Ever since I was a kid, my parents have always taken me with them on every trip they went on. I guess that’s a perk of being an only child. On these trips, whether it be to visit my grandmother in Florida or the rolling hills of Ireland, I felt the urge to venture off by myself. Maybe it was because I liked the ability to linger where I wanted, or maybe it was because I wanted to create my own experience in its entirety. When I got my license, I was gone as quick as I could fill my gas tank. My car took me on solo hikes in New Hampshire, afternoons of reading books on the shores of Cape Cod beaches, and obscure locations that I went to just because I could. The peak of my solo adventures came when I decided to study abroad in the Netherlands when I was a sophomore in college. Every weekend I would travel to a new location in Europe. Here is where I discovered that the most rewarding parts of solo-travel is the ability to connect with complete strangers that you might normally not have connected with when you were busy talking to your friends.
Join me as i travel to three different countries and experience this human connection first hand...
My white sneakers traverse the uneven cobblestoned streets of the small town of Soller. This is my first time on an island, specifically the island of Mallorca in Spain, and I decided to venture off on my own for a while. The signifier of island life, the palm tree, is almost as plentiful as the citrus groves that are found in every yard. Branches bearing oranges, lemons, and limes dip into the streets from behind high fences, their weight dragging them down for the picking. I stand on my toes and stretch upwards until my fingers envelop a particularly vibrant looking orange. My mouth waters at the prospect of feeling the sweet fresh fruit between my lips, a luxury I wish I had in all of my travels. With orange bits under my fingernails, I tear open the fruit and pop a slice into my mouth. If you had blindfolded me I would have thought I had bitten into a fruit sourer than a lemon. I spewed the orange out on the ground and shook my head in shock. That’s what I get for thieving an orange. I’m just as bad as Eve, taking the forbidden fruit from the tree. I am in search of nothing, completely at the will of the world around me.
The next corner I round, I am in a small square with a beautiful fountain in the center, right in front of a beautiful church. As I stare up at the church, the bell starts to ring. When I look down, I realize that a group of women have formed around me in a semicircle, holding hands and staring down at the cobblestones under our feet. They all look like mothers, with wrinkles of concern on their foreheads and kindness in their relaxed brows. However, their faces are succumbed in sadness; their eyes shut tightly and their mouths forming unspoken words. With every toll of the bell, the women seem to dig deeper into the earth in their stance. I turn to an older woman who was watching the display next to me, the same sadness existing on her face.
“Do you know what this is about?” I ask. She turns to me, graspes my hands between her’s, and speaks quickly in Spanish. “I’m so sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” I say. She just smiles a sad smile in response, and continues speaking in Spanish. As she speaks she continues to grasp my hands, and stares into my eyes with more sincerity than I have seen in a while. She emphasizes certain words, and whispers others. I do not understand one bit of it but I am so drawn into the emotion that she is conveying as she speaks to me in her beautiful native tongue. I feel like I am somehow understanding what she is trying to say to me. She releases my hands and lightly touches her fist to my stomach a few times in a stabbing motion, then rubs my arm as tears fill her eyes. I have no idea what she means by this motion, but I can feel her pain. I grasp her back and she nods. She smiles her sad smile at me again, just as the bell stops tolling. The women disperse, and so does she, disappearing into the crowd. All it took was walking up to these women in order to be taken in among their warm embrace. The instinct of this woman to reach out to a complete stranger with such warmth and love is one that caught me off guard, and at the same time left me craving more of these genuine human interactions.
It is 7 in the morning and I am walking down by the Maas river in the teeny tiny town of Well in the Netherlands. I have gotten into the habit of waking up for the golden hour when the sun basks the town in a warm light that looks like gold paint. I swim through the sunlight as I move down the street and pass an old woman hunched over a walker. I smile and say hello and she smiles back. I reach the end of the street and turn around and pass her again. This time she turns around and shouts something after me. I spin around.
“I’m so sorry I don’t speak Dutch,” I say, the phrase has become a common one in my vocabulary. Realization washes over her face and she smiles. “You are American? Ah! I can practice my English, it is bad,” she says. I laugh. “Well it’s better than my Dutch!” We laugh. “I’m Mary. Won’t you come for a coffee?” She asks.
I am immediately taken back because I have never been invited into a stranger’s home before. I come to the conclusion that if needed, I could totally take down this old woman if it came to a fight, and the odds of that happening were slim to none. I nod and follow her to her house down the street. I help her carry her walker inside the dimly lit room. As I step inside I am immediately hit with the thick stench of stale cigarette smoke and cats, even though I don’t see any felines lurking about. Her walls are covered with paintings; portraits to be exact. There are so many that the yellow wallpaper beneath them is barely visible. Mary shuffles around in the small kitchen. I walk over to a desk and see some wet paint on a plate and a few crusty brushes. There is a small easel sitting on the desk with a canvas half painted of a woman with a blue hat. The most striking aspect of the painting is the details of her eyes. The iris is a piercing blue and the whites are whiter than clouds.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the room, and sure enough Mary is hobbling over to the chair I had just taken a seat at. She hands me the coffee and I thank her and take a sip. I discreetly wince; the coffee tastes like she brewed cigarette butts rather than coffee beans. I thank her all the same and continue to sip on it, the bitter drink overwhelming my senses. We begin to get to know each other. She asks me questions like where I’m from and what I’m studying in school, I ask her how long she’s lived here and if she has any family.
