I’m not good at making friends when I travel. Partially, it’s because I hate the idea of partaking in a cliché scene like:
I’m sitting in a café in Toulouse with my laptop.
A man leans over and says, “Excusez moi. Qu’est que le wifi password?”
I mumble, “Ah no francais comprendo.”
“You are American?” he asks with an American accent.
“Yes!” I reply with an equally American accent.
And then we spend an amazing 36 hours together in Toulouse, fall in love—yes it’s rash, but we’re sure this love is real!—and have the best How We Met story on our wedding website.
No thanks. Not for me. I’m just a little too shy and a little to cynical to allow such a romance to unfold.
Contrast this with my friend Gilbert, a notoriously brazen Frenchman. Gilbert invariably makes friends while traveling. He will have an unforeseen seven-hour layover in Atlanta and somehow will meet some nice people, go to a nice bistro with live jazz, fall in layover love, nearly elope, and always have someone to stay with if he ever finds himself in Atlanta again.
If I have an unforeseen seven-hour layover in Atlanta, best-case scenario: I’m mugged on the MARTA and get a weird rash from my Days Inn bed.
I don’t make friends while traveling.
But by the time I got to Krakow one summer, I was ready for a friend. Krakow is a very likable European city. It’s charming and historic, with preserved Baroque facades and a medieval castle. In the lively main square there are street performers, craft vendors, and dozens of stands with buttery potato-and-beer based cuisine, made to fatten you up for the winter. Plus, Krakow does not get as many foreign tourists, as say Prague or all of Western Europe, so the people are generally friendly and helpful.
With delicious food!
I’m a big fan of Krakow, but that particular summer I was not in the mood to be there. It was my last stop after three months of traveling alone for work. The charm of wandering along cobble stone streets and journaling in cafés—which enchants me at the beginning of my research trips—had expired. I was sick of being abroad, sick of being alone, sick of everything confusing and new. I wanted to put my clothes in a dresser and shove my suitcase in the way-back-corner of my closet. Evidently, I was homesick.
So I made friends with an American in Starbucks.
In my defense, I was only in Starbucks because I was in the mall, and I was only in the mall because I split my pants and needed new pants. They were cool pants that I bought in the Middle East—breezy linen, bright orange, and now with a six inch split along my ass crack. The split was emphasized because I was wearing equally bright blue underwear. It was so conspicuous people must have thought it was a fashion statement. I hope.
I didn’t notice this split until I returned to my hotel in the late afternoon. It might have happened on the steps up to my room… or few minutes before… or anytime in the eight hours since I had put the pants on that morning.
So I needed to buy some pants, and the easiest place to do so would be the mall.
I walked into the H&M, pivoted 180 degrees, and walked out of the H&M. If there’s one thing that consistently brings me to the brink of panic-attack, it’s H&Ms in European cities. The racks are bulging with unruly garments. The hangers screech as customers part a block of clothing and slide a section to one side of the rack. Tank-tops snag and tangle; drapey sweaters slip from their hangers onto the floor. It’s crowded and pushy and too hot. The dressing rooms are in disarray and the check out line is soul crushing.
I couldn’t handle it at the moment. I retreated to Starbucks—the first Starbucks I had seen all summer.
The guy who ordered ahead of me was clearly American. He was tall, solid, wearing a backpack and Patagonia fleece. His hair was ruffled and dark. He was handsome enough to play a “normal guy” in commercials for breakfast cereal or car insurance.
I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to make friends.
Me: “So you’re from America?”
Him, enthusiastically: “Yeah! How about you?”
I internally cringed. This conversation already felt so predictable.
It turns out he had finished a Masters in Anthropology and now had a one year research position in Krakow. I was an Anthropology PhD student, doing two weeks of research in Krakow. How about that! Two anthropologists meeting in a Starbucks! How ironic!
Him: “Well it was really nice meeting you, but I have to run… How much longer are you here?”
Me: “Four more days, until Tuesday.”
Him: “Okay let’s meet up for a drink. Do you have a phone?”
Him: “Okay my email’s easy. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I would have gone with my gmail, but if he felt inclined to drop the Ivy League affiliation, then I had to drop the Ivy League affiliation…
Me: “So is mine. email@example.com.”
Him: “Okay, see you soon!”
The next day I received an email from him and we agreed to meet for a drink at 9 pm. In the intervening time, my expectations and enthusiasm inflated. I made a friend while traveling! We were going for drinks! He was a handsome, American, well-educated anthropologist! What could be more perfect!?
I know I have been wrong about this some times before, but by the time I departed my hotel at 8:45 I was convinced that the drink was in fact a date and the date would go swimmingly and two years from now we’d have the best How We Met story on our wedding website.
So he ordered vodka. I hate vodka, but when in Poland, you drink vodka. So I ordered vodka too. But what was odd is that he ordered Grey Goose vodka, a French brand that’s more expensive and worse quality than most local Polish ones.
Me: “So you must have to drink a lot of vodka, living here.”
Him: “Eh, that’s what I’ve always drank. It’s not because I’m in Poland. And can you believe they don’t even have real Red Bull here. It’s ridiculous.”
Me: “Huh, I guess… So… how’s your Polish?”
Him: “Ha. I took a language course for about two weeks and then decided it’s not worth my time. I’m only living here for a year. Besides, Polish people should learn English if they ever want to do anything with their lives.”
Me: “Huh, right… So… where are you from?”
Him: “I grew up in this part of Connecticut that’s like a mixture of New York and New England culture.”
He delved into a poor-little-rich boy life story. He went to a hoity boarding school (Deerfield), was in a fraternity at Penn, and dabbled in finance before doing a pay-your-way Masters in Medical Anthropology at Yale. He applied to numerous PhD programs (including mine) and had many conspiracy theories as to why he was not accepted in any.
Him: “It’s not me. It’s the system… It’s the structure of the academy… My research interests are too interdisciplinary.”
With no better alternatives, he took a research position within a medical school in Krakow. The position, and Poland in general, were not to his liking.
Him: “There’s no creative freedom. It’s completely stunting… The academics here are completely corrupt.”
He was on Grey Goose vodka #3. I had switched to beer.
Him: “And the country is so third world. It’s seriously dirty and poor.”
My experiences working in Poland have been the opposite. My colleagues are dedicated, open-minded, and hospitable—laudable scholars and humans. As far as former Soviet Bloc states go, Poland is relatively developed and functioning. I disagreed with his perspectives as much as I disagreed with his drink choice.
Me: “Well have you been dating any hot Polish women?”
Him: “No. Do you know how high the STD rates are here?”
Near the end of the night he held out an ID, with a photo taken a few years back.
Him: “See this? This is why I couldn’t get good letters of recommendation for grad school.”
Some point was supposed to be self-evident. The only striking feature that I could discern was that he had long hair in the photo. I deduced that either 1) he used to be a grungy punk guy or 2) he used to be a women.
I nodded with feigned understanding and said, “Ohhhh. I see.”
We parted ways to our respective accommodations and never corresponded again. He was a rancorous, vainglorious prick. A totally despicable individual, whom I would have avoided in most circumstances—but he was my best friend in Krakow because he was my only friend in Krakow. This is the problem with making friends while traveling.