Monday, August 13, 2012

People of Gainesville

It’s that time of the year again. People move out, others move in. So many neighbors I never got to talk to, although many walked by me or bumped into me at the mailbox every day. I used to be much more open and eager to start a conversation with strangers turned friends when I first moved here. That’s the thing I liked about Florida. It’s not the weather, although the warmth and not having to dress in layers is nice, but the humidity ruins that anyway. It’s the people. I’m reminded of that of that every time I see someone loading a moving van. Open and approachable, relaxed and curious of others. I come from a big city in Poland where pedestrians are more private, very much to themselves. You would not start a conversation with a random person, they would not stop to compliment you. I couldn’t count the times I got sucked into a conversation on the bus with someone I didn’t know. I would not be able to tell you how often I ended up cracking jokes with someone in the check out line. You would say it’s because they were closer to my age, Gainesville has a youthful scene and that attitude is part of the college experience. But I also remember that when I first moved here and my parents stayed for a few weeks to help me get situated some girl turned to my mom on the street to say ‘I love your dress’. She turned to me thinking she misunderstood something, because how and why would anyone approach a stranger so directly to say something so random and so nice? It’s not that the Poles aren’t nice and helpful people. Apparently the tourist that visited Warsaw during the Euro 2012 soccer championships were amazed how willing the locals were to give them directions. But this is not how you make friends, at least in a big city. When I was in New York and the crowds passed me by never looking at me, noticing me and just going their own way, that feeling was familiar. There’s a scene in the Tom Cruise movie Collateral where the main character mentions that you could be dead on the NY subway for many hours before someone realizes you’re not breathing. This is the feeling of anonymity and unimportance in ways that I recognize from big cities. Avoid contact, be always suspicious. When I moved to Gainesville people were interested in getting to know me. I was also much curious of other people. My new found independence gave me this new medium to meet people and go places. So I engaged in a lot of conversations and exchanged phone numbers plenty of times. I’ve lost most of them and I forgot most of the faces. But this ease with which you can approach anyone has helped me a lot and given me confidence. I remember meeting a soldier that just returned from Iraq to his newborn daughter. He had her name, NOVA tattooed on his arm. We talked about life, hope and fate and it was fascinating to me how you can connect with a random stranger with insight and perspective so different than mine. I was going to an induction ceremony at an honors society that I skipped completely. An unexpected friend seemed more interesting than any on campus activity. It was 2004. I don’t remember his name but I remember the experience. And I had many long and random conversations since then. Not planned and going on for hours. Since then I got more cynical and in ways more structured. And I miss that sense of wonderment in how I saw Gainesville, myself in it and my freedom. I remember thinking- why do people tell me there’s nothing to do here as they get lost in sex and booze when there’s so much you can learn from another human being in the middle of the night. That’s also how I met my friend Josh (I wrote about that last month). Bars, shops, caf├ęs all became exciting places to meet people with amazing life stories. Then, the law school drama unfolded. Then, I was dealing with immigration for many years, just trying not to fall apart. Being in a dark and lonely place changes you and of course you grow up. I still try to put people first, I live in a town where people come and go and I have a profession that involves studying and understanding others. And once in a while I get that feeling back.   

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