Earlier this week I was rambling on about some of my favorite travel encounters — meeting musicians in a Trieste dive bar, dining with a dentist in Zagreb, the Stockholm “oops” party — to Mary Rogers, who was interviewing me for her podcast, Experience 50. It was a morning interview and I was on my third cup of coffee, really picking up steam, when Mary finally managed to get a word in edgewise.
“Karen, how do you meet all these people?” she asked.
I get this question a lot, mostly from interested readers but occasionally from those who consider it peculiar, even foolhardy, to want to rub shoulders with strangers. But isn’t that the whole point of travel — to go new places and hang out with people who aren’t exactly like your best pals? To me, talking to folks from other cultures is like a telenovela: you never know what people are going to say, but you can be sure that sooner or later they’ll zap you with some outlandish zinger that leaves you reeling back in surprise, falling over with laughter, or both.
If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re not totally adverse to the idea of making friends in foreign places, and like Mary, you may be wondering how to make this happen. It begins, of course, with an open attitude and continues through organizing your journey to create opportunities to interact with new people in safe, congenial surroundings. The choices you make every step of the way will determine how often you’re likely to speak with interesting locals, expats, and fellow travelers. Rich, who is (and I say this lovingly) a trifle obsessed with travel apps and websites, constantly researches new options, talks me into testing them, and encourages me to write about them, which I do often on this blog.
It's all about being open to opportunities. One day, passing a long-defunct restaurant in San Anselmo, California, we were startled to hear voices inside. “Let’s go in,” Rich said, pulling open the door.
We’d walked by the place for so long, reading yellowing notices about how it was going to become the new Creekside Pizza and Tap Room, that we’d given up hope of seeing it happen this summer, possibly ever. But our cynicism was totally misplaced. Creekside was jammed with laughing, chatting people munching on thick-crust pizza and glistening green salad. We were informed it was a private party to taste-test the recipes. And then — here’s one of my hottest tips— we just stood there for a few moments, making idle conversation, and waited to see if anything would happen.
The next thing we knew, the owner, Pat, had invited us to grab slices of pizza and take a seat at the table. I learned the rest of the diners had been recruited from the nearby St. Luke’s Presbyterian church, and in an act of true Christian charity, they were providing feedback on the menu. “Amen to that!” I said, biting into a heavenly wedge of pizza topped with melted mozzarella and radicchio. Pat shared tales of his struggles to launch, and that led to a tour and beer samples. An hour later we staggered out, surrounded by a hail of invitations to join Pat at the pizzeria when it opens, and everyone else at St. Luke’s on any Sunday that we felt the need for more spiritual sustenance.
So an open attitude — what some might call curiosity, friendliness, or sheer nosiness — is the first thing you’ll need to connect with people you meet on the road. All the tips and resources in my new book — about dining with locals in their homes, meeting up with expats in their adopted cities, etc. — are designed to help you place yourself in situations where you’re more likely to experience social interactions that are entertaining and have potential for deepening into actual friendships.
In a way, what it boils down to is this: if Mary was interviewing you for a podcast about travel, what kinds of stories would you like to be able to share with her listeners?
Wouldn’t it be great to recount tales of friendships formed and adventures shared with congenial companions?
So many of our road stories are filled with laughter and the simple pleasure of being alive in this vast, crazy, fascinating world, where we keep stumbling over startling differences and finding comfort in the deep similarities that unite us. No trip is perfect, and often the best tales come out of disasters shared and challenges overcome together. Being stranded and homeless for a night in Havana brought us closer to our travel companions — and made for far juicier anecdotes — than all the good times that preceded it. When people ask whether it’s worth the effort of reaching out to the people we meet during our journeys, I say (with apologies to the folks from St. Luke’s) hell, yeah!
“Your biggest risk isn't failing, it's getting too comfortable,” said Drew Houston, the guy who started Dropbox. “Every day, we're writing a few more words of a story. I wanted my story to be an adventure and that's made all the difference.”
The story of this blog has been a far more exciting adventure than I ever expected. In 2011, everybody advised startiing blogs as the best way to market books, and I was feverishly finishing up the first draft of Dancing in the Fountain at the time. “Hmmm,” I thought. “I’ve got to do something to reach out to readers. How hard could it be to start a blog? I can just dash off little stories about Seville and past travels — Rich’s miracle cure in Mexico, eating pig brains in the Republic of Georgia, that goofy Buddhist monk in Bhutan. Piece of cake.”
But as is so often the case, my blog took on a life of its own. I’ve published other books since Dancing, but I’ve posted an article on my blog almost every week for five and a half years. It is the steady heartbeat of my writing life. Even better, it’s an ongoing conversation with my readers, who provide feedback, insights, and encouragement — and yes, thankfully, give me a head’s up when there’s a typo or blooper. At first I just wanted to be entertaining and share useful travel tips, but gradually I found that people are drawn to more meaningful stories — such as last week’s piece about Betty Soskin, a real-life Rosie the Riveter, who at 95 is holding audiences spellbound with her vivid life history and deep, compassionate wisdom.
One of the most meaningful topics on the planet right now is, of course, the ongoing political upheaval in my home country. I have chosen to take an active part of that conversation because for me, ignoring it stopped being an option. I didn’t want to be like one of those clueless reporters in a disaster movie who stands with her back to the ocean describing weather patterns while Godzilla is speeding toward shore breathing fire, smashing fishing boats, and swatting planes out of the sky.
