Falling Half in Love with Strangers

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I love being able to express myself in writing.

It feels more accurate somehow than speaking words. Talking for me can sometimes feel like playing tennis with a colander; I mean, it’s possible, I can do it, but it’s not ideal. The ball goes over the net, but just about. It goes where I want it to go… more or less. I can’t be sure it’ll hit it’s mark, but I can hope. Later, I’ll go home and think about how I could have done it some other, better way.

Writing is different.

Writing is a tennis racket. When I’m writing, I have the time to think about what I’m trying to say, and then mentally flip through millions of words looking for the one that slots into my sentence like that Tetris block you’ve been waiting five minutes for; the one that gives you a combo and wipes the screen clean. Finding the right word feels satisfying, and I’m always on the lookout for new words to add to my vocabulary. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed this already (like with Hygge and Sonder). I collect words.

Sometimes I find myself reaching into other languages for words that describe feelings or situations that there’s no term for in English. I’m bilingual – Spanish/English – and there are times when I can feel a Spanish word trying to force itself into an English sentence because there’s no English equivalent.

… And yet, even with two entire languages to pick words from (and a smattering of others), I still sometimes find myself searching for a word that doesn’t exist.

I am on the lookout for a particular word.

I want a word for the feeling I get when I connect with a total stranger for a few minutes or hours, and then never see them again. It’s an ability to suddenly feel profound, intense affection for someone I don’t know. It’s not physical attraction, necessarily. It can happen with men or women. It is a non-discriminatory feeling that happens without warning, without rhyme or reason. I want a word that explains how I can feel instantly and powerfully attached to somebody and then, in a perverse way, almost hope never to see them again.

Is there a word for that?

There are a handful of people I’ve met over the years who I still think about from time to time, because even if I only spent a few hours with them, in those hours I was invested. I wanted to know everything about them. I fell a little bit platonically in love with them and their stranger-ness. I felt something that I don’t have a word for, and I hate that. I felt a nameless, wordless bond.

If you’re thinking, ‘Quinn, what are you on about?‘ … here’s an early example.

About half a lifetime ago I was in Vienna, Austria, with barely any German and friends who had succumbed to sickness. I wandered out into the city by myself, and walked the cobbled streets alone with only a crumpled paper map for orientation. These were the days before smartphones, and everything was just a little more complicated. In the square behind a large cathedral, I pulled out my map and tried to trace my finger down the streets I had walked earlier. A voice interrupted my thoughts in harsh German and I turned to find a long line of horse and carriages parked along the kerb. One of the carriage drivers, dressed smartly in a black felt hat and waistcoat, was observing me with amusement.

“Lost?” He asked.

I nodded and trotted towards him. After all, if anyone knew the streets of Vienna it had to be the carriage drivers. He nodded his head at the padded bench beside him and helped me up into the driver’s seat. Up close I realised he was young, with bright blue eyes and a friendly, shy smile. He had a small gold hoop in one ear. I was alone and bored and lost, so I flattened the map against my thighs with the palms of my hands and explained in broken German where I had come from and what I was doing there. I told him I had no plans for the evening, and was just looking for landmarks to visit that wouldn’t require too much walking.

He nodded as I spoke, and pointed out a few different landmarks. Every few minutes a carriage would depart from the front of the line and our carriage would jostle as he coaxed his horses forward.

And then it happened. That wordless, nameless thing.

There is an entirely regular level of healthy interest that we as humans have in each other. When you meet someone for the first time, often there are a number of things you want to know about the person. A lot of adult conversations start with “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” or “How do you know Martin/Julia/Alex/Sam?”

The wordless, nameless thing I feel skips the superficial curiosities of that regular level of interest. I lock onto people. My curiosity spontaneously mutates from a lukewarm, detached interest to a many-tendrilled absorption in the person in front of me. Once this happens, my curiosity extends into private, hidden corners; darkest secrets and earliest memories and family histories and relationships and hobbies.  I want to know what they do to feel better when they’re feeling low. I want to know their favourite food. I want to know when they last cried, and why. I want to know how they get on with their siblings (if they have any), whether they like to dance or prefer to sit by the bar, what age they realised the truth about Santa Claus, and how. I want to know what drives them, and I want to know what led to their presence next to me in that particular moment, out of the 7 billion other people in the world.

