Sunday, 23 May 2010

In the park

Hallelujah! Finally the sun has come to Brussels. I wandered out to the park with book and iPod and settled down with my back against a tree to read a little and daydream a lot.
After about half an hour, I heard 'Excusez-moi' from over my left shoulder.
- Excuse me, said the guy, 'can I sit down with you? Maybe we could talk for a bit?'

I got up hurriedly, gabbled that I had to meet someone and rushed away.

But... as I was walking away, I wondered why I was so reluctant to talk to the guy. He was perfectly polite, he seemed clean and didn't look particularly odd in any way. He had tanned skin, dark hair and a strong accent: perhaps it was a case of a deep-seated racism I was hardly aware of? I slowed my pace and started to think it through. If the guy had had blonde hair, would I have talked to him? Had I ever dated a guy who was not a white European? If I had been approached in the same way by a woman, would I have found her as threatening?

I thought about how many intriguing conversations with fascinating people I was missing out on by refusing to speak to strangers in the park (on the train, in a cafe, etc). After all, isn't that how most romantic comedies start? Boy bumps into girl at random and conversation starts?

A few years ago, I went on an Erasmus exchange to Trento in Italy. I remember, six months earlier, having returned from a worthwhile but often disappointing assistantship at a small town in Brittany and I was determined to do it better this time around. As I strode out of baggage reclaim, chin held high, I decided that this time, I would be completely open to new experiences: I would talk to everyone.
I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the airport bus (clearly a backpacker). It didn't hurt one bit. I was encouraged.

I only spent five months in Trento, but in those five months I learnt to ice-skate, snowboard and read mediaeval musical notation. I ate Melinda apples in the Val di Non; drank Fragolino in Verona; bought fresh pastries from the bakery window before dawn on the way home from a night out; accepted lifts to concerts on impulse; spent long, lazy afternoons sunbathing with my flatmate in the park behind the flat and long, lazy evenings cooking huge, slow pots of pasta with friends and drinking litres of red vino da tavola. I gained a few kilos and near-fluency in Italian (both of which I subsequently set about losing).

What do you think? Do you talk to strangers? Where do you draw the line between a harmless conversation on the train and something more threatening? When would you stay and talk, and when would you up sticks and leave?

I'm curious: just how far should I trust my instincts?


Jeannie said...

The way the world is today, you did the right thing. There is no reason why a strange man should walk up to a woman who is obviously reading a book under a tree.

I've seen enough French films (Netflix) to know how easily French people in France just hook up like it was nothing. Maybe that's his culture and he expects a woman to talk to him easily.

If you place yourself alone somewhere, you are putting yourself at risk for these things and there are unscrupulous men out there who have different cultures and expectations and seemingly no boundaries. I would hate to be bothered when I didn't want to be, and I would want a real French woman to tell me the definitive response for a man like that to get rid of him once and for all without having to get up and leave myself.

For your other question, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 20 years which has a white minority so I got used to all races at that point. But whether you want to date someone of another race is a matter of taste not racism, so never let that be an issue.

Don't worry :-D.

Laura said...

In the UK I'm much more likely to chat to strangers. My French isn't quite up to speaking to strangers yet and I don't know if I would be able to spot a weirdo!

I think that if you're in a public place, it's light and you feel safe then go for it. It's not really so different from meeting up with strange bloggers is it?

pinolona said...

True! And to be fair, I also don't feel nearly as comfortable in French as in English.
I don't mind talking to people; the one thing that bothers me though is that if you realise they are a weirdo, or if they start to annoy you, or if you have had enough and just want to go back to reading on your own, it can be difficult to withdraw from the situation once you've responded to the approach.

Jeannie: it's true: often I just want a break from the stress of social interaction!
I'm in Belgium by the way, not France ;) and I'm pretty certain the guy was also a foreigner. But yeah, it would be good to have some kind of guide to deflecting unwanted attention in French (Italian, Polish, Dutch, etc)!

Regarding racism: I grew up in Sevenoaks, which is a very white, middle-class English town, and I spent the past couple of years in Kraków, which is also white and conservative (immigration is on the rise in Poland, but it's nothing like as integrated as London or Brussels). However, Brussels is pretty multicultural, and Sevenoaks is not a million miles from London, which is a melting-pot, so there's no reason for me not to be used to meeting people from other ethnic backgrounds. I'm worried that I have some kind of unfounded prejudice against or preconception about men from certain backgrounds, and wonder whether I should be taking steps to correct that.

peixote said...

"Correct" what exactly? Either the concept of dating outside your race appeals to you or it doesn`t. Better yet, either the one particular person appeals to you or he doesn`t. All there is to it. Nothing to correct becuase there is no standard to compare against.

Jeannie said...

I know you're in Belgium :-), but I thought, since he had a thick accent, that he could have been from France. I can't speak for Belgium, but I do know that French men from France are forward (at least I've watched enough French flicks to find out that French "characters" are and I've been there before and experienced it for myself).

pinolona said...

