I'm both an introvert and an extrovert. I could travel for weeks and not speak to anyone other than my server, barista or bartender. I am often contended living just in my head, experiencing travel through only my eyes. Likewise, there are spurts of time I want to stand on a table in my very own Jerry Maguire moment and drag everyone that will follow on a grand adventure. These days I can, and often will, talk to anything that moves, looking for new insight, local haunts or insider info that I just can't find on Yelp.
I'm doing what I can to spend more time with this latter persona - it's people who make the world go around, right? In many years touring, I would too often crawl into my bunk, pop in a Firefly dvd and contentedly dribble after show food all over my pillow just so I could be alone. Meanwhile, the world spun round without me and I look back on the experiences, relationships and memories I missed out on night after night while I had my little curtain drawn to the world.
Though this journey is a little different and a lot about learning who my other half is, there is only so much time you should spend alone with just one other human being. We both need - and now seek - interaction with others, and are loving making friends on the road. Read on for some of our experiences connecting with strangers in strange places.
1. Share Your Food
In San Sebastián, I'd been eyeing an odd-looking plate of pintxos on the bar since we sat down. The barkeep explained, slowly in Spanish, with a grimace and a head shake, that it was some part of the fish. He does not eat them.
15 minutes later, a guy slides into the space beside Billy to order. I don't pay him much mind till he points to the indeterminable plate of fish parts. He's young, maybe a couple years younger than us, and I ask him in broken Spanish if that stuff is any good.
He laughs, answers in English that he likes it, and asks if I want to try. Yes!! My standard rule of thumb is that I will eat anything (at least once) that doesn't eat me first. He cuts a bite of what we now know to be giant roe sacks and offers me the plate.
We strike up conversation and it turns out our new friend is a young architect from Barcelona in town on a research trip. Our travels will take us through his home town in another month's time, and he offers to show us around. Barcelona is certainly a city you want to have an architect as a tour guide. We happily take his email, bid him adieu and strike roe sacks off our must-eat list.
2. Share a Table
The best seafood in Lisbon is in a shady part of town. Typically the line stretches long outside Cervejaria Ramiro, but it's the off season and this Thursday night we're just two of the dozen people crammed into the tiny foyer waiting for a table. A young couple peers through the window behind us, but there's no more room for them to come inside.
A two-top sits, then a four-top, we press as close to the wall as possible to let those leaving squeeze past, counting bodies on the way out in hopes we'll sit soon. The young couple behind us finally joins us in the foyer. It's only been five minutes so far, and they ask how long we think the wait will be. I elbow Billy when he jokes that maybe if we sit together we'll get a table faster.
Finally the couple ahead of us is seated at a long table for 10, the host directs us to the middle, the couple behind to the end. We aren't fans of the communal dining trend. This, thankfully, gives us a little room with a two-top between each couple, though it is still a little tight.
The highlight of the menu is a massive crab dish served with mallets for cracking the legs and the head cleaned out and holding a mixture of its former contents and delicate, mustard-colored roe sauce with two spoons. We go to town, ladling the rich head-stuff on buttery toasted bread and doing our best to wear as little of our dinner as possible.
We move on to raw, briny oysters the size of my hand and I look up in time to see the girl next to Billy cover her mouth in horror and her date start to apologize. Billy has a good portion of her crab on his arm, his face, his nose - there's even crabby bits in his hair - fantastic. We both laugh, but the young couple is just mortified. We assure them it's no big deal, and go on enjoying our pile of steamed barnacles.
Two delectable seafood courses later, we're waiting for the check when the young couple, still struck with the horror of covering some stranger with smelly crab guts, slides two cordial glasses of a thick red liquor our way. It's Ginjinha (or Ginja), a special sour cherry liquor native to the region that's incredibly sweet and a delicious digestif.
We chat with our young Austrian friends over cocktails and learn he is from the same town as Arnold Schwarzenegger (proving it with an eerily familiar and probably too loud It's not a tumor) and she is studying in Lisbon. They want to know why US news outlets promote the antics of Justin Beiber over the conflict in the Ukraine. I want to know what I was so afraid of just three hours earlier when the fear of having to talk to another couple through dinner nearly sent me back into the hood looking for a second rate dinner... maybe semi-communal dining isn't so bad.
3. Share an Experience
We've been on a strict accommodations budget, trying to extend our travels as long as possible. I've spent countless hours researching no frills guest houses, upscale hostels with en suite baths, Airbnb steals and budget hotels. The class of property we frequent on this trip lands us with pretty specific types of travelers seeking similar conveniences - a clean and comfortable bed, a little privacy, a location poised for city adventures and as many perks as possible for as few dollars as possible.
Our stay in Lisbon was no different. The Pensao Royal gets four and a half stars on Trip Advisor. Paula, the woman who runs it, must have figured out how to clone herself because she keeps this six-room guesthouse immaculately clean without help, she cooks half a dozen or more different types of savory and sweet baked goods from scratch for breakfast each morning and you can ask her any question about the city you can fathom and if she doesn't answer immediately, she'll have an answer for you within a couple hours. All this cleaning, cooking and concierg-ing has to catch up with a girl at some point, though.