If that sounds extremely intense… I realise that. Don’t worry, I don’t interrogate people like I’m trying to solve a crime. I do gently question them though. Max, my friendly carriage driver, told me about how carriage-driving was a family tradition. He told me about the routes he usually took. He told me about how long he had been doing the job, and his worst experience with a passenger. He told me about his horses and his family. He pointed out his favourite spot in Vienna and his favourite coffee shop. We talked for about 45 minutes, and then a middle-aged French couple approached him for a carriage ride and I realised we had reached the top of the queue. Blushing, I stammered an apology and stood to jump down, but Max shook his head and gently motioned for me to stay seated.

“You come?”

I had just watched money change hands and realised that a carriage ride cost about €80. As a broke teenager, I had absolutely no discretionary funds for carriage rides around the city. I told Max as much, and he shrugged.

“You are not passenger. You are co-driver.”

The carriage ride was about 45 minutes of magic. I had never been on a horse-drawn carriage before, but compared to the paying customers I definitely felt like I got the best seat in the house. Sitting up high on the driver’s bench with Max telling me about the landmarks and explaining their history, Vienna looked different. The evening sun threw a golden filter over the intricately carved stonework on the buildings. I glanced over my shoulder at the French couple; the woman’s head was nestled into the man’s shoulder, and the two of them were smiling at nothing in particular. I could see how Vienna might easily be as romantic as Paris.

In between landmarks I slid in more personal questions. I asked about Max’s parents, his ambitions, what he did in his free time. He gruffly answered every question, with a shy smile every now and then to show he didn’t begrudge me my curiosity. Every so often he would mutter a question of his own, his low voice hard to hear over the sound of trotting hooves.

By the time we circled back around to the church, night was falling. The streets were clearing, and some of the other carriage drivers were disappearing in the dusk as they turned in for the night. I hopped down from the carriage, checking my watch.

“I guess it’s time for you to go home,” I said, gesturing at the carriages trundling away.

“Ja.”

“Okay. Well. Vielen Dank Max. That was… amazing.”

Max accepted my thanks with a sharp nod.

“Where do you go now?” My curiosity again. “Where do the horses sleep?”

“Other side of river” he said, gesturing with his arm. “Over…”

I opened up my map again and he studied it for a moment before pointing at an area of Vienna I had never visited.

“You come?”

I looked up to find him looking at me with an inscrutable expression.

I looked down at the map. The area he was pointing to was pretty far away. How would I get home? Nobody knew where I was. Then again, I had no other plans, and I was stuck in this nameless, wordless feeling with Max, Austrian stranger.

I looked up at him with a smile. “Sure!”

He held out a hand and helped me back up into the carriage.

I pried further into his life on the carriage-ride to wherever we were going. He told me about his last girlfriend and how long they had been together and how it had ended. He told me about the food that brought back childhood memories for him, and how he had spent his birthday. At one point, clattering over cobblestones on a dimly lit, empty street, he nudged my thigh with his hand.

“What?”

“You want?”

His hand opened slightly, offering me the reins.

“Me? I can’t! Max, I’ll crash your carriage.”

He nodded insistently and put the reins in my hands.

“You feel?”

I did feel. There was a tension on the reins, a sort of pushing, pulling, rhythmic motion. It immediately gave me a feeling of both pure joy and total calm. I gripped the leather tight and felt focus and control wash over me. He let me drive the carriage down the streets of the city, guiding my hands when we needed to turn, or tugging when we needed to slow down. Eventually we reached our destination, and he slowed the horses to a stop and jumped down to lead them through a large door between townhouses.

I felt my eyes widen as we passed under the stone arch and through time straight into the 1800’s. A small stone courtyard paved in cobblestones housed four stables with glossy emerald wooden doors. Lit by half a dozen warm yellow lamps, I watched as a cat yawned and sat up on a hay bale to greet us. I hopped down, completely enchanted, as Max parked the carriage and led the horses to their stables. I gazed up at the baroque townhouses flanking the little courtyard, my mouth hanging open. When Max tapped my elbow to get my attention, I was startled back to the present.

“I come back. I shower.” He said, running his fingers along the brim of his black felt hat.

“Okay.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, Max, go have your shower.”

“After, drinks?”

“Sure.”

He disappeared, undoing the buttons of his waistcoat as he went. I spun around and sat down on a hay bale to pet the cat. Fifteen minutes later a man emerged from a building to my right.

