When I was about seven we moved from Surrey to Oxfordshire and a friend of my mother’s presented her with a plate with the words ‘There are no strangers here only friends you haven’t yet met’ curling around the edge and a picture of two presumably stranger friends in the centre.
To my seven year old brain this just didn’t make sense. For one thing I’d had it drummed into me from an early age that you don’t accept sweets from strangers* but if strangers were just friends in the making could you still not accept sweets from them or did that mean you couldn’t accept sweets from friend’s either?
But mostly the plate’s advice just seemed impractical. There are an awful lot of people in the world and most of them are strangers, if they were to become your friends how would you possibly remember everyone’s name and if they don’t become your friends then is that just a massively wasted opportunity? Granted new friend’s made since the tender age of seven have started off as strangers but surely that’s no reason to try and befriend everyone you’ve never met?
I learnt another saying at school that all medicines are drugs but not all drugs are medicines. Now steering clear of debates around benefits of homeopathic remedies this one actually made sense to me and could perhaps be adapted for the plate’s purpose? Something like ‘all friends start off as strangers but not all strangers are your friends’?
Or perhaps the plate just needs a couple of additional lines of text to complete the phrase ‘There are no stranger’s here only friends you haven’t yet met, except for the weirdo’s you should definitely avoid rummaging through the bins looking for razor blades and laughing hysterically at anything David Brent says’ (there go any potential Office fan friends I could have made).
However, last week I was forced to concede that the plate may have a point. The fiancé and I were invited to a wedding in the Algarve, the groom-to-be being a good friend of my fella’s. Aside from the man I’d packed in the suitcase and bought with me, I was going to be spending the week with eight to twelve strangers in our villa and an additional ten in another villa a few minutes down the road.
We arrived a few hours after everyone else to be met with a barrage of people whose names I thought I’d never remember. Afraid of potentially awkward small talk after a long journey and general bewilderment and, being a lover of all things watery, I decided to go for a dip in the pool.
As I bombed into the water and started swimming a few lengths in the cool waters on that first evening, marvelling at the sun setting behind the awesome pine trees fringing the golf course view, I was unsuccessfully trying to pretend the others didn’t exist whilst being overtly conscious of not knowing anyone.
Fast forward to the end of the week and my final swim. That last swim in the fading light, at the same time of day as the first, with the same light shining through the same trees, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different I now felt. I compared that initial awkward swim amongst strangers with the much more enjoyable relaxed swim in the familiar surroundings of the villa where I had shared so many happy memories with new friends.
I believe that there are different friends for different times of your life (see ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’) but that doesn’t take away the significance of these friendships. Some of those friendships made will last and some won’t but it doesn’t matter as all of them were important. This particular bunch of strangers actually were all friends in waiting I’d simply not met before.
I like to see the best in people and like to believe that hidden within everyone, admittedly deeper in some than in others, is a decent person. And that is pretty much the same as the plate would have me believe.
So maybe all strangers are potential friends we haven’t yet met or had the chance to get to know properly? Perhaps there is simply more truth in chinaware than we realised? But then again those razor blade hunting bin people do seem pretty weird. Maybe I should get that printed on a plate?
* Interestingly that rule completely goes out the window once you hit adulthood when you can accept all sorts of random things from complete strangers without any qualms. Even where those strangers are obviously trying to influence or entice you in some way: free pens at conference/cereal bars outside stations/ free gifts when you spend a certain amount ring any bells for anyone?