Thursday, 20 July 2017

People you meet on holiday

It's amazing how you encounter a range of interesting people on your travels. I seem to have a happy knack of meeting, quite casually, a host of total strangers who apparently enjoy a twenty-minute chat with me, and help to make my visit to some place memorable forever.

Not that I latch onto them like a vampire, and detain them against their inclination! It's often the case that they are 'just there', sitting or standing, and fairly clearly inclined to exchange at least a few words. Served up by fate, you could say, for not just my delectation but theirs too. I think it's probably some variation of the 'birds of a feather flock together' principle in operation. We may have nothing whatever in common except the general liking for a chinwag, but we know each other at a glance. Conversely, it's usually quite clear who, for one reason or other, would resent an attempt to start a conversation. I imply no criticism of them: they might urgently need solitude, in order to cope with a nagging worry, or a grief of some kind; or they are simply unsociable because that's how they are, and who would I be to bust in on their preferred state? You have to respect that.

But I've no cause to complain at the number and quality of human beings that fate regularly pushes in my direction. It happens nearly every day on holiday. Eyes meet, smiles are exchanged, and we speak. In fact, it would be an unusual day that did not include at least one chat with a stranger, or a couple, or even a small group of friends. I need plenty of time on my own, more than most, but basically I must be a very gregarious person, and I'd certainly feel disappointed if I went for a whole day without at least a few moments of warm human contact.

Once the conversation begins, the odd thing is that in nearly every instance the other person or persons seem to decide that I mustn't be quickly dismissed - as they certainly would, if I were an amiable but slightly irritating nuisance. No, the conversation normally prospers and develops and doesn't peter out in a lame trailing off. From which I infer that they really enjoy the encounter.

That's rather flattering in a way. Precisely what my compelling personal appeal for them might be generally remains a mystery. As a rule the encounter doesn't last long enough to find out. Perhaps I appear to be not only pleasant, but very interested in them as people. Which would be true up to a point, although I'm never quite sure whether all this is isn't merely an exercise in proving to myself that I'm socially acceptable, something that might need constant reinforcement. Although, for all I know, the population in general needs similar reassurance. To be sure, most people fear being thought boring, or a pest, and might wish to put their social skills to a random test now and then. So it may be that these exchanges serve a deep social need, and if offered out of the blue are grabbed for the psychological benefits they can bring. I definitely get a kick from a pleasant and lively episode like this, and come away with a feeling that my day has been enhanced. Maybe likewise with others.

We sometimes get to a point where I think I can, without it seeming odd or rude or inappropriate, ask them whether I can take a photograph of them to remember them by. This is by no means my initial goal with each encounter, but I often end up wanting to pop that question. The reaction is, almost without variation, a combination of surprise and pleasure, as if my request is remarkably and unexpectedly flattering. As if, indeed, taking a picture will elevate the occasion to a cherished moment never to be forgotten, rather than simply a chance happening that will soon slip from the mind.

And this is curious, because it's always a one-way thing - myself asking them, not the other way around. I don't think I've ever been asked by someone else to pose for a photograph so that they can have a photo of me, and I will become a souvenir, to be shown to friends on their phone later on. You know: 'That's a lady called Lucy we met. She was so friendly. We thought she was so brave, holidaying on her own for weeks on end. She positively radiated self-confidence and goodwill. We wanted to remember her.' I somehow don't think that runs through people's minds! Or if it does, nobody takes the slightly pushy (and, in the circumstances, odd) step of asking for a shot. Mind you, if the request were made to me, I'd willingly comply. But it never happens. I'm sure that very few people are bold enough to deploy a camera in moments like this - even though, of course, nearly everyone does carry a phone with some kind of image-capturing facility on it.

Well, I am bold enough. And I've not had a refusal yet.

I probably get no refusals because on a subconscious level I select my 'victims' with great care. It has, conversely, crossed my mind that - awful thought - all the bonhomie, and the apparent willingness to let me take a picture, is a sham - a mere matter of 'British politeness to daft strangers', and that the photo is seen as a way to bring closure to a time-wasting and exasperating meeting. Oh well.

I had three encounters while on my recent North of England and Scotland holiday that resulted in a photo. They were all people I'd love to meet again, but of course never will.

Two of the encounters were at the same place on the same evening, within minutes of each other, at a Fife seaside town called Elie. Fife is part of the Scottish Lowlands, and is that tongue of land, with sea on three sides, between Dundee and Edinburgh. It's actually got many hilly bits, with the Lomond Hills as real mountains in the centre. I most like the cliffy coast, however, especially the length from St Andrews around to Lower Largo, that includes the pretty fishing towns of Crail, Anstruther, Pittenweem, and St Monans. Elie is a relaxing place with attractive streets, nice buildings, good beaches, great views across the Firth of Forth, and lots of sunshine. Here's a few shots, taken in the evening:


Plenty of well-mown gardens! It's a neatly-kept place. 


