Forced Conversations and Fleeting Friendships

by Nathan James Thomas

A week-long stay in a busy campsite full of introverted hikers reminds our columnist of the repetitive yet character-forming conversations of his youth hostel days.

English is not the dominant tongue here. That’s something of a relief. No one overhears our quiet conversations and butts in with a question or seeks for an opening. My wife and I have traveled here to the Faroe Islands for our anniversary, and we aren’t looking to mingle much with fellow travelers. This suits the atmosphere well. Unlike the backpacker hostels of Paris or Krakow, this remote group of islands in the North Atlantic is not a destination that preselects for sociability. 

The campsite overlooks the ocean. A small green island out ahead gathers together a collection of wooden houses like a mother dog hugging its puppies close. There were only two tents on the flat patch of grass when we arrived, and we clumsily set ours up in the drizzle and wind. The next morning, a dozen more tents had sprung up like mushrooms — brightly colored, bulbous, and covering every inch of clear ground.

The campsite crowd is generally older than the youth hostel lot, and, like us, they seem content to keep to themselves. Apart from a pair of Spanish 20-something lads who spend their days watching the Spanish version of The Simpsons in the common room, the average age stretches into the 50s and beyond. Gray hair and practiced organization. In the shared kitchen, the groups of French caravaners and Danish hikers attack their carefully assembled dishes with bespoke sponges, leaping to their feet whenever one of the two worn-out sinks become free. Otherwise, they keep their eyes fixed to the ground, perhaps pretending they are alone.

In the backpacker hostels I bounced through for much of my late teens and early (ok, mid) twenties, friendship is currency. Arriving in a couple or a group reduces your accessibility and your value. When you first arrived, there was always that embarrassed unease, awkwardness of youth mixed with unfamiliarity. But, there was always an opening. Normally, a simple “Where are you from?” was enough to ignite a camaraderie. Sure, the conversations were often trivial and inane — “Oh, yeah, I did France last weekend. Now I’m off to ‘do’ Eastern Europe. Do you think three hours is enough for Poland?” — but I look back fondly on those brief intimacies, those quickly formed friendships. You would cling to each other as ports of familiarity in the strange seas of a foreign language and rediscover yourself through the stories you chose to share with this complete stranger/best friend for the day.

Those instant friendships bestow a heady kind of freedom — that of deciding how you are going to be perceived. It’s the freedom, perhaps for the first time in years, perhaps for the first time in your life, to consciously define yourself in someone else’s eyes. If back home you were seen as shy or awkward or boastful or cocky, you could invert the persona. You could practice listening instead of talking, agreeing instead of arguing. You could try out new angles of humor and wit and see what stuck. You could rewrite yourself with the gift of an audience who had not read your earlier, rougher drafts. 

The best conversations always take place after dark, but it never seems to get dark here in the Faroe Islands. At three in the morning, you can still navigate by the ambient light of the sky. This creates a strange feeling of exposure. Darkness is privacy. It’s when secrets become stories, when the now grows in scale and moments take on the possibility of magic. Perhaps that’s why there’s a certain guileless immediacy to the locals here. In a craft beer bar in the center of Torshavn, the capital, a British couple burst in. The male part jovially demanded the bartender give him a “recommendation.” The bartender, a young man with long blonde hair (picture a smaller Legolas from the Lord of the Rings films) blinked and simply responded, “I don’t drink.” It’s hard to imagine that exchange taking place anywhere else. 

For the Faroese, too, travel can be a form of freedom. In a country with barely 50,000 residents, you’re unlikely to get away with concealing — or inventing — facts about yourself. We had drinks at the house of a Faroese man my age who I’d flatted with in Shanghai many years ago. He’d spent several years in China before returning home for the pandemic and soon settled back into local life, living in the wooden family home with a crisp view of the Atlantic below. His brother, too, had traveled widely and was just back from a year in Korea; a picture of his Korean girlfriend was proudly displayed on the back of his phone. Other locals gathered. We ate dried lamb from the rack in their cupboard, and they told stories of whale hunts, tourist-hating farmers, and the perils of the local dating scene — it’s apparently all too easy to accidentally end up with a cousin (the solution, apparently, is to run the family tree via grandma before taking things too far).

Even for those of us from larger countries, travel is anonymity. The backpacker crowd magnifies this to the point where you risk morphing into a kind of beer-drinking blob. The group protects and also insulates you from the unknown. You’re unlikely to be invited to dine with locals when you’re carousing with a large group of fellow Australians or Americans you just met at the hostel. But, when you’re new to travel, that easy camaraderie may be exactly what you need to get you out the door. 

Sharing beers in a backpacker bar on the other side of the world with people who grew up a few minutes drive where you did is travel with training wheels. It’s practice in letting go of who you were so you can gain the courage you need to travel alone. And sitting here, in this quiet campsite where people avoid eye contact, I finally understand that those small conversations and fleeting friendships meant far more than I realized at the time.

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