Travel writers befriend locals. The locals, in exchange for drinks and stories, take the writer to secret bars, authentic restaurants, and everything else mere tourists miss. In less than two days the writer has a gaggle of new friends with a super-secret bungalow in the mountains. The friends invite the writer to stay for a weekend, and the (usually male) writer agrees to go. He listened during improv lessons and knows saying yes, as well as being an ever-important tenant of unscripted hilarity, is also the first lesson in being an awesome travel writer. Go him! He doesn’t get robbed or murdered or kidnapped. (He doesn’t write thrillers and any super-awesome travel writer instinctively knows whom to trust.) He has a fantastic half-remembered time, eats dinners he doesn’t pay for, and leaves with a tear in his eye, a song in his heart, and a list of email addresses in his pocket. Good for him.
I am not that travel writer. I do write and travel, but the smooth gold-plated membership card of travel writerdom, like RuPaul’s Drag Race, requires a perfect combination of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Without it, you’re no more than a common Moleskine-wielding tourist. I don’t have that winning combination. I would have local friends by now if I did. I would’ve left clubs covered in glitter and been invited to a secluded French villa only accessible by gondola. If I were a travel writer, I wouldn’t suck at making new friends in far places.
I didn’t realize the extent of my friend-making deficiency before I came to London. School has always provided ample supplies of similarly aged and interested peers, even during the summer. I spent last June to August franticly stage managing a touring musical with 27 other college students. In between the panic attacks, I made awesome friends. I figured this summer couldn’t be that different. I’m working for an arts non-profit and spent the second birthday in a row in a foreign county running around a theater. Instead of herding college-aged actors, I shepherded 9 and 10-year-olds— basically the same thing, but this time I got a juice box. However, all the volunteers were real people: grown ups with incomes and children. As much as I love real live responsible adults, I didn’t hang out with them after work. We didn’t share bunk-beds in hostels or go sight-seeing in groups. They have life to do, and I’m a summer intern passing through. The show ended. They went back to filming commercials and I went to work in the office.
I didn’t give up hope. I had another month to meet locals, and with dedication, luck and effort I CAN DO ANYTHING! So I visited museums. People meet there in romcoms, and museums (particularly the free ones) make me happy. I go to the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the V&A, and the National Portrait Gallery. I go a second time, and maybe a third before I realize I never talk to people there. I look and think and pause and laugh, but I don’t talk. Everyone comes with a group or stares alone in solemn silence. They either have company or don’t seem to want it. My hesitance to barge in, interrupt or look stupid outweighs my desire to start a conversation. Museums aren’t the solution. I try theater instead. I’ve always had theater friends so it made a logical second attempt. I go to the National Theater: sit in the lobby, read, maybe try to make eye contact with someone before filing into my designated seat. During intermission I make witty comments about long lines in the ladies room. Some people laugh and respond, but then their turn comes up and they disappear into a stall. I think about asking them to write down their number and slide it under the stall door so we could continue the banter via text, but that would be weird as hell. I refrain, and give up on the idea of meeting people there. I give up on the idea of meeting new people in general.
And I’m fine with that. I tell myself I’m fine with it. Meeting new people makes me nervous and I’ve never been great at saying hello to strangers. Instead I sink into the familiar: call a high school acquaintance, eat with college friends, and watch the Olympics with my cousin. I try to write a play. I go back to the Tate Modern (alone) after hearing about a performance art piece. People run in patterns as the lights dim and brighten above them. I get closer. A performer comes up (alone) and tells me a story. She dove into the ocean from a 30-foot cliff and felt liberated. I silently nod and manage to ask her why she got involved in the performance piece. She tells me everyone comes for different reasons before returning to the group. An older woman with poise and graying hair that remind me of my grandmother walks up and tells me about leaving post-war England for Connecticut. We stand close as she talks of handmade rag dolls, rationing and hints of lavender. I listen. We part. Another woman comes up. She tells me how rubbing her thumbnail in the curve just above her lip calms her when she feels lonely or homesick. I ask her where she calls home and she tells me about family in Cyprus. I tell her my mom recently sold our old house and I won’t be back in the country before she moves out. We talk about going home and finding things moved on without us.
We don’t exchange names or contact information. No personal tour of London or house in the mountains- just conversation. I go to museums and theater because art makes my world less lonely. I relate to paintings and fleshed-out characters, but find strangers more difficult. Human relationships have more baggage. That performance piece bridged art and personal interaction with enough grace that I felt comfortable walking across the divide to say hello. I remembered how to make a friend.