Peixote: it's not that so much. I know that either you're attracted to someone or you're not. But I think it's possible to have prejudices which cause you to make an assumption about someone which may prevent you from getting to know them better. I'm not sure about dating 'inside' or 'outside' one's race... genetically human beings are very similar, even from different 'races'. What I think ought to be corrected is my tendency to make snap judgements based on (assumed) origin/ethnic background.

Jeannie, I'm not clever enough to be able to tell the difference between French and Belgian accents unless it's really obvious :)
I have to say that I didn't find French men in France particularly forward, but then maybe I'm spectacularly unattractive :)

Michael Dembinski said...

There was a good article in Gazeta Wyborcza recently (probably originating in Nature or New Scientist which said that racism is indeed inbred in all of us and primarily a defence mechanism against the 'other'.

We need to be aware of our biology and yet be able to rise above it.

"Spectacularly unattractive"? The same Pinolona I met in Warsaw last January? Shurely shome mishtake!

basia said...

hi pino:
I had a similar experience a few years ago when I wrestled with the notion of "opening" myself to opportunities/exchanges with strangers.
It almost didn't end well.
I was in a rather deserted part of a large city park during daylight hours with my very placid 100 pound dog.
I was approached by a man my own age dressed in a trenchcoat seemingly wanting to engage in "conversation". The trenchcoat became rather important when his hands disappeared from view and got "busy" under his coat. I called my dog in (she took her sweet time) and I snapped on her leash. I positioned her between us and quickly got on a well travelled path.
There is a time and place for openness. Trust your spidey senses Pino. Your personal safety should always come first.

Anonymous said...

"I thought about how many intriguing conversations [rape, robbery etc. - ed. note] with fascinating people I was missing out on by refusing to speak to strangers in the park (on the train, in a cafe, etc)."

"just how far should I trust my instincts?"
Pino, trzymaj się go (instynktu) tak mocno, jak mocno sobie ufasz. To zależy od założeń, jakie przyjmujesz - czy wolisz przegapić atrakcyjną okazję kosztem nieprzyjemnego spotkania, czy na odwrót. Niemal instynktownie powstaje, nie obalona do tej pory hipoteza, że człowiek działa na zasadzie ważenia korzyści do kosztów. Jeśli żyje Ci się dobrze z dotychczasowym nastawieniem, to nie ma sensu tego zmieniać. W mojej opinii, kiedy będziesz potrzebowała zmiany, zrobisz to instynktownie. Czyli: tak czy siak warto trzymać się swojego podświadomego (kiedy piszemy o instynkcie) sposobu bycia.
Masło maślane?

"I'm worried that I have some kind of unfounded prejudice against or preconception about men from certain backgrounds, and wonder whether I should be taking steps to correct that"
Ja nie lubię wieprzowiny. Czy to wina niepoprawnego politycznie uprzedzenia, czy kwestia smaku? Myślę, że tu Jeannie miał/miała rację.

"But I think it's possible to have prejudices which cause you to make an assumption about someone which may prevent you from getting to know them better"
Nie wiem, dlaczego w ogóle się nad tym zastanawiasz tak mocno. Szukasz w sobie ukrytych/podświadomych zwyrodnień, które nie pasują do idealnego świata lewicowych grup pracujących nad korygowaniem ludzkich subiektywnych kryteriów (przy okazji: wcale się nie zdziwię, kiedy powstanie organizacja promująca równość w muzyce - "wszystkie gatunki są równe, potrzebne i powinny być równo traktowane, publikowane, prezentowane na antenie i mieć swoich przedstawicieli w rządzie!"). Kwestia gustu, pogodź się z tym. Jeśli Ci to pomoże, to mogę napisać, że osobiście chciałbym Polski silnie zmonopolizowanej przez Polaków (martwi mnie wypieranie polskich tradycji i muzyki przez zachodnie wpływy), ale podobają mi się mulatki i Azjatki. ;]
Z żadnej rasy za to nie lubię ludzi grubych. Błe! ;]

"Nature or New Scientist"
Michael Dembinski, I wouldn't believe these magazines in social sciences (especially for their subjective commentaries above science work, which makes them highly non scientiffic). It's happening for almost ten years now (or more). If You need good source of information, check academic press.

"We need to be aware of our biology and yet be able to rise above it."
What's the proof for this thesis?

Norman said...

previous comment was mine.

Jeannie said...

This might be an interesting read on the subject:

Korie said...

Interestingly enough, CB is probably the most aryan looking guy I've dated, although all the guys I dated were caucasian.
I have talked to strqngers before, though usually they are homeless guys rambling at the tram/bus stops so figuring out that they're shqdy isn't difficult.

I don't know...if he asked to chat and you were in an open public place, it may've been interesting to chat for a couple minutes and see if he was worth talking to. Obviously thoughm had you been isolated or in a bad neighborhood, leaving would be the smart thing to do.

Michael Dembinski said...


"We need to be aware of our biology and yet be able to rise above it."
What's the proof for this thesis?

Here, indeed.

Though I dabble not in proofs nor theses.