‘How to Meet Locals’ for Dummies

Female VolunteerThe wine bottles stand sentinel on the stained oak table.  The décor flavors the room with an exotic spice.  The smell of freshly made friendships wafts through the hospitality of someone I’ve recently met through work or church or some obscure connection from back home.

Home-cooked meals serve as the backdrop for laughs and histories and future dreams.  As I get lost in the stories of these recent strangers, a thought creeps in between my forkfuls, the same one every time: how did I get here?  I marvel at the providence which allows me to share in this moment.  I smile with a cinematic glance to the side and silently speak my gratitude to the Divine.

Fear not.  Soon you’ll sit around unfamiliar tables as guests at the mercy of welcoming strangers.  As yet, unknown to you.  Once known, never forgotten.  And after, you’re never the same.  As you stand in the outdoor store, picking out the perfect pair of boots, base layers, and batteries, these tables may seem as far away as their physical distance implies.

How then do you get from the airport to the dining room?

Step One:  Productive daydreaming.

Prepare to travel by reading and researching as much as time allows.  Set up profiles with Couchsurfing, WWOOF, and house-sitting websites, then start contacting people.  And don’t neglect to slip your travel plans into every conversation possible (as class allows) because people love to share their own connections.  You may have a list of names and numbers before you board the plane.

Step Two:  You are not your own.

What we don’t realize at the outset of going is how much trusting is required from here on.  Let’s be diligent in making plans, but mindful they may fail and will assuredly play out differently than how we imagine.  Roll with the tide and utilize whatever offerings she washes up on shore.  Trust this journey is about something bigger than yourself and you’ll begin to see…

Step Three:  These are people.

We fool ourselves into thinking this trip is about us and forget that the people we meet are not here solely for our benefit.  They are humans with stories and struggles.  Yes, they may look like shop owners or chefs, but on the inside they are people.  Like us.  Our words and actions toward them create or dispel opportunities.  Once we deflate our default superiority, we’ll have the eyes to see others, not just as similar sojourners through life, but as gifts which enhance our own.

Step Four:  Take initiative.

Every Wednesday and Friday evening, I go to martial arts class.  I’ve wanted to do martial arts for some time now, but allowed fears and excuses to stand in the way.  A couple of months ago, I put one foot in front of the other and walked in the door.

If we wait for the world to come to us, we miss a world of potential.  Doors open when we knock.  So knock.  Meander down to the local library, find an event board, and take note of each happening that strikes your fancy: parades, festivals, markets, classes, celebrations, lessons.  Pick a few, commit to going, and convince anyone you can to tag along.  Already have a talent or passion?  Why not look for local avenues to share your gift?

Wednesdays and Fridays are now my favorite days.  Not only am I on my way to becoming a black belt, I am intertwined with the local community.  And when we’re this far from home, for what more can we hope?

Step Five:  Talk with strangers.

A teacher with his host family in Georgia.

A teacher with his host family in Georgia.

Forget everything your parents taught you as a child.  Scratch that – not eating yellow snow is still sound advice.  Nevertheless, honing our conversational skills with those who are unfamiliar to us will quickly turn strangers into acquaintances into friends.  Honestly, how else do we meet anyone in a foreign country unless we learn how to engage in meaningful dialogue?

Still unsure?  Start here: smile, lace your words with kindness, and look for ways to complement without seeking anything in return.  These simple associations compound into the profound, leaving a wake of unrelenting goodness that works to many ends.  However, if you’re like me and don’t have sunshine spilling out your ears all the time, challenge yourself to at least one conversation a day which is not self-serving and breaches below surface level.

A good conversationalist is a better listener than talker and knows how to ask thoughtful questions.  Both take practice.

Step Six:  You are a gift.

Our stories matter.  Our voices matter.  Our experiences matter.

They matter insomuch as we use them to inject joy and hope and love and justice in the lives of those around us.  When we are comfortable in our own skin it frees onlookers to be the same.  Authenticity inspires.  And fun is never far behind.

If there is ever a character who is unashamedly, undeniably himself, it’s Buddy the Elf.  Hands down.  Will Ferrell’s modern Christmas classic resonates with us because Buddy doesn’t compromise who he is in order to appease the majority.

Neither should we.

Step Seven:  Want something.

Know the answer to the question: So, why did you leave home to come here?  Because I promise you, it’ll come up a time or two.  And who can blame them for asking?  People look for significance anyplace they can find it.  Someone who leaves their own “local” status behind must be significantly motivated.  Not that you need to know all the answers, but do return regularly to the roots of what you want and what this journey is about.  If we can learn to speak with honest clarity about these foundational incentives – even if they change along the way – we just may find the treasure we seek.

It may be difficult to fathom when you’re 35,000 feet above the ocean, but who’s to say what habitable tables you’ll soon surround if you’ll follow these steps?  Soon enough it may very well be your table filled with the smell of freshly made friendships as you recall with a cinematic glance to the side the profound impact foreign locals once made in your life.  As yet, unknown.  Once known, never forgotten.

And we’re never the same.

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