It's Friday night and we labor back up the 68 stairs to the hotel after trekking up and down seemingly every hill in Lisbon, and happen on a couple sitting outside the door in silence. Paula wasn't answering the buzzer; They'd been there for 20 minutes already.
This is one of those times you either want to sit down on the stairs and cry yourself to sleep, or pound relentlessly on the door until someone comes to open it or it falls off its hinges. After a few deep breaths, we instead find ourselves engaged in conversation with a fantastic French couple on their way back from a month in Senegal. They live in Marseille and operate a boutique tour agency there. We talk for a while, exchange info and I try the buzzer again - a very sleepy Paula finally answers the door. We say good night and drag ourselves down the hall to bed - we'll see our new friends again in a couple weeks.
4. Listen for your Language
I'm beat when we arrive in Granada. It's late afternoon and I'm getting used to siestas. Billy's a little frustrated - it's beautiful outside and he's ready to explore - but he settles down next to me on the bed while I doze off... everything's closed until 7p anyway.
We're out the door by 7:15 and both ravenously hungry. There are two must-stop tapas joints on our hit list and they're just around the corner from our hotel. The first, the most coveted, has its roll-up door shut tight when we find it. We haven't eaten since breakfast and must grab something quick or our night will quickly decline into a whiny, stubborn, argumentative mess. We wander into a place that feels right, though there's only one large group inside. It's still early by Spanish dinner standards, so we sidle up to the bar and order a glass of wine.
The glory of tapas bars in Granada is that for each drink you order, they slide a free plate in front of you. The longer you stay in one place, the more likely you are to earn the best dishes of the house for free, or for the whole price of that 2 Euro glass of red wine you're swilling. We stuck it out at our first stop for two glasses of wine and two tapas.
Since we've been in Europe, we can most definitely hold our weight in wine, but this style of Spanish eating is not for the light drinker (unless, of course, you're content to pay for your food). We head back up the street to Los Diamantes and are delighted to find the door open and only a few earlybirds inside. I have a buzz already, so assume a beer is the lighter choice of beverage. Billy orders two cervezas and a pile of freshly fried sardines slides down the bar in front of us.
We made it just in time - the bar fills up and the room behind us is jam packed only a few minutes after we devour the fish. We slam the rest of our beers and order a second round - this one comes with a plate of steamed shrimp with amazingly delicious head parts. Nearly ready to dive in and start peeling, we overhear the couple next to us struggling with one of the menu items. They're American and Billy happily translates the word they're tonguing as razor clams.
Three and a half drinks in, it's an easy conversation to ignite. The couple's from Arizona, and we have a ton of questions about the latest riotous legislature coming from their home state. We're fast friends and before we know it we're wandering the streets of Granada, together following a tip from some locals in search of another taste of Spain.
5. Move in Together
When we set out on this journey, we agreed on a small list of criteria each of our Workaways would meet. We agreed that we would not share sleeping quarters with other workers, that when possible we would prioritize places that offered en suite bathrooms and that we preferred to be the only workers per property, so we didn't walk into a commune or end up surrounded by people half our age.
Garry picks us up from the train station in Carentan, France, and we make small talk on the 40 minute drive back to the house. He and Nicola are our first Workaway hosts, and we're headed to their small bed and breakfast, La Mare, where we'll live and work for the next two weeks. We talk about the weather, the work and our travels before he mentions the English bloke whose workstay coincides with ours - he's there at the house with Nicola now.
We're both a little off-put by the reveal and not sure what to say. As first timers, we have no idea what - or who - to expect, and I'm having backseat visions of bunking with my husband and this stranger in the same room as we pull into the drive.
It's awkward, walking into someone else's home for the first time, knowing you're there as the help, and not knowing exactly what to do. We drop our bags and follow Garry into the family room to meet our new friends.
Brandon's in his forties and works in the oil fields in Iraq. He's a former British military engineer, a lover of cats, husband of a chef and all-around great guy. He wins us over with some quick-witted banter, and we feel like we've known him forever.
Two-thirds of the way through our stay, a young Australian guy on break from his studies in Liverpool joins us at La Mare. Simon has the boundless energy we are both more than a little afraid of in someone 10 years younger than us, but is so amicable it's disarming - and he shares our love of wine. He's traveled through Spain and is full of recommendations on where to go, and what to eat and see.
During our time in France, we share cold nights, hard laughs, wet days, goat chases, dog-napping, British soap operas and the French approach to home building - it's the stuff friendships are born from.
What we're learning, firsthand, is that taking a chance, putting yourself out there, being vulnerable and uncomfortable, toeing boundaries, letting down your guard and exploring the unknown makes way not just for new experiences in life, but for new connections that may not otherwise exist, opening the door to incredible people who can change your world in the first few moments you meet them and never, ever leave you - or your world - the same.