It’s a funny thing, travelling alone. I love it, but it really does force you a little bit out of your comfort zone sometimes. Perhaps it’s part of being British, but I think we all have some sort of natural reticence towards going up to someone who we’ve not been introduced to and initiating conversation with them. We feel as if we don’t have enough of a mandate for starting a conversation unless a mutual friend has given the go ahead. Which is odd, when you think about it.
But you can’t wait for this to happen when you’re travelling alone. I’ve got into the habit, if I’m feeling sociable, of going to a bar (usually in the hostel), listening out for people speaking English and simply going up to them and asking if I can join them for a beer. More often than not, they say yes. This isn’t common in everyday life, but perhaps it should be. There are different rule when you’re travelling; everyone is in the same boat of wanting to make new friends and meet new people, so people are perhaps more accepting of it, but I do sometimes wonder what would happen if I applied the same tactic in, for instance, Birmingham (the last city I lived in). I imagine I’d probably get some odd looks, but could also end up meeting some great people.
This is, I suppose, the thrust of it. It’s while travelling alone that I have come to a Damascene* revelation, making Saul’s much-heralded conversion appear trivial and insignificant. It is an epiphany that, if realised by everyone, could pave the way for a better, more peaceful world and as such I feel a responsibility to pass on these pearls of wisdom to everyone I can. Are you ready? Here it is:
Most people are quite nice.
I know, I know. Move aside Voltaire, step out of the way Descartes, there’s a new philosopher in town.
Once you accept this as fact, it becomes so much easier. Even if they’re not very nice, the chances are that you won’t have to see them ever again. But most people are more willing than you’d think to spend a couple of hours getting to know someone with whom the only thing they have in common is that you both happen to be in the same city at the same time.
Then you come to the sometimes difficult issue of staying in touch, and this is where facebook is both a blessing and a curse. I sometimes think the problem with facebook is that it’s just too easy. If I genuinely had to make a real effort to stay in touch with someone then maybe I would do so more often, but the fact that I can send a quick message to someone I’ve just met makes me a little lazy. But I shouldn’t moan, because it’s also a wonderful way of seeing where people are in the world, and therefore when you can meet up and see someone again. There are plenty of people who I’ve met who I would love to see again some time – perhaps in another city, country or even continent. Most of them I probably won’t, which is sad, but what’s great about the mantra of ‘Most People are Quite Nice’™ is that if you get in touch with someone you haven’t spoken to in donkey’s years to say, ‘By the way! I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Do you fancy a beer/have a sofa I can sleep on?’, they are quite likely to say yes.
Then there are the people with whom you make friends but don’t exchange any contact details. I quite like this in a way. While in Maastricht a few days ago, I spent an entire evening drinking and chatting with my roommate. I don’t even know his name – he did tell me, but it was impenetrably Dutch and sounded to my poorly trained English ear like a Klingon coughing up his breakfast. So there’s no real possibility of us getting in touch or seeing each other again, but that’s fine too. Like Most People™, he was Quite Nice™, but the context of the evening was that we were travelling alone, sharing a room and liked beer. I suspect, were we to try and recreate the camaraderie of it all, a different context would make this difficult.
So there we have it. Talking to strangers can be a wonderful thing. I should point out that musings in this particular blog post shouldn’t be taken as good advice if you happen to be nine years old. That guy outside your school who doesn’t appear to have any children of his own and offers out sweets? Don’t talk to him. He is probably not Most People™ so don’t assume he’s Quite Nice™. But for those of us who can legally share a beer or three with a stranger, he is the exception rather than the rule.
*In case anyone is worried, I’ve no plans to go to Damascus for my next round of busking.