Talking to Strangers: Fur Coats, Downton Abbey, & Cremation Lockets

Traveling alone last week gave me the chance to talk to strangers that I normally wouldn’t do if  accompanied by family.

Returning from New York City on the suburban commuter train, I chatted with a young woman who was carrying paraphernalia from the NY Rangers Hockey game.  That led  to a conversation about the weather, and the polar vortex predictions that would bring unfathomable  sub-zero temperatures to the region. “Yeah, my mother wants me to wear my grandmother’s fur coat tomorrow, “ she said, “but I’m worried about animal rights people.” Having inherited my grandmother’s fur coat , I encouraged her to wear hers, reassuring her that I haven’t encountered any problems and it would provide the warmest protection. We reached our stop and said good-bye, wishing each other to stay warm.

The next day, I left for Wyoming. On my first flight, I talked with my neighbor, a mathematics professor about to begin a semester at the University of Colorado in Boulder having spent the last five years teaching at Oxford, England. Previously, he’d taught at Vassar, my alma mater, though wasn’t there when I was. Our conversation turned to what anyone talks about if at all connected with the UK: Downton Abbey. He told me the entire village on screen is created in a tiny corner of Oxford and that the series’ author, Julian Fellowes and much of the cast are graduates of Cambridge, arch rival of Oxford.

I had a three -hour layover in Denver before catching the little puddle jumper to Worland, WY. I camped out next to an extended family from Saskatchewan Canada—grandparents, children and grandchildren, 7 in all, who had spent 10 days in Houston visiting family. They had been at the airport all day waiting for their connecting flight to Minot, North Dakota, where they then had a four hour drive home. They shrugged off the cold temperatures plaguing the northeast; minus zero winters are typical for them.

Leaving Wyoming, I met a woman, Christine on her way home to northern California. She’d spent the week watching her mother die of a brain tumor and subsequently cremated her.  Her mother, 75, had succumbed after fighting the tumor for 3 ½ years. Christine shared that she had lockets made for her four siblings holding tiny bits of the remains inside. We chatted about parents and aging, exercise- she swears by cross-fit- and juicing diets. (She does; I don’t.)

On the return flight  to Newark, I sat next to a woman who, with her husband and three children, 9 –year- old twin daughters and a six-year-old son, were on their way back to Scotland where her husband is involved in a bridge building project. We talked about living as expatriates, schools, and the differences between UK and US cultures.   She’d been stranded in Denver a week, waiting for the weather to clear, and hoped  their luggage, containing all the childrens’ Christmas presents was waiting for them in Newark.  We were each engaged in our books and read most the way home.

Making connections when traveling is much more than catching the next plane. Traveling is more than the destination; it’s the journey.

How about you? Do you talk to seatmates on planes and trains?

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24 Responses to Talking to Strangers: Fur Coats, Downton Abbey, & Cremation Lockets

  1. Wow. Those are some stories! Love the Downton scoop. The mother and brain cancer story is so sad. I posted this week about a fun woman I met on a plane. Love talking to strangers. I’d slowed down on my stranger-talking but am ramping it up again!


    • It was fun– not deliberate — and reading is still the big entertainment.

      On Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 7:35 AM, cyclingrandma


      • Mine is a bit more deliberate as I had felt myself closing in from my normal outgoing nature. Grocery stores too are great sources of conversation when the mood strikes! Yes and the reading I think is part of why I stopped talking. I was so afraid of giving up reading minutes.

        Not sure about the lockets though….


      • I thought that was a bit creepy too.

        On Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 7:46 AM, cyclingrandma


      • Yeah The ashes stuff is tricky…Once by mistake, I got a package delivered here from the funeral home down the street. I took it down to them IMMEDIATELY in case it was a bad omen. And I didn’t go in. I just left it on their step.


  2. Ahem, ladies, last month at 10:30 at night we heard a knock on the door. 2 men in suits were picking up the deceased…their truck had backed up to our front door…it was the cremation society…at the wrong house! Only 4 houses on our dirt road, and they missed the farmhouse.
    On a brighter note, your essay reminds me of an Ann Tyler novel 🙂


  3. Yes! And although travelling with people you know can be fun, I think I prefer travelling alone. I meet so many people and learn so many awesome stories when I do. People are facinating and inspiring!


  4. gabi138 says:

    I don’t often initiate conversations with people on trains etc, because listening to other people’s loud voices drives me nuts, and I don’t want to be one of those annoying people. And on planes, the thought of having to keep up a conversation for several hours, especially if the person isn’t interesting, makes me feel exhausted. I treasure the solitude of a long trip. That said, if someone talks to me, I will respond. And if she is called Lisa and has red hair, definitely!


  5. OH puleeez. I am a natural born Yenta. I will talk to darn near anyone about absolutely everything. I’ll never forget when I was pregnant – in a public bathroom (which is where I often find my latest ‘new best friend;’ everyone there ad to way in on what I was having based on how I was carrying. One woman even asked me to let her know once the baby arrived because she was trying to start a psychic reading gig. We exchanged snail mail addresses (17 years ago..) and I did send her a note when Ruby was born. the woman, Estella, was wrong. I believe she sells realestate in LA – we sent xmas cards for a few years. Once Ruby and I were stuck forever and a day in the Atlanta airport and we struck up a conversation with a young man – U.S. Marine who was snoozing next to us. We took turns watching each other’s bags; shared snacks and magazines AND he even lent ruby a sweater as we were woefully unprepared for the arctic air conditioning situation. His palne boarded a lifetime before ours – he told us to keep it and mail it when we had the chance. I mailed it along with homemade cookies and a set of UNO which we thought he would enjoy wherever he was stationed. My favorite story was when a woman from Uganda asked me how to get to downtown – we were out of Metro access, it was Sunday and the suberban busses were far and few between AND it was about to pour – I drove her and her 3 cohorts to downtown. We had the most wonderful chat in during the short 6+ mile drive and not once exchanged names or contacts. My one regret – they were so lovely….


  6. I used to get talking to travel mates all the time, but have spent more and more time traveling quietly… my inner introvert rising to the surface. Some really interesting interactions! Strangely enough, my cousin has one of the largest kilns and pottery business in N. CA and they make a beautiful locket that contains cremation ashes… how strange would it be if your travel partner got it from my cousin? Such interesting nuggets from your trips!


  7. ShimonZ says:

    It’s wonderful to connect to new people that we haven’t met before. I like the way you travel…


  8. Huffygirl says:

    I’m glad your airline seatmates turned out to be positive experiences. Mine usually are not. My best airplane seatmates in my last trip were two thin gentlemen, one on each side of me. One slept and listened to an iPod the entire trip; the other pulled out a Disc Man (who knew these still worked?) and large headphones, and listened to CDs the whole trip. They didn’t eat anything, didn’t climb over me numerous times to go to the bathroom, and didn’t spill over into my space. Excellent.


  9. hugmamma says:

    Wonderful to think of all the new acquaintances you made. More folks need to engage in conversations with strangers. The world might not be such a scary place as might be perceived. hugs for sharing…


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