“Hey!” he shouted, and I looked up, startled.

How would I explain my presence? Was I even allowed to be here? I looked around for Max.

“Hey,” he said again, and stopped in front of me. My eyes slid over this man’s body, from his leather boots, past his ripped jeans, over his white and red motorcycle jacket. A red motorcycle helmet dangled from his hand, and he had very pale blonde hair cropped short. He had a cowlick at the front. I stared at his face, frozen in panic.

Then I saw the gold hoop earring. It was Max.

I started laughing.

Out of his work clothes, he looked like a completely different person. He looked much younger. I realised he was only a couple of years older than I was. Without the hat, his blue eyes looked impossibly big and it was much easier to read his expression. He was pink from his shower, and he flushed and rolled his eyes when I explained, through gasps of relieved laughter, that I hadn’t recognised him.

The rest of the night was idyllic. He refused to let me on his motorbike because he only had one helmet, but we walked together to an open-air bar by the river and sat at a picnic table drinking and laughing and asking each other questions until the night wound down and I realised I needed to get home. He offered to walk me, but I declined the offer. The whole evening I had been suspended in a bubble with Max, and now I felt like I was holding a pin, ready to burst it and step out into the real world again.

We walked to the bridge, and he took my hands with an earnest expression. He said that he always had breakfast in the corner cafe near the cathedral on Wednesdays. He said if I wanted to find him, I knew where he would be. He told me he hoped to see me again. Then he kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hands before turning and walking away, motorcycle helmet swinging at his side.

I didn’t go to the cafe on Wednesday. Although part of me wanted to see Max again, a larger part of me felt that we had spent a perfect evening together, and that was enough. I had half fallen in love with a total stranger over the course of a few hours. I had learned so much about him. I knew more about Max than I knew about some of my friends.

I never saw him again.

Every once in a while, I wonder what Max is doing. I wonder if he still draws in his spare time. I wonder if he still drives the same carriage through the streets of Vienna, and whether that coffee shop is still there on that corner. I wonder if he still has a small gold hoop in his ear. I wonder if he has a family now, and whether he remembers an evening spent talking about life with a stranger from Ireland, who was lost and bored and open to the possibility of being kidnapped. I hope Max is well. I hope he is happy. I hope that his life has been untouched by tragedy.

A few memorable hours spent with a total stranger, and I still care about their wellbeing years later. I still send good wishes their way when I think of them, for whatever those are worth.

There really should be a word for that.

Thoughts On… Friendship

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“Understand that friends come and go,
But a precious few you should hold on.

Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle,
For as the older you get, the more you need the people
You knew when you were young.”

 

My best friend turned thirty yesterday.

She’s become something of a human pinball over the past decade, bouncing from London to Dublin to South America and back again. Her globetrotting has taken her to incredible places, where she’s done unforgettable things, and we’ve kept in touch through the wonder of the internet. We’ve known each other since we were very small, and after all these years all I can say is that I’m so proud to know her. I trust her with fears, hopes and secrets. She’s great for car chats, cinema trips and cocktails. She knows that the correct food for catch-ups is chocolate. She’s a badass with more of a sense of style in her little finger than I’ve accumulated in my entire life.

And she’s brave.

In a few days she moves to Dubai for a new adventure. I can’t wait to see her take on a new country, and I can’t wait to visit her once she’s settled in. It’s going to be amazing, and will hopefully lead to more success and love and laughter and great things in the next few years. When I think back at all the things we’ve done in our lives from sleepovers to summer camps, from movie nights to deep discussions in nightclub toilet cubicles… We’ve covered a lot of ground! There’s still so much out there for us to do though, and I think this is going to be the best time to do it. I think our thirties are going to be awesome!

Yesterday was her thirtieth birthday.

Here’s to another thirty!

Thoughts On… Mother’s Day

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The other day, my mother called me like she always does. She calls every day. She calls to tell me what she’s doing, or to tell me about her day, or to tell me the latest deal in the grocery store. She calls about anything and everything. She talks away in rapid-fire Spanish and really, minimum input is required on my part. The occasional, “Mmm hmm,” one or two yeses and some listening sounds are sometimes my only contribution.

The other day, she called and talked to me about certain bathroom renovation plans. I half-listened while making soup.