“I have lived here all my life. I don’t have any children, but I have a brother who I don’t see anymore,” she says. I nod, looking around at the paintings. “Take one, please!” Mary says. “Oh I couldn’t. These are all so beautiful, you should keep them!” I say. She shakes her head and motions me towards a large stack of paintings. “These are either famous people or people that come into my house who I paint for free. There is a sign outside that welcomes people in, but most people don’t come in. No one talks to each other in this town, so cold! Will you flip it for me when you leave?” She asks, I nod my head and continue flipping through the paintings. “These are really good! People are missing out.” I say. Mary shrugs. The paintings are strictly portraits, and each one seems connected to each other, as if all of the subjects were in the same family. I stop flipping when I see the face of the man himself—Bob Marley. I can’t help but let out a chuckle because of the randomness of seeing this ganja god here in this small town of Well. I choose Bob as my painting, however Mary hands me a second one of a man with a very kind face.
“It’s me,” She says. I gaze at the painting, puzzled. “This is the only self portrait I have. Well, it’s not me really. I started to paint myself but I really am not very attractive, so I started to paint my brother. We are one. It is yours now,``she explains. I try and hand it back to her.“This is too much,” I say. She insists on me taking it, so I lay the painting in my lap. I feel like I need to give her something of my own now, so I rummage through my pockets trying to find something that I know will be incomparable to this piece of Mary. I remember the polaroid that I keep in my phone case of a beach I go every summer in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I take a pen and scrawl my name on the back and hand it to the woman. She places it on her work table. This woman and I are in each other's lives now, if not in the literal sense, in the spiritual sense. We have a piece of each other, and that is something I can’t say about most strangers.
Mary views herself as one with her brother, one with me, and one with everyone she meets, which is clear when examining her paintings. Each person has similar kind eyes, and an indescribable warmth about them. She explained to me the stories behind a number of the subjects of her paintings, one a traveling woman from Nigeria, another of a young girl with Down Syndrome that lives down the block, and a local farmer that gives her her weekly milk. These people were all her family, which was clear by the way she spoke of them. Here she was, living by herself, but yet she seemed so content. I have seen people with ten times the amount of friends than Mary and they are more alone than she is.
Humans in today’s society are constantly surrounded by other people, yet we have never been more alone. We isolate ourselves without even realizing it, between taking a taxi to avoid stressful public transport, or even spreading out in a movie theatre so that we have the most possible space between us. We are like atoms, sometimes colliding, but never fully connecting. Genuine connections are the antidote for our impending isolation.
In Venice, my friends are off ripping into buttery croissants, while I leave them to seek out some vegan food. I find a cute little pizzeria that serves vegan pizza, so I buy one and roam the packed streets in search of a place to camp out and dive into the pie. I come across a little dock on the canal that is unoccupied, so I crouch down and start engulfing the pizza in a very animalistic fashion. I glance up and see an Indian woman staring at me from the steps above me. With my mouth full of pizza, I give her an awkward smile and a wave with my sauce covered hands. She smiles back and waves me over, patting the step next to her. I am puzzled for a minute, then I realize that she wants me to sit by her. I gather my pizza and climb the steps to meet her. She is with what appears to be her husband and another couple. In Venice it is against the law to sit down on the ground in the streets, so I glance around before taking a seat in this very public location.
“Where are you from?” She asks me with a warm smile. She holds my arm with her hands. “Boston, in America,” I say. The whole group lights up and moves closer to me. “We love Americans!” She says, and starts to run her fingers through my hair.“Where are you from?” I ask. “Nepal!” Her husband says. Now it is my turn to light up. “I have many friends from Nepal! It is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture,” I say. They smile. “You must visit Nepal!” The man says. I nod and take another bite of pizza. “No cheese?” They ask. I shake my head. “I don’t eat cheese or meat,” I say. They absolutely beam. “Us either!” Says the woman who is holding my hand says. “You must visit us in Nepal,” She says. I nod, even though I know I will probably never see these people again in my life. These strangers welcomed me into their family as soon as they saw me without one. The love that was being given by this woman in particular was almost like a maternal love, even though she hardly knew me. I got the feeling that this was just how the woman was with everyone, especially people who she sees alone.
All of these interactions I had between other human beings always happened when I went off on my own. These stories all share a common theme which is genuine human connection. It is easy to get caught up in traveling within your comfort zone and with people you know, but sometimes it is when you journey outside your comfort zone that you truly experience a place. In a society that is caught up with being so socially connected at all times, it seems that there is an immense disconnect with the people outside of our social circles. Whether it be offering the person sitting next to you on the subway a smile, or not being afraid to strike up a conversation with someone while waiting in line, creating connections can truly turn your experience into a special one when traveling. Who knows? You may even make a new friend and for sure have lasting memories.