One of the ways that the pandemic has affected the way we think about travel is that we’re currently looking for ways to experience a place while actively avoiding people, which sucks… because what is a place if not its people?
Before social distancing, my husband and I looked forward to all of those random moments when you could meet someone interesting, get the inside scoop on local life, learn about a life different from our own. We’ve partied with strangers, enjoyed meals while listening to their stories and interrogated (nicely!) Uber drivers about their favorite spots in town. I’ve gone out dancing with locals and bought drinks for cruise ship staff. Some of the people I’ve met while away from home, I’ve literally never seen again, while others I’ve stayed in touch with, reconnecting with periodically, over the years.
So I thought it would be fun to reflect on some of these people that I’ve met while traveling so to kick off the “People We Meet” series, I want to tell you about how travel led me to one of my best friends.
I’m lucky enough to have a very tight-knit group of girlfriends and am grateful for them every single day. We have a never-ending text chain, regular Zoom dates, and we try to get together in person, all together, at least once every couple years. These four ladies are basically my sisters, my roots, and without them I would never have made it through the pandemic with my sanity. For a while, we were all living in different states and timezones, but now two of them live in Nashville with me. I met two of them in the 9th grade, one during my freshman year of college, and — most uniquely! — one during my year abroad.
In August 2005, I moved to Paris for a 10-month study abroad program that would become one of the most formative experiences of my adult life. Not only did I drastically improve my French language skills and live alone for the first time of my life, having to be a full-fledged adult in ways that I hadn’t previously, but I also met Charlotte, who would go on to become one of my bestest friends in the whole wide world.
Since I didn’t go through my local university and organized my own study abroad experience, I knew NOBODY in Paris and had to actively seek out and establish friendships. The majority of those friendships fizzled out once we all returned to our regularly-scheduled lives back in the States; remember: this was 2005-2006, social media was in its nascence, and keeping track of people took more effort than it does today. Even though we all swore we’d stay in touch and get together for a reunion at some point, I haven’t spoken to the majority of the people I befriended during that year… with a few very special exceptions.
One of the friendships that survived the transient nature of study abroad has actually blossomed into much more of a familial relationship. One of Skyler’s aunties, one of my bridesmaids, and someone I text with daily, Charlotte is one of my chosen family members, a sister from another mister.
Funnily enough, though, the day I met Charlotte, I did not think we were going to get along. 😬
To be fair to her, though, I met Charlotte on a bad day: One of the girls that I had befriended that first week, Synthia, had come to Paris through an exchange program with several other students from her school. She had a group of built-in friends that I sort of just invited myself to hang out with. Our class schedules gave us thirty minutes to get from Phonetics to Grammar class, which was actually a forty-minute trip on a good day. One day during that first week, as we were figuring out the best route, we opted to walk the whole way. This meant we had to HUSTLE. We were late and kinda lost, and any stragglers were getting left behind. Unfortunately, Charlotte was the main straggler. She is shorter than the rest of us, had shin splints, and could not keep up with us. [Keep in mind this is before the days of ever-present GPS so if she got lost, it wouldn’t have been the easy fix it is today.] She got snippy with Synthia and the others, and was in generally awful mood. I don’t even think she spoke to me. And to be frank, at that moment on that particular day, I was glad she didn’t. I never saw the girl smile and thought that was just her personality!
The next time I met Charlotte, I was a bit wary. Had she just been in a bad mood (understandably so!) or was that her usual mode of operation?
Later that week, when the whole group went out and drank way too much (as under-21 college students will do when abroad), we discovered a mutual love of Broadway and stayed huddled in the corner nerding out about our favorite Wicked songs while our friends poked fun at us.
For the next four months, she became an integral part of my life in Paris. Our group did everything together. Dinner nights at my apartment, a train trip to the Loire Valley, a French Halloween party, movie nights at the cinéma, a Star Wars expo, bridge parties where we drank way too much bottom-shelf wine, walking everywhere as we explored and fell in love with the city.
And lucky for us, our many shared loves — French, Friends, Broadway, books, travel — developed into a close friendship that has only gotten stronger over the last 16 (!) years.
After bonding over our shared francophilia and obsession with Broadway musicals, we decided to stay in touch when we got back home. Charlotte only did one semester in Paris, whereas I stayed for two, and once we were both back stateside we were still separated by several hundred miles, attending different universities in Virginia and Florida respectively. We utilized the technology of the day (Livejournal, lol) to nurture our fledgling friendship, and found many opportunities to hang out and visit one another over the years. And now, all these years after first meeting (and me doubting whether we should hang out or not, ha!), Charlotte lives in Nashville and is someone I talk to almost every day.
Studying abroad did so much for me (which I recently wrote about in detail), let me fall in love with Paris, and helped cement my love of the urban lifestyle. But it also showed me that one of the greatest joys of travel is the people you meet along the way. Traveling across the ocean and living way outside of my comfort zone brought me to this person who has become a part of my family. And for that, I will forever be grateful.
What interesting people have YOU met in your travels? Have you remained friends with any folks you’ve met away from home? If you studied abroad, did you make any lasting friendships? What people stand front and center in your travel stories?