The artistry of small talk

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wing. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred – Ernest Hemingway

It felt like an overwhelmed young butterfly in a field of ripe, fragrant and sweet flowers. Uncertain where to fly to first, where to land first and where to dip in my innocent butterfly mouth into.

Small talk is not a craft I have a natural talent for. I am all talk with friends and family, though when I find myself in a new environment with new people, I jam. Lacking confidence, I tend to carry myself awkwardly, clumsily through social events and conversations, where I often remain quiet or mumble something incomprehensible that’s completely off topic. I am sure everyone has their moments of self-doubt and what I’m describing here is anything but new. It, however, was a recent issue I had to overcome, which I thought I had conquered years back.

Hospitality is an area where you constantly work and interact with people. There’s no escaping it unless you opt to dedicate yourself to a life of repetitive napkin folding (which I reckon isn’t too bad; it’s quite relaxing). Yet, either as a waitress, food runner or bartender, I had no choice but to engage in conversation once every 5 minutes; it completely unbalanced me. Even though I’ve been working in hospitality for almost 9 years now, this job required me to socialize more than I ever had to.

With a queer fondness, I think back on when I was just a small, hyperactive kid who one day got struck by the realisation of self-consciousness. I similarly remember the day and the actual situation when I felt shame for the first time, and I’m sure most people do. Anyway, I went from a constantly talking child to a nervously shy one, where I would turn purple any time someone talked to me. On many occasions, I even fled the site of confrontation. After a few years of social anxiety and loneliness, I decided this was not a living and I planned to throw myself into it all in order to gain friends. It worked, despite the occasional failure. I taught myself how to talk, even though it didn’t come naturally. Eventually, it was easy.

Coming into a new environment like I did last year with no one around me I knew well (besides my partner), made me recall those shy days and how I went through a lot of effort to conquer it. And even though it’s not great still, I did put myself out there. The most amazing thing I realised later, is that people generally don’t really care if you act in a reserved way or sometimes laugh awkwardly or remain quiet when you ought to have said something. Besides the fact that most people roughly remember 90% of what they said themselves in the social interaction, they also recognize their own social insecurities and look past them. In the end, everyone’s self-conscious in one way or another.

In addition, it’s beautiful when people do open up to you. I find it impressive and exciting when someone tells you their story. On how they travelled to Australia from Ireland after meeting her Dutch husband. How they’re happy to finally have the weekend so they can celebrate their 2 year anniversary with some champagne. In the end, it’s worth the effort to try to make small talk, for it can be so rewarding getting to know random strangers and making new friends.

A report on Australian hospitality

The Islanders are renown for their unconditional friendliness and genuine warmth, and I can vouch for that. Throughout my stay in Australia, I feel like their constant hospitality utterly astonished me. Besides the odd grumpy one, they have such a developed sense of empathy and an understanding of how the human mind likes to be treated.

Hospitality is the immediate environment where it can be noticed. ‘Instant gratification’ -the need for humans to feel acknowledged and praised-  is common sense in the world of beer pouring and cocktail making. An instant smile appears when I tell them that Hendriks Gin is also my favourite gin for a GT. I am still amazed by the laid-back way a bartender can ask ‘how their day’s going’ and how the lazily leaning-on-the-counter Australian would reply with a genuine report on their day’s activities. “Oh you know, I just finished a tough workday, got some bad news from my auntie in New Zealand, she might need to be hospitalized, – yes, the Panhead XPA would be great, thanks- but yeah, everything’s fine, just having an easy afternoon with my family-in-law. How’s your day going?”

In my head, I keep comparing to what I’ve been used to in my almost 9 years of experience in hospitality in the Netherlands. Hardly any words are exchanged in the transaction of a Dutch individual requesting a Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier at any bar and if I even have the nerves to ask them how their day’s been, I’d receive the bluntest reply possible. Not that I’m here to rain down on Dutch mannerisms, though there is something to learn from this massive difference in culture. Although I have to admit it was rather hard for me to get to understand their small talk, it now feels as if I’m building an emotional bond with every customer who lands at my bar for an Afternoon Delight. I absolutely love it.

There’s something to say for both parties. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to discuss your reason to decide to drink a double bourbon-coke at 11am. Nevertheless, these brief conversations offer someone a brief peek into their personal life, which gives the general Australian a feel of vulnerability and neighbourliness.  Even if I tried really hard, I couldn’t find a way to not love this country and its inhabitants.

A Game of Books and Restlessness

… I climbed the three staircases, raised the trapdoor of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and long dim skyline – that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.. I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.  – Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontie.

