Having Dinner With Strangers At Middlebury
11/21/11 12:50PM Bianca Giaever Jane Lindholm  Download MP3
John Glouchevitch, who graduated last year, is the original creator of the event at Middlebury. He got the idea when he was studying abroad at Cambridge University during high school.
(Glouchevitch) "They eat at long tables and everybody's in such a rush to get back to studying that nobody really sits wherever they want. They just take the next available seat so you end up surrounded by people you barely know."
(Giaever) Glouchevitch felt that college should be for meeting new people, but at Middlebury he found it hard to sit down and talk to people who weren't his friends. I experienced the same thing at Middlebury, and wanted to see if his idea for Dinner With Strangers would still work here.
I began daydreaming by looking around class and imagining different groups of people forced to make dinner conversation. And then, a few weeks ago, I finally got the strangers together and recreated the event.
I found the strangers by asking people I knew about people they knew. But even with a mutual friend, I felt really creepy when it came time to ask random people to dinner. One guy asked if it was a blind date, whereas another girl replied in an email that she was "amazed, astonished, and flattered" to receive this "wonderful invite." In the end, all guests seemed to be excited and honored to attend.
Then, on the night of the dinner, the guests trickled in.
There was a basketball player from the Bronx, a freshman from Texas, a girl from Iran... and suddenly two of the guests began speaking Farsi to each other.
(Giaever) I had each guest write down a question they wanted to ask the group on a notecard and put it in a pile. I used these questions to structure conversation that we could freely wander from if we chose to do so. The first notecard we drew asked "In what ways are you still able to play?" and the second one asked "How do you find meaning in life?" The conversation ranged from how Chopin sounds like the Trojan War, to learning bird calls, to reality TV, to earthquakes, to why we love our moms, to what its like to have cancer.
After we finished eating I talked to the guests about how it went:
(Greenway) "I liked how as the dinner progressed you started to see more and more of people and as people become more comfortable with each other they shared more and more things."
(Giaever) That's Luke Greenway, he's sophomore from Seattle who loves theater. At dinner he sat next to Hae-Song Jung, a senior from South Korea and an excellent pianist. She also thought the dinner was a success.
(Jung) "Something about being totally unprepared for such an occasion just takes all your defenses away and you're like alright, I'm just going to roll with it. It was totally a conversation you wouldn't have on campus. In the dining hall with your friends you're always talking about homework. And so when we were talking about the joke about the leprechaun nuns to the penguin story and then that went on to like a 30 minute discussion about whales, everything was all connected, our brains."
(Giaever) John Glouchevitch, the creator of Dinner With Strangers, was so excited the dinner was happening that he made a special trip to Middlebury so that he could attend. He said the dinner reminded him of all the reasons he originally created the event:
(Glouchevitch) "There's so much we inevitably have in common with all the people around us its just that we haven't spent enough time talking to them, and how could you ever? People come and are surprisingly honest for what you would expect. There's something about being able to share your feeling and thoughts for a couple hours with complete strangers that is very freeing... I feel great right now, I don't know about you. I feel so optimistic and energized and it lights you up, it's crazy."
One of two guests with no connection to the college was ER doctor Mike Kiernan, who was also our guest chef. He took his job as chef very seriously and prepared a multi-course meal that integrated hand roasted corn, fresh sea scallops, and raspberries from his garden. His participation in the dinner as a community member was refreshing, and I asked him if he thought a dinner with strangers could be replicated elsewhere.
(Kiernan) "I think it would be a great idea for communities that don't ordinarily come in contact to have the opportunity to have dinner together. Find out about their shared experiences and frustrations and challenges and maybe forge alliances. And a lot of the rewards around connection have to do with sitting face to face and having a conversation that's device free and that's what dinner table is and that's what this was tonight."
At the end of the evening each dinner guest wrote down the name of someone they thought should come to the next dinner. Of course, these firsts guests won't be invited again because they are no longer strangers.
For VPR News, I'm Bianca Giaever in Middlebury.
(Host) Bianca is continuing to host these dinners every month, and the next one is scheduled for Nov. 20th.