Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Interview with Gregory Dion from 100 cups

I am so excited to share with you guys my very first interview on my blog and the lucky person I'm interviewing is Mr. Gregory Dion from the project 100 cups! What is more British then having a cup of tea?

It is amazing the kinds of things that people set out to do in our world. From the possible to impossible, everyday we are in search for adventure and the unknown. We hope that we leave our mark on this earth that served a meaning and possibly change and inspire the life of another. Hoping to help us understand the importance of communicating and getting to know some one new, Greg asks the question 'can a cup of tea change your life?'
To begin, please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you come from? What do you do for a living?
I should start by letting you know that I have never done an interview like this before! My mind is filled with questions... How do I answer? First person? Third person? Difficult business, this is!

I guess things all got started back in 1985 in Vancouver, Canada. I had it decided pretty early that I wanted to get started in this world, so 3 months before the due date, I said 'enough with this' and, well, I was born. Not surprisingly, that early start wasn't the most brilliant idea I've ever had – seeing as I spent the next few months in an incubator, hooked up to all sorts of machines to keep me alive. It might seem a bit weird, me telling you this – but I figure it gives a little insight into the rest of my life. I'm not good at waiting around. I like to make things happen. I like to think that I have the ability to be patient, but if I am honest with you about it, I don't... at all. I've had a number of jobs over the years – but I'm not sure that any of them would be fair definition of whatever it is that I do for a living. Back at home I spent most of my time working in a Fish & Chip shop. I started out washing dishes, and left 10 years later as the manager. Tucked somewhere in between all of that Fish & Chip business – I also spent some time in pursuit of a career as a musician. A guitarist since the age of 11, I eventually started a real band in high school. After high school, we decided that our band wasn't all that bad, and took a shoot at booking ourselves a tour. One thing led to another – maybe it was all the hard work, maybe a little bit of luck too – and we signed ourselves a little record deal, continued to tour around North America, made a couple music videos, released a couple records, and had a whole lot of fun. We weren't the kind of musicians who made any actual money, mind you – so after nearly 5 years of being broke and living in a van on tour, we decided it might be time to try something new. With the window for change wide open to me now, I went back to the Fish & Chip shop, met a lovely Australian girl on a hike, saved money for two years, spent 2 months backpacking through Asia, and another two relaxing in Australia, and then myself and the aforementioned Australian girl packed our bags and moved our lives to London, England.

Describe a day in your life.
Another one of those questions that become a little tricky to answer. It really depends on when you ask me this, I suppose. If I were to tell you about a typical day as they happen to be lately – I wake up around 9am , make myself some breakfast, do the dishes, and then switch on the computer. The next 8 hours could be spent doing any of the following: writing, answering emails, applying for jobs, making ridiculous travel plans to far off places for cups of tea, or cleaning up around the house that I share with my girlfriend Lou and 4 other strangers-become-friends in South West London. At some point, I'll hop on the tube towards Wimbledon to buy groceries. I might go for a run or to the gym at some point. Follow that up with lunch and a protein shake (not so much for the sake of growing muscles, more due to the fact that I don't eat meat!), and a cup of tea or two.

If my life seems a little dull lately, well, that's because it is! Previous to the dullness however, I had been in Australia for 3 weeks, and spent 3 weeks travelling through Vietnam sandwiched between a cup of tea in Philadelphia and a couple of weekends in New York. Those days were certainly not so dull, but I'm not sure either that it would be fair to consider them an average day in my life.

I guess, the reality of it is that the average day for me changes quite often. I'm in a bit of a weird place in my life – living in a, by all accounts, foreign country – even though England isn't all the foreign to a Canadian boy. My goal in moving away was to work, travel, and challenge myself to something completely new and different with the hope that it might give me a bit of a new perspective on life, a renewed sense of excitement. While it has by no means failed at helping me achieve that, I do still have days that feel incredibly average and dull – I spent my first 14 months in London working in restaurant management – not a bad job by any means – but not one that could ignite much passion with in me. Not one that invited much variation into my days.. I guess maybe that's what led me to writing – and eventually to having tea with strangers – the need to prevent an average day in my life from feeling too ordinary...
What is ‘100 cups’ and how did it all start? What inspired you?
I have to be honest and tell you that 100 cups, in many ways, started by accident. I had been living in England for close to a month, maybe a little more. Work was good, but not great. And as routine set in on me after spending close to 6 months gallivanting around Asia and Australia – all the excitement and magic that had once enveloped the idea of moving to England began to fade away. I was living in Windsor to start off with, just down the road from Windsor Castle (where the Queen likes to spend her weekends riding horses, and drinking tea I suppose). Each morning, I would walk to work with a smile on my face, in awe of all the incredibly beautiful history that could be found around each and every corner. I wondered about the people who once walked on the cobbled streets I now walked on. I wondered about the lives of all the people who had called this place home – a place I could now call home too. But a couple weeks passed, and I stopped wondering about these things. Walking past the castle wasn't making me smile any longer. I was becoming more frustrated with the masses of tourists I had to avoid each day. Life in England wasn't as exciting as I thought it was going to be.

