You Love Talking To Strangers
*American voiceover* Previously on You Know You’re Over 40 When…
In a desperate bid to lose weight and get fit, Andrea has taken up running.
Now read on…
Before I started the Couch To 5k program, I couldn’t run for a bus. Now, 10 weeks later, I can run for 30 minutes straight – and were it not June, I’d be claiming this as some sort of Christmas miracle. It certainly feels like a Derren Brown mind trick – if Derren Brown was a woman called Laura employed by the NHS to talk in my ear and tell me to run over a soundtrack of library music tracks that sound a bit like The Lightning Seeds/U2/Nik Kershaw.
My running route is usually laps of my local park. Because I tend to run in the same location at roughly the same times (weekday evenings around 8pm, since you ask), I do, of course, occasionally see the same people. A lot of these people are the brave souls who take part in the local boot camp fitness groups (there are often two groups in the park simultaneously, in fact, and I am already penning a ‘Dodgeball’-style comedy in my head about the rivalry between them, which will star Owen Wilson and Kristen Wiig as the two instructors). And some of these people are fellow runners. Normally people who can run far better than me, and by that I mean faster and without looking as if they’re about to die.
But there’s one chap who I see more often than others – he would appear to like running on weekday evenings around 8pm, too – and he doesn’t run much better than me. He is middle-aged, stern-faced and he never, ever seems to be enjoying his run. He looks as if he’s running because someone put a gun to his back, or at least the medical equivalent of that metaphor, ie a doctor put a gun to his back.
I clearly feel an affinity with this fellow because if anyone saw me running they’d probably think that I, too, was doing it under duress (which is true, to a certain extent. I love my runs, but only in the sense of love meaning ‘simultaneously hate and find incredibly difficult’). Plus, I’ve noticed that he a) runs as slowly as humanly possible, like me and b) tends to look at the ground when he’s running, like me. The latter is a habit I have to constantly haul myself up on – although I realise that no one’s ever shown me how exactly I should be running. Should I be throwing my head back, like the young Sebastian Coe or Ian Charleson playing Eric Liddell in ‘Chariots Of Fire’? Should I run barefoot, like Zola Budd? It’s a minefield. (Note to self: try running like you’re in a minefield.)
I’ve passed my reluctant running friend many times in the park (despite our affinity, one thing we don’t have in common is the direction in which we run). So many times, in fact, that it feels that we should now be reaching the point when we acknowledge each other. With a nod, perhaps, or a raise of the eyebrows. Or a rueful ‘Here we are again, eh?!’ smile. That sort of thing. Hopefully we would build up to “Hello”.
Now, if as a child you were lucky enough to be taken on country walks with your family, as I was, then you’ll no doubt remember the feeling of slight embarrassment when grown-up strangers said “Hello” to each other (coupled with possible confusion: after all, we were explicitly told not to talk to strangers). Like talking about our emotions or not talking about the weather, being friendly to perfect strangers (note to foreign readers: mumbling “Hello” is friendly for us) isn’t in our British genes. But there’s an unwritten rule that one does this when out for a walk in the country. And while I realise that ‘a local park’ isn’t ‘the country’, and ‘running’ isn’t the same as ‘walking’, there’s something about running in my local park which makes me want to do the same.
Of course, it’s not just the situation – it’s my age. Now I’m the grown-up, not the embarrassed kid; and more than that, now that I’m in my forties, something has unwittingly kicked in and I am just one curler away from being Les Dawson’s Cissie/Ada. In my 20s and 30s I was happy to people-watch; these days, I love to people-engage. At a bus stop. In a queue. Walking down the street. I am becoming that person, the Person Who Talks To Strangers Because She Can’t Help Herself, the person who would happily chat to a neighbour over the garden fence, if only she had a fence, or a garden. Whether it’s due to growing confidence, lessening self-interest or both (also known as ‘maturity’), I am more myself in strangers’ company than I ever used to be, and find other people more interesting than I find myself. I want to learn about others and hear their stories, whatever their age and background (indeed, the more different they seem from me, the better). I want to both ‘only connect’ and talk to them about ‘Only Connect’.
But back to my running friend.
I was doing my usual park circuit the other evening, eyes down and ears tuned into library music, when a woman running in the opposite direction stopped to talk to me. Well, to tell you that I was excited, dear reader, is an understatement. AT LAST! A FELLOW PARK RUNNER – A PERFECT STRANGER – HAS STOPPED TO TALK TO ME!
“Have you dropped a set of keys?” she asked – pointing out a set she’d just found on the ground. Quick check – no I hadn’t. A chat ensued, during which we decided it was best that she left said keys in the park café. Already thinking ahead, I said: “There’s another guy running around the park right now… I could ask him if they’re his.” While thinking to myself: “YES! YES! I’ve found the perfect way to acknowledge that middle-aged bloke who always runs when I do.”
“Great, thanks,” said the young woman. “Sorry to interrupt your run!” Yes, not only had a total stranger chatted to me, but she was genuinely NICE and FRIENDLY. And this, for me, is why we strangers should stop and talk to each other. Because each time it happens, it reaffirms your faith in humanity, makes the world a better place, and gives you a bit of a breather from a workout.
So I resumed my run around the park, and sure enough, fast (or rather, slowly) approaching me was my soon-to-be friend, the Middle-Aged Reluctant Runner.
Here was my chance.
“Excuse me,” I said. He didn’t stop.
“Excuse me, but have you dropped a set of keys? Only…”
“NO!” he barked, scowling and not missing a beat as he ran past. Slowly.
Turns out that not everyone wants to talk to strangers. Not even when they’re over 40, too.