There was more than one sandy bay. A little further on from this was a headland with a white tower on it:


And beyond that, a headland with a ruined tower on it, rather romantic:


But back to the main bay. The street led down to a gaily-painted parade, which included a tempting pub:


It did food. Hmm! However, I had a good meal lined up back at the caravan, and the place was packed. I was surprised at the cricket scoreboard - I didn't know that cricket was played in Scotland (not that I really care, cricket being an arcane mystery to me). Across the road you could enjoy a sunset drink in a beer garden overlooking the bay:


Ah, should I buy myself a gin and tonic, and bring it out here? And, who knows, get involved in some conversation about how nice an evening it was? But Slimming World came to my rescue, and I put the notion away. 

I walked back into the green town centre, now beginning to get all shadowy:


I had literally just taken the above shot when a couple came along and spoke to me. They were called Joe and Elsa. We waxed large on the attractiveness of the Fife coastline, and Elie in particular. They were intrigued about my coming so far north from Sussex, on my own, on a caravan touring holiday. They were thinking about eating out, and I mentioned the pub down on the bay, although I warned them it might not be easy to get a table. I think, though, they decided to try their luck. On impulse - this was after at least fifteen minutes' chat - I asked if I could take a picture of them. Of course! This was the result, which I think reveals how well the encounter had gone:


I'd have been happy to share a table with them, I can tell you.

I sauntered on. What next? Leaving the square, there was the old church a bit further on, with an unusual central tower:


And coming towards me from the right-hand side (as you look at the picture) were an older couple. They were called Jessie and David. Jessie was a widow, once a church minister's wife. David was her friend, still active even though eighty-six; a man who had numerous practical skills, who could fix or mend things. They lived in Perth, so like me were just visiting. This time it was a half-hour chat. We began with the church before us, and progressed to all kinds of things. I greatly liked them. Anticipating a refusal, I asked to take a picture. No problem! The photos tell you everything you need to know about their good character and high regard for each other:


The third occasion was on my way back from Scotland, in the High Pennines near Alston. I had driven up to the Hartside Summit, using the twisty A686. My goodness, what a good drive that was! I had come up from the west, starting the climb at Melmerby. The A686 soon begins to mount the steep west-facing edge of the Pennines in a series of sweeping bends that you can safely take at 40mph, and sometimes faster if you pay attention. It was highly enjoyable in Fiona; I imagine it must be astonishingly good on a motorbike, whether going up or down. At the top was the Hartside Top Café, clearly a major biker's rendezvous:


But there were plenty of cars, too. Once again, Slimming World kept me out of the café - it was, anyway, too early in the afternoon to think seriously about tea and cake. A noticeboard told you about the place, and the A686:


And standing next to board was a man with a dog. His name was Richard, and the dog - a handsome Border Collie - was called Thomas. At first Richard was only politely chatty. Ah, where was Mrs Richard? I asked him that. She was in the café. Right then. We'll keep this carefully polite! But I got out of him that he was a proper Geordie from Tyneside (Gateshead, I think he said) and that he worked in forestry, generally at some distance from home, even Sussex in the past. He was sort of on holiday at the moment. The dog Thomas had no artificial notions of politeness and propriety, and seemed eager to make my close acquaintance. 'Have a good lick and sniff if you want,' I said to him, as he nuzzled. I could see that Richard was beginning to think I was a dog lover. I had to deny it, but we still talked a bit about Thomas. The point came to ask whether I could take a picture of Thomas with his master. No problem! Except that Thomas suddenly became all camera-shy, even though Tigerlily, my smartphone, didn't at all look like an aggressively-lensed digital SLR. So there was a series of shots, with Richard trying to get Thomas to pose properly:


A dog knows when and how to sabotage a picture. That's doggy perverseness for you! A very attractive animal, though, and I think the bond between man and dog is clear in the shots.

After saying goodbye, I wandered over to something else that had caught my eye. I could see two red blobs, but I couldn't decide what it was without getting closer.


Oh, I see - the 'red blobs' were helmets that bikers wear, carved at either end of a rustic seat that commemorated the death (presumably in a road accident) of a biker. In this case, a man called Ian Wilkinson, who died in 2013. He was aged fifty-one and had been a 'much loved husband and father'. How sad is that? To me, fifty-one now seems distinctly on the young side to die. I'm not surprised, however, that he was at least that age. When they take their helmets off, you can appreciate that many modern bikers are middle-aged or older. There was in fact a big group of them in front of the café. They looked nothing like Hell's Angels, or the rampaging Rockers at Clacton in the 1960s. Just ordinary blokes who liked their bikes and the company of other riders of their age and background. 

I saw a lot of bikers up North. Many more than you'll see in Sussex. Well, the roads are - by comparison - straight and empty and very fast, with real hills. You can't have a glorious ride in Sussex, at least not during the day and for mile after mile. But up North there was room for us all. I didn't want to spoil their enjoyment, so never got in their way. I hope that was appreciated.

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