At the same time as this decline in excitement was happening, I had become friends with one of the guys at work. Stefan Tarr is his name, a fella from New Zealand who had moved to London to make it in the advertising world, but now found himself serving hamburgers to pay the bills. We shared in the feelings of... deflation, of disappointment – and soon realized that, in moving away from our homes, we had also both left behind the creative projects that, at a time, kept us sane. We began to talk about how we should start a project of some sort – I guess we both just needed something to do, more than anything else. It started with a crazy idea to create a website based around all the things you can see and do in the London Underground network. The art within the stations, the sometimes interesting architecture, the buskers playing music. That idea didn't last too long though – we had gone into London to ride the Northern Line, getting off at each stop to see what the stations had in store for us. Not long into the adventure, I was stopped and briefly detained by police on suspicion of terrorism. After searching us, and running my name through the system, they were satisfied that we were just silly foreigners in London, and not terrorists after all, but needless to say, that idea was put aside. We then tried to figure out what the most 'English' thing a couple of foreign guys could do in London. The answer seemed like a pretty obvious one – we'd need to have tea with the Queen.

We talked about that for a while, trying to sort out how that might look, how we might be able to achieve something like that. After some deliberation, we decided that it might not be so well received by the British public. Over a cup of tea one day, as Stefan and I vented to each other our frustrations with the lack of human connection there seemed to be in London, I said that we should just have tea with ordinary people – surely we'd meet some interesting strangers, people with stories to tell, people willing to step away from the same old routine and sit down for a couple of guys for a cup of tea and a chat.

That's how things came about really. I eventually placed an ad online asking if anyone wanted to meet us over a cup of tea and replies started to roll in within the hour, leading to our first cup of tea with a good fellow named Lee Allen.

After the first cup, I began to realize the potential that something like this could have. The isolation and lack of excitement I had been feeling in London was, more than anything else, due to a lack of connection with the people around me. I had no friends, nobody to share my thoughts and ideas with. But the more I looked around the city I now called home, the more I realized that most people go through life in London just the same way. At that point, I decided that the goal would be to have 100 cups of tea, with 100 strangers – at the very least, it would be a pretty cool adventure.

Shortly after it all began, Stefan's career in advertising started to take shape. Being that his career aspirations had brought him to London in the first place, he had to give most of his time to that. On the same note, with each cup of tea that was had, I began to feel that maybe 100 cups was my reason for being in London. I had come searching for something more, and maybe this was how I would find it. Through strangers. Through human connection. What would it all lead to. Could a cup of tea change my life?

It was at that point that, over a cup of tea, I told Stefan that I was going to run with it. To really invest myself. To open myself up to every opportunity that came my way. To travel the world if I had to – to prove to myself and hopefully others as well, that every person that you pass on the street has the potential to mean something to you. To find out if a cup of tea could really change my life...

Is there a message you are trying to get across to people, if so then what? Or is this project just something for you?
100 cups is for me, and for you. I guess, on a personal level, it's nothing more than an adventure that I am on to test the limits of the ability we have as humans to connect with each other. Each cup teaches me something new, every stranger offers something unique to me, and I do what I can to offer something back. Advice, encouragement, adventure – every cup is something new for both of us, so in that sense, what it all means to me is always growing and changing. I have made friends – I see Lee Allen (Cup #1) every once in a while for a gig or a pint. I email and share ideas with the people I have met, help them with their own projects and ideas when I can.

In addition to that though, there is certainly a message I hope to project, one that becomes more evident to me with each cup. No matter who you are, or where you live – everyone interacts with strangers from time to time. It's an inevitable part of life. Though, with the rise of technology and digital communication, the need to face-to-face interaction is decreasing. We no longer need to go to the butcher for meat, the baker for bread, the tailor for our clothes, and the farm for our vegetables. We don't need to have those conversations that we used to have in life. Our obsession with speed in convenience is stripping life of the need for human interaction, and in a city like London (but anywhere else as well, if you look for it) you can really see and feel the effects. Because people don't have to interact like the once did, they simply don't any more.

More than anything else, I want to challenge that trend. I want to encourage people to talk again. I want to strip the word 'stranger' of all it's negative connotation. I want the world to remember the time when we had to talk, and I want them to remember how good it felt to connect with other people, especially the ones you don't know. Life is always offering us opportunities to connect, so I decide I wanted to take those opportunities and see how far they can take me. I want to seek them out, and share my stories with anyone who will listen. I want to show people that the fact that we are all human is grounds enough to connect. We don't need obvious common interests to have a conversation, for if we talk for long enough, we will realize that we, as humans, have a lot more in common than we might have thought.
How many people have you had tea with so far? What is going through your mind before you meet someone?
So far, I have had tea with 23 strangers, spanning 4 countries – and offers for tea in several more.

