Truthfully, I'm not the best traveler in the world.
I know this because I've traveled a lot and I've met people who are great at it. Real naturals. I've met travelers who are so physically sturdy they could drink a shoebox of water from a Calcutta gutter and never get sick. People who can pick up new languages where others of us might only pick up infectious diseases. People who know how to stand down a threatening border guard or cajole an uncooperative bureaucrat at the visa office. People who are the right height and complexion that they kind of look halfway normal wherever they go--in Turkey they just might be Turks, in Mexico they are
suddenly Mexican, in Spain they could be mistaken for a Basque, in Northern Africa they can sometimes pass for Arab . . .
I don't have these qualities. First off, I don't blend. Tall and blond and pink- complexioned, I am less a chameleon than a flamingo. Everywhere I go but Dusseldorf, I stand out garishly. When I was in China, women used to come up to me on the street and point me out to their children as though I were some escaped zoo animal. And their children--who had never seen anything quite like this pink-faced yellow-headed
phantom person--would often burst into tears at the sight of me. I really hated that about
I'm bad (or, rather, lazy) at researching a place before I travel, tending just to show up and see what happens. When you travel this way, what typically "happens" is that you end up spending a lot of time standing in the middle of the train station feeling confused, or dropping way too much money on hotels because you don't know better. My shaky sense of direction and geography means I have explored six continents in my life with only the vaguest idea of where I am at any given time. Aside from my cockeyed internal compass, I also have a shortage of personal coolness, which can be a liability in travel. I have never learned how to arrange my face into that blank expression of competent invisibility that is so useful when traveling in dangerous, foreign places. You know--that super-relaxed, totally-in-charge expression which makes you look like you belong there, anywhere, everywhere, even in the middle of a riot in Jakarta. Oh, no. When I don't know what I'm doing, I look like I don't know what I'm doing. When I'm excited or nervous, I look excited or nervous. And when I am lost, which is frequently, I look lost. My face is a transparent transmitter of my every thought. As David once put it, "You have the opposite of poker face. You have, like . . . miniature golf face."
And, oh, the woes that traveling has inflicted on my digestive tract! I don't really want to open that (forgive the expression) can of worms, but suffice it to say I've experienced every extreme of digestive emergency. In Lebanon I became so explosively ill one night that I could only imagine I'd somehow contracted a Middle Eastern version of the Ebola virus. In Hungary, I suffered from an entirely different kind of bowel affliction, which changed forever the way I feel about the term "Soviet Bloc." But I have other bodily weaknesses, too. My back gave out on my first day traveling in Africa, I was the only member of my party to emerge from the jungles of Venezuela with infected spider bites, and I ask you--I beg of you!--who gets sunburned in Stockholm?
Still, despite all this, traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt, ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby-- I just don't care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it's mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to--I just don't care.
Anyway, for a flamingo, I'm not completely helpless out there in the world. I have my own set of survival techniques. I am patient. I know how to pack light. I'm a fearless eater. But my one mighty travel talent is that I can make friends with anybody. I can make friends with the dead. I once made friends with a war criminal in Serbia, and he invited me to go on a mountain holiday with his family. Not that I'm proud to list Serbian mass
murderers amongst my nearest and dearest (I had to befriend him for a story, and also so he wouldn't punch me), but I'm just saying--I can do it. If there isn't anyone else around
to talk to, I could probably make friends with a four-foot-tall pile of Sheetrock. This is why I'm not afraid to travel to the most remote places in the world, not if there are human beings there to meet. People asked me before I left for Italy, "Do you have friends in Rome?" and I would just shake my head no, thinking to myself, But I will.
Mostly, you meet your friends when traveling by accident, like by sitting next to them on a train, or in a restaurant, or in a holding cell. But these are chance encounters, and you should never rely entirely on chance. For a more systematic approach, there is still the grand old system of the "letter of introduction" (today more likely to be an e-mail), presenting you formally to the acquaintance of an acquaintance. This is a terrific way to meet people, if you're shameless enough to make the cold call and invite yourself over for dinner. So before I left for Italy, I asked everyone I knew in America if they had any friends in Rome, and I'm happy to report that I have been sent abroad with a substantial list of Italian contacts.
Among all the nominees on my Potential New Italian Friends List, I am most intrigued to meet a fellow named . . . brace yourself . . . Luca Spaghetti. Luca Spaghetti is a good friend of my buddy Patrick McDevitt, whom I know from my college days. And that is honestly his name, I swear to God, I'm not making it up. It's too crazy. I mean--just think of it. Imagine going through life with a name like Patrick McDevitt?
Anyhow, I plan to get in touch with Luca Spaghetti just as soon as possible.