I have a confession: I’m not very friendly. That’s not to say I’m not nice or polite or a pleasant conversationalist, I like to think that I’m all of those things, it’s just that I don’t have a natural tendency to go out of my way to make friends.
Andy, on the other hand, is. Still, despite the fact that I’ve known him for over a decade, my gut-reaction to this natural tendency of his is almost always the same: total surprise.
Allow me to set the scene:
Andy and Julie have just entered a bar to grab a pint. The bar could be (and has been) anywhere in the world from Dublin to Dumaguete to Dubai. Some people are at tables and booths and a handful of people are sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. Andy turns to Julie…
Andy: “Let’s sit at the bar and be social.”
Julie (totally shocked): “Sit at the bar and chit-chat with total strangers? Are you serious? What if they’re having a private conversation? We don’t want to intrude. We should probably grab a booth instead and never talk to anyone else but each other ever.”
Andy (confused): “No one seems to know each other, they’re just chatting… and people who sit up at the bar usually do so to talk to other people.”
Julie (unsure): “Um… okay. But I don’t think they want to talk to us. Why would they want to talk to us?”
Andy (shakes his head and leads Julie to a bar stool)
And as you might guess – people sitting up at the bar usually do want to chat. The night plays out with all of us having a jolly good time and jolly good conversation. Later, I concede that Andy was indeed right and it was a better call to sit at the bar and make friends. He sighs and reminds me that we’ve had this exact same conversation many, many times.
Fortunately, Andy has yet to tire of my constant hesitation when it comes to meeting new people but it’s hard not to argue that being friendlier would make me a better traveler – and that goes double now that Andy is working while he travels and I’m likely to do a bit more exploring by myself.
Last week, my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, posted this about the first time she wandered around a city by herself back in ’08. Her husband travels for work too and like me, she blogs about their travels. I know, right? We should totally be BFFs (except she doesn’t know I exist so I think that just makes me a stalker).
Anyway, while her husband works, she heads out into any given city and diligently and enthusiastically sees what there is to see. I picture her striking up interesting conversations while wandering through museums or indulging in a bit of witty banter with other patrons while she grabs a bite to eat at some foreign café. Then, she expertly wraps up her experiences in delightful and insightful posts to share with the world.
I need to take a cue from her. If I’m alone, my explorations have been a little lonelier.
For Andy’s work trips I’ve tried to plan my visits at the end of his work stints so we can travel together. This worked perfectly in the Philippines but not so perfectly in Germany; the day I arrived, his work ramped up to 10-12 hour days. Needless to say, I had some time on my hands.
While the trip wasn’t a total sightseeing fail, it wasn’t a total success either. In Germany, I didn’t have too much guilt about not experiencing it to the fullest this time; I’d been there twice before, seen a lot each time and loved it. This time it was really freakin’ cold. Still, I clearly need to get better at doing things solo.
The thing is, I’ve traveled by myself in the past with wild success but the circumstances are a bit different now. A single, 20-something girl staying in hostels is never lonely but now I’m in my 30’s and am staying in hotels with my husband. The upside is that I’m no longer bunking next to creepy men or dealing with someone else’s dirty laundry strewn everywhere; the downside is that strangers no longer strike up conversations while we prepare dinner in a shared kitchen or invite me to hit the town as they scan their guidebook for hot spots. In short, my travel style has changed, and with it, so must I. (Pretty deep, right?)
The logistical side of traveling isn’t the problem – I laugh in the face of confusing metros or cities riddled with nameless streets. It’s the other part that I find a bit harder to face alone – sightseeing. I know, I know… saying this is a major traveler’s faux pas, but it’s true. For me, the joy of sightseeing is in the shared experience of discovering something new with someone else – whoever that may be.
So what can I do? Can I learn to be a little friendlier? Start engaging in some witty banter with strangers worldwide? That saying that there are no such things as strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet seems a little far-fetched for me… but maybe there are some vague acquaintances I have yet to meet.
You know… baby steps.
Last winter while I was waiting alone at PDX for a flight to Amsterdam, I did something unprecedented. It was mid-afternoon and the day of the civil war football game between my alma mater Oregon State and our rival University of Oregon. If there was ever a day to be social and try sitting at a bar, this was it.
I pulled up a seat at Laurelwood Brewpub, ordered a local brew and some lunch. As it so happened, no one in the airport was airing the game because they didn’t have the right sports package or something. Instead, we all gathered around one girl’s smartphone and rooted for our teams that way. In the end, my team may have lost, but I consider it a personal win.
You should have seen Andy’s jaw drop when I met up with him and told him that story. There just may be hope for me yet.