Disclaimer: This post was written in cooperation with Johnnie Walker
I was standing there with five friends, freezing at night, in cold Warsaw. We were searching for our tram—none of us knowing which direction to go, or hardly any words in Polish. Then, suddenly, a nice voice came with a smile. A young Polish woman came to the rescue, having seen me struggling with Google Maps on my phone. She looked at our hotel confirmation, looked up the address and walked us all the way to the correct tram stop. Friendly and nice, actually interested in our trip asking us why we were here for New Year’s. We kept insisting she didn’t need to help—which she already knew. But she had the 10 minutes to spare while waiting for her own train (to where, we never found out).
This is the miracle of travel.
While standing there, accepting her help, we decided to give her a little gift: a bag of Costa Rican chocolates we’d bought as souvenirs on a previous trip, a snack to eat on the train that we hadn’t opened. She was surprised. She didn’t expect anything in return and we almost had to beg her to take them.
Giving and receiving is hard. And as my new favorite book The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer explains so eloquently: we are often ashamed of asking for help. In my trip to Poland last week, I didn’t even need to ask. But in other places: London, Tel Aviv, New Delhi, Rome…traveling requires you to get out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in new territories, sometimes only using body language. Asking for help is just another part of any travel experience.
Traveling is all about sharing. You share your knowledge of nice restaurants, of bars or parks or things to do, you ask for directions, you receive unused train tickets…Sometimes you even give away umbrellas to random people. This is how the world works. Even when there are problems that arise from time to time, this is the sharing behind websites like Couchsurfing and even Facebook.
When you travel, you learn to help other people. It could be a simple act of helping to place a heavy bag in a compartment or something even life-changing (a first kiss, a discussion of politics). The secret is to be open to this, open to these experiences. I feel really bad about those people who, when traveling alone or in a group, refuse to ask for help and prefer to solve everything from the solitude of their screens. I love asking for directions because it’s the perfect excuse to meet people, to make contact with someone new. It’s the same reason why I prefer to take the bus or the metro than to simply just jump in a taxi.
I recently came across this short film with Jude Law, a long-form advertisement for Johnnie Walker, called The Gentleman’s Wager (watch it below). It’s about this art of gifting. The film takes us from lovely Italy to Monaco, and along the way, the guy discovers on his road trip just how friends and new acquaintances can help with any journey when you least expect it—the importance of helping others. I believe that’s one of the main reasons why we travel: to connect with one another and to learn from each other.
Without the help of strangers, I would’ve never found my rental car in Spain, which I parked in a small town in Andalusia before it disappeared within twenty minutes (as it turns out the police had towed it). The same was necessary for my road trip in Costa Rica last month: I asked a friend for help to find the best directions to the beaches and the bridges where you could spot crocodiles and other exotic animals. It’s so often on road trips that we’re forced to interact with locals. To be humble about our vulnerabilities. And to simply ask for directions.
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The hardest thing to give and to receive is trust.
Traveling isn’t just about visiting new places, it’s an exercise of confidence, a chance to stretch out your confidence muscles. As a solo traveler, you may have just met someone and then you’re sharing a cab, or a hotel room, or a meal in the middle of nowhere. We often hear from newspapers and from movies that strangers are dangerous. All our mothers say it (hi Mom!). But I can say that even when we live in a world where terrible things happen every day, I’m breaking these absurd rules.
It was thanks to strangers that I discovered the best restaurants in Rome. It was because of a stranger in a bar in Berlin that I got my first job here and my German work visa, a stranger who is now one of my best friends (hi Aapo!). It’s because of all those wonderful strangers that I’m here now, sharing my travel tips on the internet—hopefully passing the torch and giving something back. There’s no adventure without a bit of risk. Any of the many road trip movies, like The Motorcycle Diaries or The Darjeeling Limited, will show you that.
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One of the best art projects I’ve seen was in a museum in Hamburg in which artist Sophie Calle decorated a phone booth and gave people all they probably didn’t need…for free: flowers, cigarettes, magazines, a chair and many other things. She even placed a sign with the word: Enjoy. Her act project, the “Gotham Project” was all about talking to strangers. She went so far as to record how many people smiled back to her after she gave them a totally free and tender smile. For me, the joy of giving can be as simple as that: an unexpected smile in the middle of the day.
We can see this spirit of gifting and receiving, of giving, during the Holidays. But what about the rest of the year? Why does our spirit of giving decay and fall asleep? This joy of giving isn’t just about the capitalist consumption of things, it’s more about the honest sentiment of giving someone what they need or, maybe more importantly, what they don’t expect. Of course, diamonds, gift cards and bottles of fine whiskey are always a great surprise; but they amount to nothing when compared to a helping hand in the middle of an unknown city on a cold winter night.