I always felt that Brontie explains Jane’s emotions so well in this paragraph, where the reader can easily identify with her too. Restlessness has always been a major puzzle in my life, both physically and mentally. Reading books did not come naturally to me. Neither did being able to sit down quietly or having the patience to finish something properly (to the frustration of my parents). High school was a trial, especially getting the grades needed to graduate. I like to think back with a curious fondness to the moment I received the call from my mentor whether I had graduated or not. That man in particular was a dry, wrinkled and humourless teacher, though an honest man which he confirmed when he spoke to me that day on the phone.  “Hi, Elise, I have received the results from your tests and well,” he uttered in his slow, monotone voice, “I did not expect this but you have passed.” No hint of sarcasm, no sound of a quick smile. I was happy nonetheless and continued to struggle with my restlessness throughout university.

As I got older though, I actively undertook steps to learn to sit down for a while in order to read. First, a page or two were almost unbearable for me, but after a while, I read page after page and now, if I feel like I have absolutely nothing else to do, I can read a book in a day. I read ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in one day each – yes, I feel I’m allowed to boast a little about this. On the road trip around Australia, reading was my main entertainment in the evenings. We collected half a library in the back of the car and in order for me to stop buying books since I’d finish them rather quickly, I decided it was more profitable if I bought larger books. Naturally, I started to read Game of Thrones from George R R Martin. I can assure you when I saw the books for the first time, I could’ve never dreamed that I’d be able to read through all of them, but I did. It feels like an accomplishment, besides the fact that it was made easier since the books are utterly captivating.

Now, reading books is a relaxing experience for me, though I still have to tell myself to sit down and stop fussing about all the other things that need to be done. Rather to think of reading as a mandatory exercise needed to learn something or maybe for the aesthetic of it all, it truly opens up a new world filled with wild dragons, heated discussions, stonecold zombies, fiery passions, unsalted opinions and unexplored universes.

 

The man on the bus

A lovely sunny morning had made way for an ominously cloudy afternoon, and so I took the bus to work. While the drizzle softly ticked against the windows and streetlights flashed by like fireflies in the night, I noticed a man sitting in the corner. Now, since a bus is a public form of transport and since the evening was not so far advanced that everyone had retreated to their bedrooms, it was not particularly unusual to see a man on the bus. Neither was the fact that this man had his head rested against a yellow pole, snoring peacefully yet noticeably. To be fair, I reckon everyone’s had had their share of bus napping.

However, what caught my eye most was the way he was dressed. He was a man of advanced age; silvery streaks through his dark brown hair, prominent eyebrows (and a prominent under chin, I have to add) and a large belly, where his hands rested on. Yet while this man slept harmoniously, I observed that he was wearing a beautifully coloured jumper, which could’ve been handmade. Horizontal stripes in a vague orange, pink and blue, made me think of the type of jumper the Weasley’s would wear. I expected to see a wand tucked in the back of his trousers at any moment. In the same style, a woollen scarf, casually draped around his neck and shoulder and on his head, a tweed flat hat like the ones from Peaky Blinders. I absolutely loved his appearance. He was the perfect fusion of a slightly more sophisticated George R R Martin, Ron Weasley and a golden retriever.

I suppose he caught me examining him when the bus suddenly stopped and the man roughly awoke from his fine dreams, looked around startled and caught my eye. An awkward moment followed where he clearly felt embarrassed,  even after I’d smiled at him.  And in the gloom of the afternoon, he shuffeled out of the bus, adjusting his hat firmly to his head and taking his cool jumper with him.

Frosty the Snowman

He was not that type of guy who would willingly dive into anything serious. Although his heart would secretly yearn for commitment and safe affection, he could not find it in himself to put his restlessness at ease. He had tried, believe me, but all had failed. Some he would have wounded, some he would have neglected, some he would have forgotten, and some he would have vexed, though not her. Despite his rebellious ego, his besieged pride, he could not let go of her. It was a paradox; like a maze he could not escape from. There were moments he felt as if he was wriggling and kicking against strangling hands wrapped around his throat, yet the same feeling gave him excitement, ecstasy. She was as menacing, frustrating, displeasing, puzzling and perplexing as a woman could possibly ever be, yet the same she was exhilarating, invigorating and addictive. She felt like a cool, misty breath taken on a frosty morning, with a sky painted icy azure. Your lips would tingle, your hands would prickle and your nose would turn red, and even when the cold would freeze you through to the bones, a passion of life would capture you, as if you have not lived ever before.

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