A Test Run

I don’t know that I’ll ever shake that initial jolt of fear that shoots through me when I arrive alone in a foreign country.  I follow the crowd through the terminal to baggage claim.  Traveling only with carry-on luggage, this is where I abandon them.  I look around to find the bus or train I need to get to my destination.

Sometimes, I don’t even have a destination when I arrive.  During a visit to Rome a couple weeks ago, I headed to the bookstore in the train station first.  I was in this same station with my sister ten days earlier so I knew they had a section of English travel guides.  I flipped to the index in a few of them scanning for the word, “hostels.”  I opened my small green notebook and jotted down a few ideas for places to stay.  My next stop was an internet cafe to research my options a little more.  I wrote down the contact information and directions to my top three choices.  A phone call to my first choice disappointed me a little – they only had one night available and I wanted two.  My intuition told me to go anyway.  So I found the bus that would take me there.  I got off one stop too early.  With my few Italian words and the helpful people at that bus stop, I was able to find my way.

Scribbled directions to the Lodi Hostel in Rome

My intuition, as usual, was right.  My roommate and I had a nice chat when I arrived.  She and I decided to meet up later that evening for dinner.  Upon our return, I met a few more people traveling alone and was invited to dinner again.  I declined, but spent a lovely couple hours with that same crew the following morning.  Over breakfast in the garden at the hostel, we all worked out our plans for the day.  Thanks to a couple no-shows the previous night, a bed was available and I got my wish to stay there for two nights.  Cam and Gary decided to take their chances with the proposed train strike and head to the train station anyway with Florence as their destination.  Daniel and I took off for a stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens.

A few days later I reflected on all the ways in which my three weeks in Italy prepared me for my upcoming Camino:

  • I got reacquainted with all the emotions involved in waking up in the morning not knowing where I’ll lay my head down that night – something I’ll do nearly every morning on the Camino.
  • I was reminded of what it’s like to be alone in a country where English is not the native tongue.  The result?  Anytime I heard people speaking English, I found a way to get into their conversation.  It’s a great ice breaker.
  • I remembered why it is I love staying in hostels (meeting people!) and how imperative it is that I bring my ear plugs and eye mask (lest I get no sleep – snoring does not help me descent into dreamland, nor do early-risers keep me there).
  • I learned why it’s best, if I have the option, to stay on the top bunk.  (Every time the guy above me moved, the whole structure shook and I was woken up.  I lamented about this the next morning, and a new friend informed me this doesn’t happen if you’re on the top bunk.  Note to self.)
  • I got plenty of opportunities for walking with my pack.  Like the Camino will be, I walked both alone and with others – sometimes spending whole days with people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.
  • I got to test-run how best to write on the road.  I took legal-size printer paper – a stack of five pages – and folded it in half.  This gave me a little booklet of twenty pages.  I made seven of  these packets and filled them as I went.  The idea is to make them into a book now (something I learned at the Folk School, then perfected while at Glenda’s in February.)  I wrote my blog posts in these packets, too, and when I got to an internet cafe I pulled out my entry and typed it up.
  • I got to test-run traveling with my pack – which pockets are best for which items?
  • I recalled why it’s so good to pack everything in zip-loc bags: my pack may get wet in the rain, but nothing else will.    Have you ever looked into the top of a large backpack?  At first its appears to be a bottomless pit.  Not so when everything has its own see-through zip-loc bag – I could pull out those bags, toss them on the bed, find what I needed, and throw them all back in.

My pack – and some of its zip-loc enclosed contents.

  • Best of all?  I was reminded and encouraged that yes, I can still travel alone.  And that there are tons of people like me out there to meet along the way – all with their own fascinating stories.  (Note to God: If you’d like to send someone my way who would want to travel with me for the rest of my life, I’m open to that.  Thanks.)

Talking to Strangers: In Small Towns

“Meet my future wife,” he said as he introduced me.  This was the first I’d heard we were engaged.  I’d only met him two hours earlier, but apparently I’d made an impression.

I’d left Virginia Beach around eight that morning, plugged “Raleigh, NC” into my GPS, then hit the button to avoid highways.  Why?  Well, it’s one of many ways I know of to find great stories.  Just last week, driving a back road in New Jersey, I saw a billboard that said – in big huge letters – “YOUR WIFE IS HOT!”  In much smaller letters it continued, “Get your A/C fixed – Call us.”  You wouldn’t see that driving down I-95.

