I don't adjust well to unfamiliar cities. Alien streets hold a sense of fascination; the passing crowd captures my eye as I walk down footpaths, trying not to look completely lost. I often wonder whether I'm radiating an invisible message to those I pass - "I'm not from around here."
So I find myself in Melbourne, a flying visit, arriving early one morning, the next afternoon I'm gone. Work causes the day to pass in the blink of an eye, but eventually the artificial companionship I feel disappears, as I walk out of the doors of the office, my backpack slung over a shoulder. The confused walk to my hotel room begins, and the sense that I know what I'm doing rapidly fades. Each step down the street takes me further away from the safety of relatively familiar surroundings, further into the alien stomach of this beast.
I keep forgetting to check for trams as I'm crossing the street.
If the streets are lonely, the hotel room is worse. I need to slide open the door onto the balcony, just so that I can hear this city I find myself in. Silence is no friend to me right now. It's not enough though - no matter what I hear, it's artificial. The television news, sounds of people talking and laughing on the street. None of them are talking to me. I'm not here.
I need to find a bar.
Eventually, I find myself at an idyllic establishment, sitting on a busy city corner, opposite Flinders Street Station. It's difficult not to be impressed at its scale, its beauty. Nothing like this exists at home. Wandering in, I find an empty stool at the bar. And realise - never in my life have I sat drinking at the bar. Always a seat elsewhere, with a view outside into the street if possible. Tonight though, drinking alone, it just seemed like the place to be. It felt right.
As it turns out, that feeling didn't lie.
Half a beer later, and I realise that I've managed to get absorbed by the conversation between Ted and John. I guess Ted was in his sixties, John wouldn't have been too far behind. Ted was drinking Guinness, John red wine. I have no idea how I managed to enter their conversation, but for whatever reason, my thoughts were suddenly important. Wanted. So I began to talk to them.
And the talk flowed like water, shifting from topic to topic. John convinced that it was important I talked about my parents, my family, my upbringing - my opinions depended on this information. He spoke to Ted about books he'd been reading recently, one dealing with men who didn't talk anymore, and why. The other escapes me - I know it was something about human relationships though. It seems that John's interested in psychology, human motivation, human conditioning.
Ted was interested in my past as well - only he was more interested in the music in my life. Whether it had been present. Whether I loved it still. And I found myself falling into the conversation of two old men, telling Ted how my mother had sat by my bed when I was young, and too scared to sleep...singing to me. Soothing the fear away, until I slept. That was important to Ted.
And John kept on flinching in pain, reaching around to his back, a look of agony on his face that slowly faded away to something approaching normalcy. I wonder how much pain he endured every moment, whether his idea of normal would be something I couldn't begin to comprehend. These spasms would pass, and he'd take another drink from his glass of wine.
Before too long, John left. The pain had won again.
"You know, he could have been anyone. Could have been a millionaire, some successful businessman, anyone. But he's happy to sit at a bar, have a yarn to someone he doesn't know, just talk. It's a great thing, that."
It was only then, I realised that we were all in the same situation. Two guys, who had never met each other, sit down at a bar. One starts talking to the other, and a conversation starts. Before too long, another guy arrives, and he gets drawn into their world. He learns new things, he hears their ideas. None are afraid to disagree with the others, none are afraid to give their own opinion. The others actually listen. I find myself wondering - is the honesty amongst strangers more alive than amongst friends?
So that leaves Ted and me. He's happy to talk, and I'm happy to listen. Truth be known, I'm enthralled. And the conversation ebbs and flows, topics tumble over each other. We talk about sport, and passion. I hear Ted talking about his school, so many years ago, and the teachers that touched his life. Like the teacher who understood that he was running in the school cross country barefoot, because his parents couldn't afford decent shoes. Still...he came in third place. And the teacher who understood his love of writing. Who could see to the heart of what he was trying to say - even though the expression may not have been perfect. Ted talks about a bar in Melbourne, many years ago. The owner opened up the lounge area to bands, just so they could come in and play. Get together, and jam away. How some of the early icons of Australia's music scene played there - somewhere they could just go, amongst other musicians and music lovers, and play from the soul. No pressure. No expectation. Just the shared love of the high.
It seemed like I'd been there for no more than a heartbeat, but before too long, we were both standing, ready to go our separate ways. Ted telling me that he hoped everything that I dreamed came true. Replying, telling him that I hoped that too.
Walking away from that bar, down streets filled with strangers, I noticed something different.
This city didn't feel so alien any more.