Time for another travel essay. Today’s topic: on why you should talk to strangers while traveling.
I have a friend from Louisiana. I met her when we were both teaching assistants in France, and in one respect, we couldn’t be more different.
(And it’s not that I am 5’1” and she is 6’1”, or that she talks with a charming Southern drawl while my accent is decidedly Jersey.)
It’s that she talks to strangers. And I generally don’t.
A few years ago, after our European adventures, my Louisianan friend came to visit me in Brooklyn and stayed for a week. I was working full-time and she was off (unlike me, she actually became a teacher, with summer break) so she was left to her own devices during the day while I was at work.
The first day she rode the subway alone, she came back to my apartment looking troubled. “Everyone just sits there and doesn’t talk to each other,” she reported.
I nodded. “Yes. That’s normal.”
“But it’s so sad!”
I disagreed. I am perfectly content to stick my nose in a book on public transport. I am annoyed when anything or anyone distracts me from said book.
“But think of the people you could meet and the stories they could tell! Remember Berlin? Or Budapest? Or that guy in Cherbourg? Or Bratislava?”
Then I stopped to think.
Because she had a point.
In Europe, she and I had traveled often together. And while I would sit quietly minding my own business everywhere we went, my Louisianan friend would strike up a conversation with anyone within range, regardless of age, gender, language, appearance, etc.
This habit of hers led us to some interesting places.
In Berlin, we were on the shuttle from the airport to the city center, and my friend started talking to the girl next to her, not even knowing what language she spoke. It turned out it was French, and the girl lived near where we did in Normandy, and was so taken with my friend that she invited us all to a party that night at her German boyfriend’s house. In the spirit of why-not travel, we went, and proceeded to have a fascinating night at a house party in a way-too-big-for-twenty-somethings apartment in the city center.
Then there was Budapest. Shortly after we arrived, one of our other friends fell ill. While she curled up like a fetus in her hostel bunk bed, and I ran around trying to find a pharmacy and then tried to decipher the Hungarian labels on the boxes by myself to no avail, my Louisianan friend started chatting with the front desk guy on duty at the hostel. That guy took a look at our sick friend, declared she needed a doctor, told my Louisianan friend to “watch the hostel”, and proceeded to take our sick friend to his own doctor, where he lied about her being his wife so she could be treated for free. They gave her some medicine and she was all better by the time we got to Vienna.
Or there was the time I went up to Cherbourg to visit her (I lived in Saint-Lô, about thirty minutes south) and upon my arrival, she announced we were going for a drive in the countryside with this guy she’d met at a cafe.
I was dubious. “What if he’s creepy?” I asked, which was a valid concern, given the number of creepy men who had hit on us by that point of our time in France.
“It’s fine. He’s nice.”
We then proceeded to have one of the best days I had in France, as this guy with a truck drove us around to some little-known beaches and along these gorgeous coastal roads with nary a human in sight.
And most famously of all, there was our trip to Bratislava, which came about as a result of a conversation she had with an Australian at a hostel in Vienna, which to this day remains one of the best days of my life.
My Louisianan friend proceeded to do a number of other un-New-Yorker-y things during her stay in Brooklyn with me, such as befriend the homeless man outside the Key Foods, arrange to meet him the next day to buy him a sandwich, then get upset when he stood her up. But something more interesting happened.
A few days after she’d departed, I noticed the girl next to me on the subway reading a book that I loved. I summoned all my courage, tapped her on the shoulder, and said “I love that book.”
And guess what? She didn’t widen her eyes and gape at my totally freaky behavior.
She smiled, and thus began a very pleasant conversation, from which I took away several book recommendations.
I know how wonderful it is to read in public and not have anyone bother you. And I know that other people can be scary. But I now I try to integrate just a little bit of Louisianan into my my very Jersey self, especially when I travel.
Just in case it leads me somewhere interesting.
Image taken by me on the Cotentin Peninsula outside Cherbourg on a random drive with a random guy