Nov 14. 2011

Life in the D: Talking to Strangers

by Nora

This post was also published in The HuffPost Detroit, on 10/17/11.

A couple of days ago, I was up in Traverse City and somebody asked me where I was living. I surprised myself raising my right hand at him, and pointing somewhere on my palm, Southward: “In Detroit!” I said. Real Michiganders are used to do that to help you locate their city: Michigan is shaped like a mitten.

While I had my hand in the air, I realized that this small gesture somehow gives Michigan a symbol – and gives its residents an intimacy with their environment. It might explain the strong sense of belonging you find here. Detroiters are pretty much the same way with their city.

When you walk down the street here, people acknowledge you: if you don’t get a “How’re you doin’?” you’ll at least get a nod. If you don’t respond or initiate it, this is when you become suspicious. Word. Whenever the sun shines in the D, the “porch culture” is on. Detroiters hang out outside. Even passing by on a bike or car, you gotta wave at whoever walks by. Whenever I wave at someone I usually get an even more enthusiastic wave back. By now, not waving at someone on the street feels downright impolite. This is a big change coming from a “big city” like L.A., Paris, or Budapest, where even in the subway you avoid eye contact at all cost. Maybe it’s because you know you’ll probably never see that person ever again. But in Detroit, meeting a stranger’s gaze soon becomes a game. Despite all this friendliness, I’ll be honest; I wouldn’t walk around my neighborhood all by myself after midnight like I did in Paris. Here only a few streetlights work. And yeah, we have four friends on the block who’ve had their car broken into or stolen within the last year – even though our neighborhood (Woodbridge) is known for being one of Detroit’s safest areas. Nevertheless, it got me thinking. Until now, I’d only say “hi” to a stranger if I were hiking past them in the mountains – and only at an altitude higher than 4000 feet. Now, I always try to be the first one who say Detroiters’ mantra: “How’re you doin’?” Because we all exist, and here we don’t let each other forget it.

  • Karin

    You are just amazing! I have shared your blogs & films with family in Illinois, & they are absolutely amazed at what talented people we are associating with. Keep up the excellent work!!! I love you both!

    • http://noramandrayfilms.tumblr.com Nora

      Thank you Karin for your sweet comment and support. YOU are amazing, and we’re lucky to have you. Hope to see you again soon! Love, Nora

  • http://www.inkinbloom.com Kinga

    This is one of the reasons I like living here also. You know how if you smile you will feel better even if you felt sh..y before? I feel like getting from home to school in Budapest was enough to make me feel like I’m the loneliest person in the world and the day is going to suck. Might as well just have my headphones on. But here it’s easier to meet people too because of the expectation that people won’t think you’re weird if you say hi or comment on something they’re doing or even the weather. It’s ok for me to yell: Beautiful flowers! to a lady on her porch, and she’ll wave and appreciate that I appreciate her flowers instead of wondering what my alterior motives are. The one thing that can happen though, is this simplification of how things are from the foreigner’s point of view. That’s what happened to me, and given that I was only 18 when I moved here, this contrast in friendliness and my naivete told me everyone was to trust and I did get into some sticky situations.

    • http://www.detroitjetaime.com Hélène

      Szia Kinga!
      It’s great to get your feedback on that, you clearly have your say in the story! I must reckon that people in Budapest subway/metro are among the dullest I’ve ever seen. No offense to anyone (I love Hungarians all the same!) but in Paris’ metro at least you feel you can connect (even if you don’t in the end), whereas in Budapest for some reason I’ve always felt like the place was inappropriate for human interaction;) which the movie Kontroll managed to catch very well!
      As for the tricky situations you can get due to the “amazing” kindness of the people, I totally know what you mean! Cultural differences are indeed funny to reflect on! In the D we were not quite sure how to react sometimes;)

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