Smiling at Strangers

5 May

2000irises: Smiling at Strangers

This piece originally appeared on Smartly Chicago:

Smiling at Strangers

At 21, with just $600 in my pocket and the full wind of naïve bravado at my back, I moved to London alone. This dumb fearlessness served me quite well in London, but not without cost. London aged me, taught me fear, and gave shape to my own limitations in a way I’ve been working to undo ever since.

One night, about 11 pm, I was walking the 2 ½ miles from SoHo back to the hotel in Paddington where I lived and worked, when I was approached by an elderly man. I walked the same route several times a week, and by then I knew to be alert and careful: walk purposefully, head up, never make eye contact. Never, ever smile at strangers. Aside from the plentiful homeless, no one ever said a word to me on the street. I was justifiably leery when the man stopped me, but he only handed me a bloom – just the bloom – of a small red carnation and said “Cheer up, love, night’s still young.” Then he smiled and continued on his way. I cradled that flower in my hand all the way back to my tiny room. I hoped it would live for a while, but you know it didn’t.

As soon as the man spoke to me, I realized I’d been walking about London for months with a fierce, cold expression on my face. This ferocity ran so counter to my ordinary cheerful, friendly nature that it disturbed me. I had to consider if my love of London was really worth such a sacrifice.

This transformation began as soon as I arrived in London. Fresh off the airplane, I settled into a window seat on the Tube with my considerable luggage flowered around me. I donned my earphones and cued up my portable CD player (cutting edge technology in 1994.) A man took the seat across from me. As he sat down, I looked up and smiled – just a polite “hello” smile. He smiled back, and I looked out the window.

A moment later, he tapped my arm and smiled at me again – a huge, inviting grin. I smiled weakly, nodded, and pointedly went back to looking out the window. A few minutes later he tapped me yet again and smiled. This time I didn’t respond, but I knew he was staring at me, grinning like an idiot. I hoped he would get off the train soon. Then he touched my knee. I frowned and shoved his hand away.

I resigned myself to hauling my luggage off at the next stop to wait for the next train. When we slowed for the station, I stood up, but he stood too. Then he leaned down and kissed my cheek. I was too astonished to react. I just stood there, horrified, frozen. Finally, another man realized what was happening. He shouted “Hey!” and loverboy dashed off. This was the moment I realized I might have gotten in over my head.

You would think I’d have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t. All over London, men reacted very differently to me than any American man ever had. While, thank God, no one else ever touched me, I’m not used to drawing strangers’ attention, and it took me far too long to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was smiling at strangers.

Perhaps I overcompensated then, disconnecting from others completely in exchange for an imagined invisibility. The old man made me realize I wasn’t invisible at all – just afraid and angry: angry at myself for having been naïve, angry at the world for being dangerous for women. I wanted independence so badly that I fooled myself into believing I was invincible, and when I realized that wasn’t true, I mourned.

I still miss my stupid moxie, the beautiful illusion that I could do anything at all – the same necessary, optimistic lie we still teach our daughters. I would get on that plane to London again in a heartbeat, but if I did so now, I would have to take my fear with me. Heavy luggage indeed.

photo by d’n’c

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4 Responses to “Smiling at Strangers”

  1. Rebecca May 5, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Wonderful blog entry/essay. I lived for a while in Northern England and traveled around Britain & western Europe by myself. It’s a strange challenge to protect oneself from danger while remaining open-hearted and open-minded at the same time.

    I was kissed by a strange man without warning more than once.

    Just remember: It’s not us. It’s them.

  2. Darlene May 5, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Thank you Rebecca. I really enjoyed spelunking about your web site, too. Go Gyno-star!

    You’ve put is so beautifully: “It’s a strange challenge to protect oneself from danger while remaining open-hearted and open-minded at the same time.” Exactly that. We have that here in the U.S. too; I was just totally taken aback by how differently basic friendliness was interpreted there.

    Since then I’ve read some interesting books about women traveling alone or with small groups of women. If I’d had that kind of advice before I’d gone, things might have been different. But, luckily, Europe isn’t going anywhere (I hope) and there’s still time to go back and fix that… I did go back alone in 2001 and had a much easier time of it. At first there was a similar reaction, but I recognized it and could moderate my face a little better by then. Plus I was married by then.

    Thanks for the comment. I’ts nice to meet you! I’ll keep an eye on Gyno-star.

  3. Melissa B May 6, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    I’ve never been out of the country, but I have wandered strange city streets. It is difficult to balance our moxie with self preservation – I hope our moxie wins in the end – that’s what makes us so wonderful!

    • Darlene May 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

      I agree! Go Moxie!

      My mother-in-law was telling me that this happens to Midwest girls when they go to New York, too. She said she’s known girls who have been followed home because they made eye contact with strangers. It shouldn’t be so perilous to walk around, but sadly it is.

      Keep smiling, though. Yours is beautiful!

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