Growing up, I was taught to be cautious around strangers; my PTA-president mom always carefully outlined my boundaries for safe, acceptable social interaction. In school, I talked with classmates and teachers; on vacations, I played with relatives and other kids on the beaches of Ocean City, New Jersey. Of course, being taught to stay away from strangers isn’t the same as being secluded; I grew up happy and socially adept in my familiar world. But then I matured, went to college, and began to wonder about the universe outside of what I knew.
At twenty years old, a trip to London was my first adventure abroad. As soon as I landed, I was apprehensive; I wandered with a nervous gait through the cobblestone streets. The city was so different. Unlike my native New York, there were trees everywhere: huge umbrellas of green leaves sheltered me from the rain and then showered me with leftover raindrops once the downpours stopped. Old-fashioned black cabs and the infamous red double-decker buses zoomed through streets. It was winter time, and strands of Christmas lights twinkled from the awnings of outdoor eateries.
I was awe-struck.
Beautiful as it was, I quickly learned that the city’s aesthetics had nothing on its characters. As I began to feel comfortable exploring the winding streets, my ease grew in another regard, too. I pushed the boundaries once set for me and began talking to strangers.
One afternoon, hearing drums and loud noises through the window of our apartment, my roommate and I realized that there was a parade happening just outside. Clad in our pajamas, we hastily ran out to find its starting point. Just as we were leaving our building, however, we were stopped by a group of people hanging outside a nearby pub. They waved to us as we passed, but we had better sense than to honor the greetings of strangers on the street. “Hey!”, they then yelled playfully. “When someone waves at you, you wave back! It’s common decency!” Embarrassed, we turned and waved hello.
“As soon as I landed, I was apprehensive; I wandered with a nervous gait through the cobblestone streets. The city was so different.”
Minutes later, totally out of character for either of us, we found ourselves in conversation with the group: Enzo Cafali, a middle-aged Italian man, his two daughters, and their energetic children. The family invited us to join them for a drink and we agreed, settling into a table at the Betsey Trotwood pub. We drank glasses of cider as they proudly exclaimed “Salute!” to shots of Sambuca.
Hours passed. We talked and laughed the afternoon away. We never ended up making it to the parade, yet we returned home elated (and still in our pajamas).
The chance encounter left me exhilarated. How easy it was to have connected with people I didn’t know! I felt a new sense of confidence – a sense of excitement and opportunity. In that moment, I decided to commit myself to talking to and building relationships with others – with strangers – over the course of my time away in the hopes of enhancing my experience and expanding my worldview.
One Saturday a few weeks later, I found myself in a downtown café seated across from a mother and her young daughter. I overheard the mother encouraging the girl to talk about her school day and was stunned to hear the child speak fluently in Spanish, English and Portuguese. I walked over and complimented both her and her mom on their ease with languages. Thrilled to have someone new to talk to, the girl began telling me about her favorite artists and school subjects. It wasn’t long before we all finished our morning pastries in the café and agreed to head over to Covent Garden to spend the afternoon together.
“As much as travel is about beautiful sights and introspective moments, it’s also fortified by the conversations we have with those around us.”
And then, on yet another occasion while enjoying pints in an Irish bar, I met a twenty-something who claimed to be a chef in Buckingham Palace. He answered all of my rapid-fire questions and even provided a detailed accounts of both the Queen’s lunch that day and the types of canapés that fed her 450 guests that afternoon. If it was all made up, it was still entertaining, and I was glad to have opened myself up to the conversation.
These sorts of interactions characterized my time in London. Most people I met were friendly, dynamic and generally intent on just having a drink and talking about life in one of the city’s many pubs. They helped me realize that most people – most strangers – are, fundamentally, good. No doubt, strangers have the propensity to harm; but they have the propensity to offer great joy, warmth, and solidarity, too.
As much as travel is about spontaneity, newness and introspection, it’s also fortified by the conversations we have with those around us. While avoiding strangers was an important safety lesson growing up, opening myself to conversations with strangers later allowed me to kindle surprising friendships on the road, and to travel far without ever feeling alone.