Sometimes you meet people who make an impression.
This week I met one of the Presidents I am writing my PhD on. Jimmy Carter, even at 90, is still working hard, and thus spends a fair amount of time at the Carter Center in Atlanta. However, for a researcher to catch a glimpse of him is still a rare treat. I didn't speak to him, but must admit I was rather starstruck by his mere presence in the cafeteria where he, like everybody else, queued to have a 4 dollar lunch.
Despite the central role Carter plays in my current work, however, he was only one of the people I've met recently that I will remember for life.
Today I met some guy whose name I didn't catch. I frequently don't catch names here, even when people introduce themselves. The Southern accent is foreign to me, and it often takes me a while to figure out what I understood from what people were saying - a lot of it gathered from context rather than a direct comprehension of the actual words uttered - and names tend to disappear in this process (besides, I am notoriously bad at names. Faces, I remember. Names, never held much importance to me anyway).
Anyway. I was trying to catch a bus. At the bus stop, I was approached by Some Guy. Had it been in Norway, I would have shied away from a conversation. But having been in the U.S. for a few weeks, the last of which in the South, the local social code is starting to rub off on me. I've progressed from small talk to conversations with random strangers (side note: Random Stranger at a zebra crossing the other day - he commented on my t-shirt. It's a Harry Potter shirt, with a big, Hogwarts logo on it. He asked me where I'd bought it, and I said London. He was all impressed that I'd been to London - not yet having realized that I wasn't American, presumably. "You speak any French at all, then?" he asked. I could have pointed out to him that this was a rather strange question to ask after having learnt that I had visited the British capital, but instead I just shook my head, wished him a good day upon the turn of the lights and our departure to the other side of the street, and made a mental note that it was far more important to appreciate the fact that we had this nice little talk than to point out to him his obvious lack of geography skills).
- so conversations with random strangers - and with this new social code guiding my conduct I've talked to everyone from grocery store clerks to the hobo in the park I pass each morning (he just wanted to know if there was a fee to go see the Jimmy Carter museum. I told him I believed it was, but that the grounds were free of charge, and beautiful, so well worth the walk).
Thus, talking to Some Guy at the bus stop wasn't all that strange for me anymore. And I am glad I did.
This was a man with a storage of stories, and the key to open them all at once was simply being an active listener. I learnt all kinds of interesting things about the city of Atlanta, the specific area of Atlanta I'm staying in, African-American history, the Democratic party, and about Some Guy himself. He gave me pointers about things I should see before I leave, showed me a picture with him and Obama (who recently visited the area, apparently), and even shared his hotwings with me. When the bus finally arrived (it was very late, due to a lot of traffic over a Barnes & Noble booksigning with Google later informed me was a YouTube phenomenon - there were crying teenage girls queuing all around the block for YouTube Guy), he told me to pay attention to the driver, as she was a character all of her own.
She was. Talking to herself, yelling at traffic, and making conversation with the passengers made for an entertaining bus ride as well. "What's that guy doing in the Mustang?? Oh, noooo, you didn't!!!" I probably would have given up on the bus without Some Guy, It was worth the wait.
When I go home in less than a week I'll be glad to retract back into my Norwegian shell, where we don't make conversation with strangers unless absolutely forced to, and where the only small talk you make on a bus would be to ask the passenger next to you to let you out if they haven't already noticed all the subtle non-verbal signs you've given them the last minute or so (most do. In all my years of using public transportation in Oslo, I've probably only had to ask about five to ten times, if that).
Until, then, however, I am glad to have been let out of my shell for a while. It makes for good stories. It makes me appreciate the world. It makes interesting things happen, and it makes me learn things I otherwise would have never known.
I was startstruck when I saw President Carter, but most of my time here I've been struck with awe of the extraordinariness of ordinary people.