We’re in an RSA (Returned and Services Association) in a small town in the Bay of Islands, on the fifth night of our New Zealand tour. It’s a rainy Monday night, off-season, and not many restaurants are open, but even so, this would not have been my first choice for dinner. Unlike most Australian RSL clubs, there are no pokies to destroy the atmosphere, but it feels depressing. From the faded military photographs to the fluorescent lighting and strong smell of cooking oil, it’s a venue long past its heyday, if it ever had one.
But that’s just me. My friend, Emma, is exactly where she wants to be – somewhere unpretentious, with no other tourists. Where it’s easy to catch someone’s eye, where the pace is slow and just about everyone is up for a conversation. When a woman walks past our table, Emma greets her warmly. “The colour of that top is lovely on you,” she says.
The woman jumps at the chance to stop and talk. I smile and say hello, but mostly I’m silent. It’s not long before I have no idea what they’re talking about. A friend of a friend said something, the local sewerage system, council rates, op shops, someone died? When the woman reveals her father built the RSA, I ask her when it was completed, but I never get an answer, as the question prompts another incomprehensible conversational tangent.
“That was… a lot,” I say as we walk back to our hotel.
“I could tell she just really needed to download,” says Emma.
This scenario happens often throughout our holiday. When we arrive at Auckland Airport from Australia with no idea how to catch the airport bus to the city, it isn’t long before Emma is talking to other travellers about sharing a cab. When the bus finally arrives, she chats all the way to the city. An hour later, when we bump into a couple from the bus at what seems like the only late-night restaurant open in the city, it feels like a family reunion.
From the ladies behind the counters of every small-town op shop we visit to the morose Swedish backpacker at our hostel who clearly needs some mothering, there’s always someone new to talk to.
Mostly I just leave Emma to it and wander ahead. We operate at different speeds, so we usually explore at our own pace then meet up to compare notes. I tend to make my way through a museum quickly; Emma goes slowly. But she usually gets more out of it than I do, often remarking on things I should have noticed but didn’t.
Going slow isn’t something I’m good at. Decades ago, we met up in Paris – our first time travelling together – and Emma’s desire to stop and photograph everything was annoying. But she’s the one with the exquisite images from that time; I have only impressions and fading memories. Years later, when I have a baby and a toddler, their need to take in everything on our daily walks, from naming flowers to meeting neighbourhood cats and dogs, staring at cracks in the pavement and looking at houses, reminds me of that Paris trip.
This approach to life, which for Emma means rarely arriving on time, or being distracted and forgetting about our appointments, used to infuriate me and was once the source of a lot of tension (for me, at least). It no longer bothers me. We first met in prep at the age of five, and now, decades later, I can only think how lucky I am to have a friend who has seen me at my worst, and is still willing to hang out with me for a week, despite our differences in personality.
And the differences are fundamental. Emma is an artist at heart. She’s all colour, light, movement and connection. I like to observe and gather facts. She sees other people’s point of view; I have strong opinions and like to win an argument. I seem aloof; she glows with kindness. Yet somehow we make travelling together work. I get everything organised and plan our days, Emma brings spontaneity and general randomness. We laugh a lot.
It’s fun being with someone who never holds back, but it’s also deeply puzzling. I don’t know what her internal monologue is like, but I’m pretty sure it never includes the question, “Why would they want to talk to me?” or “That person looks like they’re enjoying having some time to themselves, I’d better leave them to it.” It’s quite hilarious to see the occasional person taken aback by her ability to start a conversation. Like a comedian whose sidekick has forgotten their lines, Emma engages only to get a dumbfounded look. But when she meets the perfect match, it’s glorious.
Many of my good friends are just like Emma. Social facilitators who draw people into their orbit with their friendliness, curiosity and easy conversation. My partner is exactly the same. The knack for finding common ground with anyone, anywhere, is a gift. I’m in awe of Emma’s ability to connect in seconds. I just don’t envy it. Small talk is exhausting.
On our last night in New Zealand, we’re at the bar of a tiny Italian restaurant in an arcade off Auckland’s K’ Road. At first we just talk to each other but the close proximity of other seats means eavesdropping is easy. Soon Emma is chatting to the woman on her right. It’s noisy, so joining in is difficult, but I hear snatches of conversation that reveal the exchange of life stories, heartbreak, dating tips and lots of words of general moral support. I spend the rest of dinner wishing I had a good book to read. When the woman leaves, she says goodbye to Emma as if they were lifelong friends.
“Why do you like talking to people so much?” I ask with genuine curiosity as we pay our bill.
“It makes me feel alive,” Emma says. “Sometimes I feel as if I only really exist when I connect with another person.”
In a way that sentiment seems heartbreakingly sad to me, but in another sense it’s quite beautiful. When your source of joy is other people, there’s a strong chance you’ll always be close to happiness, whether you’re far from home or not.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Foreign exchanges".
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