as an advertisement agent for an Austro-Hungarian commercial weekly.” (Jozsef of Debrecen).
Most are eager to learn English:
“English is a great hobby … let’s hope it will help us to contact people living a long way from us but in minds being perhaps close to us.” Eva of Kosice.
Jim Haynes went to the Eastern Bloc as its borders were beginning to open, and found that its people already were. The people who gave themselves to his books had faith in strangers. (You could say they were naive, or you could say they were brave.)
One last listing from Krystyna, economist of Gdansk, who writes:
“I was born in Lvov which is now part of the USSR. For the past 13 years I am retired and living on a pension. Life is very expensive for me. My daughter lives with her family a long way away. I live alone. I am now very old [she was then 55], but often feel like 18. (I dream of having a book of my poems published.)”
Meeting Jim Haynes.