“Excuse me. Do you know where Degas is?”
I heard a voice ask me this in English while wandering around the Montmartre cemetery. I was in the city alone, taking a quick vacation from the bleak, grey German winter back in Berlin. It was my first time in the French capital, but I felt an intuitive kinship with the city. I had already spent the day meandering along its narrow streets and alleys, gazing up at the ivory-coloured buildings that line the boulevards.
I used the last hours of sunlight to explore the graveyard in Montmartre. As I strolled up and down the rows of headstones, I noticed a slight girl with long black hair pulling a suitcase behind her. We passed by each other and then she asked me about Degas, the French artist buried there. I hadn’t seen his grave yet, so we decided to search for him together.
She was Italian and in town from London to visit her French fiancé, who she would be moving in with within a few months. I learned all this within the first ten minutes of talking to her, and as the conversation continued I learned even more about her past: the reason she moved to London from Italy, what had happened to her ex-boyfriend, how she met her fiancé. I, in turn, shared my own stories and mishaps. Despite the fact that we had just met, we were saying things about ourselves that I haven’t even told friends I’ve known for years. Not only our stories of our experiences, but also our opinions on life and beauty.
That’s because when you travel, you are free from the expectations that surround you in the place where you permanently live. Think of the things that distract from how we interact with people in everyday life. We worry about how people think about us or about fitting in. But when you spend several hours talking with a stranger in a foreign country, you are open. You might never see that person again, but that brevity lets you say what you want to say and be the person you want to be, not the person your friends and family want you to be. If you are already an outsider, you no longer need to worry about being accepted. And based on my personal experience, the desire to travel is a stronger basis for friendship than any other shared interests.
When you travel, you are free from the expectations that surround you in the place where you permanently live.
After we found Degas, the girl and I walked together to a café where her fiancé later met us. She introduced me by saying, “This is Frances – she lives in Germany but she’s like us – very passionate.” I felt overwhelmed to be described in this way. I had a deeper, more fulfilling connection with this person I had just met than I’d had with anyone I’d met in Berlin in the previous 6 months. My boyfriend in Berlin had told me several weeks earlier that I was “lost”, but this girl understood my impulsivity. She told me, “I understand – you’re just trying to follow your heart.” And with that message from a stranger, I knew that, even when I got back to Berlin, everything would be okay.