Remember strangers? Remember the thrill, the anxiety, the awkwardness of engaging with people you’d never met before in a place you’d never been? Before the pandemic, so many of us flitted across the world with relative ease, meeting others and just . . . seeing what happened. For many of us during the pandemic, our worlds were whittled down to terrarium-like sameness: We saw the same faces, heard the same voices. Strangers became, perhaps, a source of fear—or maybe we treasured those encounters because they were few and far between.
As the masks come off and our travels increase, a new book reminds us of the life-affirming magic of others: Letter to a Stranger (Algonquin Books, March 2022), a collection of essays edited by journalist Colleen Kinder.
In 2013, Kinder found she was “writing endlessly about places but neglecting what animated them: the people I encountered there,” she writes in the intro. Her solution: She, along with Vince Errico, founded the nonprofit magazine, Off Assignment—and “Letter to a Stranger” was their flagship column.
The prompt is always the same: “Who haunts you?” The 65 essays in this book are among the thousands of answers to that prompt. Arranged in sections (“Symmetry,” “Wonder,” “Remorse”), the collection goes far beyond the encounters Kinder had pictured when she launched the column. There’s an ode to a drunk magician in Nicaragua; a somber letter to a grandmother the writer never met; and Kinder’s own sweetly comedic essay about a romantic interlude at the top of Rocamadour, France.
We spoke with Kinder—who spends part of each year in Egypt—recently about travel, the human toll of the pandemic, and the importance of the fleeting encounter.
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In the intro you write about how these essays are “a species of story already alive inside the writer.” They reminded me of all the lives I’ve encountered. How have other readers responded?
One of the ideas driving this whole series, and the book, is that everyone has one of these stories inside of them, if not a whole anthology. It’s been remarkable to go to writers with the prompt and have to explain it very little—to immediately see that everyone has an idea. You can watch it happen: They get this distant look in their eyes and you realize they’re already kind of writing the story in their minds.
But [it’s also been remarkable] to realize that readers identify strongly with this whole canon. Moving through the world, even if you’re not a big international traveler, you still harbor experiences with people who you hardly know but have heavily impacted you. It’s been fascinating to see how universal the concept is and how easily people can relate to another person’s stranger story.
Reading it made me want to immediately travel and meet people again. Have you found it’s inspired others in that way, as the pandemic becomes endemic?
I have heard that, for a lot of people, the book made them wistful for prepandemic life and ignited wanderlust. I think we’re all aware that we have paid a price—a human price—for this pandemic. For some people, I think it’s easy to think of that in terms of trips not taken. But maybe what this book illuminates is that [travel] is not just about getting to foreign countries and seeing XYZ—it’s about the serendipity of the people that you meet.
I’m living in Egypt right now, and I just said to my husband the other day that I think my connectivity with the people in our village has been affected by the fact that I’m often wearing a mask and I’m no longer shaking our neighbors’ hands, which is just part of what you do in Egypt. It was the first time I had really verbalized a clear human price that I’d paid in terms of guarding against the pandemic. I think this book viscerally reminds us of how much we used to brush up against strangers. We’re so much more cautious now. I think there’s a toll to that.
Do you think the pandemic has permanently changed our relationship with strangers?
For me, it has made me more wary of physical touch and more aware of my own body and other people’s germs. I do think that some of that will wear off, but man, we’ve been in this pandemic mode for a couple of years of our lives, and it may have a lasting impact. But I hope not. I have also had experiences lately where, all of the sudden, it’s like the pandemic is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m out with a group of people and I just relax into the present and it feels like we were never in that mode at all. So I think people will find their old traveler selves and put their guard down again. But we’ll see.
I was in a paint store in Egypt today and when I walked in, I wanted to show that I’m a friendly person, so I just tugged down my mask. It was important to me to message Hello, I’m a friendly being, let’s connect. I think [judiciously] tossing our masks to the wind will create so much more space for connection.
How has editing this column, and this book, changed the way you view strangers or engage with them?
I don’t know that it has changed my relationship to strangers. But it certainly makes me aware of the moments in which I have that willingness one needs to really have an encounter with somebody who isn’t a main character in your life. You have to be in a certain state. It helps if you have a kind of vulnerability, and you have to have the time. You can’t be determined to get from point A to point B. There has to be some sort of awareness that there’s something valuable that could happen between you and somebody you hardly know.
