Travel Rule #1: Talk To Strangers

The man approaching our parked car had an unkempt beard and was wearing a dirty T-shirt. My first inclination was to try to avoid him, but then I had a sudden change of heart. Earlier that morning, I remarked to my wife that we’d been traveling around the U.S. for more than a month and hadn’t really made a single new friend or, for that matter, even had a very substantive conversation with anyone other than people I was interviewing for a story.

This realization came to me after noticing that a friend we had met on the Greek island of Patmos a few months before had posted a photo of his cat on my Facebook page. Seeing Vlachos the Cat made me think of all the friends we made while traveling in Italy and Greece over a three-month period earlier this year. Now that we were back in the good old USA, how come we weren’t meeting people on our home turf?We were in Manchester, Vermont and had just parked our car in front of a breakfast place we were about to patronize when the scruffy looking guy that I had decided not to avoid parked his bike across the street and ambled over to our car.

“You’re from Virginia?” he asked, noticing our license plate.

“We spent the last two years in Falls Church,” I said.

“I hate Virginia,” he said. “You should move here.”

The man introduced himself as Chris and he and I got to talking, as my wife tried to corral my two young sons, who were playing on the sidewalk. In about 15 minutes, Chris told me the Cliff Notes story of his life. After graduating from college in the ’70s he walked across the state of Ohio to meet Ralph Nader because he wanted to work for the Green Party and thought that might impress him.

In the ’80s, he gravitated to Arlington, Virginia, but hated it there, so he moved to a town called Strasburg in the Shenandoah region based on his desire to live in the “real Virginia.”

“I hated that goddamn place,” he said. “I’ve never seen more ignorant, backward people in my entire life.”

It seemed as though Chris had stopped to talk to us primarily because he wanted to vent a little about our adopted home state, but I didn’t mind because our morning had just gotten a bit more interesting. Chris moved to Manchester earlier this year and said he’d found paradise. He said he was “hoping to get into environmental engineering,” and I loved the fact that at his age he was still wondering what to do with his life.

“Don’t let the high home prices here in town fool you,” he said. “I just picked up a log cabin, a little primitive but not bad, for 80k, about 20 minutes away from here.”

Eventually, we parted company but I was glad that I stopped to talk, or mostly listen, to Chris. The friends you make while traveling might not become lifelong buddies but if I don’t meet people when I’m traveling I feel a little like I’ve missed something. When I think back to my favorite trips, I tend to remember the people I’ve met more than the things I’ve seen.

After talking to Chris, I thought about how we had made so many friends in the Mediterranean and realized that the reason we weren’t making friends on the road in the U.S. wasn’t because people here are less friendly or approachable. It was us and how we were traveling. Here are a few thoughts on making friends while on the road.

Get out of your car. In three months on the road in the Mediterranean, we rented cars for a grand total of just two weeks and, while not having a car can be an inconvenience in some places, it also creates opportunities to meet people. We met loads of people on trains, buses and ferries and a few more while mooching rides to places we couldn’t get to on public transport.

Trying to visit places in the U.S. without a car is a lot harder than it is in many other parts of the world but you can still park your car and sightsee on foot or bike more often than you might think. When you’re driving around seeing things inside your car, you obviously aren’t going to meet anyone.

Brings kids and/or dogs. OK, I admit that bringing small children on a trip isn’t the most relaxing way to spend your holiday, and a lot of hotels don’t allow dogs, but kids and dogs are great conversation starters.

Don’t be in a rush. People who know me know that I have a hard time with this one. Americans have a tendency to travel like cheetahs on amphetamines. We want to cover 12 countries in 6 days and see everything that’s listed in our guidebook. That’s a surefire recipe for not meeting anyone.

Don’t get too comfortable. When we travel to another country, especially if we don’t know the local language, we are in many ways helpless. We need to seek people out to ask them how to get places and how to do things, but when you’re in your own country, you’re a lot more self-sufficient.

Here in the U.S., we have a GPS and I have a phone that allows me to pull up restaurant reviews or anything else I need in a moment. I like that technology, but it also robs us of the chance to stop and ask people for help, directions and recommendations. Use the technology, but still stop and ask someone if the route your GPS suggests is a good one, or if the good reviews you read about on Yelp are legit.

Stay in small hotels or bed and breakfast places. When visiting large U.S. cities, we have a tendency to stay in big chain hotels, but if you seek out smaller, independent places you can get to know your hosts – who are often very interesting people. In Italy, we made friends with landlords who rented us apartments in Spoleto, Perugia and Lecce and they helped give us insights into their hometowns, and in Greece, we became friendly with a host of couples that ran the small hotels we stayed in.

Some bed and breakfasts in the U.S. don’t welcome families with small children but if you do your homework you can find family-friendly establishments.

Become a journalist, if only for a day. Blog about your travels and use your site as an excuse to interview people you want to talk to.

Split from your group at least once. Solo travelers are more approachable and when you travel as a couple or a group, you tend to rely on each other for conversation. At least once or twice on any trip, split up from your party for at least a half day and see what happens. When you reconvene, you’ll enjoy each other’s company all the more so.

Make the effort. This is really the most important rule. We managed to sleepwalk through a month of travel in the U.S. largely because we were a self-contained unit, dependent only on each other, traveling by car and mostly staying in large hotels. Strike up conversations with people and don’t assume that everyone that approaches you is hoping to save your soul or fleece you.

[Photos of strangers met on the road by Dave Seminara]