Solitary travels, or why it’s OK to talk to strangers

You get a lot of time to think when you travel alone. I’m fine with that; I enjoy keeping to myself for the most part. In some places, like the airport in Tunis this morning, I become surrounded almost entirely by people who are different from me in so many ways: dark complexion, speaking in languages I’ve tried (and failed) to learn, short (well, most of them shorter than me at any rate), noisy. Parents yelling at their children, children crying because airports are no fun, girlfriends snuggling up to their aloof boyfriends, old couples comfortable ignoring each other as their read their own books. Life swirls around me as I sit, quietly looking on. I see passengers complain because they’ve been waiting for an hour to board their plane. In my mind, because I do get lost in my thoughts and can never shake my mathematics background, I estimate the time I’ve waited in airports in transit over the last ten years and it comes out to forty-two days of my life. Of that, about 47 hours were spent waiting for luggage (one of which was tonight, and to no avail; my luggage never arrived).

For all those moments of solitude, I welcome the chance for small talk with a stranger sitting next to me. This is new; as my wife will attest, I do not do small talk. I joked with her recently and told her that as a newly-minted independent consultant I have become a people person. Tremendous amounts of laughter ensued. 

Waiting in Tunis, a man sat next to me,  his shirt unbuttoned past his navel and proudly showcasing an overwhelming rug of chest hair. The lateness of the flight was reason enough for him to chat with me. My Quebecois French accent is a dead giveaway for most people, so he tells me how he went to Toronto once but never Montreal. When I asked him why he went Canada, he told me he met a girl on the internet. But when he saw her in person, “Elle était trop petite,” and he shows with his hand how short the woman was. Despite looking like a throwback from the disco era, he was a pleasant person to talk to for a few minutes. Telling him I was revising the police training curricula in Tunisia was an easy entry into a discussion on the revolution. 

Next up was Istanbul, where I knew my short connection time would prevent me from having my luggage with me tonight (and such is the case). As I forced my way to the transfer desk – oh people in a rush can be so rude at times, really – a young Australian woman was talking to an agent from Turkish Airlines. He was telling her that it was impossible for her to leave tonight, her flight was fully booked. She began crying and pleading with him. “You don’t understand, it’s my birthday, I have to go home!” In his poor English, he told her, “Miss, you are lucky, we are giving you a gift, you will stay in hotel and have a nice bed.” But then he spoke in a way which led her to believe she would board the plane, but in fact she wouldn’t. The poor girl’s whole argument was that she’d be spending her birthday in a hotel instead of with her friends. I saw her a few minutes later at another desk, looking anguished. I was in a rush for my own flight, but stopped to talk to her to wish her a happy birthday. 

“Do you think I’ll be able to make it?” She asked me. “It doesn’t look like it,” I answered. I wanted to tell her that I once spent my birthday in a plane with a torn ligament, away from my family and in extreme pain, but somehow I didn’t think that would make her feel any better. 

And finally, the man next to me in the plane from Istanbul to Amman, clenching his stomach shortly after departure. I asked him if he wanted any Pepto-Bismol tablets, but he said he’d already taken something. As we continued to chat, it turned out he lived five minutes away from me in Montreal a few years ago. A Palestinian living in Jordan, he told me the special place that Canada has in his heart. When he migrated to Canada all those years ago, the customs officer looked at him and said, “Welcome home.” And he’s welcoming me to his home next week to meet his family.

I guess it’s not so bad when you do talk to strangers. My beer’s finished, and I’m hearing the same songs playing from the bar, here in the same hotel I was in four years ago. Go ahead, Sinatra,

I’ve lived a life that’s full –
I’ve travelled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way. 

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