My thought process has changed since the start of all of this. By nature, I am a pretty introverted guy. Fairly shy. I have a tendency to keep to myself most of the time. I guess too, this has become a way for me to challenge that in my own life. Before the first meeting with Lee, I was terrified. I began to wonder if the conversation would be awkward, whether he thought this was something different than it was. What if we had nothing to say. What if he didn't like me? What if I didn't like him? I almost didn't follow through with it. I guess, it's almost like going on blind dates. With men. And with women too sometimes! It feels like that though – your instincts kick in – you worry about safety issues, and social faux-pas, and about whether or not the other person will accept you, whether or not they will care about the things you have to say. It started out as being pretty nerve racking! The more I do it though, the more it becomes natural. I am realizing that most people are incredibly easy to talk to, that conversation isn't as difficult as it can seem. I am realizing that given some time and some willingness, I can develop a meaningful relationship with anyone, and it has completely changed the way I look at the world around me. Rather than seeing a world full of bodies that have a tendency to get in my way, I look around and see endless potential for conversation, for friendship, and for connection. Does that mean that I run around talking to everyone I see. Not really. But I am so much more willing now, to engage in conversation knowing that it can lead to great things (like an invitation to travel to Vermont and stay in Richard and Judy Pepperman's country lake house!).

Where have you been so far to meet people for tea and where's the furthest place you have travelled to?
The majority of my meetings so far have been in the U.K. London to be exact. Within the U.K. I have travelled south to Portsmouth, and North to Leamington Spa. I have other cups in the works as well in Leeds, Cardiff, and even up in Scotland. It get's tricky, because I am in contact with a lot of people, and hope to meet them all, but it becomes difficult at times to work out a time that two strangers can meet when you consider that we all have to work and live an ordinary lifestyle (to an extent). And when you throw travel into the mix too, it can be tricky! As a shared the project with my family and friends, word began to spread a little bit back home in Vancouver. On a visit in November 2010 – I took the opportunity to meet as many strangers as I could, those being cups 8 through 11. My connections (through my Australian girlfriend) to Brisbane led to a trip there over Christmas, and I was lucky enough to be invited for a cup of tea on the radio. That interview and subsequent cup of tea then led me to 3 more strangers who had heard me on the radio. A few months ago, I was contacted by a journalist from Philadelphia who had hoped to talk to me about my project, as part of her quest to hunt down individuals who are doing interesting things – she calls it project joy – a sort of search for the incredible and wonderful things in the world that not enough of us pay attention to. I one upped her on her request for an interview, and flew to Philadelphia for a cup of tea. That was cup 22 with Mo Neville. Beyond that, I have a few invitations from other places, and I hope at some point to be able to get to all of them, but financially, it can be a difficult thing to justify – flying to the other side of the world to meet a stranger for tea. I know that it's worth it though, and so I continue to seek out these connections, and intend to make good on each invitation when I can. Yours included!

Have you learn anything new or interesting so far from your adventures?

I really do learn something new and interesting with each cup of tea. Each conversation gives me a new perspective on life, and new spin on things. I feel lucky that each of the 23 cups I have had so far has been quite comfortable and easy. But I like the excitement of knowing that they may all not be that way. I'm not sure I could give you specifics really – but each conversation leads me to something new. Maybe it's a simple realization about life, maybe it helps me to confirm something I thought I knew, but was unsure of. People tell me their stories, share their lives with me. I learned about life in the Irish military from Sean, who guards the Queen at Windsor Castle. I've realized how much a kind gesture can mean to someone when I called an ambulance for Lam Duong when he had a panic attack in his car outside my work. Rather than leaving it at a 999 call, I asked Lam to let me know that he was okay, to send me an email sometime. He did, and we had lunch, and tea of course, and he realized too how much you can mean to a complete stranger if you are willing to step outside the box once in a while.

Is there any one in particular that you would want to have a cup of tea with? Any plans for someone famous?
This question has many answers. There are so many people I am interested in, famous people, musicians, great individuals who I would love to meet. A recent thought was to meet Kelsey Grammer of the 'Fraiser' sitcom after watching an episode where he puts out a radio call to any strangers who would like to meet him for a cup of coffee. I've always been a big fan of Coldplay, so to sit down with Chris Martin would be pretty interesting (or anyone in the band for that matter!). There is a great author in England, who after reading of his own adventures, inspired me to get going on 100 cups - his name is Danny Wallace, and I would be quite keen to sit down with him if I could. I guess, I am realizing the potential there is to make a connection with anyone, so the list would essentially be endless. Though, being that it all started with the idea of having tea with the Queen of England – I've decided that I want to reserve number 100 for her. I'm not sure how I'd ever get there, but I like to think it could happen some day!

