It’s not natural to keep motionless while traveling. I mean for hours, standing in the same exact spot, blankly staring. Try it. See how long you last. Maybe 20 minutes. You eventually at least take a seat or pick your nose or start tapping your feet.
I stood for hours at the stern of the ferry from Bari, Italy to Patras, Greece staring at the blackness. The solitude of the sea and the solitude of a solo traveler seemed to magnetize to each other; I kept staring even when I felt a pat on my back until finally her hand grabbed my shoulder and moved me away against my will.
Christina was 24, morena, high-energy, beautiful. Gemma was 28, light, mellow, beautiful. I was 21, unshowered, sweaty, sleep-deprived, hairy, not beautiful. Even if they couldn’t see how scary I looked from behind, it’s very likely they could have smelled it. Yet her hand was still on my shoulder even after I’d turned to face her.
We had made eye contact several times earlier on the ship, but standing at the the bough I looked too lonely, they said (I think—I was 2 semesters removed from Spanish 202). So they wanted to cook for me and feed me. Without anymore words, Christina pulled me down onto the floor of the ship, Gemma put a plate in my hands, and both motioned with their hands for me to eat. Worst case scenario the beautiful strangers were trying to poison me to rob and take advantage of me. Being perfectly ok with that, I smiled and ate.
Two plates, 3 cafes con leche, and 13 card games later, I sat on the deck with the girls and 5 other Spanish travelers. All of us being cheap backpackers who bought the cheapest ferry tickets available, we sat exactly where we would later sleep—on the deck, which became increasingly cold and windy and by 4 am.
I’d turned from a solo traveler to a lonely traveler in the few hours since I began staring into the night. It took something as vast as the Ionian Sea to pull me into loneliness and then it took something as small as a saucer plate of rice to pull me out of it. Food has power. It’s the symbol of hospitality. It is literally what brings people of all backgrounds to the same table. With the offer of food, I instantly turned from an outcast foreigner to a welcomed guest. It’s a small good thing.
We traveled together for the next day in Greece. We passed by restaurants, but the closest we came to eating in one was when the group walked to the courtyard entrance of one, and in direct view of the patrons and waitstaff turned on the gas stove and began to cook. Had the group treated me to a meal inside the (much more expensive) restaurant, I wouldn’t have felt nearly as indebted to and welcomed by them. It’s like comparing a birthday gift of $189 in cash from your fiance and then getting a handmade birthday card made out of macaroni from your second-grade student. Food at a restaurant is made for a faceless money wielder whose face the chef will never see. Food from a hostess is made for me.