It began with the most unlikely of matchmakers: Henri the Giant Octopus. Vast and luminous, Henri was the kind of staple inflatable all French beaches had back in the early 90s. At the lakeside my family visited each summer in Montaigu-de-Quercy in south-west France, said mollusc was the place to be for the cool kids (a loose term, in an age where bumbags ruled). It also turned out to be basecamp for a turf war.
On the day I met Melanie and Polly, a group of teenage boys were – as usual – ruling the roost from their vantage point on Henri’s colossal head. Every time another swimmer tried to haul themselves up onto an inflated tentacle, they would jump and dive bomb, sending the newbie flying.
Melanie, Poppy and I formed an unspoken pact
On that particular morning, Melanie, Poppy and I formed an unspoken pact. Unprompted, we created a trio of weight on the octopus arm that no amount of ruckus could remove. The boys were gutted. We had formed our very own brand of girl power, a good five years before Posh Spice and her posse were a thing.
It was the start of a short but fierce friendship between us. Polly, the posh British schoolgirl; me the scruffy, shy, easily-led Brit; and French Melanie, an outgoing soul with neon swimwear we all secretly envied.
For 12 glorious days, we did everything together: star jumps on the trampoline, swims to the island, impromptu fashion shows… And, of course, regular trips to Henri, just to mess with the boys and reinstate our claim. We didn’t speak the same language, but we didn’t need to: we just understood each other. Then, like that, the holiday was over and we never saw each other again.
There’s a lot to be said for flash-in-the-pan encounters
In a time when we talk a lot about the power of long, lasting friendships, there’s also something to be said for the opposite; flash-in-the-pan encounters that often happen on our travels. While lifelong friendships are deep and rewarding, short ones – the type that typically begin and end while passing through a place – have a more impromptu, liminal quality to them. Unlike “proper” friendships, they are life’s platonic answer to a one-night stand. Underrated, but also a whole lot of fun.
The thing about short-term friendships is that nothing really rides on them. You know it’s temporary, so you can be in the moment together in a way that’s totally freeing. The parameters only depend on when in life your paths happen to cross.
You get to enjoy the honeymoon phase of an early friendship
Better still, you get to enjoy the honeymoon phase of an early friendship (hilarity, shared secrets, mutual swimwear appreciation), minus the later baggage (fallouts, resentments, drifting apart).
Some of my best fleeting friendships have been about trying out new, untested sides to myself. My relationship with Hoang, a restaurant vendor in Hanoi, for example, was founded on me teaching him English in return for him sharing motorbike lessons. Given the amount of near-misses we had – me swerving unsteadily between lanes of traffic and lakeside food stalls – he definitely had the rougher end of the deal. Those three short weeks I remember being filled with laughter and that giddy feeling that comes from stretching the baseline of who you are (not a champion rider, it transpires).
Torsten, another fleeting friend I met in Vietnam, was all about the fun times. When I look back on our time together, it’s a blur of drunken nights fuelled by potent rice wine and taking cyclos from one dodgy nightclub to the next.
Travel friendships remind us that we can begin again at any time
But that’s not to say that these forms of friendships are shallow. Maria, a Brazilian housewife my sister and I met on a flight to Rio, put us up for a night after she realised we had no hope of navigating our way through the city, let alone to our destination – the Rio Grande – that late in the evening. We were young and broke and she took us in. A complete stranger, opening her family home, sharing a meal and offering a sofa bed to two girls she’d only just met.
There’s a kindness at play here, too: an ability to discover the best bits of ourselves, as we trust in and are trusted by, new people. There’s also a sense of renewal. As therapist Lisa Olivera notes: “When we view everything as a practice, we’re reminded that we can begin again at any time. There is no ‘too late’. There is no ‘too out of practice to try’. There is no ‘I’m not the kind of person who does that’. There is no ‘I can’t’. There is just a decision to practise again. And again. And again.”
They’re a chance to bond with others, without any end game
Fleeting friendships – as warm and transitory as summer sunshine – are a chance to practise bonding with others without any kind of end game. In a social-media age, new people often take on a distant presence: an Instagram like; a congratulatory LinkedIn contact; a new Facebook friend.
There’s nothing wrong with these connections and, of course, lifelong friends are also vital. But, somewhere in-between, lies a meal shared in a new city, or a deep conversation on a train. Friendships made and lost in a matter of hours or days – leaving us all that little bit richer.
Make your own meaningful travel friendships with Flash Pack.
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Images: Anna Brech