Sunday, December 25, 2011

Talking to strangers

On Friday night, the evening of our first day in Sydney, Dave and I settled in for dinner at The Australian Hotel, a pub that attracted our attention by their large selection of pizza. The crowd spilled out on the sidewalk, some sitting at the communal benches all around the perimeter of the building and others standing around in groups and drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. One party left half a pitcher of beer on the table next to ours, and two young women who sat down to wait for their pizza gladly poored the remains into their own cups. Dave and I split a pie loaded with smoked salmon and shrimp, further afield from pizza as in cheese-and-tomato-sauce than we get even in California.

"California, that's where they have that pizza place... what's it called?" asked one of the guys at our table, having inquired where we were from.

"California Pizza Kitchen?"
"Yeah, that's right!"

Conversation temporarily halted. Dave and I share curiousity about people, especially when we travel--meeting people on the road is more or less the whole point of travel for us--and yet neither of us has a particularly easy time striking up conversation with random strangers. I get intensely shy and at the exact time when I get an opening to say "Hi" and "How do you do," I freeze up and run away. Dave is doing a little better than me. A few years ago, when I was doing a lot of travel to Russia, and Dave started making friends on his own and figured out mental tricks to overcome his shyness and chat up strangers at bars and parties. Still, we don't work very well together as a couple meeting new people. One particularly difficult moment was this summer, in Oslo, when Dave smooth-talked an old sailor into inviting us to a private party at a Literature Cafe, but I was too intimidated by the awkward social situation, and at the end we ran away.

At The Australian, we sipped our drinks and looked at the crowd around us. This is the thing to do in Australia around Christmas time--go out to a pub with some old friends.

"I want to have as much fun as they're having," Dave said.

I got up and went to the bathroom.

When I came back, he was chatting to Bill, Fred, Stu, and Patrick, our mates at the communal table. They were all in there 50s or so, locals, or from near Sydney, anyway. They were sort of curious about California, but even more curious about Russia. Bill's dad came from somewhere in Poland, and Bill had a long story about how he found somebody on Facebook with the same last name, but that person lived in Minsk, Belarus. So we talked geneology, and then we talked weather (which has been surprisingly cool in Sydney this summer--perfect for us), and then we talked things to do in Sydney for New Years (the most important question on our agenda for this trip, as far as I'm concerned), and also other hang outs and restaurants we should check out. Bill recommended No Names, one of the oldest Italian joints in the city, where they make their own pasta. (We tried to find it the next day, but it was closed for the holidays already).

And so, we were having fun, and then we had almost too much fun, when Dave and Bill and Fred somehow managed to turn our communal table over onto me and the other two guys. Glasses hit the pavement, two men completely drenched in beer, I escaped with only one wet toe, and what do you know, the guys wiped themselves off with napkins a bit, and then sat down and ordered another round.

Dave's blogging about our adventures here:


  1. What are Dave's mental tricks?

  2. For me, it's easier when I am alone. I'll pretend to check something on my phone or read the menu or something like that, but secretly be listening to figure out where they're from or if we have a common interest, then when the timing is right, i'll ask a question that seems appropriate. If all else fails, when travelling, i'll ask them to take my photo, then when they reply, i'll try to guess where they're from based on accent. Those are a few tricks I use :)