Oh, look at all these people! All shapes and sizes, all going somewhere. Some in excited anticipation: The reward of a year or more's saving up for that dream holiday somewhere exotic or warm. Others, Like me, in the more indifferent anticipation of a meeting in some distant faceless conference room.
Once again, I find myself in an airport awaiting a delayed flight. It is not onerous, or even boring. I have plenty to do. But it has rathere scuppered my plans for a four o'clock meeting in Augsburg. I doubt now that I wil actually make it to my destination before my customer goes home for the day.
I sit on one of the many serried ranks of adequate chairs provided (as they are not always in airports) and do the dull thing of getting out a laptop. Only, i am not working. I am writing this which I feel is a much worthier passtime than looking through some dull presentation on the predicted storage market for 2012.
I do however refuse to conform to the usual businessman stereotype of dull or pinstripe suit, preferring, between the months of April and November (if the temperature is above 15C) to wear my "travelling suit", much as you see in my profile picture. I find it much more comfortable to travel in linen, even if it is as crumbled as an old elephants arse by the time I arrive. I can always change. Usually something more corporate is called for, unless I am poking about inside a computer or something.
Sitting opposite is a young girl, dressed also comfortably, but pretty as a bag of dolly-mixtures in what I perceive to be a rather individual and lovely 1940s style dress with make-up to match. We smile politely and then we write each other out of our indivisual universes. At least, she writes me out of hers.
I watch as tourists, travellers and air crew go by. I remark to myself that I could never have been an airline pilot, even had I possessed the requisite skills, as I cannot grow stubble in the appropriate facial areas.
Since I now have an hour I did not expect, I feel it is a reasonable idea to go and find some sustenance. Pret a Porter is not a place I would normally be seen starving at. There is too much packaging waste for a start. But hey, I am not paying and there doesnt appear to be anything else that appeals. A ham and mustard toastie will do just perfectly.
Next to me in the queue is a distinguished chap of probably late 60s. Bald and dapper with a look of bright intelligence, he inquires of the smiley girl behind the counter if they still serve food on aeroplanes or if he would be well advised to buy some now.
It seems that to ask a purveyor of food whether or not one should purchase some seems likely to elicit an obvious response but she possibly does not have enough vested interest to be anything other than honest.
Standing there looking like a hatless Man from Del Monte, only today without the tin opener, I remark to him that usually you have to purchase a drink and food, but that some airlines still offer a complimentary cotton-wool sandwich and a cup of tea. it seems, I continue, that even after purchasing breakfast air-side, it still feels incumbent upon us to eat what is given gratis lest we appear ungrateful.
We pass a few other lively and interesting pleasantries and go our separate ways.
Now, in this exchange, something struck me: I found the conversation easy to hold and reasonably insightful comments seemed to appear quite unbidden in forefront of my brain in preparation to be uttered. It flowed neatly and conversationally and lit up a small part of the day for both of us, i think. It was a nimble little exchange and the social interaction felt good.
So, strangely, I felt this contrasted with an experience I had on Saturday night in a pub in Burton on Trent which left me briefly disquieted.
This particular town seems to be very friendly compared to where I come from. Bristol appears to have become minor suburb of London in recent years with much of the cultural angst that accompanies large populations of aspirational people.
Converation in my area seems to be fraught with discomfort. Hesitant encounters with contemporaries seem dogged by anxiety (on their part, not mine) in case your car is "superior" to theirs or your child is doing better at school than theirs or in case something they let slip shows them to be your social or material inferior. Their angst is palpable and uncomfortable and makes me not want to talk to them. I find this deeply sad and not a little disturbing when the implications for social cohesion are taken into account.
Anyway, I digress.
In the pub in Burton, everyone was in fancy dress, what with it being the nearest Saturday to Halloween. My own outfit conssited of a khaki shirt and shorts, a pith helmet and an actual arrow sticking out of my chest, the technical construction of which I shall spare you.
Various revellers, in their own outfits, would wander up to me and initiate conversations, which I was pleasantly surprised to find.
And yet, I could find no replies! Me, who, sitting in restaurants all over the world has to make small talk with people of all nationalities in the name of business, could think of nothing to say! Why not? Was there a cat lurking behind a curtain somewhere in the establishment playing with my disembodied tongue? Had some vital part of my brain been deactivated during the previous day by too much wine or not enough sleep? What was going on? I couldn't think of anything to say!
Abashed, I stumbled clumsily through some pleasantries and one by one, small micro-expressions of boredom and disappointment flashing across their faces, they made their excuses and wandered off with their drinks to more fertile interpersonal encounters, leaving me feeling thick and socially inept. Words felt like glue in my mouth and my brain felt like it was made of plasticene which had been kept in the fridge for a few days. I determined to keep myself to myself and watch the band.
And yet, standing in Pret a Manger in Birmingham airport, dressed for another world, words appear by magic in my speech-buffer, awaiting the unconscious signal to express them to a receptive fellow traveller. How does this happen? How can one person with the same kilo and half of interesting cranial lard be so different under such different circumstances?
It seems to me that we mostly seem consistent to ourselves, at least from the inside. But really, circumstance, tiredness an especially company enable different aspects of us. feeling a bit of a stranger in a Burton pub, some kind of automatic mechanism seems to have been invoked to unconsciously take stock of my unfamiliar surroundings (and alas, pubs are becoming unfamiliar to me now beer is over £3 a pint). This leaves less mental bandwidth for spurious conversation of a witty manner.
In the familiar surroundings of an airport departure lounge, and having in my head that I am being sent to meet people purely on account of my knowledge and intellect (ha! I hope they feel they get value for money!), I suppose I felt more at ease with myself and my smooth-talking module was loaded into memory.
So, it would appear we are nowhere near as consistent as we think and it is only when we examine ourselves or our capabilities from a disembodied standpoint that it becomes apparent to us. But how is it that when talking to one person under one set of conditions we can be eloquent and sparkling with words aplenty and unusual angles on everyday concepts popping into our heads to adorn our conversation with a memorable quality, when under other circumstances we feel leaden of wit and hopelessly inarticulate? What makes the difference? Do the "people make the party" as seems to be becoming increasingly clear to me in other aspects of human endeavour? Or is it just us being a bit dim on some days? I favour the former hypothesis and wonder then what it implies for being the person we most enjoy being.
So, if only I could be verbally eloquent upon demand and not based upon where I am or who I am talking to. That would be useful! But how to do it.... Aye, there's the rub!