Image for For the love of: spending time with strangers

For the love of: spending time with strangers

When his wife Elee died, Will Buckingham found solace from grief in people he didn’t know. As life opens up again, is it time for us all to celebrate the possibilities that strangers can be to each other?

When his wife Elee died, Will Buckingham found solace from grief in people he didn’t know. As life opens up again, is it time for us all to celebrate the possibilities that strangers can be to each other?

The doorbell rings. You press the intercom. ‘Hello?’ ‘Hi. It’s Ted.’ You’ve never met Ted. You know almost zilch about him. ‘Ah, Ted, come on up. Feel at home. Bed’s over there; shower’s through there. Cup of tea?’

It sounds far-fetched, but opening the door of their Birmingham home to strangers was normal for life partners Will Buckingham and Elee Kirk. As early adopters of the host-a-traveller app Couchsurfing, they welcomed in dozens of unknown visitors during their 13 years together.

“What’s incredible about connecting with strangers is how so often you find yourself stumbling across completely unanticipated pleasures,” enthuses Buckingham, a 49-year-old writer and social entrepreneur.

He recalls the Austrian transgender artists, who gifted the couple a homemade book, for instance. Or the Syrian chef, who cooked them a feast of crepes and galettes. Such chance encounters, he reflects, make life immensely “broader and wider, and altogether more fun”.

Buckingham and Kirk’s love of welcoming strangers started early. Each the offspring of ministers, they grew up in busy, “porous” homes. The joy of guessing who might step through the door next was something both – unconsciously – carried with them into adulthood.

An appreciation for the richness that such encounters can bring is the basis of Buckingham’s recent book, Hello Stranger, a project he embarked upon when Kirk died of breast cancer five years ago. In her final days, she made two requests of him: to keep travelling and meeting people from cultures different to their own; and to keep the doors of his home always open.

The first struck Buckingham particularly hard. His instinct was the opposite; to close down and shut up shop. Her request, in contrast, was to “go somewhere where you yourself are a stranger, as a way of remaking the world”.

Finding yourself in a strange land can happen quicker than any of us imagined. In such circumstances, the pang to reach out to others is powerful

He took the advice to heart, spending extended periods of time overseas in recent years, including in China and Myanmar. He currently lives in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

His travels have merely confirmed the old adage (attributed to Yeats) that strangers are but friends you haven’t yet met. It’s a lovely idea and one – as ever – that the Greeks were on to long ago. They even hatched a word for it: philoxenia, the love of strangers. It’s there throughout Homer’s Odyssey, Buckingham points out. As the story’s hero Odysseus knocks around the Mediterranean, a friendly local is invariably on hand to give him shelter or to feed his troops.

In part, such hospitality plays to a “naked human need” to connect, as Buckingham writes in Hello Stranger. On a lesser scale, there’s also an element of karmic self-interest at play, prompted by “the knowledge that you too could one day find yourself a stranger”.

As life in lockdown has taught us, finding yourself in a strange land can happen quicker than any of us imagined. In such circumstances, the pang to reach out to others is powerful.

Can travelling help with grief?

Buckingham has spent time in far-flung destinations, including Myanmar. Image: Alexander Schimmeck

Whatever the reason for engaging with people you don’t know, it’s a handy skill. After all, we inhabit a planet of nearly eight billion people. Even for the most sociable among us, that makes almost everyone a stranger.

“You don’t need to go looking for opportunities to meet strangers. It’s inevitable. We are totally outnumbered,” Buckingham reasons.

Even so, suspicion of the ‘other’ has a long history too. Ancient Athens may have been teaming with advocates of philoxenia, but it also had its fair share of xenophobes (‘phobia’, meaning ‘fear’).

His advice is to start by recognising that much of our reticence is cultural (“don’t talk to strangers”). Once over that hump, consider the upsides of what such encounters might bring. And then, well, just “try it and see”.

A modicum of caution is sensible, of course. Wariness of unknown people is hardwired in us by evolutionary instinct, not just culture. Hence our elaborate variety of rituals to govern first meetings, from the language people use to the gifts they may (or may not) bring.

Buckingham’s conclusion? It comes down to trust. So, don’t be rash, but don’t be closed off either. Ted could turn out to be a dullard. But he might just be that fantastic friend you have never met, until now.

‘Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World’, by Will Buckingham is out now. It’s published by Granta.

Main image: Vera Gotseva

Our regular For the Love of series dives deep into people’s passions. Whether they’re dedicated to a cause or feel fervently that something can enrich our lives, what becomes possible when love is the motivation?

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