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Two years ago, I was living alone in New Orleans subletting a two bedroom apartment in a trendy neighborhood and–worst of all–cat sitting. I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift is the only woman in the world who can pull of living alone with two cats and still be cool.
I wasn’t that cool.
I watched hours of television and Facetimed with Heath as often as I could. It wasn’t the most exciting time in my life. So I joined a small group at a local church to try to make new friends. The church connected me with a group of twentysomething women, but I was the youngest in the group by a few years and I would find out a couple months later that all the girls already knew each other before the group was formed. I was the outsider, trying to be outgoing and trying to be someone worth befriending.
My story went a little like this: Hi, I’m Alyssa. I graduated college back in December with a degree in PR…I moved to New Orleans to work at a nonprofit that is working to rebuild the city…I have a boyfriend back in Texas…that’s it.
That was my whole story.
Riveting stuff, right?
One of the girls in the group mentioned once that we should hang out and get coffee sometime. I agreed in the moment, knowing I would get out of it somehow because my mind was already racing. What on earth would we talk about for an hour? What would I say? What if I make a joke and she doesn’t laugh but I do? What if she wants to have a real, deep heart-to-heart conversation and she starts to cry and I have to sit there awkwardly? What if after five minutes she gets up and leaves because she realizes I have nothing to say after talking about the high humidity and how cute the coffee shop is?
So, we never had coffee. I psyched myself out from the fear of being trapped in a public place trying to learn what the social norms are for making new friends as an adult. Did they teach that in school? Was I absent that day?
That time in New Orleans accurately summarizes how I’ve always been when it comes to meeting new people or making new friends. Even when someone talks to me in the line at the grocery store, I’m standing there awkwardly like, what kind of personal information should I share with this person and what should I do with my hands while we’re talking?
The fact is, for me, meeting new people is awkward and stressful. It is not one of my skills.
(Un)fortunately for me, it is one of Heath’s skills. He befriends people everywhere we go and he’s completely unafraid to open up to strangers.
During Hourly America, we met strangers every day, mostly interviewing them for the film, and eventually eating meals or even staying the night parked in their driveways (praying we weren’t about to become the premise for a new horror movie about newlywed RVers murdered by a seemingly friendly suburban family in Philly).
Now that we’re somewhat stationery, Heath and I still have dinner or coffee with strangers at least once a month. And every time while we are driving their way or waiting for them to arrive, I lament to Heath how 1) I don’t want to go, 2) it’s going to be awkward, and 3) I don’t even know these people. (Probably our second most common fight after the GPS debacle). And every time he makes me go anyway.
And every time, I walk away a better person for going.
So, if you’re anything like me and feel totally awkward meeting new people, I’ve decided to list out of my top three reasons why you should eat with strangers, other than the fact that you get to take a night off from cooking and try some new foods. (Coolest thing I’ve had on the road: A Moroccan stew baked in acorn squash. So unexpectedly good.)
1. People Care
Eating out is always difficult for me because I have food allergies. So every time someone offers to cook for us, I feel uncomfortable being that person who has to request that they cook something gluten free, because I can’t eat otherwise.
Of course, people are ridiculously accommodating to this. But I always feel awkward asking anyway. I don’t want to put people out or be a difficult guest or make them change their plans.
As I’ve eaten dinner with these people I’ve never met before, I’ve realized one thing I didn’t expect.
People want to serve you.
People want to be good to each other, to help each other. Everyone who has cooked for me goes above and beyond to make sure I can eat what they are cooking, and makes sure our RV can fit in their driveway, or asks what type of wine we like if they are visiting us in the RV. They aren’t just asking to be polite, but out of genuine care.
The more I connect over meals with strangers, I see this every time. People want to care for others, even if it’s as simple as dinner.
2. You Learn Something New
In Maryland, Heath and I stayed on a farm owned by a woman, Robin, who randomly messaged Heath on LinkedIn and offered up her driveway as a parking spot for Franklin. Her husband is a goat farmer and Robin is a writer and a shaman.
I had heard the word shaman before, but I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant. A shaman (thanks Google for this definition) is basically a medium, someone who communicates between the natural and supernatural world.
Robin and I have completely different belief systems, and I had never met anyone else like her. Heath and I learned about her work and her life, how she’s written different books and created an app focused on meditation. Before traveling, most of the people I knew shared similar beliefs to me and ran in similar circles. Everyone needs to meet people who are drastically different than you to open your mind and teach you something new. Even if you don’t share the same ideas, you walk away smarter with a better understanding of the world.
3. You Remember You Have A Story
I hated meeting new people when I lived in New Orleans, because I felt like I had nothing to say to them. I didn’t feel like I had something to share. While traveling for Hourly America, I learned that I had a story, something to share that other people wanted or maybe even needed to hear. But more than that, I realized that everyone has a story.
Sometimes you have to dig to find out that the person you’re talking to actually used to run their own million dollar company, or they’ve written a book, or they moved into an RV because they want their kids to see the world. Everyone has a story, something interesting that you wouldn’t know unless you took the time to go deeper.
Meeting all of these people on the road, sharing food with them and getting to know who they are, reaffirms my faith in humanity. I’m reminded that people are good. People are smart. People have something to say, something you might need to hear, something worth the stress of your husband making you awkwardly meet new people again.