It’s one thing to visit a new city or country on your own, but quite refreshing to see it through the eyes of those who live there. That’s why it’s a great idea to find out in advance if folks you know have any local connections in the place you’re headed. I always do this when traveling abroad, but also try to make it a habit here in the U.S. I find this opens up your perspective and gives you a local’s view of life in your chosen vacation spot.
Consider doing this whether you’re traveling alone or with family, friends, a significant other. For one thing, you also introduce your companions to another side of the place you’re visiting and give them stories to share when they get back home. These ‘appointments’ with other folks’ friends add purpose and structure to your vacation days, which can sometimes overwhelm with endless museum and monument visits. And when arranging our meet-ups, I always ask these friends-once-removed to suggest a meeting place that’s a favorite of theirs – not just one that’s convenient to the hotel or apartment where I happen to be staying. You then get introduced to cool, where-the-locals-go eateries and bars in different parts of town — places that you wouldn’t likely stumble upon on your own.
When colleagues, friends or family tell me they’re traveling to places where I know people — especially if those places are in different countries — I’m only too happy to make connections. And I do it all the time. Sometimes when you’re on the other side of the world, meeting up with a friendly face who knows someone you know can be just what a weary traveler needs.
What I’ve also found is that these friends-of-friends often end up becoming great pals along the way. When heading to Italy several years ago, a former Chicago journalist friend told me about Kelly Carter, another African-American female journalist and Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister who was living there. We connected in Positano, where she then lived, and have become great friends since. (She’s now writing a memoir, Bellini for One, about her glorious two years living in bella Italia.) Kelly then introduced me to her friend Stacie, a fashionista living in Florence — where I’d recently moved — and we developed a real friendship on our own. And the links in the chain keep growing.
Before I made a trip to Rome, Kelly sent out some e-mails to friends of hers living in the Eternal City, who agreed as a group to meet me for drinks one night. What a wonderful treat!! Not only did I get together with an inspiring group of Rome-based American expats, but Kelly also hooked me up with Arlene Gibbs, another friend-of-a-friend who turned out to be the screenplay writer for Jumping the Broom.
When I visited Mexico City for work, a priest friend from my downtown Chicago church made sure to connect me to a wonderful young friend of his in this massive metropolis of nearly 20 million people. The super-friendly Renato (a passionate traveler himself) met me one Saturday morning, took me on a tour of the capital city, and shared his insights about life here — and even invited his sister to meet us for lunch. Talk about bringing a potentially overwhelming place down to human scale!
My jazz singer cousin Dee Daniels did the same for my dad and me when we headed to Panama City, Panama, for a travel writing assignment by introducing us to Sonia, a Panamanian-American friend of her good friend. Not only did Sonia hang out with us during our stay in the gentrifying and gorgeous Casco Viejo district, but she offered thoughtful, big-sister encouragement as I considered relocating to this cosmopolitan Central American city.
And when my American Airlines frequent-flyer ticket demanded I fly through Santiago, Chile, on my way to my beloved Buenos Aires, I jumped at the chance to spend a day hanging out with Eileen Smith, a fellow travel blogger and Brooklyn native I’d met the year before at a Travel Blog Exchange conference in Chicago. There’s nothing like seeing a foreign city through the lens of an American expat, one who wholly embraces her adopted country but still often views things from the perspective of one raised in the States. My brief trip to Chile is one I won’t soon forget—and now I’ve got another friend in South America.
The way I look at it, these temporary encounters not only enliven the time you spend on vacation, but often expose you to ideas and ways of thinking you’d never discover at home. Because the folks you meet have already been vetted by someone you know, you’ve already got something in common, even if your day-to-day lives and experiences are completely different. And in this age of global connectedness, who wouldn’t want to have friends in different corners of the world? I sure do — and I cherish each one.