I spent an evening this week in the company of a German acquaintance from many years back. He was a fellow traveler along our route, and after encountering him and his girlfriend several times at campsites along the way, my husband and I joined them for dinner. It was one of those strange moments when everything in life seems to be connected, like you've meet your long-lost neighbors or the friends from your childhood. Andreas and Ellie were university students with a twenty-something lifetime before they got their degrees: seven years for a Bachelor's equivalent. But Andreas was a computer science major and we exchanged e-mail addresses in that silly belief that adventure acquaintances transmute into the friends of everyday life. I remember that Ellie loved American Brownies, and I promised to send her a scratch recipe.
After many years of adventuring, we have acquired many such adventure friends, people we've met on our travels and connected with. And most peculiarly they have a way of showing up again later in life, not as everyday friends, but acquaintances that you can count on to understand the needs of a traveler: a soft place to sleep, a friendly ear, an introduction to the normal or even odd part of the location you are visiting, and most of all an introspective conversational partner. Because what really happens to you when you travel is not a connection to a new place or people but a new connection to yourself that can be just as painful and surprising as years on the couch with a therapist. Everything you thought you knew about yourself is turned inside out and you have countless hours to think about your home, your family, your friends, your values, and what you consider normal.
So we were strangely unsurprised to get e-mail from Andreas late this spring saying he was coming to visit California, five years after our last conversation. He had finally graduated and gotten a job, but was looking for something in the states, for some adventure. Bad timing, to be sure. So we saw him, finally, on his last day in California before resuming his round-the-world ticket on his way back to a nice, safe job in Germany, a point when introspection has festered and grown. What do you love about America, what do you hate about America, where would you live if you could live anywhere in the world? How do you deal with friends and family who are below your new economic station in life, and don't understand the need and the ability to go adventuring instead of settling down? How do you reconcile the working-class values you grew up with and your current lifestyle, how do you balance selfishness and responsibility?
It was a classic litany. In the end a traveler always finds they want the best of both worlds, the friendly Americans and the reliable German public transit system, multi-cultural diversity and the comfort of only dealing with your own class. Everything is connected to everything else. Americans are friendly and outgoing because we move around, we don't stay put, and our neighborhoods reflect this. In the larger urban areas there is very little of shops and neighbors that stay put for decades, let alone generations. The lazy German bachelor revels in the oversize American refrigerator and all the oversize foodstuffs to go in it while we savor the corner markets, fresh produce, and small portions. To love the car or to love public transportation, that is the question.
It isn't that any of these questions find answers in conversation, it is asking them that is important, exploring the possibilities and each other's viewpoints from across the cultural divide.Sometimes, when you get home and return to your ordinary life, you forget about your adventures and what you've learned. You become normal again, taking your culture and its assumptions for granted, forgetting about your ephemeral distant acquaintances. Maybe you've exaggerated the importance of the encounter in your memory, maybe the conversation was insipid, and most certainly the acquaintances have long forgotten you, as you have mostly forgotten them. And then they call, from out of the blue, and it is like the way the air becomes so still before a thunderstorm you can feel the electricity on your skin. The world becomes strange again for just a moment and you remember everything you've forgotten; you remember that chance met strangers can become some of the most important friends you will ever have.
Columns by Buttercup