How much can you really get to know a person while travelling? What makes on-the-road friends different from at-home friends? Is it possible to maintain long-distance friendships? Is it necessary?
I don’t believe in friendship at first sight. That is to say, I don’t believe that you can really bond with someone in just a few moments, even if you started the night not knowing each other and finished it giggling hysterically over spontaneous wine and tapas. Friendship takes time, friendship cannot be artificially manufactured, friendship needs nurturing. That’s why I think making friends on the road is a fantastic idea – for the easy and unique social experiment it creates, if nothing else.
Picture the scene: we meet casually in front of a Da Vinci at the Louvre, or in line outside the Empire State Building, or by the hostel lockers in Athens. We have the inevitable where-have-you-come-from, where-are-you-going conversation, and maybe we spend the next few minutes, or hours, or even the whole afternoon together. And then what? When the day is over, the obligations suddenly vanish. We can exchange emails, arrange to meet up again for more tourist attractions, try to meet in a different city … or we can just never see each other again, knowing that there’s absolutely zero risk of any awkward, accidental run-ins in the future. With no social convention to guide our behaviour, what happens next is infinitely interesting: are we, two complete strangers, willing to put ourselves out there just for the simple pleasure of each other’s company – or do we call it quits and walk away, given that there is absolutely no motivation for us to make any further effort?
This is what sets our on-the-road friends apart: that we wanted each and every one of them in our lives, and consciously made it happen. This isn’t always true of our at-home friends, the majority of whom are people we love and respect, but some of whom we just ‘fell in with’ due to the intertwining nature of social circles. On-the-road friends take more planning and hard work and long periods of time apart, so the reward in the end is often greater than expected. The fact that we are only able to spend the bare minimum of time being with them in person can also yield that delicious “What if?” feeling, the optimistic glow that if latitude and longitude didn’t exist, we would be the closest of friends; and in any case, the Universe found a way to bring us together in spite of that.
Crucially, we share experiences with our travel acquaintances that we just can’t share with or describe to our friends back at home: sometimes, you really did just have to be there. The most unexpected boon of all, however, is the ability to open up emotionally without fear of betrayal. We can be completely open and honest about who we are and how we feel, and our new-found friends are neither willing nor able to judge or take sides. At best, the completely detached point of view is unbelievably supportive and comforting; at worst, it is a breath of fresh, unbiased air.
Of course, long-distance friendship has its disadvantages too. I still firmly believe that we can’t recognise a true friend the first time we meet them, so sometimes we will inevitably go the extra mile for the wrong person. The friendship might last intermittently over a week, a month, maybe a summer before it runs out of energy; it happens all the time. Again, the obvious beauty of this is that we can leave things as they are without any real need for reconciliation; in all likelihood, we will never and need never see that other person again. We don’t have to erase the other person from our past; they will always be connected to those gilded memories in Marrakech or Bangkok or Orlando. Instead, we celebrate the brief connection we made with another human being and we move on to something bigger and better. It’s the perfect break-up, if you will.
In practice I have just a handful of close on-the-road friends who I could call right now, in the middle of the night, with an emergent personal crisis. It’s been just over a year since I visited my dearest long-distance friend in Oslo, but I don’t feel the distance between us like I do with some of my other friends in the same country. We’ve been through our fair share of ups and downs together: job successes, family crises, health struggles and even marriage. We don’t talk as much as we used to, but I hope I can always be there for her when she needs me. The knowledge that she would do the same for me is heart-warming; the fact that she does it all from a different time zone makes it truly remarkable.