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.