On my first solo trip, I learned three important lessons:
1. Tinder is not a good place to find friends
2. Sometimes men are very creepy
3. Sometimes people are incredibly kind
Basically, we can sum these all up to one lesson: Lily is sometimes very stupid.
After the semester ended, I escaped to northeastern France to visit the famous Christmas markets. The other study abroad program were headed home for the holidays, and my French friends had other plans, so I headed out on my own. The usual soap opera-worthy misadventures of my life unraveled. I present to you the latest episode in four sketches:
I wondered if I would make friends that day.
The night before, I was restless. Thoughts whirled around in my head--end-of-program logistics, next semester prep, gifts to buy, and most immediate, what I'd do on this trip.
I was no stranger to my own company. At times, I actually preferred exploring alone--I wouldn't have to compromise on sights to see, or where to eat (offbeat vegan cafes all the way). But my time in France was drawing to a close, and I wanted to spend it seriously practicing French conversation.
Which meant finding friends, preferrably native French-speakers.
I took to Facebook and Instagram the week before in attempt to find mutual connections in the area. When that flopped, I posted in Couchsurfing forums for travel buddies. I received one response, from a 50-something German man. Something seemed innately off, so I politely turned him down.
So I began to entertain crazy ideas. I needed a platform with a large, active audience my age in a specific geographical location. Tinder was a perfect match (sorry, couldn't resist hehe).
That really flopped. It should've been obvious--it was a dating app, not a platonic friend-making one. But after reading acticles boasting meaningful friendships launched on Tinder, and stats revealing that the majority of college students use the app to find friends, I was hopeful. And after all, hadn't some of my friends made really resonant connections on Tinder?
But instead of friends, I found a couple stale conversations. It seemed as if most people were looking for romance or hookups (whoa, really Lily?! people are looking for romance and hookups on a dating app?!?). There was little interest in meeting up with a random American looking for travel buddies.
So I headed out to the Strasbourg Christmas markets alone. But I really shouldn't have worried about finding friends. As I sipped some vin chaud (spiced hot wine) at a standing table, friends found me instead.
The market was crowed, so three 20-something guys asked if they could share my table. They were three marines specializing in nuclear engineering from Brittany, and they were incredibly kind.
We explored the markets together, and later met up for dinner. They refused to let me split the cost for the flammekueche (Alsatian/German specialty) we shared, and neither the pinot noir and riesling wine (French hospitality is very real).
So lesson of the day? Finding friends while traveling solo doesn't have to be stressful--it doesn't even need to involve all the social media gizmos. It can be as easy as sharing a table, and sipping some wine.
Vous avez de l'eau Perrier? Puis-je en prendre?
Do you have Perrier water? Could I have some?
Lily goes to a bar, part 2...again for a legitimate linguistic purpose. But my drink was different this time. Instead of apricot juice, I settled for sparkling water to counter the rich food I'd had that day. I'd long since overcome my fear of alcohol, but I'd developed tastes too pretentious for bar fare (Sauternes, anyone?).
Est-ce qu'il y a un groupe de Couchsurfing ici?
Is there a Couchsurfing group here?
I scanned the bustling room, feeling self-conscious. Unlike the structured Bordeaux Franglish language exchange, this Couchsurfing event was a just a casual get-together. That didn't actually exist, apparently. My question was met with knit brows and confused looks. But it launched conversation with perfect strangers--and so we chatted away, leaping from topic to topic and language to language.
I'm from Couchsurfing event last night--I'm the French guy who studied in Japan for a couple years. I wanted to talk with you more, but you left early. If you're still in the area and want to meet up, I'm free to hang out today!
As I read my latest Couchsurfing notification that morning, I lit up. I naively thought: another friend dropped right in front of me, and a native French-speaker at that! I eagerly responded, and we arranged to meet up in the city square that afternoon.
The majority of the day went without incident--we explored the Palais Rohan (where Napoleon Bonaparte once stayed), sipped tea in a hip vegan cafe, and snapped photos in La Petite France (a particularly picturesque part of Strasbourg).
But then my linguistic ambitions seriously clouded my judgment.
"You have to try this wine called Gewürztraminer--it's an Alsatian specialty! Let's get some at the grocery store and we can have it at my place."
After unbelievable French hospitality, this innately-creepy suggestion somehow seemed less creepy. After all, I'd shared wine and cheese with my airbnb host and her boyfriend the day before, and my newfound marine friends had been nothing but welcoming. Still, something felt off as we walked back to the city square, towards his apartment. He could be a murderer or rapist, for all I knew. But he could just be ultra-friendly.
I naively chose to believe the latter. After all, he'd been a patient city guide during the day. And I couldn't pass up the chance for more French conversation.
But my suspicions kept creeping. As we chatted, I became progressively more uneasy. When he put his arm on the back of the couch, I scooted forward. His arm followed--no matter which way I moved. Despite my clear discomfort, he tried to pull me closer. I checked the time and suddenly announced that I had to go (early train the next morning, you know--gotta get home at 5pm).
As I waited for the tram in the slight drizzle, I felt somewhat guilty. Had I inadvertently given off the wrong message? As I debated whether or not to apologize, and if so, how to word it (how do you say "lead you on" in French?), he beat me to it.
Didn't want to make you uncomfortable, was really interesting talking to you! I wanted to kiss you but I was lost by our conversation. I didn't want to hit on you at first, but you got me at the cafe. Wish you'd want to spend the night with me :)
My slight relief at the quasi-apology turned to horror. I'd seriously misread his intentions. I'd been totally stupid. My quest to find friends and speak French had landed me in some deep merde.
A flurry of troubled thoughts ensued--Was it my fault? How does anyone make friends when you have to tread such murky waters? Does anyone even just want to make platonic friends anymore?
To decompress, I chatted with a friend from home, who offered some sage advice:
When you're in England, make sure you don't go home with a guy who's offering this tea "that you just got to try" even if you want to practice your English.
So, PSA: not everyone has benevolent intentions. Be much smarter than I was.
“Sure, you may never be an elite endurance athlete, a math genius, a professional violinist, a renowned blogger…but I think there’s a certain richness in having many passions.”
I found a kindred soul on the train back to Southern France. We'd been chatting already for several hours and had long since exhausted the ususal small talk.
I admitted that I sometimes envied those with a singular deep passion. Sometimes, I was tired of dabbling in multiple spheres, because I never felt exceptional--I couldn't immerse myself fully in one endeavor because I was always dividing my energy and attention.
But she was right. She'd know too, as a crossfit-enthusiast former biology student with a love for writing--who also happened to be in a transportation management alternance (sort of like a co-op--you spend half your time learning on-the-job, and half your time in class). We were lucky. Maybe we're not the top in any of our hobbies, but we get to know and love all of them.
And so the trip ended on a resonant note: a packed train, cool seatmate, and meaningful conversation--in French, of course.