How do you greet a stranger? You probably don’t imitate adult lemurs, at least on a regular basis. Lemurs, I learn from Will Buckingham’s new book, Hello, Stranger, have a code which is both friendly and cautious. “They gently slap each other, they turn cartwheels, they engage in rough and tumble, they play-bite each other’s genitals.” Will Buckingham points out that “when you have had your genitals in someone’s mouth and they haven’t done anything untoward” there’s a strong probability that they mean you no harm. However the custom is unlikely to catch on among humans, although a display of cartwheeling might be safer than a handshake in these Covid times.
Hello, Stranger offers a delightful and wide-ranging guide to the many codes and rituals that communities have developed to ease connection with strangers. The Serbian hint that a guest has outstayed their welcome is pleasantly subtle and requires no verbal hints. You simply serve your guest with the small, week coffee that is called sikterušaor “fuck off coffee” and, if your guest is familiar with the code, polite farewells will follow. Some of the oldest writings in the world deal with guest/host obligations. The English language has a range of related words from ‘hospital’ to ‘hostile’ that come from the same ancient root. And as, in these pandemic days, we devise new ways of greeting and making contact with one another – and are largely prevented from travel – it’s a good time to read a book that explores the human connections that have become so difficult in the past year and more.
At times Hello, Stranger draws us into the world of Will Buckingham’s own travels. These are driven by different motives, including curiosity, research and philoxenia – the opposite of xenophobia which encompasses a curiosity about other people and a desire to encounter strangers. Travel, with all its risks, is also healing; after a devastating bereavement Will seeks a new country and the company of strangers as a way to remake himself and reconnect with theworld. This healing journey provides the frame for a fascinating and challenging book. Philoxenia isn’t always easy. We need to take account of what fuels our innate and sometimes sensible xenophobia – strangers may present very real dangers and threats. Yet at the same time we have a human need to reach out – to be involved in the world and discover new things. A stranger, whether a chugger in Leicester or a fried rice vendor in Yangon, can offer comfort and connection to the wider world. As strangers, we can choose to offer connection, or mistrust and threat. We need to see the strangeness in ourselves – to recognize that we are all at times, as the label on Will’s bike in Chengdu says, “lao wai”, the “old outsider.” When we recognize this, when we acknowledge our loneliness and fear – and also our contradictory desire to be alone – it becomes easier to embrace the crowded world we inhabit. This in turn is a way to understanding the needs of others, like the refugees who Will meets briefly on the train from Strymonas to Thessaloniki and the boys from Afghanistan with whom he swims from the beach in Kalamaria.
The easy passage that Will’s passport allows and the ease with which he travels the world is set against the obstacles these men and children face. Will’s reflections and stories are framed by memories of his partner, Elee Kirk, who died of breast cancer five years ago at the age of thirty-eight. Her brilliance, courage and love of life recur as themes. The advice she gave to Will in the last weeks of her life looked ahead, beyond her death. “Go elsewhere,” she told him. “Get some space. You’ll go away, because that’s what you do.” This advice helped bring this book into being and it is rightly dedicated to her.
Hello, Stranger: how we find connection in a disconnected world by Will Buckingham is published by Granta, London (2021) at £16-99 and can be ordered here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/hello-stranger-how-we-find-connection-in-a-disconnected-world/
Will Buckingham will be talking about his book at a Five Leaves online event – details here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/events/hello-stranger-with-will-buckingham/