The Coolness of Strangers

Tom Swick: Travel writers love to celebrate the kindness of strangers. Tom Swick considers the silent, unheeding majority.

11.24.09 | 12:09 PM ET


You rarely read about the coolness of strangers for the same reason you seldom hear about the immobility of rocks: It is the natural condition, undeserving of comment. It’s the breaking of the mold—a landslide, an anonymous act of charity—that warrants attention.

People who travel are much more familiar with the coolness than the kindness of strangers (while people who read travel stories are fed a steady diet of the latter). You stand on the sidewalk stymied by a map, and before any unwired Samaritan stops, large numbers of the oblivious and the unsympathetic sweep past. If you’re a writer, you write about the newsworthy one who cared, not the prosaic multitudes who failed to be moved.

And one is sometimes all the travel writer needs: a single, affable, quotable sample out of the silent, unheeding majority. A deserter from the tribe. The very fact that you found a source pretty much guarantees that she’s not representative. It doesn’t matter. You’ve done your job: made contact with a local.

Travel writers have a heightened awareness of kindness because we often travel alone. (A companion satisfies one’s need for attention.) For the same reason, we are particularly sensitive to slights. We don’t write about them because it would be like writing about gravity; they’re an accepted fact of life that needs no explanation. Also, it would make us look dull and lonely, and that would clash with the travel’s image of adventure and romance.

Whenever there is a long break between trips, and I start to pine for the road, I force myself to remember moments (hours, days) of wandering invisible among intriguing strangers. No city I visit ever fails to provide them. Usually I think of Genoa on an early evening in late October. I am walking down a crowded boulevard just as workers spill from offices. The autumn light is fading fast, and there is a growing chill in the air. Waves of well-dressed citizens pass, women in scarves, men in tweeds, and everyone is moving determinedly toward a home, a meal, a warmth that by design doesn’t include me.

And they don’t even realize it!

We are all ignored in the course of a day, but it’s only when we’re traveling—unmoored from family and societal ties—that the indifference is felt, and then multiplied by the constant movement. Of course there are places—Mumbai, Tangier—where you sometimes wish to be left alone. But most journeys are undertaken to satisfy a curiosity, which is only deepened by unmet masses. You long to break through the wall, but people are shy, or running late, or lost in their music, or just not interested. They are too busy living their lives to notice needy travelers.

And even if they did notice you, would they want to hang with someone so lame? When you travel abroad a strange thing happens: The tables are turned. The people you’ve always seen as outsiders—huddled with fellow immigrants, looking rather gauche—become the majority. Now it’s they who know the rules—how to dress, how to act, what to order—and you who are suddenly at a loss. You are not only out of place, you’re a first-class klutz—while the locals exude cool, the dual coolness of strangers.

Tags: Solo Travel

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

6 Comments for The Coolness of Strangers

Mikeachim 11.25.09 | 9:38 PM ET

Poignant piece, Tom.

I’ve always felt traveling is like the girl in the video for Roger Sanchez’s “Another Chance”, standing in the middle of the street holding her heart and offering it to strangers with a warm smile - and after a while, her smile is fixed and the heart withered, shrunken.

When I’m somewhere new and on my own, I may try to play the confident worldly traveler, but I’m always desperate to connect - and so any coolness really stings. (It must be particularly bad for anyone visiting Britain - we’re too often a reticent bunch that tries to step around the out-of-the-ordinary when we meet it on the street).

And when people hear that you’re there to write about the experience? Another temperature drop.

david 11.26.09 | 3:59 AM ET

Excellent post I enjoyed reading it.

Melissa Shales 11.26.09 | 5:00 AM ET

One of the reasons I love travelling in the developing world is that I do get noticed and people want to make contact. I am entertainment for them as much as they are entertainment for me. Because of the language barrier, I mercifully don’t understand a lot of the children’s chatter which is, I suspect, often horribly insulting and can keep smiling and have a splendid time, safe in my ignorance. The loneliest trip I ever did was one of my first long solo trips in northern Spain - two months on my own researching a book. The Spanish totally ignored me. In that area and at that time, no one spoke any English or French and I spoke no Spanish (it was improving by the end of the trip). But they were simply uninterested in any contact. And it was even pre the days of laptops, mobile phones and regular contact with home. Give me an African or an Indian crowd any time.

Sophie 11.26.09 | 5:30 AM ET

Interesting read. I agree if you’re talking about the West, and perhaps especially Europe. I’d even add, it gets worse the further north you go. I’m Scandinavian and must admit (sadly) we’re not that interested in strangers. It seems to be somewhat dependent on season, too. In winter, people seem to turn inward. In summer, we throw off clothes and inhibitions.

However, all over Africa, Asia, South America and perhaps most of all, the Middle East, the kindness and interest shown to travelling strangers seem to be the norm rather than the exception. 12.03.09 | 11:18 AM ET

Great post about the “coolness of strangers.”  You’re right, travel writers focus on the kindness of strangers and rarely write about the ones that pass them by in a hurry.  Perhaps this makes traveling a bit distorted because writers focus on the kindness of others which is a one sided viewpoint.

Ed Wetschler 12.06.09 | 1:00 PM ET

Tom, you’ve exposed us travel writers for what is often our locals-are-so-nice salesmanship. Maybe it’s this unrealistic cheerfulness that drives some travelers to websites that rely on reader reviews, no matter how lacking in context those reviews may be.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.