Social commentary started creeping into my blog during the run-up to the 2016 election and became central to it in February, when I was helping launch a Resistance group in Seville. At the time, I was knee-deep in writing another travel book. But as the blitzkrieg of shocking headlines rained down, I realized there was more important work to be done. I decided to set aside the travel book and commit to a year of working for the Resistance. At Harvard’s Resistance School, I learned that political movements are fueled by storytelling that unites and inspires us. “OK,” I thought. “I can do that!”
I knew that venturing into political topics could generate negative comments — and yes, there have been some unpleasant ones — and that it would cost me readers, although as it turned out, not as many as you'd expect. Overall I’m delighted that my readers don’t think exactly alike or agree with me all the time. As uncomfortable as criticism is when directed at me personally, I appreciate that differing viewpoints are a sign of healthy diversity and a robust community. In Spain, political differences are often aired in fiery disputes that end in laughter and sharing another round of beer. We need more of that kind of dialog these days.
Drew Houston doesn’t have to worry that any of us are at risk of getting too comfortable these days. As a die-hard optimist, I feel confident that cooler heads will eventually prevail, the chaos and discord in our nation will subside, and I can go back to writing about packing and Seville’s hottest dive bars. But every day adds a few new lines in our common story, and the ending is far from certain. The only thing I can tell you for sure is this: I’ll have plenty to write about for the foreseeable future.
Last Saturday, I had the astonishing good fortune to meet Betty Soskin, one of the original “Rosie the Riveters,” women who took on “men’s work” in the nation’s factories and shipyards during World War II. At 95, Betty is America’s oldest park ranger, and she takes pride in sharing her story, giving frequent talks at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Those talks are nothing short of … OK, I’ll say it: riveting.
It didn’t take her long to convince me that just about everything I “knew” about Rosie the Riveter was a myth. And that the truth is far more interesting.
After her talk (which I’ll be getting back to in just a moment) I went home and looked up Rosie’s origins. It all began with a song released in 1942. The snappy tune and distinctive machine-like riff — “Rosie, brrrrrrrr, the Riveter” — made it an instant hit.
So who was Rosie? The face the public knew best belonged to Rose Will Monroe, a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who starred in a promotional film about the home front. But for most of us, the face of Rosie will forever be the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster. I had always vaguely assumed this poster was thumb-tacked to the wall of every US recruitment office and welding station during the war years. Not so! The poster was privately printed by Westinghouse Electric as part of a series designed to boost productivity and discourage labor unrest. It was displayed in their factories for a mere two weeks in February, 1943.
After that, the poster languished in obscurity until 1982, when it appeared in a Washington Post article on patriotic art and was instantly embraced by the feminist movement as a symbol of empowerment. Which is ironic considering the “Rosies” made half as much as men doing the same job. Less if you weren't white.
Betty discussed none of this in her presentation. Her experience as an African American worker was radically different from the media’s Rosie image.
“That was a white woman’s story,” she said. “I was a twenty-year-old clerk working in a Jim Crow segregated union hall.” The popular images of happy, mixed-race work crews were, she said, far from the truth, especially at the beginning. Overt prejudice and discrimination were rampant, prompting African Americans to advocate for the Double V — victory for democracy at home and abroad — and inspiring poet Langston Hughes to write, “How long I got to fight / BOTH HITLER AND JIM CROW?”
Integration was the last thing on the mind of Henry Kaiser, the industrialist who created the Richmond Shipyards where Betty worked. He was so nautically inexperienced that he referred to a ship's bow as “the pointy end,” but he figured he could build Liberty ships faster than anyone else using Henry Ford’s assembly line methods — if he could get enough labor. “Henry Kaiser just wanted hands,” Betty recalled. “He didn't care what color they were or who they were attached to.” His recruiters headed south, hiring white farmers impoverished by the Dust Bowl and blacks thrown out of work by newly mechanized cotton farms. Some 98,000 black and white Southerners arrived in Richmond, bringing with them deep-seated racial friction.
“And because they’re all living under the threat of fascist world domination,” Betty explained, “there’s no time to take on a broken social system. No time to do anything except take on the mission of their leader, which is pure and simple: build ships faster than the enemy can sink ‘em. And together they completed 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months. They helped to turn the course of the war around by out-producing the enemy. And in the process, they accelerated the rate of social change, so that to this day it still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the nation. It’s where the visionaries come to find constituents for their wildest dreams. Because of what happened right here. That’s rather amazing.”
Betty grew up around her great grandmother, a former slave, and became the first person in her family to hold a white-collar job. She’s outlived two husbands, one of whom was her partner in a recording company specializing in gospel music, the other a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. After raising four kids, she worked as a field representative for two California State Assemblywomen. I was delighted to discover her autobiography is due out in the fall — and yes, I will be sure to let you all know when it’s published!
After her talk, I asked Betty what she thought about our country’s future. “We are in a time of chaos,” she told me. “We’ve been getting those since — oh, about 1776. We’re like a spiral that keeps going around and touching the same places again and again. In times of chaos, we touch the reset button on democracy. Right now we are re-defining what democracy is. Again. Only today, there are more of us who have a voice in determining how we are going to change as a nation.”
And that’s about the most hopeful and comforting perspective I’ve heard in a while. Thanks, Betty!
Would you like to know more?
Watch a tape of Betty's talk here.
Learn more about the Rosie the Riveter museum/park here.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel