Never judge a book by its cover… With this idea we approached him, the strange, confused man that was kicked out of the Starbucks we were just standing in because of his wild rants and uncontrolled shouting. He was sitting there, just outside the same Starbucks on Times Square when we approached him and asked him that one question: “What do you seek in life?”
At first he was skeptical. He didn’t trust us, thought we were maybe from the police. After we gained some trust, he opened up to us. He explained that he sought liberation. He sought to be liberated from the police. He believed that we are controlled by all that we see. He elaborated on his answer by using mice, science and the New York ‘system’ as his examples. “We are all slaves of the society…”
Although his answer was pretty odd, it was unlike anything we expected. He was truly interesting, and we would’ve never said so. He was someone who had a story to tell, someone who needed to express his thoughts. Of course, he was mentally incapacitated to a certain extent, but he wasn’t taken serious by anyone. He was a book, constantly judged by its cover.
I hear you thinking: Why this question? Well, we had been philosophizing the night before and we (jokingly) concluded that we considered this question the most interesting one to ask. A question that captures your personality and makes you think about yourself. Once we heard this man shouting in the Starbucks, we knew we’d have to ask him. And so we did. But it did not stop with only this man…
We decided to move on with it, ask more people on Times Square. We got the most beautiful answers that night. We got so surprised and inspired by all the wonderful things that strangers had to share that I knew I wanted to continue with this. I brought the question home and wanted to explore the thoughts and ideas of one of the most open-minded, culturally diverse and crazy cities in the world: Amsterdam. And that is how Declenimo was born.
Declenimo derives from the old Gaelic word ‘Declan’, which means ‘Full of Goodness’. We changed it into Declenimo in which we indicate a moment that is full of goodness, referring to the small talks we have with the strangers. I approach complete random strangers and ask them what they seek in life. The idea is to get inspired by an answer or inspire one to think of an answer. At first, I would keep the interactions always short. I would take the answer and then thank them for their time and that’s it. But as I progress in this project, I have longer and longer conversations with the strangers. I get to know where they’re from, what their story is and every now and then I even make new friends. I’ve learned many life lessons from the strangers that I meet. And it is not (only) the white-collar high-end people that taught me valuable lessons, but people from all over the society. From students to homeless people to street artists. Everybody has their own story and we learn from our own experiences and memories. Sometimes, the most inspiring words come from the people that you would expect the least.
The goal is to ask 101 people in Amsterdam what they seek in life. I know, why that number? Well, the idea is that I ask 100 strangers what they seek in life. At the end of the adventure, I will be asking myself as the 101st person what I seek in life. This project has already changed my view on people and my life so much and I can’t wait until I have all the answers collected and to read them back, thinking about what I seek in life.
“So, you just approached them and like… ask them?”
“I wouldn’t know how to talk to someone just like that…”
“Wouldn’t people sometimes get angry? I think it’s scary to just go and talk to a stranger…”
All I need is another stranger and around approximately 15 minutes. That’s all it takes. Nobody gets angry if you ask them for their time. What is the worst that could happen? They say they don’t have time for you and you leave them alone. Obviously, you always need to be careful when it comes to people you don’t know. It’s a learning process and you’ll teach yourself how to approach strangers and how to talk to them. If you’re standing somewhere on a busy square, to almost everybody around you, you are a stranger too. A stranger is a stranger until one of the two says hello.
It took quite some courage for me to approach the first few strangers in Amsterdam. The weird thing is that once you ask these people and you start to have an actual conversation, it feels so natural. It feels so comfortable and normal. And then you realize that he/ she is just a human. You realize that this interaction between human and human has nothing to do with race/ nationality/ skin color/ sexual orientation/ hobbies or whatever. It is just one stranger, telling their story to another stranger. And after you talk about their story, discuss certain elements and perhaps share a good few laughs, you are suddenly no strangers anymore. This warm feeling of connection, kindness and humanity. That is what we mean with Declenimo.
All the stories (so far) are published online. The difficult thing is that no matter how hard you try to document a conversation, it never gets as close as the real experience. You can’t describe accurately enough how the emotion on their face looked like, or how the cracking in his voice sounded like or how beautiful the smiles on their faces are. Life is beautiful, and so are the people. There are so many stories out there and all we see are the covers. Never judge a book by its cover. So ask yourself, or even better; ask someone else: What do you seek in life?
So far, I have asked 35 strangers of the goal of 101 in Amsterdam. Be sure to follow the progress on www.declenimo.nl. Ask a man a question, and he’ll think for the moment. Make a man ask you a question and he’ll think for a lifetime.