A personal account of one of this year's Reading-on-Thames Festival events by Megan Siarey, festival marketing intern and volunteer at the event. 

Feast of Strangers with Theodore Zeldin, a renowned Oxford University philosopher, historian and author, was an event that had a massive impact on me and was one of the highlights of this year's festival programme

Set in the Roost at Thames Tower on Friday 7th September, strangers found themselves sat opposite each other working through a series of questions. These questions were set out in the form of a menu, each theme under menu sections, Soups, Starters, Salads, to name a few. Real food was also provided!

Theodore has studied the evolution in relationships and emotions in different civilisations over the centuries, and how these connections can be altered today in a conversation that creates trust between strangers. 

He says: “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts, they transform them… Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards, and it involves being willing to emerge a slightly different person.”

Opening the event with words that described the importance of communication, and a story about Syrian refugees, Theodore Zeldin used examples to highlight the fear we have in strangers. He encouraged us to listen and think widely, after all, this event was one to learn from, not only others but ourselves too. 

The setting at the top of Thames Tower was perfect for the occasion, with views that went for miles, up high above the hum of Reading. In the quietness, there was the ability to focus solely on the conversation in front of you. This event was one I was looking forward to the most, the mystery surrounding it all was so intriguing. We, the attendees, really did walk into the dark with this event. It was only when we were participating that it fell into place. The concept is so simple and effective that I feel that in modern day we over thought it and expected something 'grander' almost than a 'listen then speak' conversation. 

All festival events require volunteers to keep things running smoothly. After serving everyone their food to "feast" on, the volunteers and I sat down and participated. At the beginning we had some hesitations in talking, but as the discussions continued, a huge conversation topic was the interaction between cultures. With two people born in the UK, and one born in Argentina and the fourth born in Poland, it was fascinating to hear the different perspectives, but also understand the similarities between us.

We started on 'How have your priorities changed over the years?' and ended up conversing on so much, that we ended up working through a lot of the other questions as well. The volunteers and I are such a diverse range of people, in age, culture, languages, and up-bringing, yet in a way, we shared the same journeys with the growth and life learning, concluding in us landing at the Roost. 

There was positive feedback from everyone I spoke to after the event, and there was a fair few attendees who continued their conversations, either straight after the event or had exchanged contacts details with the once complete stranger.

The event highlighted three major life lessons; 1) Live within the present, chasing after a vision of life isn't always the best path. 2) Strangers can offer you so much knowledge and skill sets. 3) Be kind to those who seem initially 'different' to you, and take time to learn from them.

After this event, I have found myself more aware of the people around me. Particularly those whom are initially different, may it be through culture differences, age, language, customs, up-bringing, as ultimately we are all humans and our experiences have so many similarities even across these boundaries. If you ever get the chance to attend one of Theodore Zeldin's events, even if it isn't a Feast of Strangers specific, I highly recommend.