What’s the best part of travel for you? The food? The culture? Hearing another language? To all these, I’d add, “Having unexpected conversations with strangers.”
I’ve got nothing against museums, monuments, scenery, restaurants, etc. – they all enrich the experience. But to get to another level, you’ve gotta get personal.
Some of my most vivid memories of last winter’s trip to Paris were random and often awkward chats that, despite my halting French and their equally limited English, somehow managed to connect us on a more profound level. In one shop, the attempts to find my correct size led to observations about women in general – how we often think we’re larger than we are, or want an outside observer to reassure us that we look attractive. (Yes, even Parisians can be insecure!)
And at a little place near the hotel specializing in tableware and jewelry, the owner engaged us in a discussion of art, politics (both US and French) and the current state of global anxiety so many of us share, as well as recommendations for which current exhibitions to skip and which to put at the top of our list. What could have been an ordinary, five-minute transaction became an enjoyable half hour conversation.
Our trip to Sicily raised the need to communicate to a whole new level, since almost no one we encountered spoke English and my Italian is basic at best. Yet, we blundered through and in doing so had some delightful moments.
There was the cashier at the grocery store who began to recognize us and teased us about buying yet another bottle of a favorite wine. And the woman selling fish at the local market who insisted that my husband eat a raw shrimp right on the spot so he’d believe her when she told us how fresh they were.
Back in Milan on Wednesday, our last night in Italy, we met two very chic women – a mother “of a certain age” (i.e., close to my own) and her adult daughter – who were also staying at our hotel. We’d shared a car with them earlier in the day when the hotel had taken us to a destination in town and then met by chance in the bar. After the mother greeted us, we invited them to join us and we started talking.
In this case, language wasn’t the challenge; the daughter alone speaks seven languages. (We Americans have much to learn from other countries: for most of us, studying another language in high school is the extent of our globalization and we expect the world to speak English when/if we leave our borders.)
But what I found fascinating was the ease with which our conversation skipped among a number of topics, some light and others quite serious, in a way that rarely happens on a first encounter.
In the space of an hour, we learned about their heritage, their life in Jordan, their fashion business (buying for their boutique brings them to Milan four times a year; how lucky is that?), and some of their family history, including seeing photos of the lovely younger daughter and father, both deceased.
We discussed politics, karma, spa vacations, the importance of intuition, Turkish hostilities towards Armenians and Jews, Bruce/Caitlin Jenner and the Kardashians, favorite fashion designers, which cities are “simpatico”, where to get good pizza in Milan, US universities, modern marriage, and more.
In short, we began to know them in a substantive way, and if we hadn’t been leaving early the next morning we would have enjoyed talking further.
I don’t know if we’ll continue to be in contact, but that’s unimportant. What matters to me is the generosity with which these two women shared stories about their lives, and the depth it added to our trip. Rather than being passive observers in another country, I felt that we were among friends.
And that’s a huge part of why I love to travel.