When you travel solo, you find yourself talking to strangers a lot. Be it when asking for directions or simply attracting friendly interaction by virtue of being on your own. I’ve travelled solo six times now and have encountered countless different people in various situations. These are some of the encounters that stand out the most during my recent wanderings in Europe – in both ways good and bad. You win some, you lose some.
1. Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
My connecting flight to Malta wasn’t for another two hours. I was sitting near the gate and had both earphones on. A couple of hours before, I discovered my new favourite song among all the songs I downloaded – ‘Elastic Heart’ by Sia feat. The Weeknd & Diplo. I had it on repeat and I had it on medium loud volume. I watched people and spotted a Chinese gentleman whom I had seen in the check-in queue for the same Malta flight. He had both earphones on too. Close to the boarding time I plucked out my earphones and listened out for an announcement to board. Nothing. The Chinese guy was still in his seat too. The flight must be delayed, I thought.
Cut to 15 minutes later, after seeing a guy sitting across from me eating a sandwich and deciding I was going to get a sandwich too, I sat back down to see…the Chinese guy still there, although the area seemed emptier than before. Hmm. I was curious, but not curious enough to check the flight status on the board or ask an airport employee. But when the next jingle played, signalling a public announcement, I thought to myself, better listen to this one, just in case.
The announcement was made in French. But you know what wasn’t in French? My name. When I heard my name I leapt up. I had to wait for the announcement to be made in English before knowing what the hell was going on. My departure gate had been changed; could Mr Zhu and I please make our way to that gate NOW?! Mr Zhu…must be that Chinese guy, right? I’m nice, I would want someone else to do the same thing for me, so before running to the new gate, I tapped him on his shoulder and shouted, “Are you Mr Zhu are you going to Malta the gate has been changed let’s go now!” He took out his earphones and stared at me with furrowed brows. I repeated myself, “Malta! Malta gate changed! Go!”
You would think that after hearing a random person shout his destination three times with such urgency, he would do more than shake his head as if that random person was crazy and put his earphones back on. You would at least say “WTF?”, no? But that’s exactly what he did. And then it dawned on me. He’s from China. People from China expect the world to speak Mandarin to them. Well, fuck him. I ran to my gate, got reprimanded by the gate agent for being late (Me: “Sorry! I didn’t know the gate was changed!” Her: “But we made the announcement!” Me: “Sorry!”), and did the walk of shame into the plane where everyone was staring. It was still 15 minutes before the official departure time. I didn’t even delay the plane! Give me a break!
And then I remembered the Chinese guy who still hadn’t made his way to the flight and how he had rebuffed my attempt to help him. Soon, soon he would know what I mean. Five minutes later, there he was, red in the face and searching for his seat. And yes, people were staring at him. Turned out his seat was one row in front of me, on the other aisle. I could see him very clearly from where I was seated. He saw me when he was looking for his seat, so he knew where I was seated. But never once did he turn around to acknowledge me. Maybe a “sorry, you were right” nod? Nope.
2. La Spezia, Liguria
My Couchsurfing host, AT, had earlier told me that to get to his place near a public square called Piazza Europa, I could take a bus from La Spezia Centrale, or even walk. I found out the hard way in Cordoba, Spain, last year, that Europeans are not to be trusted when they tell you that something is just a short or easy walk away. So I was set on taking a bus. The information counter lady instructed me to take bus #3 and to look out for a big fountain, that I “couldn’t miss it”. Dammit, I couldn’t even locate the bus stop that she said was “just around the corner when you get off the stairs”. I went round and round. I swear to God, it wasn’t there. But eventually I did find another bus stop and to my relief, #3 runs by it.
There was a lady at the bus stop. She didn’t look like she was a very nice person. You know that saying “you get the face you deserve”? It’s not foolproof, but with some people you just know they’re not kind just by looking at their face. Still, she was the only person there so I decided to ask her if the #3 goes to Piazza Europa. She was frowning, but her reply was in a neutral tone: “Tutti gli autobus qui vanno a Piazza Europa.” All the buses here go to Piazza Europa. Okay. Cool.
Minutes later #3 came, and she got on it too. I sat down facing her. I thought, if she doesn’t get off before Piazza Europa, maybe she could tell me when we’ve reached Piazza Europa. I was told the bus ride would only take 15 minutes, so I started to get antsy when, at 20 minutes in, I still hadn’t seen a fountain and this lady still hadn’t signalled to me to get off. Surely she would have told me if we had reached Piazza Europa? You know, like normal people? Unless they get off before your stop, people you ask about a certain stop will usually tell you when you’ve reached your stop.
