“Consider what a romantic expedition you are on; take notes.”
– Anne Boyd, Australian composer
On the bus to Tartu, Estonia, I couldn’t help but compare my approach to travel to a series of blind dates. Only a few days prior, Tartu and I didn’t know much about each other. I’d heard good things, but we’d be meeting sight unseen. A mutual Friend brought us together. He said we’d make a good match.
I was a little nervous, but mostly excited as I jumped off the bus in Tartu. As I’ve become wiser in my wandering ways, I’ve gotten better at choosing which unknown cities I agree to blind date. I’ve learned to identify the good, honest advice from Friends who know me, and filter out the advice from those who talk out their ass or don’t understand my journey. When it’s a good Friend, I listen. And a good Friend told me about Tartu.
I’ve also learned not to commit too much too soon to the relationship. With Tartu, I found a nice, cheap place on Airbnb.com and booked only a couple nights, so if we didn’t hit it off like a blind date gone bad at a bar, I could “have to be somewhere” and let the evening die after the first drink.
Tartu and I happened to meet at a time when we both needed solitude. I’d come here intentionally alone after spending two weeks traveling with parents through Scandinavia and a few nights of lost freedom in Tallinn. I’ve become increasingly aware of when I need to recharge my extrovert and enjoy sweet, sweet solitude. It happened that Tartu was also recharging her extrovert. Soon, a slew of students would balloon the population of this university town up 25% as the school year kicked off.
We got to know each other quickly by spending two days of solitude in one another’s company, paradoxically enough. We became comfortable sitting together silently for hours, isolated from outside influence. Yet the more we focused on ourselves, the more we learned about each other.
After studying her carefully over those two days, it was clear I stumbled upon a gem. She was modest, but confident. Pretty, yet down-to-earth. She had an edge, but still bring-home-to-mother-worthy. Surely there’d been others before me. But it still surprised me to find her alone.
After those quiet days together, we felt recharged and ready to mingle. As Tartu welcomed the influx of students, I wandered down to the main strip of bars and settled on a dive-looking place called Möku.
As Möku crowded up, I warmed back up to my social self. Thanks to those several days of solitude beforehand, I had built up my ability to care about others and make friends, which I’ve learned becomes possible only after my own house is in order. It may seem selfish or counter-intuitive, but I’ve realized that only after caring for myself can I care selflessly and infinitely about others.
As I easily made friends, I figured I was the only American in town. Making friends is easier when you’re a novelty. As I chatted with a few people at the bar, a student from Singapore jumped into our conversation with a question directed at me:
“You’re from the U.S.? There’s another American guy here, from Texas.”
“No shit! Where?”
I whipped my head around to follow the imaginary trajectory of his pointer finger, grabbed my drink and rushed to the corner of the bar. I spotted a familiar face propped up on a bar stool and approached him with a big smile.
“Dude. We met in Tallinn! You’re Z something, right? Zam, Zap, Zing?”
“Ha, Zoom. Of course. Heard there was a guy from Texas here and had a feeling it’d be you. We gotta be on a similar journey. We should hang out.”
“Yeah man, definitely.”
Zoom and I met briefly several days prior at Tallinn Backpackers hostel.
It was midnight on a Saturday. We simultaneously walked out of our respective dorm rooms to find a drunk Latvian girl fumbling around her locker, who upon noticing us, tried to hard-sell us on going out with her. But falling 0-for-3 on being coherent, interesting, or even slightly attractive, we declined. We spent a few minutes teasing her until it got boring, then exchanged the obligatory name and location question. Zoom from Texas. Matt from Chicago. Both of us had clearly lost our ability to care much for the answers, but there was no hard feelings. We both got it. We were temporarily at capacity on meeting new people. We retreated back into our rooms. A couple days later, I headed to Tartu, quickly forgetting about the encounter. Just another face I’d never see again.
So in Tartu when I identified Zoom, a fellow member of the rare breed of solo American long-term traveler, I couldn’t help but get excited by our chance rencounter. We seemed to connect instantly.
“So, what’s your story?” Zoom calmly asked.
One-year-ago Matt would have been stifled by this question. What’s my story? What does that mean?
But in this moment, I got it. The question no longer phased me. Without hesitation, I told my story.
I’ve become fascinated that in “real life”, or my life prior to June 2, I would never had thought to ask such a question. And I certainly would have struggled to come up with a thoughtful answer if prompted by it.
What’s the first question we ask someone when we meet them? It’s usually some flavor of “What do you do?” implying, “What’s your job?” Or if you’re in school, an acceptable answer is your major or the degree you’re earning. It’s how we’ve come to easily identify, categorize, and “get” one another.
But on the road, I’ve grown to appreciate the “What’s Your Story?” question as a more appropriate alternative to “What Do You Do?”
Having a story implies you’re doing something interesting. Something worth talking about. Something worthy of a remark. It means you’re living a life that has the potential to inspire a song, a book, or a movie.
Those that don’t think of their lives as a story, like me 6 months ago, are stymied by the very question. What do you mean, what’s my story? Even if we don’t say it, our eyes spell confusion. Then we muster up a boring response. And a boring story can put even the storyteller to sleep.
But people who’ve learned to think of their lives as a story don’t think twice about the question. They’ve realized that our lives have the potential to be told as a beautifully romantic story — complete with secret twists and unforeseen turns, euphoric highs, gut-wrenching lows, and moments where we see with complete clarity how our story fits perfectly into an even bigger, much more beautiful and unfathomably romantic story.
But our lives only become an interesting story when we care enough to describe them as such.
This concept finally resonated with me last week when I found out my story, or at least a chapter or a summarized blurb of it, will be in a few books next year. Is my story more interesting than anyone else’s? Absolutely not. I’ll admit, it’s much more interesting now than it was 6 months ago, but I’ve heard better stories.
Regardless, someone thought my story was interesting enough to write about and share with others. I’m not sharing this to brag. I don’t think you should do something just for the sake of the story or for external validation. But I think it helps prove a point.
I hit an inflection point in January. My friend died unexpectedly in a car accident. Upon reflecting on the shortness of life and the potential regrets that I couldn’t stand to die without addressing, I realized I’d been going through the motions of life while ignoring the fact I had yet to figure out how my story fit into the grander story of life. In that moment, I decided to deliberately become a journeyer and get closer to that answer. I decided to start living with intention. For the first time, I saw my life as an interesting story ready to unfold.
As you start to see your life as the beautiful story it has the potential to be, learn to articulate it as such, and care enough to share it with the world, something magical happens.
Once you start living your life like an interesting story, it has no choice but to become one.
So, what’s your story?