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Nice to Meet You, Now Leave Me Be

It’s easy to make friends while traveling—maybe a little too easy

Author Chris Wright Illustration Michael Byers

travelessayOf all the hazards associated with travel, the hardest to avoid is the attention of your fellow travelers. They get you on buses and trains, boats and airplanes, luring you in with an innocuous-sounding snippet of small talk, then subjecting you to a journey-spanning soliloquy regarding a grandchild’s impressive SAT results, the advantages of BMW’s adjustable coilover suspension, or how Napoléon was the architect of his own demise. It is the verbal equivalent of being manacled to a radiator, and it needs to be stopped.

Some people might be glad of the distraction, but not me. When I go away, I want everyone to go away. I view journeys as me-me-me time, like a day at the spa minus the scent of ylang-ylang and with a giant Toblerone thrown in. The cell phone is off. The laptop is closed. I’ve got my books and my magazines. The last thing I need is a chatty claims adjuster named Dave attaching himself to the side of my head.

I’m not completely antisocial. I’ve had my share of en-route buddies over the years, including a lovely Englishwoman named Helen, a politics major at Boston University. I can still recall my furious attempts to sound informed about the political situation in Russia (which, if memory serves, was “unraveling”) and Britain’s position in the EU (“precarious”). There’s a real possibility that, on this occasion, I was the boring guy who wouldn’t shut up, but Helen didn’t seem to mind. Four years later, she flew back to the U.K. and left me on my own.

Back then, even when I wasn’t enjoying a fellow traveler’s company, I endured. The reason for this, I think, was that I’d convinced myself there was something enriching about it, that conversing with a tipsy plumber from Finland would broaden my horizons, when all it did was teach me that there are idiots in Helsinki who throw all sorts of things down the toilet, including, once, an empty herring tin.

But I am older now, old enough to have learned to avoid eye contact with people like Jari. I’ve learned, too, that you cannot relax even when you reach your destination. Outdoor cafés are particularly perilous, like the watering holes in nature documentaries, teeming with boring crocodiles just waiting to grab you and pull you in. Nor are you safe in hotel lobbies, art museums or shops that sell novelty keychains. Let your guard down for an instant, and a conversational predator will pounce.

There is, of course, a thick vein of snobbery running through these complaints. The traveler, as opposed to the mere tourist, craves the company of Amahuacan basket weavers but recoils in horror from insurance adjusters. He diligently avoids any place where there is the slightest possibility of encountering a fanny pack, but then ends up sitting in some obscure bar surrounded by locals, unable to understand a single word they are saying, thinking how nice it might be if chatty Dave were here.  

Meanwhile, for the truly authentic traveler, things can get a whole lot worse than this. For example, you might find yourself spending eight days sitting in a hand-hewn indigenous canoe with a bunch of intolerably eco-
conscious people, with little to do except count spider bites and identify the bad smells and think about how nice it might be if chatty Dave were here.

This is the inescapable impulse, the craving for familiar companionship, that leads us to exchange contact information with people we meet on vacation. We have all done this, and some of us have had cause to regret it. In my case, the regret came in the form of a Liverpudlian named Sean, with whom I’d bonded in a Costa Blanca tapas bar and who seemed to have missed the bit in the Traveler’s Code stating that people who exchange numbers under such circumstances should never use them. Google the phrase “awkward night out” and the first hit will be an image of Sean and me sitting in a London pub, staring intently at our coasters.

Which only goes to reinforce my original point. Even when we think we’re getting along with our fellow travelers, we probably aren’t. And this, in the end, makes perfect sense. Statistically, the odds of chancing across a genuine friendship on a Florentine piazza or a Siberian steppe, or even a Greyhound bus, are vanishingly slim.

Perhaps tour companies will one day develop a set of algorithms similar to those used on dating sites, which will match travelers according to their interests and personality types. Until that day arrives, I’m keeping my headphones on.

Hemispheres executive editor chris wright would liketo point out that Napoléon did indeed make many strategic mistakes in his military campaigns, including his ill-fated march on Moscow in 1812.

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