It’s hard to hate somebody after you’ve shared a meal together.
This summer will mark my 18th year as a travel journalist. As I’ve said to numerous people lately, I have spent 17 amazing years in the tourism industry — and one awful one. But during this recent season of involuntary slowdown, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on those good years. And one of the elements I’m most grateful for has been the opportunity to break bread with hundreds of people.
Eating has always been my favorite part of travel. And more often than not, the people I’ve eaten with were as delightful as the food I’ve enjoyed.
For much of my early career, I would travel one or two times a month. On most of those trips, I would spend a week crisscrossing a state, seeing the sights and meeting with tourism representatives in communities along the way. Many of those meetings happened over meals.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to have a breakfast with someone in one city, lunch with someone else in another city and dinner with another person in a third. Oftentimes, I had not met these people before I sat down to eat with them. I used to joke with journalism students that being a travel writer was like going on three first dates a day.
Over time, the rhythms of my travel schedule changed. I spend a lot more time at tourism conferences and other industry events now. But even these gatherings offer a lot of opportunities to eat with strangers.
None of those meals has been predictable. Sometimes, I bond instantly with my dining companions. Those occasions can serve as catalysts for long-lasting friendships. Other times, the connections do not come as easily. But even when conversation took more effort, I have always found the investment worthwhile.
Looking back on those thousands of meals, I’m struck by the diversity of my dinner dates. Few of my companions fit neatly into my demographic. When I first started, most were much older than me. These days, some are much younger. Most were raised in different places than I. Many came from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. And I’m quite certain that a sizable portion didn’t share my political views. But that’s OK: In tourism, we know better than to talk politics at dinner.
As we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic, I’m missing those opportunities to eat with strangers. Quarantine and isolation have removed many of the personal interactions that help us build bonds of affection with people different from ourselves. And it has become all too easy to hate the people on the other side of our computer and TV screens because we no longer get to interact with them — or people who think like them — in person.
I’m still optimistic that we’re closer to the end of the pandemic than the beginning. I’m hopeful that big gains in public health during the first part of the year will lead to a big rebound for travel in the second.
When that happens, I’m going to relish having dinners with people I’ve never met. The more of that we can all do, the better off we’ll all be.