Sympathetic Souls

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I’ve just finished reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and it was such delightful and refreshing read. Ann Patchett was correct in her assessment that “the book is like a salve.” We must thank the author, Amor Towles, for creating a most beloved protagonist in Count Alexander Rostov, whose enlightened approach to house arrest (reversed exile?) gave me pause. 

I savored every page, every vignette of this book…and with four hundred and eighty pages of content, there was plenty of savoring going on! About two-thirds of the way through, I came upon a dialogue that conveys an idea about strangers that relates to my blog.

It’s the dialogue between the Count and an American Captain named Richard, whom the Count befriends in the hotel bar, and it goes like this:

The count set the snifter down with a laugh. “I suppose you’re right. Something must be weighing on my mind.”

“Well then,” said Richard, “gesturing to the empty bar. You have come to the right place. Since days of old, well-mannered men have assembled in watering holes such as this one in order to unburden themselves in the company of sympathetic souls.”

“Or strangers?”

The captain raised a finger in the air. “There are no more sympathetic souls than strangers.” 

Personally, I feel quite open and receptive when I meet a stranger, especially when traveling. There is something about a brand new encounter, a nascent relationship, that can provoke me to open up in a way that I don’t with my “core team.”  

I believe many people have similar experiences with strangers, where they find it possible to share a part of themselves that they keep guarded with an entrenched spouse, parent, or friend. Billy Joel keyed into this 40 years ago when he wrote a whole album called The Stranger, with a title song that asks: “Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?

There’s something in the stranger’s anonymity that can make us feel safe to bare our souls; and yet, walls go up when we think about Strangers collectively (as in groups of people, or cultures, with whom we are unfamiliar.) I don’t know exactly why or how this happens, but I’m fairly certain that fear of the unknown is involved.

Food and drink are two very effective antidotes, so to return to my book, it doesn’t surprise me that Count Rostov is able to connect with an American man over drinks in his hotel bar. When strangers sit down to eat or drink together, for whatever reason – business relationships, seating assignments at various events, adjacent counter stools at diners – good things can happen. 

Sources: A Gentleman in Moscowby Amor Towles (page 301) and Ann Patchett’s quote accessed from ‘About A Gentleman in Moscow’ on February 4, 2019 at

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