Thursday, June 17, 2010


Yesterday in Salem I saw two tourists huddled over a map. Without thinking (or perhaps thinking it would be nice to be helpful) I walked up to them and asked them if I could find what they were looking for. This is the second or third time I have done something similar this year and it is a reversal of lifelong policy of hostility to tourists and people in general. As such it’s kind of scary.

I grew up in New York City. In high school we felt the contempt of the recently initiated and the impatient towards tourists. “Why don’t they understand which trains are express and which are locals?” “Did you hear what she said-it’s ChAmbers Street- not Chambres Street.” “He said he was looking for Hyusoton Street-not Houston.” Really, I thought to myself, why couldn’t these people learn to read a subway map, or just stay in St Louis or at the very least Get Out of My Way!

After high school and college, I lived in New York and Paris and Cambridge and my opinion of tourists did not change. I admitted to myself that these people were good for the local economy, but they were such a pain. In Paris, sitting by Notre Dame I saw an American teenage boy complaining that there were all these French people around. Really? In Paris? Oh my God who could have imagined this? Clearly he and his family should have come back in August. (In August on the Metro, I noted to myself, looking up and down the train car that I was in fact, the only person in the car who was Parisienne.)

Hating tourists is as natural to me as having freckles or voting democratic. So I am very surprised that I have, apparently, without letting myself know, changed my mind on the “tourist” question.

In April I was in town on a Saturday on my way to UMB to meet up with my team and there was a man who was trying to take a picture of his daughter. Without thinking, I offered to take a picture of both of them and then, when he couldn’t delete enough pictures off of his camera I offered to take a picture on my phone and e-mail it to him. Which I did. It took five minutes of my time. And I was already early for my meeting, but offering unsolicited help to strangers is unusual to me. And yet I did it, without thinking.

So what does one do, when one’s lifelong policy towards tourists has changed (without the “gut feeling” part of one’s personality bothering to inform the upper management?)

I have had several answers from friends. One says that I am more friendly to other humans because I no longer live in Cambridge, where we were packed in like sardines in a can. Another suggests that it’s empathy that works in me-I have been and will be again a lost tourist.

But I think it’s something else. I hate talking to people. But if the conversation falls within the realm of things I can do or things I understand then I want to talk. I want to be helpful. For example, yesterday I was in a book shop in Gloucester and a woman came in looking for a book for her niece as a graduation gift. I listened to her talking to the bookseller and saying that her niece and all the other girls were crazy about this book series-she couldn’t remember what it was called, but it was one word..” Twilight.” I suggested. Yes, that was it. I recommended Jane Austen (which the bookseller found for her).

It doesn’t matter if I’m among complete strangers-there are certain things that I feel competent to state my opinion about (even though I am generally afraid of people.) Bookselling has always fallen into that category. PC maintenance falls into that category.

Apparently finding your way around Salem also falls in that category. But I wouldn’t be interested in approaching any of these people 12 months ago. Since then I’ve found friends. I’ve learned to be confident. I’ve learned that I do know a few things. And this has changed my relationship with humanity.

It’s scary. But that does not mean it’s bad.

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