What’s in store after ‘100 cups’? Any more projects in mind or any other adventures install?
I don't think I can answer that until I cross that bridge. I think that as far as 100 cups goes, I would love to write a book about the adventure, but I also know that I don't want that goal to drive the project. I want to let this grow organically, as naturally as possible. I could force myself into strange situations, take up the offers to fly to Argentina and Dubia (which I do intend to do eventually) and force this story into whatever shape I want it to take – but I feel like that wouldn't be right. This will be whatever it will be, and if at the end, I have a story worth telling, I intend to tell it. If not, well, at the very least, I might have 100 new friends! As for afterwards, I have ideas, plenty of them, but I'll have to wait until then to see what comes next. And in a strange sense, life has always been a bit difficult because I've always had strange ideas – this feeling that there is something more that I am here to accomplish. I often avoid saying that, but it's really the only way to put it. I'm not sure I am meant for an ordinary job and a routine lifestyle. So in a way, 100 cups is me way of making a step towards that.

Do you have any advice or tips for readers about meeting new people and how to talk to them?
Just be yourself. Most people in the world are good, and most value human connection like I do, whether they realize it or not. As much as the world has changed, human connection is still an important part of our lives, and the more you recognize that and embrace it, the easier it becomes. For me, this is the same thing as going through life with the willingness to say hello to people, even if only that. You don't have to have a cup of tea with everyone, but don't go through life shutting out the people around you. Look at them. Smile too. Realize that we all have something to offer each other. It might be difficult at first, but it's like anything – practice makes perfect!
And just some fun ones!

How do you take your tea, one lump or two? Also do you have a favourite kind of tea?

I'm still developing my preference. I tend to prefer my black tea with milk – no sugar. I also have a particular fondness for green tea. But there is so much else out there to experience as well! My recent cup of tea with Clipper Tea Co. Was great, and they sent me away with a lot of tea to try. Fruit tea, herbal – so many! It depends on my mood I suppose. I like to start my day with green. My girlfriend is a big fan of black, so when at home in Australia, we drink a lot of Bushell's blue label, 4 cups a day at least! There is a shop in Vancouver that does a black tea with vanilla and nougat. It smells like cake, and tastes like tea. Being a pretty big fan of cake, a cup of two of that tends to hit the spot – when I can get my hands on it that is.

If you could have tea with anyone in world, dead or alive, who would it be?
The Queen aside, I would say Frank Sinatra of Johnny Cash on the dead side of the fence. Both great musicians, and both would probably have some pretty incredible stories to tell.

Say that if we were to go and grab a cup of tea with you right now, where would you take us?
That depends where we are I think! Though, really, it doesn't matter at all where we are, or even whether we are drinking tea or not, it just matters that we are both there and willing to talk! If we were in Vancouver however, I'd take you to the place that has 'Cake' tea – Bayswater Tea Company. (They call the tea divine temptation, if memory serves.)

Describe yourself in five words.
How to answer this without sounding like a fool!
Easy-going (the hyphen makes it one word!). Enthusiastic. Impulsive. Adventurous. Determined.

What are some of your hobbies and interests
Music – listening and playing it. I try to be into being fit, but that isn't the easiest when you like treats as much as I do. My cats are pretty cool, I'd say I'm interested in them. Obvious ones too – conversation and strangers – things of that sort. I like social experimentation, but you already know that. I also like to 'tinker' (as my girlfriend calls it). Computers. Cameras. Gadgets. Give me something to fix or tinker with and I will be a happy boy. I might spend more time tinkering, than doing anything else.

If you had to pack a suitcase with your favourite things, what would you pack?

Pancakes. I love pancakes. I'd pack a lot of them. My iPod. A guitar, but it might not fit so well. A Rubix cube – but maybe the 4X4 cube for a bit of a challenge. My girlfriend if she'd fit in the suitcase. A camera to take pictures on my trip. Wait, am I going on a trip, or just packing a suitcase with my favourite things?

Thanks so much Greg! Hopefully you will be able to go on that trip soon and we can have a cup of tea together.

Be sure to check out all of Greg's adventures on his blog 100 cups and if your interest in helping Greg on his journey and fancy a cup of tea yourself send him a email :)

Photo Credit: Gregory Dion

2 lovely comments:

amy said...

I kind of..really..want to live his life. It sounds so fulfilling and lovely x

hope to hear from you*!

Jazzy E (hivenn) said...

Love everything about this post. x hivenn

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