OME years ago, we fulfilled a longtime ambition and visited Alaska. We travelled on our own, and explored the area around Anchorage, including visiting the State Fair (famous for its giant vegetables and trade-stands where you can buy a plane and fly off from the ground) and the harbour of Seward, from where you can go whale and bird-watching and see the glacier which President Obama also visited.
Later we joined up with a small group to go into the Denali National Park – we were there when Obama agreed to a longstanding request by Native Alaskans for the former Mt McKinley to return to its traditional name, Mt Denali. At dinner one evening in the National Park lodge, we got talking to a couple from New York state. We exchanged the usual bits of information – was it their first time in Alaska, our and their occupations and where did we all come from. They said New York state, we asked where; they said it was a very small place, we said, Try us; so they told us and it turned out to be a little town north of New York city, with a great Italian deli. We had visited it when staying with friends who were on a two-year contract in Manhattan. We all laughed that the thing everyone loves about the deli is the Italian sausage with cheese.
That was a coincidence, but what was more remarkable was that one of them ran a food and film festival – so did we. Our festival, Screen Bites, had been running for more than ten years, and was one of only four film festivals in the world with a food theme. Our new friend’s festival was a second. It is a small world!
We soon realised how much we have in common and the dinner chat has turned into a friendship that will last. They have been to stay with us, and indeed to help at events during our last Screen Bites (it continues, as Screen Bites Second Slice – see our film section, Moving Pictures), and recently we have stayed with them.
After leaving our New York friends, we drove through the Catskill Mountains and over to Harrisburg, the little-visited but very appealing state capital of Pennsylvania. Everyone knows Philadelphia and Gettysburg, but Harrisburg, beside the vast Susquehanna river, deserves to be better known.
The inn-keeper asked where we came from, and we asked (as usual) how well they knew Britain. The usual answer is that if they have been to the UK, it will have been to London, possibly Edinburgh, and maybe Bath, Stonehenge or Stratford-on-Avon. Our inn-keeper said the only place they knew was a little town called Lymington. I was born there.
Driving back from London recently, we stopped to fill the car and get some coffee at a service station. The woman at the check-out was friendly and chatty, and as she had an attractive accent we asked her where she came from. She said the Czech Republic, narrowed it down to Prague, and then mentioned that she came from a place in the mountains.
It really wasn’t busy, so out of curiosity we asked where and she said the Krkonose Mountains – a spectacularly beautiful area by the Czech-Polish border. Many years ago, before the end of the Cold War, when Czechoslovakia was showing signs of opening up, we went on a (very cheap) winter holiday to the Krkonose, staying in an attractive late 19th century hotel, that looked like something out of Dr Zhivago, in a village about an hour’s bus ride from a town called Vrchlabi. The village was most frequented by East German groups on Communist Party-approved skiing outings, all staying in ugly hostels. As western visitors we were lucky to stay in the one hotel surviving from before the First World War.
So, as we waited for our coffee, we asked if, by any chance, she came from Spindleruv Mlyn – and she did. Really, what are the chances of two travellers stopping for petrol, in the unlikely event of no other customers, having the time to talk to the check-out operator and discovering that they know the small mountain resort in eastern Europe where she was born?
There is, of course, nothing new in such coincidences. The phrase “it’s a small world” was doubtless created because it is really quite a common occurence. But it reminds us that we have more in common with people than we sometimes think and that when we take the trouble – and have the time and opportunity – to talk, we discover our similarities, our shared experiences and our mutual interests.
Among the many aspects of the current chaos in the world is a tightening of borders, battening down of national hatches, ratcheting up of tension, promotion of unflattering stereotypes and gathering sense of mistrust that tips over into paranoia and hostility.
We talk to people because we are interested in people, and because we are journalists and our training and background means that we know that when we talk to strangers and hear their stories, we find points of contact. And sometimes those turn into lasting friendships. Right now, we need all the friends we can get.