I was in my local shop recently and I needed to get past a man who was unpacking large boxes of eggs. I stepped over one of the boxes and, when he turned to apologise for being in the way, I said with a laugh: “I’ve had to get over higher gates.”
He agreed and we then started to chat about everything from standing in gaps to the price of milk.
I do that a lot. I have random chats with strangers, and it appears I’m not alone. I recently met two American ladies who were here driving along the Wild Atlantic Way. They loved the scenery, food and everything else, but what they continually commented on was the way people started chatting to them.
They said when they were in a bar or cafe for lunch, or even just in a convenience store, people would start talking about the weather and then, on hearing their accents, ask where they were from. The conversation could go anywhere from there.
I smiled at this, remembering so many times the same thing has happened to me. In the summer of 2021, I had just come off the boat from the Blasket Islands and stopped to take a rest while walking up the steep path from the pier. On a flat stone seat, two women sat and offered to make room for me. Ten minutes later, I knew they were two friends from Minnesota who had arrived in Dublin for 10 days in March 2020 and then couldn’t leave because of the pandemic.
The pair of them decided to make the best of it and had, at this stage, been in Dublin for 18 months – which they really enjoyed, despite initial misgivings. One of the many things I remember about this chat was that, during those 18 months when they were allowed under the lockdown rules, they boarded a bus for Co Clare to visit the grave of John O’Donohue in Craggagh. Although I never met them again, I often think that some time – when I’m driving through Craggagh – I’ll see them in the cemetery.
Last summer, I walked to the beach (as I do most days) and there were two men shore-fishing. As I walked close by them, I said hello and: “I hope you’ve caught something.” They were delighted to show me their haul, asked me about other fishing spots (definitely the wrong woman to ask) and where they could get lunch close by (definitely the right woman to ask).
An hour later, I’d heard all about the part of France they lived in and the parts of Ireland they loved. I also left with a beautiful fish, gutted and wrapped in seaweed, for my dinner.
Whenever I talk about this with friends, I’m often asked if I am worried about my safety. Obviously there are risks talking to strangers, but I’m normally in a public place and they are just conversations. I don’t tell strangers where I live or anything personal, and to be honest I believe that when it comes to people, the good outnumber the bad a million to one. I also have a good instinct and from the first hello – if I feel that they either don’t want to speak to me or they give me an uncomfortable feeling – I walk away.
But rather than dwell on the negative, I’d focus on all the lovely, interesting people I’ve met and hope to continue to meet.
I will continue to chat to strangers – like the man I met on the train who grows 14 varieties of tomatoes, the woman in SuperValu who asked me to reach a pack of nappies on a high shelf and showed me photos of her first grandchild, and the man I met on Inis Oirr who was attempting to cycle around all our inhabited islands.
And – by the way – the man with the eggs is named Oliver and is an avid reader of the Irish Farmers Journal. I hope he enjoys many more random conversations about the price of milk!