Tales From The Town Crier

Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Listen to the tale of Michael Wood!

He’s an award-winning town crier, keeping that ancient tradition of public proclamations alive. He’s traveled across England — and even to Hollywood, California — to share his unique art, as he told me during a dinner interview late last month.

But as I learned over a meal of fish and chips at a village pub in northeast England, there’s much more to Michael’s life story. From a self-described “chaotic” childhood to more than 20 years in the Army and a host of unusual jobs since, he has plenty to talk about.

In addition to being a town crier (which he still does to this day) in the East Riding of Yorkshire and elsewhere, Michael has performed as the menacing cowboy Black Bart, Mr. Sinister at the London Dungeon, Father Christmas and much more.

Click on the pictures above or on this link to read about my evening with Michael and his wife Margaret, then click here to visit Michael’s website.

Looking Back On 2015

With another year almost over, here’s a look back at the strangers I met in 2015.

For the second year in a row I managed to adhere to my self-imposed goal of meeting at least one stranger for a meal every month. This year also marked the first time that I’ve ever reunited (on the record) with any of the strangers, writing a two-part article about a luncheon to discuss the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with three New Orleans residents that I’d previously interviewed.

I’m incredibly grateful to each and every one of these people for taking a chance on dining with a random. Though I don’t stay in touch with every stranger that I meet, each one leaves me with lasting, fond memories. Here are the people I met this year:

  • Stranger #70 (January 29): Started the new year with a fun interview — laced with several potent cocktails — with author Gary Krist. We raised a sazerac or two and enjoyed some Cajun food in the District as we discussed his book about the battle for modern New Orleans.
  • Stranger #71 (February 25): Dr. David Sherer is an anesthesiologist by day trade, but also an avid writer as well as sometime inventor, and during dinner in Washington, DC, he told me about all three of his interests and which one he likes the most.
  • Stranger #72 (March 19): A lengthy meal at a top-class steak restaurant in the District to meet with Jacki Barnett, one of the founders of the charity In Christy’s Shoes, which holds shoe fashion shows and fundraisers to help raise money for women in need.
  • Stranger #73 (April 23): Craig Schattner told me all about his video series Dated, in which he explores the highs and lows of trying to date in DC.
  • Stranger #74 (April 27): During a trip to Milan, Italy, I had dinner with local Federico Leidi, who told me about his hobby playing in a Beatles tribute band.
  • Stranger #75 (May 21): Mark Echeverria, proprietor of the landmark Hollywood restaurant The Musso & Frank Grill, treated me to a great dinner and a tour of the place as he told me about how he revived the venue and his future plans.
  • Stranger #76 (May 24): Dinner at the Palm steakhouse in Beverly Hills with actor Fred Melamed and his wife Leslee Spieler Melamed. In part one of the interview, they talked about Fred’s experiences with acting. In part two, they discussed other topics including Fred’s interesting life story and the Melamed family’s hobbies.
  • Stranger #77 (June 25): DC-based public relations executive Jenny Wang told me about her journey from China to Washington, via an upbringing in rural Pennsylvania.
  • Stranger #78 (July 30): Another dinner in the District, this time with Meredith Denbow. She’s bringing FuckUp Nights — seminars where people talk about their business failures — to the city.
  • Stranger #79 (August 31): Barbara Crocker is a longtime Washington resident who told me over a meal of French food about how she stays young at heart with a host of activities including hiking major mountains and fundraising for her alma mater Georgetown University.
  • Stranger #80 (September 5): A reunion with New Orleans residents Dr. Brobson Lutz, Mary Burns, and Buzzy “Beano” Langford to discuss the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In part one of the interview the trio told me about their thoughts of the city a decade after the storm. In part two, they shared what they’ve been up to since I first met them.
  • Stranger #81 (October 1): Immigration attorney Amber Murray told me about her work in Washington specializing in asylum and human rights cases.
  • Stranger #82 (October 12): Vaughn Irving, creator of the Halloween attraction DC Dead (an interactive zombie hunting game) explained how he came up with the idea, and discussed his future goals.
  • Stranger #83 (November 6): I was honored to spend an evening at the official residence of Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America Martin Dahinden, who talked about his role as a diplomat while also educating me on the importance of Swiss cuisine.
  • Stranger #84 (December 2): Ines Verbeke is a blogger from Belgium who is cycling across the United States and writing about her experiences. While she was in DC, I got dinner with her to learn more about her interesting project.

I’m meeting one more stranger in December during my ongoing holiday back in England, but that interview won’t be online until next year.

On the off-chance that any of the strangers featured on this site are reading this — regardless of when we met — thank you so much for the wonderful experience of meeting you, and here’s to another year of random dinners in 2016.

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Back in England for Christmas and mostly relaxing rather than meeting strangers for dinner — although I tentatively have one last dinner for 2015 coming up next week.

In the meantime, here’s a festive throwback Tuesday to that time in December 2011 when I met Ed Downey for a meal in Silver Spring, Maryland. He told me about his decades-long career working as Santa Claus. Ed started growing his beard (it’s real) in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when he started a second life as Father Christmas.

But as I learned during our lengthy dinner, Ed has an incredibly interesting history involving travels across the world and much more. It made for a fascinating tale covering not only his Yuletide work but much, much more.

Click on the picture above or on this link to learn about Ed’s life.

Cycling Through America

Ines Verbeke is cycling through America.

