Tea at 36,000 feet (Cup #21)

I'm not certain what it is about flying - but when you are 36,000 feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean- talking to a complete stranger doesn't seem like such a crazy thing to do any more. I know this because, well, as I sat on the plane from London to New York, I wasn't the one fishing for a conversation.

Is it the inevitability that you will rub elbows for the next 10 hours? The fact that, at some point during the flight, I will have to excuse myself - interrupting what may well be the only decent 3 hours of sleep that Betsy and Richard will get? As weird as it sounds, it would seem that flying completely changes the social nature of a human being. We've grown into creatures who crave comfort and predictability. We don't trust that which we don't know. On a plane though, it becomes impossible for us to maintain that level of isolation. We become painfully aware of the people around us. Each time they adjust their position, every cough, every sneeze - every time they doze off on your shoulder sending a stream of drool onto your lapel - it's a bit disappointing really, that it takes that much to force us to be okay with sociability.

Back to Betsy and Richard though, and I guess an explanation as well about what I was doing 36,000 feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean in the first place.

To be honest, I was actually quite content to mind my own business when Betsy asked me where I was off to. I know that goes against the message I have found myself preaching, but I guess, at some point, it's inevitable that the need for balance will rear it's little head and enter into the equation. While this quest to meet 100 strangers might suggest that I spend the majority of my time approaching people in the street, the reality of it is actually quite the opposite. I am getting better at it, but talking to strangers is still very much a challenge for me. I still get nervous. I still have those moments where, when silence creeps in, I begin to panic in the face of an awkward moment - which, of course, only serves to perpetuate the problem that may well have not existed in the first place. I like talking to people, it's true - but my preference tends to lie in keeping to myself. I still have a long way to go.

I wasn't exactly sure how to answer the question Betsy had just so innocently asked. Maybe she was just making small talk, just being polite. Did she really want more than an answer in short form? Did she care where I was going and what I would do when I got there? Should I tell her from the get go that I was on a plane from London to New York to meet a stranger for a cup of tea? Would she be ready for the conversation that an answer of that magnitude would require? I guess it would be an interesting ice breaker...

I decided to hold back though - talked around the questioned - thought I would buy myself a little time. We talked about the photography expo that her and her husband, Richard, had just attended in London. About the book Richard had written that had been nominated for an award at that very expo. I told the couple of my own interest in photography and film, admitting that, as high school came to an end, I nearly ventured to film school in pursuit of a career in the film industry. Richard seemed delighted, he was a film man himself - spending some time in the industry, but later leaving the hands-on behind to teach to the next generation the skills he had acquired. Betsy was a social worker by trade. I told her that my girlfriend was a social worker as well. Funny, the things you can have in common with the stranger seated next to you on a plane.

But Betsy still did not have a satisfying answer about the purpose of my trip, and so she asked again.

'So, where did you say you were off to?'

Both her and Richard looked to me for an answer. They seemed genuinely interested too. I didn't want to lie to them. And I certainly couldn't put it off any longer - so I told them. I told them everything. I told them of my move to London and the immediate difficulties that a move of that nature had created. I describe the social nature of a city like London, one that had welcomed them with open arms they said - but they were only there for the weekend - the magic hadn't worn off yet I suppose. I told them about my desire to create more conversation in the world, to challenge the growing interest in isolation. I talked about the need to challenge my own social preconceptions, the habitual way that I make judgements about people I don't know. I told them about 100 cups - my journey to have 100 cups of tea with 100 strangers, and how I hoped that this journey would change the way I look at the world and the people around me. I shared stories of my journey so far, of all the wonderful people I had met, and of all the wonderful people I am sure are still out there, as keen as ever to join a guy like me for a cup of tea. And I told them about Mo, the journalist from Philadelphia that I was off to meet. The reason why I was on the plane.

I was beginning to feel a little silly, playing with my tray table as I unloaded my story on a couple of New Yorker's who now call New Jersey their home - but as I looked up for the first time in since launching into my tall tale of self-discovery-meets-social-experimentation, I knew that they understood. They probably wouldn't have invited me to bring my girlfriend to visit their country house in Vermont if they hadn't.

In that moment, I knew there was only one thing left for me to do. Reaching up, I pressed the button to call the flight attendant.

'May we have 3 cups of tea, please?'

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