A Journey of Long Conversations: Chapter 1

Looking back on my first three weeks in Europe, I realize that the most remarkable aspects have not been the sights and landscapes I’ve encountered, but the people that I’ve talked to. Somehow, even as most of my time hasn’t even been spent in hostels, I’ve had more long, meaningful conversations with strangers in the last few weeks that I’ve experienced in the previous few years combined. I don’t have a great explanation for these conversations– most of them have just been struck up as I’ve been going about the standard activities of everyday life.

Here’s my hypothesis: when we’re stuck in our routines, walking the same streets, pursuing the same range of activities every day, we’re inadvertently isolationist. Our eyes gaze blankly into space or stare at our phones as we pass through familiar scenes, we march, in a near sleep-walk, from one destination to the next, and other people become mere props in a well-trod environment. These routinized behaviours create a body language that separates  us from others—we present ourselves as being uninterested in exploring, which the strangers around us read as disinterest in other people’s lives.

When we’re traveling, however (assuming we haven’t become dead to wonder just yet), all of that routinized body language reverses itself. Our head rotates up from the ground to examine the buildings around us, we stop to examine the idiosyncrasies of our surroundings, and generally just react to external stimuli. All this creates an aura of care—we are exploring someone else’s routinized surroundings, and, consequently, become interested in the other human beings surrounding us. Thus we become more than props in a familiar diorama, and present ourselves as fully formed consciousnesses—inviting others to learn about our journey, and encouraging them to share their own.

Whether or not this hypothesis is true, I’ve heard a staggering number of touching stories in the past few weeks that feel like they deserve much more attention than my hot takes on Paris neighborhoods. After all, cities are collections of millions of people, and any understanding that one can develop in a few weeks is only the most superficial. Looking back on my rushed blogging yesterday, it feels altogether unjust to issue an affirmation or condemnation of someone’s home after taking a few afternoon stroll through it. Within those ugly houses or boring streets, or even selfie-snapping tourists, there are endless stories that might reverse my entire comprehension of a neighborhood. Reflecting upon my own hubris in trying to rate neighborhoods on quality, I’ve decided to focus my next few blogs on the people I’ve met. I believe the information I can share about their stories will be much more reliable than any buzzfeed-ized opinion I can whip up about a restaurant or a museum, and probably of much more importance to share.

I’ve learned an incredible amount from the people I’ve met, and I hope that by sharing some of their stories, I’ll be able to give others just a bit of the feeling of what happens when you keep your head away from your phone and look around. If all goes according to plan, my next few blogs will discuss just a few of the fascinating stories I’ve heard on this trip.

Before I actually actually share any stories, here is the moral my experience so far has led me to: even if you’re not in France, look up, examine a weird rock you see on the street, stop to study the view you walk by every day; make eye contact with strangers on the street. People aren’t actually closed off, they just think you are. Change your way of perceiving the world and you might find yourself in a bizarre conversation with a stranger everyday.

Either that or people in Boston are just really unfriendly.

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