“Are you Jewish?” my seatmate asked me about five minutes into the Amtrak ride from New York to Philadelphia.
The question might strike some as unnervingly direct, but New Yorkers are famous for that. And it was far from the most personal question I’ve been asked by someone I’ve known for less time than it takes to make coffee — someone with whom the only apparent connection is a passenger fare.
But that’s the magic of travel: It creates a kind of spontaneous intimacy between erstwhile strangers. You could call it false intimacy, but that isn’t exactly right. The experience of moving from one environment to another is intense in a way that heightens one’s awareness, amplifying fears and sensations: loss, yearning, anticipation. It isn’t your everyday reality, but it’s real nonetheless.
Anyone who has traveled can recall at least one or two particularly memorable seatmates on a train, airplane or subway car — perhaps a conversation that lingers. To the cliché that the journey is an end in itself, I would add that exchanges with fellow travelers are among the more indelible imprints of travel.
The woman on Amtrak confessed all the shopping she’d done while in New York for a three-day conference. She had shopped the Friends & Family sale at Lord & Taylor, Friends & Family at Bloomingdales, and was now headed to Philadelphia to take her daughter to — you guessed it — Friends & Family at Saks.
“I have an awful lot of friends and family,” she said, gesturing ruefully at her overstuffed suitcases.
And so I attempted to assuage her feelings by sharing my own retail-therapy story. How, while I was undergoing hypnosis for a painful medical condition, and the hypnotist would talk me through a visualization exercise in which I would peacefully descend a long, long flight of stairs, I would, every time, imagine myself descending the escalator at Bloomingdale’s, down to the old Forty Carrots. That, apparently, is Jewish hypnosis.
On a cross-country bus trip 20 years ago, I sat through Indiana next to a man who was traveling from Terre Haute. I was fresh off a high school French education (at what other age would a cross-country bus trip be tolerable?), so I was fascinated by his drawling Americanized pronunciation of Terre Haute, with the emphatic H, and by his rationale for leaving home. “Too much partyin’,” he explained, again and again. “Too much partyin’.”
It took a bit more growing up before I figured out what kind of parties (ok, those with questionable sustances) might prompt a one-way bus ride out of Terre Haute. In the years since, chance conversations with seatmates have frequently eased the journey with a shared cab ride, a hotel tip or a serendipitous recommendation. On a ferry to Rhode Island once, I got the name of what turned out to be a terrific immigration lawyer.
Even those who are otherwise disinclined to chat with strangers might succumb to the lure of conversation after hours trapped in a vessel, generally without Internet access. The magazine gets tiresome; the in-flight movie, predictable. Far more exciting is the reality that each traveler has a unique story, a unique reason for landing on the vehicle in question, and therefore a built-in premise for starting up a conversation.
Some, like my recent seatmates returning from a week of camping at the Grand Canyon, were en route from a new place. Others, like my companion from Terre Haute, are en route to a new life.
On a 10-person flight from London to Aberdeen years ago, I confided in my neighbors about how nervous I was to meet a man who was waiting for me. They learned how we’d met, how our correspondence had unfolded, how I had anxiety about what to wear for our reunion. By the time I stepped off the plane to where he waited with a rose, a planeful of friendly strangers watched, cheering, from the windows.
It’s not uncommon, while traveling, to hear a person’s life story and still not know his first name. Sometimes we exchange contact information, though more often than not this is a pretense, an acknowledgement of the pleasure we’ve shared rather than the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
On a flight to Barcelona, I sat next to two poet brothers from Madrid and the Latin American wife of one of them, a lively, restless spirit clearly starved for female companionship. The discussion went from Borges to Garcia Lorca to Cervantes over rounds of red wine.
“We hold literary salons in Madrid every weekend,” my new friend announced, passing me a card with their address. “Come stay on our sofa. After all, we Americans have to stick together.”
I lost the card along with my wallet two weeks later. In all honesty I probably wouldn’t have called; it would have felt weird to show up on their sofa out of the blue, picking up a conversation that had run its course aloft.
Still, years later, I remember those Spanish poets and that restless Argentine bride, souvenirs of an otherwise routine passage.