You’re in your home country at a bus stop or in a lift or some other enclosed space, joined only by an older stranger. The stranger begins speaking to you and so you engage in polite small talk to fill the time, almost because it feels necessary in order to avoid an awkward silence. Then you part ways and forget about the other person. A few days later, you see them again in a more public context, but they are not looking to be busy themselves. They don’t notice you and you have no reason to speak to them. What would you do – walk right past them whilst looking in the opposite direction, or go up to speak to them, regardless of hardly knowing them? ‘It would depend on how attractive they were,’ I hear you say. Removing that element from the equation, it is hard to believe that one would feel any desire to approach them. Even one’s sense of legitimacy to go up to the person would probably be quite low. The social-networking generation seems almost too afraid of the potential gawkiness of human interaction to strike up conversation with a random person they share no established connection with. Familiarity is a comfort. When someone is certain of their position in their nearby surroundings, they are less likely to feel the need to communicate with a vaguely familiar human being. If you go on a solo trip to a foreign-speaking country, you might find yourself amazed at how easily the rules of the equation can change.
Day One in the Black Forest, Germany. I had spent the night in a youth hostel in Freudenstadt, a market town in the north of the area. Before a day of hiking commenced, I dropped into the tourist office to quickly find inspiration for a route. Walking out of the door whilst running the rough directions through my mind, I almost bumped into a man chaining up his bike. “Hey there!” he said cheerily in an accent I instantly recognised as Canadian. “You’re staying up at the youth hostel, aren’t you?” I was taken aback by his genial approach and said “Yeah” uncertainly, wondering how he knew. “I cycled past you on the way here – I’m at a guesthouse in town,” he added, as if recognising an initial look of suspicion on my face. He looked to be in his early forties, but despite his older age I still found his confident chattiness quite surprising, and a tiny bit unsettling too. Even so, it seemed only polite to ask a short question or two. After sharing his plan for the day, he remarked, “You’ve picked a great day for a hike,” nodding at my outfit and then up at the blue sky. This seemed like an appropriate time to move on, so I wished him a good trip and we parted ways. My thoughts having been interrupted, I returned to recalling the name of the path I was looking for, and my brief encounter with the man was promptly forgotten in favour of sign posts and sweet little streams.
A few days of moving southwards later, I ended up in Freiburg im Breisgau, where I would spend a few hours of the morning before heading back to Heidelberg. The town is famed for its Minster and for being Germany’s sunniest city. Sunlight wasn’t out on show today though. Thick clouds looked down lethargically as I dawdled through the large hoard of tourists and students in the university town. It was market day and I squeezed and side-stepped past people looking at various cheeses and vegetables and wines, feeling like a mouse amongst the mania. Elbows knocked me and I looked around dazed as the air was filled with rapid German chatter. The past few days had been filled with walking and my legs felt sluggish. The weather and the people were draining, and I suddenly felt a little overwhelmed by my surroundings. I needed to stop and recover for a minute.
An ice cream sign called me over. One scoop of mint choc chip – heck, why not two? I walked on past a row of picnic benches filled with tourists gorging on bratwurst and burgers. Suddenly, one of the munching men caught my eye. I realised it was the Canadian man I’d seen a few days earlier. Without thinking twice I bounded over to say hello, feeling a wave of respite from the mass mouth of unfamiliar tongues. Caught unaware, the man looked up mid-ketchup-spurting-bite with wide eyes of surprised embarrassment, to see me standing in front of him holding an ice cream in my hand with a big grin on my face, like a little kid. We both laughed at how innocent and pitiful we looked. After a proper greeting, he asked if I’d like to join him for a drink at a nearby beer garden that served only Swabian speciality beers. I said yes without hesitation.
My initial dubious impression of the man had completely vanished. In the last three days I had only uttered about 50 words. I was craving some human contact through which I would be able to have a fluid conversation in my own language for a few minutes. Having felt lost in and exhausted by the busy state of the town, his familiar face provided an element of reassurance. So I went ahead and did something that would have probably been classed as ‘breaking a rule’ back home – going to have a drink with a male I hardly knew, and a much older male at that. But the man’s age wasn’t on my mind at all as we found a table on an upstairs terrace and chatted about Canada. He said I seemed to know the western side of the country better than him. His name was Kevin and he worked in the civil service, but loved cycling in his free time. As he ordered and paid for our drinks, attempting some basic German with our waitress, I realised that he was a genuinely good-natured person. I told him about my degree and my hobbies, and that I would be volunteering at the Olympics when I returned. With a big smile he said, “Well it seems like you have a lot going for you, Shannon.” Those words have stuck with me since.
Once we had finished our beers (I tactically ordered a half-pint so he wouldn’t have to wait for me), we headed back downstairs into the street. I felt rejuvenated – my batteries had been recharged within an hour by a device I was accustomed to. Now I would be able to finish the trip with no more feelings of disorientation and detachment. Kevin planned to spend a few more hours in Freiburg, while I needed to head back to the station. After a standard hug-and-kiss-on-the-cheek goodbye, we parted ways for the second and final time. There would be no sharing of contact details to keep in touch, as is so often the trend amongst young travellers who have spent a few drunken hours together; it was just simply an hour of shared company that made the day a little more interesting for both. I’ll never see that man again, and so he will never know how valuable I found his company for that short time (unless, of course, he finds this blog!) I had never felt so glad to see such a familiar face whose owner I was so unfamiliar with.
My dad told me two things before I went travelling: 1) that travelling alone makes one more open to new people and new experiences, and 2) that it makes one realise that people are nice. After that morning in Freiburg, I realised that I had underestimated the applicability of his statement. It’s something that is not just relevant to people you meet in bars or on a tour, someone sat next to you on the bus or sleeping in your dorm; it can also be relevant to random situations where there is no expectation of speech and interaction. If someone is alone abroad, they are likely to feel more receptive to the company of an unfamiliar person, if that person seems more familiar than the alternatives. A person’s slight sense of vulnerability can make them more willing to do something that would probably never enter their intentions back home. This can perhaps explain why study abroad students or immigrants tend to hang out with those who share their nationality. It’s not that they are reluctant to integrate into the new culture; speaking with someone who shares their native language simply acts as a maternal comfort – a cuddle to reassure and settle when one is feeling insecure in or disillusioned by their unfamiliar surroundings. There is no shame in craving some ‘home-away-from-home’ moments – everyone is bound to experience that need at some point whilst travelling alone.
The rare coincidence of seeing someone again in a foreign land makes it seem stupid to avoid approaching them out of reluctance to risk getting involved in uncomfortable communication. Would you rather feel lonely and bored, or sociable and entertained? Yep, thought as much. So if an older male (or female) stranger starts talking to you enthusiastically, don’t be quick to make assumptions about their intentions, subsequently trying to dismiss them out of uncertainty. A few days later, you might find that their bold and unconditional friendliness would be very welcome.