There has to be some sort of awareness that there’s something valuable that could happen between you and somebody you hardly know.
I think I’m more aware and maybe more hard on myself when I catch myself not being in that mode. And I try to tell myself, OK, turn off your agenda for the day, give over that five minutes because something really beautiful and unexpected could happen. It has created in me a conscientiousness about how those opportunities are always around us—always around us—and it’s just really a matter of flicking the switch for yourself and saying, I’m going to be a little bit more open to this.
That’s such a great argument for slow travel and putting away the phone. Even just standing in line is an opportunity.
Absolutely. I think we have this idea that only remarkable wondrous things are going to happen when we’re outside of our normal environment when actually it’s totally within our power to create that magic in our domestic environment. It takes a lot of intentionality, and sometimes a few tricks. You kind of have to trick yourself a little bit, like I’m going to pack my bag to go to the end of the C train! But it’s available, it’s right there, and I love that. I love that truth.
As we travel more, what tips do you have for travelers who are shy or less likely to open their worlds to strangers?
I think about conversations with strangers in a similar context as I used to think about dating and boldness—boldness pays off and taking initiative pays off. I think [it’s good to] try, even if it’s hard, to work up the nerve to say hello first or ask someone what they’re reading on a plane. You just have to ask yourself, What’s the worst thing that could happen?
The worst thing that could happen is you get a little bit rebuffed and you forget about it in 10 minutes. The best thing that could happen is that you end up having a conversation that you couldn’t have with anyone else in your life. The payoff is quite immense and the potential sting is pretty small, so I think in terms of vulnerability and putting yourself out there, it’s worth coaching yourself a little bit to be bolder than you might otherwise be.
Your own essay in the book really speaks to that. I was so surprised in a good way—it’s like a mini romantic comedy that happened in the space of a morning.
All before 8 a.m.!
Who’s the most recent stranger you can’t shake?
If I were going to sit down and write a Letter to a Stranger tomorrow, I would probably write to the woman who was in the next room over from me at my OBgyn’s office, shortly after I gave birth. I had a nasty C section wound, so I had to go in and have it looked at. I was sitting there waiting for the doctor to come, shaken up by what was happening in my own body.
I heard this sound in the next room and it took me a while—or at least a long moment—to realize it was somebody crying, because it was a very wild sound. But it took me only a second to realize why [she was crying]. Sure enough, I was able to confirm that the woman in the room next door had been told, “There’s no more heartbeat.”
I’ve never felt more for somebody I will never see and never know. I was able to see through the window that the staff finally went out and got her partner to come inside and calm her down. This was deep in COVID times and partners weren’t allowed in the room, and I think a big part of my connectivity with her was not only womanhood and motherhood but also the fact that we were all alone in there. So many people had scary healthcare experiences they had to go through alone and without somebody holding their hand. What I felt for that woman was so strong that I would love to find a way to put it into words for readers because, of course, I’ll never be able to find her and tell her.
Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just hearing about it. Speaking of your daughter, what do you want to teach her about this approach to the world?
I think she’s going to be the one teaching me! She is so uninhibited with people, it’s amazing. We were just walking home from dinner, down a dark alleyway, and she wouldn’t hold my hand, even though she [as a toddler] is very prone to tripping because the surface of the ground was uneven. She was just marching along and at one point a pack of about 10 kids came out to say hi to her because she looks nothing like them. One of them holds up a doll and she reaches for it. She is so extroverted to the point my husband and I are in awe.
One of my experiences with the book—and this whole Letter to a Stranger series—has been one of surprise. Strangers mean so many different things to different people. When we started the series, I would’ve expected more stories about how people brushing up against each other’s lives have this rare capacity to speak truth into each other’s lives. They can be more honest with each other, they can be quickly vulnerable, because they are able to disappear on each other. To me, that has always been what’s exciting about strangers. But actually, not that many essays in the book are fundamentally about that.
I think what I would like my daughter to remember is that, even when there’s a topic or a phenomenon that you have a strong relationship to, stay open to how much other people have to show you and to teach you, because there are a multitude of narratives out there. I’m so grateful for the myriad ways that these 65 writers glanced back at strangers, because their glances are so different from mine.
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Aislyn Greene Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.