Not long after, we arrived in the suburbs. That lady was still on the bus, still seated facing me, but definitely going out of her way to not make eye contact with me. Not a good sign. When she got off hastily, I knew I was fucked. It was time for me to speak to the bus driver. He said he would show me where Piazza Europa was. We had passed it. So it was true. She knew when we had reached Piazza Europa and didn’t bother to tell me, even though I was seated right opposite her. Wow. The bus retraced its route, and then a while later the driver called me, pointing at the area across the road from where we just stopped. “Questo è Piazza Europa.” Questo? I gingerly got off the bus. Questo? But where was the big fountain I wouldn’t miss? Where?
Turned out the whole square was under construction. The information counter lady didn’t have all the information. But I was more bothered by that lady on the bus. First time I met someone who deliberately did not tell me when to get off when she knew. I could never do that to someone. Could you?!
3. On the train to Milan
Ever seen the film Before Sunrise? Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on the train, then they both disembark and spend the entire night walking and talking, walking and talking. Ever since I saw that film I’ve always wanted to meet someone interesting on my travels. Not necessarily in a romantic manner – though that wouldn’t hurt – but just to have a long conversation with a fellow traveller.
Last year on the train in Spain, it happened. My seatmate was an Argentinian gentleman who talked to me for two hours in his broken English and my non-existent Spanish. I had been crying, so he was a lovely distraction. And then I had to go. I thought for a minute about asking for his email, but I didn’t know if it was appropriate or if he would be willing in the first place. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or put him on the spot. He was in his 40s, with a family. Maybe it wouldn’t be right. So I said goodbye, nice to meet you, and he looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. Maybe he wanted to ask to keep in contact too but didn’t think it was appropriate either. I’ve regretted it since. Probably nothing would have come of it. I mean he barely spoke English – how in the world were we going to communicate? Would have been nice to know someone in Argentina though.
Back to the present. A few days before, when I took the train from Milan to La Spezia – my first Italian train ride on this trip (P.S. I love train travel in Italy) – I kept hoping my seatmate would be cool. It was foggy outside and there was hardly any scenery to speak of. By this time my earworm was a song by The Editors called ‘The Phone Book’. But my seatmate was an elderly Italian man who ended up talking to the pair in the next aisle. From the looks of it, it looked like he was trying to promote a kind of health food? I was glad he didn’t try talking to me! Although I did lament to my friend NT over Whatsapp later, wishing that “I would meet someone nice on the train back to Milan”.
Well…I did. He said hello, I said hello, and we didn’t stop talking until the train pulled into Milano Centrale, four hours later. When I told him where I was from, his jaw dropped. “I’m going to Singapore to work in a year’s time!” he exclaimed. Seriously, how awesome is that? “I guess I’m your first friend in Singapore!” I replied. He made it easy for me by being very forthcoming, asking to take a photo of us and then for my FB/email/number. Phew! Sadly he had a sommelier course the next day or he would take me around the city, he said. Not quite Before Sunrise, but as he said, “There’s always 2015!”
Yeah. Not only did I meet someone nice on the train, but he is coming to my little country to work in the very near future. How incredibly serendipitous!
4. Navigli, Milan
It was my first full day in Milan, and I was walking around a place called Navigli by myself. My Couchsurfing host, FL, told me to look for an alley called Vicolo dei Lavandai. It was nothing really that special, he said, but it was an area where, up until the 50s, laundresses used to wash clothes on cement stones by the canal. I know it sounds like a total bore. I thought it was too. But when I got there I thought it was pretty cool, even if the water was all dried up. I wish there was a sign that told the history of the place but there was none. I was getting ready to leave when I heard a man’s voice.
“This place used to be a wash house.” I turned around to see a bearded gentleman in a backwards cap smiling at me. He continued, “And in the olden times laundresses washed clothes on these stones.” He knelt down beside one. “See these stones? They are authentic.”
For the next few minutes he educated me on the history of the area and the big canal up ahead. He’s a gardener for the school next door, he said. He was about to leave but then he saw me poking around. Knowing there were no signs in the area about the history of that place, he said, “I thought I would just come to you and tell it to you. My English is bad, but I try.” I promise you he spoke near-perfect English. I assured him that he had nothing to worry about and thanked him profusely. What a stand-up guy! I kept mentioning to my host and some other people I knew later, about that incident. I couldn’t believe people could be so nice. I felt so lucky and grateful that I had met so many wonderful strangers on this trip. I was really happy.
5. Piazzale Francesco Accursio, Milan
It was 9 o’clock at night. I just got off the tram 300 metres from FL’s home. I had spent a beautiful day in the city with my friend ADP, whom I met on the plane back in April. (Story for another post.) My belly was full from the scialatielli I just ate. I had one earphone on; I still could not stop listening to that Editors song. It was drizzling so I put my hoodie on and crossed the road towards his apartment building.