“… No se como va a salir pero por ahora va bien la cosa. A ver si viene el Martes y asi empezamos a ver como va a funcionar…”(“… I don’t know how it’ll turn out but for now it’s all going well. If he comes over on Tuesday then we’ll start to see how things will work…“)

Suddenly her voice dropped away and there was a muffled sound.

“Hello?” I asked, alarmed. “Mama?”

“Ah, no pasa nada, es solo que…” (“Ah no everything is fine, it’s just…“) Another pause followed, and then suddenly, at the end of the phone, in English, “Hello! Where deed you cam from?”

I frowned, wooden spoon held aloft. “Mama?”

“No, no te hablo a ti,” (“No, I’m not talking to you“) she said. No kidding, I thought. She continued, “Es el perro del vecino, que se ha escapado.”(“It’s the neighbour’s dog, he’s escaped.“)

I nodded thoughtfully and placed the wooden spoon back in the pot to give the soup a half-hearted stir.

Another muffled sound.

“Do you wan to go hom? Weel I take you hom?”

More muffled sounds.

“Es el perrito del vecino, es muy mono, es que a veces se escapa. Ahora le traigo a casa.”(“It’s the neighbour’s little dog, he’s very cute. Sometimes he gets out. I’ll bring him home now.“)

A pause, and then, away from the mouthpiece, “Cam on, I take you hom.”

My eyes rolled to the ceiling as I considered the fact that my mother 1. was talking to the dog as if he might answer, 2. obviously believes the dog speaks English, and 3. also believes that the dog can somehow tell the difference between English and Spanish. I started to laugh then, softly at first and then harder and harder until I was doubled over against the counter. My mother, unaware of what I was laughing at, started laughing too. We laughed together over the phone; me, her, my spoon and the neighbour’s dog.

“Que? De que te ries?” She kept asking.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.

I had a very different post lined up for today; an intensely personal post with mixed feelings and some fury that I wrote a while ago after a particularly bad day. I was feeling frustrated and upset and keyed-up and disappointed and angry and basically every kind of negative emotion that can be bundled into one moment. Sometimes Mother-Daughter relationships aren’t the stuff of most Mother’s Day cards. Every year I spend a long time looking through the card aisle before I can find one that is appropriate. I love my mother; she’s my mother. It’s just… complicated.

So on this, the day after Mother’s Day, I decided to share this moment instead, because that’s how she is. That’s how we are.

At least sometimes.

Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all of you out there who are mothers. Odd mothers, wonderful mothers, hardworking mothers. I hope you had a lovely day.

 

Settling Down

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There’s something about the term ‘settling down’ that makes me panic. What kind of a term is that? “Settle down.” It’s the kind of thing you say to people when they’re acting hysterically and won’t listen to reason. It’s what you say to a spooked horse, or a hyperactive child. Even on their own, neither of the words are particularly positive; ‘settling’ gives the impression that you begrudgingly wound up in a situation you’re not entirely happy with, and ‘down’ has a negative sort of connotation all of its own. Why can’t you ‘settle up’? It can be a bit frightening to think about spending a lifetime with one person. I definitely think that’s true.

That horrible phrase doesn’t help though.

Neither do the jokes guys make about ‘the ball and chain’ or being forced into marriage reluctantly. Who wants to be a ball and chain? What a miserable description. When I hear grown men joke about it I honestly come out in hives. Over the weekend I listened to this one guy “joke” about how he didn’t even want to get married every time his fiancee’s back was turned. She would come over to join the conversation every so often and tell some charming, amusing anecdote about some element of their relationship, and as soon as she wandered away he would be miming slitting his own throat and making faces to make his friends laugh.

I mean… What the hell?

It baffles me that this is somehow considered hilarious banter. I can promise you now that if that guy ever had that situation reversed on him, he would absolutely hit the roof. Never have I heard those kinds of words come from the mouth of a guy who would take the converse in stride. In fact, if any one of these guys overheard their girlfriend or fiancee make fun of him to her friends while his back was turned, they would have a meltdown so massive their ego might never recover.

Some people can be such prats, honestly.

Anyway, back to settling down.

I can get pretty spooked about it. Every so often I’ll think about it and feel a wave of uncertainty. At first, when I examine my fears, they have a very particular form to them. I can practically turn them over in my mind. What if I get sick of them? What if they start to irritate me all the time? What if I fall out of love?

Once I scoop my way past that shallow layer though, I realise that the real fear comes from the underbelly of my superficial thoughts. What if they get sick of me? What if I start to irritate them all the time? What if they fall out of love?