She was born in America but raised in Belgium, and long yearned to explore her country of birth. Taking a break from her career, she’s finally getting to see the States.

Earlier this year, she flew across the Atlantic with a vague plan of buying a bicycle and riding through the states that she finds most interesting. She’s using her blog to write about the places she sees and the people she meets — including getting dinner with a stranger.

While she was in DC earlier this month, she reached out to get a meal together. Over a meal of Ethiopian food, she told me about her journey so far and her future plans.

Click on Ines’ picture above or this link to read the interview.

Margarita’s Merry Christmas

This festive post is really a nostalgic throwback Tuesday in disguise, but ssssh.

To get you in the holiday spirit, here’s a reminder of that time in 2009 I spent sipping wine and singing Christmas carols with Cuban singing sensation Margarita Pracatan. We met at her apartment in Manhattan, and tried our best at belting out — or in my case, spoken-word singing — three tunes. It’s like having your own pair of Christmas carolers!

First up was our rendition of “Merry Christmas,” which speaks for itself.

Actually, our joint attempt at “Feliz Navidad” is also best presented without commentary.

Finally we decided to mix things up by singing the hit “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” although it’s evident from the video that I forgot the lyrics pretty quickly. Whoops.

My night of singing with Margarita came just one year after my December 2008 dinner interview with her at the now-shuttered restaurant Fusha. Click on this link to learn about the life of eccentric, lovable Margarita, including her journey from Cuba to New York — and a stop in England where she gained fame on Clive James’ talk show in the 1990s.

If you live in England and want to see Margarita live, here’s a reminder that she’ll be performing a New Year’s Eve party in London. Go see her!

Give My Love To Hull

Hull, England, is a place where I spent many years of my life — and now former dining stranger Lorraine Bowen has written a song about the city.

Although I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for 11 years now and counting, I spent my (rather plump) childhood and teenage years — complete with awful curtains haircut — growing up in Hull. It’s a cold, rainy port town on the northeast coast of England, in case you’re wondering. After three years living in London at university, I spent another few years back in Hull working for the local newspaper.

That sheer amount of time spent in one city means that even now I keep tabs on developments back there, including what my former colleagues at the Hull Daily Mail are writing, whether Hull City is going up or down the football league, and anything else I can find out from across the Atlantic.

So it put a smile on my face to learn about Lorraine’s new song.

Called “Give My Love To Hull,” it’s a cheery tune that is bound to put a smile on your face. The lyrics are somewhat different from most love songs (including “I had a laugh in the chippy/I had chips and a patty/The people were chatty/They told me about chip spice/They said, ‘Go on and try it’/I did, and it was nice!”) but hilarious.

The song, which is available to buy on iTunes, is typical of Lorraine’s upbeat, offbeat style. She and I met back in January 2013 for a fun dinner in London. We spoke about her early start in the music industry, how she developed her unique style of singing and songwriting, and much more.

Click on this link to read about my meal with Lorraine. And as an added bonus, at the end of the meal she found a random piano and played me a tune — the clip is in the article.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

A brief update on Michael Hitchcock, the 65th dining stranger.

Michael, a well-known actor and writer (including work for the television show Glee and several Christopher Guest movies such as Best In Show) is now a co-executive producer and writer on the CW comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

I met Michael in October 2014 during a trip to Los Angeles. During a very enjoyable lunch at the restaurant Taste on Melrose in West Hollywood he told me about his extensive career and how he got started in the entertainment industry.

The Swiss Ambassador

Martin Dahinden is the Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States.

He’s also the 83rd stranger to dine with me for this site. His staff at the Swiss Embassy were incredibly generous to arrange an evening meal last week for Martin and me, taking place at the gorgeous Swiss Residence in Washington, DC.

Martin and his family have an apartment on the second floor of the residence, while the ground floor — laid out to resemble the cross on the Swiss flag — is used for formal receptions and similar events. That’s where a table for two was beautifully laid out, and I enjoyed a four-course dinner with a menu designed to promote the Swiss contribution to cuisine, something Martin is eager to discuss.

Click on Martin’s picture above, or on this link, to learn all about the role of the Swiss ambassador and Martin’s goals during his time in Washington.

In Transit

There’s an interesting new site launched called In Transit, in which blogger Evy approaches random strangers while traveling and asks them for their life story.

As described on her “About The Blog” page, In Transit “explores the stories and lives of people who are waiting in areas of transit. Why are they there? Who are they waiting on? Where are they headed? These are some of the questions my interviews attempt to answer as I turn my attention to the people who are sitting still in areas of bustling commotion.”

The interviews are a good read, and I’m in awe of Evy’s nerve in approaching random people in public. In contrast, Dining With Strangers is typically organized by me emailing someone or a stranger booking a dinner with me.

Another FuckUp Night

FuckUp Nights, the group that hosts discussions about the lessons learned from business failures, is holding its eighth event in Washington, DC, on November 18 at 7pm at WeWork in Dupont Circle. Click on this link for more details or to register for the event.

As the hosts describe it, “FuckUp Nights is a monthly event where awesome people talk about one of their biggest professional or business failures in a candid and irreverent way.”

I learned all about FuckUp Nights when I dined with stranger Meredith Denbow, who organizes the events in the city. While she took the initiative to get the organization going in the District, she told me that the success of the events is a group achievement. “Surrounding yourself with a good team when you’re trying to pull off something that’s really big is essential,” she said during our meal at Jyoti.