I have a neighbor--I will call her Eunice--who is woeful at conversation. I saw her recently and asked: so, are you doing much overseas travel lately. She works for the military-industrial-defense complex in this country, and had been traveling overseas quite frequently. I asked because I thought maybe she had experienced the recent travel travails that people all over the world encountered with the Iceland volcano acting petulant. No, she said. I stopped traveling some time ago.
Period. Full stop. End of conversation.
OK, so much for small talk with my neighbor. She has an absolute gift for squelching any pleasantry exchanges.
Such was not the case on our recent trip to France. The bulk of the trip was spent on a river cruise, courtesy of Avalon Waterways. The company did a fine job of getting us from one French town to another. In fact, part of the excitement of the trip (we had no prescience of the volcano exploding, so we didn't know what REAL excitement is) was whether or not we would clear the various bridges as we sailed down the Saône and the Rhone. We were delayed part of a day due to high water as we approached Lyon.
The tour director said--we needed to have the river level go down some 20 to 30 centimeters before we could sail. When we finally did sail, we went slowly under the bridges of Lyon with maybe 2 or so centimeters to spare. I awoke at 5 a.m. one morning just as we were sailing, and we watched the progress on the in-house television. We glided under bridge after bridge with hardly room to spare.
(photo of Passerelle Masaryk from Wikipedia)
Anyway, back to the art of conversation. The first night we had dinner on the river we ended up at Table No. 10 along with four other passengers. The general idea--at least as articulated by the cruise director--was to rotate among tables so that by the end of the journey, you have shared table talk with all the other passengers. However, my husband and I are somewhat introverted--small talk is irrelevant if not painful. So night after night we gravitated back to the same small group with whom we had bonded.
Our group included a senior retired couple from California--he had been an art instructor in high school, and then the head of the art department for the school. She did not tell us what she had done, until maybe the third evening when I said--point blank--and what did you do in your working life? Well, she said, I was a clinical psychologist. Oooooooh!
So, I asked, what was your most interesting or challenging patient? Oh, she said, there was this one guy who liked to look at women's underwear, and he asked to see mine. I declined, but I often wondered if I should have let him see mine.
OK--pause in the conversation.
The other two people were a father and daughter traveling together. The father was a career Air Force man had been widowed a year before, and the daughter was helping him get through the difficult anniversary of his wife's death. I very much resonated with her experience, as I too had gone through helping my father cope with my mother's death. When it turned out that she , who had been trained as a librarian, had read as many (if not more) books than I, that she knew a lot about art and history, and that she too wrote AND has been published--well, that's a trifecta. I can't ask for more in a traveling companion.
Our table talk ranged widely every night. Over the days, we learned that we shared political sensitivities--all of us having somewhat more liberal leanings. We didn't see everything exactly the same--but why would we? And how boring would that be anyway.
I recognize that our experience demonstrates a general tendency among humans--we generally like to return to the same nesting spot. Having had a pleasant experience in our first evening of conversation, we were quite happy to return to Table No. 10. This tendency is one on which I rely to learn student names--I know that by the third day of class, students are going to sit in the same spot they sat in on day 1 and day 2, so I jot down their names on a seating chart, and then call on them by name as we have class discussions.
Ah, Table No. 10. Part of what made this trip to France very special. And while it is unlikely that we will see these traveling companions again, I will think of them all, wonder how they are doing, wonder what new challenges they have met, and I will wish I could hold a conversation with them.