It all sounds so easy – you ‘settle down’, you make a home, you go out, you have friends over, you live happily ever after… But what about all the what ifs? What if you start to feel trapped? What if you feel lonely, or unheard, or unconsidered? What if you forget all the things about the person that you fell in love with? What if you don’t take the time to remember how you felt the first time you met them? What if you start to resent them? What if small issues snowball into unbreakable barriers between you?

There are six things that I’ve learned from experience are vital for a healthy relationship:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Gratitude
  • Respect
  • Love
  • Communication

Without any one of these, the whole house of cards can come fluttering down in a depressing cascade of emotions. I’ve been in a rotten relationship before, and I think it really opened my eyes to how rare it is to be in a good relationship. It’s so, so much better to be single than to hang onto something that’s missing any of the above.

Maybe I’ll never ‘settle down.’ Maybe I’ll just refuse to ever use those words unless I’m one day in a situation where I’m patting a nervous horse on the nose. Maybe I’ll settle UP, and the ‘settling’ won’t be the begrudging sort, but instead the comfortable type; like the way you settle into your favourite armchair with a good book.

And when I think about it that way, it really doesn’t sound scary at all.

 

*Header image is obviously an image of my dream reading armchair. I will share with the pupper. We will squidge. It will be perfect.

Love & Sonder

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Yup. It’s that time again; tomorrow is Valentine’s Day!

I know, I know.

But don’t stress.

Ignore the mooning couples goofily grinning at each other across restaurant tables. Ignore the harried looking men rushing by with bouquets of flowers the size of refridgerators. Ignore the overabundance of retina-scorching red and pink that follows you from store to store. I know it’s difficult. I can’t untangle the precise reason why, but the annoyance just seems to come naturally; it’s one of life’s dependable irritants… but this year maybe just block out all that extra nonsense.

We both know that’s not what Valentine’s Day is about.

Yes, you can gripe that it’s a Hallmark holiday that’s been commercialised, and it puts couples on a pedestal, and part of you is disappointed that (get ready for a Choose Your Own Adventure…) 1. a Jamie Dornan doppelganger isn’t about to show up at your house with a box of Norman Love Chocolates and a pair of handcuffs – that he would only ever use on you with your full-throated consent – OR that 2. Margot Robbie’s adventurous and previously undiscovered twin won’t be sitting on the edge of your bed in lacy underwear and a smile when you get home from work. Those good old Valentine’s stereotypes are alive and well, after all.

If we take a step back though, it’s a lot less sleazy than it looks. I mean, not to get soft on you*, but first and foremost Valentine’s Day is a day about love. It’s a day for taking the time out to appreciate the people around you. Your friends and family, yes, but try to take it a step further. Take some time out to think about the strangers you interact with on a daily basis; the people who flicker through your life. That sour-faced receptionist in your office building, maybe. Or the barista who hands you your coffee every morning. The lady at the check-out till at your local shop. Or your neighbour from a few doors down who often nods hello despite the fact that you have never spoken.

Here’s an exercise that always makes me feel some kind of way.

Think about all the people that you come into contact with during the day, and try to think of three compliments you could give each one. It’s fair to say that with some people you might struggle to come up with three, but even one is a good start. They don’t need to be deep, meaningful compliments – after all, you barely know most of these people – they can be as inane as, ‘He always wears a matching pocket square and I appreciate that attention to detail‘ or, ‘She seems really hard-working‘ or, ‘He smiles when he hands people back their change and I think that’s lovely.’

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has the following definition for the word sonder:

sonder

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness. An epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I think Valentine’s Day is a good day for sondering.

I also think Valentine’s Day is just a good, solid, red-and-pink-booted, kick-to-the-face reminder to appreciate the people around you. I don’t think it’s just for coupled-up lovebirds. People are always saying you shouldn’t need a day to show the people you love how much you love them. I do think that’s true, but do you know what’s also true?

People are eejits sometimes.

We make mistakes. We take people for granted. We’re busy and stressed out and we have a lot of stuff on our plates. We have more to do than we have time to do it in, and things can slip through the cracks. We’re all fallible. So if there’s one day a year that gives us a gentle nudge to remember the people we love, sure, what harm?

Happy Valentine’s Day, you lovely person. I appreciate you.

*I got soft on you. Sorry. One time thing, I promise.