The familiar faces of strangers

Have you ever noticed that thing, when you’re travelling, where you unexpectedly see someone you know out of the corner of your eye? Except you don’t. On second glance you realise you don’t know them at all. They are a complete stranger.

This happened to me constantly when I first moved to Canada. My first few weeks were full of sightings of friends, family, the barista from my old local cafe, the ward clerk whose name I barely remember, the medical student from 3 years ago. And it was funny the things that brought them to mind. It might be a certain hunch of the shoulders, a glasses-hairstyle combo, a twist of a smile, or sometimes nothing particular at all.

I’m sure the neuroscientists would be able to explain why and how our brains do this, and perhaps there’s a perfect german word for it. But for me it’s just my mind trying to comfort me with familiarity amidst an unceasing sea of strangeness. Which only serves to leave me doubly disappointed when I realise that the tall man in a cap is not, in fact, my brother, and I hastily look away, embarrased by the hopeful eye contact I accidently made.

Things are changing. Now that I’ve been here a few months it doesn’t happen so much any more. My mind is too busy filling up with actual familiar faces: my new work colleagues, neighbours, patients, the barista from my new local cafe…

And, while I welcome the evidence that I’m beginning to settle in to this place, I kinda miss those old ghosts.

Cover image by funkblast: https://www.flickr.com/photos/funkblast/6689279
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2 thoughts on “The familiar faces of strangers

  1. This seems to happen during grief both in mistaking a person but sometimes as a hallucination. I found it unnerving when I thought I saw my dad after he died and it seemed to happen quite often at first but gradually grew less. It can also be unnerving when you mistake someone for someone else especially greeting someone’s new partner…..

  2. How interesting! When I moved to Dublin when I was 18 I kept thinking I was seeing school friends all the time. Then 5 years ago when I moved to Melbourne I experienced the same phenomenon. Both times it only lasted for a month or two, until I started to find a few local familiar faces and comfort zones. It must be our mind’s subconscious seeking familiarity in alien surrounding.

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