Having fun with new friends

It’s the people, not the places, that maketh the trip. Photo by Ari Helminen.

Do you ever wonder why you’re overcome with a sense of nostalgia when you think back to childhood vacations spent building sandcastles on the beach with newly made friends, or barbecuing on the patio with your extended family? Do you wonder why the recent holiday you took – after saving up for months to be able to stay in a boutique hotel and eat at all the best restaurants – didn’t leave you feeling quite the same way?

What if I told you there was an invisible line – a line that would determine how much fun you had depending which side of it you were on?

New York Times Columnist David Brooks writes about an interesting phenomenon he dubs “The Haimish Line”. Derived from a Yiddish word suggesting warmth and conviviality, it’s essentially the experience of feeling right at home. On one side of this line, you feel free to really be yourself – to let loose and have fun with those around you – while on the other side, you find yourself in a situation where the conversation is more stilted, or perhaps not even possible since you’re more isolated from others. For example,

“Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. At some diners and family restaurants, people are more comfortable leaning back, laughing loud, interrupting more and sweeping one another up in a collective euphoria. They talk more to the servers, and even across tables. At nicer restaurants, the food is better, the atmosphere is more refined, but there is a tighter code about what is permissible.”

This idea can apply to a lot of situations – like living in a small town where everybody knows their neighbors and the kids play together in the street versus living in a city high-rise where the residents barely make eye contact – and it can apply equally to travel.

“When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.”

This, I think is such a critical point, yet something few people really consider when making their travel plans. True, seeing important monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower were exciting experiences, but it’s moments like playing foosball with kids in Ethiopia, clubbing with locals in Sarajevo and philosophizing with monks in Thailand that I really treasure.

So how can you make sure you’re on the right side of the Haimish Line when you travel? My recommendation would be to stay in a hostel. Having been fortunate enough to stay in some of the most lavish hotels imaginable as well as more hostels than I could possibly count, I can honestly say that staying at hostels has led to the best travel experiences. While swanky hotels are certainly, well, swankier, I’ve never been able to put my feet up and have a beer with the owner, the locals who work there, or the other guests – something that happens frequently at hostels. Not only does it make for a more social atmosphere, it’s also a great way to learn about cool things to do that you might otherwise never know of. I’ve changed my travel plans countless times based on this kind of “secret” information.

I understand that hostels may not be appropriate for everybody (though I suggest giving it a try before you write it off – many hostels are nicer than you think), but you can still seek out accommodations that would offer a similar experience. Camping grounds, RV or caravan parks, home stays and even some budget hotels can all offer a more “haimish” experience.

If all else fails, just get out there and talk to people – shopkeepers, bartenders, wait staff and everyone else you meet. Years later, those memories will make you smile much more than the recollection of seeing the Mona Lisa hanging on a wall.

What do you think? Have you been on vacations where you met lots of locals and consequently had a “richer” experience? Do you think there is a relationship between budget travel and the “haimish” experience, or have you had been able to achieve this through higher-end travel too?