“Oh I’m from Syria…”

If you plan to travel, there’s one conversation you’ll have over and over again until you’ve heard it more than the Harvey Norman and Pizza Hut jingles combined.

In no particular order, at least four times a day with new travellers in a hostel, you’ll exchange:

– How long have you been here for?
– Where were you before here?
– Where are you going to next?
– How long are you travelling for?

But before any of this, one thing is certain. You will be asked which country you are from.

Please note before we continue I am 100% for this conversation taking place. It gets repetitive but it’s the expected formalities of meeting other travellers. I once tried to avoid it, just to see if I could. I opened with “where do you see yourself in five years?” Followed by “so how do you think you’ll die?” Funnily enough the conversation didn’t really flow.

Anyway I’ve had this aforementioned travel conversation so many times before, I’ve become quite good at it. When we eventually exchange the inevitable “where are you from” question, I’ve pretty much got an answer pre-planned and memorised for each common nationality.

HOW I HANDLE EACH NATIONALITY

The answer I’m most excited to hear is Ireland, because I immediately lead with “OMG I love Hozier!” Which is nine time out of ten met with “ahhhh he’s a national hero we love Hozier too wow have you seen him live my cousin used to smoke weed with him I saw him at a park once blah blah…”

Then if it doesn’t feel too name-droppey (which it always does, but whatever) I play my Blue-Eyes White Dragon: “I actually got to interview Hozier last year when I worked for a radio station, he was really cool!” This usually leads to alcohol together. Sometimes you have to toot your own horn.

Funnily enough, I seem to struggle with New Zealanders the most. Simply because if they aren’t also from Auckland, I might as well be from freakin’ Al Qaeda. “Ohhh a bloody jafa! Auckland sucks yada yada yada…”

It’s just banter which is fine, and most other countries have it too with their big cities, (London and England, Dublin and Ireland) but I’m immediately on the back foot, and am quick to mention I lived in Tauranga for six months which I loved. That usually does the trick.

Aussies have quite the reputation while travelling, but I haven’t met any ‘shitcunts’ at all while travelling, only ‘goodcunts’. (It’s vital to know the difference when talking to an Aussie.) I find there’s this underlying sense of brotherhood with Australians. I’ll mention I have friends in Belgrave or Homebush in case they are from Melbourne or Sydney, and then we’ll usually talk about sports. I’ll steer towards union, they’ll bring up cricket.

I’ve successfully navigated hundreds and hundreds of travel conversations with these same responses. They usually led to friends, travel mates, drinking buddies, and good times all around. Cocky with my five months of chit-chat success, I decided to test my skills in the big leagues: the multicultural melting-pot that is suburban London.

I’M SURE BY THE TITLE YOU’VE FIGURED OUT WHERE THIS IS GOING

It went down at a take-away burger joint in Hammersmith. While waiting for my dinner, I got chatting to the staff. They’re always really nice guys. It didn’t take long before the challenge was laid down.

“Oh I’m from Pakistan…” he answered.

“Pakistan! Aw man the mountains there look so beautiful!”

His face lit up. “Yes! In the mountains it’s nothing but tourists! So gorgeous etc etc…”

I got away with that one. It was either mountains, or ”oh didn’t they find Osama in Pakistan? I love Zero Dark Thirty….” I think he was glad the conversation didn’t head down that way. After a decent chat, I made a throwaway attempt to include the other worker in the shop.

“You from Pakistan as well bro?”

“Oh I’m from Syria.”

“…”

Considering I’ve spent all my working career filling air with menial banter, I’d never felt so lost for words in a long time. It didn’t look like this was his first rodeo though. Before I could scramble anything together, with a look of acceptance he quickly mentioned, “I’m sure you’ve heard of Syria by now.”

I took the bait. The only thing I could come up with was, “I have man, I’m so sorry to hear what’s going on there right now.”

He seemed resilient, considering I’d probably brought up traumatic memories just by asking him the same question I’ve asked everyone in the last five months.

“Nah nah no problem. My family is safe, we got out years ago when it was bad but there was no war yet. All that Syria is missing now is the peace.”

Who knew I’d be having deep and meaningful conversations in a London burger joint at 5:30pm. We talked for a little more, but the damage was done. Asking Syrians about home isn’t going to lead to a very cheerful conversation. He was a really nice, down to earth guy despite the raw nature of the chat. He was grateful to be working in London. He missed home, but had no real hope of returning any time soon. That was the saddest part.

Talking about Hozier, Jafa’s, and shitcunts is a privilege. Because when we do, it goes without saying that our families are safe, and there is currently peace in our home countries. It seems so foreign and hard to relate to when you see it on the news, but the second you get chatting to another bloke just like you, it hits. Obviously not nearly as much as if I actually went to a war-torn area or a refugee camp, but this was the first time it was real to me.

It was the first time I had nothing to say.

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5 thoughts on ““Oh I’m from Syria…”

  1. Pingback: The short history of my 11-country Eurotrip | Shawn Cleaver

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