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!
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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