Four Strangers at a Dinner Party

Hopping the Pond

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It is a warm Californian evening of August 2021. I have only been in Berkeley for a few weeks. My three housemates and I sit apprehensively on our terrace; the sounds of a new city and the smells from new neighbors’ kitchens swell around us in the Pacific breeze.

Eighteen months behind doors had infected us with an unabashed desperation for new friends, so we devised a plan. Much to my surprise, here we are, executing it. 

We are hosting a dinner party and our guests will be arriving soon. However, this is unlike any dinner party I have previously hosted. This dinner party has two rules.

A: Each housemate must invite one guest.

B: No other housemate can have ever met (or even heard of) this guest. 

The foreshadowing of the evening’s potential awkwardness hangs like a threatening cloud over the table and a knot of regret tightens in my stomach. Why have I committed to such a ridiculous idea? The unusual quietude tells me that my housemates’ thoughts are not dissimilar to mine.

“My guest is here” one of them says, phone in hand. The knot tightens; even the Pacific breeze momentarily holds its breath. I have been nominated to greet all guests. As I tread blindly towards the fate that waits behind the gate, I think back to a time when I would have sacrificed anything to be where I am now.

Scotland. January. My very old (and hence, uninsulated) apartment. Alone. This part of the city was empty for the holiday season. Half a foot of snow lay on Edinburgh’s gothic streets and the thermometer boasted lows of 21F. My central heating, too, was still enjoying the festive break.

My days began in a cold mist of my own breath; I would awaken in darkness. Proper daylight only lasted from 9:30AM – 2:30PM. I was working remotely in pre-production for a film: a winter smog of spreadsheets, contracts and Zoom meetings. My fingers were grateful for the warmth of typing and the brief (albeit corporate) company of these calls was assuaging. As the pandemic raged outside, these were my only proper conversations for weeks.

For some reason, I took to cosplaying a grossly under-qualified prophet during this isolation. 

I began to coat my freezing walls with ‘mantras’ scribbled on sticky-notes. With the clarity of hindsight, this behavior is excruciatingly ostentatious. However, in an icy loneliness it felt innate, almost productive.

Their level of profundity fluctuated. From ‘All anger stems from insecurity’ to ‘Bins on Wednesday’, the most memorable of all was on my wardrobe. It was a quote by Sir Walter Scott that I first saw on a plaque in Waverley Station. To this day, it is the most important advice I have ever come across: ‘I have rarely, if ever, found anyone out of whom I could not extract amusement or edification.’

In this state of solitary confinement, my days felt bland. My mind and extremities were numbing. My purpose was hollowing. 

Though it wasn’t obvious, my conscience craved other people: the interpersonal exchange of amusement and edification. Every human has this to share and we must approach others accordingly — with a mind that is grateful, and open.

Eight months later in sunny California, far from sticky-notes and frosty Lothians, I remind myself of Sir Walter Scott’s words.

Gritting my teeth, I open the gate.

I offer a sweaty hand to Guest One, a peaceful 26-year-old working for a local startup. The others arrive in a close convoy. Guest Two is a kindhearted elementary school TA. Three is an exchange student like me, but from Venice. Four is a bubbly and personable senior.

I am pleased to confess that my seminar the following morning found me slightly worse for wear.

United in our stranger-hood, the night sailed on a flowing conversation. The eight of us comfortably opened up to the candlelit table until the early hours.

There were revelations: One and Two were blind dates from Tinder. There were lies: a $26 bottle of wine. Histories: growing up in a small Kansas town. Vulnerabilities: the purgatory of young adulthood. Joys: mutual expansive Eurovision knowledge. And sorrows too: namely, a post-dinner encounter with beans on toast, cooked up by yours truly.

Aside from anecdotal delights, the significance of this dinner is its testament to the spirit of Berkeley residents; everyone arrived with zero skepticism. There was an unspoken pact of enthusiasm and openness that all, though nervous, committed to arriving with. This convinced me, a newcomer, that it really is the people who make Berkeley.

I would call this quality of Berkeleyans self-assurance, but this feels reductive. It’s equally an assurance in others — a confidence in ‘getting-along’ with strangers. One rarely finds this back home in the U.K.

Berkeley has much to offer an outsider such as myself. Not only amusement and edification, but also another ‘mantra.’ If, in January, I had possessed a gram of the knowledge that Berkeley has thus far bestowed to me, above my frosty bed would be a note going something like this: ‘Default optimism is the best gift to bring to a dinner party of strangers.

Stanley Stott-Hall writes about finding his Berkeley bearings as a Brit. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.