by Maureen Beard,
It was maybe a five minute conversation. We were two travelers on our own from different sides of the world, meeting in the middle, at a pub in Galway, Ireland. To the woman sitting on the barstool behind me, it must have seemed a simple conversation. But as I’ve looked back over the years, I realize it was the moment I began to change how I interact with strangers, and the catalyst to push me to seek out the unknown and uncomfortable.
I have always been more of an introvert — not necessarily shy, but just a bit stand-offish when I first meet people. I like to observe and try to get a sense for people before I give them anything beyond the surface. I don’t see it as a fault, but it definitely has kept me from having interesting interactions and building friendships with new people.
So on my first international, solo trip, I found myself spending the day on a group tour of The Burren and The Cliffs of Moher, marveling at castles, rolling green hills, rainbows arching over the Irish countryside, and feeling the Atlantic wind nearly blow me over the edge of the world — without speaking to another human being. It was lonely. It was my default. I needed to step out from my own fears and talk to people. That was how I found myself in a pub in Galway talking to an Australian.
It was a simple conversation, the usual introductory questions — where are you from, what do you do, who are all these drinks for, where have you been, what’s your name? He was Simon from Brisbane. He had recently retired from the Australian Army and had been traveling for the past six months on his own trying to figure out the next chapter in his life. He was easy-going, polite and seemed genuinely interested in what another traveller was doing in Ireland. There was a lightness that exuded from him, a positivity you wanted to bottle up for yourself. We discovered a common love for New York City — one of the stops on his trip, and a place where I had lived in my early twenties. He told me about Brisbane, while I tried to explain where Cleveland was and why it was kicka*s. After a couple songs, he left to bring the drinks to some new friends and said he’d be back for another pint.
We never had that pint. I had stepped away and got caught up with a couple drunk fellow American ladies who apparently wanted a chat in the toilet. I’m not sure where Simon went, but we never found our way back to each other.
Throughout the rest of my trip, Simon would pop into my head. I began to think about the little fragments of his story. This guy — in his mid-thirties — retired from the only job he knew, flew to the other side of the world, and had spent the last six months traveling around Europe and the U.S. alone, looking for something to give him a clue of what comes next. He met new friends, probably visited some old friends, and just had an ease that emanated from him — like he knew he’d figure it out, whatever it was.
I had only come to Ireland for six days. I hadn’t left my job, nor was I planning to, but I knew my life needed something more. I knew I was in a rut, and uninspired. So I decided I was going to hold on to that joy and sense of adventure I had sensed in Simon.
Over the next few days, I opened up more. I chatted with the owner of a boutique I had recently read about in a travel article and got some great shop recommendations. I found a blues bar above an old pub, and met four locals who I proceeded to get pissed with for the next few hours, listening to some of the best session musicians in Ireland play the American Blues.
And over the next few years, I have found myself climbing waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, getting lost in the cobblestone alleyways of Paris, driving from Cleveland to New Orleans to listen to jazz, and almost getting hit by a cyclist in Amsterdam.
It’s been almost four years since I had my brief meeting with Simon from Brisbane, but I still think of him from time to time. Usually, it’s when I’m planning my next solo trip, or when I find myself somewhere new, excited for what’s to come. I wonder how his next chapter is unfolding.
I’m not sure what my next chapter is, but I think it started in that pub in Galway, in the moment I decided to be present and talk to another human being. It unfolds with every new experience I choose for myself. It unfolds with each trip I take, whether its a three-hour drive to Fallingwater or a 22-hour flight around the world to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, that I learn something new and meet people with a different perspective than my own. It’s all helping me figure out what brings me joy in life — which may just be to continue to discover the unknown.