(if you want kin … now with Science puns!)
Well, it’s happened: I’ve started writing about traveling. There’s no sense shutting the barn door now.
Yesterday I mentioned that listening to music was good for putting up a wall. And that sounds pretty antisocial, so I wanted to give some context.
Many of the places I’ve traveled have one thing in common: people have been surprised to see me. Surprised to the point of staring, pointing, following, taking pictures, shooting video.* After I started traveling, I started saying that I never need to be famous because I already know what crazy, constant, distorted-sense-of-personal-space attention is like. This behavior can be unnerving, disheartening, annoying, frustrating. Sometimes it can be funny, but mostly not so much.
On one trip I was with my friend Evan. I’d been traveling for a month or so before we ran into each other in a train station and discovered that the next leg of our trips overlapped. By the time I met up with him, I had reached the end of my patience with the staring, the touching, was so over the feeling of being some exotic zoo creature. I was pretty angry.
Evan suggested that when I caught someone staring I smile and wave. I thought that was ridiculous. Why would I want to engage in such a friendly way with the people who were pissing me off? Evan said I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t sure that was true, given what I knew about the nature of some of the staring, but I also thought being with Evan while trying out his wacky idea might change the dynamic enough to make for safety.
Convinced Evan’s plan would go down in flames, I went out the next day ready to prove him wrong. It only took about four seconds for us to encounter someone on whom I could try the wave theory.
Evan and I stood waiting for a tram. Several feet away, a man stood on the other side of a pillar, like a hunter in a blind, watching me intently. He was the kind of starer that worried me, the kind I knew to be wary of at night or in desolate places. I looked away from him, fighting second thoughts. Evan gave me an encouraging nod, so I turned back, looked the man in the face, formed my most theatrically camera-ready smile and waved.
The man turned from us so quickly I thought he’d get whiplash. Both Evan and I laughed … and a moment that would have been awkward or frightening was defused. But that was just one creepy guy. Not enough proof to make me change my mind about the theory.
We spent the rest of the morning roaming around and sitting in coffee houses, smiling and waving like beauty pageant contestants. The result? Creepy people, angry people, racist people, in-any-way-negative people responded to my greeting by trying their best to act as though they hadn’t just been staring, as if they hadn’t noticed me at all. There was such diving into newspapers, discovering the fascination of table tops and wristwatches, examining of lint on a pants leg as you wouldn’t believe. Curious people, friendly people, people just interested in meeting someone new and different, broke into huge smiles and immediately tried to make conversation. In either case, the staring was halted and I had a laugh. My mood didn’t plummet, and Evan and I met a bunch of people really nice we wouldn’t have met otherwise. So much better than walking around scowling and wanting to curse at strangers. I declared the wave theory proven and Evan a genius.
Um … so how does this make sense of my headphones in Prague? The waving and smiling works, but there are important variables that must be attended. Most important: when I was smiling and waving with Evan, I was … with Evan. The last thing I’d want to do when alone is smile and wave at some smarmy guy and have him take that as an invitation to who knows what. But also, sometimes I forget about the theory when I first arrive in a new place, or I need a little time to work up to effective beauty-pageant diplomacy. And then there is the fact that, sometimes, I’m not in the mood, plain and simple. Sometimes it’s just too much work to show strangers that people like me are nice, have thoughts and feelings, aren’t always going to be like what they’ve seen in movies, are human beings deserving of the same kindness and respect given to any other human being. Sometimes I just want people to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume all those things without me having to smile and wave to get the job done. Punto. At times like those, a pair of headphones and music that makes me feel like myself can do the trick. You need all kinds of tools in the box.
All of the other slices are posted on Two Writing Teachers.
* Shooting video … blatantly, accompanied by vicious hate speech (yes, in a language they may have assumed I didn’t understand but certainly didn’t care if I did). That story will an episode of Adventures all to itself, if I can bring myself to write it. Thinking about it still breaks my heart, takes some shine off the sun. It remains one of the ugliest things anyone has every done to me.