(and the power of face-to-face chat)
London can feel like a pretty unfriendly place sometimes, even more so since actual conversations are being replaced by social media (debatable I know). Either way I always make a point of smiling and saying hello when I pass people I don’t know on my road, particularly elderly people who I’m guessing don’t get their social fix from a smartphone.
Recently I’ve become quite adept at striking up actual conversations with them. It helps that I’ve got something practical to offer now, if I can possibly manage to steer the conversation on to the subject of FOOD.
Which is why I regularly find myself ditching the online Sainsbury’s shop in favour of a trip to Lidl. Not only is the old lady pushing her trolly down the aisle presumably already thinking about food, but being indoors and having something to hold on to usually means she’s quite happy to stop for a minute or two. I always keep a few flyers in my bag in case I spot a potential diner when out and about.
A simple, ‘ooh they look really good’, at the tangerines being prodded for firmness can be enough of a conversation starter. Or, if they’re looking at something that needs cooking I might ask them what they'd do with it. (This tactic works particularly well with meat I find, despite the fact I’m not actually in the slightest bit interested, as I rarely cook it. I’ve learned all about how not to overcook a pork chop and even enthusiastically put some in my trolly before, only to put them back on the shelf later when the person isn’t looking.) Then usually, all it takes is to ask whether he/she enjoys cooking and I’ve got my chance to suggest they might like a meal brought round by a neighbour occasionally.
The same topic-steering conversational advantages apply in traditional restaurants and caffs. Not that they’re easy to find these days mind, even in Streatham where the tide of industrial-chic with its exposed brick walls, distressed crate tables and mismatched, vintage chairs has definitely reached. Having said this, the new Blackbird bakery on the high road is bright, welcoming and refreshingly full of a nice mix of all kinds of people.
Older people often really want to talk to somebody, so rather than small talk, these impromptu conversations can be meaningful, heartfelt, interesting - and funny! Running errands on Streatham High Road may take twice as long nowadays, but I’ve been known to come home feeling strangely elated, and usually more connected to my community.
The project is going well; already over 100 cooks have signed up. And before I blame social media for EVERYTHING that is wrong with our society I should point out that without Facebook, only a fraction of these would have come forward. But as far as the diners are concerned, smiley emojis are meaningless. A real, human face is much more effective in persuading them to take part. And other already-established, local organisations are starting to refer since I've been meeting with them too - in case anyone is starting to worry I spend all my spare time stalking old folk in supermarkets...
Anyway, next time you realise you’ve run out of milk, STEP AWAY FROM THE LAPTOP. If you’ve got time, get yourself down to an actual shop, talk to people and you might thank me for it when your mood is lifted too. Even better, if you’re up for a spot of sleuth supermarket shopping, get in touch and I’ll pop some some flyers in the post.