It’s 10am sharp on a Friday morning in mid July and we’re standing outside Utrecht Central Station, waiting for our ride to Paris. Earlier this year I had discovered an awesome phone application that allows you to safely share rides with strangers, and after only one try I was hooked. The app is called Blablacar and you can also specify on your profile whether or not you would like to spend your rides socializing (hence the name). Our driver was a 63-year-old Dutch lady living in Paris and the car was fully booked with two other people who we knew absolutely nothing about.
What I had already learned by then from my previous experiences using this app is that you can never predict what you’re going to get. Crammed up in a car with strangers for a couple of hours in complete awkward silence, while deliberately avoiding any form of contact, is very probable. But sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you get to know these people, sometimes you even click, and this is when the magic happens. In short, worst-case scenario you get to your destination without finding out much about the people you’re going there with, best-case scenario you have fun while you get there. Think about it as a Kinder egg, even if the toy is crap you still get to eat the chocolate egg by the end of the day.
By 10:20 we were all in our seats and ready to go. It was time to peer inside the Kinder egg. The conversation built up slowly and rather timidly with people briefly introducing themselves in turns; what we were doing in Utrecht, why we were going to Paris, nothing special. Our reasons varied greatly and for a moment it felt like we had nothing in common except for our final destination. Silence for a couple of minutes then someone said something that sparked everybody’s interest, and suddenly the whole car erupted in a dialogue that lasted for the entire journey of five hours. It was effortless and beautiful; one topic naturally snowballed into another. We talked about work, unemployment, what it’s like to be an expat, relationships, virtual reality (which I got to experience thanks to one of the passengers who had an Oculus rift and was going to Paris for a virtual reality convention), alternative universes, god, life, death and everything in between. And of course when we ran out of topics, we spoke about weather and politics, which in case you don’t know are some of the Dutch most favoured topics.
The thing about genuine human connection is that it comes out of nowhere and can dilute back into nothingness with the same abruptness. I always find it fascinating how locking eyes with a complete stranger on a crowded train for a fraction of a second can sometimes feel more rewarding than an hour long conversation with someone you’ve known your entire life. There are no prerequisites, rules, terms or conditions, it just happens. And when it does I’m suddenly reminded of how similar we all are, strangers or not. For the last three years, my life has been a sea of unfamiliar faces. Some of those faces had turned into islands and gained the friend status, some even managed to become family, others are still being figured out and might stick around long enough to eventually join one of the latter, and some will forever remain strangers.
When I was still living in Beirut a good friend of mine used to say: “Only the devil is a stranger,” and back then it sounded kind of funny and made very little sense to me, mostly because I didn’t have to rely on strangers the way I do now. Having to rebuild your support system from scratch away from home is a hefty task and requires a lot of blind faith, faith in people you know nothing about. Every person you meet becomes a potential piece of your emotional puzzle. And I have been learning a great deal about the importance of strangers, their kindness, and their unkindness and whatever life lessons they might have to offer. For instance, a couple of hours after arriving to Paris a strange woman pushed me on the street for supposedly resembling her husband’s mistress. The lesson I learned? Thank God I don’t live in that crazy city.
So by the time we got to Paris I didn’t really care about the chocolate egg anymore, aka the destination, I had so much fun playing with the toy that it didn’t seem to matter. We exchanged contact information, said goodbye and went our separate ways. And now, many month later, I don’t even remember the time I spent in Paris that much (except for the crazy lady of course), but I will forever remember the beautiful strangers I met on my way there.