The other thing about avoiding highways is that you find a lot of towns that have not been infiltrated by Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.  I know some of you can’t imagine living more than a few miles from either of these, but work with me here – open your mind a little.  And step with me into Boykins Beans and Ice Cream.  It’s on a two lane road, just past the railroad tracks, in a town of 500 people.  There’s only one other car parked on the street outside, but there’s a guy sitting out front, and any place that advertises ice cream and “Fresh Baked Goods” can’t be that bad.

The guy sitting outside says hello.  I smile and return the greeting, remembering I’m in the South – where people actually say hello to strangers.  I know it’s a far stretch, but inside I ask if they have chai.  No luck.  So I get a cup of tea from the enthusiastic woman behind the counter.  Looking around I think that I could probably spend a couple hours in here.  They have plenty of books to peruse, comfy seating, and friendly staff.  But for some reason, I decide to take my tea and go.

On my way back out, the guy out front says something along the lines of, “It’s too bad you’re going.  We don’t see the likes of you around here too often.”  I laugh and say I’m on my way to North Carolina.

“What do they have there that we don’t here?” he asks.

“Mountains,” I said.

“Well, you’re right,” he says, sounded dejected.  “But this is Mayberry!” he retorts, referring to the idyllic fictional town portrayed in some TV show that came and went before my time.  I’ve heard of Mayberry, but can’t for the life of me remember the show.  (I just googled it – The Andy Griffith Show – which went off the air in 1968.)

He continued to try to entice me to live in this tiny town, so I asked, “What do people even DO around here?”

“Nothing,” he laughed.

“What would I do around here?”

“Nothing!” he says, smiling wide, arms opening as if he were Vanna White showing us the next puzzle to solve.  He wasn’t so convincing, but continued to question me about my trip, so I had a seat and told my tale.  His was even better.

There was the time after 9/11 when he heard some guy going to a mountaintop in Canada in case the US got hit again.  He thought that incredibly cowardly.  He told his friends he should just get on his white horse (he actually owned one) and ride to the White House to tell people not to back down.  The friends said he should.  So he did.  He lived in Wisconsin at the time.  He got a flag pole with the Wisconsin flag and the US flag, took his US Marines saber (he’s a former Marine), and in December, 2001, he rode his horse from Wisconsin to the White House.  You can see a video of some of the coverage here.  That song playing?  That’s him.  He wrote it.  He’s singing it.

Then there was a time a friend wanted to go elk hunting out west, but had to have two surgeries to fix a brain tumor first.  He didn’t make it.  When he died, this guy figures out where in the country he can go elk hunting and takes off, as a tribute to his friend.  He goes every year now.  And just by being his friendly self in a small Idaho town, he got some land practically given to him where one day he’ll build a little cabin out there.

Two hours later, I left that little coffee shop.  In that time, this guy had introduced me to all sorts of local folks, told me about life in Boykins, and apparently also decided I’d be the ideal wife.  I accepted his number.  Because elk hunting with a bow in Idaho sounds like a pretty cool prospect.

(To see my other posts about talking to strangers, click here and here.)

Talking to Strangers: On Trains

As I walked down the aisle trying to decide which seat to take on the train, I walked by two young guys speaking a foreign language.  I took the seat behind them, convinced they had a good story.  Though I’m convinced everyone has a good story…

I could not tell what language they were speaking but soon one of them pulled out a video camera and pointed it himself saying, “This is day two of our trip….” in perfect English – no hint of an accent.  Day two of a trip?  Oh how jealous I was!   Where were they going?  What was the occasion?  Where were they from?  I tried to read the book I had brought with me, but couldn’t concentrate as I was trying to catch anything from them that might answer my questions.

After a couple of stops, I scooted from my window seat, across the empty middle seat, sat in the aisle seat and peeked my head in between them.  “Excuse me,” I said, “but where are you two from?”  They looked startled for a minute, but then said the Netherlands.  I then asked what brought them here and about their trip.  One had just finished a year in the states, the other just a few months.  They decided to take this trip last year in math class when one proposed a trip around the US and the other said, “Sure!”  Why didn’t I have friends like this in high school?

