What’s in a name?
“Curiosity killed the cat,” the old saying goes.
I guess it’s a good thing I’m not of the feline persuasion.
I’ll just admit it – I’m nosy. I like meeting new people and I have a bad habit that has served me well. I talk to people. I chat with cabbies and clerks and waiters and people standing beside me in line.
Oh, once in a while someone will not respond and turn the other way, probably thinking I belong in the funny farm. But usually a big smile and friendly manner will engage most people.
In my lifetime of travels it has been the people whose memories I carry in my head just as much as the setting and the scenery. Our recent trip to the U.K. was typical – but better. I didn’t have to be super nosy to engage the warm, funny Scots or the witty Brits that I met along the way.
At the first hello, I asked their name. If their accent was local, I asked, “How long have you worked at the castle?” or “Are you from here, did you grow up here?” They smile and answer and we’re off into a fun conversation
If the voice has a foreign accent, I always ask where they are from and then “How long have you been here?” And the same conversation begins – about their families, their studies, their dreams, their plans.
The Scots who meet people for a living are a blast. They’re fun, they love to laugh and toss a quick quip into the banter.
There was the elegant but jovial Stephen at the fancy Dome restaurant in Edinburgh. Stephen had been the Major Domo for close to forty years when he retired. In his 70’s, he answered the call that they needed him back. He missed meeting people and if the way he chatted with us was an indication, he loves his job.
Tall and broad-shouldered, trim bearded and tartaned, Malcolm looked like a poster boy for Scottish Life magazine. Also retired, he created a summer gig for himself. During tourist season he plays his bagpipes at the same corner in Edinburgh. With his tam o’shanter at a rakish angle and his ermine sporran hanging straight in front of his kilt, he looked like Sean Connery, only with hair. He laughingly estimated he’d had his photo taken with thousands of women and children.
Heidi and her twin sister, Ally, are struggling in Montrose, a small town near Aberdeen. Their parents both died leaving them with a sizeable guesthouse to run. They are young, but overwhelmed and grieving, with no time for a young person’s life. Still good hosts, they invited us to visit their fenced back yard housing nine large frolicking rabbits. We shared both tears and laughter.
Perky Fiona, the sales clerk at Arbroath Abbey, is married to an American and travels to Asheville, North Carolina to visit her in-laws every year. A history buff, she is dedicated to the Abbey founded in 1178 in her small seaside hometown.
Ian, the innkeeper runs his B & B while his wife runs shipping for a local distillery. His top-rated comfy accommodations were the result of years of hard work. Whipping out four servings of Eggs Benedict was a walk in the park in his talented hands. We talked local lore as well as computer marketing and international information systems.
Jon, the mustached clerk at Armadale Castle, retired from the Royal Navy. He had served in Scotland and loved it. Being widowed late in life, he spent a summer in the highlands where he met a lass “who needed me in her life as much as I needed her. She’s my best friend, ever, so naturally I married her.” He wanted to know all about Pennsylvania.
Santo, the handsome Italian restaurateur, has been in Glasgow for three years from Rome. “Opportunity for my own place,” is his goal and his busy white-tablecloth restaurant has been opened three months. He made me pasta carbonera tableside in a hollowed out 80-pound wheel of parmesano, scraping the cheese into the hot pasta as he stirred. His dark, warm eyes monitored everything in the room as he poured wine, greeted at the door tossed a salad and helped an elderly patron with a coat. I know he’ll succeed. He blew a kiss goodbye.
Silver-haired Arnold set his suitcase down beside the spinet piano in Glasgow’s Central Station. He unbuttoned the jacket of his 3-piece suit as he launched into a 5-minute rousing “Ain’t Misbehavin.'” I had to chat. He confessed as he played that he couldn’t read a note of music and that his primary instrument was the jazz accordion. Now 89, he’d been playing by ear since age 4 and he was terrific. He was traveling, as he does every weekend, to finish his PhD. After discussing Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Soren Kirkegaard, the subject of his dissertation, we hugged goodbye.
In 21 years, redheaded Allison worked her way up the job ladder at the railroad. The Train Manager on our trip from Glasgow to London, she loved her job and it showed. We talked health care and Brexit, beaches and Spain and teenagers. Another goodbye hug.
I talked to cabbies in Glasgow and London. James, John, Simon, Leonard and more. It didn’t matter where we were, the talk was every side of the Brexit issue and football, equally important subjects in the U.K.
In London we had wonderful service from Donal, the Hungarian concierge and Emma Louise at the desk as well as personal chats each day. Katarina, the Greek dining room manager, had fled Athens’ 40 percent unemployment and had worked for Hilton for five years while she balanced more education.
Muhammed, the Master Concierge from Sri Lanka, had been with Hilton 21 years and had finally brought his wife and children to London last year. His helpfulness and kindness to me were way above his job description. I was not surprised at his dedication to his employer, his family and his adopted home in England. He kissed my hand goodbye the last day.
Sandor from Poland ran the coffee shop where Daniella, from Rio, was a waitress. Willy the wee bartender from the highlands had come to the big city for his chance. And Neville. And David. Brionny. Maeve. The list is too long but the stories still linger. I have all their names and faces along with our conversations in my memory bank – and more than a few in my heart.
On my first trip to England 52 years ago, a country shopkeeper asked us, “What is like now, mates? Being in charge of the world?” He was talking about America’s power and position. Then he added, “We were 56 million sheep farmers who ruled the world for a few hundred years. It’s a tough job. I don’t envy you.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation and it opened my eyes to talking personally to the locals anytime I’m in a new place. I always learn more about where we visit but also about our common humanity. It’s humbling. Opposing and diverse opinions make for great perspective on world happenings.
Lastly, I always come away full of hope and optimism because we are, all of us, traveling the same road. We need each others’ help for the bumps. Its name is Kindness.
Marcy O’Brien is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org.