Minutes earlier, a few stops before I had to get off, I thought for a moment about texting FL that I was arriving soon. But I decided against it. Nah. I could just ring him up when I’ve reached his building, no bigs. I suddenly remembered a little note he wrote on his CS profile, that the area he lives in is not dangerous, but girls coming home late at night should take precautions anyway. But he said late at night. It was only 9. Come on. Don’t worry.
And so I didn’t. I walked quickly, with purpose. So confident was I that I barely registered how dimly lit the streets were. I got to his building and suddenly realised that he never taught me to use the intercom. No bigs. I whipped out my phone and wrote him a text message, telling him I was downstairs.
While typing the message I became aware of soft footsteps coming from behind me. My first thought was, ‘Cool. Someone who lives here too. I can get into the building with them.’ But I didn’t turn around. Not yet. I continued to type my message. After pressing enter, for a split second I looked through the glass entrance, at the escalator where FL would be coming down from. I was hearing low murmurs now. Finally, I was ready to turn around to the people behind me and say ciao. Buonasera. But before I could, I felt my phone flying up and out of my hand. It took me a few seconds to realise what had happened.
I just got mugged.
I spun around to see two guys in hoodies running away in the opposite direction. I started screaming at the top of my lungs and as I did so, I looked around me for passersby. There was not a single soul on that street. I stopped screaming. What was the point? I realised immediately that I had instinctively run after them. Eight steps. I stopped running. Tell me, what was the point? I returned to my spot in front of the entrance with a hand over my mouth. That just happened. That really just happened. Then I decided to scream into the darkness: “Fuck you! There’s nothing in that phone anyway, arseholes!” I just had to.
Moments later, FL came down the escalator with a big smile on his face. ”How was -”
“My phone just got stolen.”
“What? When? Where did they go? I’ll go after them.”
I told him to forget about it. It was futile. They were gone. My phone was gone. My only priority was to get home and change my passwords and call my telco to block my number from being used. “I’m okay,” I kept saying. “They didn’t hurt me. They didn’t get my bag, which contains my money and my credit card. And in my jacket pocket is my camera. My precious camera with my precious pictures (two weeks’ worth at this point)! They didn’t hurt me. I’m okay. I’m fine.”
That night, after changing my passwords and cancelling my number and shooting off a few messages to friends and family back home, I tried to sleep with the lights on. My brain was convinced that if I let myself be in the dark again, the same thing would happen again and they already had my phone so now they would come back for me. The rational part of my brain knew it was nonsense, they couldn’t come back, they didn’t know which flat I was staying in! But still I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the lights. I laid there with my eyes wide open, replaying the incident over and over. And then I thought about the what-ifs.
What if I had my old Blackberry phone out instead of the flashy Samsung – would they still have wanted that phone or would they have demanded for my bag?
What if I had turned around when I first heard the footsteps – would they have hurt me? Stabbed me? Killed me?
What if I had just texted FL whilst on the tram? This probably wouldn’t have happened…
I didn’t dare close my eyes for a second, fearing that when I opened my eyes, I would find them behind me again. Hooooo boy. All that talk trying to prove to myself I was okay? Didn’t work. I had PTSD.
Eventually I had to use the bathroom. Deciding to even move an inch took several minutes. I believed that when I opened my bedroom door they would be outside. One minute they would just appear by the bed, the next they would be outside the room. Man, my brain couldn’t decide! Afterwards I plucked up enough courage to turn off the lights and fell asleep, only to have a nightmare that there was an earthquake and someone was pulling me out of my bed – from behind, of course – not to rescue me but to kidnap me. I thrashed around and screamed FL’s name. And then I awoke. It was 6am and I couldn’t sleep again. I wasn’t sure if it was a scream in a dream or a proper nightmare where I had actually screamed his name out loud outside the dream. I was afraid to ask but I had to know.
I had screamed out loud. Ohhh dear. FL had jumped out of bed and was about to rush into my room when I suddenly stopped. He assured me that it was understandable, but I was so embarrassed. I was so glad I was leaving Milan that evening, not just because I needed to get out of that scary place where scary people snatched my phone right out of my hand, but also because I could no longer look at FL in the eye. I was supposed to go on a day trip to Lake Como that morning; that was the plan all along. But clearly I wasn’t in the right mental state. So I stayed home and packed. That afternoon when we left to go to Cadorna (for me to take the train to Malpensa airport), I had to look away from the entrance where last night’s event took place. My heart was pounding so much and it didn’t stop pounding until my plane took off that night. Dammit, Milan. You’ve certainly got that reputation about you, but I wanted to prove people wrong! And now look what you’ve done to me!
I do still believe people are good at heart. In your travels, you meet people from all walks of life in all sorts of ways. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And sometimes even when you do things right, you still get it wrong. That’s just how it is. You live, you learn. You just gotta keep on keeping on and stay open and friendly and hopefully the right people will come along.
That’s what I’m going to do.