Yet again, travel is the easy way out.
BUSHWICK, Brooklyn- They look just like me. They have shaggy beards. I have a shaggy beard. They have shaved heads. I have a shaved head. They are covered in tattoos. I am covered in tattoos. They wear tight black jeans and leather boots. I wear tight black jeans and leather boots.
So what’s the deal?
I listen to what they talk about and it’s incomprehensible to me: streaming shows and insider happenings and local bands and happy words about ephemeral nothings. I wait patiently for someone to provide me with a doorway to jump through into a conversation — an idea, a philosophy, a discussion about some place in the world, a treatise on life — but it doesn’t happen.
So I just sit there, drinking my Labatt Blue. It was July 17th — 716 Day, the area code of Western New York, a sort of dumb contrived holiday to celebrate the things we like there: Labatt Blue beer, chicken wings, beef on weck, garbage plates, Webers mustard, the Bills, folding tables.
I’m not really surprised at my rather lame state at this bar. Drinking establishments are one of my best travel writing tools when abroad: I make friends, put out the word about what I’m gathering content about and open the floodgate for an inflow of info and prospective contacts. It works and it’s fun.
I wasn’t getting anywhere in my work at the hipster bar and I wasn’t even having fun. There are reasons why traveling seemed like the only logical way forward when I was teenager.
Socially speaking, travel is easy. When you walk into a room full of people who don’t look like you, who speak a different language, who have different world views, who like different foods, and worship different Gods conversation is simple: just open your mouth and questions come out. To put it simply, you stand out, people look at you, you observe things that you don’t understand. The more out of place I am the more comfortable I feel.
Where I blend in is where I do my worst socially. When you’re culturally equalized — same paged — you need to bring something more the table than being something different from far away. Suddenly, you can’t asked the basic questions of life because you’re expected to already know the answers to.
Drop me into the middle of some remote group of people in some far flung land and I make friends, learn, share, and have a great time.
Outsiders have it easy. You can’t be ostracized from a group that you were never a part of. This enables you to make your own rules — if someone doesn’t like it, you just walk away from them. You are the Other, firmly outside the group, irrelevant beyond a passing intrigue, you don’t really matter. Being an outsider is a social wild card — people open up to you, they tell you things, they show you around, and they know that nothing that they tell you is going to have any impact on the social circles that they cultivate and value. It’s a glorious social wild card that is easy to become overly dependent on.
Sedentary friends are far more difficult to win. the strategy is different in these situations — rather than focusing on the differences and learning about ways of life that are different than my own I need to focus on the similarities.
F’ck. Who has anything in common with me? I spent 20 years traveling to nearly 100 countries. I’ve never really had a home. I look like a hipster but write and make documentaries for straight-laced mainstream media. Nothing about me fits the standard categorizations — and people who don’t fit into a proscribed criteria are uncomfortable for groups to process, to rank and file.
What can you ask people about when you’re supposed to know everything already?
When I meet people I litter my introductory exchanges with conventional handholds — potentially interesting things about me designed to provoke a follow-up question which could drive the acquaintanceship deeper. I mention being an author, I say that I’ve been traveling for 20 years, refer to the place that I just came from, I drop that I’ve been to 90 countries, that I make documentaries, some of the publications that I write for. I don’t brag, I just present people with some material with which to carry on a conversation — this is routine politeness, a way of giving a little of yourself when connecting with someone. But the things that I present which produce conversation everywhere else in the world often doesn’t work here. This is a culture that has lost its art of conversation.
Being some kind of inconspicuous wallpaper-person is the worst thing for a traveler. The worst thing in life is to be ignored. The worst thing in travel is to blend in with the crowd. Whoever said being a fly on the wall is a good thing for a traveler to aspire to must have been one bored son of a bitch.
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