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In praise of dinner conversation with random strangers in airports... and pipe organs

You are in an airport at dinner time. You are hungry. Do you:

  1. Grab some food from a fast food vendor/pushcart, go to your gate area, put your music player headphones on and tune out everyone around you while you eat.
  2. Grab some food from a fast food vendor/pushcart, go to your gate area and start talking to the people around you while you eat.
  3. Go to an airport restaurant, sit down alone at a table, bury your nose in a book and/or put your music player headphones on and zone out while eating.
  4. Go to an airport restaurant, sit down alone at a table and attempt to strike up random conversations with the people sitting next to you, who are also dining alone (and who aren't buried in their book or music player)

Given that on any personality test like Myers-Briggs, I pretty much max out the Extrovert scale (big surprise, eh?), you can imagine that my choices are usually either #2 or #4. I've learned over the years (painfully, sometimes) that extroverts like myself can be sheer horror for our polar opposites, the extremely introverted. And even the extroverted sometimes want to just zone out or have some peace (there are times when I want that!).... so I won't intrude if someone looks adamant that they want their space. But if someone is open to a conversation, I'm usually more than happy to join in... for one basic reason:

Everyone has a story to tell and you can always learn interesting things from random conversations.

Take last week. I was travelling home from Atlanta and was stuck in Newark for a couple of hours. I went into ...

... a Pizzeria Uno restaurant and sat down for my incredibly healthy dinner of a beer and a small sausage pizza. I was on the end table in a long row of 2-person tables. There was an empty table next to me, and then a table with another single gentleman (also with a beard, albeit all grey, and also ordering a beer and a sausage pizza), and empty table next to him and then at the other end of our 5-table row, a young couple (also having beer and pizza). It was about 8pm and as President Bush was to give his State of the Union address at 9pm the TVs were full of the usual pre-State-of-the-Union predictions, analysis, guessing, etc. We all sat there, nursing our beers, until one of the couple said something like "So what's he (Bush) really going to say of any value?"

Ice broken. Conversation can ensue. 

Of course, politics can often be a deadly thread to follow, given the passion involved, and so I'll often choose not to lead with that topic. I guess the good news is that the vast majority of the USA right at this particular moment in time is united in their disapproval of the current administration's policies (which, in and of itself, is a fascinating state of affairs), so you turn out to be fairly safe with that tack.

The political discussion dwindled (I mean, what, really, can you say when all in agreement?) and I wound up having a longer chat with the other gent next to me. He turned out to work for a company in Pennsylvania that repairs and restores church pipe organs. He'd just returned from Bermuda where he was looking at an organ there that a church would like repaired. The big issue in that tropical part of the world turns out to be termites! They'd eaten significantly into the wood of the organ console, but they now appeared to be gone and hadn't gotten into the assembly supporting the pipes. Given that the church I go to in Burlington, VT, just recently had its own pipe organ refurbished and that I have a bit of an interest in older musical instruments and moreso in older crafts, it was a fascinating conversation. It turns out that one of the vulnerable areas in pipe organs is the leather used to, if I understood it correctly, essentially cap off the bottom of each pipe when it is not being sounded. I learned that some of the leather used in very old organs is still holding up today, while some of the leather used in later years was not as good quality and decayed more rapidly... and that pretty much all the leather used in organs today comes from, I think, a few farms in... I want to say... Australia or something like that. That when new pipes are made for pipe organs, they are still made in the same fashion as hundreds of years ago, with each pipe made and soldered by hand... which accounts for the fact that new pipe organs are likely to cost upwards of $500,000 USD and why most churches look to refurb what they have. That in all the refurb/repairs that they do, the organ console includes digital elements. We talked about the change in pianos today (hint: you can't really find a "real" piano in stores anymore, they are almost all synthesizers with weighted keys)... and a myriad of other subjects.

Fascinating conversation over a beer and a small pizza... and one of the reasons why I will very often join in or start such random conversations. I've learned an amazing amount over the years on topics that I would never have even remotely explored on my own but yet which can turn out to be fascinating.

We all have stories inside, waiting to be told. Some of us will tell them more easily than others. Some just need someone to listen and/or ask the right questions. (And some just want to keep all their stories private.) Some stories are exciting... others mundane.  Sometimes it may take a bit to get to the interesting parts, but very often I find that people underestimate how interesting their stories may be.  (... or perhaps it is just that I find people's stories fascinating and am always interested in learning more about this amazing species we call humanity.)

What do you do when having dinner in an airport?