When we moved to the countryside from the city, twenty-five years ago, we were struck by the open friendliness of people. Passers-by would nod or smile, shopkeepers would chat and neighbours quickly became friends. There has been a gradual change: village life is drawing ever-closer to city life. Now, bumping into people in the village has taken on a literal meaning as they walk along reading and sending text messages. There is no need to stop for a chat or to seek out the local gossip since the most private of affairs are bellowed into mobile phones for everyone to hear.
I, however, have found a way of grabbing attention.
Meet Ruby, a twelve week old cocker spaniel who belongs to my friend, Dr P. I look after her on Fridays while Dr P is on duty. When Ruby and I go out for a walk, everyone stops to admire her and to talk doggy-talk. We have made friends with a whole range of people from babies to octogenarians; even teenagers have put their mobile phones in their pockets in order to pet Ruby.
This experience reminds me of walking around Hampstead, pushing my first grandchild in her pram. People would smile fondly at her if she was laughing or sleeping and sympathetically at me if she was crying. Shop assistants would chat about their own babies or grandchildren. London seemed a very friendly place.
I wonder why we need the excuse of a baby or a puppy to make contact with strangers? Is it just because we are English or is this a universal trait? Were we friendlier in the past or is that my imagination? A friend came to visit us yesterday. He recently retired and is having a wonderful time travelling around England's canals on his narrow boat. He said that people will wave from the towpath, offer to help with the locks, walk alongside the slowly moving boat and chat about boating and life in general. But..... when he moors the boat and walks to the pub or the local shop he becomes a stranger again and is totally ignored.
Maybe a puppy, a baby or a boat is a kind of visibility cloak, temporarily singling us out as interesting or perhaps "safe" people to speak to. Whatever the reason, I am enjoying Fridays in the park with Ruby.