As shy and quiet as I am, I love to meet and talk with new people. My openness to talking to strangers is a new development and I found it very easy to do while studying abroad in Leuven. It was so easy to approach any random stranger and simply ask “Do you speak English?” to start a conversation. Although I already knew the answer to my question since most Flemish students don’t just know English but are fluent in the language, it was the easiest way for someone as quiet as I am to start a conversation with a complete stranger. Unlike most Americans, who would probably just give a dirty look to foreigners who try to start a friendly conversation with them, Flemish students were curious and interested in talking with me. I learned so much about Flemish culture through my conversations with these random strangers and was able to connect their life experiences with my own. While traveling abroad, I was always the one to ask strangers for directions or help because I was most comfortable approaching strangers. While I was comfortable approaching and talking to strangers, there was a limit. For the second semester, I lived with a Hungarian girl who was just as quiet as myself and studied English literature as well. The big difference between the two of us was that when she travelled, she hitchhiked. It was a funny contradiction that a girl who was even more painfully quiet than myself was totally comfortable asking for a ride and getting in a car with a complete stranger. She hitchhiked from Belgium to various parts of France and around the United Kingdom during her five months in Leuven. While I didn’t hear much about her experiences since two very quiet people don’t make for much conversation sometimes, I did learn that she was totally comfortable and a veteran at hitchhiking around Europe, a skill that I both admire and envy.
My experiences while studying abroad came to mind while I was reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal’s hitchhiking adventures allowed him to meet and befriend strangers that he would have never met otherwise. While reading, I remember the numerous strangers I met and befriended while travelling by simply approaching them and finding a common factor through casual conversation. Every encounter we make shapes our future, like when Sal accepted a ride from strangers without a specific destination. His easy-going attitude allowed him to trust the strangers, although he was concerned about expenses from time to time. Every stranger that Sal encountered influenced his journey and his life in some way or another, no matter how enriching their stories were or not. While Sal quickly comes and goes through many different places, every person that he encounters impacts him in one way or another.