I was invited the other day by Frank (a programmer on the Apricot Team) to attend a Free Hugs gathering at a crowded square in Amsterdam.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Free Hugs, watch this video: Free Hugs Campaign In short, you stand around holding signs with "Free Hugs" written on them, and let people hug you (and hug back, of course).
Needless to say, I couldn't possibly refuse to go along. And I'm glad I did. It was quite an experience, in more ways than I anticipated.
There was of course the great fun of it, and the elated feelings from human contact. But it was surprisingly moving at times. There were some people that I could barely communicate with due to language barriers, but we connected through hugs. And it didn't matter who it was. All ages. All races. All classes. All genders. It was very hippie and awesome.
Even people that didn't hug would often let slip a betrayingly genuine smile across their face.
It was also fun having people take pictures of us. I'm not a big fan of posed pictures, but having people take pictures of us standing out there with "Free Hugs" signs, and giving hugs to complete strangers, seems very representative of the way I'd like to be remembered.
It wasn't all great, though. There were some depressing aspects of this event as well. Probably the worst is that some people gave me the nastiest looks. I don't think I've ever been looked at like that before. It was quite dismaying to realize that the simple act of giving out hugs could solicit such scowls. How could they be so disapproving? We weren't forcing hugs on anyone. It was just an open offer. It's depressing to me to think that anyone could consider public hugging -- even between strangers -- to be a bad thing. It was also a bit depressing to see the people who seemed most likely to need a hug simply pass us by.
I also feel really bad about one particular incident where I ended up hitting a woman in the face. I flung out my arms to give someone a big hug, and ended up back-handing a woman to my side that I did not see. Fortunately it was open handed, and not too forceful. However, she let out a string of what I can only assume was profanity as she walked off and scowled back at me. She was obviously pissed off. I apologized as best I knew how, but it put quite a damper on things for me for a while. I decided to be more careful about my arm flinging after that.
But despite the downs (and partially because of them), it was quite an amazing experience, and one I would very much like to partake in again should the opportunity present itself. It seemed to make a lot of strangers very happy. And it let me connect with a lot of people, even if only for a moment.
There is quite a bit more that I could write about this, including things about many of the fellow free-huggers I met there. But I'm afraid I really ought to sleep.