The gift of intimate strangersSep 27, 2021 02:47PM ● By Elayne Clift
I was 22 years old when I first flew across the Atlantic for a solo adventure in Europe. I was meant to take the trip with my best friend, but she became engaged and I wasn’t going to wait for anyone else to accompany me on this dream trip.
I’d been seduced by travel as a child on summer holidays to Canada, home of my paternal grandparents. Bitten by the travel bug, nothing compared to the idea of seeing some of Europe’s most amazing countries and capitals.
Armed with a Eurail pass and modest hotel reservations, I flew from New York to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam’s canals to London’s museums, pubs and palace, I traveled on to the Champs-Élysées and cafes of Paris, the Colosseum of Rome, and the magnificent statue of David in Florence.
They were magical places that spurred me on to more worldwide travel in the years to come. But the really special part of that initial journey resided in the people I met and the conversations we shared in trains, restaurants, hotels and elsewhere. No sooner did I bid farewell to one new friend than I made another. Some were young travelers like me, others were wise elders—and in two cases, attractive men whom I would see again.
Everyone I interacted with told stories that moved me, made me laugh, tear up, and most importantly, share the truths of my own life. I felt for the first time like I’d climbed into my own skin. No need for game playing, diminishing or apologizing for my thoughts, so often called for from American females in the ’60s. I could be who I was, and be appreciated for it. It was an entirely new, sensual experience, devoid of sexual overtones. And it changed my life forever.
Years later on a visit to England, I stayed in a bed and breakfast run by a woman whose husband had suffered a workplace injury and was unable to work. Every day, she repeated her routine—cooking breakfast for guests, changing beds, cleaning rooms and caring for her husband and children. Every day, we shared an intimate, unspoken moment when, smiling at each other, she knew that she would never have my life of freedom and mobility, and I understood that I would never be subjected to her burdens. It made me sad, but helped me understand my privileged place in the world.
Then there was the woman I literally bumped into in a New York shop. She was accompanied by two children and a dreadful husband who barked at her as she enjoyed a brief shopping moment. I don’t know why, but as I left the shop, I whispered to her, “You have the courage to do what you need to.” Later, crossing the street, I bumped into her again. I quickly hugged her and she hugged me back. I often wonder if, in that moment, a decision was made that led to her liberation.
And how can I forget Roy Cesarini, whom I met in a café by the sea in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy? Roy was a dapper older gentleman whose sparkling blue eyes, pink cheeks, and broad smile beneath a carefully trimmed mustache drew me to him immediately. Roy had noticed that I was struggling with the menu and asked quietly, “May I be of some assistance?”
And he began to tell his story. He had been a British prisoner of war due to Mussolini’s collaboration with Germany in World War II. Sent to a work farm in the UK, he quickly endeared himself to everyone, including the farmer’s daughter, Elizabeth. The two fell in love.
But one day, Elizabeth was warned that she could be arrested for collaborating with the enemy. Shortly thereafter, Roy was sent to another farm in Scotland. They wrote to each other, but their letters were never received and each thought the other had forgotten about the other.
After the war, Roy returned to Italy, married and became a restaurant owner. But he never forgot Elizabeth. When his wife died, he learned that Elizabeth had also passed away. From then on, he visited England annually to lay flowers on her grave.
“She was my first love and I don’t forget her,” he said.
His moving story taught me a lot about love.
Some years later, I heard that Roy, too, had passed away. Like Elizabeth, I fell in love with him, and I don’t forget him.
These treasured memories, many born of travel, have been true gifts in my life. They offered me opportunities for deeper insight and heightened compassion, a genuine appreciation of people’s life stories, and a kind of intimacy that I would’ve hated to have missed.
I’m a better human being for those moments shared with intimate strangers.