First impressions: the critical foundation to every relationship, or so I’ve been told by countless guidance counselors, job fair flyers, and websites. From what I’ve gathered over the years, when you’re meeting someone for the first time, you should shake their hand firmly, maintain eye contact(you should know that excessive eye contact really freaks me out), and smile. Websites like Inc. even suggest maintaining good body hygiene and treating the person “like a person.” Revolutionary ideas?…no. Important?…probably, but very rarely do I find myself referring to the first impression formula when I’m actually meeting someone for the first time.
In fact, the official first impression generally doesn’t leave much of an impression on me. I take more notice of that moment right before you meet someone. The pre-first impression. The last moment you share as strangers, the moment you encounter so frequently when you are a lone traveler engulfed by strangers, a bounty of first impressions awaiting your discovery.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many strangers during my trip and each encounter, whether marked by hearty conversation or a face that suggests smiles are foreign currency with a high exchange rate, has meant something to me because every time a stranger becomes a little less strange, traveling alone becomes a little less lonely.
Now that’s a revolutionary thought: traveling alone can be a little lonely sometimes. It’s something that makes perfect sense but it never really crossed my mind until I was traveling, alone.
This week, I’ve been teaching English in a private school run by the very kind parents of four children. They have been gracious enough to provide me free accommodation in a flat right next to the school. During the day, I teach English for a few hours and then help my hosts at their home. I prepare lunch, clean, make paper airplanes, and play football with their youngest son Dominik. During the evening, I go back to my flat, read, write, and watch Netflix, all alone.
Spending time with a big family while living in my own flat right next to work has been an absolute gift but there are few times when loneliness seems to sneak through my door. Something awesome happens and I want to tell someone, shake someone, hug someone but the people who are in closest proximity are the ones I know the least.
They are strangers. They don’t know me, why would they care?
Indeed, they may not care about how delicious my morning cereal has been lately or how I just got my ass whooped at a Polish Run Club called “We Run Because We Like It” (more to come from this in my next post but let me just say it involved sprinting around the track with weights and a stretch that nearly brought tears to my eyes). Regardless of how they feel about your personal woes and wins, every stranger has the potential to look a little less foreign in this theoretical home you have built.
I’ve met so many wonderful strangers in trains, and buses, and hostels, and schools, and supermarkets, and apartments, and parks, and in the street. They’re everywhere and everything when loneliness starts to sneak into my living room.
So thank you to the woman who gave me a cookie and a smile on the train. Thank you to the red-headed girl from my hostel in Krakow who called me a witch (it’s a red-head thing) and didn’t judge me for eating two bowls of coco puffs. Thank you to the man who lets me fawn over his Schnauzer in the park every morning here in Lebork. You may all be strangers but you bring normalcy to my life.
Right now, I’m sitting in an empty apartment listening to Radiohead and writing about loneliness but my mind is sitting beside a friendly Australian in a Krakow laundromat. He’s talking about pub crawls and Denmark and I’m talking about indefinite plans and weather and we’re both talking about politics and college debt and laundry detergent.
I’m in an empty apartment listening to The Killers, clinking my glass of water on the table just as I did a few nights ago at a small pub in Lebork among some new friends. One of my new friends, an unwaveringly bright Polish teacher named Luiza tells me that even though she prefers speaking Polish and I only speak English, we speak the same language.
I’m sitting in an empty apartment. There are pictures of Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall and they are both alone. And I am here, also alone, but my thoughts are with a former stranger two flights of stairs away from me.She was a stranger until she waited at the bottom of the steps with curious eyes, hand extended. We exchanged greetings, she told me her English was no good, and we both smiled the same smile because traveling alone can be lonely and loners run into strangers all the time and strangers become normal mechanisms in the mechanics of life, even when the handshake is limp and the eye contact is brief. We’re all strangers until we suddenly find ourselves a little less alone because she and I and you and me share snippets of knowing and flashes of understanding and a feeling that says, “yes, I like this person!” Our dialects are different, we have trouble pronouncing each other’s names, but the smile is easily translated because you and I, two imperfect, prefect strangers, speak the same language.
Talk to Strangers,