We were in Trafalgar Square in London, staring up at the National Gallery amid swarms of fellow international travelers, visitors from nearby, and locals going about their days, when I did something I almost categorically never do: I let myself get sucked in to buying something I didn’t want.
Part of visiting the National Gallery in London is interacting with, or at least observing, the people who make a living by trying their best to get your attention in front of the United Kingdom’s second most popular tourist attraction. And, for me, that usually means smiling awkwardly and saying “no thank you,” when I’m approached, or trying to pretend I don’t see the man painted in gold who is standing very, very still. But this week, when walking through Trafalgar Square during my first time in London, I took a picture of the gold man, then put my change in the hat on the ground next to him. He broke his stillness to nod at me, which charmed me–and set off a bit of a chain reaction. A few moments later, a grim reaper who seemed to floated gestured to me, a man surrounded by drawings he’d done in chalk turned toward me, and someone had motioned me to lift my hand. It was the last one that got my attention almost without me realizing it, and I realized I had already lifted my hand toward him. He told me to put out my pinkie finger. My instincts told me first to pull away, but then, in a moment of clarity among the hubbub, I thought, “I’ll just see what happens.”
The man placed a loop of red, white, and blue thread around my pinkie and crossed layers of the thread over a bracelet wrapped up in what I called a “tube bracelet” (alternating tubes of color) in my friendship-bracelet-making days. While he did this, he asked me about what I was doing there. I told him I was visiting from the U.S., and he said my country beat his in the World Cup. I also learned that his sister was a lawyer in D.C. and that she wanted him to move there, but he couldn’t because he was taking care of his wife and children. In less than a minute, he had created a little bracelet that called to mind the Union Jack, and tied it around my wrist.
At that point, Chris came over and said hello, and then the man asked him if he wanted one, at the same time saying Americans typically gave him ten pounds (about $13 US) for two bracelets, but we could give him whatever we wanted. Ten pounds was, of course, absurd. I was planning to give him one pound. But then he pulled out an already made bracelet and offered it to Chris, weaving in mention of the ten pounds he usually got from Americans as he had weaved the threads of the bracelet. We ended up giving him about two pounds, thirty pence (about $3 US).
It was, overall, a fairly unremarkable experience. However, it slightly altered how I think about the whole idea of soliciting and peddling in high traffic areas. I’ve never had ill will toward the people who do it, but my generally shy nature has always pushed me to steer clear of the interaction. And, until that moment in Trafalgar Square went smoothly, I hadn’t realized why.
I’d avoided those situations in the past for a simple reason: because I felt like I didn’t know what was going to happen. But, this tiny interaction showed me that I did know what was going to happen and, more importantly, that I could trust myself to respond adequately regardless of what happened. It also showed me that coming off $3 I didn’t really want to spend wasn’t the end of the world.