When I was growing up, I lived on a small street in a rural area where having friends over to sit in the garage and drink was the main Saturday attraction. In all houses, that is, except mine. My parents didn’t drink and they weren’t particularly social, at least not in the kind of way where friends drop in and hang out without any specific invitation or plan. I’d listen on summer nights, through my open bedroom window, to the laughter and chatter going on across the street and wonder why our house wasn’t filled with people too. I swore that when I had my own place, my door would always be open and friends would come and go constantly.
That’s not remotely the kind of person I turned out to be. I’m every bit as inflexible with my time and protective of my personal space as my parents were. It drives me crazy when people stop by unannounced. Even the UPS man. I ignore invitations to go out if they come less than eight hours before the start time because that’s not enough time for me to prepare and accomplish everything I planned to that day. I don’t send read receipts on my iPhone because I don’t want people knowing whether I’m looking at my phone and therefore, presumably, available to talk or text. I always opt for “Entire home/apt” when using AirBnB because I certainly don’t want to be in the house with the owner, having to make chit chat. And communal tables at a restaurant? Whoever came up with this terrible idea should be hanged.
But travel is an opportunity to learn. If I keep to myself, I’m limiting what I can gain from the experience. When I’m in a different country, I enjoy talking to as many people as possible and finding out who they are and what their lives are like. Being a foreigner somehow gives me license to do that. I become a different person. I become that adaptable and accommodating and fearlessly social person I always wanted to be. It also helps that other cultures are more communal by nature than the highly individualistic United States is. Being immersed in those cultures makes it easier for me to hop on-board the “let’s all be instant friends” train.
Even European countries, which we might think of as being as individualistic as we are, are not exactly. The Swiss, for example, have the concept of Stammtisch:
Frequenting the same cafes or restaurants is a very Swiss habit. … A Stammtisch is a standing weekly arrangement for a group of friends to meet in a bar or cafe. The group always sits at the same table, and whoever can make it just turns up. (From, The Naked Swiss)
This, to me, is a lovely idea. To have a standing date with friends that holds enough importance to everyone that you can trust that you’ll never be the only one showing up seems special. The French speaking ex-pat community in Boulder does this at Rueben’s on Tuesday nights. I’ve gone a few times, and, while they were welcoming, I felt my French wasn’t quite up to snuff for me to be a full participant.
I also witnessed a variant on this shared table phenomenon among German speakers and Italians during a multiday, hut-to-hut hiking trip across the Dolomite mountains that I did as part of my recent European vacation. My friend and I planned a backpacking adventure from Bressanone to Cortina d’Ampezzo, but our trek turned out to be more of a cultural experience than a wilderness one. The system of huts across South Tyrol is robust, and every few hours the great wide open trail became less so and the path led us to a clearing where we would inevitably find a hut: a large, old, wooden building, set in a green valley, surrounded by pine trees and rising mountains. Often times cows (yes, with bells around their necks) grazed nearby and a stream flowed along. People sunbathed by the water and playground equipment was set up for children. The huts were well-staffed with trilingual personnel serving up the most amazing pasta and polenta dishes, delicious cheeses and pastries, and, of course, large glasses of cold beer, all at prices that didn’t reflect the hardship of getting the provisions to the remote location. Dogs were welcome, both inside, as well as on the patios, and every available seat was packed. We slept in a few huts as well, witnessing well-established cultural traditions which consisted primary of the dining room remaining packed long after dinner as groups of people mingled and traded stories about their hiking adventures that day, or played cards or other games. We seemed to be the only true outsiders. There were no Americans, no English speakers at all. German was the dominant language for a long time, ceding to Italian the further south we traveled. But no matter, because everyone smiles and laughs in the same language. To me, those shared tables represented an even better variant of those parties I longed to be a part of as a child, because the participants were all sharing the day’s accomplishments, the kilometers traversed or the meters of elevation gained, as well as the good fortune to have strong, healthy legs to take us across those magnificent mountains. That’s worth toasting together.
All of this said, I will probably still avoid the communal tables at Boulder restaurants, or at least avoid the other people at them when I’m forced to sit at one. I am still very much a product of my own culture when I’m home. But my next hut trip is already brewing.