Before boarding the train to Munich, Shaun and I spotted a group of polished German women in their 40s standing on the train platform with glasses of white wine. I mean real wine glasses. Shaun and I pondered how their travel glassware was nicer than our wine glasses at home. They seemed to be going on a fun girls trip and I could not stop staring, telling Shaun they were my idols. I have enjoyed watching German women of different ages, they seem to have a specific style and glamour.
When Shaun left Germany I was anxious about traveling around on my own for the professional commitments which brought me here in the first place. My most nervous moment was preparing to take the subway or U-Bahn by myself. I took a deep breath and held my map tightly. The machines to buy a ticket are so complicated I had printed out instructions with pictures just to buy the ticket. I stood at the ticket counter reading my little instruction sheet and a woman came over speaking German and smiling at me. She may have been laughing at me, but I decided she was trying to help me. She said something that indicated “Hurry, the train is coming.” I smiled at her and stood near her on the train feeling oddly comforted by her presence. When I switched trains I sat near some older German ladies feeling for some reason safer as I concentrated on my map following the announcement of each stop confirming I was going in the right direction.
When you are in a foreign country (especially one where you don’t speak the language) a smile from a stranger means a lot. It makes me feel bad at all the times I plowed past tourists in Time Square on my way to work. Traveling can make you feel vulnerable, especially traveling alone, and I often look at others just searching for comfort in a smile or warm demeanor. I am especially comforted by women who seem like they could be my friend, my mentor, my grandmother, and who I have convinced myself would take care of me. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter because just their presence can helpfully bring my blood pressure down a bit.
I had the most memorable female bonding at a dinner a few nights ago. I was visiting this small city in Germany to conduct some interviews for my research on gender and conflict and when someone who I was interviewing told her friend about my visit and research, her friend decided to put together a dinner while I was in town with other smart women she knew. Most people there only knew the organizer so I didn’t feel at all like I was out of place. It felt like my book club, one of my proudest accomplishments in Boston, where I brought together a group of women who didn’t know each other who have now become friends.
Everything about the dinner made me happy. The restaurant was called something along the lines of “little things” in German. It was adorable with its all white interior, purple tables, and bold paintings (of penguins) hanging on the wall. The organizer of the event knew the owner and chef who greeted me upon arrival. As people started arriving I followed the lead of the other two women I was seated near and order an Aperol Spritz a fun orange colored Italian cocktail with prosecco.
The cast of characters at dinner was interesting in their different lifestyle choices. All were American although one was married to a German man. There was me – the married researcher thinking about what was next in my professional life and family life (aka the baby question), the woman with the boyfriend who was moving to Germany soon to join her, the “stay at home mom” with two children who was taking German and violin lessons, the lesbian with a Southern drawl who swore off children, and the married woman who proudly told me her husband got a vasectomy on their anniversary so they could have as many adventurous experiences as possible (including she would later tell me swimming with sharks).
As soon as everyone arrived there was no gap in conversation. The “social organizer” translated the menu for me and having been a regular of the restaurant made every dish sound delicious. Luckily, I went “splitsy” with the other woman I knew and tried the salad with pumpkin and some delicious cheese, truffle butter spaghetti, and these little pocket type ravioli things with ricotta and pear.
Once we ordered we dove deeper into getting to know each other. A few minutes later the owner of the restaurant came by to scold us for being too loud as we had just recently all been laughing loudly. She explained in a whisper that the older German women dining a few tables over were not happy with the noise level. (This was one of the few “this would never happen in America” moments).
The conversations flowed to the people next to me on both sides, the woman across from me, and even me shouting to the woman diagonal from me. The topics ranged from having kids (did we believe in the phenomenon of using a leash with children?), pregnancy, swimming with sharks and marine life, home décor, and finally a conversation about the balance between having a professional life you are passionate about and having a professional life that consumes you entirely. All of these women were thoughtful and ambitious yet all had extremely different models for how they were living their life and what happiness meant to them. I made jokes, but listened – leading one woman there to inaccurately describe me as more of the “sweet quite type.”
Mostly I just smiled the whole time. I felt lucky to be a part of this group of woman coming together who at the end of the night decided that they would have this type of get together regularly. I enjoyed imagining my life in this town in Germany and whether it would be like theirs. Would I be happy? Would I socialize with them? Do the interesting activities they were talking about? Go for hikes in the Alps? It also was a welcome break from the loneliness I had been feeling after hanging around my creepy hotel all day (the hotel seemed like one in Vegas complete with a casino, bad smelling cologne filling the lobby, and lights in the rooms that changed color). Relief from loneliness is underrated.
I am not delusional and know that not every woman I see in my travels is going to be welcoming and warm and that would be an unfair expectation. However, maybe there is some connection in knowing that we are all living in this world with some of the same questions, fears, and are all lonely at times.