On People

It is a frequent claim of mine that I can be charming, but only for about two hours at a time. After that, I turn surly because, fundamentally, I hate people.  I’m an INT/J, as they say.  On the Asperger’s scale, I probably rate at least a 5 (on a self-styled scale that goes to 10). I find it exhausting to be around people.

Although there is some truth to this, it’s also one of those things that I say because it’s entertaining; people laugh when they hear it.  There’s a certain incongruity to my claiming to hate people when I so often try to converse with them and make them feel at ease. Nevertheless, they cut me some slack when I leave their parties early. Perhaps they don’t want to learn what I mean by “surly”.

I’ve been using this line for many years but, recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether I mean it at all.

What’s caused some doubt is a recent trip to Iceland.  The destination is not the important thing here but, rather, why I went to Iceland.   After all, I’d been to Iceland before.   My last trip caused me to reconsider my notion of “fear”, but that’s the topic of a completely different blog post (back in January of 2011; something to do with motorcycles and crossing rapid-flowing streams). This time, I went to Iceland for a reunion of traveling buddies.  Way back in 1980, I traveled to Europe with two college friends.  We did the Eurail pass thing and spent a truly magical week sleeping on the beach in Corfu (Pelikas).  Although the immediate magic was mostly the result of some French and Swedish gals that we’d met,  it turns out that the real long-term magic was from the dudes that happened to be there, too:  Thomas, Jesper and Martin (two Danes and a Swede).

The following year, some other friends went to Europe and met up with the same folk. Our little circle of traveling friends became a bigger circle of even better friends.

In the years that followed, the Scandinavians visited the US and Americans visited Europe.  Notably,  too, one of the original travelers, Tom, is one of those special people who is good at staying in touch.  I’m always amazed when I get the occasional postcard from Tom sent during one of his travels or I get a long Christmas letter instead of the pre-printed Costco card. I know, too, that I’m not the only one who gets these. Tom is a connector.  He is the glue that binds us together and probably the most frequent traveler between the two continents.  I’m pretty sure that never claims to hate people.

In 2006, the Scandinavians and Americans all decided to meet in Narbonne, France.  Almost all of the 1980 and 1981 travelers brought their families to France (I even brought a couple of spares) and the reunion of 32 people was a blast. So much so that we decided to do it again this year – in Iceland!

So here’s the thing – I really enjoyed being around (my) people in Iceland. Yes, we bopped around the island, checking out the waterfalls, hot springs and wild geography but what I most enjoyed was the people. This time, we had 27 people including the first grandchild (Jesper’s). Whether it was slamming Brennivin, quaffing beers at the “free beer” place or trying puffin (it does not taste like chicken), it was fun to be around each other. I was truly sad when I had to leave them.

I should interject another one of my adages here, travelers like travelers.  It is a premise of mine that there are travelers and non-travelers.  Travelers like to visit new, uncomfortable places and to eat strange food. They don’t mind dealing with language difficulties and crummy showers (fortunately, most countries have figured out toilet paper by now). They enjoy meeting and getting to know people from other places (even if only in 2-hour doses). Non-travelers, well, they don’t like these things.  They stay close to home or travel only to “safe” places where people speak the same languages. They complain when there’s no shower curtain or they stay only in 5-star hotels where everyone speaks English.

There’s nothing special about being a traveler and nothing shameful about not being one but, as a rule, travelers think that non-travelers are nuts. When a traveler meets a traveler, however, there’s an innate kinship there.  By definition, they want to know more about each other, compare toilet stories and drink the local brew. So, this partly explains why I like being around my Scandinavian/American travel buds – they’re all travelers. But there’s more to it than that.

I have (yet) another adage: we are not the same people we used to be. I’m not the first to say this, I’m sure, but I accompany the saying with a thought experiment. If you traveled back in time and talked to yourself over the phone, avoiding any “fact-checking” (“what’s your mother’s name?”), would you recognize yourself? I’m not sure I would.

So what happens when we reconnect with old friends? We recall shared memories and shared emotions. Thus, even if we are different people, we remember who we used to be. The old friends who liked us before (hopefully) see the same traits in our new selves. We see their old traits in their new selves and these memories and emotions serve to bridge our then-selves with our now-selves.  Getting together with old friends is a special form of time travel; it happens neither in the present nor in the past. Reunions occur in a weird then/now time bubble that is tremendously special and rewarding.

Very soon, this October, to be exact, I’m going to Miami to celebrate a high-school reunion. The classes of 1976 and 1977 are having a joint celebration so it’s my 39th reunion. I am wondering whether this event will be as rewarding as Iceland or whether it will be different.  Already, I am hearing from old friends who’ve been long missing from my life. Already I’m experiencing then/now time although it’s too early to tell whether I’ll end up renouncing my avowed hatred of people or whether I’ll write off the Iceland experience as an outlier and go back to my curmudgeonly ways. Stay tuned.