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Small Worlds

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Small Worlds photo

Years ago, I tacked a blank piece of paper onto the wall above my computer at home. Since then, I’ve covered its every inch with names of cities from around the world, cities I chanced upon during mindless hours of Google scrolling.

Mykonos, Rio, Madrid.

Zanzibar, Varanasi, Granada.

All I’ve ever wanted to do was travel.

Currently, I’m not traveling. In fact, I work downtown, in the Aon building. For those of you familiar with Chicago, you’d recognize it as that tremendously tall, glaringly white structure looming over Millennium Park like a pillar in the sky. During lunchtime, people pour out of the front doors in waves. There are at least fifty elevators. It’s enormous.

Every once in a while, from my cubicle facing a wall on the 36th floor, I sneak a glance back to Google. Sometimes it hits me unexpectedly. I’ll be innocently writing up an industry update when — before I know it — I’m Googling South American hostels on the Pacific coastline with vacancies for unpaid North American receptionists.

But, putting aside dreams of glittering beaches or windswept desert sands for a moment, what is it exactly about travel that is just so addictive? Sure, it’s a break in the monotonous cycle of waking and working. It’s a way to learn a new language, or try an exotic food directly from its source. It provides a new perspective, the ability to switch out the customary lens that filters and fogs our experiences, in exchange for a new — and potentially higher — vantage point.

But I think that underneath it all, the real reason we travel is to meet other people. Even the most stalwart introvert would be pretty disappointed if she crossed the globe and never spoke to anybody but her flight attendant. Talking to people from around the world, with experiences entirely different than our own, is what makes travel great. You gain a better sense of the world through empathy, and return home with a newer understanding of everything that’s always been around you.

Before this article begins to sound like the prelude to a travel blog, I’d like to point out — you don’t always need to hop on the plane to have the same experiences. Becoming more empathetic can be as easy as taking a closer look at the people around you.

Anyone who has seen Spike Jonze’s futuristic, computer/human romance Her, might recall a few quotes about empathy. In one scene, the mopey Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix with an impressive mustache) meanders through a crowded carnival recounting the people who pass by to Samantha, his personal operating system. A young boy vigorously munches on popcorn next to his brooding grandpa. A quiet, elderly gentleman sits alone on a bench. A nervous-looking man is introduced to his lovely girlfriend’s children.

“Sometimes,” Theodore admits quietly, “I look at people and try to make myself try to feel them as more than just a random person walking by. I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love. How much heartbreak they’ve all been through.”

Theodore is a little fixated on love, but he still has a pretty good point — what if during our busy days of shuffling through our commute, we paused to actually take a look at the people around us?

Each day that I walk downtown muddled in a swarm of urbanites, I rarely take a moment to consider who’s beside me. The woman who’s chattering away on her phone to my left? She’s likely experienced heartbreak, loss, moments of enlightenment. An epic story line.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that claims, “We live in a world full of small worlds.” We each have our own stories, red herrings, and central characters in the plots that fill up a lifetime. Of course, traveling is an excellent way to learn about other people. But exploring other “small worlds” could be as close as the person you sit next to on the train.

At this particular moment, the person sitting next to me on the train is a bulky, middle-aged man, with short-trimmed brown hair, pink skin and a plastic cup of wine in his hand, which he’s sipping at through a narrow black coffee straw. It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, so I suppose that’s understandable. Are any of these houses that blur past us on our commute his? Does he have children, maybe a pair of kids toddling by the front door, eagerly awaiting their dad’s arrival? A frail, elderly aunt whom he works overtime for in order to support?

I’ll never know. Maybe one day our small worlds will gently tap each other again, or I’ll meet someone else whose small world will merge into my own. Either way, glimpsing another person’s reality is the beauty of travel, whether or not a physical distance is crossed. In the meantime though, I’ll keep sneaking peeks back at Google Maps.

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