“I like your earrings!” I looked suspiciously at the woman who addressed me in the Central Business District of Sydney, Australia. What did she want? Money? Was she trying to sell something? Or maybe on a mission to evangelize people? I tightened the grip on my purse. “Have a nice day,” the woman said smilingly and carried on.
Of all the dangers of Sydney (venomous funnel-web spiders, slippery cliffs and too much good food) there’s one phenomenon that calls for a special warning: friendly, chatty strangers. I know, they should be rare in a city of 4,5 million people. But they’re just everywhere: at pedestrian crossings, behind the wheel of a taxi and at the next table in a breakfast cafe.
They startled me at first. I was taking a picture of a sign that said “don’t touch sea dragons” at Manly Beach when a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder. I immediately assumed I was doing something illegal (that’s what you get from hanging out in Switzerland) but he merely pointed out an actual sea dragon that was sunbathing a few meters from me. Then another stranger appeared, offering to take a picture of Spouse and me. She didn’t charge us for it, nor did she steal our camera. Weird.
I slowly warmed up to the chatty friendliness of the Ozzies. I started greeting other hotel guests in the elevator. I allowed myself a brusque remark about the weather to the guy making my decaf-soy-latte. Eventually I was discussing football with a supporter from Melbourne in a Jacuzzi and evaluating the Irish economy with a dentist in a store called Pie Face.
Once I had started, I could hardly stop. Returning to Europe I was taken aback when the guy checking my passport didn’t smile at me and didn’t return my greeting. People often say Australians are friendly because they enjoy great weather, a prosperous economy and a laid-back lifestyle. It seems a bit strange though that we would need se many excuses to be friendly.