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Talking to Strangers: The Best Free - and Sometimes Not Creepy - Vacation Activity

There are luxurious travelers, lapping up the expensive wine and going on pricey day tours, and then there’s me: filling up my years-old cat water bottle and seriously weighing the benefits of getting an Uber when there’s only a four-mile walk or a convoluted transit route with four transfers. Whichever I choose, I will probably get lost, which gives me more time for one of my favorite free vacation pastimes: talking to strangers with different accents.

Am I generally outgoing? No. Am I convinced saying five words to someone I don’t know will ruin any joy they had that day? Yes. Do I get incredibly uncomfortable when talking to someone new, convinced I will become part of a future “so you’ll never believe this weird person who talked to me” story? Inevitably. Does all this go out the window when I’m traveling? Yes, well, mostly. I’m sure I’m still someone’s weirdo story.

The first time I became someone’s weirdo story was on my first trip to the United Kingdom in 2016. I was living at home for a while after my mom died, at the request of my dad. Helping him with the mortgage was substantially cheaper than my prior one-bedroom apartment with an improperly placed vent that served as a transportation portal for all the spiders outside. Naturally, with the cost savings, I looked at flights to Europe. Other than my study abroad program in college and trips to the exotic land of Canada, I hadn’t been outside of the country at all. So why not go to London?! Sounded like a financially sound idea, not saving for a rainy day or paying off medical bills from spider bites.

I was supposed to have a travel companion on this UK trip, but that fell through, so I was somehow leaving the continent for only the second time all by myself. I planned everything to a T, including giving myself several hours of wiggle room in case I somehow managed to accidentally get off at the wrong airport on my nonstop flight. (It’s a real risk.) That – along with a really early flight arrival and about three seconds in customs (what was the UK thinking?) - got me to Paddington Station about five hours before my train to Plymouth.

Plymouth, worth getting to the train station five hours before departure.

I went to the ticket counter and asked if I could get an earlier train, and I ended up on one without any open seats. I didn’t realize I could just hang out between cars with my general ticket until a helpful older man named Patrick told me it was alright. That’s what he was doing. I promptly told him that if I got in trouble, I’d tell the train vigilantes that Patrick told me it was okay, and my threats had little impact. He must have been telling the truth.

Patrick and I sat in the barely there wall fold down chairs, while I unintentionally barricaded the bathroom with my luggage, and we spoke until he got off the train hours later. It was 2016, so we spent time apologizing about Brexit and Trump. We compared health care systems – or a mostly passable health care system vs. our shareholder enrichment scheme, off the beaten path things I could do in London when I got back for the last leg of my trip, and general pleasantries to distract from the fact that our conversation was taking place about four feet from where people on the other side of a thin door were eliminating the biscuits and coffee they’d purchased from the snack trolley.

As Patrick exited the train at Taunton to visit family, he left me with the confidence to talk to strangers more on trips, and to try not to sit outside a bathroom on future adventures. I didn’t have to worry about toilet considerations during one of my future European stranger conversations. We were at a museum - not of the history of plumbing - in Haarlem, Netherlands in December 2018, when my inner 16th century nerd was bursting at the seams, ready to send out Protestant Reformation and Tudor signals to anyone willing to tune in. Fortunately, there was a historian minding his own business upon whom I went in for the kill. I asked about when Spain ruled over The Netherlands and if he had any thoughts to share.

He did have thoughts to share, reader! So many that I needed a notebook, but there were too many stroopwafels in my bag to find the pen. He rattled off several book recommendations, one of which stuck in what passes as my brain, and I honestly couldn’t pin down the rest. As his excitement reached a crescendo, he said, “I’m probably forgetting some.” (Not sure how that’s possible.) “Let me give you my email and I’ll remember the rest.”

Haarlem, home to historians who can't escape my questioning.

So, he wrote down his email, with the name “History Guy” above it. I’d like to think that’s his given name and his parents gave him no other life choice but to live up to it. Unfortunately, he was not Penmanship Guy. His writing was somewhat indecipherable, but I tried my best when I emailed him a month or so after the trip. I never heard back from “History Guy”, which either means I was book ghosted – the cruelest fate – or I didn’t read his handwriting well enough.

This may be my most heartbreaking missed connection, one that deprived me of wasting more money in a bookstore. I just have to hold onto a better moment from that day: our tour guide at the windmill museum continually calling us “young people,” which warmed my ‘recently joined the old fart 30-somethings’ soul. She kept telling us if we got one windmill question right, she’d waive our admission. Reader, we did not get one right. We weren’t even in the ballpark. No wonder no one returns our emails.

It doesn’t have to be the fun part of a trip when such conversations pop up. No, they can also be on the ride to the airport when all the fun is over, except for being treated like the exasperating simpleton you are for not having the airport security book memorized. On my last visit to the United Kingdom, one of my best conversations happened on the train to Heathrow. An older woman took the seat next to me, and I clarified at which terminal she was departing, saying, “I don’t want to tackle you on my way out.”

This London swan escaped my chattiness but not my camera.

We were getting off at the same terminal, so no need for backpack violence. She was about ready to get violent with her son, though. Apparently he’d taken a pretty bad spill on his bike, and she was off to tend to him all the way in Seattle. This was not the first time she’d had to nurse him back to health. No, that had been following a surgery a few years earlier. While some may think parents appreciate being needed when their kids are long grown, she had a more relatable response.

“I just wish he’d find a partner already. I’m too old for this.”

My mom’s been gone for years, so I can’t apply this to my own life, but I can say, “Yeah, man, get a partner. Your mom has cool retired lady things to do.” The fact that I’m well into my 30s and have never had a live-in partner is immaterial. I can just guilt one of my brothers into taking care of me, which I’m sure would go well and not involve them moving to the UK afterward.

I thought about slowly backing away from a train car all the way to the UK during my first encounter on the light rail in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. A giant group of Vikings fans, a throng of purple soon to be 30% alcohol, was on its way to a Vikings preseason game. I was gobbled up by the purple beast immediately upon entering the train at the airport, where I was boarding to get to a Twins game. One older fan said, “If anyone needs more room, my lap is empty. I think you’re interested,” as he pointed to me.

As it turns out, I was not interested and suddenly relished the reassuring comfort of being digested by the purple monster. My fellow monster snacks included a woman who confided quietly to me that she knew absolutely nothing about the Vikings and only got the tickets for free. I’d keep her secret, and she could protect me from the romantic advances of elderly Vikings fans who have seen too much embarrassment on the field to feel shame.

Pro tip: Expand your chattiness to the organist at stadiums, even if you're rooting for the other team.

It was a rough showing for Minnesota nice, but you have to converse with a few transit frogs before you find the transit princes, like the teenager who asked if I’d just won a marathon when I got on after a 10k in St. Paul but still seemed equally impressed that I’d merely been given a medal for finishing a 10k, the helpful teenager at the Mall of America who explained the blue line to me, and the guy who immediately struck up a conversation with me after I left one of the stops and told me he didn’t think Minnesota was that friendly. People gave him weird looks when he tried to chat with them.

Seeing as he wasn’t offering his lap, I didn’t understand the aversion. He was welcome to 20 minutes of my time, and with his mischievous smile and debonair demeanor, I doubt his mom will be complaining when he’s 50 that he doesn’t have a partner.

He didn’t have to worry about me giving him a weird look, him or most friendly strangers on vacation. If you’re not creepy or you have historical facts to share, I’m entirely at your disposal. Imagine getting where you need to be promptly with an Uber when you could get 58,000 steps in a day and maybe meet a friendly stranger.


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