The internet says that you will always find someone to talk to in a hostel. The internet says it’s the easiest thing in the world, even if you’re socially awkward, even if you’re an introvert. You’ll never be truly alone, they say.
Well. It’s a litttle more complicated than that. In my brief experience at least. It’s not bad though. It’s just a little tougher if, like me, you aren’t the most socially competent person in the world.
I’m currently in Italy, attempting to become a less shit human creature, the sort who can just about get by in life. I’ve only had one day away from home so far, so there’s every chance I’ll feel differently tomorrow, but my first experience went like this.
I sat outside the hostel on the lovely deck chairs they have, right in the much needed shade. I watched people come and go, none of them deciding to approach me, which was my first concern. Was I going to have to approach them? Good god, no…
A guy sat down opposite. He had a giants rucksack, the sort that could fit a whole family in it. “Is that all for you?” I didn’t say. “That must be hell to lug around!” He looked across to the people sitting nearby, eyes glossing over me. He pulled out his phone, still looking around, still searching for that taste of human connection. He couldn’t find it, so looked back to his little screen. I watched, waiting for my moment. I watched and watched and watched, predatory in my desperation.
It wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to say anything to him, nor him to me. And here’s the thing. I’m travellng alone. That’s going to involved being on my own sometimes, obviously. The internet says you’ll never be truly on your own and that’s a lie. You will, sometimes. But then part of my reason for doing this is so that I can bare to exist in my own company. I feel like a lot of the more uncomfortable solo travellers are at least in part hoping for that internal acceptance.
So I head up. I went upstairs to my dorm, planned to charge my phone and read for a bit. “Hey there” a voice said. “How ya doin? Mah names peter, you?” His beard was thick, but his New Zealand accent was thicker. He held out a hand and, reluctantly, I took it. His grip was firm, his smile unfaltering.
“H-hey” I stuttered, stumbling over my words. “I’m Danny.”
“No way! Fancy coming downstairs with us, having a few drinks, spinning a few yarns?”
“I, well, err. I don’t drink. I could like, drink some water and watch you drink? That’s probably a bit awkward though.”
“Nah mate it’s all good it’s all good. Come down, I’ll meet you there yeah?”
I nodded my head, and he left.
Oh. Well. That was easy.
Downstairs, the New Zealand man gathered two separate groups together, and placed me by their side. He laughed with them, and they laughed with him, and he introduced me. “This is Danny, met him upstairs.” I said hey, and they asked what I was doing. Flailing around, I said, as a few of them lost focus and started talking to eachother.
“Cool cool” the New Zealander obliged. Then, back to the others.
I watched, and listened, and enjoyed listening. But my legs were shaking under the table. I felt like such an introusion, so in the way. I wasn’t contributing, I wasn’t drinking, I shouldn’t have been there and I was panicking. The Norwegian teacher next to me briefly took pity, and we discussed his job, growing up. Then off he went, back to the others. My prayers had been answered, and I wished more than anything I hadn’t made that prayer in the first place.
I had to leave, but how? I wanted to just get up and go but I was scared and my legs were shaking and… I grabbed at my phone, not caring it was rude, fully aware nobody would notice anyway. I started messaging a friend, vaguely making light of the situation, desperate for some kind of out from being present in the moment. I took a deep breath, got to my feet, and said “I’m going.” And go I did.
Which makes it all sound pretty bad, right? Which it was. It was stressful and scary and the internet lied. Introverts don’t suddenly become magically outgoing, people like me can’t just change like that. But the truth is, we don’t have to.
As I crawled up the last few steps to my dorm room, and pushed open the door, I heard another voice. I had just about calmed down now, but this brand new stranger brought the panic right back. “Cio!”
I shan’t go into detail, but I will say this. The new stranger was fantastic. He asked me about what I was doing and I did my best to explain. He remained patient as I stumbled over my words. He gave me advice, about places to stay, about how to be open to new experiences, learning to be empowered by the knowledge you can just get up and go whenever you want. Then another guy came in. He was from Greece and didn’t speak much English, but he was engaging with me, and I was engaging with him.
Which is what they’re talking about I guess, those travel bloggers. The guy who gave me advice, he talked about how he believes it’s crazy that random chance brings him here and me here at the same time, and that’s just what happens when you travel. He thinks that chance is enough to guarantee you something interesting. So far, day one of my flail about Europe, I’d have to say he’s right. Not always fun. But interesting.