I returned from a cigarette on the terrace of a restaurant and discovered my things were gone from my table. I immediately panicked. I was alone, travelling through South Africa and I just wanted to enjoy all the fine dining Cape Town had to offer. The waiter realized what had happened and pointed to a table of black men across the room and told me they said I was joining them. As I approached, the men began to berate me for smoking. Who were these strangers who moved my things and tried to bully me away from cigarettes? It turns out they felt they were being polite inviting the only other person of color, a woman at that, alone to join them for dinner. After the uncomfortable start, we became fast friends. They were all in finance and I was about to start work on Wall Street in a few months but was spending my signing bonus abroad. Little did they know I emailed some friends back home to check their names on the Bloomberg terminal to be sure they were who they said they were. In the span of an hour, I went from spending my days solo in Cape Town and Joburg to having a group of men willing to drive me around, show me the sights and share the real South Africa with me.
A similar experience happened during a different trip in Turkey. A hotel owner in Cirali joined me for breakfast to get a sense of what he could help me book for an excursion for the day. "The other Americans are going for a hike. Would you like to join them after breakfast?". I didn't come to this remote part of Turkey to spend my day with some midwest tourists. Seeing the immediate disgust on my face, he offered to drive me to the start of a better hike where I would simply have to follow a certain type of tree back to the hotel. Five hours later, after realizing I don't know a maple tree from a pine tree, a finally stumbled back to the hotel dehydrated and exhausted after getting lost in the Turkish woods. The next day the handsome hotel owner became my personal tour guide for the rest of the trip. During another trip to Turkey, we'd end up driving together to Syria as he was excited when Syria relaxed restrictions on visitation from Turks. Despite the language barrier (I did not find ONE person who spoke English in all of Syria), I was often greeted warmly and offered tea or coffee and a seat to relax so they could marvel at this brown, American woman wandering around Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo.
I recall these important memories from my journeys as I plan and pack for my upcoming trip to France. I'll be visiting Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux. While I won't be using this trip as an opportunity to randomly meet single men as I am betrothed to my love, I will be open to new people because the best way to truly get a sense of the place is to interact with the locals, even if that means getting lost in woods or getting told off for smoking while you do it.
P.S. This photo was taken as we entered the Syrian border via Turkey by car. When I remember the chaos that ensued despite having a visa, I am saddened to think of the chaos that has since been there due to the recent conflicts. I am happy I got to see that beautiful country before terror struck.