There Are No Strangers Here

On partying and passing the time at TEDGlobal

Photograph by Robert Leslie / Courtesy of TED

There must be other places where you can accidentally offer a man money to take his shirt off, only to find out he is a Jesuit priest. But not many.

If the TEDGlobal conference is a sophisticated avalanche of ideas punctuated by well-timed conversation breaks and plates of chocolate brownies, the TEDGlobal parties — and after parties, and, indeed, after-after parties — are the product of cleverly programmed happenstance filled with gloriously random encounters fueled by drinks and canapés. This is not a bad thing.

The feting starts with a welcome soiree in a large tent on the grounds of Keble College, where some of the attendees are staying. It’s like a cross between a Harry Potter movie and a wedding in the Hamptons. Champagne flows, but many prefer fruit juices. Introductions are made. Someone tells you Idris Elba, who played Stringer Bell in The Wire, is there. He isn’t (but other Hollywood stars are). This is where The Incident With the Jesuit Priest occurs. Later, with other TEDsters, you go off to a pub. It is very English — the bar staff are reliably curmudgeonly, and they don’t take credit cards. At some point, you realize everyone around the table is talking in Finnish. You are not quite certain what time you get home.

Night after night, similar situations play out (mostly with fewer Finns). You drink Chardonnay next to dinosaur bones, Alsatian Pinot Gris in a 17th-century Christopher Wren courtyard, and Absolut cocktails in a converted prison.

You meet individuals of every age, monosyllabic scientists, and people who unselfconsciously describe themselves as “intellectually restless.” The esteemed journalist you are talking to breaks off a conversation to mutter to his TV personality spouse, “Darling, just behind you is X, who used to be the amanuensis for Y and will need to be recognized.” You meet a magician and a tax attorney and your first real-life, genuine, so-close-you-could-touch-him billionaire. You decide it’s probably best not to touch him.

You get disqualified from the Best Fake British Accent competition at one late-night party for being, well, British. It soon becomes apparent that this also disqualifies you from anything involving whooping and unbridled positivity. Nevertheless, this does give you instant access to any number of conversations about the relative US and UK pronunciations of the words “beer” and “bear.” The next day you can’t remember why you were talking about bears.

You get utterly lost in the back streets of Oxford with a guy from an online mapping service, and the irony of this only hits you hours later.

You drink whisky with someone who turns out to be a close friend of your most inspiring former boss. You see a well-known impresario in the elevator and are disappointed that his badge does not say “impresario.”

Someone asks you if you “really tied one on last night.” You have no idea what this means but agree that, yes, you probably did.

As the days pass, you begin to hail people like old friends, even if your only connection up to then has been that you trod on their foot in the queue for the Chinese food buffet the previous evening. You stand around in a loose circle with your newfound buddies, rehearsing the jokes you will make on your blog later that evening.

You enjoy talking with a charming woman who is telling self-deprecating stories about how her teenage children think their dad — her husband — is “just some bald guy” until you belatedly start to piece together the various details from the conversation to discern that not only did said bald guy produce some of the seminal soundtracks of your adolescence, but also that the woman you are talking to had a minor part in Dynasty and was single-handedly responsible for some of your more unwise experiments with eyeliner in the 1980s.

You notice a well-known designer wearing a blanket, but can’t convince him to come to the pub, and so you never find out why he is wearing the blanket. You do not party until dawn with a Charlie’s Angel (but you know someone who did). You realize, too late, that the club the barman suggested is full of 15-year-old's. You have no compunction about buying french fries from a street van. A Canadian man living in Qatar offers to marry you, but then, he didn’t see you eating french fries from a van.

And, at the end of the week, when the previous days have become a blur of perspiring pianists and punting, of holograms and Cosmopolitans, of amazing speakers and rappers, you get the train home. Exhausted, elated, and utterly spent, you take off your name badge and solicit only silence.

Antonia Ward is the managing editor at the London-based Design Council. She attended TEDGlobal.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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