Strangers on a train, a bus, a plane or at the next table in a restaurant, have always served as a source of characters and story inspirations. I’m not sure when I started making up stories about my tangential encounters with strangers, but I’ve been doing it since I was a child.
The woman dining with a little girl — indulging her granddaughter’s every whim — becomes the kind of chatty character who provides important, and yet seemingly irrelevant, observations in a mystery. Two puffed up businessmen in pricey suits, become rivals for an important promotion, with deadly consequences. A sullen teenager, shrinks with embarrassment at her parent’s confusion about the menu prices. Are they really very clever spies, drawing attention to themselves as naïve travelers in order to deflect scrutiny?
It’s all fodder for fiction.
One of the great things about traveling to places where I don’t speak the language is that I’m unlikely to uncover the truth about the people I observe. I spun a long and twisted tale about the young, Japanese man in the seat across from me during my train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin. He was just short of completely terrified, taking tiny sips of water and, occasionally, swallowing a pill.
We shared the first class carriage with four adult members of a German family. They were so obviously a family and were enjoying the smoked salmon sandwiches they’d carried with them along with beverages from the dining car. The father in the group, a jovial man with a big smile, helped me figure out the outlet for recharging my Kindle without a word of English. The Japanese kid kept leaving his seat and returning very quickly with a quizzical expression. It wasn’t until I walked through several cars to the dining car to buy a coffee, that he finally ventured far enough away to come back with some apple juice.
He’d been afraid to ask where the Germans had bought their coffees and Cokes. It’s funny, but even when I was in Japan, I could make myself understood about basic needs. For me, it was about getting over my inhibitions and simply trying. You won’t have deep conversations, but you can get yourself a coffee! Anyway, the hum of another language becomes the soundtrack supporting my observations. Not knowing what’s actually being said is freeing. It’s like going to an opera sung in Italian and making up your own libretto. I’ve done that and it’s fun!
Strangers on a train, a bus, a plane — and even on stage — all inspire fiction that travels far from its source.