Scoring a spot at the lunch table
Vail CO, Colorado
NEW ZEALAND ” In a twist of fairy tale fate, I have re-learned in New Zealand a lesson that was forced upon me years ago within the yellowy peeling plaster walls and hot-lunch infused air of my new high school. Moving to the slow and sultry South was about the hardest thing I’d ever been asked to do in my young life, and on the first day of school, the tick-tock from the caged clock on the wall was the heartbeat of my anxiety as I wondered if anyone would ask me to sit with them at lunch.
I’ll never forget the first person who reached out to me during those first, lonely days of life in an unfamiliar town. She invited me to a football game on a Friday night. And I said no. I was a patchwork pants-wearing, Jerry-loving, patchouli-burning 14-year old hippie. I liked festivals, not football. But after I hung up the phone, I realized I had made a big mistake. I had just turned down an offer to experience this new place I was living with the very people who lived there. Just call her back, my mom said matter-of-factly. Ugh, mom, if only it were so easy. Nothing was easy in those early days, and I retreated to my room to stare at the phone with the futile hope that it might dial, speak and hang-up for me. When I finally called and told Lizz that I’d changed my mind, that sure, I’d love to go to the game, she seemed genuinely pleased. Over the course of that year, I got invited to do myriad things ” some up my alley and others not ” and I almost always said yes. It was in that way ” by going to concerts, youth group meetings, parties, drum circles, and diners ” that I began to make my way through the haze of self-doubt and anxiety born of being uncomfortable in a new place.
When traveling alone, what can seem like a spirit-squashing loneliness vanishes the moment you decide to leave your book inside and say hello to whoever is cooking in the kitchen or sitting beside you in the pub. Sitting and hoping that someone will talk to you does not work, especially when your nervous thoughts have put a furrow in your brow and a frown on your face. Three-and-a-half months ago, the lonely reader in the common area might’ve been me, but now I leave a trail of new friends and acquaintances as long as the land of the long white cloud itself in my wake.
The character list of my novel of New Zealand follows no prescribed literary formula. The villains are wet weather and bad, overpriced food when all I want is a good salad. The heroes are guys in failing marriages who pick me up hitchhiking and tell me their stories of heartbreak. They are half-Maori teenagers whose laughter is loud and un-censored. They are middle-aged women who, for some reason or another, are alone walking through the woods. They are farmers, guides, students, shop-owners, deliverymen, nurses, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. If I were to write a book about my time here, these people would be my anchors to certain places, the wild tangle of flowers and trees merely the blurred landscape passing by.
I got an email from an old family friend the other day. After a brief congratulatory line about my travels and writing, the truth came out: she needed advice. On a pretty heavy topic. Flattered that she would ask me ” someone she’s seen grow from a diaper-clad tot to an independent adult ” as I read through the e-mail, I grew more and more confident that I could actually offer the insight she was looking for. It was then, as she explained the drama her 14-year old daughter was stirring up at home after being faced with the prospect of moving to a new town, that I realized my parallel experiences moving to Charleston and coming to New Zealand. And so, as I was writing back, my fingers hardly able to keep up with the bubble of emotion welling up inside me, I told her to go. That finding someone to sit with on the first day of school wouldn’t be fun for her daughter, but that as soon as she realized that she was the shaper of her own destiny, that anyone she approached could become a friend or even something more, the pain and boredom of each afternoon spent watching TV at home would fade to a distant memory.
Traveling alone is a bit like walking down the scary hallways of a new school. No one wants to be the first talk to the new girl, but if she smiles and says hey, she might score a spot at the lunch table. And then she’s in.
Contact Betsy Welch with suggestions, comments and publishing contracts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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