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RD Archives: Those strangers we know

BY Alice Steinbach

27th Jul 2023 Life

RD Archives: Those strangers we know

Alice Steinbach ruminates on the importance of those familiar strangers whom we're so accustomed to seeing we hardly notice them anymore to our sense of place and belonging 

They are part of our sense of place—and belonging

We may look at the world around us, but somehow we manage not to see it until whatever it is we've become accustomed to suddenly disappears.

Take, for example, the neatly attired woman I used to see, or look at, on my way to work each morning. For three years, no matter what the weather, she was always waiting at the bus stop around 8am. Clearly a working woman, she exuded competence and dependability.

Woman at bus stop illustration Credit: nadia_bormotova

Of course, I remembered all this only after she vanished. It was then I realised how much I counted on seeing her each morning. You might even say I missed her. I fantasised about her disappearance. Accident? Something worse? Now she was gone, I felt I had known her.

"Now she was gone, I felt I had known her"

I began to realise that a significant part of our daily life consists of such encounters with familiar strangers: the jogger you see every afternoon at three o'clock. The woman who regularly walks her Yorkshire terrier at the crack of dawn. The dapper twin brothers you see at the library.

Such people are important markers in the landscape of our lives. They add weight to our sense of place and belonging.

Two women chatting over coffee graphic image Credit: Ponomariova_Maria

Think about it. If, while walking to work, we mark where we are by passing a certain building, why should we not mark where we are when we pass a familiar, though unnamed, person? After all, if part of being a tourist is seeing nothing and no one familiar to you, then can we not say that seeing the familiar jogger or shopper is part of what makes us citizens of our community?

"Why should we not mark where we are when we pass a familiar, though unnamed, person?"

This is one thing an immigrant longs for, I suppose: the sight of the familiar stranger. The shop-keeper who nods to you. The bus driver who drives you to work each day. The woman you see walking her child to school.

Sometimes I wonder: am I a familiar stranger to someone? Perhaps a shopper at the super-market sees me there every Saturday without really noting my presence. Or maybe someone at the cafe whereI have breakfast would notice if I stopped going.

Once in a while you might meet one of these familiar strangers, as I did a few months ago. I was standing in a restaurant when a woman said hello.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

And I did. She was a patient I had seen many times in my doctor's surgery. We had an easy, familiar chat—although we never got round to exchanging names.

But here's what I remember most about the importance of familiar strangers. Once, driving home from the airport after a long holiday, I was feeling disorientated, out-of-place. Then I saw him—the gentleman in the tweed jacket and green cap. I'd seen this man walking down my road a thousand times. Ah, I thought, seeing the familiar stranger, I'm home at last.

This piece was taken from Reader's Digest Archives, July 1994

Banner credit: Tera Vector

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