When we first moved to Poland I was surprised and a little shocked when I passed people on the streets and said, "Hello." or smiled a little and they quickly looked away and sometimes gave me dirty looks. It made me feel as though I was in a different world, one where nobody knew me, and everyone disliked me already, before they could have any reason to.
While visiting in America someone stopped me in the middle of the aisle at the grocery store because they just had to tell me that my son has the cutest glasses they've ever seen in their life and that he is just such a darling boy. At the shark petting area of the aquarium someone comes up to me and asks if my sister's little boy is my son (she pointed. She didn't ask, "Is your sister's little boy your son?" that would have been so weird.). I tell her no, he's my nephew and she says, "Wow. You guys have the exact same color of hair. It's a really neat color. It has just a little bit of red in it." I love that these perfect strangers understand that I might care about something that they observed and so they share. As if they know I'm a person too, and think I might be a nice one. This is how it should be.
In Poland I come to a point where I realize that saying hello to someone you don't know just confuses them terribly. "Do I know you from somewhere?" they're thinking, frantically searching their brains. When people are searching their brains it sometimes causes them to knit their brow. When people knit their brows, it sometimes looks like they're giving dirty looks. Even if they're not. I think I'm starting to get these Poles. A slight upturn of the corners of the mouth is okay, though it's almost never returned. Smile! It makes people wonder what you've been up to. Maybe I'm just making people wonder about me. . .
In the States I observe my sister laughing with other women who are also shopping for children's clothing. I sort of wonder if their kids go to school together or something. The next day while at the checkout stand in the grocery store the woman behind us in line says, "Your little girl lost a sock, it looks like." I glance up and see that Su's little girl's right foot is socked, but the left is bare. I turn my head slightly back to the woman and say, "Oh, yes. Thank you." without looking at her face. I let Su know and she thanks the woman and starts talking about what might have happened to that sock and how it's terrible to get in the car and realize you're missing something etc. etc.
I stand there, in between the two of them, while they chatter on as if they enjoy nothing better than talking about Beth's socks. And I wonder what has happened to me? Why didn't I at least look the woman in the face while I thanked her? Have I completely lost my ability to engage a stranger in conversation or even to make eye contact? Would I soon just start ignoring people that talked to me if I didn't know them. Maybe I'd start punching them in the face?
All of that happened a few years ago. I'm hoping that I've learned a little since then. Still, it takes a bit of effort for me. And I can't do it in Poland, although Greg sometimes starts up conversations and is nearly always conversed with (I think it's because he's handsome. And smart. And funny. Oh, and his Polish might be better than mine.)
So, people, enjoy your fellow Americans. And if you ever see a woman with once-blond hair with a hint of red in it in the store, don't be offended if she doesn't strike up a conversation. And if you smile at her and she gives you a dirty look, forgive her. She's probably just wondering where she knows you from.