When his wife Elee died, Will Buckingham found solace from grief in people he didn’t know. Is it time for us to all celebrate the possibility that strangers can be to one another now that life is open again after the lockdown?
The doorbell rings. You press the intercom. ‘Hello?’ ‘Hi. It’s Ted.’ You’ve never met Ted. You know very little about Ted. ‘Ah, Ted, come on up. Feel at home. Bed’s over there; shower’s through there. Cup of tea?’
Although it may sound absurd, Will Buckingham & Elee Kirk opened their Birmingham home to strangers. They welcomed in dozens of strangers during their 13 years of marriage as early adopters for Couchsurfing.
“What’s incredible about connecting with strangers is how so often you find yourself stumbling across completely unanticipated pleasures,” enthuses Buckingham, a 49-year-old writer and social entrepreneur.
He recalls the Austrian transgender artist who gave the couple a handmade book. Or the Syrian chef who prepared them a delicious meal of galettes and crepes. Such chance encounters, he reflects, make life immensely “broader and wider, and altogether more fun”.
Buckingham and Kirk’s love of welcoming strangers started early. Each the offspring of ministers, they grew up in busy, “porous” homes. The joy of guessing who might step through the door next was something both – unconsciously – carried with them into adulthood.
An appreciation for the richness that such encounters can bring is the basis of Buckingham’s recent book, Hello StrangerWhen Kirk died from breast cancer five year ago, he began the project called ”. In her final days, she asked him to continue to travel and meet people from other cultures; and to keep his doors always open.
Buckingham was especially affected by the first. Buckingham’s instinct was to shut down and close the shop. Her request, in contrast, was to “go somewhere where you yourself are a stranger, as a way of remaking the world”.
It can be easier than we imagined to find ourselves in a foreign country. The urge to reach out to others can be powerful in such situations.
He took the advice to his heart and has spent extended periods of overseas time in recent years, including in China or Myanmar. He currently resides in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
His travels have merely confirmed the old adage (attributed to Yeats) that strangers are but friends you haven’t yet met. It’s a lovely idea and one – as ever – that the Greeks were on to long ago. They even came up with a name for it: philoxenia (the love of strangers). It’s there throughout Homer’s Odyssey, Buckingham points out. As the story’s hero Odysseus knocks around the Mediterranean, a friendly local is invariably on hand to give him shelter or to feed his troops.
In part, such hospitality plays to a “naked human need” to connect, as Buckingham writes in Hello Stranger. On a lesser scale, there’s also an element of karmic self-interest at play, prompted by “the knowledge that you too could one day find yourself a stranger”.
As life in lockdown has taught us, finding yourself in a strange land can happen quicker than any of us imagined. The urge to reach out to others can be powerful in such situations.
Whatever the reason for engaging with people you don’t know, it’s a handy skill. We are surrounded by nearly eight million people. Even the most sociable of us, it makes almost everyone a stranger.
“You don’t need to go looking for opportunities to meet strangers. It’s inevitable. We are totally outnumbered,” Buckingham reasons.
Even so, suspicion of the ‘other’ has a long history too. Ancient Athens may have been teaming with advocates of philoxenia, but it also had its fair share of xenophobes (‘phobia’, meaning ‘fear’).
His advice is to start by recognising that much of our reticence is cultural (“don’t talk to strangers”). Once you get over this hump, think about the upsides to such encounters. And then, well, just “try it and see”.
It is sensible to exercise some caution. Not just culture, but evolutionary instinct has hardwired us to be wary of unknown people. Hence our elaborate variety of rituals to govern first meetings, from the language people use to the gifts they may (or may not) bring.
Buckingham’s conclusion? It all boils down to trust. So, don’t be rash, but don’t be closed off either. Ted could be a dullard. He might be a great friend that you haven’t met before.
‘Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World’,The book is now available from Granta. It’s published by Granta.
Main image: Vera Gotseva
Our regular For the Love of series dives deep into people’s passions. Whether they’re dedicated to a cause or feel fervently that something can enrich our lives, what becomes possible when love is the motivation?