I read an article recently in which a girl discussed social norms and etiquette. It wasn’t like a 50’s housewife how-to or anything, more of a nostalgic look at the way the world once was. Gone are the days when men would lay jackets over puddles for lady loves to pass safely or parents could safely leave their children in the car without worry of abduction. Okay perhaps these two things are not on the same playing field exactly, but the point of it all is that the world has changed, and not necessarily for the better in all cases.
Many won’t stop to help those stranded on the highway with a flat tire as the invention of cell phones and truthfully, increased paranoia, has led the way for a constant state of “I’m sure they’re fine” “It’s not my business” or “I don’t need to get involved I’m in a hurry!”. I know, because I’ve thought all these things. As a society we’ve been so cautioned about the hidden dangers- the con artists, thiefs, rapists- that it’s often difficult to muddle through the world unharmed, while maintaining a comfortable connection with humanity. Isn’t that ridiculous? As a young female who often travels on my own, I wonder where to draw the line between friendly and cautious?
It’s interesting because as I travelled abroad I was a lot more fearless than I am now, in my own backyard so to speak. I slept in roomfuls of strangers which was sometimes scarier than others- hostels are interesting places. One such adventure occurred impromptu after my friend and I found ourselves stuck in England after my passport was stolen. We were supposed to be passing through on our way to Italy, but alas the world had other plans for us. We huddled together over a computer we had time-limited use of and researched the safest/cheapest place to stay in London. A real selling point on this was a lack of bed bugs. Boy did we know how to pick it. We arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed thinking that although this wasn’t the adventure we thought we’d be having, it was an adventure all the same. I could barely squeeze between the bed beside me and the ladder across my bed to get to my spot of rest. This was a no frills kind of place so we were given bedding and told to make ourselves at home…in a room with 6 other women. As I shimmied through I realized the woman next to me didn’t look quite right. I nervously crawled around my bed spreading out the blankets the best I could and I noticed the woman sitting up, staring in my direction. She kept muttering to herself, sometimes in English, sometimes in a language I didn’t recognize.
The lovely British woman across from me started speaking to me so I directed my attention that way as she told me about her kids and her life. It amazed me how I would encounter these individuals while travelling that I knew for only an hour or two but we would connect and tell each other about our lives and maybe even share a laugh or a pint before we went merrily on our ways, knowing we would probably never see each other again. We were all kin on the road. That sounds so cool and bohemian but it really is true.
Anyways the woman next to me swung her legs around to the floor and I realized (in horror I’ll admit) that her feet were enormous and purple and truly her toenails were yellow and so long they curled around past her feet. I felt like I was in a movie. She interrupted my conversation with the British woman to ask what I was doing there and why I’d come in a slightly accusatory way. I teetered on the edge of talking to her calmly to sooth her or running for my life. Was I being unjustly judgmental and jumping too quickly to conclusions or were my worries warranted? I did speak to her and told her I’d come from Canada and was travelling around trying to see as much of the world as I could. I heard the British woman squeak out in a tiny voice “She’s not well. She’s come from Slovakia.I wouldn’t…she isn’t well”. Her quiet words made me feel almost protective of the woman in the bed next to me. She was obviously unwell and had traveled alone all the way from Slovakia, checked herself into a hostel and I wasn’t sure what she planned to do next but I thought the least I could do was talk to her as I imagined many others had been afraid to do. I wasn’t trying to be some kind of martyr- I was literally jammed in a tiny bed next to hers for the night so I acknowledged her. I tried not to act like she scared the bejesus out of me and I had a small talk with her. Actually she asked me questions about myself and I asked back and I’m not sure she was always totally aware during our exchange as she dipped in and out of her Slovakian dialect and stared off in other directions but I also wondered how long it had been since anyone engaged her.
My friend and I stayed out late having dinner and drinks, and we departed early to catch a bus to Wales so my time actually sleeping at the hostel was fleeting (okay partly we planned it that way once we realized what it was like) but in this experience, like so many others in my days of travel, I encountered others unlike myself and I put my fear aside and embraced my own humanity. Sometimes it’s the most terrifying thing. Like I said the line between being friendly and putting yourself in harm’s way is sometimes thin and blurred.
Now that I’ve horrified my mother entirely, I might as well go all the way with this (and by the way I’m not suggesting we be unsafe, just wish there was a SAFE way to be more open). I’m on this kick to get to know myself better. I want to be brave and do things I normally wouldn’t on my own. I want to sit in a café for an afternoon and read a book and take my time. I want to take a little road trip to somewhere beautiful, go on a hike, maybe even (gulp) see a movie. By. My. Self. I know, that last one is something I’ll have to work up to. I’m pretty independent as it is but I often think about how far I’m willing to extend myself to help or interact with others. I’m truly saddened when others cautiously withdraw from pleasant conversation because maybe they feel ‘weird’ about engaging with perfect strangers. I get it, but I wish we could all go back to being a society more open to one another. We all hide so neatly behind our computers (case in point), cell phones, ipads, ipods etc that we whir past one another, too cautiously anxious to stop and engage. I’ve not only challenged myself to seek out independent experiences that push me past my comfort zone, but also to speak to two strangers, every day. I heard this quote recently that I believe sums it up quite well: “It’s on the edge of comfort where the magic happens”. Bring on the magic.