They were going to the city, then to Niagara Falls, then out to Boston.  I said I lived in Boston for six years and they asked where they should go besides the Freedom Trail.  I gave them some advice, then got the sense they thought it a little odd that I was so excited about their trip, so I told them to have a good time as I scooted back to my seat.

A couple stops later a guy sat down in the aisle seat at the end of my row.  I got the smile and hello that invited conversation and dove in.  This guy has been working in the city for six years at an advertising company.  I found this odd as he was in jeans and sweatshirt, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about work, so we went on to other topics.  He made a comment about the guys in front of us and I proceeded to tell him their story.  At the part where I said I lived in Boston for six years he said he did too.  I said something about the Farmers Market and it turns out he’s a vegetarian and has been for 25 years.  We talked about cooking and got into fish – something I don’t know much about cooking but would like to learn.  He told me a couple places I could get fish, told me the best ones to start out preparing, and when asked gave me a couple ways to prepare them.  “You cover the chunks in a little milk, then you put together some corn meal, flour, salt and pepper.  Put them in that, then bake them.  That’s what they call ‘oven-fried.'”  Oven-fried?  I’d heard of that, I said, but had no idea what it was.  Hmph.  Who knew.

I got off the train to meet a friend for lunch.  We decided to head to one of the historic sites that had a cafe as well.  We got our admission ticket and headed for a tour of the manor house.  Then we were encouraged to tour the mill house.  Guess what they were milling?  Corn.  Guess what they were selling?  Corn meal.  Guess who bought some?  🙂   Not sure I’ll make some oven-fried fish, but some corn meal biscuits do sound good.

Talking to Strangers: On Airplanes

I’m the kind of person who would rather talk to my seatmate on an airplane than read a book.  No, I’m not forceful about it.  I simply smile and say hello to them as they sit down.  If they look at me in surprise and just nod, I know they’re not interested.  If they return the smile and hello and make a comment about how full the plane is or the weather, I know I’m in.

Some of you might say “Oh – but what if he wants to talk about nuclear physics for the next three hours?”  First of all, the chances of that happening are slim.  How many nuclear physicists are really out there?  And what are the chances one is sitting next to you?  Secondly, you can direct the conversation.  If his work sounds boring, ask about his kids.  Or the most interesting place he’s ever traveled.  Usually I start out saying, “Are you coming or going?”  Then I get to learn if they’re traveling to see family or for work or for pleasure and take it from there.  Third, have an out.  I have a book on my lap.  You can always say, “I’m at a really good part and want to get back to it.”  They’ll get the point.  And finally, from experience I can tell you it rarely happens that the person sitting next to you is completely boring.  Though that could be simply because I’m fascinated by most everyone.

In all the years I’ve traveled alone (seventeen) I’ve only had one questionable experience.  The lady next to me had Alzheimer’s.  I should have known something was up when her daughter put her on the plane, thanked the flight attendant and then left.  My seatmate asked me what day it was fifteen times before we took off.  Thankfully there was a brilliant man sitting behind me.  He peeked his head over my seat and said, “Hey – want to sit next to me so we can work on that presentation?”  I’d never seen the man in my life, but I loved him instantaneously.  I moved.  And here’s the thing: if you end up having a  bad experience it’s a much better story to tell when you get to your destination instead of “Oh, the flight was fine.”

My new presentation partner happened to be staying at the same hotel as me.  Yes, this could get very bad.  Though I was appreciative of his efforts on my behalf, I found out over the course of the flight that he and his wife were not doing so well.  This happens to me a lot – people seem to feel some sort of immediate trust in me that they can spill their guts about their relationships.  I don’t mind at all really – relationships fascinate me.  However, I wisely decided not to take him up on his invitation for dinner.

On another flight I happened to sit next to a good looking guy my age.  Statistically speaking, this is rare.  We hit it off so well we had lunch together at our layover stop.  If he didn’t live on the other side of the country, we’d have seen each other again.  Neither of us was interested in a cross-country romance.

This thought of talking to strangers crossed my mind today because yesterday I did plenty of it on a train.  That’s tomorrow’s story.  In the meantime, do talk to strangers.  It makes life SO much more interesting.